Laura Silver Bell
by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
In the five Northumbrian counties you will scarcely find so bleak,
ugly, and yet, in a savage way, so picturesque a moor as Dardale Moss.
The moor itself spreads north, south, east, and west, a great
undulating sea of black peat and heath.
What we may term its shores are wooded wildly with birch, hazel, and
dwarf-oak. No towering mountains surround it, but here and there you
have a rocky knoll rising among the trees, and many a wooded
promontory of the same pretty, because utterly wild, forest, running
out into its dark level.
Habitations are thinly scattered in this barren territory, and a full
mile away from the meanest was the stone cottage of Mother Carke.
Let not my southern reader who associates ideas of comfort with the
term "cottage" mistake. This thing is built of shingle, with low
walls. Its thatch is hollow; the peat-smoke curls stingily from its
stunted chimney. It is worthy of its savage surroundings.
The primitive neighbours remark that no rowan-tree grows near, nor
holly, nor bracken, and no horseshoe is nailed on the door.
Not far from the birches and hazels that straggle about the rude wall
of the little enclosure, on the contrary, they say, you may discover
the broom and the rag-wort, in which witches mysteriously delight. But
this is perhaps a scandal.
Mall Carke was for many a year the sage femme of this wild domain.
She has renounced practice, however, for some years; and now, under
the rose, she dabbles, it is thought, in the black art, in which she
has always been secretly skilled, tells fortunes, practises charms,
and in popular esteem is little better than a witch.
Mother Carke has been away to the town of Willarden, to sell knit
stockings, and is returning to her rude dwelling by Dardale Moss. To
her right, as far away as the eye can reach, the moor stretches. The
narrow track she has followed here tops a gentle upland, and at her
left a sort of jungle of dwarf-oak and brushwood approaches its edge.
The sun is sinking blood-red in the west. His disk has touched the
broad black level of the moor, and his parting beams glare athwart the
gaunt figure of the old beldame, as she strides homeward stick in
hand, and bring into relief the folds of her mantle, which gleam like
the draperies of a bronze image in the light of a fire. For a few
moments this light floods the air—tree, gorse, rock, and bracken
glare; and then it is out, and gray twilight over everything.
All is still and sombre. At this hour the simple traffic of the
thinly-peopled country is over, and nothing can be more solitary.
From this jungle, nevertheless, through which the mists of evening are
already creeping, she sees a gigantic man approaching her.
In that poor and primitive country robbery is a crime unknown. She,
therefore, has no fears for her pound of tea, and pint of gin, and
sixteen shillings in silver which she is bringing home in her pocket.
But there is something that would have frighted another woman about
He is gaunt, sombre, bony, dirty, and dressed in a black suit which a
beggar would hardly care to pick out of the dust.
This ill-looking man nodded to her as he stepped on the road.
"I don't know you," she said.
He nodded again.
"I never sid ye neyawheere," she exclaimed sternly.
"Fine evening, Mother Carke," he says, and holds his snuff-box toward
She widened the distance between them by a step or so, and said again
sternly and pale,
"I hev nowt to say to thee, whoe'er thou beest."
"You know Laura Silver Bell?"
"That's a byneyam; the lass's neyam is Laura Lew," she answered,
looking straight before her.
"One name's as good as another for one that was never christened,
"How know ye that?" she asked grimly; for it is a received opinion in
that part of the world that the fairies have power over those who have
never been baptised.
The stranger turned on her a malignant smile.
"There is a young lord in love with her," the stranger says, "and I'm
that lord. Have her at your house to-morrow night at eight o'clock,
and you must stick cross pins through the candle, as you have done for
many a one before, to bring her lover thither by ten, and her
fortune's made. And take this for your trouble."
He extended his long finger and thumb toward her, with a guinea
"I have nowt to do wi' thee. I nivver sid thee afoore. Git thee awa'!
I earned nea goold o' thee, and I'll tak' nane. Awa' wi' thee, or I'll
find ane that will mak' thee!"
