Back in the days when a man could wander free on the roads there lived a man called Old Jem. He’d always seemed ancient, with his beard slowly turning from brown to snowy, shaggy white and his hair hanging long over his shoulders.
His clothes were older than he was, and even in summer he wore a long coat that trailed almost to the ground. Its buttons were long gone, and in winter he held it together with a belt made from rope.
He’d been coming through Leeds even before Richard Nottingham was a boy, finding a place on Briggate to set down his pack, put out his hat and tell his stories for a penny or two. People would crowd around to listen, carried off by his voice and the magic of his words.
Jem would often stay with Richard and Mary Nottingham at the house on Marsh Lane, grateful for a bowl of stew and a place by the hearth to roll out his blanket for the night. He’d entertain Rose and Emily with his tales of kings and princesses and times when magic was still strong in the land.
This is one of the stories he used to tell.
I don’t know how long ago this happened, but it was afore your time. I heard the tale when I were a young ‘un, and the old lad who told it me swore as it were true.
There were an inn up on the moor past Pickering, on the road to Whitby, and one night a traveller arrived in woman’s clothes, all by hersen and asking to stay until morning. But she needed to leave early, and begged for a little food to be left out to eat before she went on her way.
Now the old couple as kept the inn agreed, but it seemed powerful strange to them, so they told the serving lass to spend the night down by the fire with the woman. The serving lass lay on the settle, but before she closed her eyes she saw that the woman was wearing a man’s shoes and hose under the dress, and suddenly she thought as she’d better pay attention.
She pretended to sleep and watched. The traveller drew out a candle from the pocket of the dress, and then a dead man’s hand. He place the candle in the hand and lit it with a taper from the fire, passing it in front of the lass’ face and saying,
‘Let them as is asleep be asleep, and them as is awake be awake.’
Then he put the hand and the candle on the table, unbolted the door and walked down to the road, where he started to whistle for his thieving companions.
The serving lass, well, she jumped up, ran out of the door behind the man dressed as a woman and pushed him down before she ran back inside and bolted the door again. Upstairs, she tried to wake the innkeeper and his missus. But they slept on, under the spell, and nowt she could do would rouse them.
The lass took a bowl of milk they’d been saving for morning and threw it over the candle so the flame went out. After that she could wake the innkeeper, and when she told him, he charged his blunderbuss and went to the window, asking what the men outside what they wanted.
They said that if the innkeeper would just throw them the dead man’s hand, they’d leave. Instead he raised his weapon and fired. That was the last they heard of them. But next morning, when they went out, they could see blood on the road, going for nigh on a quarter mile…
Old Jem’s stories were told and re-told by others over the years. They must have travelled around England during the centuries, because some were collected and eventually printed in The Penguin Book of English Folktales, although by then Old Jem was long forgotten.