By Tod Robbins
Cockcrow Inn stands defiantly facing the sea. For countless years it has stood thus, holding at naught the greatest strength of wind and water, quite careless of the dazzling thunderstorms which on sultry summer evenings attack it as though with lifted sword-blades—a staunch old dwelling raised by hands long gone back into their native dust. And on wild winter nights, when the waves thunder out their war-song on the beach, when the wind screams its challenge to the sky, when all nature’s resources seem bent on destruction, the windows of this hostelry twinkle cheerily for lonely travelers by land or sea. It feeds the hungry and warms the cold; and only once in all its ten-score years has it failed to ward off the spirits of darkness which, if the villagers are to be believed, infest the moaning caves of Wishbone Point.
But I must let Ben Tibbit tell you the story as he told it to me, hunched up before his fireside like a shriveled old boot put there to dry—Ben Tibbit with the long, wizened neck and ferret eyes.
I was new to that country then, coming straight from the city. Death had been rapping on my office door in town. What I needed was a breath of salt air and a place to stretch my legs. Wishbone Point soon made me into a new man.
But the Tibbits! There’s a tribe for you—all cut in one mold, like Noah and his family out of my nephew’s ark. You can’t mistake a Tibbit. There’s little Archibald, just learning to crawl, like a baby rattler; and there are Mother and Aunt Tibbit, fat women both—yet get a peep at them through the tap-room window on their way to church of a Sunday; see the swing of their long, thin necks like Strasburg geese about to be fed, and you straightway know them for Tibbits; and, last of all, there’s old Ben himself in his chimney corner, snuffling sin out through his nose over the Bible—a Tibbit every inch of him, well-seasoned by fourscore years and ten—a bent twig of the devil’s briarbush which caught in his grandmother’s skirts, as he’ll tell you himself after a hot toddy. What a neck the man has—long and lean as a swan’s, with an odd Adam’s Apple peeping through like a half-swallowed frog on its way to the gullet! What a slim, sly neck, twisting this way and that, for all it’s so wrinkled and yellow—what a neck to smother a hiccough!
Now when I first took up my quarters at Cockcrow Inn, what from the condition of my nerves, which were all of a snarl like macaroni in a bowl of soup, I couldn’t do the Tibbit family justice. It seemed to me that there were too many of them, and all too much alike. I took a violent dislike to the breed. But this silly dislike soon turned to pity when I learned the truth of the matter.
I think that wild Hallowe’en night, when old Ben first opened his heart to me, marked the turning of the tide. What man could have withheld his sympathy? Poor old doddering chap, he had been marked at birth for the devil’s fruit; he and his son and his grandson. Could he help what had befallen Nancy Greer, that wild slip of a lass who had once served a strange guest at Cockcrow Inn in the days when the country was new? No, nor could she, for that matter—although she might have attended the burning of Anna Mulvane, and thus cheated the devil. But I must begin at the beginning.
As I have said, it was a wild Hallowe’en. All day it had been blowing hard; now the waves came crashing down on the beach like falling towers. A venomous wind was abroad—a frantic, tearing wind which charged at Cockcrow Inn, shaking the solid doors on their hinges, bellowing down the great chimney and slipping through each crack and cranny. And the outer night was filled with wandering voices. It held them all like an ebony cup—laughter and tears, joy and sorrow.
“Bad weather,” said Ben Tibbit, laying his Bible aside with a sigh. “All the praying in the world won’t alter it. It’s Hallowe’en.”
“Hallowe’en, eh?” said I. “I suppose the witches will be riding their broomsticks.”
“Aye, that they will,” he muttered, uncoiling his neck and squinting up at the oak-paneled ceiling. “And there should be many to ride, for it’s not like it was in my grandfather’s day. In those good old times they couldn’t go trapesing about just as they pleased. No, sir. Just let them cast a spell over man or beast, woman or fowl, and they had short shrift of it. But now, how is it? Why, folks are only too pleased to have them for neighbors. There’s Witch Cabbot, who lives over by Bloody Creek. To my knowledge she cured little Archibald of warts by just a wave of her wand, and yet no one puts a lighted torch to her skirts. There’s no religion left in the land, Mr. Tremain.”
“But it was different in your grandfather’s day?” I suggested.
“It was so,” said he, with a solemn roll of his head. “Men were men then. They didn’t let the devil have it all his own way. They met fire with fire. Fourteen witches my grandfather helped to drag to the stake; seventeen pirates he saw hanged by the neck. There was enough hanging and burning then in these parts to keep a good Christian satisfied. I remember my sister’s first skip-rope came off the gallows-tree—a well-tarred bit of hemp if ever there was one.”
“Can you remember your grandfather?” I asked.
“And could I be forgetting him, sir, when there was not another such in all this countryside? Big and red he was, with a mane like a lion. A mighty man once his blood was up. Why, I’ve seen him take two sizable lads by the scruff of the neck and knock their heads together till they were silly from it, and he over eighty at the time with a back bowed by years! There never was a stronger man than my grandfather, though since his day the Tibbits have dwindled. You see, sir, the family tree has withered root and branch from consorting with ghosts and the like of that.”