The old woman had stopped, and was quivering in every limb as she thus
He looked very angry. Sulkily he turned away at her words, and strode
slowly toward the wood from which he had come; and as he approached
it, he seemed to her to grow taller and taller, and stalked into it as
high as a tree.
"I conceited there would come something o't", she said to herself.
"Farmer Lew must git it done nesht Sunda'. The a'ad awpy!"
Old Farmer Lew was one of that sect who insist that baptism shall be
but once administered, and not until the Christian candidate had
attained to adult years. The girl had indeed for some time been of an
age not only, according to this theory, to be baptised, but if need be
to be married.
Her story was a sad little romance. A lady some seventeen years before
had come down and paid Farmer Lew for two rooms in his house. She told
him that her husband would follow her in a fortnight, and that he was
in the mean time delayed by business in Liverpool.
In ten days after her arrival her baby was born, Mall Carke acting as
sage femme on the occasion; and on the evening of that day the poor
young mother died. No husband came; no wedding-ring, they said, was on
her finger. About fifty pounds was found in her desk, which Farmer
Lew, who was a kind old fellow and had lost his two children, put in
bank for the little girl, and resolved to keep her until a rightful
owner should step forward to claim her.
They found half-a-dozen love-letters signed "Francis," and calling the
dead woman "Laura."
So Farmer Lew called the little girl Laura; and her sobriquet of
"Silver Bell" was derived from a tiny silver bell, once gilt, which
was found among her poor mother's little treasures after her death,
and which the child wore on a ribbon round her neck.
Thus, being very pretty and merry, she grew up as a North-country
farmer's daughter; and the old man, as she needed more looking after,
grew older and less able to take care of her; so she was, in fact,
very nearly her own mistress, and did pretty much in all things as she
Old Mall Carke, by some caprice for which no one could account,
cherished an affection for the girl, who saw her often, and paid her
many a small fee in exchange for the secret indications of the future.
It was too late when Mother Carke reached her home to look for a visit
from Laura Silver Bell that day.
About three o'clock next afternoon, Mother Carke was sitting knitting,
with her glasses on, outside her door on the stone bench, when she saw
the pretty girl mount lightly to the top of the stile at her left
under the birch, against the silver stem of which she leaned her
slender hand, and called,
"Mall, Mall! Mother Carke, are ye alane all by yersel'?"
"Ay, Laura lass, we can be clooas enoo, if ye want a word wi' me,"
says the old woman, rising, with a mysterious nod, and beckoning her
stiffly with her long fingers.
The girl was, assuredly, pretty enough for a "lord" to fall in love
with. Only look at her. A profusion of brown rippling hair, parted low
in the middle of her forehead, almost touched her eyebrows, and made
the pretty oval of her face, by the breadth of that rich line, more
marked. What a pretty little nose! what scarlet lips, and large, dark,
Her face is transparently tinged with those clear Murillo tints which
appear in deeper dyes on her wrists and the backs of her hands. These
are the beautiful gipsy-tints with which the sun dyes young skins so
The old woman eyes all this, and her pretty figure, so round and
slender, and her shapely little feet, cased in the thick shoes that
can't hide their comely proportions, as she stands on the top of the
stile. But it is with a dark and saturnine aspect.
"Come, lass, what stand ye for atoppa t' wall, whar folk may chance to
see thee? I hev a thing to tell thee, lass."
She beckoned her again.
"An' I hev a thing to tell thee, Mall."
"Come hidder," said the old woman peremptorily.
"But ye munna gie me the creepin's" (make me tremble). "I winna look
again into the glass o' water, mind ye."
The old woman smiled grimly, and changed her tone.
"Now, hunny, git tha down, and let ma see thy canny feyace," and she
beckoned her again.
Laura Silver Bell did get down, and stepped lightly toward the door of
the old woman's dwelling.
"Tak this," said the girl, unfolding a piece of bacon from her apron,
"and I hev a silver sixpence to gie thee, when I'm gaen away heyam."
They entered the dark kitchen of the cottage, and the old woman stood
by the door, lest their conference should be lighted on by surprise.
