THE BLACK BARGAIN, a dark tale for Walpurgis Night

walpurgis night

There was something evil about the house. To the young man in the grey suit standing at the end of the circular drive, it towered gaunt and unfriendly against the darkening sky. He fingered the crumpled letter in his pocket and slowly made his way up the gravel path, through the tangled mockery of a garden.

Wonder if the old girl was having me on… He almost spoke the words aloud. No lights, no curtains at the gaping windows— why the whole place seemed derelict. Yet this was the address and that name of hers had sounded kind of familiar. But where had he heard it before?

The thoughts darted uneasily through his mind as he moved along the drive. Must have known me though— but who doesn’t? The newspapers saw to that all right.

Strange how the dusk made such weird shapes of the overgrown hedges and bushes— not that he was the nervous type. She probably lives around the back. What was it she said in the letter? “Come to the house the last day in April. Perhaps we can be of mutual assistance to each other.” Why should she want to help him? And, why the end of April? Still, what had he got to lose?

She replaced the telephone receiver and sat back in the wing chair, listening.

It was quiet in the front room and dark, but that helped her to hear better. Yes, he was coming. Mr. Freddy Jacks, last address — Wandsworth Prison.

She smiled to herself as she thought how simple it had been to trace him. The newspaper reports of his favourite haunts, the pictures of him. She would have known him anywhere. The same thinning hair; the neat moustache that hid the full, pink mouth; the pale, lashless eyes and pointed chin. The resemblance was remarkable— and so fortunate. It dispelled any little qualms she might have had.

The bell jangled through the silence. Let him wait. Leisurely she rose and lit the gas brackets above the mantelpiece. Then she crossed to the desk and made sure that the envelope was in the drawer, also the box of sleeping pills. Satisfied, she absentmindedly fondled the ring on her finger— it seemed a shame to waste it on him. But it wasn’t for long. It wouldn’t do if he went away…

* * *

“Miss Karla Franz?” He found it hard to distinguish the small figure in the dim doorway.

“Good evening, Mr. Jacks.”

“I’ve called about your letter.” Awkwardly he fished in his pocket and produced the scrap of paper.

“Yes. Won’t you come in?” She led the way into the cluttered, oppressive living-room.

“You live here, alone?” He glanced around at the strange muddle of furniture. It looked as though she ate, slept and cooked in the same room.

“I have done so for many years.” She sat behind the desk, her eyes drinking in every detail of his face.

“I didn’t see any lights as I came along…”

“I like to light up as late as I can— it saves fuel. But you can’t be interested in an old spinster’s economies.”

Her face wrinkled into a grin, and he thought with a start how unreal everything was. Even this old crone with her thick raven hair and garish make-up gave him the willies.

“How did you hear about me?” He spoke truculently to disguise the queasy feeling at the pit of his stomach. Why hadn’t he gone round to see Harry instead of following up this old shrew’s crazy letter?

“You’re a famous man, Mr. Jacks, or should the word be — infamous?”

“Take your pick— it’s old history.” He shifted uncomfortably under her bright gaze.

“How long did they give you? Was it 6 or 10 years for fraud — and the intimidation charges?”

“Why ask me — you seem to know all the answers.”

“It’s just that I want to be sure of my facts… Now, I’m certain in your present circumstances that a little financial aid wouldn’t come amiss, would it?”

She watched the greed and then fear flicker in his eyes.

“Why pick on me? There are plenty of kids’ homes for your charity.”

“But it wouldn’t be charity. Oh, no. You see, a long time ago your father and I were known to each other. He may even have told you about me and my family. He used to call me ‘Sinti’.”

“So you were an old flame of my father’s!” Relief flooded through him at the normality of the thing. Not that he could remember anything about the old hag— it used to be a full-time job keeping up with his father’s love-life. It would give him quite a shock if he’d lived to have seen this moth-eaten hag. “Well, well. He was quite a lad, wasn’t he?”

Under the well in the desk her hands became claws, nipping at her own flesh. But she forced herself to meet his knowing leer.

