The Doctor and the Devil

The Devil on HorsebackLONGDENDALE has always been noted for the number of its inhabitants devoted to the study of magic arts. Once upon a time, or to give it in the words of an unpublished rhyme (which are quite as indefinite)—

“Long years ago, so runs the tale,
A doctor dwelt in Longdendale;”

and then the rhyme goes on to describe the hero of the legend—

“Well versed in mystic lore was he—
A conjuror of high degree;
He read the stars that deck the sky,
And told their rede of mystery.”

Coming down to ordinary prose, it will suffice to say that the doctor referred to was a most devoted student of magic, or, as he preferred to put it—“a keen searcher after knowledge”—a local Dr. Faustus in fact. Having tried every ordinary means of increasing his power over his fellow mortals, he finally decided to seek aid of the powers of darkness, and one day he entered into a compact with no less a personage than His Imperial Majesty, Satan, otherwise known as the Devil. The essentials of this agreement may thus be described.

It was night—the black hour of midnight—and the doctor was alone in his magic chamber. He had long desired power sufficient to enable him to accomplish a certain project, and hitherto all means by which he had tried to secure that power, had been of no avail. Blank failure had attended every effort, and at last he had decided to make use of the most certain, yet withal most desperate, agency known to him. In other words, he would call up the Prince of Darkness, and ask his aid. The only thing which troubled the doctor was the thought that the price which Satan would demand, might be much greater than he would care to pay. But, after all, that was something he would have to risk.

He set a lamp burning on the table, and into a small cauldron hung above it, he poured certain liquids, which he mixed with certain evil-looking powders and compounds. Some of the items which he added to this unholy brew, appeared to have once been members of the human frame. But that, of course, was known only to the doctor. When the brew began to simmer, the doctor commenced to mumble certain strange incantations, which he continued with unabated vigour for the best part of an hour, without, however, eliciting any manifestations from the dwellers in the spirit world. At length, however, his patience was rewarded, for the light beneath his cauldron suddenly went out, the mixture within boiled over, and the vapour which rose from it, spread over the room until all the objects therein were hidden as though by a thick black cloud. Then, out of the cloud, came a voice, deep and terrible in tone, which caused the very building to rock as though an earthquake had occurred.

“Why hast thou summoned me from the shades, O mortal, and what dost thou require?”

The doctor gasped with awe, he almost felt afraid to address the dreadful spirit, which his own incantations and rites had brought from the underworld. At length he screwed up sufficient courage to proceed, and said:

“I would have the possession of certain powers, O, thou Dread spirit.”

“And of what nature are they?” asked the spirit.

Whereupon, the worthy doctor commenced a long explanation, into which we need not enter, setting forth his evil desires, and begging the Devil to aid him.

“Thou shalt have all that thou requirest, and more,” said the Devil when the doctor had come to an end of his requests; “that is, providing thou art prepared to pay the price.”

“And the price is?” ventured the doctor, trembling.

“The usual one,” said the Devil. “I have but one price, which all mortals must pay. On a day which I shall name, thou shalt wait upon me, and deliver up thy soul to me.”

“’Tis a stiff price, good Satan,” said the doctor in protest.

“’Tis the only price I will listen to,” said the Devil.

“Then I must een pay it,” said the doctor, seeing that further argument was useless, and, being by this time quite determined to have his desires no matter what the cost. “I agree,” he added. And there and then he signed the bond in blood, with a pen made from a dead man’s bone.

Satan pocketed the bond.

“Thy desires are granted,” said he. “Make the most of thy opportunities. One day I shall surely call upon thee for payment.”

Then, with a burst of mocking laughter, he disappeared.

The doctor seems to have enjoyed the results of the compact until the day drew near for the settlement. Then, indeed, he appears to have repented, But he was by no means a dull-witted individual, and in a happy moment he began to cudgel his brain for some way out of the difficulty—some plan of escape. Before long his face brightened, a gleam of hope shone on it, and at length he seemed to see his way clear. He received the formal summons of Satan with a knowing smile, and when the day at last arrived, set out in good time to keep his unholy tryst.

In the language of the rhyme,

“Now rapidly along he sped
Unto a region waste and dead,
And here at midnight hour did wait
His Sable Majesty in state.”

The Devil appeared, seated upon a coal black charger, which was of the purest breed of racing nags kept specially for the Derby Day of the Infernal Regions. Satan was very proud of his horse; he was open to lay any odds on its beating anything in the shape of horse flesh that could be found on earth.

Judge then of the Devil’s surprise when the Longdendale doctor offered to race him. (It should be stated that the doctor had ridden to the place of meeting on a horse which was bred in Longdendale, though the trainer’s name has unfortunately been lost).

At first Satan laughed at the impudence of the proposition, but after some little haggling, he at length agreed to the doctor’s conditions. The conditions were that the Devil was to give the doctor a good start, and that the latter was to have his freedom if he won the race.

“I am unduly favouring thee,” said the Devil; “I do not as a rule allow my clients a single minute’s grace when payment falls due, and I do not reckon to let them bargain as to other means of payment. But for all that, I do not see why I should not make merry at thy expense. I am not altogether as black as I am painted. And if it will give thee any comfort to imagine thou hast a chance of escape—why then get on with the race.”

Acting upon the above agreement, a start was made, and the course was along the road now known as Doctor’s Gate. The contest was most exciting. Prose can scarcely do justice to the occasion, but we will endeavour to give some account of the strange contest. The Devil good naturedly conceded a big start, for, of course, he felt quite certain of reaching the winning post first, and when the signal was given he went full cry in pursuit. Away the coursers sped like wind, the doctor riding with grim countenance, and teeth firmly set, ever and anon casting an anxious look behind him, and now looking as anxiously in front. Meanwhile the Devil rode in approved hunting fashion, with many a loud halloa, which made the very mountains shake as though a thunder peal was sounding. His horns projected from his head, his cloven feet did away with the necessity for stirrups, and he lashed the flanks of his coal black charger with his tail in lieu of a whip.

Slowly but surely the Devil gained upon the doctor. Inch by inch the black steed drew nearer the Longdendale hack, until at length the Devil, by leaning over his horse’s head, was able to grasp the tail of the doctor’s horse. With a loud burst of fiendish laughter, Satan began to twist the tail of the Longdendale horse, until at last the poor beast screamed with pain and terror. This greatly amused the Devil, who twisted the tail all the harder, so that the doctor’s horse, goaded almost to madness, plunged along faster than before, and in its fright took a mighty leap into a running stream which dashed brawlingly across the path. All too late Satan saw his danger; he held on to the beast’s tail and tugged with all his might. For a second, the contest hung in the balance, and the result seemed doubtful. But luckily for the doctor, the tail of the horse came off—torn out by the roots—the Devil’s steed fell back on its haunches, and the doctor’s charger plunged safely through the flood, and gained the opposite bank. Then the doctor gave a great shout of triumph, for according to the laws of sorcery—laws which even the Devil must obey—when once the pursued had crossed a running stream, the powers of evil lost all dominion over him.

Thus by a combination of skill, cunning, and good luck, the Longdendale doctor outwitted the Devil. Some profane mortals state that when he found himself victorious, the doctor turned towards the Devil, and put his fingers to his nose as a sign of victory, while the Devil, sorely disgusted, rode off to hell with his tail between his legs, vowing that the mortals of Longdendale would have no place to go to when they died, for they were too bad for heaven, and too clever for hell.

Thomas Middleton

Legends of Longdendale 1906

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.