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Typed exactly as seen in the "Northern Weekly Gazette, August 9th 1930, pages 9 and 10"
A couple of centuries ago, most of the property around Little Smeaton, just off the old coaching road, between Northallerton and Darlington, were owned by a family named Hewgill, whose successors were at the hall last century, and descendants of whom are yet in the neighbourhood.
The hall, a delightfully situated country mansion, has been named Westthorpe, and is now the residence of Captain Cooper Horsfall. Local traditions surrounds this old home of the Hewgills with a restless spirit, which, when the moon is full-so said old folk-returns to the scenes of the sad story now to be recorded.
The Hewgills were an old family, proud of their genealogy and connections, and taking first rank in the table of social precedents in those parts. At the period with which our narrative deals, the hope of the Hewgills was centered in their one remaining unmarried child -a daughter of wonderful grace and beauty, of whom great things were expected.
Bella Hewgill would marry, if not a title, certainly a commoner of wealth and position, and many were the castles built in the air for her by her doting parents.
Unfortunately, Miss Bella did not fall in with the preconceived plans so confidently arranged and frequently laid before her. She appears to have been a romantic girl of spirit and, like many a maiden before and since, elected to shape her own destinies. Of a truth with her as with so many others, the course of true love did not run smooth.
It came as a shock to her parents when first it was whispered their daughter was indulging clandestine meetings with a young spark in the neighbourhood. Although admittedly well connected, a good enough horseman and a handsome and cultured youth, he, for some reason, had not the entree to the Hewgill social circle. He was a younger son, and known to have no money and no expectations; so rightly or wrongly he was considered an entirely undesirable suitor to the beautiful Bella.
Both parents strove to convince their daughter that nothing but evil and ignomony would follow in the train of such mesalliance. They reasoned, they begged, and then threatened, but it was all of no avail., Bella simply shook her head with all the traditional spirit of the Hewgill family. She argued that they, her parents, had chosen whom they would marry, and that she should be given the same freedom.
Then was it her father and mother began a system of espionage, but scheme as they would, the lovers contrived to meet, and they knew it.
At last, owing to hints which came from the kitchen, that Miss Bella intended eloping and marrying in spite of them, Squire Hewgill determined upon a plan to bring his self-willed daughter to her senses. Drastic circumstances, he contended, justified drastic measures, and he had his wayward daughter locked up in a small room the very top of the old house, from which escape was impossible.
Still Bella remained as defined as ever. "They might break her heart, but never her will," she said. Her father thought otherwise. But as the days passed by and no sign of relenting were seen in the prisoner, he grew weary of the constant vigil necessary to frustrate the attempts at rescue by her lover. So was it he decided to consult old "Mother Webster" at Hornby – a wrinkled old dame, at that time held in great repute, not only as a healer of divers complaint which baffled the skill of the most learned leeches, but also considered a past mistress in the black arts of necromancy.
"Aye," they said, "there's many a queer thing happens underneath aud Nanny Webster's thack (thatch)." Indeed, it was commonly thought that his Satanic Majesty himself on special occasions guarded her door, as well as being a constant ally.
To Mother Webster then, Squire Hewgill went, laying his case before her, and begging to supply him with some anti-love-philtre which would turn his daughter's affection to hate, and bring her to reason, which meant, of course, to his way of thinking.
Mother Webster assured him that she neither possessed or knew either of herbs or nostrums potent enough to brew such antidotal philtre as he desired. She told him, however, that there was a way by which he might succeed in the object of his visit. The old dame was at some pains to caution the Squire that in the process and mystery attendant upon the work of the charm he ran a grave risk of terrible evil rebounding upon his own shoulders. There were also considerable difficulties to overcome ere the full ritual of the charm was accomplished. But if he once began to work the charm, he must continue to the bitter end, whatever the consequences to himself or others. There must be no turning back, or the most fearful punishment would rest upon him and his whole household - a punishment of which successive generations of his line through all time would be periodically reminded.
Mother Webster concluded her warning - a most serious and emphatic warning - by strongly advising Squire Hewgill to allow his daughter to wed the man of her own choice. "The lass has to live her own life," said the wrinkled seer, adding: "and she had better do so in a humble way with a man she loves and one who loves her, than with someone with wealth who will mebbe give her title and position and yet care nothing at all about the beautiful flower after he has worn it for a day or two."
Taking All Risks
But Squire Hewgill was adamant. He would pay no heed to any such advice. He was quite relentless, though recognising that the determined spirit which his daughter displayed was inherited from himself. So he bade the Hornby charlatan hold her peace and tell him what course he had to adopt so that his daughter's heart maybe turned against her lover. "I'll take all the risks," he added impatiently.
