Relics of Popular Superstitions
St. Mark’s Eve in Yorkshire
Among the antiquities of Craven is a castle said to have been built by Robert de Romevile, in the days of the Norman Conqueror, and very picturesquely situated on an ascent, from whence it overlooks the little town it once protected. The inhabitants of this town have not yet forgotten their former sexton, Old Ozias, a man whose anatomy might have been so correctly traced through its scanty covering, that he seemed created to instruct the physicians whose work he finished. A lean blind dog, a coarse coat of dark stone grey, as if intended to resemble the ancient building to which he belonged, and a strong staff, were this man’s usual accompaniments; but he thought the first unnecessary when he celebrated the vigil of St. Mark’s eve. At the eleventh hour of that mysterious vigil, Ozias ascended the long winding walk of a church-yard paved with monumental stones, and took his seat alone in the porch, having qualified himself by a long fast, or abstinence from solids at least, to claim the revelations allotted to St. Mark’s eve, during which all who are destined to die before the next anniversary are seen entering the church in a shadowy and silent procession. Those to whom only a dangerous sickness is fated, are supposed to advance no farther than the gate. Such processions could not fail to be very interesting to the parish sexton, who never neglected this vigil, and was known to have predicted the deaths of several hypochondriac gentlemen and aged ladies with surprising exactness, though some suspected his prophecies hastened, and probably caused, their own confirmation. Therefore Ozias sat in the church-porch with more hope than fear; but neither the fumes of his last cup, nor his anxious fancy, created any spectres; and he looked down the long street which ascends to the church without seeing a single door open to send forth a visitor. The clock had begun to strike twelve, and the sexton was rising with a sigh of despair, when three male figures in dark cloaks, and one in female attire, appeared at the gate of the castle which flanked the church, and slowly descended towards the walk of the dead. Notwithstanding Ozias’s familiarity with St. Mark’s spectres, and the benefit they promised him, he could not see this distinct and solemn procession without trembling; and when the church-yardgate opened, he shrunk into the darkest corner of the porch. But the persons whom these shadows represented were not destined to die within twelve months, for they paused there, and returned to the castle in the same slow and silent manner. The last stroke of the clock had sounded, and Ozias, knowing the prophetic hour was past, left his seat in the porch, and crept home with more terror and surprise than he dared confess. The inhabitants of the castle were at that period only the steward and his wife, two daughters, as many maid-servants, and one man. How, then, could a procession of three males and one female be supposed to represent this family—Ozias canvassed this question in his own mind; and not willing to lose the possible benefit of a prediction, he whispered to his wife, that he had seen certain apparitions boding ill to the noble owner of the castle. The whisper circulated as usual, for the sexton’s lady had a head too full of chinks to hold any thing, and her prophetic hints on such occasions were marvellously useful to her husband. The Stewardess of De Romevile’s castle had unfortunately a stupendous petticoat of homespun cloth to quilt about this time, and collected, according to ancient custom, all the good wives of the town to assist in the work, and enjoy some exquisite hyson in cups rather larger than a modern tea-spoon. While the household damsels enlivened their supper by ducking for apples and hunting the ring in a bowl of plum posset, the terrible tale of St. Mark’s eve was related at the upper table. Walter Lambert, the seneschal or steward of the domain, heard it with a shrewd smile of contempt, but, unlike other hearers, he considered that a mere invention of old Ozias would have had more likelihood and shew of truth. Taking its improbability as a proof of some real fact concealed beneath it, and having perhaps a few secret reasons, he resolved to watch the castle-gate himself that night. His family went to bed at the customary hour of nine, and Lambert, wrapped in a very long and dark roquelaure, concealed himself near the portcullis. This castle, well deserving the motto “Desormais,” inscribed over its gate, was still remarkable for the extent and strength of its walls, which enclosed a square court open to the moon-beams. As if to avoid them, he perceived a female walking on the north side of this court; but when or how she entered, his eyes could not inform him. Presently three other figures, such as Ozias had described, followed her slowly one by one till they disappeared. Walter was a brave and sagacious man, but he lived in the middle of the eighteenth century. He was affected by the dimness and solitude of the hour, by the soundless and solemn tread of these figures, and especially by the resemblance of the female one to a person long since dead. Yet he remembered that earthly forms might have found a passage through the north side of the court to a terrace which bordered it. He made haste through that passage, and saw these strange spectres gliding down a descent almost beyond human tread, among elms that have grown for ages on the shelves of the steep, towards the river that washes their roots. Lambert grew dizzy as he looked into the tremendous chasm, and asked himself if he only dreamed. The crash of one of these old elms’ branches, convinced him that more than shadows were endeavouring to descend; and a sudden thought taught him another mode of acting. The narrow river which found its way, almost invisibly, under the steep terrace, had a communication with a canal lately dug; and any boat which attempted to pass might be stopped at the first lock. Walter ran with the speed of an alarmed father by another road to the banks of the canal, considering himself certain that the groupe he had seen, if they were fugitives, would be compelled to pass that way. He waited at the first lock till his impatience grew to agony: he walked on the narrow pathway, among rocks and weeds, till he reached the hollow under the castle-terrace where he had seen them descending. Not a trace of boat or passengers could be found. Not a branch had been broken from the magnificent elms that almost overtop the castle, nor was there the print of a single footstep on the declivity or the moist bank. The dead leaves lay thick and undisturbed, and some lilies which grew at the water’s edge hung in clusters too full and extensive to have permitted swimmers or a boat. He returned to the castle-court in extreme agitation. He placed a ladder against the window of his daughters’ bed-chamber, where a watch-light always burned; and looking in, perceived both his children asleep in their respective beds. This spectacle completed his confusion, though it calmed his worst fears, and he went to his own room almost converted to superstition.