“That’s why I thought we might assist each other. Would you be interested? If so, I have a little proposition to make.”

“Let’s hear it first— I’ll decide later.”

* * *

The expressionless voice ended. Jacks stared at her in horror.

“What? You mean ——?”

“Why not? What would it mean to a man of your calibre, no violence — just a gentle sleep induced by my sleeping pills, with the neat application by you of a soft cushion, firmly applied…”

His mouth felt quite stiff and dry. “And what’s my share of the kitty? A heap of wool and old newspaper?” He tried to force a laugh— what a situation to tell Harry! Barmy wasn’t the word for it— she oughtn’t to be allowed out.

“Not if you’re careful.”

She opened the desk drawer and laid the bulky envelope and key in front of him.

“Shall we say, £500 for services anticipated… And for services rendered the key to my coal cellar where you’ll find the total sum of my worldly goods.”

He was beginning to be convinced. “How much is in the cellar?”

“It’s hard to say— but ample reward for your task.”

“Give me some idea… ” He moistened his lips.

“Five thousand — perhaps a little more. What do you say?”

* * *

“Show me the contents of that.” She pushed the envelope across to him and watched him thumb the notes.

“Five hundred, all right — All right, it’s a deal. Spinster found suffocated in empty house — by person or persons unknown. Nobody saw me come here. Nobody would connect me with you. Just one thing puzzles me— what makes you want to quit this happy world? I’d like to know for the record…”

“There are a number of reasons — but to satisfy your curiosity I’ll quote loneliness as an adequate motive. But you couldn’t possibly understand.”

“Then why not do it yourself? Why bring me into it?”

“And risk my chance of——” She fell silent for a moment, a pained look in her eyes.

Maybe I’m old fashioned— but I’d rather leave that to you.”

“Kind of quibbling, aren’t you? Well, when d’you want it?” How matter of fact the words sounded. This was all so deliberate— no chance of saying, “It happened so quickly”; none of the excitement to blunt the edges of the crime.

“I’m ready when you are. I shall take a normal quantity of sleeping pills just to allay suspicion. They work very quickly— and I shall be quite unaware of what you’re doing.”

She laid the box of tablets on the desk calmly.

“But first you’ll burn my letter, and then, perhaps you’ll fetch me a glass of water from the kitchen.”

She listened as his retreating footsteps sounded more and more faintly, and at last died away altogether. Then she thumbed the ring, and with it came the wind— it was powerful and mercilessly cold, forcing open the pale wooden shutters. The claws were the first to go, then the rest of her.

To assure himself that he was not in the least nervous he began to whistle, filling the glass with speed. As he returned to the living-room, to his surprise, he found the door wide open.

“I’m sure I closed it,” he said to himself as he stood outside the room. “Yes, I am certain I did.”

He listened before entering. There was not the faintest sound from within. Stepping into the room he became aware of a dramatic change in temperature. All at once his heart began to beat violently, then it almost seemed to stand still, for the old lady was missing, the room empty, and, now, an unmistakable sound of heavy footsteps was coming from the cellar below.

A few moments more and they began to ascend the stairs. The lights flickered before the house plunged into darkness. He stood, almost paralysed, while the footsteps came steadily on until they reached the top of the staircase. He could hear choked uneven breathing, like that of some animal. He tried to call out, but his voice would not come. Meanwhile the thing, whatever it was, was evidently coming in his direction. He moved noiselessly backward, intending to slip into one of the empty rooms. But, to his horror, he found no matter how hard he tried he always found himself back in the same room — the very room he wished to avoid.

For the next minute the nameless horror had followed him, and he heard the door shut and the key sharply turned. He heard this with a mingled sense of terror and relief. At least his unseen companion was human, surely? He hardly knew what he feared. He guided himself stealthily and silently past a small table which seemed to occupy the centre of the room, against which he had brushed when entering, and squeezed himself into the farthest corner. Then he heard the thing fling itself down on the floor, where it seemed to lay for some time quite still. At last the throbbing silence was broken by a low nickering laugh. Jacks’ blood ran cold. For he knew he was shut up with something that was mad — either the woman herself or, perhaps, something of her creation. He hardly dared to breathe. All at once the thing began to cry and wail, shaking the house.

