The Witch's Switch by Anonymous

There's nobody dies, but somebody's glad of it; few people, as I think, but have one person standing between them and what they look upon as comfort or happiness, or something or other they desire, but don't want, for all that, may be. Duck Davie was with me yesterday, foaming away like the sea against a rock it can't master and what for, think you? Why, then, only because his wife looks so well and won't die to plaze him. It's my belief he'd be glad to be rid of her, though she half keeps him, and is loved far and near. She does all the little good she can, in the way of nursing the sick, and so forth; and she saved Duck Davie's own life three times, by her knowledge of herbs, and the million-and-one ailments of our poor mortal bodies.

But Duck don't like her;—I'd be spaking what wasn't the truth if I said that he did: and why should I tell a lie on Duck Davie?—I won't on him, or any man if I know it. When he married her she was not young,—that is, full thirty,—but trim and good-looking, which is more than could be said of himself any day of his life; for he has a big nob on his face for a nose, and a mouth so wide that it would be fearful to look at, if he laughed: but Davie is either too discreet or too ill-tempered, morning, noon, and night, to be jovial. He drinks, but don't ever get merry over his cups: and yet his little grey eyes twinkles, and he puckers the wrinkles in great folds about them, and you hear an odd noise in his throat sometimes, when he's tould of a trick, that's malicious and droll, being played off by the boys on any of the ould women he knows. His knee-bands is always loose, and his big coat hitched over his shoulders; he wears red sleeves to his waistcoat, with ragged edges that reach to his finger-knuckles; and shoes—not brogues—but shoes, down at heel. He never takes his ould grey hat off his bald head but to pull on his night-cap. He's round-shouldered and short, but stout and strong for his age, which is on the grave side of sixty; and the fronts of his knees is turned in, and they jostle one another; and his feet are broad and flat, with the heels far out and in front, instead of being behind; and this—poor man!—makes him waddle oddly: he's none the worse for that though. After this pedigree of his appearance, most likely you'd know Duck if you met him.

I forgot a thing or two in him that's remarkable:—he turns his head to and fro eternally, as if he were looking for some one, whether he's alone or in company; and even when his eyes twinkles, as I tould you, or if they're sparkling with passion, there's something in them all the while that reminds you of a dog's look when he knows he has done wrong and expects to be whipped.

Davie was tolerably fond of his wife for many long years after he'd married her; but though she does little or nothing to vex him, that I know of, Duck don't like her, now she's got ould any one with half an eye could see that, if Davie didn't own it himself, which he does. It's the way o' the world, you'll say: a man that's passed the prime of life forgets his own wrinkles, though those of his wife, that's about the same age as himself, are day after day staring him in the face;—he sees her years, but if he can walk about, and eat, and get his health two months out of the twelve, he won't let himself fancy he feels his own. That's not altogether the case with Davie; it may be so in part, but not entirely; at least, so thinks them that knows his story.

From the time he first knew the use of a button, it's said Duck Davie had a deep-rooted grudge against ould women; they have always been at war with him, and he with them. Duck lost his daddy before he saw the light; and his mother died when he was weaned, or awhile after. She had an ould aunt, who took the boy under her wing, and did what she could for him, in her way: but, by all accounts, her temper was such that a cat couldn't live with her; and if little Duck Davie's heart was kind as that of a lamb by nature, there's no doubt she ruined it; if it was bad before, she couldn't do otherwise than make it worse. A more terrible Turk in petticoats, and on a small scale, never walked; but after awhile she got little good of Duck. She seemed to live for no other purpose than to vex and thwart and make the poor little fellow miserable. There was no soul but the boy, to take off the scum and bitterness of her temper; and, by-and-by, Duck began to think of nothing but how to pay off the long score he felt he owed her. He should have put up with any thing, you may say, and been grateful for her protecting him, and ate his crust, though it was sopped in vinegar, with thanks and meekness: may be, he ought; I won't argue it one way or another, but simply tell you, he didn't.

The few acquaintance Duck's grand-aunt had, was folks of her own age as well as sex, and having a spice of her own temper: to them she tould all Duck's delinquencies, and they joined her in abusing him; and, what was worse, often helped her to belabour him. Little Davie hadn't a disposition to be reclaimed from his bad ways by a broomstick; may be, kindness might have done better, but it never was tried on him: so on he wint, from bad to worse, and, by the time he was twelve years ould, hated every woman he met who'd a grey head and wrinkled face. He looked upon them as his natural enemies, and did all he could to vex and perplex them.