Those who have resided in the North know that sales of cattle were managed there about the year 1752 in a mode very different from the present. At that period deputies were chosen by the farmers of certain townships or districts, and these deputies chose from among themselves a commissioner of sufficient skill and probity, to purchase in the Highlands, or elsewhere, the required number of cattle. When it was collected, and divided into proportionable lots, the deputies assembled on the place where their cattle stood, and each gave a piece of copper coin to one of the drovers, who tossed them in his bonnet, and threw each piece towards a lot of cattle. The farmers abided by this chance, and received the lot to which their deputy’s piece of money had been thrown. Walter Lambert, having been selected to attend this animal lottery as a representative of the wealthiest salesmen in his district, was compelled to leave home a few hours after his midnight adventure; and as the allotment of so many hundreds necessarily took place on a very extensive moor, his imagination shaped some fearful presentiments of personal danger. But he forbore to alarm his good dame’s superstition, and contented himself with strictly charging her to lock the castle gates with her own hands, and deposit the keys under her pillow. No commands could be received with more intention to obey; but as the nights were cold, and the court-yard gloomy, Dame Lambert entrusted the office to her deputy in many important matters, a faithful servant who had held her trust forty years; not in the fashion of a modern domestic, but like an ancient Yorkshire handmaiden, making oatmeal pottage at five o’clock in the morning, knitting hose for all the family, and spinning fine wool or thread for future gowns, by her good mistress’s side, on the kitchen long-settle, or wooden settee, without any relaxation, except a quarterly dance at a feast in silver-buckled shoes and an everlasting chintz, or a lover’s visit on the morning appropriated to the three joint labours of washing, baking, and brewing. Therefore it is not surprising that Susan Pate was the repository of village superstitions, and the oracle of the young castle-damsels in all matters of legend and tradition. Nor did she affect much displeasure when her master’s eldest daughter whispered in her car, “Nurse Susan, my father will return to-morrow night, and I have not yet found an ash-leaf with two Points, or pulled an ivy-leaf with the ditty you taught me. If you will wear my night-dress and sleep in my place to-night, my little sister will not miss me while I go in search of them.” Nobody understood the importance of these ceremonies better than ancient Susan, or had assisted oftener in compounding the mysterious cake on St. Agnes’s eve, though with very little success for herself. Proud of any share in matters which flatter the human heart’s self-love so gracefully, by connecting its wishes with the powers of unseen spirits, Susan obeyed her foster-child’s injunctions of secresy, and crept unsuspected into the chamber appropriated to Edith and Margaret Lambert. She lay couched in some fear of detection, and without daring to speak to the other occupant, whose sleep was profound. But in the most dreaded and witching hour of night, the door opened gently, and a female form approached the impostor’s bed. The rusting of long yellow silk garments, a pompoon of diamonds prodigiously elevated on a battalion of white curls, and an apron of stiff point-lace, announced Lady Ann Pembroke, whose spirit has never ceased to molest her favourite castle since the days of Dr. Donne. Even the apparition of a brocade negligée has the privilege of rustling, and poor Susan, trembling under the massy velvet counterpane, never doubted that Lady Ann came to rebuke her for profaning a bed once consecrated to her family. But the spectre, after waving her fan thrice, bent her head to the pillow—“It is time!—come instantly, and in silence!”—Not even the courage of an old practitioner in charms and mysteries could have resisted this summons, if Susan had not remembered certain legends concerning a coffer of gold supposed to have lain under these walls since the death of Charles the Second; and some hopes of being an agent in revealing it, mingled with great fears of awaking the innocent and unconscious sleeper in the adjoining bed, induced an attempt to rise. Lady Ann’s menacing gestures rebuked her delay: and covering herself in the velvet counterpane, she made another effort, which the vigorous spirit aided by snatching her up, muffling her head completely in the heavy velvet, and carrying her out of the room. Probably two or three other goblins of Lady Ann’s acquaintance were in readiness, for the unfortunate damsel was carried through innumerable galleries and windings till the fresh air was permitted to reach her face. Then by a dim star-light she perceived herself on the verge of that tremendous precipice shrouded by interwoven elms behind the castle. Remembering that a poor miller was supposed to have perished there, either in desperate love