“Ghosts?” said I, sniffing a story.
“Aye, ghosts—red-handed, black-bearded ghosts! Scum of the high seas who had made their own graves too hot to hold them! Ghosts with cutlasses in their hands and murder in their hearts! Damned souls that the devil himself would be glad to be rid of!”
“Spin me the yarn, Mr. Tibbit.”
“Gladly,” said he. “But first I must be asking you a question. You’ve been staying at Cockcrow Inn now for over a week, and you’ve seen every mother’s son of us. Now, Mr. Tremain, have you noticed anything unwholesome? A peculiar family resemblance that— A sort of—” He paused, and I saw his red-rimmed eyes glimmer out at me from the chimney-seat. “A kind of a—”
“You mean your necks, Mr. Tibbit?” I said, helping him out as best I could. “You’ve all got long, graceful necks like swans.”
“Swans be damned, sir!” he cried with a sudden heat, strange to come from a man who lived so close to his Bible. “To Hell’s fire with your swans!”
“I was meaning you no offence, Mr. Tibbit,” I hastened to add. “Perhaps you have an aversion to swans. I should rather say—” I was about to mention geese, but thought better of it.
“Never mind what our necks look like,” he said with a bitter smile. “We Tibbits are all cursed with them. For five generations not one of us has got off scot free. We’ve prayed and we’ve fasted, we’ve worn out the knees of our breeches and the very patience of God. See Archibald there, the poor little toad!”
I looked to where he pointed and saw that child of misfortune trying patiently to hang his white kitten with a piece of curtain cord. But before I could interfere, it squirmed out of his hands and was off to the attic, leaving Archibald on his back, squalling.
“The poor little toad!” Ben Tibbit continued with a shake of his grizzled head. “Look how he lies, like a turtle!”
“You were about to tell me your story,” I ventured.
“Well, then, to begin,” said he, “you must know that the country was wild in my grandfather’s youth. And if the country was wild, the sea was wilder. Black-hearted gentry there were afloat who swore by the Jolly Roger. Many a brave ship’s crew walked the plank not five miles off Wishbone Point—many a corpse has bumped up on the sand like a bag of grain after the rats are through with it. What from pirates and witches, a body couldn’t sleep safe in his bed at night for fear he’d wake up with a slit throat in the morning or maybe as mad as a hatter.
“Now, of all the pirates off our coast, there was none the country-folk feared as much as Whitechapel Willie. He was a Londoner born, was Willie—smooth as oil and fond of the lassies. The girls hereabouts used to quake in their beds, for he was not always content with his luck on the sea, but would come scudding in on cloudy nights, a dozen hairy lads to bear him company. Then he’d creep up to some lonely farmer’s house and snatch a maid from her bed or the good wife herself, were she comely. It was a crying shame, and the neighborhood was fair sick of it.
“It happened that my grandfather was courting Nancy Greer at the time—and Cockcrow Inn,in a manner of speaking. She was the only daughter of Anthony Greer, landlord here then. The girl was a fair catch, and my grandfather was not the lad to let a good alehouse slip through his fingers once he gripped it. Besides all this, as I’ve often heard him say, Nancy was a comely lass with a way about her to make men follow at her heels like dogs after a butcher wagon. Not that she gave any of them favors, for my grandfather was jealous to a fault, and quick tempered with rivals.”
“And Whitechapel Willie?” I asked.
“Well, Willie was different,” said Ben Tibbit reminiscently. “I’ll not say that he didn’t worry my grandfather when his black bark was seen off the Point. You see, he had the name on the high seas of being of close kin to the devil—a reputation he fostered by chewing mouthfuls of glass like they were no more than plugs of tobacco, picking up live coals between finger and thumb to drop down the necks of his crew, and swallowing sword-blades, which he claimed sharpened his wits. From one thing and another, my grandfather did not fancy him much as a rival. And so, when Willie was finally caught and hanged on the beach, he lent a hand to the business with a grin on his face.”
“So Whitechapel Willie was caught and hanged?” I said a trifle regretfully.
“He was so. And my grandfather, who was appointed hangman that year, slipped the halter about his neck as pleased as Punch—the more especial as Nancy Greer was looking on and Whitechapel Willie was rolling his wicked black eyes at her. Here was this bloody-minded pirate on the brink of the grave, about to be hung up for his sins like the Tibbits’ wash on a Monday, and him rolling his wicked black eyes at our Nancy and dancing at her like a bear on the end of a chain! It was a sight to make your blood run cold, Mr. Tremain.
“‘Think on your sins, wretched man!’ says my grandfather, very stern, giving the halter a jerk to cut off a ribald rhyme in the making. ‘Say your prayers, unhappy sinner!’
“So he swung him up as high as a kite to dance out his life in the air, and the country-folk took a long breath of relief and went about their business. My grandfather and Nancy Greer were the last to go, for there was not a man so religious as he, nor one who took more joy in a burning or a hanging. But Nancy was trembling from it, and he had to throw his great-coat about her.