By-and-by, Duck was put out to a tailor; and he'd done with his grand-aunt, and all other ould women, for ever, as he hoped. But, no;—when he got to his master's house, which he never entered till he was bound, little Duck discovered that his mistress was as crooked with age, and almost as crooked in temper as his grand-aunt. When her first husband died, she just did what many a widow, with a good house and trade left her, has done before and since,—married her foreman. He was a stout, brawny blade, having nothing but his needle to depend upon, but good-looking, and not above thirty.

In the second year of Duck's apprenticeship, a mighty remarkable event happened him; and I'll tell you what it was presently, if you'll wait. He behaved himself, and liked the place, and his fellow-'prentices, and his master too, for many months. Ould Alice, his mistress, was no sourer with him than with the others, all this time: but at last she began to single him out-just as he'd feared she would—as a natural prey to one of her age and sex. She used him, by degrees, worse and worse, until Duck convinced himself he was bound in justice to them feelings he had of his own, to turn upon her, when he could slyly, and annoy her as often as an opportunity for doing so, without danger, occurred. At length, ould Alice smarted under his malicious tricks to such a degree that she grew a fury almost; and the worse she behaved to him, the worse he behaved to her:—for Duck was always obstinate. He'd bad luck though, to meet with such a match for his grand-aunt as ould Alice; hadn't he?—Now for the event I promised to tell you about.

One day, Duck was sent on an errand by his mistress, but instead of getting back quick, as she wished him, though he knew she was just standing on thorns till he got home to tell her what was said to her message, what does he do but turn away out of the road into a field, to pick thistles to put in her bed, the next time he might think fit to be offended.—In one corner of the field was a big hollow tree,—an oak, I believe, but it don't matter,—and under it lay an ould woman: her brown skinny arms were half covered with a ragged cloak, and her face was partly hid by a few straggling grey locks of hair, which had escaped from under her bonnet. Instinct made Duck approach, and when he got near the tree, a puff of wind blew up the grey hair, and Duck saw that her eyes were closed. Her snoring satisfied him that she wasn't dead, while it convinced him that she was fast asleep; and his fingers itched to give her a touch of his tormenting talents.

A stick, stuck upright in the ground, close by the ould woman's side, attracted Duck Davie's notice, when he got behind the tree: "What's this?" thinks he, examining it, and feeling a little afraid or so, at the looks of it;—and you wouldn't wonder, if you saw it yourself; for they say it was an odd, outlandish staff, made of wood that never grew in a Christian land, thick, twisted, tall as a middling man, and with as ugly a face carved on it as ever you saw in a dream after taking a tough supper—no nightmare's could be worse. Bat Boroo's big stick, the mention of which made me think of the story I'm now telling you, was just a bit of a baby's twig, compared with the ugly cudgel Duck Davie saw that day sticking up in the field.

Duck, as I said, was a little dashed at first, but he soon got heart, and, says he to himself, "It is but her stick she's stuck up there, like a centinel, to scare away the boys from teazing her while she sleeps; but I'll just teach her that I'm not to be come over so aisily."

Upon this, with a long barley-straw, from behind the tree where he was, Dick began to tickle and teaze the ould woman's nose, that was almost as rough and as prickly as the ear of the straw.—Did you ever get your nose tickled that way while you were asleep?—If you didn't, take my word for it, and upon my honour and conscience, it's far from pleasant; and so the ould woman found it. She scratched her nose with her long blue nails, muttered a curse upon the flies, and snored again.—Duck was in his glory; he tickled as before, and the ould woman opened her eyes, but he shrunk behind the tree, and didn't breathe: so she dropped off once more. The third time he touched her she awoke at once, and from what she said, and her preparing to get up, Duck knew she was sure of being teazed by something bigger than a fly: so, for fear of anything unpleasant, he moved off, and ran away across the field, chuckling in his own mind at the fine fun he'd had.

