The Witching Hour
Be Careful With Your Imagination!
Draw your cloke tight about you before you read this tale, and draw up your knees to your chest because if you feel the chills and dread that people in ancient Yorkshire felt when they saw a witch, you will want the comfort and warmth that your cloke provides, for it will save you from falling victim to the sorceress.
While you are fetching your woven cloke of woollen stuff, I will tell you things you must know about the witches of olden days, and then when you are comfortable and safe, I will tell you about Jeanie the witch of Mulgrave Wood, but first you there are some things that you must know about witches in general, because if you do not know, then life will never make sense to you.
The word ‘witch’ is a noun - or name - for someone, almost always a woman, who was believed to have special powers to interfere in the smooth running of people’s lives. If anyone asks me whether I believe in witches or not, I say, “Of course not! ” because I do not believe that anyone has the power to cast spells and make my crops rot in the ground, or my cattle die, or stop my hens laying, make Wolverhampton Wanderers lose another game, or make my children sick. “What nonsense!” I tell them. “I stopped believing in witches when I was – er – twenty-five!”
Anyway, back then people not only believed in witches but they feared them. They thought they had magical powers, and so they were very careful not to upset a witch or to be unkind to her cat. Ah, yes, her cat! Witches had cats, and they were always supposed to be black ones. But they were not ordinary cats, oh no! A black cat was a witch’s ‘spirit familiar.’ A familiar was an evil spirit [I would have said ‘malignant spirit,’ but you would not have known what I meant] that told the witch things that only spirits who wander abroad and make themselves invisible can know.
Familiars saw where the miser hid his store of gold. They overheard young swains plighting their troths to blushing maidens by the cow byre, and arranging their next tryst. They knew that farmer George Aston and his wife were having their seventh child and having already six sons dearly wanted a daughter. Familiars knew when people were to visit a house, and discovered other important things, such as when Squire Jones was to make a much-needed gift to the schoolhouse. In fact, there was nothing happening or, more importantly, nothing that was going to happen, that the witch did not know about, because her cat always told her everything.
I can think of several reasons to have a familiar, because it is sometimes beneficial to know what is coming up, so that we can be ready for whatever it is. I have had several black cats, but none of then told me anything. They only tolerated me because I fed them and stroked their fur. I must have got the wrong kind of black cat.
Good – you have your cloke. Pull it a little tighter around your throat, because this tale scares me and I already know it! One last thing about witches and then off we go into the tale. Witches lived outside the villages away from people, and were bad-tempered and insolent.
They were old women whose backs were bent almost double with the weight of their years, and whose arteries had been hardened by time. Old age also played tricks with their hearing, turned their eyes misty, and caused their bones to creak as they shuffled their painful ways to dig in their vegetable patch, or gather sticks for the fire to boil their cauldron of vegetable stew. Meat was hard to come by.
If you want to know the truth - NO! It is too early to tell you the truth just yet. Read on and that will come later, I promise.
”I cross my heart
And hope to die,
If I tell a lie.”
There – that’s a promise that cannot be broken. Now for the story of Jeanie, the witch of Mulgrave Wood, who some have called ‘The Wicked Witch.’
Jeanie lived all alone in a cave, called Hob’s Cave, close by Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, hard by a village called Biggersdale. She terrorised the countryside by casting spells and screaming incantations and was greatly feared. Whenever things happened that no one could explain any other way, they said it was Jeanie, but being afraid of her they could not do anything about it. She was one of the facts of life for people whose imaginations often led them into dark paths.
For example, if the miser misplaced a few of his gold coins, he knew that Jeanie had taken them. If the young swain fell over a hog on his way to meet his sweetheart and broke his leg, it was Jeanie’s fault. When Anne Aston produced her seventh son, Jeanie got the blame, and when John Thrympton’s house incinerated the day before his rich uncle was to stay with them – and perhaps leave a generous dowry so that his daughter would not be left on the shelf – everyone knew that it was Jeanie getting in the way of their happiness. When Squire Jones delivered his gift to the schoolmaster so that new desks and slates could be purchased, everyone sighed with relief. Jeanie missed that one! However, when the master disappeared with the cash and was never seen again, guess who got blamed? That’s right – Jeanie!
When the local farmers had more than their share of troubles, with calves born dead, sheep that wandered off and were eaten by wayfarers, barns burned down, the blight hit the barley, and the horses spavined, they all knew who to blame but no one dared do anything about it. But when things got worse, one of the farmers who, it is said, was too young to know any better, decided that he was just the chap to put an end to Jeanie’s witchcrafting and widespread depredations.
Some people believe themselves to be a cut above the rest and possessed of special qualities with which lesser mortals are not endowed, and Peter Trencher was such a fellow. He imagined that he could slay dragons, rescue fair damsels from stone towers, beat ogres at fisticuffs, and run faster than a giant wearing seven-league boots could run! He thought he was handsome too, and he was wrong about that as well.
Now, dear reader, before you start getting sympathy with the witch for being targeted by this would-be derring-doer, remember that in these old tales, witches are the villains! Try to keep that straight in your mind. Now, to continue:
Having saddled his horse, he trotted out astride the beast to Mulgrave Wood to put a stop to the bad witch and all the bad luck she cast around the district. Although he thought of himself as a bold and fearless warrior – rather than the smelly I pig farmer that he was – he felt tinglings of fear running up and down his spine and his hair stood on end under his hat as he rode through the darkness of the ill-lit wood to dispatch the witch. Then, his face began to twitch, and his neck began to itch, and all that have felt afraid will know how that feels.