“‘One pirate the less, Heaven be praised!’ says my grandfather in a voice like a deacon.
“But Nancy Greer didn’t answer him at all, just stared up at Willie, who was still jigging a bit on the gallows-tree. So strange a look she had on her face, and such a wild eye along with it, that he straightway began to look about for a witch. And lucky it was for Bess Cabbot that she hadn’t been born yet to pick up driftwood on the beach, for as like as not she’d have been burned with her own faggots.
“Well, Mr. Tremain, the hanging of Whitechapel Willie kept my grandfather in good spirits for upward of a month. In those days the Tibbit family had built themselves a house on the other side of Wishbone Point, where they did all the hanging; and he had but to cross his own doorsill to see Willie hanging as neat as a turkey-cock in Butcher Flint’s window. Those were the times when the country-folk hereabouts let a pirate swing for a space till the red- handed gentry offshore got a sniff of him, which was sure to be good for their morals. A fine lesson it was to the lads and lassies, and a sure sign to strangers that Christianity had taken deep root in the land.
“As I have said, my grandfather was pleased to see Whitechapel Willie hanging there. Not that he was puffed up with pride over his handiwork, for he was modest as hangmen go; but just because he took an honest delight in having strung up with his own hands one of the devil’s kin. Pleased and merry he was to see Willie jigging against the sunset till one Hallowe’en, a hundred and fifty years ago to- night—a black Hallowe’en for the Tibbits if ever there was one.
“It was another such evening as this, Mr. Tremain —a howling wind for the witches to ride on, black as the mouth of hell, with never a star a-quiver. It was no night to be out, but my grandfather was not the man to be turned aside from his duty. You see, they were burning Anna Mulvane, the witch of Whittington Common, beside the old Court House; and he had promised to take Nancy Greer on the pillion behind him, thinking that the sight might put the fear of God in her. So he saddled and bridled his nag, Queen Bess, and set off for Cockcrow Inn.
“It chanced, Mr. Tremain, that he rode along the beach, which was a short cut, although a bad one to follow on such a night. He had to pass under the gallows-tree before he was ten minutes in the saddle. Now, what from it being Hallowe’en, and so black that you couldn’t see hand before face, another man might have thought twice before taking the beach-road. But not so my grandfather. On he went, singing a snatch of a hymn, not from fear, but just because he was partial to holy music, thinking no doubt of the good fire where he could warm his cold hands at the expense of Anna Mulvane, when all of a sudden Queen Bess planted all four feet deep in the sand and let out a snort like a dragon.
“Now he was taken quite by surprise and came within an ace of losing his grip of the saddle; yet he steadied himself after a bit and gave Queen Bess a taste of his heels. But she wouldn’t move an inch, just stood with her ears laid back and shook all over. Well, being a quick-tempered man, my grandfather was about to draw his sabre and give her the flat of it as a lesson in manners, when, all of a sudden, there came a flash of lightning which showed him a hair-raising sight.”
“What was it?” I asked breathlessly.
Ben Tibbit took a long pull at his pipe before he answered me. His face was all working with excitement and his eyes glowed like a cat’s in the dark. “What was it?” said he very slowly. “Why, I’ll tell you, Mr. Tremain. My grandfather had ridden up to the gallows, never knowing it at all; and that flash of lightning, like a torch out of heaven, had showed him a mighty strange thing.”
“What?” I demanded.
“Why, Whitechapel Willie had gone.”
“Aye, there he had been hanging to my grandfather’s knowledge for a good three weeks or more, as dead as a herring, swinging back and forth like a pendulum of that clock yonder, a plaything for the birds and the wind and the rain—and now, come Hallowe’en, he wasn’t there anymore.”
“Perhaps some of his friends landed and cut him down,” I suggested.
“That’s what my grandfather was thinking after he’d rubbed his eyes for a bit. And hot anger rose up in the man. He had hanged Willie so neatly and all to no purpose. So he drew out his Bible and swore a great oath on it that he’d have the heart of this snatcher of bodies before the year had run out. But after a time the wind cooled him off a bit; and, knowing that nothing more could be made of the matter, he beat his nag forward with the flat of his sword, riding on with a heavy weight of curses behind his closed lips.
“Queen Bess trotted forward bravely enough once she had passed the gallows-tree till she came up alongside a tall, dark shape of a man striding along the beach like one in a hurry. Now my grandfather drew rein, perhaps feeling the need of companionship, or maybe just to break the news about Whitechapel Willie. And the moon peeped out for a bit, like a timid bride from behind a lace curtain, and showed him that the man had his chin on his breast. Tall and thin he was; and he didn’t cast any shadow, though the light was bright enough.
“And my grandfather fell to wondering who it could be, knowing most of the men in the village whom he had thrown about like rag dolls in his day. Was it Red Tim, the blacksmith? No, Tim was shorter and broader. Was it Richard Bell, the barber? No, Bell had more of a stoop to his shoulders. Now wasn’t it Parson Peabody’s wild young brother—him who was said to be mad when the moon was full? He was just such a figure of a man, silent and moody—a bad companion, but better than none on a wild Hallowe’en.