When he got within a step or two of the gate, Duck heard a sound with which he was very well acquainted—I mane that of a stick descending with force upon his back; and within much less than a quarter of a second, he felt such a blow across his shoulders as he didn't get for many's the long day. He looked behind, thinking to see the ould woman, who he now thought was a witch, close at his heels; but no—it was only her stick!—There it stood, staring him full in the face, though its owner was yet but a little distance from the tree, and hobbling towards him, in such a weak way, that Duck felt sure she couldn't have had strength to throw it. Don't think that, while he observed this, Duck wasn't wriggling his shoulders to and fro, and bellowing lustily with the pain of the thwack. It wasn't a little that would make him cry; but roar he did, this while, as loud as ever he roared in his life.

Not knowing what to make of this that had happened him, while the stick stood where it did, he was afraid to turn his back to it again; and there he was, still wriggling and roaring, when the ould woman came up. The state she found Duck in seemed to give her great satisfaction: she took the point of the stick out of the ground, and clasping it round the middle to support herself, gnashed her toothless gums up in Duck's face, and, for his malicious tricks to her that day,—waking her when she was weary, as he did,—promised him a taste of her switch whenever he worried an ould woman again. With this she tottered off, and Duck sneaked home, blubbering as he went, expecting to be saluted with a blow of either the ladle or the sleeve-board, for delaying: but he was disappointed, for he got both;—one from ould Alice, and the other from her husband.

All that happened Duck Davie I can't tell you;—it must only be a bit here and there, and with that I hope you'll content yourself; or may be you don't like him, and the less you hear of him the better plazed you'll be.—Maybe, though, you're like me:

I don't like the man much, but his story don't displaze me; so I'll go to the next thing I recollect hearing of him.—I mustn't pass on though without mentioning how surprised Duck was not to find any mark of the blow he got in the field: he expected his back was well wealed, and so he might;—but it wasn't. "Here's the bump on my head," says he to himself, "from the ladle, and here's the mark of the edge of the sleeve-board; but where's that of the switch, as the ould woman called it?—Now I'm sure she's a witch, or else why wouldn't her blow mark me, as well as them that I got from my master and mistress?"

After this, Duck was as quiet as ould Alice would let him be for a month or more; but then he began again, and you'll hear how it was:—his mistress was well to do in the world, and had her house filled with what's useful; and to tell the truth of her, though stingy in some things, a good housewife—so she was. Duck had a power of fellow-'prentices, for his master did half the work of the town he lived in; and the boys was destructive, as boys will be,—won't they?—Alice was proud of her plates; but they broke them away about this time, at such a rate, by accident and what not, that she was determined to put a stop to it: so what does she do but give orders that no one should use a sound plate, but ate off the broken ones! And when she found one of the boys doing wrong this way, he got a crack on the head with the ladle for his disobadience. One day, Duck wouldn't give himself the pains to look for a broken plate; it was a mischievous moment with him, and ould Alice had just before threatened him for something; so he took down a whole plate from the dresser, and qualified it for his use, by breaking a piece off its edge. The moment he did it, Duck felt a very disagreeable sensation in his shoulders. You'll guess the witch kept her word, and that it was the switch touched him. Faith! then, you're right; there stood the weapon, with its evil-looking head, at Duck's back, though no sign of the old crature herself could he see. And what does the switch do, after Duck had stared at it a little, but make him a polite reverence, face about, jump head foremost out of the window that was open, and hop off down the garden walk, like a man would who had but one leg and that a wooden one.

After Duck had done bellowing, and the pain of the blow was gone off, he felt his back, but it was as smooth as the innumerable drubbings he'd got from one and another had left it. He then asked everybody if they'd seen a stick, with a big black head, hop into the window or go down the garden: but he only got laughed at; and when he tould a pair of his fellow-'prentices in confidence what had happened him, and why it was, they jeered him, and tried to persuade him he was telling lies, or going mad but he wouldn't believe them, for he had seen the switch with his own eyes, and felt the blow with his own back. The two 'prentices, however, reported the trick to the rest; and from that day, in imitation of Duck Davie, when they couldn't or wouldn't find a broken plate, they knocked a piece out of a sound one. Duck saw them do this often and often, but the switch didn't strike them; and he began to feel sorry that ever he'd tickled the rough nose of an ould witch with a straw.