His plan was to knock her down with his heavy blackthorn staff that had on its sides so many thick bumps and knots that he would surely kill her and so the nonsense would stop. These were savage times, and the situation so grievous that desperate measures had to be taken to remedy the maladies with which the witch had stirred the community. “The stick.” said Trencher to himself, “The stick will do the trick!” He gripped it harder as he dodged low branches that threatened to take off his nose, his hat, and his head with them.
Soon – “Too soon!” he thought – he found himself outside Hob’s Cave, the home of the Wicked Witch. He did not dismount, but still astride his horse he went over his checklist to be sure he knew what to do to abate the plague that flew out of her cave as sure as do bats at evening fly from theirs and infest the whole country round about. He would not say that he was scared out of his wits, but you would say that about him if you could have heard his heard beating like a drum! His list was:
- First, summon the crone and get off horse.
- Second, tie up nag to yon willow tree.
- Third, hold knobkerrie at its lean end.
- Fourth, locate Jeanie’s head [note to self: this must be accurate!].
- Fifth, swing club back and bring down on her grey head with might and main.
- Sixth, hit her until sure she is departed.
- Seventh, slay her familiar.
- Eighth, search the cave for gold and treasure.
- Ninth, gather the booty and ride home singing ‘Hey Nonny Nonny Nay!’
Satisfied that he knew what was to be done, and in what order, he called out in his loudest voice through his cupped hands towards Hob’s Cave, “Jeanie, you ugly bat-faced witch, come and meet your doom, and say your fare-thee-well to all who love you, for after this night’s work you’ll trouble God-worthy folk no more. Come on, you harridan of Hades, you hellion of Hell, you maker of martyrs, you drosser of dreams, you mistress of murrains! Come and meet Trencher the reaper of doom and see what gift he has for you to make your dreams all at peace!”
Before he had chanced to dismount such awful noises and fearful forms flew from the cavemouth that he thought all Hell was loosing and the air filled with appearances that he knew all the way down to the soles of his boots were out to eat him and his horse! The very sky was screaming at him with a thousand voices, and the noise of the wind in the tops of the trees sounded like the flesh being torn from dead men’s bones.
It is not improper to share with you the fact that Peter Trencher was petrified and terrified more than he had ever been before. Everything was all of a whirl. The darkness of the night was blacker than ever known in measured time, and the trees bending down their limbs towards him menacing with twigged finger to grasp his throat and squeeze out the last petrified drop of his gasping breath.
Fear makes men do strange things, and by the time he realised that all he saw and heard was really wild Jeanie rushing at him headlong uttering terrible cries and unearthly curses that would scare a banshee to death, he knew that he had but one advantage, and that was to spur his horse and gallop home to safety.
He dropped his executioner’s knocker and, turning his mount towards Biggersdale he dug his heels into his flank and drove him hard. Instead of the witch being slaughtered, it was his promise to his friends that dissolved along with whatever courage he had managed to summon up for the quest. He knew he would go home disgraced, but he would go home. As his horse thundered and crashed through the ericoidally interlaced undergrowth, getting home was all that mattered.
As if driven by the horned god himself, Jeanie stayed right on the heels of the charger and could not be shaken off. Trencher feared that with her speed she would overtake him and strike him with her wand, and he knew that if she did, he would be a dead man and beyond help. In the strength of this dread he urged his tiring horse onwards, and the faithful beast gave all that he had in him.
He was losing hope of escaping from the fatal touch of the infuriated termagant and her bloodthirsty artefact when in the midst and confusion of his blind panic he remembered that if he could get across running water before she caught him, he would be safe. The brook was still some way off, but it was all downhill now, so he hoped to gather speed and beat her to it.
His horse had never galloped as fast as he did then. And all the while the witch was close behind threatening dire punishments and curses, and saying which bits she would chop off his feeble frame when she caught up with him. When he looked across his shoulder he saw her writhing face in an ghostly light, and each time she was uglier than the time before, although he did not believe it possible, yet he saw what he saw.
As for the horse, his poor legs were cut to bleeding with briars and his chest lashed with wild branches that blocked his way as he crashed through the thickets driven on by his desperate rider. The downhill got steep, steeper, and then steeperer until horse and rider moved at the speed of a peregrine falcon diving at its prey. But the gaunt pursuer, still furiously cursing him, stayed close behind however fast they went, closing in as a speeding spear moves to strike down a victim. Her wand raised above her head disclosed her intention for his extinction when she drew level with him.
Then, miraculously, he reached the water’s edge. With an exultant shout of, “I am safe! Fie on you, Jeanie, you malignant monster, thou separator of body and breath, you cursed curser, you ugly bracken brandisher, you wandering and wicked wand waver.”
In full cry he spurred his horse to draw from it one final grand exertion, and into the middle of the stream it plunged. “Aha!” he exclaimed in triumph at having been carried beyond the reach of his tormentor, “Safe, at last!” And so he was, for the Wicked Witch could not now reach him with her sorcerers’ wand. He was safe indeed, but only just. But, hear how close he came to destruction, and what befell his gallant mount.
Jeanie reached the river bank the moment the horse left it, and though she could not reach the rider she struck the animal on its flank as it splashed into the water. Her wand was so powerfully enchanted with the Black Arts that it cut the wretched horse in half, and the back half of the horse fell lifeless into the water. But the front half carried the young man to safety on the far shore before it also fell lifeless on the greensward.
From that time onwards, although the folks at Biggersdale had their share of misfortunes, they did not speak Jeanie’s name as the cause. And no one ever thought it would be wise to do her in. Instead, they applied the policy of ‘Live and let live,’ and life went on its usual hard way, as life always does, and Peter Trencher having learned the hard way that ‘discretion is the better part of valour’ remained discrete for the remainder of his long and settled life.
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