“‘God be with you, friend,’ said my grandfather through his nose like a parson. ‘Mayhap you’re on your way to the burning?’
“‘I am cold,’ said the wayfarer then in a voice shrill as a crowing cock. ‘Think you, good hangman, that it will be cheerful there as in the devil’s kitchen?’
“‘That it will,’ my grandfather answered, not relishing mention of the devil’s name on such a night, but making allowances for the parson’s brother. ‘They’ve planned a great fire by the Court House.’
“‘Good!’ cried the wayfarer with a shiver. ‘Think you it would warm me, Hangman Tibbit? The cold of many a black night has eaten into my bones like quicklime.’
‘“It’ll warm you,’ says my grandfather. ‘And there will be rare sport besides. Anna Mulvane will be squalling like a dozen cats once the fire touches her.’
“And then at these merry words the wayfarer let out a laugh shrill as a cock crowing in the dawn—an unwholesome laugh, Mr. Tremain, which made Queen Bess rear up from sheer fright of it. ‘He, he, he!’ he cried with a wicked roll of his head, ‘There’s a cloven hoof peeping out from under the robe of the priest!’
“‘What may you be meaning by that, friend?’ my grandfather asked.
“‘Never you trouble your head over the matter, Hangman Tibbit,’ says the wayfarer with an ill-favored grin. ‘Stick to your trade. There’s a science to it you’ve not quite mastered. When all’s said and done, what you hang up is as likely as not to come down and be treading a jig-step on a black Hallowe’en!’
“‘If you’re meaning the disappearance of Whitechapel Willie off the gallows-tree,’ my grandfather cried in a towering passion, ‘I’ll have you know that some rogue in these parts cut him down. I’ve sworn to clip the ears of that man if I once lay eyes on him!’
‘“A coward sprinkles threats on all sides of him like a pot shaking pepper,’ says the wayfarer with a sneer. ‘Spur on, Hangman Tibbit, for I’m wanting only my own company.’
“Now, Mr. Tremain, had it not been Hallowe’en and he late for the burning of Anna Mulvane, and had he not thought that this impudent rascal was own brother to Parson Peabody, there’s no doubt at all in my mind but my grandfather would have made short work of him. But, as it was, he swallowed his righteous wrath like a dose of bitter medicine; and, wasting no more words on the matter, but just putting it down to the liquor which must be shaking up and down in the man’s belly to make him so bold, he clapped his spurs into Queen Bess and was off like the wind.
“Well, it wasn’t long before he rode up to Cockcrow Inn and stamped into this very taproom. It was a cheery place then, as it is now. A great log was spluttering a bit on the hearthstone and the easy chairs were gathered cozy about it, as if they had tiptoed out from the corners to have a friendly chat in the firelight. But there wasn’t a drinking man in the place—all having tramped over the hill to the burning.
“‘Nancy Greer! Nancy Greer!’ my grandfather bellows like a bull that is mating. ‘Where have you got to, Nancy?’
“And in a little while she comes down the great stairs into his arms, and he gives her a squeeze fit to crack the ribs of a bear. But she, being a lusty lass, only giggles a bit and blushes a bit, and tells him that he shouldn’t be carrying on so.
“And at that he takes a proud look around the room, like a man who feels he has the property in his pocket; and then he bends down and gives her a loud smack—a masterful kiss to smother an argument.
“‘That’s for you, my good wench,’ says he very lordly, for there wasn’t every girl who could boast of such favor. ‘Is your father at home, Nancy?’
“‘No, sir,’ says she, dropping him a low curtsey. ‘He’s just stepped over the hill to the burning of Anna Mulvane.’
“‘And so he should do,’ said my grandfather then as though from the pulpit. ‘’Tis the duty of every Christian in the land. Get your bonnet and shawl, Nancy.’
“But she shakes her head at that and sets her mouth hard. ‘I’m not going to the burning of Anna Mulvane, Mr. Tibbit.’ says she very firm
“‘Not going!’ cried my grandfather, quite taken aback. ‘What ails you, lass? Why, the whole congregation will be there, and Parson Peabody is to light the faggots with his own hand! Come, get your bonnet and shawl!’
“‘I’m not feeling so spry, Mr. Tibbit,’ says she, looking down on the floor like a sinner. ‘It’ll be cold by the Court House. There’s a bitter wind abroad, and I—’
“But my grandfather cut her short, having smelt out a lie. ‘Tell me the truth, Nancy Greer,’ said he. ‘Out with it, girl. Why is it that you fear to go to the burning of Anna Mulvane?’
“And now she just blurted out the black truth like the silly wench that she was. ‘I like Anna Mulvane!’ she cried, in a voice all broken with sobs. ‘I don’t believe she’s a witch! And even if she is, I don’t care! I like her!’