Time wint on, and ould Alice at last found out the trick of the broken crockery, and who it was put the 'prentices up to it; so poor Duck was in a worse pickle than ever, but didn't dare to indulge himself in mischief against his mistress, for fear of the switch. At last, however, he could bear her behaviour no longer, and resolved to terrify her out of three or four years of her natural life, happen what would after it. What brought him to this was a practice of her's, in the cold mornings of winter, which was now come on, of punishing him for the misdeeds of his companions. You'll hear how she managed it. An hour before day-break, without much disturbing her husband, who didn't get up for long after, she'd take a pole that stood by her bed-side, and strike the beam that wint across the ceiling with it, to wake up the boys that slept in a big room above. Sometimes they wouldn't wake; and then she'd go up to them herself, and feeling about in the dark, get hould of the nose that lay nearest the door; that nose she knew well enough was Duck Davie's; and when she had it in her horny fingers, she'd pull it till Duck roared with the pain loud enough to wake himself and all his fellow-'prentices. This way she got two or three of her ends at once:—she vented her spite on Duck, punished one of the delinquents, and awoke the rest. Duck didn't like it; and after he'd been served so twice, vowed revenge, in his own mind, if she did it again. Well, the very next morning, while Duck was dreaming of tickling the witch's nose, up came his ould mistress, and performed as before upon his. Let Duck be as bad as he would, this wasn't well of her, at any rate; and if he did play her a trick after that, I won't say she didn't more than half deserve it. One of the 'prentices said that he'd been awake, with a whitlow on his thumb, for an hour before, and he'd swear the mistress hadn't knocked at all that morning: so it was a piece of spite on her part, that day at least, to punish Duck; and if he wasn't determined before, he certainly became so on hearing this, and wint to work at once on a plan he had laid down for the occasion.

Alice, you'll recollect, had been a widow: her first husband's picture, larger, if anything, than life,—as little men's pictures usually are,—was hung up in the parlour while he was alive; but after Alice got married again, and a year or two had gone by, somehow it found its way into a lumber room, at the top of the house. Duck discovered it in his rambles; and with it, in the same room, three or four suits which the ould tailor had left off in his life-time, a cocked hat he wore on high days and holidays, and a smooth cane he carried on Sundays. These were all fine matarials, and Duck didn't fail to make use of them. He claned and patched up a suit of the clothes, brushed the hat, scoured the cane, made an effigy of straw, and dressed it up mighty nate and all that,—for Duck, though obstinate and dull at his trade, was 'cute and ingenious in all sorts of mischief-making. When he'd got so far, he cut the face out of the picture, washed it with something till it looked as good as new, fixed it into the neck of the figure, with the hat on its brow, and a white cravat under its chin. He then fastened the cane, by manes of an ould glove, to the cuff of the right sleeve; and while the master was out one night, brought it down stairs, propped it up against the parlour door, and then giving a knock, got away in the dark. When the ould woman opened the door, the figure bent forward, with the hat on its head and the cane in its hand, just as though it would enter, and looking for all the world like life itself!

Ould Alice shrieked, but Duck had taken care no one should come to her, for he'd locked and barred the entrance from that part of the house were the 'prentices and servants were, to the passage which led to the parlour. But Alice wasn't the only one who made a great noise in the house that night. The moment she first cried out, at seeing what she thought was the ghost of the late tailor, her husband, and all the while she lay screaming in the parlour, Duck Davie was keeping time with her in the passage, by shouting under the blows of the switch, which belaboured him this time, so unmercifully, that he took up the figure, and got away with it out of the house.

Duck Davie never darkened the tailor's door again: he travelled all night on foot, resolving to find some place, if he could, where there was no ould women to torment or tempt him, or where the witch's switch couldn't reach his shoulders. He got harbour and work elsewhere, and wint on for a few years tolerably well, considering all things; but he found to his cost that there was ould women everywhere, and it wasn't aisy to get away from the switch he dreaded. Elderly persons of the fair sex were occasionally vexatious to him; and his disposition now and then broke out so as to summon the switch to his shoulders.

At last, Duck Davie became a man,—as boys will, you know, in years, at least, if not in discretion; and he made up his mind to try if he couldn't rid himself of the switch that haunted him. We'll see how he succeeded.

