Originally published in Ahoy There magazine, Issue 23. Based on the song ‘Jack Dancer’ by The Golden Apple. All musical anachronisms are intentional.
Make yourselves comfortable, lads. It’ll be a good few hours before they give us the signal, and until then we may as well warm ourselves and have a drink or two. One of you keep an eye out of the window and give me a nudge if you see anything unusual out there.
Now, since we’re a merry company at a long table by a goodly fire in a clifftop inn at ten in the evening in the month of November, why, we’d best have a story; and you all know as well as I that the only kind of stories to tell on nights like these are stories of terror.
You know the three things which more people are afraid of than anything else?
The sea, mad dogs, and country roads at night.
I’m not talking about the fear which grabs hold of you and shakes you, like when you’re standing in the front line facing a shield wall and wetting yourself, or when you’re riding for dear life away from the forces of law and order with musket balls zinging over your head. That’s a sensible fear that’s there one minute and away the next, once whatever was causing it is gone. You get the shakes for a while and then you’re over it. But the big three are old fears. They creep in upon you and they never go away.
The sea’s frightening because she’ll take you in the end and there’s nothing at all you can do about it. She’s too big and too old, and so cold that all the warmth and life in the world wouldn’t warm her a drop. Look at her out there, that steady swell so peaceful and motherly, and think of the bones of women and men and children, and blackened timbers, and all manner of dead things turning to ragged slime deep in the darkness. She’s gentle now, but you’ll all remember how she is when the storms blow up, and the waves rise like mountains out of the night.
Mad dogs… well, it’s not just the obvious, that they might rip your throat out. It’s looking across at old Toby who’s always been loyal and true and seeing something wrong. You can’t put your finger on it at first – something in his eyes? Then you see the foam on his muzzle, and you know the worst. It’s a terrible thing for a dog, which is a part of hearth and home, to turn to something hostile and vicious. The only thing to do is to kill it, and then something’s gone forever. It twists your gut and you wonder if anything can ever be truly safe or secure.
As for country roads at night, well, they’re just about the frighteningest place in the world to be. Unless there’s little lanterns strung along the way, like for a festival – then they can be sweet, romantic even, especially with the aroma of the woodflowers or the crispness of frost in the air. But when there’s no light but the moon and stars, then God help you.
The roads twist and turn and the trees close their claws over your head. You see a pale face in the hedgerow, but when you look again there’s only branches and leaves. Wild animals skitter in the bracken, and sometimes deer watch you silently between the trees as you pass. Towns offer some relief, but often you have to ride by gibbets where the crow-picked dead still hang, one bony hand stuckthrough the bars as if asking for alms, and you ridequickly without looking at them. Darkness wraps itself around you again.
From time to time, you think you hear breathing close behind, and you make up your mind not to turn around. It doesn’t stop; it comes and it goes; then suddenly it is close upon you, a steady breath warm on your neck, but when you turn, with your heart thumping against your ribs, there’s only the empty road.
The road from Herstmonceux to Cowbeech is one of the worst, an old dark intestine of the country that wound through the wood long before Arthur was a boy. Back in the times I’m going to tell you of, I was living in an abandoned windmill I’d rented cheap and fixed up myself, and that road was the one I had to take to the Merrie Harriers tavern; a place worthy of the name, not one of your front-room gin palaces like you get all over the place these days. Most nights I’d study, work a little experimental magic maybe, but two or three evenings a week I’d head down that road before sundown, settle myself by the fire at the Merrie Harriers, eat and drink there all night and sleep in one of the upstairs rooms or bed down by the fire if they were all taken. Next morning I’d pitch in with the chores, which earned me a breakfast from Maggie and Sam who ran the place, then I’d head back to the mill. So I rarely ever took that road by dark.