Again Mother Webster cautioned him how serious a thing it was to pit himself against Cupid and Venus and to call - as he would have to call - upon St Agnes, the very patron saint of maidenhood, to aid him. The Squire now lost all patience and made her cease her old wives tales to frighten him and tell him at once what course he was to pursue. He added that he would be careful to carry out her minutest instructions and concluded:
"I would rather carry my daughter's body out of the hall a corpse than that she should ever enter it as the wife of such a man as that she wishes to wed."
To these unnatural sentiments Dame Webster gave utterance to words she was again to repeat on a still more awesome occasion:
"It is at all times easier to drop words than it is to pick them up again."
Seeing nothing would dissuade her visitor from his purpose Mother Webster told him that he must sweep three local bridges with the bristle broom (see footnote) always sweeping away from him. His task had to commence on the stroke of midnight and be repeated on three successive nights immediately preceding the full moon. Having completed this part of the ritual he must stand facing the moon on each bridge formally to give them names. Standing in the middle of the bridges he was to sprinkle a few drops of holy water, and whilst so doing pronounce the name. The first bridge was to be named Thorstant; the titles of the other two have been forgotten. This done he had to call upon St. Agnes in these terms:
"Sweet Agnes, the bridge is now clean swept, and Thorstant begs of you to take this way."
The same right had to be observed the following two nights, each time appealing to Sweet Agnes in the name of each particular bridge to cross over. On the fourth night - that of the full moon - he had to stand on the first bridge he had swept, facing the Moon, and say: "Good Thorstant sends you this," throwing at the moon a fresh laid egg, immediately turning about so as not to see where it fell. Hastening on, the same ceremony was repeated, the only difference being that St. Agnes received her invitation in the name to which each water crossing, had, at anyrate temporarily, been dedicated.
The Crowning Point
The charm was not, however, completed, for on the succeeding three nights there were other ceremonies to be observed which are not remembered in detail. The crowning point was reached on the fateful third night.
The Squire’s instructions were that when he reached the third bridge - the nearest the hall - he was to hasten home with all possible speed insomuch as her failure might overtake him and a relentless Nemesis await him.
Though all had gone well up to this juncture of the working of the spell its success and the future peace and happiness of the Squire hung on a slender thread. He had called upon the sense and mythological gods to come to his aid, he had set in motion the machinery of charlatenry (maybe the Devil himself) to achieve his ends, and where he would have revealed to him whether they were in sympathy with his project or whether their curse was to rest upon him and his.
Old Mother Webster's injunction was couched in these words:
And when you have come to the third and last of the bridges on the final night you must hurry home as fast as ever your legs will carry you - for if so be as between the end of the bridge and your own doorstep a weasel cross your path and your eyes light on it, evil will follow you all the remaining days of your life so that, sleeping or waking, in sunshine and darkness, in fair weather and storm, your eyes will see, your ears will hear and your mind will picture things which are not of this world, but which will make living a burden, death fearsome and every minute of every hour of every day a horror and a nightmare."
When Squire Hewgill heard all this most solemn threat he merely smiled. In his own mind he saw a way of evading the ill omen. Did he not know every step of the road between the bridge foot and his home so thoroughly that he need have no qualms as to his ability to walk the whole distance with his eyes closed? . This he decided would be the course he would adopt.
When he reached home from Mother Webster's he was staggered to find that his wife, who had throughout been in sympathy with him, had entirely changed her attitude. She begged the Squire to relent and give his consent to the union of the two lovers. This change of front was not entirely due to a mother’s innate love, nor was it because of unseen influences which had whispered to her during her husband's absence. The primary "raison d’être" was she had discovered scratched on a pane of glass fitted to the lead lattice at the top of her daughter's prison door the following lines: -
La Bella pouts her coral lips,
All lovely, loving thing,
How couldst thou set thy rebel heart
So much on a strange King?
With him to sit, with him to chat,
Ye morn would blithe away,
And gay assemblys, routs and balls,
Closed every joyous day.
But oh how fleeting are our joys,
How sudden comes our sorrow;
In pleasure, who is lost today,
Is lost in grief tomorrow.
Neither his daughter's lines nor his wifes pleadings, could soften the Squire’s stern resolve, come what may, to achieve his own selfish ends. To his wife he said: "If Bella will give me the word of a Hewgill never to speak to this fellow again, all well; she may return amongst us. If not - then I will keep her where she is till she dies."
Hardly had he spoken these words, than he stood momentarily transfixed and dumbstruck for, from nowhere there came into his ear a warning whisper - as clear and distinct as from a human voice;
"It is at all times easier to drop words than it is to pick them up again."