Presently it began to speak again in a low, unnaturally quiet monotone, every now and then broken by a horrible laugh. Jacks crouched in his corner, disturbed by the hard leaps of his own heart.

And again the loathsome voice broke into whispered words and cackles.

Suddenly, it stopped, and seemed to listen. Jacks listened too. In spite of himself Jacks uttered a low half-articulate cry. The thing made a swift movement towards him.

“I shall play the hurting game this time!” it hissed.

Jacks could hear it feeling round the walls with eager cruel fingers, could hear its panting breaths. Noiselessly he crept backward as it came nearer, his arms held tightly against his side so that his clothes might not rustle.

A loud crash of glass breaking came from one of the empty rooms, then the sound of voices and footsteps.

All at once the creature uttered a terrible scream.

“No— merciful heaven! it’s on me! Ah! it chokes me— it chokes me! God help—— ”

There was a sudden wild rush across the room, a rasping sound as the window was flung open, a heavy sickening thud in the court below, and silence.

And after what seemed half a century at least, someone forced open the door, lights blazed through the darkness, and the confused sound of men’s voices was heard.

“Is this where he fell?” asked the officer.

“Yes, I guess so,” he answered briefly. For the sight in the courtyard had not been a pleasant one. And, as one of the officers had noted, his features were that of a man terrified, and his hair matted, coated with what appeared to be a great amount of cuckoo-spit, still foaming and popping.

* * *

It was lucky they had followed up that stray phone call half an hour previously. On Jacks they found the money— It was one of those watertight cases. But they never discovered the old lady’s black box— she’d hidden it too well. If they had, they would have found that ‘her treasure’ consisted of three yellowing newspaper cuttings whose headlines read: ‘Gypsy family claim harassment’, ‘Mayor Jacks forces eviction’… ‘Gypsy mother’s suicide’

No wonder Franz lay smiling to herself on the sofa. Her black wig had tumbled to the floor and her old gnarled head drooped against the cushions. But what did that matter? She had waited a long time to perfect her craft…

* * *

ghost stories

P.J. Hodge is the author of GHOSTS AND OTHER SUPERNATURAL GUESTS, 12 tales of supernatural terror available from Amazon as ebook and Kindle:

http://mybook.to/ghosts

Winner of Gothic Reader Book of the Year

The Druids Knew May Day — a history of May Day customs and celebrations

may day customs

May Day, which this year falls on Thursday, is probably the oldest British festival in the calendar. Two thousand years ago it was celebrated by the Druids, who offered sacrifices from sacred mountains and kindled fires on the hilltops by night. Many interesting old customs applied to the day until 1889, when it became the day for celebration of the international labour movement.

May Day has been one of the four great witches’ Sabbaths, and, so the peasants of many countries say, the witches would in the early hours ride on he-goats and broomsticks to the ancient places of sacrifice to hold revel there with the Prince of Darkness.

maypole dancing

It has been the day of Maypole dancing and typically English folk customs — the milkmaids’ dance, the frolic of Jack-in-the-green, and the rush to the field to gather May-dew, which, as a cosmetic, was said to ensure perpetual youth.

Now May Day is notable only for the Labour demonstrations that are held throughout Europe and America on that day. Its more colourful associations are practically only memories. But what memories they are!

Celebrations something akin to those of the ancient Druids were common among many of the peasant peoples of Europe in the days of Christ, and until about a century ago were still observed in some parts of Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, and the Isle of Wight.

About the same time the Romans were flocking into the meadows to pay homage to the goddess Flora in the Floralian celebrations. These began on April 28th, and usually ended on May Day.

In the history of May Day then comes a gap of more than 1,000 years. Then we find Chaucer writing of the court that went “To fetche the floures, freshe, and braunche and blome.” The days of maying had begun.