On October the 31st 1791, I was in a foul temper. I’d decided earlier on to spend a quiet night in with the books, but… well, do you ever have one of those days when everything seems to be conspiring against you to screw your plans up? I couldn’t settle, the fire was smoking too much, and when I took a coffee break I found that water had gotten into my precious sugar and turned the whole jar to one solid lump. At nine o’clock I gave the evening up for lost, grabbed cloak and rapier and set off for the Harrier’s. Halfway out of the door, with the dark road ahead of me, I paused and thought on how it was Halloween night, but I was in a contrary mood anyway and it only made me all the more determined to brave the road and all its bugaboos. I sparked up a lantern and left.
The night was cold, the wind rose and swayed the trees and fell only to rise again with grim monotony, and nobody passed me as I walked. Far off across the fields there were lights glowing in farmhouse windows, and God-fearing folk kept snug and safe on All Hallow’s Eve. I began to wonder if there’d be anybody at the inn at all when I reached the place. I pulled my cloak tight around me and walked on, not looking to either side. I was two miles from Cowbeech and regretting my decision when I heard hoofbeats approaching.
I held the lantern up as whoever it was trotted towards me. A highwayman, of all things, and the biggest cuss of one I’ve ever seen, fine and fancy in black silks and gloveleather trousers, on a snorting black nightmare of a horse. I gawped up at him as he reined her in. He drew a silver pistol, levelled it at me, and coughed.
‘I’ve a lot of drinking to do tonight, sir,’ he said, ‘and I’ll thank you to provide me with the means.’
‘Your pardon, but I’ve come out without money,’ I lied. As you do.
He sighed and with his off hand he rubbed his eyes tiredly. ‘Too bad. I’m of a mind to shoot you down anyway, and if I find cash on you, I’ll roll you into the ditch and make water on you for lying to me.’ He cocked the pistol. ‘I’ll ask again. Are you sure you’ve nothing to spare a thirsty man?’
Now, I keep quiet about my kenning as a rule, because I have to live in these parts, and I like it here. Nobody hereabouts knows about my acquaintance with the Art, because I don’t go flaunting it. But this was an exception. For five seconds my fingers moved under the cloak, and my lips moved silently in the darkness.
‘Pull that trigger,’ I said quietly, ‘and your fingers will scatter like spillikins.’
‘You’ll have your sword out that quick, will you? I think not.’
I grinned. ‘Unnecessary.’ I spread my arms out wide. ‘You may fire when ready, sir.’
A few moments passed, and I heard the gentle click of a pistol hammer returned to the uncocked position. When I looked up at him he had a thoughtful face.
‘The witch o’the mill, is it?’
‘For them as believe in such,’ I said.
‘I thought all witches were women.’
‘Dangerous to judge by appearances.’
It was clear by his expression that he’d backed down. He sighed and tucked his pistol away. ‘Damn my luck. On your way, then. Jack’ll be after picking easier prey tonight.’
With that, he wheeled the horse around and was away into the darkness, leaving me to wonder. Was he superstitious, had he thought me insane, or did he really know something about the power of magic?
Left alone in the silence I shrugged to myself and started down the road again. After that mad incident, the night seemed even colder and more unfriendly than before. It was a very relieved Cadfannan that flung open the door to the public bar of the Merrie Harriers and was soon relaxing on his stool by the bar. The warm brassy smell of grandfather’s beer that only the oldest pubs have, the copper gleam of the pots on the wall, pipe smoke and woodsmoke, the shouts, the songs and the conversations, the enormous fire, all these pushed the night out of my mind.
I’d been very wrong before, to think that Halloween would keep the people at home. The public bar was crammed to capacity with the local farmer folk, and some other characters not seen so often. I caught sight of the doctor’s cranelike frame wedged into a corner, old Bolingbroke the undertaker sucking on his cornstalk and dangerously close to the dartboard, and a gang of three gypsies in shadow under the eaves at the other end of the pub. On their laps were fiddle, flute and tambour, marking them as itinerant musicians. One older man, one younger, and a girl. Looking at her, I wondered if she’d stand me a dance later, and maybe even a private dance later still.
