In my wandering through the remote parts of this beautiful country, I have come across many strange tales, of hauntings and ghosts. The story of the Pedlar is one of the latest and was told to me a few weeks ago by an old woman who lives near my uncle.
Although we are in the middle of summer here, it is cold and the days damp and overcast. The woman, we will call her Betty, knows I am interested in ghost story, so she told my uncle to send me to see her the next time I was visiting him and to bring her a copy of my book, The Paupers’ Graveyard, as she heard it was good. High praise indeed. Her cottage is at the end of a boreen, that’s a small, narrow track, for those of you who don’t know understand the word. It’s overgrown on all side by hedges and thickets and grass grows in the centre of the track. There is no other house or cottage on the boreen and nowhere to go once you reach Betty’s cottage. It’s one of those old thatched affairs, through the straw on the roof is tatty and bare in patches.
“It’ll see me out,” Betty said, when she saw my frown at its condition.
The walls were once painted white, but the weather and passing of time has faded them to a dirty grey and they are mud-splattered and tinged with green. I had to duck my head in order to enter and the smell of turf from the open fire was overwhelming in the small kitchen and brought memories of my childhood flooding back. The old black arm for hanging pots still hung above the flames and it seemed, for a moment, I was in one of those contrived villages that are set out to attract tourists, but of course this was not the case, as Betty’s home has become suspended in time.
“You’ll have a cup of tea?” She asked, after the usual greetings.
She took my silence for assent and I watched as she hung the age-blackened pot on a hook and swung the bar closer to the flames. I had time to look around the kitchen while she did this and saw to my amazement an old gas cooker in one corner of the room. When I remarked on this she answered by saying.
“Ah, I’ve no time for those new gadgets.”
She made a great fuss of brewing the tea and asking what the fashion was like inLimerick, as though it was the fashion capital of the world. She doesn’t have a television and her small portable radio is used only on state occasions, as in a visit from the Pope. There’s nothing worth hearing about, she says and any news worth hearing she gets from passing neighbours. I must also point out that I loathe tea and coffee and had to sip on this devil brew so I didn’t offend her. So we settled down in the quiet spot with only the crackling of the flames and the slight shifting of sods on the fire as her story began.
“You know Pierce’s place?” She asked.
I knew the small farm she was talking about, though the names of the owners have changed many times since it was Pierce’s place.
“Well, there was a terrible murder committed there not so long ago,” she said.
Not so long ago, turned out to be in 1889, but Betty is in her nineties and time is measured in months and years with her. I’ve noticed that in these remote communities that story such as this start with, it was the year of the great frost or the year after the great frost. Anyway, our story begins.
Tommy Burke was a wandering peddler who called to the area twice a year. He sold lace handkerchiefs, ribbons, threads, jewellery and just about everything he could fit into his small handcart. He was a tatty, bearded man and his age was unknown, as his chin was covered in a heavy beard and his skin lined from the ravages of the open road. He was tall, if a little stooped from bending over the cart and the coat he wore never changed from year to year. It was a heavy army-type affair, though all the buttons were gone and a piece of string kept it in place across his chest. Everybody like him and looked forward to his visits and the exotic things he brought with him. His only companion was a small brown and white mongrel he called Bruce and both man and dog doted on one another. One winter Tommy arrived as usual in the district and went from house to house selling his wares. It was his custom to spend the night with one of the families he’d befriended over the years and no one knew whose house would be honoured with his presence until he arrived at their door, tired and footsore.
John Pierce was married to Hannah, which was just as well, for no one else would have married her. She came with a good dowry and the farm was a thriving one, but nothing was ever enough for her. She nagged her husband from sunup to sundown and was forever berating him for what she saw as his many failings. By the tenth year of their marriage John was browbeaten and the spirit completely knocked out of him. As it happens, Hannah had set her sights on a few acres of land that was coming up for sale. Its close proximity to their farm made it a great buy and they could increase their livestock and crops. John, who was run ragged, didn’t want the extra land, but didn’t dare go against his wife by saying so. For months she had scrimped and saved, refusing to buy even the smallest of treats for either of them. As her lust for the land increased, the state of her husband’s nerves worsened and it was to this house of unrest that Tommy the Pedlar called one night. He was invited in with none of the usual curiosity that usually heralded his arrival and the cup of tea placed before him was thin and without milk or sugar. He had travelled far that day and would be stopping the night at a farm not far from theirs, he informed them. He drank the tea alone in the kitchen as Hannah called her husband out into the hall and he heard the hushed words of disagreement between them. Finally, when he realised there would be no sale, he called to the old dog at his feet and stood up.
