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STRANGER THAN FICTION

BEING TALES FROM THE BYWAYS OF GHOSTS AND FOLK-LORE

BY MARY L. LEWES


LONDON
WILLIAM RIDER & SON LTD.
164 ALDERSGATE STREET, E.C.
1911

PRINTED BY
BALLANTYNE & COMPANY LTD
AT THE BALLANTYNE PRESS
TAVISTOCK STREET COVENT GARDEN
LONDON



TO
MY SISTER




PREFACE


I have to thank the Editor of the _Occult Review_ for his kindness in
allowing me to reprint here many stories which have appeared at
different times in his magazine.

And I am most grateful to the friends who have helped to swell the
contents of this little volume, by permitting me to record their
interesting experiences of the supernatural, or by furnishing me with
details concerning local beliefs and superstitions, which would
otherwise have been difficult to obtain.

M. L. LEWES




CONTENTS


I. INTRODUCTORY

II. WELSH GHOSTS

III. WELSH GHOSTS (_continued_)

IV. OTHER GHOSTS

V. CORPSE-CANDLES AND THE TOILI

VI. CORPSE-CANDLES AND THE TOILI (_continued_)

VII. WELSH FAIRIES

VIII. WISE MEN, WITCHES, AND FAMILY CURSES

IX. ODD NOTES

X. CONCLUSION




CHAPTER I

INTRODUCTORY

"Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who
Before us passed the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too."


If we may judge by the assertion contained in the above quatrain, Omar
Khayyám was no believer in ghosts. In which respect the Persian poet
must have differed from the general opinion of his times. For until a
very few centuries ago, it was only a small minority of those who
considered themselves wise above their fellows, who ventured to deny the
possibility of the spirit's return to earth. Even amongst the Romans
during the Antonine Age (A.D. 98-180), when scepticism on religious
matters had become almost universal among the learned, and the worship
of the gods had sunk to mere outward observance of ceremony, Gibbon
says, "I do not pretend to assert that in this irreligious age, the
natural terrors of superstitions, dreams, omens, apparitions, &c., had
lost their efficacy." The younger Pliny, in a letter to his friend Sura,
writes: "I am extremely desirous to know whether you believe in the
existence of ghosts, and that they have a real form, and are a sort of
divinities, or only the visionary impression of a terrified
imagination." He also relates a really exciting tale of a haunted house
at Athens, but it is too long to quote here.

The ancients believed that every one possessed three distinct ghosts;
the _manes_, of which the ultimate destination was the lower regions,
the _spiritus_, which returned to Heaven, and the _umbra_, that,
unwilling to sever finally its connection with this life, was wont to
haunt the last resting-place of the earthly body. These "shades" were
supposed to "walk" between the hours of midnight and cock-crow, causing
burial-grounds, cemeteries or tombs to be carefully avoided at night.
One reason given as to why very old yew-trees are so often found in
country churchyards is, that originally these trees were planted to
supply the peasants with wood for their bows, for in lawless times it
was soon discovered that the only place where the trees would be safe
from nightly marauders was the churchyard, where not the most hardened
thief dared venture between darkness and dawn. Particularly were the
shades of those who, perishing by crimes of violence without
absolution -

"Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd - "

supposed to be uneasy; haunting sometimes the scene of their end, or, in
other cases, the footsteps of the slayer. If a living person could
summon courage to address one of these haunting spirits (for no ghost
may speak unless spoken to) and discover the cause of its restlessness,
it was thought possible to give it peace or "lay it," by righting the
wrong it suffered from; whether by vengeance on a murderer, atonement
for a crime committed, or by the offices of a priest to give absolution
to an unshrived soul. An old writer tells us: "The mode of addressing a
Ghost is by commanding it in the name of the three Persons of the
Trinity to tell you what it is, and what its business.... During the
narration of its business a Ghost must by no means be interrupted by
questions of any kind; so doing is extremely dangerous...."