God, she was a sight to see. Lovely great masses of curly black hair – the rich black of old iron – bound up with red silk, a face almost Egyptian, quick almond eyes, and skin that glowed dark in the firelight in a way that made my heart beat faster. There were too many people between me and her for me to have any chance of talking to her yet, and getting the first pint of the night down me was the first order of business anyway. Several times I tried to catch her eye, but each time she was looking off into the distance in another direction.
Sam’s face was a little too calm when he told me there was a gentleman in the public bar who wanted to talk business with me.
‘The back room’s full, but the cellar’s free for now. Do me a favour, Cadfannan. Take him down there and sort your affairs out – whatever they are, I couldn’t care less – and see him off the premises after you’re done, would you?. I’ve got regulars through there too scared to talk in his presence.’
‘Hm. What’s he look like?’
‘Like the highwayman, Jack Dancer.’
Jack Dancer. God’s teeth. And I’d faced him down on the road.
Every profession has its legends, and piracy’s no exception. When it’s sea pirates, you can take your pick of the big names. Henry Morgan. Calico Jack. Pretty-boy Lambkin. Rightly infamous, all of them; more for all the killing they’ve done than for any other reason. As for land pirates, there are only two legends worthy of the name. The master of ‘em all was of course Dick Turpin, still spoken of today, but before brave Turpin robbed, murdered and seduced his way to fame there was another. In the halls of history he stands hidden in Turpin’s shadow, but in his time he was more feared than Dick ever was. He was the man they named Jack Dancer.
He could kill a man as brisk and thoughtlessly as a mousetrap does for a mouse, and he did so kill, and that often. I remember he’d shot down well over fifty people since he turned highwayman. More often than not, it was for the craziest reasons. A man with a squint was shot between the eyes just so it would look like he was staring at the bullet hole, which Dancer found hilarious. A clerk from Bexhill who was so terrified by Dancer’s appearance that he farted was shot in the belly, reportedly for greater ventilation that he might be spared embarrassment in future. Most notoriously, Dancer slaughtered a French Viscount ignorant of who he was, and all for the crime of speaking to him ‘with his peruke most damnably crooked and his shirt half out’.
Jack was the man they just couldn’t bring to justice. Hang him? They never once came close to catching him. Some said he had satanic powers, that he was a witch; some that he’d so many women hanging at his heels that he never wanted for a tip-off or a hiding place; some simply averred that he was the fastest runner in old England and the Colonies too, and no doubt they were all right to some degree. Certainly the part about his being beloved of women was true enough.
For he wasn’t named Jack Dancer only on account of his fleet-footedness. After Milady had been relieved of her jewels, and if she was young and pretty enough, Jack’d dance with her right then and there on the sward. For all their feigned faintings and protestations, the majority of them didn’t truly object. He never took advantage of them, either. It was the dancing that mattered to him. It was like an addiction. Whenever the opportunity arose to dance, he’d take it, and I mean whenever. If a woman were to strike up singing in a tavern, Jack’d be by her side capering like a mad bugger, thundering with his heels on the floor for with never a care for who might see and recognise him. Dance for Mary, dance for Jane, it didn’t matter who. They said he danced every dance as if it were his last.
‘So what’s he want with me?’ I asked.
‘Well, he didn’t tell me, did he? Just said if the witch put his face round the door, to point him in his direction. We’ve all been on tenterhooks since, but he’s not not caused us any bother yet. He’s just been sat staring into his pint this last half hour.’
‘Best take care of this, then.’
‘Aye, well, we’d appreciate it.’
Sam’s anxiety was beginning to irritate me.‘Set me up a tab,’ I said quietly, and headed for the public bar. On the way the gypsy girl caught my eye at last and held my gaze a little longer than mere curiosity would allow, her mouth slightly open. Damn it all, but she’d better not have left before I was done with Jack Dancer. I tore myself away.
