The Witch’s Ring: 1886

THE WITCH’S RING.

A very curious, struggling, sleepy, old village is Addingtune. Half a century behind the rest of the world, it still sits between the green hills of the Eastern State, its elbows on its knees and its chin in its hands, musing on by-gone days, when old King George held the land under his sway, and when, as its old folks sagely remark, things were not as they are now. There are a great many old people in Addingtune—in fact, very few people die young there. The atmosphere is so dreamy and peaceful that excitement cannot exist, and the wear and tear of the busy world is unknown, or at most only hums faintly over the hills, like the buzzing of a fly on a sunny pane on a summer day. And so they sit still in the chimney corners from year to year, and muse, and doze, and dream, until they dream their lives away and take their final sleep. It was to an old crone of this description that I was indebted for my adventure.

In the course of my idle wanderings about the village I chanced one day to peer over a crumbling wall, and discovered an old, disused burial ground. The brown slabs were broken, prostrate, and scattered, with only here and there a forlorn, unsteady stone standing wearily, and waiting for the time to come when it, too, might fall down and rest with the sleepers beneath. Scrambling over the low wall I stooped about among the grass, pushing away the tangled masses of vines and leaves from the faces of the slabs, that I might read the inscriptions there. But the suns and storms of nearly 100 years had obliterated nearly all the letters, so that only a portion of names and dates remained. Finally, down in a deep corner of the enclosure, where the weeds grew densest and the shade was darkest, I found an old stone, which, leaning forward, had protected its face from the storms, and on this stone I read the words:

“Barbara Conwail, born 1670, died 1730. Age 60 years. Having been lawfully executed for the practice of witchcraft.”

My curiosity was at once aroused. I inquired of several persons as to the history of this woman, but without success for a time. Finally, however, I found an old woman, who told me the history of Barbara Conwail as it had been handed down by her ancestors:

Living in an old stone house at the edge of the village she was rarely seen—for no one ever crossed her threshold—save when she was occasionally met by a frightened party of children idling away a summer afternoon’s holiday in the woods, when she would scowl and pass away, stooping along over the fields gathering herbs with which to brew her mighty potions. No one ever interfered with her, however, until a sad year came to Addingtune.

An epidemic broke out and raged with a fury that nothing could withstand. People began to mutter that Barbara the witch was the cause of it. Passing along the road she was stoned by a party of boys, to whom she turned, and, shaking her bony hand, shrieked that the curse was upon them.

Two of the lads sickened and died in a few days, and though scores were carried away in a like manner, no especial import was attached to their death. Barbara began to be watched. They looked through her windows at midnight and found her bending over a seething cauldron, throwing in herbs, muttering cabalistic words, and stirring the mixture with what they reported to be a human bone. Old Barbara was working her charms.

When one morning a man came into town, bruised and covered with mud, and testified that as he rode past old Barbara’s house at 12 o’clock the night before, he saw the Arch Fiend and the witch in conversation upon the housetop, surrounded by flames, and laughing fiendishly in the lurid glare as they shook their fist at the plague-stricken village sleeping below, his tale found ready credence. The fact that he was an habitual drunkard, and had on more than one occasion rolled from his horse in a drunken stupor, and passed the night in a ditch, dreaming wild dreams, did not in the least detract from the belief the villagers in his account of this pair of demons had pounced upon him, and had first tortured and thrown him senseless into a ditch, their indignation became uncontrollable.

Old Barbara was tried, condemned, and hanged, though she protested her innocence to the last. The little sum of money found in her possession was used to buy that gravestone—as no one would dare appropriate it—and to this day if anyone were bold enough to go to her grave at midnight on the same day of the year on which she was hanged, and say, “Barbara, I believe that you were innocent,” at the same time stretching out his hand over the grave, she would, appear to him and place in his hand a talisman.

This talisman would bring good fortune as long as he retained: it, but at some time in his life the witch would return and claim her own.