"Afoore ye begin," said Mother Carke (I soften her patois), "I mun
tell ye there's ill folk watchin' ye. What's auld Farmer Lew about, he
doesna get t' sir" (the clergyman) "to baptise thee? If he lets Sunda'
next pass, I'm afeared ye'll never be sprinkled nor signed wi' cross,
while there's a sky aboon us."
"Agoy!" exclaims the girl, "who's lookin' after me?"
"A big black fella, as high as the kipples, came out o' the wood near
Deadman's Grike, just after the sun gaed down yester e'en; I knew weel
what he was, for his feet ne'er touched the road while he made as if
he walked beside me. And he wanted to gie me snuff first, and I
wouldna hev that; and then he offered me a gowden guinea, but I was no
sic awpy, and to bring you here to-night, and cross the candle wi'
pins, to call your lover in. And he said he's a great lord, and in
luve wi' thee."
"And you refused him?"
"Well for thee I did, lass," says Mother Carke.
"Why, it's every word true!" cries the girl vehemently, starting to
her feet, for she had seated herself on the great oak chest.
"True, lass? Come, say what ye mean," demanded Mall Carke, with a dark
and searching gaze.
"Last night I was coming heyam from the wake, wi' auld farmer Dykes
and his wife and his daughter Nell, and when we came to the stile, I
bid them good-night, and we parted."
"And ye came by the path alone in the night-time, did ye?" exclaimed
old Mall Carke sternly.
"I wasna afeared, I don't know why; the path heyam leads down by the
wa'as o' auld Hawarth Castle."
"I knaa it weel, and a dowly path it is; ye'll keep indoors o' nights
for a while, or ye'll rue it. What saw ye?"
"No freetin, mother; nowt I was feared on."
"Ye heard a voice callin' yer neyame?"
"I heard nowt that was dow, but the hullyhoo in the auld castle wa's,"
answered the pretty girl. "I heard nor sid nowt that's dow, but mickle
that's conny and gladsome. I heard singin' and laughin' a long way
off, I consaited; and I stopped a bit to listen. Then I walked on a
step or two, and there, sure enough in the Pie-Mag field, under the
castle wa's, not twenty steps away, I sid a grand company; silks and
satins, and men wi' velvet coats, wi' gowd-lace striped over them, and
ladies wi' necklaces that would dazzle ye, and fans as big as
griddles; and powdered footmen, like what the shirra hed behind his
coach, only these was ten times as grand."
"It was full moon last night," said the old woman.
"Sa bright 'twould blind ye to look at it," said the girl.
"Never an ill sight but the deaul finds a light," quoth the old woman.
"There's a rinnin brook thar—you were at this side, and they at that;
did they try to mak ye cross over?"
"Agoy! didn't they? Nowt but civility and kindness, though. But ye mun
let me tell it my own way. They was talkin' and laughin', and eatin',
and drinkin' out o' long glasses and goud cups, seated on the grass,
and music was playin'; and I keekin' behind a bush at all the grand
doin's; and up they gits to dance; and says a tall fella I didna see
afoore, 'Ye mun step across, and dance wi' a young lord that's faan in
luv wi' thee, and that's mysel',' and sure enow I keeked at him under
my lashes and a conny lad he is, to my teyaste, though he be dressed
in black, wi' sword and sash, velvet twice as fine as they sells in
the shop at Gouden Friars; and keekin' at me again fra the corners o'
his een. And the same fella telt me he was mad in luv wi' me, and his
fadder was there, and his sister, and they came all the way from
Catstean Castle to see me that night; and that's t' other side o'
"Come, lass, yer no mafflin; tell me true. What was he like? Was his
feyace grimed wi' sut? a tall fella wi' wide shouthers, and lukt like
an ill-thing, wi' black clothes amaist in rags?"
"His feyace was long, but weel-faured, and darker nor a gipsy; and his
clothes were black and grand, and made o' velvet, and he said he was
the young lord himsel'; and he lukt like it."
"That will be the same fella I sid at Deadman's Grike," said Mall
Carke, with an anxious frown.