As I entered the public bar a few faces glanced up at me, but it was clear that everyone was more interested in the huge figure hunched over his table in the middle of the room. Not a one was looking straight at him; all the glances were sidelong, surreptitious; nobody spoke a word to him, but he was the centre of attention all the same.
You’ll be wondering what he looked like. Well, to see him in the indoor light, his size and strength and downcast eyes, you’d think he might have had strong Indian blood, but for the pale colour of him. His hair was black as crowfeathers, stiff as tousled straw, and he’d been a fair few days without a shave. His cheeks were that sunken, he’d probably not eaten for as long neither. You’ll know what I mean when I say there was a great black thundercloud above him. We’ve all had our days of abject misery, but he looked like a man for whom all hope had died.
As soon as he noticed that I’d come in he stood up. After a brief rush of people catching their breath and seats being shifted, the room had gone from merely quiet to utterly silent. I motioned him toward the cellar door and he followed, a mass sigh of relief coming from the patrons in his wake. No doubt my reputation would skyrocket after tonight; but blast it, I was enjoying living incognito in this back-of-beyond little village. Ah, well. All good things, eh?
We sat on old chairs under the beams in candlelight, in the cellar must and the cellar damp. Dancer’s eyes were deep in shadow. He looked tired, hunted, desperate. I’d tried to bring about a little bonhommie (and keep back the cold) by cracking a bottle of Sam’s rum, but it looked like whatever was plaguing my companion would take more than that to stave off. The two tin cups sat between us on a barrel. I sipped from mine while he made helpless gestures as if he were trying to find an opening into his story and failing. He sighed and rested his head on his fist.
I kicked him hard in the shin and he looked up at me exhaustedly.
‘Whatever it is,’ I said, ‘this moping won’t cure it.’
Jack’s face screwed up for a moment; then he shook himself and seemed to come back to himself a little. ‘You’re right, of course,’ he said. He knocked back his drink, smacked his lips, hissed an appreciative aaahhhh and held out the cup for more. ‘It occurs to me that I never even asked your name.’
‘Cadfannan. Ship’s Mage on the Fenris Ulf.’
He made a small mm-hmm noise. ‘That’s dangerous company.’
‘So they say. But you know how tales grow in the telling.’
He laughed a little at that. ‘Given up the pirating life, have you?’
‘Not likely. No, I’m just taking time out to get some research work done, the kind you can’t get away with on board ship. I’m going back on the account next year, if everything pans out like it should.’
Neither of us spoke for a moment. The cold crept back in between us.
Presently, Jack began to look agonized again. He clenched his teeth and knit his brow and bit his knuckles.
‘If you don’t get to the point soon, mate, I’m off back upstairs,’ said I, thinking of golden-dark skin and twinkling eyes.
Dancer nodded. ‘All right.’ He took a deep breath, and finally he said what he’d been trying to say. ‘Here’s the truth of it. I’m damned. Damned to everlasting hellfire.’
The anticlimax, the pathos of it made me almost sick. ‘Oh, bugger that. It’s a bit bloody late to be regretting things at your time of life. If you’re concerned about the state of your soul, go and knock up the local vicar and bend his ear about it. It’s not my….’
He slammed his fist down on the barrel, spilling the little cups. ‘Listen, you poxy streak of horse’s water. When I say I’m damned I mean it. I signed my soul away. Signed, sealed and delivered. A bargain made fair and square. I’m pinned like a rat in a trap, I have nowhere left to run and I can feel hell’s fire singeing my arse already. You are the only hope I have left. I can’t call on you to help in the name of Christian charity or any such dung, but as a thief to a brother thief, please, help me.’
‘You sold your soul?’