Two hundred years later we find the young King Henry VIII with his girl wife, Katharine, riding to shooters Hill to bring in the may. His cavalcade fell in with a band of archers 200 strong, whose chieftain was called Robin Hood. In an exhibition the archers sent their arrows overhead with a strange sound, says a chronicler, that delighted the King and Queen and their company.

In the Tudor days, too, we find a great maypole, sometimes “as high as the mast of a vessel of 100 tons,” being brought into the centre of the revels. But here a chronicler sees a relic of the Druid and Celtic customs.

He writes that the maypole, a “skynking ydol,” was erected and round it the people did “daunce about like as the heathen people did at the dedication of idols.” He was convinced that the “Lord over their pastimes was Sathan, Prince of hell.”

The upshot of this and many similar opinions was that maypole dancing was barred by the Puritans under Cromwell, but on the very first May Day after the Restoration a worthy successor was put up, with much ceremony, opposite Somerset House.

The merry people of the old days had a maypole permanently fixed in every town, and some of these still survive in some of the more remote parts of the country. But they are now few and far between.

* * * * *

may queen

The custom of having a Queen of the May seems to be a relic of the Roman celebration of May Day, when a flower-crowned maid was the living representation of the goddess Flora.

At these old English dances the Queen of the May did not join in the revelries with her subjects, but sat, half-covered with flowers, as an object of admiration to all the townspeople. It must have been a dull post, but the admiration it conjured up in the breasts of the simple peasants must have been the recompense. There are still May Queens in some parts of France.

A part of all true maying was the gathering of the May-dew, for May-dew, especially that of May Day, had a wonderful reputation as a cosmetic and for preserving youth.

Thus Samuel Pepys noted in his diary one May eve: — “My wife away to Woolwich in order to a little ayre, and to lie there tonight, and so gather May-dew tomorrow morning which Mrs. Turner hath taught her is the only thing in the world to wash her face with.”

More than a century later, May 2nd, 1791, “The Morning Post” records that many people went into the fields to bathe their faces in the dew, under the idea that it would render them beautiful.

In London, until relatively recently, May Day was kept up by parties comprising three chimney sweeps in fantastic costumes, a woman, and a Jack-in-the-green, who was concealed under a frame of herbs and flowers. They would dance every now and again to the music of pipe and drum in the hope of being rewarded with pennies. The Jack-in-the-green has been given a welcome new lease of life in recent years, what with revivals in Rochester, Hastings, and Whitstable among many others.

Milkmaids a century ago had much the same custom. They danced round a cow. Earlier still they were joined by a man bearing a frame which bore silver flagons and dishes. These silver things were lent out at so much an hour by pawnbrokers and would grace many milk maids’ dances in the course of a May Day.

walpurgisnacht

On May Day eve, and in the early hours of May Day, according to the peasants of Finland, there was not a hilltop in the country that was not thronged by demons and sorcerers. On Brocken, the highest point of the Hartz Mountains in Germany, too, witches were believed to meet on the eve of May Day — or Walpurgis Eve as it is known in Black Magic works.

* * * * *

This was one of the anniversaries when the meetings were particularly solemn, with as large an attendance as possible. All who belonged to the infernal cult were required to present themselves. Punishment was meted out to those who were slack or slow.

There does not appear to be any formal order in the Walpurgis Eve ceremonies, but one writer of the Black Art tells of “mere clowning and japery, mixed up with circumstances of the extremest horror; childishness and folly with loathly abominations.”

Now, sadly, practically all these interesting old customs have died out. In their place has been born the Labour demonstrations. Despite this, however, there are pockets where the old traditions still survive; and I will be attendance, next weekend (yes, a little late for May Day itself), at one such gathering:- the Downton Cuckoo Fair where there will be merrymaking of the finest order including Maypole dancing, Morris dancers and, no doubt, a veritable feast of olde-worlde crafts.

* * * * *

May Day Celebrations At Elstow, 1939
(click on the image below)

mayday