The old woman ended her story in a low, impressive monotone, which, with her earnestness and sincere belief in what she said, almost carried conviction to me in spite of reason. As I sauntered away, ridiculing these ignorant and superstitious, village folks, I found myself almost unconsciously wandering back through the old burial ground to the witch’s grave. Carelessly glancing at the inscription, I was surprised to find that very day was the 150th anniversary of her death, and still more surprised when the thought occurred to me of watching at her grave that night. I ridiculed and scoffed the idea. Where was my boasted commonsense and incredulity? But, still returning ever, came that wayward thing called fancy—and it conquered.

The world was wild and weird that night, when I stole forth from the village. The wind was moaning through the trees, and sobbing piteously; the black clouds were driven in broken patches across the sky, now letting down the moonshine, and again shrouding it in the blackest night, and making the shadows chase each other about, and steal around corners upon one in a manner that made me wince in spite of myself. Climbing the low stone wall—rather nervously, I confess—I stole away through the old, down-trodden graves, pushing through the weeds and briars as silently as possible, and making my way toward that dark, dreary corner where the old witch reposed. A graveyard at noon is a very different spot from a graveyard at midnight—especially if one is there to seek an interview with a spirit.

I reached the place and stood by the tomb. It still lacked a few minutes of 12, and as I stood there watching the moonlight flitting over the graves, I longed for a little ray to creep in with me. But, no—approaching and receding, and wavering all about me, it never touched this grave, but fled away as often as it approached, as though frightened at the black shadow forever lurking there.

By-and-bye the village clock tolled 12. As the slow, tremulous tones stole out on the night, the wind ceased moaning, the clouds covered the face of the moon, the insects stopped chirping, and when the last stroke was finished the almost unbearable silence was broken only by my own breathing, which I strove in vain to suppress. The darkness was intense, and I could see nothing. A terrible feeling of guilt and terror seized me, that I, a mortal, should be intruding there at such an hour. Mechanically I strove to speak the words I had been told, but my lips refused to form a sound.

Still I stood in that awful black silence, chilled with fear, until with a mighty effort I reached out my arm over the grave and grasped—a hand.

It was only for an instant—not that, for it was jerked away in a twinkle—but long enough to feel how warm and velvety it was— and how small. Not that I lingered there to reflect upon these novel qualities in the hand of the ghost, and an old witch at that, for you altogether mistake my bravery in supposing it; but it was after I had cleared the old wall at a bound, and was out on the moonlit road, walking at a rattling good pace toward town, that I recalled it.

From a state of intense cold I had changed to burning heat. The touch of those soft fingers thrilled me through as with an electric shock, and I walked faster still in my excitement. Gradually the consciousness forced itself upon me that I had something in my clenched hands. There was first a glitter and then a spark, as the moonlight fell into the hollow of my upraised hand, and I saw there a glittering ring set with flashing stones. The icicles began slipping down my back again, and I hurried on. Some persons may be inclined to deride my nervousness on this occasion, but I assure such that I am not naturally a timid man. I have a medal hanging in my room at home which asserts that I am not a timid man, and above all, I had always been void of superstitious fear; but truth compels me to say that I not only lighted all the lights on reaching my room at the little inn that night, but turned them very high into the bargain, and that I made a systematic inspection of all the closets, and removed from its peg a long cloak that was hanging in a very suggestive position on the wall. This done, I sat down and examined the ring.

It was a quaint, old ring, curiously carved and massive. The setting was composed of several small coloured stones, set in a circle about a diamond. My financial circumstances had rendered it unnecessary for me to acquaint myself with precious stones and their values, so that I could only surmise that the ring was somewhat valuable. Considering the excited condition of my nerves by this time, it was not strange that I should start when my eyes fell upon the name that was inscribed in quaint letters inside the ring—” Barbara.”

I sat and mused upon the whole adventure—what the crone had told me—the graveyard, the ring, and (this was returned to me the) oftenest) the thrilling touch of that soft hand in the darkness.

Perhaps I should say right here that I called myself an old bachelor, and had never been in love—that is, with any mortal. I did not think that I was devoid of sentiment or feeling, for I often dreamed of love and worshipped beautiful things of my own fancy, but my life had been thrown among boys and men; and woman was far away and a mystery. A motherless home, a stern father, a hard-working student’s life at college, a stranger struggling for bread and reputation in a great city—one can perceive how it could be that I had made few acquaintances among women. In reality I was only 25, but much experience had made me feel older; so, as I said, I called myself a bachelor.

