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Anna Jane Vardill

Relics of Popular Superstitions

The Spectre Harper

Those who possess records of French jurisprudence as it was in the beginning of the eighteenth century, know how much the power of magic, charms, and sorcerers, perplexed the doctors of the Sorbonne, even at that period. St. André tells us gravely, in his disquisition printed at Paris in 1725, of the antics performed by one James Noel, of Haye-du-Puis, in Normandy, about the year 1669, in company with a certain tall black man, “having horns on his head, sparkling eyes, a switch in one hand, and a lighted candle of pitch in the other.” Thus equipped, this venerable master of the ceremonies held balls al fresco in the woods by moonlight, not withstanding Judge Boguet, the Parliament of Rouen, and all the troopers that could be mustered. The great Prince of Conde himself visited a witch; and one of the fairest ladies of Louis the Fourteenth’s court was suspected of keeping a familiar imp, because she allowed her dog to sit at table with her. Let us not be surprised, therefore, if witchcraft had its believers only a few years ago in the remoter parts of this island, and if there are still some persons who exercise that magic which, as an eminent Frenchwoman once said when tried for sorcery, is the power of great minds over less.

There is in the county of Cardigan, South Wales, a parish called Llanbadarn Fawr, of great note among antiquaries. Llan, when added to the name of a saint, implies a place of worship, and the Padarn, or patron-saint, of this parish wore a gigantic coat of mail, which may be still seen in the catalogue of princely rarities kept at Caerlyon. Within the last thirty years the country resembled an open field, on which any man might keep what number of sheep he pleased; and wild horses and wild cattle ran out all the winter in common. The people, simple, hardy, and active, retained some customs very friendly to early marriages and good neighbourhood. According to one of these customs, the bailiff of the little manor of Rhydonnen came at the dawn of Easter Monday to an ancient chapel, where the young women and old champions had been seated all night, to see fair play among the wrestlers assembled there by long-established privilege. There, having rung his bell three times, the bailiff announced, in a loud voice, the intended marriage of David Gwynne and Lillian Morrison the following Saturday. Much elevation of noses and expansion of mouths happened among the swains and spinsters; and after the usual debate on the betrothed parties’ choice, the unmarried part of the assembly adjourned, as such occasions required, to the nearest inn’s parlour, where a blank book was opened for subscriptions. An ancient and bountiful Welch custom directs that the friends and neighbours of persons approaching the holy state shall furnish their tenement with the most useful articles of furniture and of bridal festivity; each giver placing his name or mark opposite the name of his gift, in a book already mentioned, which is duly kept by the wedded pair, that an article of the same kind, or equal value, may be given at his or her marriage. The benefits of this reciprocal benevolence need no comment, and the honest groupe collected at the sign of St. Curig on the day which begins my story seemed well disposed to exemplify it. But as David Gwynne had a farm of £10 per annum which fed two hundred sheep, and Lillian’s father was supposed to possess a rich mine of lead ore in his own right, the gifts on this occasion were rather tokens of good will and intended revelry than mere household equipage. Not a maiden or youth was present whose emulation or friendship did not induce him or her to subscribe the book, except one, who stood mournfully, and in silence among the crowd. This idle spectator was the betrothed bride’s cousin, Idwal ap Morris, a youth about her own age, and much resembling her in beauty, though his intellects were far inferior, and had been impaired, it was thought, by too long and disappointed dotage on his uncle’s daughter. As he had some money, and might inherit more, the damsels of Llanbadarn wondered at his failure, and saw no great deficiency in his merits. They gathered round him with a mixture of sly malice and curiosity, to ask why he did not subscribe his name to a new tea-kettle and set of china, which were wanted to complete his kinswoman’s equipment. The parish-clerk promised to provide him with a doleful elegy to send with it; and the schoolmaster added, laughing, “Let him, as Theocritus saith, offer another calf to love.”—Idwal heard these taunts without smile or word, but on the eve of the bridal day he was seen on the high road from Aberdovey to Cardigan leading a fatted calf with great care and speed. Now Fortune, willing to verify the maxim that weddings and burials are near each other, or being bountifully disposed to gratify the good people of Llanbadarn with both, brought at the same hour a magnificent hearse on that road. The most pompous and solemn part of its office was already done, and it was returning, with only one attendant, through a narrow defile in this mountainous tract, when it encountered the Welch Cymon and his companion. These, being jealous of their importance, insisted on precedence, and the driver of the black vehicle declared it waited for no man’s bidding. The dispute was referred to the usual mode of Cambrian arbitration, a wrestling-match, for which the hearse-driver alighted, and Idwal opened its door, prudently intending to deposit his calf within it as a place of safety. But at that instant another hand seized the hearse-door from within, and a skeleton face, resembling him who presides over the vehicle, put itself forth. A spectacle so unexpected and ghastly made Idwal cover his face, and exclaim, “Nay, man, I’ll not fight Death and his coachman too—In St. Gurig’s name, get ye on!”—The black caravan disappeared, and Idwal hastened forward with his nuptial offering, taking care to dip it in Ffynon Gurig, or the saints’ well, to purify it from sorcery.

