The Banquet of the Dead
A Malhamdale Ghost Story
The writer, satirist, publisher and bookseller William Hone (1780-1842) worked in early 19th century London. He was a political activist and some of his earlier writing brought him into conflict with the Government. Hone became bankrupt in 1826 and turned his attentions to the mainstream publication of miscellany, such as The Every-Day Book (1825-26), which was basically an extended Almanac and The Table Book (1827-28). The Every-Day Book was produced in weekly installments then were bound, indexed, and published at the end of each year. The volumes were popular and widely read, containing various articles including biographical sketches, accounts and anecdotes that he had drawn from a wide range of sources. These two publications were later published in 3 volumes by William Tegg as:
The Every-day book and Table book : or, Everlasting calendar of popular amusements, sports, pastimes, ceremonies, manners, customs, and events, incident to each of the three hundred and sixty-five days, in past and present times; forming a complete history of the year, months, and seasons, and a perpetual key to the almanac ... for daily use and diversion.
This ghost story supposedly dating from the 18th century is set in the graveyard of Kirkby Malham and was penned by T.Q.M who was obviously someone with local knowledge.
THE BANQUET OF THE DEAD, OR
GENERAL BIBO'S TALE.
A LEGEND OF KIRBY MALHAMDALE
CHURCH-YARD, CRAVEN, YORKSHIRE.
For the Table Book.
Come all ye jovial farmers bold, and damsels sweet and fair,
And listen onto me awhile a doleful tale you'll hear.
Bloody Squire, or Derbyshire Tragedy.
On Sheep-street-hill, in the town of Skipton, in Craven, is a blacksmith's shop, commonly called "the parliament-house." During the late war it was the resort of all the eccentric characters in the place, who were in the habit of assembling there for the purpose of talking over the political events of the day, the knowledge whereof was gleaned from a daily paper, taken in by Mr. Kitty Cook, the occupier of the premises, and to the support of which the various members contributed.
One winter's morning in the year 1814, owing to a very heavy snow, the mail was detained on its road to the great discomforture and vexation of the respectable parliamentary members, who were all as usual at their posts at the hour of nine. There happened on that morning to be a full house, and I very well recollect that Tom Holdard, General Bibo, Roger Bags, Duke Walker, Town Gate Jack, and Bill Cliff of Botany (1), all of whom are since dead, were present.
After the members had waited a long time, without the accustomed “folio of four pages” making its appearance, General Bibo arose and turning to the speaker, who in pensive meloncholy was reclining on the anvil, he thus addressed him:-
“Mr. Speaker, I am convinced that the mail will not arrive today, (hear! hear!) and therefore, that the members of this honourable house may not, at the hour of twelve, which is fast approaching, go home to their dinners without having something to communicate to their wives and families, I will, with your permission, relate one of those numerous legendary tales, with which our romantic district so much abounds – May I do so?”
Kitty upon this gave the anvil a thundering knock, which was his usual signal of assent, and the general proceeded to relate the full particulars, from which is extracted the following.
It was the 14th day of July, in the year 17 — , when the corpse of a villager was interred in the romantic church-yard of Kirby Malhamdale. The last prayer of the sublime burial service of the English church was said, and the mourners had taken a last lingering look at the narrow tenement which enshrined mortality. All had departed, with the exception of the sexton, a village lad of the name of Kitchen, and a soldier, whose long, flowing, silvery hair and time-worn frame bespoke a very advanced age; he was seated on a neighbouring stone.
The grave was not entirely filled up, and a skull, the melancholy remnant of some former occupier of the same narrow cell, was lying beside it. Kitchen took up the scull, and gazed on the sockets, eyeless then, but which had contained orbs that perhaps had reflected the beam sent from beauty's eye, glowed with fury on the battle-field, or melted at the tale of compassion. The old soldier observed the boy, and approaching him said,
"Youth! that belonged to one who died soon after the reign of Queen Mary. His name was Thompson, he was a military man, and as mischievous a fellow as ever existed — ay, for many a long year he was a plague to Malhamdale.”
“Then,” replied the boy, “doubtless his death was a benefit, as by it the inhabitants of the valley would be rid of a pest.”
“Why, as to that point,” answered the veteran, “I fear you are in the wrong. Thompson’s reign is not yet finished; ‘tis whispered he often returns and visits the scenes of his childhood, nay, even plays his old tricks over again. It is by no means improbable, that at this very instant he is at no great distance, and listening to our conversation.”
“What,” ejaculated the boy, “he will neither rest himself nor allow other people to do so, the old brute!” and he kicked the scull from him.
“Boy,” said the soldier, “you dare not do that again.”
“Why not?” asked Kitchen, giving it at the same time another kick.
“Kick it again,” said the soldier.
The boy did so.