“‘Have a care, Nancy Greer!’ says my grandfather right solemnly.
“But she went on for all that, words falling from her in a shower. ‘Why must you be always taking me to hangings and burnings? I hate them, Mr. Tibbit—yes, hate them! There was the time you men of the church burned poor old widow Penwin. Mind how her hair flamed up, Mr. Tibbit, and how she clawed it? I see her yet in my dreams!’
“‘Nancy Greer,’ my grandfather said very sternly, ‘did I not know you for a good lass at heart, these wicked words might go hard with you. Mayhap you’re bewitched. Come, I’ll wrestle with the devil which possesses you. Nancy, bring me a bottle of wine and we’ll sit ourselves down by the fireside and say a few prayers to break this enchantment.”
“Now, Mr. Tremain, Nancy Greer calmed down in a jiffy, as is the habit of most lasses once they get their own way. She was quick to bring him a bottle of her father’s very best wine, for it was a night when good spirits could do no harm. And my grandfather was nothing loath to make love and toast his toes a bit. Perhaps he had grown a trifle weary of burnings, like a man who has gone too much to the playhouse. Besides, if the worst came to the worst, he could still get to the Court House in time to pocket a handful of ashes for luck.
“Well, there he sat, Mr. Tremain, with Nancy on his knee, sipping Anthony Greer’s rare old wine and thinking of the day when he’d be master of Cockcrow Inn, when all of a sudden there came such a loud peal of thunder that the whole house seemed to shake from it. And on its heels there followed a great blast of wind that rattled the window-panes in their sockets and blew open the oaken door as though the devil himself had put a shoulder to it.
“‘God save us!’ cried Nancy, jumping up in a fright. ‘I’d best be bolting the doors and the windows!’
“But my grandfather answered nothing at all—just sat back, pop-eyed.”
Ben Tibbit paused to light his long clay pipe, and I took advantage of his silence to stir the fire a bit. We were both needing the warmth and cheer of it.
“What ailed your grandfather?” I asked at length.
“Matter enough, sir,” said he between puffs. “A strange guest had been blown into Cockcrow Inn. I say blown, Mx. Tremain, for it was like that. In he came, swirling from side to side like an autumn leaf caught in a gale. For all he was so long and lean and solemn, there was a strange, unwholesome gaiety about him, like a wreath of smoke hanging over a bonfire.”
“What manner of man was he, Mr. Tibbit?” I asked.
“Well, at first it was hard to make out, for he was all wrapped up in a long black cloak. But after he had skipped up to the fire and stretched his arms over it, my grandfather caught a glimpse of his face.
“Long and lean it was, Mr. Tremain, with a great hooked nose poking out like a vulture’s. And to make matters worse, he had but one eye, like a windowpane with fire shining through it. The other was just a hole in his head and as black as a rabbit’s burrow. But more disturbing than all was the unhealthy pallor of his skin, all soggy with damp like a mushroom that has stood out too long in the wet.
“‘God be with you, friend,’ said my grandfather, not forgetting his manners. ‘Are you cold?’
“‘Aye, cold—cold!’ said the stranger in a voice like a crowing cock. ‘Think you, Hangman Tibbit, that a man can lie out for a round score nights, blowing this way and that to every stray puff of wind like a whirligig, without just becoming as damp as a towel in a tap-room? I’m needing a bed of red-hot coals to lie on, Hangman Tibbit!’
“All this time he had been bending so close over the fire that it was a wonder his cloak did not flare up from it; but now he took a step back and began to unwind a long muffler from about his neck. And my grandfather could see that this stranger’s clothes were in a most shocking state. Were it not for his cloak, the man might as well have been naked. Tattered and torn were his breeches and jerkin as though by the claws of wild beasts; and through a rent in his hose his bare calf showed green and moldy. And in all, he was in no fit state to be in a lass’s company; and my grandfather would have told him as much had it not been Hallowe’en.
“Now, as I have said, this scarecrow of a man was unwinding a woolen muffler which sat tight about his neck. Coil on coil he unwound, and, strange to tell, with each coil his head tilted more to one side, till at last he was grinning at my grandfather from his bony left shoulder. A most disquieting thing to see, Mr. Tremain.
“Next he sat himself down and drained my grandfather’s flagon without so much as a by-your-leave. ‘You do yourself proud, Hangman Tibbit,’ said he. ‘Young women and old wine—they betoken a man whether in Heaven or Hell. Now bring me a flagon, Nancy Greer, and we’ll drink to your bonnie blue eyes.
“My grandfather, a proud man when in liquor, was loath to drink with such ragged company; but it being Hallowe’en and no one about to mark him, he clinked glasses with this wind-tossed traveler out of the night as friendly as possible. And what from the good wine he had already drunk, and what from the bumpers that followed, it wasn’t long before he and his guest were as lively as limpets. He even sent Nancy down to the cellar for another bottle —and she was loath to be going for fear she’d be missing some of the stranger’s sallies. For it seems that this ragged fellow had a rare humor, once you forgot his wagging head and his ruby-red eye.
