As I mentioned earlier this month, among my favorite books for the Halloween season are two horror anthologies by Stephen Sutton: Tales to Tremble By and More Tales to Tremble By. After writing about these childhood favorites, I suddenly had the urge to read them again. I knew I had them somewhere, tucked among the hundreds of books in one of several bookcases in the house, or possibly in a box in the garage. I made a perfunctory search, but I was not able to find them. Even if I had been able to find them, since I have gotten used to reading on a Kindle, I no longer care to carry books around with me (especially books that are nearly as old and fragile as I am).
If only I could find TtTB and MTtTB in Kindle format.
Unfortunately, both books are out of print and will probably never be re-released—either for Kindle or in any other format. However, the stories in them were ancient when I first read them fifty years ago. If they weren't in the public domain then, they must be by now. Perhaps I could find them online and create my own Kindle book! I found lists of all the stories contained in each volume, and I began my search. Sure enough, within a week I had found every story but one: "The Suitor of Selkirk" by Anonymous.
Anonymous. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a story that has no author?
I considered giving up. After all, I had found most of the stories from TtTB and all of the stories from MTtTB. But I was obsessed. Who was this Suitor of Selkirk? The ghost of a star-crossed lover? The ghost of a petitioner in a lawsuit? I must have read the story as a child, but for the life of me I could not remember it, and I had to know.
I found one other reference to the story in a review of a 1935 horror anthology: More Great Tales of Horror, by Marjorie Bowen (aka Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long). Unfortunately, I could not find an electronic version of MGToH, either. However, the description of it told me that the story was originally from something called The Odd Volume. When I searched for "suitor of selkirk odd volume," Google informed me that it was also "Including results for sutor of selkirk odd volume." (This is why I use Google. Would Yahoo or Bing have gone that extra mile? I don't think so.)
I Googled the word "sutor" and found that it meant "a cobbler or shoemaker." By this time, I had also found my copy of TtTB. (It had been on a shelf not three feet from my head, hidden behind another row of books.) Sure enough, the story was actually titled "The Sutor of Selkirk," and was the account of a Scottish shoemaker's encounter with a mysterious customer. Someone had mistakenly corrected "sutor" to "suitor" in references to the contents of both TtTB and MGToH.
Once I had the spelling of "sutor" right, I immediately found the story posted on a site called Electric Scotland. That version had been scanned from an 1896 volume: The Book of Scottish Story. I also found it in an 1829 volume of The Edinburgh Literary Journal, scanned by Google Books. Both versions looked to be the same, and were considerably more Scottish than the version in TtTB. Somewhere along the way, someone had anglicized many of the more obscure expressions. (I suspect Marjorie Bowen, aka Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long. Anyone with that many names can't be trusted.)
For example, “He smells awfully o’ yird,” was changed to simply, “He smells awfully,” which gives the sentence a completely different meaning. It indicates the sutor's mysterious customer has an inferior sense of smell. (Which, come to think of it, he probably does, being dead.*
The complete story is below. I corrected a few typos and scan errors, but I left all of the Scottish expressions intact. You should be able to figure out their meaning from the context; if not, there's always Google. It's a fine ghost story full of wry gallows humor, and well worth the extra effort.
I will tell you this much: "yird" means "earth."
The Sutor of Selkirk: A Remarkably True Story
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. Rabbie was a thin, meagre-looking personage, with lank black hair, a cadaverous countenance, and a long, flexible, secret-smelling nose. 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 neighbourhood; but this wants confirmation. His wife, Bridget, endeavoured to confine his excursive fancy, and to chain him down to his awl, reminding him it was all they had to depend on; but 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.
To secure the necessary leisure for his researches, Rabbie was in the habit of rising to his work long before the dawn; and he was one morning busily engaged putting the finishing stitches to a pair of shoes for the exciseman, when the door of his dwelling, which he thought was carefully fastened, was suddenly opened, and a tall figure, enveloped in a large black cloak, and with a broad-brimmed hat drawn over his brows, stalked into the shop. Rabbie stared at his visitor, wondering what could have occasioned this early call, and wondering still more that a stranger should have arrived in the town without his knowledge.
“You’re early afoot, sir,” quoth Rabbie. “Lucky Wakerife’s cock will no craw for a good half hour yet.”
The stranger vouchsafed no reply; but taking up one of the shoes Rabbie had just finished, deliberately put it on, and took a turn through the room to ascertain that it did not pinch his extremities. During these operations, Rabbie kept a watchful eye on his customer.
“He smells awfully o’ yird,” muttered Rabbie to himself; “ane would be ready to swear he had just cam frae the plough-tail.”
The stranger, who appeared to be satisfied with the effect of the experiment, motioned to Rabbie for the other shoe, and pulled out a purse for the purpose of paying for his purchase; but Rabbie’s surprise may be conceived, when, on looking at the purse, he perceived it to be spotted with a kind of earthy mould.
“Gudesake,” thought Rabbie, “this queer man maun hae howkit that purse out o’ the ground. I wonder where he got it. Some folk say there are bags o’ siller buried near this town.”
By this time the stranger had opened the purse, and as he did so, a toad and a beetle fell on the ground, and a large worm crawling out wound itself round his finger. Rabbie’s eyes widened; but the stranger, with an air of nonchalance, tendered him a piece of gold, and made signs for the other shoe.
