s the legend goes, Jack the Smith was a most despicable character. Never one to believe overly much in the value of hard work let alone in paying for what he required, he made his living, if one can call it that, by relieving the unwary of their possessions whenever the need overtook him. Needless to say, this was looked on dimly by most, and as such Jack was constantly on the move, always on the lookout for the next person who wasn't watching their belongings closely enough.
In addition to eventually earning him the nickname of "Stingy Jack", his nefarious deeds also earned him the envious attention, if not the grudging admiration, of a much bigger ne'er-do-well; the Devil himself. And so, when Jack's time came to its inevitable end, Old Nick was there to greet him.
It was a dark, moonless autumn night, and Jack was beating a hasty retreat through the woods after nearly being caught in the act of purloining a side of bacon from a smokehouse. He rounded a turn in the path and found it blocked by a dark figure.
"Evenin' to you, good sir. Beggin' your pardon for my directness, but if you'd but step aside, I'll be on my way and trouble you no further," said Jack.
The Devil, he only smiled and didn't move but a bit. "You don't recognize me, Jack? That hurts my feelings; for I certainly recognize you! And you have no way to be on, for this is as far as you will journey in this life. This time comes to all men, Jack, and tonight I have come for you."
Now this wasn't the first time that Jack had been in a pinch; it wasn't even the first time that evening. And he hadn't come this far without being able to think fast on his feet. So with barely a pause, he grinned at the Devil and said, "Well, I guess it's no surprise. Me mother always said I'd come to a bad end. 'Tis a pity though."
"A pity?" The Devil's grin widened. "Now Jack, you yourself freely chose this life, and you yourself chose your end. This is the only end that could be; pity does not enter into it."
"Oh, no sir," said Jack. "That's not what I meant at all." He gestured at the side of bacon. "I found this here flitch in a smokehouse belonging to two strapping young lads in yonder village. As the smokehouse was full, it seemed to me to be obviously surplus to their needs, but they unreasonably objected to my relieving them of it. They took off chasing after me to make their point of view clear. Now, I'd a notion to have a bit o' fun with them. Ah well, I guess it's not to be, that's the pity. Take me away!"
Unable to help himself, the Devil was curious. "A notion, eh? And what did that notion involve?" Remember that Jack's reputation for mischief had even reached the Devil's ears and touched his black, evil heart. He just couldn't help but wonder what Jack had in mind.
Jack set the side of bacon down on the ground and sat down beside it. "It's like this," he began conspiratorially. "Wouldn't it jes' be grand to set those two good, God-fearing boys against each other?" And with that, Jack began to lay out the whole intricate, thought-up-on-the-spot scheme. "Let's say I let those lads catch up with me. I beg forgiveness, return the filched flitch, and even offer to pay restitution, with the last bit of silver I have to my name, given to me on her deathbed by my sainted mother -"
Mildly irritated, the Devil interrupted. "Jack, first, don't ever mention His name again in my presence, and second, never try and kid a kidder. Your mother's not dead; I'd know. And she never gave you anything, much less her silver. But keep going; we have all eternity to get better acquainted."
"I know, I know; there is no silver," Jack nodded and grinned. "There isn't and then there is and then there won't be! But let's just say for the sake of discussion that I tell them that, give them a sixpence for their trouble and they let me go. But when they get home they discover that the coin is nowhere to be found. If those two fine upstanding church-going boys fighting over which one of them stole the money isn't a fitting send-off, what is?"
Old Nick was beginning to tire of the game just a bit, and suspected that Jack was merely playing for time now. "Well, that's all well and good Jack, but you still haven't explained where this silver is going to come from, nor how it's going to mysteriously disappear? I think perhaps it's time we were going."
As the Devil reached for him, rather than recoil or try to run, Jack threw back his head and laughed. "Now that's the best part of the plan!" He pointed straight at Old Nick. "You sir, are the coin! You have many guises, or so it's said; surely you can disguise yourself as a coin? And aren't you supposed to be able to disappear in a puff of smoke? And it's money; the root of all evil! Why, if it were any more perfect, it'd be a sin!"
Despite himself, the Devil was impressed. Stroking his goatee thoughtfully, he smiled and said, "Yes Jack, I think we're going to get along just fine, just fine indeed. It's agreed; we'll do it. But no tricks now," he warned. "I have very special places for people who cross me."
Giving the appearance of someone who'd never dream of such a thing, Jack nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, no sir, no sir!" He pulled out a worn leather pouch from inside his shirt and held it out. "Now sir, quick, for I think I hear them coming along; change into the coin and hop on into the bag and we'll have our fun."
