“A [Halloween] Ghost Story of Long Ago–The Sutor of Selkirk”

“Once upon a time there lived in Selkirk a shoemaker, by name Rabbie Heckspeckle, who was celebrated both for dexterity in his trade and for some other qualifications of a less profitable nature….In short, he was the Paul Pry of the town.  Not an old wife in the parish could buy a new scarlet rokelay without Rabbie knowing within a groat of the cost; the doctor could not dine with the minister but Rabbie could tell whether sheep’s-head or haggis formed the staple commodity of the repast; and it was even said that he was acquainted with the grunt of every sow, and the cackle of every individual hen in his neighborhood; but this wants confirmation.”

From this curious beginning continues an “old wives’ tale” from Selkirk, which I found published with no other author given in an old book from London called The Evening Standard Second Book of Strange Stories, which also has no copyright date.  It seems that even though Rabbie’s wife Bridget tried her best to restrain Rabbie’s constant curiosity, “her interference met with exactly that degree of attention which husbands usually bestow on the advice tendered by their better halves–that is to say, Rabbie informed her that she knew nothing of the matter, that her understanding required stretching, and finally, that if she presumed to meddle in his affairs, he would be under the disagreeable necessity of giving her a top-dressing.”  (I’m not entirely sure exactly what a “top-dressing” is, but as I suspect that Rabbie was of the sort who made himself “disagreeable” to anyone who interfered with him, I think this was likely to be a wife-beating threat, which in such an old tale was often treated as a matter for raucous comedy rather than as the serious thing we now think it to be.)

Because Rabbie had much work as a shoemaker to do in addition to his not-so-neighborly “researches” into the lives of others, he usually rose early, “long before the dawn,” and was one morning putting the final bits on a pair of shoes for the exciseman (tax collector), when a rather unusual customer came into his shop.  The customer was “a tall figure, enveloped in a large black cloak, and with a broad-rimmed hat drawn over his brows.”  Rabbie was perplexed to have a customer so early, and moreover one who was a stranger in the town, and yet one he’d never had knowledge of.  Rabbie tried his best to make leading conversation, but the figure ignored him, and instead picked up the exciseman’s prospective shoe and tried it on, taking a turn around the room to make sure the shoe fit.

Though Rabbie was caught up in watching the mysterious figure, his other senses were working overtime as well:  “‘He smells awfully,’ muttered Rabbie to himself; ‘ane would be ready to swear he had just cam frae the ploughtail.'”  But Rabbie had no time to think of this, because the stranger motioned for the other shoe, and pulled out a purse to pay for the pair.  Once again, Rabbie noticed something odd:  the purse was “spotted with a kind of earthy mould.”  “‘Gudesake,’ thought Rabbie, ‘this queer man maun hae howkit that purse out o’ the ground.  Some folks say there are bags o’ siller buried near this town.'”

But imagine Rabbie’s surprise when out of the open purse fell a toad, a beetle, and a large worm, which wound itself around the stranger’s finger!  Still, the tall figure in the black clothes held out a gold piece, and indicated in dumb show that he wished to buy the pair of shoes.  But Rabbie, being a hard-minded, some would say eminently practical man, responded that “‘It’s a thing morally impossible,…I hae as good as sworn to the exciseman to hae them ready by daylight,…and better, I tell you, to affront the king himself than the exciseman.'”

The stranger stamped his foot, shod in the new shoe, in anger, but Rabbie stuck to his point, nevertheless being conciliatory in his own terms by offering to make another pair for the strange visitor within a day’s time, which finally the figure had to accept.  So, he sat down on the three-legged measuring stool and held out his foot to the sutor, who measured it, all the while trying to find out something about his mysterious visitor through friendly conversation.  But the figure was largely silent.  When the measuring was done, Rabbie tried to insist on delivering the shoes himself, in order to find out something at least about where his visitor lived to satisfy his own curiosity, but the stranger replied, “‘I will called for them myself before cock-crowing,’…in a very uncommon and indescribable tone of voice.”

“‘Hout, sir,’ quoth Rabbie, ‘I canna let you hae the trouble o’ coming for them yoursel’; it will just be a pleasure for me to call with them at your house.’  ‘I have my doubts of that,’ replied the stranger, in the same peculiar manner; ‘and at all events, my house would not hold us both.'”  Rabbie continued to try to insist on dropping in on his visitor at the latter’s home, but the stranger instead gave Rabbie a kick in the seat of the pants that knocked him down, and walked out.  Mystified but determined to be satisfied, Rabbie ran out the door behind the mysterious visitor in his red night-cap as a cock called for dawn, and reached the churchyard at the end of the street before he gave up, not finding his recent customer anywhere.  “‘Weel,’ he muttered, as he retraced his steps homewards, ‘he has warred me this time, but sorrow take me if I’m not up wi’ him in the morn.'”