The veteran smiled grimly, as if pleased with the spirit that the boy manifested, and said, in a joking way, “Now take up that scull, and say to it –
Let the owner of this meet me at the midnight hour, and invite me to a banquet spread on yon green stone by his bony fingers –
Come ghost, come devil,
Come good, come evil,
Or let old Thompson himself appear,
For I will partake of his midnight cheer.” (2)
Kitchen, laughing with the glee of a schoolboy, and with the thoughtlessness incident to youth, repeated the ridiculous lines after his director, and then leaving the church-yard vaulted over the stile leading to the school-house, where, rejoining his companions, he quickly forgot the scene wherein he had been engaged; indeed it impressed him so little, that he never mentioned the circumstance to a single individual.
The boy at his usual hour of ten retired to rest, and soon fell into a deep slumber, from which he was roused by some one rattling the latch of his door, and singing beneath his window. He arose and opened the casement. It was a calm moonlight night, and he distinctly discerned the old soldier, who was rapping loudly at the door, and chanting the elegant stanzas he had repeated at the grave of the villager.
“And what pray now may you be wanting at this time of night?”
asked the boy, wholly undaunted by the strangeness of the visitation.
“If you cannot lie in bed yourself, you ought to allow others to rest.”
“What,” replied the old man, “hast thou so soon forgotten thy promise?”
and he repeated the lines
“Come good, come evil, &c”
Kitchen laughed at again hearing the jingle of these ridiculous lines, which to him seemed to be
“such as nurses use to frighten babies withal.”
At this the soldier’s countenance assumed a peculiar expression, and the full gaze of his dark eye, which appeared to glow with something inexpressibly wild and unearthly, was bent upon the boy, who, as he encountered it, felt an indescribable sensation steal over him, and began to repent of his incautious levity. After a short silence the stranger again addressed him, but in tones so hollow and sepulchral, that his youthful blood was chilled, and his heart beat strongly and quickly in his bosom.
“Boy, thy word must be kept! Promises made with the grave are not to be lightly broken" –
“Amidst the cold graves of the coffn’d dead
Is the table deck’d and the banquet spread:
Then haste thee thither without delay,
For nigh is the time, away! away!"
“Then be it as you wish,” said the boy, in some slight degree resuming his courage;
“go; I will follow.”
On hearing this the soldier departed, and Kitchen watched his figure till it was wholly lost in the mists of the night.
* * * * * * * *
At a short distance from Kirby Malhamdale church, on the banks of the Aire, was a small cottage, the residence of the Rev. Mr. ---, the rector of the parish. [General Bibo mentioned his name, but I shall not, for if I did some of his descendants might address themselves to the Table Book, and contradict the story of their ancestor having been engaged in so strange an adventure as that contained in the sequel of this legend.]
Mr. --- had from his earliest years been addicted to scientific and literary pursuits, and was generally in his study till a late hour. On this eventful night he was sitting at a table strewed with divers ancient tomes, intently perusing an old Genevan edition of the Institutes of John Calvin. While thus employed, and buried in profound meditation, the awful and death-like stillness was broken, and he was roused from his reverie by a hurried and violent knocking at the door.
He started from his chair, and rushing out to ascertain the cause of this strange interruption, beheld Kitchen with a face as pale as a winding-sheet.
"Kitchen, what brings you here at this untimely hour?" asked the clergyman.
The boy was silent, and appeared under the influence of extreme terror. Mr.--- , on repeating the question, had a confused and indistinct account given him of all the circumstances. The relation finished, Mr.--- looked at the boy, and thus addressed him:
"Yes, I thought some evil would come of your misdeeds; for some time past your conduct has been very disorderly, you having long set a bad example to the lads of Malhamdale. But this is no time for upbraiding. I will accompany you, and together we will abide the result of your rash engagement."
Mr. --- and the boy left the rectory, and proceeded along the road leading to the church-yard; as they entered the sacred precinct, the clock of the venerable pile told the hour of midnight. It was a beautiful night — scarcely a cloud broke the cerulean appearance of the heavens — countless stars studded heaven's deep blue vault — the moon was glowing in her highest lustre, and shed a clear light on the old grey church tower and the distant hills — scarcely a breeze stirred the trees, then in their fullest foliage — every inmate of the village-inn(3) was at rest — there was not a sound, save the murmuring of the lone mountain river, and the deep-toned baying of the watchful sheep-dog.
Mr. --- looked around, but, seeing no one, said to the boy,
"Surely you have been dreaming — your tale is some illusion, some chimera of the brain. The occurrences of the day have been embodied in your visions, and the over excitement created by the scene at the tomb has worked upon your imagination."
"Oh no,sir!" said Kitchen, "but his eyes which glared so fearfully upon me could not have been a deception. I saw his tall figure, and heard his hollow sepulchral voice sing those too well-remembered lines, but — Heavens! did you not see it!”