"Hoot, mudder! how cud that be?" cried the lass, with a toss of her
pretty head and a smile of scorn. But the fortune-teller made no
answer, and the girl went on with her story.
"When they began to dance," continued Laura Silver Bell, "he urged me
again, but I wudna step o'er; 'twas partly pride, coz I wasna dressed
fine enough, and partly contrairiness, or something, but gaa I wudna,
not a fut. No but I more nor half wished it a' the time."
"Weel for thee thou dudstna cross the brook."
"Hoity-toity, why not?"
"Keep at heyame after nightfall, and don't ye be walking by yersel' by
daylight or any light lang lonesome ways, till after ye're baptised,"
said Mall Carke.
"I'm like to be married first."
"Tak care that marriage won't hang i' the bell-ropes," said Mother
"Leave me alane for that. The young lord said he was maist daft wi'
luv o' me. He wanted to gie me a conny ring wi' a beautiful stone in
it. But, drat it, I was sic an awpy I wudna tak it, and he a young
"Lord, indeed! are ye daft or dreamin'? Those fine folk, what were
they? I'll tell ye. Dobies and fairies; and if ye don't du as yer bid,
they'll tak ye, and ye'll never git out o' their hands again while
grass grows," said the old woman grimly.
"Od wite it!" replies the girl impatiently, "who's daft or dreamin'
noo? I'd a bin dead wi' fear, if 'twas any such thing. It cudna be;
all was sa luvesome, and bonny, and shaply."
"Weel, and what do ye want o' me, lass?" asked the old woman sharply.
"I want to know—here's t' sixpence—what I sud du," said the young
lass. "'Twud be a pity to lose such a marrow, hey?"
"Say yer prayers, lass; I can't help ye," says the old woman darkly.
"If ye gaa wi' the people, ye'll never come back. Ye munna talk wi'
them, nor eat wi' them, nor drink wi' them, nor tak a pin's-worth by
way o' gift fra them—mark weel what I say—or ye're lost!"
The girl looked down, plainly much vexed.
The old woman stared at her with a mysterious frown steadily, for a
"Tell me, lass, and tell me true, are ye in luve wi' that lad?"
"What for sud I?" said the girl with a careless toss of her head, and
blushing up to her very temples.
"I see how it is," said the old woman, with a groan, and repeated the
words, sadly thinking; and walked out of the door a step or two, and
looked jealously round. "The lass is witched, the lass is witched!"
"Did ye see him since?" asked Mother Carke, returning.
The girl was still embarrassed; and now she spoke in a lower tone, and
"I thought I sid him as I came here, walkin' beside me among the
trees; but I consait it was only the trees themsels that lukt like
rinnin' one behind another, as I walked on."
"I can tell thee nowt, lass, but what I telt ye afoore," answered the
old woman peremptorily. "Get ye heyame, and don't delay on the way;
and say yer prayers as ye gaa; and let none but good thoughts come
nigh ye; and put nayer foot autside the door-steyan again till ye gaa
to be christened; and get that done a Sunda' next."
And with this charge, given with grizzly earnestness, she saw her over
the stile, and stood upon it watching her retreat, until the trees
quite hid her and her path from view.
The sky grew cloudy and thunderous, and the air darkened rapidly, as
the girl, a little frightened by Mall Carke's view of the case, walked
homeward by the lonely path among the trees.
A black cat, which had walked close by her—for these creatures
sometimes take a ramble in search of their prey among the woods and
thickets—crept from under the hollow of an oak, and was again with
her. It seemed to her to grow bigger and bigger as the darkness
deepened, and its green eyes glared as large as halfpennies in her
affrighted vision as the thunder came booming along the heights from
She tried to drive it away; but it growled and hissed awfully, and set
up its back as if it would spring at her, and finally it skipped up
into a tree, where they grew thickest at each side of her path, and
accompanied her, high over head, hopping from bough to bough as if
meditating a pounce upon her shoulders. Her fancy being full of
strange thoughts, she was frightened, and she fancied that it was
haunting her steps, and destined to undergo some hideous
transformation, the moment she ceased to guard her path with prayers.