Besides believing in these ghosts of departed human beings, there was
ever present in the minds of our forefathers, the dread of a host of
"evil spirits" who were the agents and assistants of Satan, always ready
to injure innocent souls, and where possible, to cause worldly disaster
also. Magicians and sorcerers[1] were supposed by their arts to have
power in this world of demons, the forfeit being their own souls, lost
beyond redemption. In his delightful "Memoirs," Benvenuto Cellini
(1500-1571) describes with great vividness some experiments he conducted
with a necromancer at Rome, in order to discover the whereabouts of a
girl he loved. The magician was a Sicilian priest, "a man of genius and
well versed in the Latin and Greek authors," who made an appointment
with Cellini for a certain evening, desiring him to bring two
companions. "I invited Vincenzo Romoli ... he brought with him a native
of Pistoja, who cultivated the black art himself." The trio then
repaired to the Colosseum, where the priest "... began to draw circles
upon the ground with the most impressive ceremonies imaginable...."
After this sort of thing and many incantations had lasted an hour and a
half, "there appeared several legions of devils, insomuch that the
amphitheatre was quite filled with them." This terrible phenomenon
sounds dreadful enough to have frightened most people, but obtaining no
result from his inquiries on the first occasion, Cellini was intrepid
enough to arrange for a second experiment, his account of which
absolutely bristles with demons and bad spirits; the strange part being
that he writes as if their appearance at the sorcerer's bidding was the
most natural thing in the world, and quite what he had expected to see.
And this attitude of absolute, matter-of-fact faith in the powers of
darkness, and acceptance of the magician's arts, is very interesting in
the man, of whose famous autobiography John Addington Symonds wrote:
"The Genius of the Renaissance, incarnate in a single personality, leans
forth and speaks to us."

[Footnote 1: Magicians were able to command spirits to do their bidding,
while sorcerers, though they could _summon_ demons, were obliged to obey
them.]

It is only when we begin to investigate the origin of certain old
customs and superstitions that we gain any real idea of how deeply
rooted in men's minds during the Dark and Middle Ages was the fear of
the supernatural, and particularly of evil spirits. To this day in
Pembrokeshire, the cottagers, after the Saturday morning scrubbing, take
a piece of chalk and draw a rough geometrical pattern round the edge of
the threshold stone. This they do, not knowing that their ancestors
thought it a sure way of keeping the Devil from entering the house.
Another custom, often noticeable in country parishes, is the reluctance
to bury the dead on the north side of the churchyard; this is because
evil spirits were always supposed to lurk on that side of the church
precincts.

For many centuries Christianity, at all events among the mass of the
people, seemed powerless to raise the dark veil of superstition which
the old pagan beliefs had spread over the world; and indeed in many
countries - sometimes from ignorance, sometimes from motives of
expediency - heathen traditions and practices were preserved, and merely
transferred to a Christian setting. Particularly was this the case among
the Celtic nations, whose Christianity must in the early ages have
merely been grafted on the native Druid beliefs. For the material that
the great Irish and Welsh missionaries had to work with was rough
indeed; and any drastic attempt to impose a new system of religion on a
horde of Celtic tribesmen would doubtless have ended in speedy
disaster. So it is probable that St. Patrick and St. David and their
evangelist successors, instead of bluntly denouncing the most cherished
of the heathen legends, merely took and adapted them to their own
teaching; giving them first a decent Christian garb. Two instances of
evident adaptation are quoted by Mr. Elworthy, in his book "The History
of the Evil Eye," where he remarks: "Here in Britain the goddess of love
was turned into St. Brychan's daughter; and as late as the fourteenth
century lovers are said to have come from all parts to pray at her
shrine in Anglesey. Another similar example is found in the confusion of
St. Bridget and an Irish goddess, whose gifts were poetry, fire and
medicine ... almost all the incidents in her legend can be referred to
the Pagan ritual."