of her or of too much ale, she apprehended that these spectres came to execute retributive justice by hurling her down. Her shrieks and protestations of regret for Robin’s fate were stifled by Lady Pembroke and her companions till they had reached the river’s edge, and placed her in a boat. But her cries and struggles could be controlled no longer, and at the instant that Lady Ann’s representative tore off his fantastic attire, and seized an oar, a pistol-ball from the shore entered his forehead, and he fell lifeless into the water. Susan was not so completely stupified by this scene as to be incapable of perceiving that his assistants fled among the trees; but her dismay was greater when she heard the voice of her master. She made but one leap from the boat to the bank, scrambled up the knottiest elm, and remained concealed by the friendly help of her dark green velvet mantle till the terrible voice was heard no more.
Walter Lambert, haunted by vague and dismal forebodings, had returned from Bossmoor a night sooner than he had promised, to renew his watch under the castle-terrace. He saw the boat, the struggle, and the female figures; and had three times summoned the boatmen unregarded before he discharged his pistol. Then all the groupe seemed to vanish as if by magic: he plunged among the elms, calling on his daughter; and failing in his efforts to obtain a reply, or to discover any one, he returned to the disastrous bank. The boat had disappeared, the body of the fallen man was no where visible—he searched the shallow water with his staff, unmindful of his own danger, till another and more urgent curiosity seized him. He entered by a private postern and a master-key into his daughter’s apartment, and again found both in perfect repose. Not a stain of night dew or of blood was on the night-dress of either; yet the female he had seen wore Edith’s garments, and he was very certain that she could not have preceded him into the castle. At day-break he caused the water to be dragged; but the whole transaction was either a dream, or had left no trace behind.
Whatever might be the truth, Lambert understood human nature too well to imagine he should gain any thing by enquiries. If his daughter Edith had concern in it, secret shame and regret would be her punishment; and his forbearance, added to the tenderness he meant to shew her, might give a sacred claim on her filial duty. He had too little confidence in his wife’s strength of intellect to trust her with a secret which could only involve her in fears on his account, and anguish on her child’s: and especially he feared to sully the mind and disturb the peace of his favourite daughter by a suspicion of her sister’s guilt. Margaret, or, as he was more accustomed to call her, his Pearl, was indeed a creature of such delicacy as seemed fit only to repose like a jewel among down. The appellation she bore was suited to her exterior no less than to her character, for her complexion had that pearly paleness and transparency so admired in Guido’s beauties, and so expressively adapted to the soft tint of her eyes and the lucid serenity of her temper. She was only in her fifteenth year, little more than half the age of her sister, whose shrewish and adventurous disposition rendered the tenderness of this gentle child more balmy to the father. He had secluded her from the common society of a prattling village, partly from jealous fear of losing the last comfort of his age, and partly from a more generous dread of seeing the exquisite innocence of her youth degraded. Perhaps this seclusion now began to grow painful, or it had disposed her mind to seek society among the wild creations of ancient romance; for though the simplicity and openness of her conversation were undiminished, it became more inquisitive, and tinctured sometimes with superstition. Lambert had begun to congratulate himself on the caution he had observed respecting the adventure of St. Mark’s eve, and the entire oblivion in which it appeared to rest, when old Ozias came to claim an audience. The anniversary of that eve had arrived again, and he had seen his own spectre sitting in the church-porch, with his lean dog, his grey coat, and his staff! Lambert heard the story with derision, and almost execrations.—“Sir,” the Sexton added, “if I am not to be believed when I see my own ghost, you will believe, mayhap, when you see the letters it has carved on your family tomb-stone.”