No sooner had the Devil done just that then Jack closed the bag tightly and promptly slipped it underneath his backside. And the Devil realized that Jack had tricked him. For you see, the Devil wasn't alone in the bag; he was sandwiched right next to a small silver crucifix that Jack had acquired in his travels and hadn't yet had the opportunity to convert to cash. The cross trapped the Devil in his current form; all his powers were useless.
The Devil was naturally furious, almost as much at himself for being taken in so easily as he was at Jack. Almost. He screamed long and loud, using every curse he'd ever heard (and believe me, that's a lot). He cussed, sometimes inventively enough that Jack considered taking notes. But all Jack did was sit there and wait, for he knew if he got up and let the Devil out that he would find out just how long and hard eternity in the deepest, darkest and hottest corner of Hell would be.
Finally, after what only seemed like an eternity to both of them, the Devil sighed. Being next to the cross for any length of time was tormenting him, to say nothing of the indignity of being sat on. From beneath Jack's seat, a muffled voice called out, "All right Jack, what's it going to take for you to let me go? We both know this can't go on forever."
Jack answered swiftly, as this had been his plan from the start. "I want you to leave and trouble me no more!"
An almost gleeful chuckle emanated from Jack's coin purse. "Trouble you no more? It is done. Your soul will never be taken into Hell, you have my word on it."
For a moment, Jack hesitated. What if the Devil went back on his word? But he knew in the end that he really had no choice, and lifted the bag from beneath his haunch. No sooner had he shifted his weight but a little and the Devil, no longer touching the crucifix, stood before him. "I will keep my word Jack," the Devil intoned quietly. He pointed a bony finger down at Jack's nose. "But in the end, you will wish that I had not." And with that, the Devil vanished in a puff of sulfurous smoke and Jack was alone.
True to his word, the Devil never troubled Jack again. And so Jack continued on in his despicable ways for years. But what Jack did not know, not being a church-going man, was that the Devil's word was really only good for seven years. And since Jack's number had been up that night on the forest path, when those seven years were up, he dropped down dead like a marionette whose strings had been cut.
Jack was dumbfounded. One instant he'd been standing on a hilltop by a small group of bushes, chewing on the succulent centre of a turnip that he'd just liberated from a nearby landowner, and the next his soul stood before the Devil outside the gates of Hell.
"Hey!" cried Jack, genuinely perturbed. "What gives? You gave me your word!"
The Devil nodded his head. "Indeed I did Jack, and I will keep it. Your soul will not be taken into Hell; not today, and not ever. But you really didn't expect to live forever, did you? I never promised that. You were dead that night in the forest; your time was up. Today that debt was called in; I could have done it much sooner, but I was feeling generous." As he spoke the last word his grin widened to put the lie to the word.
Jack was even more confused. "Well, if I'm not going to Hell, why am I here? Why am I not at the Pearly Gates?"
Now it was the Devil's turn to laugh. "Oh Jack, you really are a card! Did you think that just because I won't let you in that they would? Oh no! That road is forever closed to you, as is this one. No, your soul's fate is to wander the darkness for all eternity. Your life is over, your body used up. You will never set foot in either Heaven or Hell." The Devil pointed behind Jack, to a narrow indistinct path in the darkness.
Now Jack was truly dismayed. "Out there? Forever? But it's so dark! Could you at least lend a fellow a light to find his way?"
Enraged at Jack's effrontery, the Devil picked up a ember from the eternal fires and threw it at Jack's feet. "You want light? There! Have it and be done with you, as I've no doubt that you would have stolen it in any case!" Any with that, the Devil walked back into Hell and slammed the gates shut tight. Forever.
Not the type to look a gift horse in the mouth, Jack bent down to pick up the ember, but it was too hot to touch. He shovelled it into the hollowed out turnip he'd been eating at the moment of his death and set out on the road, with his only possession; the hollowed out turnip containing a glowing ember to light his way.
Now, you might think that Jack returned to this world. The trouble was, his body was carrion. So it was to the spirit world that he returned, doomed to wander in the darkness for all eternity. But once a year, on the last night of October, the veils between the mortal and spirit worlds lift just enough that the spirits can cross over for awhile. And so it is on this night that, if you're out in the fields and forests and the moon is not out, you might just catch a glimpse of a faint, lonely light wandering through the darkness. That's Jack and his last, most precious possession.
You might find it a bit odd that someone as light fingered as Jack ended his life with no possession other than a partially eaten turnip. It was a matter of chance, and nothing more, that he'd happened to set down the rest of his ill-gotten gains at the moment of his demise. So they stayed with his body. His body is long gone, but his treasure remains. Where is it, you ask? Well, you might as well check with the turnip, because Jack's not talking.