And though so many long centuries have passed since the days when the
Druid priests offered propitiatory sacrifices to the spirits that dwelt
in the great oak-trees, yet in the minds of the descendants of those old
Celts (in spite of all that civilisation and intermixture with other
races have done) there still lingers a trace of mystery, a readiness of
belief in things outside the realm of the five senses, which perhaps
future ages will never quite obliterate. For this quality, call it what
we will (and too often it has degenerated into mere superstition), is
yet of the "Unknown," and for all we can tell may indeed be a spark,
though dwindled, of the Divine fire. As every one knows, among the
Highlanders this curious mystic vein sometimes produces seers, and their
gift is called "second sight." According to a very interesting book
called "A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland," published in
1703, this power of foretelling the future was in those days a
recognised talent possessed by certain individuals, which apparently
excited but little surprise among the rest of the community. The writer
of the "Description" says: "It is an ordinary thing for them (the seers)
to see a Man who is to come to the house shortly after, and if he is not
of the Seer's acquaintance, yet he gives such a lively description of
his Stature, Complexion, Habit, &c., that upon his arrival he answers
the character given him in all respects. I have been seen thus myself by
Seers of both sexes at some hundred miles' distance - some that saw me in
this manner had never seen me personally." In Wales also, if we may
believe the old writers, there seems to have been a class of persons
somewhat resembling the Highland seers, and called "Awenyddion"
(inspired people). "When consulted upon any doubtful event, they roar
out violently, and become as it were possessed of an evil spirit. They
deliver the answer in sentences that are trifling, and have little
meaning, but are elegantly expressed. In the meantime, he who watches
what is said unriddles the answer from some turn of a word. They are
then roused as from a deep sleep, and by violent shaking compelled to
return to their senses, when they lose all recollection of the answers
they gave."

And though the day of the Awenyddion is long past, yet something of
their inspiration, and a faint echo of the bards' songs of valour and
enchantments seems still to linger about the mountains of Wales. It is
true that down in the valleys the railways and Council schools have
routed the "Tylwyth Teg" (fairies) from those "sweet green fields" of
which Matthew Arnold wrote; and the young generation has no time to
spare for listening in the winter evenings to the old folks' tales of
haunted "mansions," or of the "canwyll corph," or the awe-inspiring
"G[^w]rach" spectre. And there are very few people left now who will
mistake the weird cry of a string of wild geese flying high overhead in
the winter dusk, for the shrieks of tormented souls pursued by the
hounds of hell. Still, though fast disappearing, some of the old tales
and beliefs are not entirely lost in the more remote localities; and it
was with the idea of preserving a few of them from oblivion that this
book was begun. Living, as I have for many years, in a hitherto
little-known part of the Principality, where almost every old country
house has its ghost (sometimes more than one), and where the highest
hill is crowned by the grave of a mighty "ca[^w]r" (or giant) - though
archæologists will tell you that it is merely a British
burial-mound - and where the neighbouring lake is inhabited by fairy
cattle that disappear at the approach of man; it is impossible not to
feel regretful that all these old stories should be forgotten.
Especially will any one feel this who happens to have Celtic blood in
his veins; in which case, and if he inhabits a corner of "fair Cambria,"
some of the things he hears will not appear so highly improbable and
far-fetched as they might to the less imaginative Saxon. We all know
Owen Glendower's celebrated assertion:

"I can call spirits from the vasty deep,"

and his description of the wonders that local tradition told him had
preceded his birth. And we remember Hotspur's aggravating retort to what
he doubtless considered the empty boasting of the great Welshman. But
living amongst a people absolutely steeped in occult and legendary lore,
quite ready to attribute any extraordinary characteristics in their
leaders to supernatural aid, there is little doubt that Glendower's
belief in his wizard powers was as entirely sincere as his courage and
energy were unquestioned. But one rather sympathises, too, with Hotspur,
when he describes afterwards how Glendower had kept him up

"last night, at least nine hours,
In reckoning up the several devils' names
That were his lackeys."