“The tales he told them, Mr. Tremain, would fairly make your sides split—about shiploads of people walking the plank like a flock of sheep on their way to the butcher’s, about wild pranks played at sea when strong men were hanged up by their toes to the rigging, about how one Captain Shark had his own cook served up to the crew in the form of apple dumplings. And my poor grandfather tried to hold his own with him, telling of the humorous sights that he’d seen at the hangings and burnings hereabouts. But he couldn’t make a go of it, for they all seemed like skimmed milk at the best. So he shook his head as the stranger’s stories grew wilder and wilder, reflecting no doubt that this merry fellow’s youth had not been without blemish. And also he began to think that his roving eye fell on his Nancy more than was seemly.
“‘On your feet, Hangman Tibbit!’ the stranger cried out at last with a flourish. ‘On your feet, you lubberly swine, for I’ve a toast for you!’
“‘I’ll have you know—’ my grandfather began in a towering passion. But he got no further with it, for this ragged stranger drowned him out with small respect and less manners. The ditty he sang in his high crowing voice ran something like this:
“‘Here’s to Whitechapel Willie who sails the four seas,
He’s known from Calcutta to Florida Keys.
With a puncheon of rum and a dirk in each hand,
In a snug little lugger a league from the land,
For wine and women and plenty of duff
He’d sink a whole fleet and not call it enough.
For he’s Whitechapel Willie who sails the four seas,
Well known from Calcutta to Florida Keys.’
“‘Whitechapel Willie!’ my grandfather cried. ‘Did you mention the name of Whitechapel Willie?’
“‘Aye, pumpkin head!’ said the stranger. ‘I did sing of Whitechapel Willie. What then, pop-eyed hangman?’
“Now, Mr. Tremain, there’s no doubt at all in my mind but that my grandfather would there and then have slain this fellow had it not been for a strange trick of memory which tormented him. He had even laid his hand on his sword-hilt, so far had he gone in the matter, when something familiar about this stranger’s manner held his arm back. Where had he seen that hooked nose before? He must find out before he slew him, or else his curiosity might go begging through life. Thus he reasoned, and once swallowed his anger.
“‘I hanged Whitechapel Willie with my own hands not a month back,’ says he, rather proud.
“‘And did you so, Hangman Tibbit?’ cried the stranger then, with a wink at Nancy. ‘Blast your soul for a bungler! I was passing the gallows-tree not an hour gone, and there was no fruit on it for bird or beast. Mayhap Willie has slipped your halter come Hallowe’en?
“‘When I hang a man he stays hanged!’ my grandfather bellowed. ‘The devil himself could not slip my noose!’
“‘Is it so?’ said the stranger with a sneer and a smile. ‘Nancy, my dear, surely a dead man is of more worth to a lively lass than this hulking, hiccoughing homespun. Sit you down on my knee, girl, and I’ll sing to you of Whitechapel Willie:
“‘Now Whitechapel Willie was wooing a wench,
Pipe up on your flutes and your fiddles;
He sat her down on a cobbler’s bench,
Sing high, sing low, sing—’
“But now my grandfather drowned him out with a volley of oaths which would have done justice to any pirate. He was fair foaming with rage, for out of the corner of his eye he could see Nancy creeping over toward this stranger like a bird once the snake beckons it. Something had to be done to keep this rogue in his place, or it might very well be that he’d have Cockcrow Inn and the girl in his pocket.
“‘Draw, you crowing cock of perdition!’ cried my grandfather, overturning the table just to show what manner of man he was. ‘Sing your dirty gutter songs, will you!’
“And at that the stranger leaped to his feet. ‘So that’s your tune, Hangman Tibbit!’ says he. ‘Well, we’ll both dance to it!’
“Now, Mr. Tremain, it wasn’t longer than it would take a man to call for a bottle of Scotch before swords were out and sparks flying. Back and forth it went, blade crossing blade in thrust and parry —a great roaring of oaths from my grandfather and a smashing of chairs and tables that stood in his path. Up and down this very taproom they fought—the swords all a-quiver to be killing and the black night peeping in through the lattice.
“My grandfather was a grand swordsman, as he’s told me himself in this very chimney corner. Few there were who’d faced his sabre and lived to tell of the matter. But tonight—what from it being Hallowe’en, when devils are strong and saints are weak—he was far from having his own way of it. This scarecrow of a man was like smoke to prick with a sword-point. Light he was as thistle-down, short at one moment and tall at the next, leaping about as nimble as a goat and with no sign of tiring. And now cold suspicion of the truth flowed into my grandfather’s brain. Surely if this man were of flesh and blood he’d have been stretched on the floor long since. Perhaps it was Satan himself; or, at least, his lieutenant.
“But the Tibbit family are not easily daunted. Blinded with sweat he was, and shaking; but he fought on gallantly for all that, crying loudly on God to protect him. And then, as though in answer to his prayers, the point of the stranger’s sword wavered; and my grandfather, thrusting forward with a hymn of praise on his lips, saw the point of his sword slip into the rascal as though he were made of green cheese—saw it slip in like a skewer in mutton and saw it come out again, all bright and shining.