‘I did. In New Orleans, 1771. It’s always a year for witches’ work when the date will run backwards or forwards with equal ease… but you’d know that, wouldn’t you. Aye, sir: I traded away the one thing I can’t replace. You may as well know the full story…’
Born John Farnborough, the son of a London haberdasher, he’d been crippled from birth with a club foot. The jibes and insults that he’d get as a child might have made him develop resilience and backbone, had he been the type to tend toward moral if not physical uprightness; but instead he became ever more sullen, bitter and resentful. When he came of age he worked in his father’s shop until the persistent thefts from the till could no longer be ignored, and he was thrown out into the street; an attempt to secure honest work as a needle-grinder, one of few sedentary occupations for a man to do, came to nothing. So it was beggaring for Jack from there on in, which paid better for him than most, given that he was on the handsome side and this tended to stir sympathy in the ladies.
When London became a city in which he could no longer comfortably live (he skipped a few details here, indicating only that it was something to do with women) he made his way to Sheffield where by a strange series of fortunate events and the intervention of a shrewd patron he was able to learn the gunsmithing trade, for which he proved to have a singular talent. Over three years he turned his fortunes around and did his best to be an honest tradesman against all the urgings of his soul. His star on the rise for the first time, he took a ship for America, for at the time the colonists there were making a new world with guns, and where there are guns there is a need for good gunsmiths.
Alas, Fortune no sooner sets us up than she knocks us straight back down again. Honest Jack met with a gang of three ne’er-do-well’s only two days down the river from New Orleans, and they left him helpless by the wayside without his tools or his purse. This was a grave setback, but Jack still had hope. His Sheffield master had prepared a letter of introduction to a fellow in the Irish Channel (that’s a street in New Orleans, by the by) with whom Jack was supposed to take up his trade. As it transpired, the address had been destroyed by fire several years back, and no trace of the workshop was found elsewhere in the city. None of the other gunsmiths were interested in a crippled Englishman with no credentials. Penniless, bedraggled and miserable, surrounded on all sides by foreigners whose language he didn’t know save to curse in it, Jack went from street to street looking for anyone who would take him in. None would. He fell asleep that first night under the docks and woke with his clothes stiff with Mississippi mud and reeking of fish.
His lot had never been worse, but Jack was a survivor. He fell in with the other street trash, sharing their loathsome meals and their fires. With the passage of time he made friends of a sort. The robber gangs found him useful, for he overheard and remembered much, yet he’d never be one of their number, and he knew it; despite his dextrous fingers he’d have been useless as a thief, for his Judas leg hobbled him, and a thief who can’t run from the crime is as good as hung already. Jack hated that lumpen deadweight leg of his with all the black hatred his heart could squeeze out. When, one night in late October, he learned of how he might cure himself of it, well, he must laugh at first, for the craziness of the idea. Later he was to become most fatally serious.
A blind hoodoo man it was who told him the story; on Halloween night, the very worst time to tell it, but Jack’s life was all either bests or worsts, with precious little between. You’ll know the story, anyhow, or some version of it. The folklore in that part of the world runs deep as deep and black as black; more ghost stories come out of the Mississippi Delta than any other place I’ve known, and the story that was to become Jack’s doom was the granddaddy of them all. He sat and he listened to the story, and when it was done, that very same night he went out to the crossroads. Alone he stood, and he put out his only lantern, as you must. Then he called out into the night, and as for Who answered him, well, it’s best not to say. But Jack kept his nerve, and in that crimson light he read what was proffered, and he pierced a vein in due form and signed, and that other Personage made its mark.
He showed me the yellowish document then, folded and refolded yet intact, sealed at the bottom with a great crested disc, signed with a mangling flourish of red script. It made me shudder to see it; it was real. Jack went on. The next morning he was like a young gazelle. He leapt, he ran, he danced… good God, how he danced! What matter the price? the man had feet of air; he could go whither he wished; indeed, he could best any man in the world at a running race, for that had been part of the deal. (The kind of mind which tends to dealings with the diabolical and such base business as that will never settle for merely enough. It always demands a surfeit.)