—The father grew pale, though he disdained to admit the possibility of letters carved on stone by a chissel of air; but he visited the church, and saw the blank left on his family’s monumental tablet filled up with his beloved daughter’s name. He was struck with horror at this trace of the visionary sexton’s visit, and determined to remove his Margaret to the healthy and pleasant valley of Dent, beyond the reach of those baleful rumours which this occurrence might create. He proposed the journey, but either the visions of old Ozias or the force of destiny had reached her. She lost even the faint bloom that had mingled with the pearl colour of her cheeks, and the spirit and strength of her frame departed. She told beautiful dreams, and seemed to have peopled every place in her imagination with lovely and benevolent spirits. But the most remarkable particular was, that many of these affecting dreams were realized. She would sometimes pause in the woods, as if to listen, and assure her mother or her sister that some fairy gift awaited her. Often a few hours after, a basket of flowers or a knot of silver tissue would be found in her apartment; but when her sister took either into her possession, the basket was always said to be filled with vervain, or St. John’s wort, and the silver gauze twined round an adder-stone. These accidents were carefully concealed from the incredulous father; but the mother, the sister, and the household servants, found ample subject for conjecture in occurrences so nearly resembling fairy legends. And the learned neighbours compared her to Alice Pearson and Anne Jefferies, celebrated in 1586 and 1626 for visiting the “little green people” when they seemed quietly in bed. Many tried to disenchant her by the touch of gilliflowers, whose power against sorcery is famous, or of those holy evergreens which protect us from evil spirits at Christmas. Nurse Susan, who had returned unsuspected to her post in the family, almost believed the flowers were fresher and the wild birds more familiar in Margaret’s walks; and often hid her silver ring under the lovely dreamer’s pillow, as if to borrow some part of the mysterious sanctity which seemed to attend her.
On the third anniversary of St. Mark’s eve, when Lambert began, as usual, his solitary journey to Bossmoor, his favorite daughter’s moodiness changed to melancholy. She sent for her mother to her bed-side, and solemnly enjoining secresy, begged that when her death occurred, she might be buried in the stone coffin of Sir John Wardell of Wharfdale, which lay in the vaults of De Romevile. Being urged to explain the motive of this wish, she replied, with a singular light in her pale blue eyes, that she knew by the spirit of divination, lately granted to her, how her fate was liked with the family of the castle. “I also know,” she added, “the moment of my death is not far distant, and I am desirous to commune with their chaplain.”—Her mother, whose imagination was alive to all supernatural things, listened with awe and astonishment to this intimation, but did not forget to ask why her daughter preferred a clergyman wholly unknown to her. She repeated her former words, only enforcing them with these—“In two hours it may be too late.”—Human nature, always aspiring to something greater than itself, finds a kind of loveliness in mystery. Dame Lambert was touched and elevated rather than alarmed. She despatched her only man-servant for the chaplain of Earl Romevile, whose more modern residence was not distant, and they returned together before midnight. Margaret received the clergyman alone in her chamber, where they held a long and secret conference; after which he obeyed her mother’s request for an interview. He looked pale, evidently agitated, and, after several attempts to evade the anxious enquiries addressed to him, replied, in a very grave tone—“I am not certain, madam, whether I ought to discredit all the extraordinary things I have heard to-night, or impute them to that heat of fancy which is either the cause or effect of pretended divinations. Your daughter has confessed to me the particulars of a certain ceremony, by which, on St. Mark’s eve, the ignorant women of this district hope to acquire information from ash-leaves of a peculiar shape, or the ivy-leaf plucked with a strange carol. She has been shewn, it seems, the ancient picture of Rosamond de Clifford in this castle, and told the prophecy which hints, that when as much beauty is found in any living inhabitant, another mistress will appear in it. It cannot be denied that Margaret Lambert most nearly resembles the charming countenance of fair Rosamond, and with such inferences and expectations she probably fell asleep. Her dream was strikingly circumstantial. She imagined herself led by the celebrated phantom of Lady Ann Pembroke, my patron’s noble ancestor, into the gallery of pictures, where she saw herself in the ancient garments of fair Rosamond, and afterwards laid in the stone coffin of Sir John Wardell, whose loyalty and courage in the cause of Charles the Martyr lost him his estates. Pardon me if I think the rest of your daughter’s narrative only a continuation of her dream. She tells me that her curiosity, excited by this mysterious representation of her fate, induced her to procure a dog, a coat, and a staff, not unlike old Ozias’s, and to keep herself the vigil of St. Mark. She obtained the keys of the church from his wife, seated herself near the porch, and saw three men enter with a sack, which they carried towards the chancel, and raising the entrance-stone of De Romevile’s vault, descended with it. She had, or dreamed that she had, courage enough to wait their departure, after which one of the keys lent to her by the sexton’s wife admitted