“Now, being a man of quick perception, he knew for certain that something was amiss. Here was the blade of his sabre as clean as a whistle when it should have been red and dripping; and here was this ragged wisp of a swordsman hopping about as gay as a canary. It was enough to put the fear of the devil in a man, Mr. Tremain.
“Well, my grandfather staggered back against the wall from the fright of it, and all the wine went out of his head. So this was what came of sitting snug in a tap-room when he should have attended the burning of Anna Mulvane. Well, he was in for it now, and no dodging the issue. If only he could get the holy Bible out of his pocket to ward off this fiend from the pit.
“But there was no time for that now, Mr. Tremain, for the stranger was at him again like a cat on a mouse. Up and down the tap-room it went, swords rattling like the devil’s dice-box, and my grandfather put to it to keep on his feet. Lucky it was for him that the hilt of his sabre was fashioned like a cross, which guarded him against the devilry afoot. Had it not been, he would have met death with his boots on, and not like a Christian in bed. But as it was, his head was swimming from the sweating fatigue of it, and his knees were clicking together like castanets, and his breath was whistling in his throat like the wind down this chimney. All in all, he was in no fit state for fence.
“Well, matters went on from bad to worse. Soon my grandfather got wandering a bit in his head. It seemed to him that the room was spinning around like a top. Faster and faster it went: and then, all of a sudden a great gust of wind pushed the tap-room door open and out of the night came a wild, wind-tossed company. Black, hairy lads were these, all dressed in silks and laces, marching in with a swing and a swagger—wild lads who had sailed the Spanish main, stained to the eyes with blood and treasure—rollicking bucks who would cut a throat for a bottle of grog or play a prank on a parson. In they marched, two by two, and formed a solemn ring about him—a ring of faces like you see in dreams, bearded all, with eyes red as coals in the gloaming.
“And as he fought wearily on, with hope of Heaven fast fading, the tattered swordsman before him burst out into song which the others soon raised to a roaring chorus. And now my grandfather felt that he, too, was singing, in spite of himself, and against all reason:
‘Here’s to Whitechapel Willie who sails the four seas,
He’s known from Calcutta to Florida Keys.
With a puncheon of rum and a dirk in each hand,
In a snug little lugger a league from the land,
For wine and women and plenty of duff
He’d sink a whole fleet and not call it enough.
For he’s Whitechapel Willie who sails the four seas,
Well known from Calcutta to Florida Keys.’
“And now he knew for certain with whom he had crossed swords on this black Hallowe’en, and all hope flickered out of him. Also he recognized two or three of the hairy lads who looked on—gentlemen of fortune these whom he had strung up right gaily at one time or another. And now that he felt that the devil had his own way with him, that it was useless to struggle further, he leaped back and snapped the blade of his sabre across his bent knee. What was left of it was but the hilt, made into the likeness of a cross as I have told you, Mr. Tremain. This he managed to clasp to his breast before he fell on the floor in a swoon,”
Ben Tibbit broke off to throw another log of wood on the fire, which was dying down to red ashes. His neck lengthened incredibly for an instant as he bent forward to warm his wrinkled old hands.
“And who was this rollicking swordsman out of the night?” I asked. “Surely it was not Whitechapel Willie?”
“Aye, so my grandfather was thinking,” said Ben Tibbit with a shake of his head. “Whitechapel Willie come down from the gallows-tree on a black Hallowe’en. But hear me out first, Mr. Tremain, and then you can be judging the matter.
“As I have told you, my grandfather had dropped in his tracks from fear or fatigue. How long he lay in a swoon on this tap-room floor he never knew; but, when he opened his eyes again, the place was as black as a pit. Not a candle glimmered, and the log in the fireplace had sputtered out, leaving the room as damp as a cellar.
“‘Nancy!’ he cried, sitting up in a fright. ‘Nancy!’
“But there was no answer at all, just the whimper of the wind in the fireplace and the sad sigh of the waves on the beach. So he climbed to his feet and lighted one of the candles. Ghastly it was and silent, with broken furniture lying all about; but with no sign of woman or devil. My grandfather was fair sweating with fear.
“But he tramped from attic to cellar, stopping every now and then like a child in the dark to bellow ‘Nancy! Nancy!’ And then out he went into the night, which was graying with the first pallor of dawn. Long spirals of mist stole up from the grass and went creeping away in the dark; the stars were still bright overhead and winking; the wind had died down to a breath which just wagged the leaves on the birches.
“Giving no thought to Queen Bess, he tramped down to the beach where the waves were like weary sinners confessing. And standing there, his feet buried deep in the sand, he bellowed ‘Nancy! Nancy!’ over the breast of the sea.
“But there was no answer at all—just the sad waves confessing to the wickedness done out there beyond, and once the mournful cry of a gull. Lonely it was and drear, with the morning not born yet; and he was glad to turn way before his voice was quite gone.