That evening one tavern, then another, then another was turned into a roaring den of jollity as, like a Pied Piper, our Jack danced like a maniac from street to street with an entourage of beggars, prositutes and tatterdemalions cheering him on and dancing in a raggedy trail behind him. Under a street lantern he gave a lengthy and impassioned farewell to his old companions, for he must needs sail back to England, his face being too well known in New Orleans. So it was that with many cheers and a few tears, the revel broke up, and Jack disappeared like a ghost from the very midst of his company, and none could remember seeing him go. The only memento he left was the neatly laid out bodies of three ruffians, left on the riverbank, about two days’ travel away.
Between us, a small spider swung back and forth on its golden candlelit thread, a pendulum measuring Dancer’s last hours on this earth.
‘It’s been a good life,’ he said. ‘Wenches. Plenty of those. Riches. Nights on the lash. It’s all passed so damn quickly, though. If I had it to do again… eh. Enough of such talk. What can you do, cunningman? Can you keep the Devil from off my coattails?’
‘You’ve not told me yet what’s in it for me,’ said I. ‘Hate to sound so mercenary, like, but it’s not like you’re after having me magick a wart off your arse or anything. This is Hell you’re involved with here. Undertakings in that department are bloody risky business.’
‘Fairly said. Well, I’ve a stash buried over in Connaught that’s no good to me if I’m dead. Plate, mostly: all good stuff. If I’m still here tomorrow to tell you where to dig, it’s yours.’
‘That’ll do.’ I was planning on taking the case anyway, just because of the beautiful insanity of it. Matching wits with the Devil like in the folk tales! That’s my pride, you see. It’ll be my undoing one day.
That or the clap.
I got up and began to pace up and down the cellar. Dancer had another drink and was sensible enough to let me think aloud without interrupting.
‘Devils. If you knows their name, you have a chance of binding ‘em. Thing is, this isn’t just any old devil, it’s old Scratch himself, and there’s but One knows his true name, and he ain’t telling. Forget that. I suppose there’s wardings, to keep the bugger out, but this tavern’s more full of ancient sin than a corpse’s belly is full of maggots, and you can’t make good stick to bad. We could head up to my mill and make a stand there, but time’s a wasting, and besides, I’ve not got half the stuff I’d need to lay a circle big enough to fence the whole thing off. We could sell your soul on to someone else, but that just delays the outcome, and it’d just come down harder on you in the end….’
Dancer looked at me with crow-dark eyes. More pacing, more thinking. I’m good on my feet, but damn me, this was proving a tough nut to crack. Well, small surprise there. Damn me for giving Dancer hope, too. Every idea I had, I had to cut down; there was always some part that wouldn’t hold water; and it was wretched to see his face lose what pitiful light it had left.
‘We could call one of the Celestials down, let them fight it out, but I’ve not called anything that big for more than a century, and It could always just turn around and flap off again. Christian powers ain’t my strong point, anyway. Sayin’ that, we could get the clergy involved, have them stand and bar the way, that might work… but the trouble’s finding one who’s got the real faith. There are a few, but not many, and we’ve not got all night. Besides, the terms of the contract guarantee access, so technically the old horny fella could just zip past, here’s the warrant, thankyouverymuch…’
Something clicked in my head. Terms of contract.
‘Let me see that final clause again,’ I told him.
Above the scarlet scribble, which I couldn’t tell whether it began with an L or an S, a block of neat text spelled out the terms of closure. ‘And on the Night that falleth after the Passage of Twenty Years from the Night of the Signing of this solemn Compact, I shall come for Jack Farnborough his Soul; and after I have had me one last Dance of him, I shall bear him away with me unto Hell, there to suffer Indescribable Torments &c.’
Got you. Got you right there, you son of a bitch.
‘Oh, sprinkle me with lemon juice and serve me up on Pancake Day… we’ve got a chance, Jack. We’re going back upstairs, right now.’
Curtains had been drawn on to the night. The three gypsies, comely girl and all, sat together on the settle and waited. The old one of them tuned his fiddle, the sound raw and earthy good. I didn’t see what they’d done with the money I’d given them. While Sam cleared out the tables and chairs from the back room according to my instructions, I explained the plan to Dancer.