She was frightened for a while after she got home. The dark looks of
Mother Carke were always before her eyes, and a secret dread prevented
her passing the threshold of her home again that night.
Next day it was different. She had got rid of the awe with which
Mother Carke had inspired her. She could not get the tall
dark-featured lord, in the black velvet dress, out of her head. He had
"taken her fancy"; she was growing to love him. She could think of
Bessie Hennock, a neighbour's daughter, came to see her that day, and
proposed a walk toward the ruins of Hawarth Castle, to gather
"blaebirries." So off the two girls went together.
In the thicket, along the slopes near the ivied walls of Hawarth
Castle, the companions began to fill their baskets. Hours passed. The
sun was sinking near the west, and Laura Silver Bell had not come
Over the hatch of the farm-house door the maids leant ever and anon
with outstretched necks, watching for a sign of the girl's return, and
wondering, as the shadows lengthened, what had become of her.
At last, just as the rosy sunset gilding began to overspread the
landscape, Bessie Hennock, weeping into her apron, made her appearance
without her companion.
Her account of their adventures was curious.
I will relate the substance of it more connectedly than her agitation
would allow her to give it, and without the disguise of the rude
The girl said, that, as they got along together among the brambles
that grow beside the brook that bounds the Pie-Mag field, she on a
sudden saw a very tall big-boned man, with an ill-favoured smirched
face, and dressed in worn and rusty black, standing at the other side
of a little stream. She was frightened; and while looking at this
dirty, wicked, starved figure, Laura Silver Bell touched her, gazing
at the same tall scarecrow, but with a countenance full of confusion
and even rapture. She was peeping through the bush behind which she
stood, and with a sigh she said:
"Is na that a conny lad? Agoy! See his bonny velvet clothes, his sword
and sash; that's a lord, I can tell ye; and weel I know who he
follows, who he luves, and who he'll wed."
Bessie Hennock thought her companion daft.
"See how luvesome he luks!" whispered Laura.
Bessie looked again, and saw him gazing at her companion with a
malignant smile, and at the same time he beckoned her to approach.
"Darrat ta! gaa not near him! he'll wring thy neck!" gasped Bessie in
great fear, as she saw Laura step forward with a look of beautiful
bashfulness and joy.
She took the hand he stretched across the stream, more for love of the
hand than any need of help, and in a moment was across and by his
side, and his long arm about her waist.
"Fares te weel, Bessie, I'm gain my ways," she called, leaning her
head to his shoulder; "and tell gud Fadder Lew I'm gain my ways to be
happy, and may be, at lang last, I'll see him again."
And with a farewell wave of her hand, she went away with her dismal
partner; and Laura Silver Bell was never more seen at home, or among
the "coppies" and "wickwoods," the bonny fields and bosky hollows, by
Bessie Hennock followed them for a time.
She crossed the brook, and though they seemed to move slowly enough,
she was obliged to run to keep them in view; and she all the time
cried to her continually, "Come back, come back, bonnie Laurie!"
until, getting over a bank, she was met by a white-faced old man, and
so frightened was she, that she thought she fainted outright. At all
events, she did not come to herself until the birds were singing their
vespers in the amber light of sunset, and the day was over.
No trace of the direction of the girl's flight was ever discovered.
Weeks and months passed, and more than a year.
At the end of that time, one of Mall Carke's goats died, as she
suspected, by the envious practices of a rival witch who lived at the
far end of Dardale Moss.
All alone in her stone cabin the old woman had prepared her charm to
ascertain the author of her misfortune.
The heart of the dead animal, stuck all over with pins, was burnt in
the fire; the windows, doors, and every other aperture of the house
being first carefully stopped. After the heart, thus prepared with
suitable incantations, is consumed in the fire, the first person who
comes to the door or passes by it is the offending magician.
Mother Carke completed these lonely rites at dead of night. It was a
dark night, with the glimmer of the stars only, and a melancholy
night-wind was soughing through the scattered woods that spread
After a long and dead silence, there came a heavy thump at the door,
and a deep voice called her by name.