“It’s a thing morally impossible,” responded Rabbie to this mute proposal. “Mair by token, that I hae as good as sworn to the exciseman to hae them ready by daylight, which will no be long o’ coming” (the stranger here looked anxiously towards the window); “and better, I tell you, to affront the king himsel, than the exciseman.”
The stranger gave a loud stamp with his shod foot, but Rabbie stuck to his point, offering, however, to have a pair ready for his new customer in twenty-four hours; and, as the stranger, justly enough perhaps, reasoned that half a pair of shoes was of as little use as half a pair of scissors, he found himself obliged to come to terms, and seating himself on Rabbie’s three-legged stool, held out his leg to the Sutor, who, kneeling down, took the foot of his taciturn customer on his knee, and proceeded to measure it.
“Something o’ the splay, I think, sir,” said Rabbie, with a knowing air.
“Where will I bring the shoon to when they’re done?” asked Rabbie, anxious to find out the domicile of his visitor.
“I will call for them myself before cock crowing,” responded the stranger 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.”
“It maun he a dooms sma’ biggin,” answered Rabbie; “but noo that I hae ta’en your honour’s measure—”
“Take your own!” retorted the stranger, and giving Rabbie a touch with his foot that laid him prostrate, walked coolly out of the house.
This sudden overturn of himself and his plans for a few moments discomfited the Sutor; but quickly gathering up his legs, he rushed to the door, which he reached just as Lucky Wakerife’s cock proclaimed the dawn. Rabbie flow down the street, but all was still; then ran up the street, which was terminated by the churchyard, but saw only the moveless tombs looking cold and chill under the grey light of a winter morn. Rabbie hitched his red nightcap off his brow, and scratched his head with an air of perplexity.
“Weel” he muttered, as he retraced his steps homewards, “he has warred me this time, but sorrow take me if I’m no up wi’ him the morn.”
All day Rabbie, to the inexpressible surprise of his wife, remained as constantly on his three-legged stool as if he had been “yirked” there by some brother of the craft. For the space of twenty-four hours, his long nose was never seen to throw its shadow across the threshold of the door; and so extraordinary did this event appear, that the neighbours, one and 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 the satisfaction of the parties concerned.
Meanwhile, Rabbie diligently pursued his employment, unheeding the concerns of his neighbours. What mattered it to him, that Jenny Thrifty’s cow had calved, that the minister’s servant, with something in her apron, had been seen to go in twice to Lucky Wakerife’s, that the laird’s dairy-maid had been observed stealing up the red loan in the gloaming, that the drum had gone through the town announcing that a sheep was to be killed on Friday?—The stranger alone swam before his eyes; and cow, dairymaid, and drum kicked the beam. It was late in the night when Rabbie had accomplished his task, and then placing the shoes at his bedside, he lay down in his clothes, and fell asleep; but the fear of not being sufficiently alert for his new customer, induced him to rise a considerable time before daybreak. He opened the door and looked into the street, but it was still so dark he could scarcely see a yard before his nose; he therefore returned into the house, muttering to himself—“What the sorrow can keep him?” when a voice at his elbow suddenly said—
“Where are my 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?”
The stranger made no answer; but, laying a piece of gold on the table and taking up the shoes, walked out of the house.
“Now’s my time.” thought Rabbie to himself, as he slipped after him.
The stranger paced slowly on, and Rabbie carefully followed him; the stranger turned up the street, and the Sutor kept close to his heels. “’Odsake, where can he be gaun?” thought Rabbie, as he saw the stranger turn into the churchyard; “he’s making to that grave in the corner; now he’s standing still; now he’s sitting down. Gudesake! what’s come o’ him?” Rabbie rubbed his eyes, looked round in all directions, but, lo and behold! the stranger had vanished. “There’s something no canny about this,” thought the Sutor; “but I’ll mark the place at ony rate;” and Rabbie, after thrusting his awl into the grave, hastily returned home.
|Shannon Stirnweis's illustration from TtTB|
Certain qualms of conscience, however, now arose in Rabbie’s mind as to the propriety of depriving the corpse of what had been honestly bought and paid for. He could not help allowing, that if the ghost were troubled with cold feet, a circumstance by no means improbable, he might naturally wish to remedy the evil. But, at the same time, considering that the fact of his having made a pair of shoes for a defunct man would be an everlasting blot on the Heckspeckle escutcheon, and reflecting also that his customer, being dead in law, could not apply to any court for redress, our Sutor manfully resolved to abide by the consequences of his deed.
Next morning, according to custom, he rose long before day, and fell to his work, shouting the old song 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 favourite 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. The good dame immediately huddled on her clothes, and ran into the shop, where she found the three-legged stool broken in pieces, the floor strewed with bristles, the door wide open, and Rabbie away! Bridget rushed to the door, and there she immediately discovered the marks of footsteps deeply printed on the ground. Anxiously tracing them, on—and on—and on— what was her horror to find that they terminated in the churchyard, at the grave of Rabbie’s customer! The earth round the grave bore traces of having been the scene of some fearful struggle, and several locks of lank black hair were scattered on the grass. Half distracted, she rushed through the town to communicate the dreadful intelligence. A crowd collected, and a cry speedily arose to open the grave. Spades, pickaxes, and mattocks, were quickly put in requisition; the divots were removed; 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.
* Sorry, I probably should have included a spoiler alert there. ("Spoiler alert." That's actually pretty funny. Get it? Spoiler alert? Because he's dead? Never mind. Sorry I brought it up.)