He started, and drawing nearer to the priest, pointed to the eastern window of the edifice. Mr. --- looked in the direction, and saw a dark shadowy form gliding amid the tombstones. It approached, and as its outline became more distinctly marked, be recognised the mysterious being described to him in his study by the terrified boy. The figure stopped, and looking long and earnestly at them said,
"One! two! How is this? I have one more guest than I invited; but it matters not, all is ready, follow me"
“Amidst the cold graves of the coffin'd dead,
Is the table deck'd and the banquet spread.”
The figure waved its arm impatiently, and beckoning them to follow moved on in the precise and measured step of an old soldier. Having reached the eastern window, it turned the corner of the building, and proceeded directly to the old green stone, near Thompson's grave. The thick branches of an aged yew-tree partially shaded the spot from the silver moonlight, which was peacefully falling on the neighbouring graves, and gave to this particular one a more sombre and melancholy character than the rest.
Here was, indeed, a table spread, and its festive preparations formed a striking contrast with the awful mementos strewed around. Never in the splendid and baronial halls of De Clifford(4), never in the feudal mansion of the Nortons(5), nor in the refectory of the monks of Sawley, had a more substantial banquet been spread. Nothing was wanting there of roast or boiled — the stone was plentifully decked; yet it was a fearful sight to see, where till now but the earthworm had ever revelled, a banquet prepared as for revelry.
The boy looked on the stone, and as he gazed on the smoking viands a strange thought crossed his brow — at what fire were those provisions cooked. The seats placed around were coffins, and Kitchen every instant seemed to dread lest their owners should appear, and join the sepulchral banquet. Their ghostly host having placed himself at the head of the table, motioned his guests to do the same, and they did so accordingly. Mr. --- then in his clerical character rose to ask the accustomed blessing, when he was interrupted.
"It cannot be," said the stranger as he rose;
"I cannot hear at my board a protestant grace.
When I trod the earth as a mortal, the catholic religion was the religion of the land!
It was the blessed faith of my forefathers, and it was mine.
Within those walls I have often listened to the solemnisation of the mass, but now how different! listen!”
He ceased. The moon was overcast by a passing cloud, the great bell tolled, a screech-owl flew from the tower, lights were seen in the building, and through one of the windows Mr. --- beheld distinctly the bearings of the various hatchments, and a lambent flame playing over the monument of the Lamberts - music swelled through the aisles, and unseen beings with voices wilder than the unmeasured notes
Of that strange lyre, whose strings
The genii of the breezes sweep,
chanted not a Gratias agimus, but a De Profundis. All was again still, and the stranger spoke,
"What you have heard is my grace.
Is not a De Profundis the most proper one to be chanted at the banquet of the dead?"
Mr.--, who was rather an epicure,now glanced his eye over the board, and finding that that necessary appendage to a good supper, salt, was wanting, said, in an astonished tone,
"Why, where's the salt?"
when immediately the stranger and his feast vanished, and of all that splendid banquet nothing remained, save the mossy stone whereon it was spread.
Such was the purport of general Bibo's tale; and why those simple words had so wondrous an effect has long been a subject of dispute with the illuminati of Skipton and Malhamdale. Many are the conjectures, but the most probable one is this, — the spectre on hearing the word salt was perhaps reminded of the Red Sea, and having, like all sensible ghosts, a dislike to that awful and tremendous gulf, thought the best way to avoid being laid there was to make as precipitate a retreat as possible.
Kirby, or as it is frequently called, Kirby Malhamdale, from the name of the beautiful valley in which it is situate, is one of the most sequestered villages in Craven, and well worthy of the attention of the tourist, from the loveliness of its surrounding scenery and its elegant church, which hitherto modern barbarity has left unprofaned by decorations and ornaments, as churchwardens and parish officers style those acts of Vandalism, by which too many of the Craven churches have been spoiled, and on which Dr. Whitaker has animadverted in pretty severe language. That excellent historian and most amiable man, whose memory will ever be dear to the inhabitants of Craven, speaking of Kirby church, says, “It is a large, handsome, and uniform building of red stone, probably of the age of Henry VII. It has one ornament peculiar, as far as I recollect, to the churches in Craven, to which the Tempests were benefactors. Most of the columns have in the west side, facing the congregation as they turned to the altar, an elegant niche and tabernacle, once containing the statue of a saint. In the nave lies a grave-stone, with a cross fleury in high relief, of much greater antiquity than the present church, and probably covering one of the canons of Dereham."(6)
At the west end of the church, on each side of the singer's gallery, are two emblematical figures, of modern erection, painted on wood; one of them, Time with his scythe, and this inscription, "Make use of time"; the other is a skeleton, with the inscription "Remember death." With all due deference to the taste of the parishioners, it is my opinion that these paintings are both unsuited to a Christian temple, and the sooner they are removed the better. The gloomy mythology of the Heathens ill accords with the enlightened theology of Christianity.