“Take the short cut through the orchard,” Hannah told him. “It will take a mile off your journey.”
He thanked her and bade them good night. He was never seen again.
Those who had seen Tommy making his way along the roads, started to ask questions. The police were not interested in the concerns voiced, as a Pedlar was apt to leave a place without a minute’s notice, so their investigations were scant. Rumours ran wild as the neighbours took it upon themselves to organise a search, thinking nothing worse than Tommy had fallen and lay hurt somewhere. The Pierce’s knew better than to deny seeing him and swore he was in the best of health when he left their place. Peter Ryan, whose farm was next door to Pierce’s, recalled the night Tommy disappeared as he was awake with a toothache. Realising sleep was beyond him; he got dressed and went out to check on his cattle. The night was silent and the world asleep as he walked across the frosty grass, the cold air playing havoc with his aching jaw. He could see Pierce’s farm in the distance and swore there was a light in the orchard and the sound of someone digging. With no reason to be suspicious and with the nagging pain worsening, he thought no more about it and went home. Later, when he heard about Tommy’s disappearance, he questioned John about that night and was told that one of Hannah’s cats died and he was burying it.
Time passed and Hannah got her longed-for few acres, but still she wasn’t happy. Her ill-treatment of her husband continued and those who had dealing with the couple swore they heard her screeching at John, that she could have him hanged if she told what she knew. She could have saved herself the bother, as he was found hanging from one of the trees in the orchard some time later. No one know if it was the fright of her husband’s death or the stories that started doing the rounds that made her sell up and flee, but she sold the farm a month later. It was said she had gone toAmerica, but no one cared enough to ask. The new owners got more than he bargained for as from the beginning, they were plagued by ill luck. Crops failed, animals died and no labourer lasted more than a few nights at the place. Most took off in fright without explaining why, those who took the time to explain said it was because of the ghosts in the orchard. He investigated these stories for himself and came back that night, according to Betty, having aged ten years. He was about to give up on the place, when his wife, wading through a mountain of old papers left behind by Hannah’s hasty retreat, came across a document written in the shaky hand of John Pierce. In it, he outlined what had transpired that faithful night when Tommy had gone missing. Hannah knew that the Pedlar carried a good sized purse and she wanted this to add to her growing stash. Urged on by her goading, John followed Tommy into the orchard and hit him on the back of the head with a hatchet.
The first blow didn’t kill the man, it took three more and during this time, Bruce, the little mongrel, put up a valiant fight to save his master. When John had finished the man off, he turned on the little dog and bashed its head in. He buried both beneath a tree in the orchard, the very tree he was later found hanging from. The new owners took this confession to the local priest, who gathered a few of the neighbours and the orchard was dug up. The bones of the man and dog were where John said they would be, and these were interred in a grave in the local graveyard. The funeral, Betty said, was attended by hundreds of people, who travelled far and wide such was Tommy’s popularity. The neighbours paid for the coffin and burial plot and later a headstone was added in Tommy’s memory. Afterward, the farm began to thrive, but the hauntings remained. The priest, you see, refused to let the dog be buried beside its owner, as he considered this an act of sacrilege and Tommy will not rest without his brave and faithful companion.
“I’ve seen them with my own eyes,” Betty said. “They’re like two white little wraiths that glide through the trees at sunset.”
“Doesn’t that freak the new owner out?” I asked.
“Sure they’re doing no harm,” she shook her head at my ignorance. “And if they don’t want to see them, they can stay away from the place at night.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” I said.
“Anyway, “she puffed her chest and sniffed. “They have more to be worrying them than those two restless souls.”
“Like what?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.
“Don’t take that attitude with me, miss,” she lightly slapped my hand. “We’ve all seen it. If you don’t believe me, ask your uncle.”
“Ask him what?”
“About the dark shape hanging from the tree in the orchard, that’s what,” she said. “John Pierce won’t get away with his crime that easily and there’s no need for you to look at me like I’m mad. It was seen not three nights ago. You can see if for yourself if you stay the night.”