A bright May-morning assembled all the assistants of a marriage-ceremony at Llanbadarn. As ancient and peculiar custom dictates, they set forth to the habitation of Lillian’s father, carrying the gifts designed to decorate   and enrich the wedding-feast in it. Kinsmen and bridemaidens came in their best attire, led by Idwal, mounted on one of the low lean horses of Cardiganshire, dressed in the ragged black cassock he had stolen from the parish-clerk, probably as a kind of mourning, or because it belonged to the best village poet, for, as he said, he came to give his cousin away to David Gwynne, and to perform the part of bard at her marriage. Cambrian ceremony requires that the bride should be carried to church by her nearest relative’s horse, after much solicitation in extempore verse, Idwal proffered himself gallantly as brideman, with a wreath of daisies and mistletoe in one hand and a bottle in the other, filled with water from St. Gurig’s well, which ensures sovereignty to the wiſe if she can obtain a draught before her husband. Lillian, looking as meek and pale as the daisies in his coronet, underwent the mimicry of a forcible conveyance to her kinsman’s rough palfry and a long ride to the parish church, followed by a mirthful assemblage on horse and foot, listening to their own jests more than to the music of a harper, to whom the bride, not unmindful of the rites of hospitality even at the happiest and busiest period of her life, had given a cup of milk and a bed of clean straw when he arrived at Llanbadarn the night before. Lillian grew paler as she entered the church, for the wreath of paper-lilies which indicates the funeral of a bride was still hanging near the altar; and the chief string of the musician’s harp broke as he passed the porch;—an omen of the direst import. It was not long unconfirmed—the bridegroom was absent, and could not be found. The confusion of surprise changed very soon among the spectators into hints and suspicions. Those who envied Lillian’s beauty remembered that her mother was not a wife, that she had no inheritance, except, perhaps, the frailty of that mother; and both or either of these truths seemed sufficient to justify her lover’s desertion. Many of the high-blooded and rigid old Welchmen swore they saw no wonder in any perfidy committed by a man who could stoop to take up a seared leaf when he might be himself the topmost branch of the tree; for David Gwynne was heir presumptive to Lillian’s father, and the sage gossips in the neighbourhood decreed that her mother was justly punished for contriving to ensnare him. All declared no better fortune ought to attend a wedding-day appointed when the bride’s father lay on his death bed; and Lillian, who had set out attended by “smiles, mouth-honour, and troops of friends,” returned forlorn and disconsolate, with all the blame usually heaped on the unfortunate. Only two of the bridal procession returned with her to her home, where her miserable mother received her with clamorous and vulgar reproaches, made more bitter by her own consciousness that she had half caused this calamity. But Idwal, who had never left Lillian’s side during her journey, interposed in her favour, not by arguments but by tears, which softened even her mother, whose love for her offspring was in proportion to the fierceness of her uncultivated nature. Perhaps in this moment of cruel disappointment, Maud would have been inclined to offer the rejected bride to her first lover, if the shame and anguish in Lillian’s eyes had not silenced her. And though an erring and hard-browed woman, she understood the modest and sorrowful distance observed by Idwal, who possessed, notwithstanding his dim intellects, that pride in pure blood which distinguishes Wales. Night came, while Lillian, her mother, and her kinsman, were still brooding over their affliction together, but without any interchange of thought, when old Nicol Penmawl entered, the only lawyer who found bread in the village. The poor girl would have hidden herself, but he intimated that his visit concerned her; and after a preface which even his hard heart deemed necessary, he explained, that David Gwynne would not fulfill his promise of marriage to Lillian, unless her father signed an absolute and entire deed of gift in his favour. She replied nothing, and wept in agony while her mother burst into a furious invective against Gwynne’s selfishness and treachery: adding, that he well knew how completely she might have shut him from his succession by obtaining a bequest of all to her daughter.—“That is well said, Mistress Maud.” said the man of law—“but it behoves a crow to take care of his nest when a hen sparrow has crept into it. Old Arthur Morris has great love for you, and my client must know what money is left, and where it is. Let Lillian’s father give all to her, and she may give it to her husband.”