‘The contact specifically says one last dance, and it specifically says night. Here’s what we do. These three are going to play for us until the sun comes up, and you are going to dance along. All bloody night, mind you. You make the dance last until the next day, and there’s no way in Hell that the contract can be fulfilled. But you can’t stop, not once. No breaking off for water or rest, even if your hamstrings split and your chest bursts. Is that clear?’
Dancer grinned for the first time. ‘Aye. You’re a clever one.’
‘Thank me in the morning. And there will be a morning, let’s not doubt of that. Even Satan Himself can’t keep the sun from rising. Sam, what’s the hour?’
‘It lacks a quarter of midnight.’ He shook his head. ‘This is devil’s business, Cadfannan. I shouldn’t be letting this go on under my roof.’
‘Stow it, you old hypocrite. You’re helping to save a man’s soul is what you’re doing. Ah, lady, are we ready?’ This to the dark girl. She gave a quick nod.
‘And a one, a two, a one two three…’
They played, and Dancer danced. One man fiddled and one man piped, and the girl beat rhythm on her pigskin and shook her bells. In an instant I was cast back to the days of the Freebooters’ Alliance, and remembered how Pum had told me of his dear lost Sally who had danced on the table in a waterfront tavern in Port Royal, before some fat scab of a merchant had paid a higher price than he for her affections. Dark were her hands and her tumbling hair, and a moon of gold hung from each pretty ear, a treasure in the forest of locks, turning and twinkling as she tossed her head. He’s still looking for her, last I heard.
They played Spanish Lady, with a wack for me too rah loo rah laddy; they played I’ll Tell Me Ma, and she was handsome and she was pretty all right. They struck up John Ryan’s Polka and the Mooncoin Jig, and decorated the air with a saltarello which took me back to the wine of Algiers and the veiled lovelies of old Sale. (Always liquor and women, eh? Not much else to make memory of, when you’re in our trade.) All the while, Jack Dancer’s bootheels struck staccato on the floorboards, and he sweated, and he danced on. Lightning quick though he was, he took it easy. He knew he had a whole night ahead of him.
The bar darkened. The patrons left one by one. Sam locked and bolted the door and took a candle up to bed, muttering. Only the five of us now. One o’clock passed, and two, and nobody showed any sign of slowing down. I stayed as focused on it all as I could, watching lest anything should go awry. Sweat stung in my eyes.
Come three o’clock, they were playing All For Me Grog, amazingly fresh yet, not yet jaded from their work. Dancer heard the clock chime, and – stupidly, I thought – clicked his bootheels in a little flick of triumph on the ‘Hey’.
Whether what followed had anything to do with his fatal second of pride, I’ll never know: but in that instant three fiddle strings snapped, tung tung tung. And that was our fiddler out of the band. A second – an eternity – of total silence, then Dancer landed with a crash. For a moment he was horrified – he danced on the spot, mouth agape, remembering that his immortal soul would be lost if he didn’t keep moving, as the old geezer shuffled off into a dark corner of the bar . I didn’t see him leave, but when I next turned to look, he was gone.
But the pipe and the drum took up the song again, and on they went.
The fire was down to embers and ash. I fetched water and gave a sip to the girl and the piper. They were both sweating freely, but they had that look of unbreakable concentration that the best craftsmen get when they’re deep in their work. They were good, uncannily good. They gave Dancer the ballad of Long Lankin, and the Lark in the Morning, and When The Stars Begin to Fall; and when they played The Young Sailor Cut Down In His Prime, it stuck hard in my throat. Never a word they sang, never a word they spake. They played silent as statues. Only their music had voice.
Three and four o’clock passed overhead like bats in the night.
Dancer had thrown away his frock coat and was capering in his silks, pale as a liveried ghost.