I have given the brief history of myself in order to prepare the way for another confession. I was falling in love with the owner of that soft, warm hand. It is preposterous, but it is true. I began to doubt my reason. In vain, I tried to remember that Barbara, the witch, was an old, ugly woman. The only picture I could call up was that of a beautiful, young girl, with—but words fail me; only she was far from ghastly, but was as warm, and substantial, and full of life as that hand had seemed to be.

The fire irons fell with an earthly clatter, and startled me out of my dreams. I went to bed to soothe my nerves with sleep, and lay awake most of the night with the lamps burning.

Fortune smiled upon me from that night. Two years of busy, city life had passed, when old Barbara’s talisman was still unreclaimed, when one day—do you believe in love at first sight? Well, if the appearance of Walter Wyman’s sister had not conquered me as she stood under the parlour lamps, a revelation of beauty and youth, the touch of her hand when she welcomed her brother’s friend would have enslaved me forever. Never had a touch so thrilled me since—since I had the witch’s hand in the graveyard. The same peculiar shock passed through me, and the memory of that spectral night came over me like a flash.

But I did not start out to tell a love story. Let me briefly say that I fell in love, hopelessly and ridiculously in love, and that I acted just as all lovers have done since the world began. It doesn’t matter much about a man’s age. At 27 he will act pretty much as he would have done at 17, and so I wrote verses and sighed, and tormented myself with a thousand hopes and fears, and grew hot and cold by turns, and wonderfully timid, and prided myself on concealing it all, when, as a matter of fact, the state of my feelings was perfectly apparent to all my acquaintances.

Matters were in this interesting state when one day an opportunity occurred of which I availed myself with a degree of skill and presence of mind that I am proud of to this day. It all came about my asking the young lady if she believed in ghosts.

“I suppose I should,” said she, “considering my experience.”

Leave a woman alone to make an evasive answer. Of course I implored an explanation, and she related to me the following story:—

“It was about two years ago when a party of girls, just home from school, were visiting a friend down in the country. One of the girls had heard a foolish story about a witch’s grave, and some nonsense about her annual appearance, and a talisman, and when I expressed my incredulity, they braved me to put it to the test. What is the matter? The place? A little town called Addingtune.”

“Foolishly I accepted their challenge and received a terrible fright. I carried out the instructions and stretched my arm over the grave. It was so dark I could see nothing, but someone seized my hand. I was so benumbed with fear that I could not cry out, but could only fly through the lonely grave-yard to where my trembling companions were awaiting me in the field. It was a foolish adventure, for I fell ill, and it cost me a valuable ring which was left to me by.poor Aunt Barbara. ‘For her little namesake,’ she said, when she sent it across the sea to me. You see the ring was a little large for my finger, and was pulled off by—by—”

“By me!” I interrupted, taking the lost ring from my pocket.

It was time for Barbara (I forgot to say that was her name) to be startled now. I hope I may say that I came out strong on the occasion. I told my story in a very impressive way, lingered over the effect of the witch’s hand on my heart, spoke of the good fortune the talisman had brought me, made very pretty allusion to Barbara, the witch, reclaiming her own—for she was not a witch, after all, as I could testify, having felt her charms—and finally, not only offered to return the ring, but to give myself into the bargain.

She took both.

The Australian Journal: A Family Newspaper of Literature and Science, Vol. 21, April 1886: p. 433-4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A jolly “witch” story for Walpurgisnacht, that festival mystifyingly named for a saintly abbess, when the witches have free reign to gambol round the skies and meet on the peak of the Brocken, the highest point in the gnome-haunted Harz Mountains of Germany. It is a feast primarily observed in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Britain, of course, is entirely witch-free, or so it likes to believe.

That bewitching person over at Haunted Ohio tells of a Swedish witch and her cow-curing charm gotten from a Man in Black.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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