This hint was sufficiently intelligible. Maud received it with a churlish sort of smile, and Idwal with a cry of antic joy, as if in his zeal to comfort his disgraced cousin, he had forgotten that such a gift would deprive him of all share in his uncle’s wealth, on which he depended for subsistence. They took Lillian, notwithstanding her tears and resistance, into another chamber, where her father lay in the heedless stupor which had hung on him many years. Maud had been a miser’s concubine too long not to know when and how to be a virago. She pointed to her weeping and dishevelled daughter, accused him of barring her marriage by his avarice, and beckoning the lawyer, who had come prepared with a deed of gift in due form, urged him, with shrill and vehement entreaties, to sign it. The infirm old man, whose life and intellects were wasted to their last spark, suddenly raised himself from his mattrass, drew aside the long loose hair which poor Lillian had shaken over her face, and seemed endeavouring to recollect her. Then his eyes fixed themselves on her mother, whose harsh features were reddened by the light she held over the parchment she required him to sign. “Woman,” said he, laying his hand on it with a quivering and convulsive grasp, “I do give thee all—all ye have come here to ask for—Thou hast shut my gate against my first-born, and driven him from my hearth—so thy own children’s children shall have neither gate nor hearth, kindred nor guardians, except among wild kites and ravens. Thou hast been an adder in my house, and the wolf will come into thine.” Maud trembled, and drew back; and Arthur, pointing to the meagre attorney, whom he probably mistook, in the disorder of his darkening ideas, for his presumptive heir, added, “David Gwynne, thou hast come into my land to make my child poor—see that thy own be not wanderers, and cast out. Take my land, and feed the worms in it.”—The last contortion of death mingled with the grim smile of vindictive scorn as he spoke, and his eyes stiffened before the sudden flash of ire had faded in them. He expired, and Lillian’s mother, after a few hysteric screams, vented her impotent grief and rage on the man of law, who skulked away from the storm, satisfied that his client might now possess the wealth he coveted without the penalty of marriage. He left the house muttering. “David Gwynne will be well quit of both these shrews. A man must live in fire who keeps a she tiger.”

Maud understood this inuendo, and it roused her ready spirit of invention and enterprize to save her daughter and defeat her enemy. The deed engrossed by Penmawl lay still on old Arthur Morris’s bed clenched in his hand, which had grasped it in the last pang of existence. Why should not his name be added, since that alone was wanting to give Lillian possession of her father’s estate, and to punish her mercenary lover?—It was a precious and irrecoverable crisis, which her mother determined not to lose. Suddenly she remembered the vagrant harper who had begged a night’s lodging among the straw in her outhouse; and calling him from his slumber, she asked if he could write his name as witness to a trifling paper. But this man, whose eyes had something awful and preternatural in them, replied sternly, “Thy daughter gave me milk in her prosperity, and I will give her bread in her affliction. When the morning star shines, dig under this straw, and that which is sought shall be found.” He departed as he spoke, and Maud, no less superstitious than corrupt, was careful to obey him. She searched secretly, and discovered a small leathern bag containing a paper, on which was distinctly written, “I give all to Lillian Ap Morris.” It had no witnesses, but the signature resembled old Arthur’s, and she determined to assert that it was his hand-writing, as its date was the present day. His death was not announced till a late hour of the following, when the presumptive heir came, as our female Machiavel expected, to claim his inheritance, and was tauntingly shewn the paper which consigned it wholly to Lillian.

But the farthest calculations of knavery are soon baffled, as the most cunning animals are short sighted. Instead of proffering marriage again to his deserted bride, David Gwynne established a protest against the validity of her father’s last deed. Maud and Idwel were arrested on suspicion; but Lillian absconded with such speed and secrecy as to baffle the strict search made for her while a court of justice examined the deed, to which her mother had given all the semblance of forgery by asserting more than the truth. It was one of the thousand cases that perplex and dishonour human judgment. David Gwynne’s attorney was, as I have said, the most prosperous one in Llanbadarn, perhaps because one of the most crafty, yet he could not disprove Maud’s assertion that Arthur Morris had survived the moment which he thought his last, and the signature resembled his crooked and confused hand-writing. But though Idwal bore his examination with stubborn, and sometimes shrewd, zeal in Lillian’s favour, his imperfect intellect betrayed him into hints which discovered the harper’s share in the transaction. That imperfect intellect saved him from the fatal consequences of the forgery, when it seemed undeniably proved. Pardon, in consideration of her age and other circumstances, was granted to Maud, whose sins and struggles for the advancement of her daughter ended in utter ruin. She survived only a few days, and Lillian was seen no more.