With diligence which surprised his wife Bridget, Rabbie spent the whole of the day on his three-legged stool working on the pair of new shoes, and astonished all the neighbors by this as well, who all agreed “that it predicted some prodigy:  but whether it was to take the shape of a comet, which would deluge them all with its fiery tail, or whether they were to be swallowed up by an earthquake, could by no means be settled” to their satisfaction.  Moreover, Rabbie resisted every outside attempt to get him interested in local gossip, and instead worked steadily on the pair of new shoes.

Late at night, he had finished the shoes, and placed them beside his bed for the dawn.  Suddenly, startling Rabbie with his presence, the stranger appeared, asking for his shoes.  “‘Here, sir,'” said Rabbie, quite transported with joy; ‘here they are, right and tight, and mickle joy may ye hae in wearing them, for it’s better to wear shoon than sheets, as the auld saying gangs.’  ‘Perhaps I may wear both,’ answered the stranger.  ‘Gude save us,’ quoth Rabbie, ‘do ye sleep in your shoon?'”  Not answering, the stranger put gold on the table and took the shoes and left the house.

Not to be outdone by the visitor’s reticence, Rabbie slipped out the door after him to follow and find where he went.  Imagine his astonishment when the stranger went into the churchyard!  Rabbie said to himself, “”Odsake, where can he be gaun?’…'[H]e’s making to that grave in the corner; now he’s standing still; now he’s sitting down.  Gudesake!  what’s come o’ him?'”  And though Rabbie looked all around him and rubbed his eyes, he couldn’t see the stranger anywhere!  This struck Rabbie as “uncanny,” but his curiosity being still stronger than his fear, he thrust his awl into the grave so he could find the place again, marking it for further investigations.

By the time the sun went down that day, the news was all over town, and it was decided to go and open the grave “which was suspected as being suspicious.”  When the grave was opened and the lid forced from the coffin, a corpse was found, dressed in all its tomb clothing, but with a pair of perfectly new shoes on!  With this, everyone else fled in all directions in horror, but Rabbie and a few braver souls stayed to “arrange” things more to their own satisfaction with the corpse.  They agreed to nail the coffin and place it deeper in the earth, but Rabbie took the shoes back first, saying that the corpse had “no more need for them than a cart had for three wheels.”  After re-burying the corpse as proposed, Rabbie and his friends went home, not at first thinking any more about the matter.

It’s true, Rabbie did have some “qualms of conscience” about keeping the stranger’s money and depriving him of the shoes he’d paid for, corpse or no corpse; but thinking that it would be a black mark against his family name to have made a pair of shoes for a corpse, and knowing that there was no court of appeal for the corpse, Rabbie soon put the matter out of his mind.  “Next morning, according to custom, he rose long before the day, and fell to his work, shouting the old songs of the “Sutors of Selkirk” at the very top of his voice.  A short time, however, before the dawn his wife, who was in bed in the back room, remarked that in the very middle of his favorite verse his voice fell into a quaver, then broke out into a yell of terror; and then she heard a noise, as of persons struggling; and then all was quiet as the grave.”  When she went into the shop, the stool was all broken up, bristles all over the floor, and the door off its hinges.  There was no Rabbie.  There were, however, footprints, which she found to her horror led straight to the churchyard, to the grave of Rabbie’s former customer!  The ground was disturbed, and several locks of Rabbie’s lank black hair were on the surface of the grass, whereupon Bridget ran to acquaint everyone in town with what she guessed.

The grave was re-opened, “the lid of the coffin was once more torn off; and there lay its ghastly tenant, with his shoes replaced on his feet, and Rabbie’s red night-cap clutched in his right hand!  The people, in consternation, fled from the churchyard; and nothing further has ever transpired to throw any additional light upon the melancholy fate of the Sutor of Selkirk.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this second Halloween post, a very old story from the British traditional corpus (or should I make a pun, and say “corpse”?); just remember, if an unearthly figure makes its appearance and requests your services, stick strictly by the letter of the law, and keep your curiosity in check, or you may wind up “Gude” knows where, like the Sutor of Selkirk.

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