At the east end of the church are monumental inscriptions to the memory of John Lambert, the son, and John Lambert, the grandson of the well-known general Lambert, of roundhead notoriety. The residence of the Lamberts was Calton-hall, in the neighbourhood; and at Winterburn, a village about two miles from Calton, is one of the oldest Independent chapels in the kingdom, having been erected and endowed by the Lamberts during the usurpation of Cromwell; it is still in possession of this once powerful sect, and was a picturesque object: it had something of sturdy nonconformity in its appearance, but alas! modern barbarism has been at work on it, and given it the appearance of a respectable barn. The deacons, who "repaired and beautified" it, ought to place their names over the door of the chapel, in characters readable at a mile's distance, that the traveller may be informed by whom the chapel erected by the Lamberts was deformed.
I often have lamented, that ministers of religion have so little to do with the repairs of places of worship. The clergy of all denominations are, in general, men of cultivated and refined tastes, and certainly better qualified to superintend alterations than country churchwardens and parish officers, who, though great pretenders to knowledge are usually ignorant destroyers of the beauty of the edifices confided to their care.
(1) The Saint Giles’s of Skipton, where the lower order of inhabitants generally reside.
(2) Should any reader of this day find fault with the inelegant manner in which the dialogue is carried on between Kitchen and the soldier, in defence I beg leave to say, the dialogues is told as general Bibo related it, and though in many parts of the tale I have made so many alterations, that I should not be guilty of any impropriety in calling it an original: I do not consider myself authorised to change the dialogues occasionally introduced.
(3) In Kirby Malhamdale church-yard is a public house, verifying the lines of the satirist:-
Where God erects a house of prayer,
The devil builds a chapel there.
(5) Rylstone-hall. See Wordsworth’s beautiful poem the White Doe.
(6) History of Craven
The conjecture of T.Q.M. concerning the disappearance of the spectre-host, and the breaking up of the nocturnal banquet, in the church-yard of Kirby Malhamdale, is ingenious, and entitled to the notice of the curious in spectral learning: but it may be as well to consider whether the point of the legend may not be further illustrated.
According to Moresin, salt not being liable to putrefaction, and preserving things seasoned with it from decay, was the emblem of eternity and immortality, and mightily abhorred by infernal spirits. "In reference to this symbolical explication, how beautiful," says Mr. Brand, "is that expression applied to the righteous, 'Ye are the salt of the earth!'"
On the custom in Ireland of placing a plate of salt over the heart of a dead person, Dr. Campbell supposes, in agreement with Moresin’s remark, that the salt was considered the emblem of the incorruptible part; "the body itself," says he, "being the type of corruption."
It likewise appears from Mr. Pennant, that, on the death of a highlander, the friends laid on the breast of the deceased a wooden platter, containing a small quantity of salt and earth, separate and unmixed; the earth an emblem of the corruptible body — the salt an emblem of the immortal spirit.
The body's salt? The soul is, which when gone
The flesh soone sucks in putrefaction.
The custom of placing a plate of salt upon the dead, Mr. Douce says, is still retained in many parts of England, and particularly in Leicestershire; but the pewterterplate and salt are laid with an intent to hinder air from getting into the body and distending it, so as to occasion bursting or inconvenience in closing the coffin Though this be the reason for the usage at present, yet it is doubtful whether the practice is not a vulgar continuation of the ancient symbolic useage; otherwise, why is salt selected?
To these instances of the relation that salt bore to the dead, should be annexed Bodin's affirmation, cited by Reginald Scot; namely, that as salt "is a sign of eternity, and used by divine commandment in all sacrifices," so "the devil loveth no SALT in his meat." — This saying is of itself, perhaps, sufficient to account for the sudden flight of the spectre, and the vanishing of the feast in the church-yard of Kirby Malhamdale on the call for the salt.
Finally may be added, salt from the "Hesperides” of Herrick : —
Ah, my Perilla! dost thou grieve to see
Me, day by day, to steale away from thee?
Age cals me hence, and my gray haires bid come
And haste away to mine eternal home;
'Twill not be long, Perilla, after this,
That I must give thee the supremest kisse:
Dead when I am, first cast in salt, and bring
Part of the creame from that religious spring.
With which, Perilla, wash my hands and feet;
That done, then wind me in that very sheet
Which wrapt thy smooth limbs, when thou didst plere
The gods protection but the night before;
Follow me weeping to my turfe, and there
Let fall a primrose, and with it a teare:
Then, lastly, let some weekly strewings be
Devoted to the memory of me;
Then shall my ghost not walk about, but keep
Still in the cold and silent shades of sleep.