It happened one morning, after he had been brooding over his misfortunes all night, that he drank a little more than was wholesome on a fasting stomach, and did something, almost without knowing it, that produced a slight bruise on his shoulders from the switch. He turned round upon it at once, and resolved to see if he couldn't master it. He began to belabour it, before it had time to make its bow and hop off, as though it was flesh and blood like himself; but only broke his own knuckles against its hard head. He then tried to capture it, but the switch bent and writhed in his grasp like an eel, got clear out of his hands, and then, hopping back a little, gave Duck Davie a blow in the stomach with its head, as he was advancing to make another attack, that laid him flat on the ground. It then made its bow to him where he lay, and hopped off.

Instead of disheartening, this interview irritated obstinate Davie; and the next day, he brought the switch to him again, by purposely tripping up an ould woman's heels who hadn't done him a ha'p'orth of evil. There was a holy well, which ran into a broad stream near the place where this happened, and before the switch had given him a second blow, which he knew he deserved, Duck had gripped it tight to his breast and carried it to the bank. He cast it into the stream, hoping of course to see it sink; but it swam back like a fish,—landed,—finished the drubbing it owed Duck, and hopped away without giving him a chance of getting hould of it again!

It was full five years before Duck Davie had another affray with the switch, which in all that time never failed fearlessly to visit him as often as he offended. It was on All Souls' eve when he had his next fight with it. He did that which brought it for the purpose, and resolutely grappled it with both hands, just under the chin, as soon as it appeared. Some say that it bate Duck while he held it; and others, that it turned and twisted about his body, almost breaking his bones, like them snakes we hear of in foreign parts would: but for all this, Duck got it into the big fire that was before him, and kept it there, with poker and tongs, bating its head down as often as it jumped out of the blaze to grin at him, until it was quite consumed. And we're tould, that it didn't crackle like wood does while burning, but the noise it made was like that of two unearthly voices,—one laughing bitterly, and the other shrieking and groaning as of a crature in agony.

Now whether Duck Davie got rid of the switch this way or not I can't well tell you, for he won't let us know. There's different stories about it. Some say, the witch came to him that time, and begged hard for her stick; but he swore, by the holy iron with which he was banging it, he wouldn't listen to her; and that he never saw switch or witch after. But there's others say they know this, namely—that Duck Davie saw the ould woman long after, sleeping under the tree, with the stick standing whole and entire, where it was when he first set eyes on it.

Duck Davie came to settle in these parts about ten years ago. His wife is one of this place: but she left it in her young days, and Duck met with and married her when she was housekeeper to an apothecary, and he a journeyman tailor in Limerick, where he lived long with her, and came here, one morning, when he was grey, in the wake of Timberleg Toe-Trap the bailiff, for whom he'd been doing many's the dirty job, in making seizures and dogging debtors, and so forth. This was after he'd been refused work by all the master tailors everywhere he could go, because his eyes was got too weak for fine stitches: so he was obliged to do something for himself, and nothing better being offered him, he turned follower to Nick; and when an execution was issued by Pierce Veogh's creditors, which happened about three months after his quitting this country, Timberleg, who made the seizure, left Duck Davie and another of his men, as his proxies, in possession of The Beg. But before he'd been in it a week, Duck had a quarrel with his master, Timberleg, and another was put in his place. So then his wife's brother, Paddy Doolan, who is one of my neighbours, persuaded him to quit the bailiff entirely, and to set up for himself here among us, as we didn't want finer work than he was able to do without straining his ould eyes. Duck took his brother-in-law's advice, and has been with us from that day to this.

He has just as great a dislike to ould women as ever he had; that's why he don't trate his wife as he should do, as many think; and some say, when he gets in a passion,—as he will often, and rave and tear like a madman,—that the stick with the nightmare's head has been bating him for abusing his wife. Duck Davie has a good quality or two, but take him head and heels, I, for one, don't much like him. You'll say, may be, why do I employ him, then?—And I'll answer you,—because there isn't another tailor within ten miles of us: and moreover, if I was Paddy Doolan, and had the use of my limbs, when he abused his wife without a cause, as he did yesterday, and often before, I'd give him as fine a basting as he got from the witch's switch that day when he looked over his shoulder, and saw it standing behind him in the field.