her into the cemetery. There the lantern which she had concealed under her cloak discovered traces of mens’ feet about the stone coffin inscribed with the name of our unfortunate Royalist. She saw through a crevice in the wall behind, a kind of cavern crowded with beings of no human shape, but of what description I can by no means persuade her to confess, and it seems as if she dared not devise a name for them. The coffin-lid was imperfectly placed, and she discerned beneath it a sack whose shape indicated that it contained a human body. She had courage enough to look farther, and saw a large crevice in another receptacle of the dead which seemed to have been disturbed. It was filled with plate, jewels, and old coin, from which she only ventured to select one small gold ring, as a token of the reality of her adventure. She has shewn it to me. It is a marriage-ring, but certainly bears the initials of the Romevile family, and a very ancient motto. It is possible, however, to have obtained such a ring by an occurrence which I forbear to name, though I think myself justified in suspecting it. Any thing, in short, is more possible or probable than a scene so romantic; and I recommend the most profound secresy respecting what appears to me only the creation of a mind distracted by its own fervour.”—Whatever might be the wisdom of this advice, it was accepted, and Margaret saw her communication unnoticed. She sunk into more eccentric musings, often absented herself for an hour, an evening, or a whole day; and though it was certain that she never quitted her apartment, she told strange and circumstantial tales of the rich scenes and beautiful beings she had visited. By degrees she accustomed herself to hoard food and tapers in a cabinet or oratory, in which she lived secluded so often, that her absence ceased to alarm. On the fourth anniversary of St. Mark’s vigil, Walter’s anxiety determined him to break open the door of his daughter’s mysterious retreat, but he found it empty. Twenty-four hours had elapsed since he had seen her, and his terror became inexpressible. It was increased by a summons requiring him to come instantly to his patron’s residence. He went almost maddened with agony for his daughter’s fate, and his surprise cannot be expressed in words when he found Earl Romevile seated in his saloon with Margaret at his right hand. The first thought that glanced across the father’s mind, was a vague hope that the beautiful semblance of Rosamond de Clifford had been elevated to the rank obscurely prophecied. He was confirmed in this pleasant expectation when his daughter threw herself at his feet, and entreated pardon for her dissimulation; and he stood doubtful whether to feel ennobled or humbled, till his patron said, “I owe much, Lambert, to your long fidelity, and more to your daughter’s courage. Your own obligation to her is still greater, but I hope to repay both. Notwithstanding your zealous care, a desperate knot of adventurers have established their rendezvous for stolen cattle under my castle. Their leader recommended himself to your eldest daughter’s favour, but her courage failed her three times when the plan of their elopement was contrived. Even your Pearl appears to have had some blemish of superstitious credulity, since she concealed herself in the sexton’s chair on St. Mark’s eve to know her fate. It was sufficiently punished. The persons whose midnight visit she detected, discovered her in the church, and bound her secresy by a frightful oath, and a threat of exposing the murder committed by her father. The body of her sister’s lover lay in the cemetery; and this extraordinary girl, equally reluctant to hazard the life of her parent or the fair fame of her sister by violating her oath, devised a tale to awaken my chaplain’s curiosity. It failed; and after contriving to delude the spies that watched her, by affected seclusion, she came hither alone, on foot and at midnight, to confess the whole to me, and beseech my protection for you both. I have sent trusty messengers to search the vault, and they have found, as she asserted, a dead robber in one of my ancestor’s coffins; and another filled with the plate and jewels which were stolen from me some years ago. These, or at least their amount, I design for her dowry and if old Ozias renews his vigil on this eve of St. Mark, he will probably see the spectres of all the robbers on their way to the gallows.”
“Truly,” said the Provost, laughing, when the Lady of Dent had finished her tale, “the gallant Lord of Romevile did well to set his pearl in gold: but I expected to have seen his ancestor’s nuptial ring employed to a better purpose. As usual, sister, all the mischief in your story resulted from women; and I have always thought the influence of superstition, and of Eve’s daughters very much alike. Fools deny it openly, but wise men hardly escape from it. Let us talk of other countries, and see whether their follies have the merit of variety.” The kirk-minister shook his head, and courteously took the privilege of his age and station to offer his narrative first.