I wondered if the girl was ever going to say a word. But no; instead, she beat out the backbone of jig and reel and slip jig and hornpipe, wrists no doubt aching like hot iron by now.
Five o’clock, the hour of the wolf the Russians call it. The lateness of the hour weighed heavy on my blood, sour and tired. I yawned and Dancer’s heels clattered interminably and abruptly the noise of the flute fell silent. The man was slumped half off the settle, his eyes shut, his jaw slack. Dead? Asleep? I couldn’t tell. The flute fell with a little clatter of its own, and there was only the sound of the drum. I elbowed the gypsy and shook him but he was beyond sense. So then there was one.
Jack danced on, agony on his face, victory coming within his grasp, to the sound of the lonely drum timpety-tappering his way toward salvation. The blood pulsed in my ears. Almost there, almost there… But then, at six o’clock, as the last chime faded, the drumskin split with a muted pop.
My heart lurched. With nothing else to do, Jack danced in the silence, slack and failing, desperate, exhausted to the limit of body and soul… and then the girl began to sing.
She sang in the Romany tongue, songs I knew from years ago. She sang the songs that make the grass grow and the seasons turn. She sang of the secrets that the sleeping cattle know, and the lost lore buried deep in the earth. She sang new life into Dancer’s bones.
I wish I could describe that voice for you. It was fire reflected in cool water, soft as cats’ fur, assured as the roots of the world-tree. It was everything that draws people to the hearth on a cold night to hear stories and be reminded of the underlying truth of things, the ancient landmarks that were there before them and will be there after, and gives them comfort and meaning. In short, her voice was as gorgeous as the rest of her and I was more determined than ever that she’d share my bed once this malarkey was done.
I lost track of time: I was watching the girl, and blinked in annoyance as the sunlight got in my eyes.
Just as I was realising what the sunlight meant, a cock crowed in the backyard, right on cue. Dancer gave a terrible cry and fell with a crash like a dead man. It was over! We’d exploited the small print, and won the man a way out of his damnation. Relaxation washed over me in waves. Not a bad job, me old mate. Not bad at all. This’d be one to tell the Crew.
I began to laugh, a good long crazy laugh to shake the ghastly night out of my chest. Jack was laughing too, slapping his hand weakly on the floor where he lay, and then I saw the gypsy girl was laughing with us, only her eyes were big and bright and yellow, and there was something horribly wrong with her face.
There’s truth in that old saying about the devil assuming a pleasing shape, you see.
Her laughter turned deep and sordid. Jack lifted his head at her, and made the sound frightened children make in the dark. I saw the shadow she, or he, or it cast on the wall and wished I hadn’t, for the sight will be with me till the day I die. Those engravings in old books don’t even come close, let me tell you.
‘Ah, scarecrow Jack,’ lilted the thing, ‘many’s the man as has tried to cheat me, and they all come to the same end. Morning’s broken over Sussex, true as true – but back over the sea in New Orleans where first we struck our bargain, there’s six hours left till sunrise! And we can be there in the twitch of a tail…
Dancer sobbed and begged uselessly.
‘So now that I’ve had me my last dance of you, why, we’ll be leaving. There’s capers and jigs to be danced in the Fires Eternal, jolly boy, and there will be for a mighty long time to come.’
It flung its head round to stare at me. I gulped and stared right back into those yellow furnaces.
‘As for you, old comrade, your time’s coming. Hell has an interest in you, and we’ll be renewing our acquaintance soon enough.’
‘Don’t bet on it.’
Laughter like bubbling oil.
Then it took him, it dragged him down screaming, and I had to turn away because I couldn’t watch any more.
So that’s the story, told as it happened to me. Now you’ll understand the song they made of it, and the menace of meaning behind that strange last verse it has. They say the devil sang to him… and they don’t lie that says so.
Ah. There’s a lantern lit down on the coast, unless I’m much mistaken. Time to move, lads – there’s a lot to do before we can rest this night. Somebody wake Eldrad up, eh?