In the days when most of New York stood below Grand Street, a roistering fellow used to make the rounds of the taverns nightly, accompanied by a friend named Rooney. This brave drinker was Dirck Van Dara, one of the last of those swag-bellied topers that made merry with such solemnity before the English seized their unoffending town. It chanced that Dirck and his chum were out later than usual one night, and by eleven o’clock, when all good people were abed, a drizzle set in that drove the watch to sleep in doorways and left Broadway tenantless. As the two choice spirits reeled out of a hostelry near Wall Street and saw the lights go out in the tap-room windows they started up town to their homes in Leonard Street, but hardly had they come abreast of old St. Paul’s when a strange thing stayed them: crying was heard in the churchyard and a phosphorescent light shone among the tombs. Rooney was sober in a moment, but not so Dirck Van Dara, who shouted, “Here is sport, friend Rooney. Let’s climb the wall. If the dead are for a dance, we will take partners and show them how pigeons’ wings are cut nowadays.”
“No,” exclaimed the other; “those must perish who go among the dead when they come out of their graves. I’ve heard that if you get into their clutches, you must stay in purgatory for a hundred years, and no priest can pray you out.”
“Bah! old wives’ tales! Come on!” And pulling his friend with him, they were over the fence. “Hello! what have we here?” As he spoke a haggard thing arose from behind a tombstone, a witchlike creature, with rags falling about her wasted form and hair that almost hid her face. The twain were set a-sneezing by the fumes of sulphur, and Rooney swore afterwards that there were little things at the end of the yard with grinning faces and lights on the ends of their tails. Old Hollands are heady. Dirck began to chaff the beldam on her dilapidation, but she stopped his talk by dipping something from a caldron behind her and flinging it over both of her visitors. Whatever it was, it burned outrageously, and with a yell of pain they leaped the wall more briskly than they had jumped it the other way, and were soon in full flight. They had not gone far when the clock struck twelve.
“Arrah! there’s a crowd of them coming after,” panted Rooney. “Ave Mary! I’ve heard that if you die with witch broth being thrown over you, you’re done for in the next world, as well as this. Let us get to Father Donagan’s. Wow!” As he made this exclamation the fugitives found their way opposed by a woman, who looked at them with immodest eyes and said, “Dirck Van Dara, your sire, in wig and bob, turned us Cyprians out of New York, after ducking us in the Collect. But we forgive him, and to prove it we ask you to our festival.”
At the stroke of midnight the street before the church had swarmed with a motley throng, that now came onward, waving torches that sparkled like stars. They formed a ring about Dirck and began to dance, and he, nothing loth, seized the nymph who had addressed him and joined in the revel. Not a soul was out or awake except themselves, and no words were said as the dance went wilder to strains of weird and unseen instruments. Now and then one would apply a torch to the person of Dirck, meanly assailing him in the rear, and the smart of the burn made him feet it the livelier. At last they turned toward the Battery as by common consent, and went careering along the street in frolic fashion. Rooney, whose senses had thus far been pent in a stupor, fled with a yell of terror, and as he looked back he saw the unholy troop disappearing in the mist like a moving galaxy. Never from that night was Dirck Van Data seen or heard of more, and the publicans felt that they had less reason for living.
Roistering Dirck Van Dara – US Folktales