The homeward journey
Without saying a word to anyone Squire Hewgill set about his task. There were difficulties, many, but he overcame them all, even to the very moment when, with eyes closed, he turned from the foot of the final bridge on his homeward journey. Up to that instant he had been successful beyond his most sanguine dreams. The face of the Moon had never once been darkened by the smallest cloud, whilst performing any part of this task; no Raven or Rook had presaged ill omen; no Owl had hooted as he swept the bridges. . . . He was safe and successful! His daughter would become as potter's clay in his hand. With his mind at ease, he tightly closed his eyes and started on his homeward journey.
He had travelled more than half the distance without mishap when a rush of icy cold air struck his face - so sudden, so deadly cold, so like the clammy hand of death itself, he started back, involuntarily opening his eyes as he did so. At that instant there crossed the road at his very feet a weasel! Rooted to the spot, he stood dumb, terrified, limp, helpless, yet fascinated. A cold shiver shook every bone in his body. His lips were dry and parched, and the cold, damp sweat stood on his brow. His eyes followed the sinuous movements of that small brown treacherous animal - to him the embodiment of all that was evil - till, snake like, it had disappeared into the opposite hedgerow. Gone!
But what had it left behind? Not a pad-mark, not a bent or broken blade of grass, nothing to show from whence it had come or whence it had gone. Nothing except the damning and overwhelming knowledge that it had been, and the conscious certainty of untold evil which must follow and remain - sleeping and waking, every minute of every hour of every day!
Even as these disturbing and fearful thoughts sank deep, like iron, into the Squire’s very soul, there came upon the still might air a long, low wail of agony and grief, so wild, so weird, so piercing, that his heart stood still.
And this was not all. A new terror arrayed itself against him. The heavy mist began to roll and gather itself together in frantic shapes. The white pall, which until then had lain asleep on all the land, now touched with magic breath, took human form. A figure in the semblance of a lovely maiden came gliding towards him with arm, and hand, and finger out-stretched. . . . . It was the wraith of his own child, pale as death, yet true to life, before him.
For a moment she gazed upon him with indescribable look - the dead, the living, parent, child - and then the misty figure grew fainter, dissolving and unfolding until once again it was lost in the vast damp shroud which enveloped field and hedge alike.
The Squire knew the worst had happened and, when too late, he cursed his cruel folly, and knew that a relentless Nemesis was to dog the steps of a stony and vindictive parent. When he reached home he found the house in darkness. All were in bed and asleep, and one he knew, would never wake again. With faltering steps he sought his child's prison. All he saw there no one knew. They only learned that Bella was dead. How she had ended her sad latter days remained locked in the breast of the self willed and now broken-hearted parent.
If the following part of the story be true, no doubt can exist that for long Hewgill lost his reason. The daughter, he felt, had disgraced the family as he had disgraced the name of father. She had died by her own hand! Hence, she could not be buried on consecrated ground. Nevertheless, he would not hear of the observance of the usual custom of the body of one who had committed self-murder being buried at four crossroads with a stake through the chest. So by his command, the last mortal remains of poor Bella were lowered into a well which was afterwards filled with stones.
No Idle Threat
To Mother Webster he then went, and, half demented, he cursed her again and again to her face. She retaliated by shouting after him as he departed: -
Though thoo’s cassen her body in a well,
There’s nowt can ho’d her down;
Her spirit yet with ye shall swell,
Three days afore each moon.
Her words were soon proved to be no idle threat, for at regular intervals Bella’s restless astral returned to the terror of all Squire Hewgill’s household and neighbours.
On more than one occasion when her lover was driving home she joined him, and on one memorable occasion, in the presence of several people of good repute, just as a farmer was leaving the hall stack-yard with a load of grain, Bella was observed seated on the topmost sack until the lead horse planted a foot on Appeleton-le-Wiske Bridge. At that point the spectre disappeared. Again, when one of the house party at the hall acquired what had been Bella’s bedroom, she was greatly surprised one evening when retiring to see a strange young lady (she had never seen Bella) sitting by her bedside reading a letter. The young lady stood up, had the letter in her bodice, and slowly walked out of the room.
Later in the evening everyone in the house was aroused by agonised wails which brought the guests from their beds. . . . The Moon had once more called Bella from the other side of that thin veil which hides the dead from the living.
At last the Hewgill’s sought advice as to how they could have their house exorcised. No servant would stay with them, and they themselves waited with disturbed mind and unclosed eyes the coming of each Moon.
They were told that the only way they could escape from the nocturnal visits of her whom they had so much wronged was to leave their home and build another house over running water. On completion a Maiden was to be carried feet first into the new home by the back door and out at the front entrance. The journey through the house was to be made in a straight line. So was it that Hornby Grange was built and the aforementioned course adopted. Near as was their new home to the hall no more were the Hewgill’s troubled by the spirit of Bella after this.
Bristled broom: meaning unknown. Possibly a corruption of the word "bustard" applied to witches who had lost power to work evil.
The pane of glass bearing the rhyme quoted is still in the possession of the Horsfall family at Westthorpe.