Most people like a good "ghost story." Even the loudest of scoffers does
so really; and he is generally the person who draws his chair nearest
to that of the story-teller, and who, after asserting that the tale is
"all rubbish," will nevertheless proceed to say what he would have done
at that particular point in the narrative when "the candle burnt blue,
and a faint rattling of chains was heard," &c. &c. But, as a fact, there
are few real old-fashioned scoffers left. We have passed through the
phase of extreme incredulity regarding occult happenings which was
inevitable, and was merely the swing of the pendulum from the rank
superstition and ignorance of the Middle Ages. Few people now venture to
declare that "there are no such things as ghosts"; for the mass of
evidence collected and weighed by savants, such as Gurney, Myers,
Hodgson, T. H. Hudson, and Sir Oliver Lodge, is overwhelming as regards
the truth that things _have_ happened, and do still happen, quite
outside the limit of human explanation. But while most intelligent
persons admit this, the time is still far distant when we shall be able
to say how or why these things occur; though, guided by some of the
greatest thinkers of our day, we may at last dare to hope that our feet
are set in the path of knowledge, and that at some future time humanity
may perhaps reach the goal, and lift the dark and impenetrable curtain
that hides the Unseen. Whether the world will be any better off, when,
or if, that happens, concerns us of this generation not at all; in fact,
most of us who have this world's work to do, will find it best to leave
close investigation of supernormal phenomena to those who are able to
approach such subjects with a scientific mind, capable of recognising
and collecting truthful evidence, and of detecting and setting aside
what is false. And how very much the false outweighs the true, when it
comes to a question of evidence in psychic inquiry, only the really
conscientious searcher knows. All sorts of questions rise up in the mind
of the critical inquirer and have to be satisfied before he will admit
the impossibility of accounting by human explanation for the experiences
brought to his notice. And besides the need for this severely critical
attitude of mind, which we do not all of us possess, and in many cases
the lack of leisure necessary for such abstract study, there is another
reason why it is best for the majority of us to refrain from speculating
overmuch on the whys and hows of these glimpses of the "Unknown" that we
are occasionally granted. It is because many people have actually not
the strength of mind necessary to withstand the possible shock
occasioned by occult experiences, and for these, such studies end only
too often in mental disaster. This assertion may sound exaggerated, but
it is not so; and if it serves as a hint of warning to those over-fond
of dabbling in a sea of mystery, fathomless and wide beyond all human
imaginings, so much the better.

After these remarks, it will be realised that this book has nothing to
do with the scientific aspect of "ghost-hunting," but is merely an
attempt to gather together a number of stories dealing with the
supernatural, and particularly those connected with the old
superstitions and beliefs of Welsh people which have happened to come to
my knowledge. Of course some of these tales are absurd, and interesting
only from their quaintness; yet in many of them there is an element
which, as the French say, "gives to think," and should interest serious
students of the occult in search of fresh material. So, much of the
ghostly gossip in the following chapters belongs to Wales; indeed my
original purpose was to deal with Welsh ghosts and superstitions only.
But in the course of collection, I came across so many interesting
particulars and incidents concerning people and places beyond the
borders of the Principality, that I decided to include them in this
volume, on the chance that they may be new to most of my readers. All
the stories to be narrated are what are known as "true" ones, or have at
least a well-established reputation in tradition; the majority having
either been told me at first-hand, or imparted by people who believed in
their truth, and who, in many cases, had personal knowledge of the
people whose experiences they related, and of the localities they
described.

Naturally, such tales as follow, in which hear-say must figure
considerably, cannot lay claim to the evidential value possessed by the
carefully sifted records of the Psychical Research Society. But it may
be pointed out that many of the stories contained in Chapters II., III.,
and IV. concern the constant _repetition_ of certain definite phenomena,
a feature which strongly supports belief in their foundation on a basis
of truth.

For instance, it seems to happen continually that a person going to a
house which he does not know is haunted, sees a "ghost," and afterwards
finds, on relating his experience, that the apparition he describes is
exactly what other people have also seen. A good example of this occurs
in Chapter IV., where "Colonel and Mrs. West" saw the ghost of the
headless woman, being previously unaware that they were occupying a
haunted room.

This agreement in the testimony of people who at different times, and
generally quite unprepared, have seen particular apparitions is an
interesting fact in itself, and surely not to be altogether despised as
evidence of the cumulative order, though the scientific details demanded
by the professional ghost-hunter may be lacking.