She was startled, for she expected no man's voice; and peeping from
the window, she saw, in the dim light, a coach and four horses, with
gold-laced footmen, and coachman in wig and cocked hat, turned out as
if for a state occasion.
She unbarred the door; and a tall gentleman, dressed in black, waiting
at the threshold, entreated her, as the only sage femme within
reach, to come in the coach and attend Lady Lairdale, who was about to
give birth to a baby, promising her handsome payment.
Lady Lairdale! She had never heard of her.
"How far away is it?"
"Twelve miles on the old road to Golden Friars."
Her avarice is roused, and she steps into the coach. The footman
claps-to the door; the glass jingles with the sound of a laugh. The
tall dark-faced gentleman in black is seated opposite; they are
driving at a furious pace; they have turned out of the road into a
narrower one, dark with thicker and loftier forest than she was
accustomed to. She grows anxious; for she knows every road and by-path
in the country round, and she has never seen this one.
He encourages her. The moon has risen above the edge of the horizon,
and she sees a noble old castle. Its summit of tower, watchtower and
battlement, glimmers faintly in the moonlight. This is their
She feels on a sudden all but overpowered by sleep; but although she
nods, she is quite conscious of the continued motion, which has become
She makes an effort, and rouses herself. What has become of the
coach, the castle, the servants? Nothing but the strange forest
remains the same.
She is jolting along on a rude hurdle, seated on rushes, and a tall,
big-boned man, in rags, sits in front, kicking with his heel the
ill-favoured beast that pulls them along, every bone of which sticks
out, and holding the halter which serves for reins. They stop at the
door of a miserable building of loose stone, with a thatch so sunk and
rotten, that the roof-tree and couples protrude in crooked corners,
like the bones of the wretched horse, with enormous head and ears,
that dragged them to the door.
The long gaunt man gets down, his sinister face grimed like his hands.
It was the same grimy giant who had accosted her on the lonely road
near Deadman's Grike. But she feels that she "must go through with it"
now, and she follows him into the house.
Two rushlights were burning in the large and miserable room, and on a
coarse ragged bed lay a woman groaning piteously.
"That's Lady Lairdale," says the gaunt dark man, who then began to
stride up and down the room rolling his head, stamping furiously, and
thumping one hand on the palm of the other, and talking and laughing
in the corners, where there was no one visible to hear or to answer.
Old Mall Carke recognized in the faded half-starved creature who lay
on the bed, as dark now and grimy as the man, and looking as if she
had never in her life washed hands or face, the once blithe and pretty
The hideous being who was her mate continued in the same odd
fluctuations of fury, grief, and merriment; and whenever she uttered a
groan, he parodied it with another, as Mother Carke thought, in
At length he strode into another room, and banged the door after him.
In due time the poor woman's pains were over, and a daughter was born.
Such an imp! with long pointed ears, flat nose, and enormous restless
eyes and mouth. It instantly began to yell and talk in some unknown
language, at the noise of which the father looked into the room, and
told the sage femme that she should not go unrewarded.
The sick woman seized the moment of his absence to say in the ear of
"If ye had not been at ill work tonight, he could not hev fetched ye.
Tak no more now than your rightful fee, or he'll keep ye here."
At this moment he returned with a bag of gold and silver coins, which
he emptied on the table, and told her to help herself.
She took four shillings, which was her primitive fee, neither more nor
less; and all his urgency could not prevail with her to take a
farthing more. He looked so terrible at her refusal, that she rushed
out of the house.
He ran after her.
"You'll take your money with you," he roared, snatching up the bag,
still half full, and flung it after her.
It lighted on her shoulder; and partly from the blow, partly from
terror, she fell to the ground; and when she came to herself, it was
morning, and she was lying across her own door-stone.
It is said that she never more told fortune or practised spell. And
though all that happened sixty years ago and more, Laura Silver Bell,
wise folk think, is still living, and will so continue till the day of
doom among the fairies.