“He plodded down the beach, still fuddled in his head from the night’s devilry and not thinking or caring over-much where he might be going, when, all of a sudden, he heard a strange sound coming out of the mist far ahead. It was a shrill crowing sound like a cock makes on a dunghill, only louder and with a quaver to it which turned it into a wicked laugh most unpleasant to hear.”
“Whitechapel Willie!” I broke in.
“So my grandfather was thinking, and he began to run. For now with the promise of dawn in the air, and Hallowe’en about spent, he was brave enough to face man or devil. On he ran with that wild laugh still stinging his ears, till soon he saw the gallows-tree looming up black through the mist—the gallows-tree and something that dangled there, jigging a bit on the heels of the wind.”
“Whitechapel Willie?” I asked.
“Sure enough, Mr. Tremain—Whitechapel Willie. There he was, strung up for the world to see, a ball of dried meat that the birds might peck at, the same as he had been before Hallowe’en.
“But my grandfather had spied something else which made the hair on his head ruffle up. There, at the foot of the gallows, dim as a dream in the pallid dawn, was a queer shape all wrapped up in an old black cloak. Swinging back and forth like a gate in the wind, it crouched there in the dust. Forlorn and broken it was, like an old woman come to grieve on the graves of her dead; and it was only after he had stepped up to it that he knew it for Nancy.
“‘My lass,’ said he, severe as a judge of the land, ‘why sit you here beneath the gallows-tree?’
“But she made him no answer—just stared up with wild eyes and broke out into a snatch of a song which ran something like this:
“‘The devil he put on the robe of a priest,
Sing high, sing low, my lasses;
So Willie and I sat long at the feast,
Sing high, sing low, my lasses.’
“‘What ails you, Nancy?’ cried my grandfather in a fright. ‘Are you bewitched?’
“But still she made him no answer—just stared up, wild-eyed, at the gallows-tree and sang another snatch of her ribald ditty:
“‘Now Willie was merry as he could be,
Sing high, sing low, my lasses;
But the devil was rude to wink at me,
Sing high, sing low, my lasses.’
“Well, my grandfather clapped his great hand over her mouth, for he saw that all sense had been bewitched out of the girl, and feared she might sing something which she might have to burn for later. So he bottled up her music here and then and, picking her up in his arms, carried her back to Cockcrow Inn. And that about ends my story, Mr. Tremain.”
“But how long was it before she regained her reason?” I asked, not at all satisfied.
“Never, rightly speaking. She was always breaking out into songs about Whitechapel Willie—some of them scandalous. I remember one time when I was a mite of a lad in church with her, and she piped up on a ditty which made the congregation stare, I can tell you.”
“And your grandfather was willing to marry a mad woman?”
“He was so, Mr. Tremain. He was wont to say that his Nancy was better than a watchdog the way she’d pipe up if anyone stirred beneath stairs of a night. And then there was Cockcrow Inn to be considered. Was he going to let that slip through his fingers just because Nancy Greer wasn’t as sensible as some?”
“Did he ever find out what had happened to her?” I asked.
Ben Tibbit flushed and shook his head. “Yes and no,” said he. “Of course there were times when he had to close his ears to her pipings There were ditties of hers that—Well, the least said about them the better, Mr. Tremain. She’s in her grave now, poor woman. Like a cackling goose she went about Cockcrow Inn in my childhood, mad as a hatter and merry—a handsome old dame despite her wild eyes and wilder music. There was the savor of the sea in her, Mr. Tremain—a wild, rollicking spirit which has hanged many a man, but which is rare to find in a woman. A chap could hear her from the attic to the cellar when she came out full blast with one of her ditties—all about rum and murder and pieces of eight.”
“But the curse laid on your family?” I broke in. “Your necks? How did you come by them?”
Ben Tibbit made me no answer. Rising painfully to his feet, he began to blow out the candles which were guttering in their sockets. Picking up little Archibald by the belt and holding him at arm’s length as though he were a large snapping turtle, he turned on the threshold for a last word.
“All the families have their skeletons,” said he. “Well sir, I let ours out of the closet tonight to dance a bit for your pleasure, it being black Hallowe’en, when men grow talkative by the fireside. But I don’t want you to be thinking that I’d throw mud at my own grandmother. No, sir. Nancy Greer was an honest lass; and, had she gone to the burning of Anna Mulvane, all this would not have happened. It was a slip that cost her dear and the Tibbits dearer. A good evening to you, Mr. Tremain.”
About the Author
Tod Robbins (pen name of Clarence Aaron Robbins (1888–1949)) authored two short story collections and several novels. His work often contains bizarre and frightening plots, sometimes influenced by writers like Oscar Wilde & Robert W. Chambers. His novel The Unholy Three (1917) was twice adapted for the screen, and this story, “Spurs”, was used by Tod Browning as the basis for the film Freaks (1932). Robbins emigrated to the French Riviera from New York City and refused to leave during the Nazi occupation of France. He spent the war in a concentration camp and died in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in 1949.