The stories in my later chapters dealing with some ancient Welsh
superstitions need no comment, as, whatever may be thought of them as
supernatural incidents, their interest from the standpoint of folk-lore
is indisputable, and for that reason alone they are worth recording.

Throughout this book I shall change the real names of people for
fictitious ones or initials, for reasons that will be obvious to every
one. There are a few exceptions; and where they occur they will be
noted. In most cases I shall disguise the names of houses, and sometimes
those of villages and towns; but where the names of counties are
mentioned they are the true ones.




CHAPTER II

WELSH GHOSTS

"A kind of old Hobgoblin Hall
Now somewhat fallen to decay,
With weather-stains upon the wall,
And stairways worn, and crazy doors,
And creaking and uneven floors,
And chimneys huge and tiled and tall."


In one of the most remote parts of South Wales there stands on a low
cliff that is washed by the waters of a certain bay in St. George's
Channel a very curious old house which we will call Plâsgwyn. Inside one
finds walls many feet in thickness, dark panelled rooms with enormous
cupboards, and a beautiful oak staircase, its shallow, uneven steps
polished by the feet of many generations. Of course there is a ghost
story too, and one possessing an element of picturesqueness, its origin
dating far back to the days when smuggling was considered by quite
respectable people as a useful means of increasing their income in a
gentlemanly manner.

When one reflects on the lonely situation of Plâsgwyn, and
listens - especially in winter - to the boom of wind and wave advertising
with loud persistence the nearness of the sea, it is not difficult for
the imagination to conjure up those far-away times; to picture the
landing of many an interesting cargo in the little cove hard by when the
nights were dark and stormy and the Revenue men off their guard; and to
conjecture that perhaps many crimes were committed at that period by
villains using the smuggler's cloak to cover misdoing, and that possibly
some such dark deed may have happened in the old house, thus giving a
real foundation to our story.

It begins with an incident that was told me as having occurred a few
years ago at Plâsgwyn. One day two maid-servants went to do some work in
the largest bedroom, used always as a visitors' room. When they quickly
came downstairs again, with white faces and trembling knees, they had a
strange tale to tell. They declared that in the room, floating in the
air near the bed, they had seen what appeared to be a human hand and
wrist, bleeding as if just severed from an arm, the fingers of the hand
covered with splendid rings. Horribly frightened, the two maids did not
look long at the apparition but fled downstairs as fast as they could.
However, so convinced were they both of the reality of the thing they
saw that neither could ever be induced to enter the room alone as long
as they remained in the house, and one at least was in the service of
the family for some years.

Now the legend of Plâsgwyn is as follows. Long ago a strange lady of
great wealth once stayed there, and, for reasons now unknown, her hosts
went away leaving her alone one night. Feeling solitary and remembering
with alarm tales she had heard of the lawless doings of smugglers known
to frequent the coast, she went early to her room and tried to sleep.
Well-grounded indeed were her fears, for in the middle of the night she
was aroused by loud knocking at her door and rough voices demanding
admittance. Terrified, the lady tried to hold the door, but in vain. It
soon gave way beneath violent blows, and her arm, thrust forward in
feeble resistance, was seized and held. Unfortunately, she had forgotten
to remove her rings, of which she wore many of great size and
brilliance, and the sight of the jewels so excited the greedy robbers
that they immediately tried to pull them off. They fitted the fingers so
tightly, however, that they would not move; accordingly, the ruffians,
determined to have possession of them, ruthlessly chopped off the poor
woman's hand and wrist, immediately afterwards decamping with their
dreadful booty. Ever since that night, runs the tale, those who have the
"gift" may sometimes see the jewel-covered hand hovering over the bed in
the room once occupied by the ill-fated lady.

Nor is the spectral hand the only uncanny thing to be seen at Plâsgwyn,
if local rumour be correct; which declares that the spirit of "Old
Brown," a former owner of the property, and from all accounts a person
of much character (whether good or bad matters not), has been seen in a
ball of fire rolling down the staircase into the hall at midnight!

I have never met anybody who has witnessed this somewhat alarming
phenomenon, but the legend is merely related for what it is worth, and
as it was told me by a very old inhabitant of the neighbourhood. And


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