But the total disappearance of the harper, who had acted so remarkable a part in this transaction, could not be explained. All the bridal crowd at Llanbadarn had noticed his lean unearthly aspect, and none knew, or could conjecture, how he came, except the driver of the hearse I have once mentioned, who remembered that a spectre-shape in such attire had travelled some miles in his vehicle, with an air of composure which implied too intimate acquaintance with the dead. This shadowy harper, therefore, was pronounced to be the ghost or spirit of old Arthur Morris, which had visited the church and hovered round his house before his decease, according to the usual privileges of such apparitions. But as signing wills is not among the allowed performances of shadows, this busy phantom spread deep terror among the rustics of this district, and neither the road where it had journied, nor the chapel where its music had been heard, were ever entered after twilight. Strange melodies were said to sound in the lonely hollow called Eorphlan, or the place of the dead, near the river Rheidiol, and death-lights appeared on its banks; from whence the simple natives concluded that Lillian had taken refuge from shame and penury under its waters. No human resident ventured to settle near them, except a creature so withered and wild in its attire that it hardly could be called female. As this creature seemed old, poor, and desolate, the few who lived in the neighbourhood called her the Witch of Rheidiol, or the Water Sprite, though she made no pretension to magic power except begging milk or bread, and paying for it only with a blessing. Either fear or charity induced the poor cottagers to be liberal in their gifts of food; and dances no less marvellous than the black ballet-master’s in Normandy, were said to be performed at midnight on the river. But these tales did not prevent a traveller from paying a visit to these unhallowed places, to see the rainbow and arrowy light often visible there at the noon of night. This traveller, whom I shall call Judge Lloyd, because that name was afterwards borne by a man who resembled him in firmness and sagacity, pursued his way between two walls of rock divided by a little stream, which suddenly leaped through a narrow rent and escaped from sight. He forced himself through the chasm, tempted by a light which shone far within a kind of cavern roofed with sloping rocks, and furnished with a porch composed of dwarf sycamores, whose branches were knit into a pleasant treillis. Here he stopped to reconnoitre, hearing a plaintive voice singing a remnant of ancient Cambrian poetry ascribed to Llywarch Hen, the Bard of Arthur’s court.

“Y ddeilen hon neus cynnired gwynt
Gwae hi o’ hi thinged
Hi hen!” &c.

“This leaf, is it not blown about by the wind?
Woe to it for its fate!
Alas, it is old!......
The hall of Cyndyllan is gloomy this night,
Without a covering, without a fire......
He is dead, and I, alas! am living......
That hearth.... will it not be covered with nettles?
Whilst its defender lived,
It warmed the hearts of petitioners.”

The traveller had heard these words in the best days of his youth, and he sighed at their strange concurrence with some passages of his secret history. As his curiosity was sustained by a benevolent desire to discover the reputed haunts of witchcraft, and as music promises gentleness, he hazarded a step towards the threshold. But a lean hag-like figure, attired in the ragged remnant of a black silk cassock, brandished a formidable staff across his path. To the Judge’s courteous question, this hideous sentinel replied, “Nid ychwi mo mhabsanti;” signifying, “Thou art not my patron-saint or confessor;” and added, with something like the fervent wildness of an ancient bard, “If thou comest to wound the sleeping fawn, beware lest the stag trample on thee.” The intrepid Judge only answered by uncovering his face, and looking stedfastly at his opponent, who fell prostrate at his feet with a try of terror which brought forth the inhabitants of the hut—Lillian and her child! She instantly recognized the spectre-harper, but till he had embraced her a thousand times, and recalled to her memory almost as many forgotten circumstances, she did not believe or recognise her only brother, the long lost adventurer who had left his father’s home in his early youth. Since her deep disgrace, she had lived in this solitude, fed and sheltered by the ideot Idwal, whose fantastic and half-feminine attire gained him the homage paid to witchcraft, and enabled him to preserve their abode from detection. Faithful to that devout affection which seemed the only unchangeable instinct of his wandering mind, and the sole occupation of his life, he had built her hut, begged her bread, and watched her steps as a doe watches her young, when all else had abandoned her to famine and despair. “My father prophecied in his anger,” said Lillian, “that my child should have neither gate nor hearth, and be nestled among wild ravens: but it has found bread in their nests, and they are more merciful than the world to a sinner.”—“You shall return to the world,” answered the good Judge, “and find it never denies respect to modest and sincere penitence. No part of the guilt of forgery rests on your head or on Idwal’s. The harper’s dress was a safe disguise when I came back unexpected to a home where I had no friends; but I signed a name which belonged to me, and only gave you by that deed of gift what my father’s death, I knew, had entitled me to give. The sentence shall be repealed, the avaricious heir displaced, and the world will laugh to see justice administered by a Spectre Harper.”


(To be continued)

The European Magazine, Vol. 75, April 1819, pp. 297-301