“Laura Silver Bells”

We’re still in the 19th century with this week’s story being discussed over at LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition on a cyclical basis.

Review: “Laura Silver Bells”, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1871.

This one is not set in Ireland but the “five Northumbrian counties” of England, specifically Dardale Moss moor. It’s a deserted area with trees encroaching in parts. In it is a very small house with, significantly, no rowan trees around it nor horseshoe above the door for this house is said to be, perhaps wrongly, the home of a witch, Mall Carke. She used to be a sage femme (a midwife) but has retired and now tells fortunes. 

Returning at sunset from Willarden where she was selling socks, a man approaches her on the path. She doesn’t fear robbery because the area is so deserted that robbers don’t bother with it. He is a

gaunt, sombre, bony, dirty, and dressed in a black suit which a beggar would hardly care to pick out of the dust.

As he steps out of the nearby woods and onto the path, Mall says she doesn’t know him. He nods. She empathically says she’s never seen him anywhere. Yet he bids her a good evening by name and offers her some snuff. She takes a step back and tells him she has nothing to say to him whoever he is. He asks if she knows Laura Silver Bells. Her name (the dialect is a bit incomprehensible here and rendered phonetically), Mall says, is Laura Lew. One name is as good as another for someone who isn’t baptized he, says. 

And here we get the reason for Mall’s coldness towards the man: 

’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 man smiles. A young lord is in love with Laura, and he’s the lord. He asks Mall to invite Laura to Mall’s house the next evening and stick cross pins in a candle (a spell to summon a lover). If she does that, Laura and Mall’s fortunes are made. He offers a guinea to Mall who refuses it, and she quivers as she tells the man she will have nothing to do with him. She hasn’t seen him before, and she won’t take any gold from him she hasn’t earned. The man angrily returns to the woods though Mall notices he seems to grow taller as he recedes. 

As he leaves, Mall mutters that Farmer Bell has to absolutely get Laura baptized next Sunday.

We then get the backstory of whom Laura is. It seems Farmer Bell is of a religious sect that believes in adult baptism though Laura has been old enough to do it for a while since she’s now 17. Years ago a woman showed up at Farmer Bell’s house asking to rent two rooms and told him her husband, in Liverpool, would join her in a fortnight. But, ten days later, the woman gave birth to Laura with Mall attending as midwife. The woman died. She was apparently unwed since no husband ever showed up and no wedding ring was present. Farmer Bell, a kindly sort whose own two children died young, takes Laura in until someone claims her. (Love letters on the dead woman mention a Francis, and the woman’s name was Laura so her daughter is named after her.) Laura took her nickname from the small silver bell found in her mother’s possession. 

In the years since then, Laura has become a beautiful girl who, because of Farmer Bell’s increasing age, is allowed to pretty much do what she wants. Mall herself took a liking to Laura who comes to her often with small tokens to exchange for fortunes. 

The next day, about three in the afternoon, Laura shows up at Mall’s home. She asks if Mall is alone. Mall notices that she seems changed in appearance:

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.

Laura has something to tell Mall. Mall tells her to come inside lest anyone see her. Her tone, says Laura, is making her tremble. Laura just wants to “look again into the glass o’water” (a divining technique). Mall moderates her tone and asks to look more closely at Laura’s face, and Laura offers Mall a piece of bacon and six pence later to tell her fortune. 

But, before she begins with the fortune, Mall has something to say: 

’Afoore ye begin . . . 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.’

Who’s looking for her, asks Laura? Mall tells her about her encounter of the previous night, adding some new details: 

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 you refused him?” asks Laura. 

“’Well for thee I did, lass”

Laura vehemently says what the man claimed is true. 

On the previous night, Laura came home from a wake with a farmer Dykes, his wife, and daughter. Then she separated from them. “And ye came by the path alone in the night-time, did ye?” asks Mall. Yes, Laura did, the path by the ruins of 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? 

Hearing the sounds of laughter and singing, Laura stopped on the path near the castle and saw richly dressed people partying. It was a full moon last night, notes Mall. It was, says Laura, so bright it was blinding. 

Never an ill sight but the deaul finds a light . . . There’s a rinnin brook thar — you were at this side, and they at that; did they try to mak ye cross over? 

They did, says Laura,

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’ Gouden Friars.

Mall demands to know what the man looked like. Was his face dirty? Was he tall and ill looking and dressed 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,

replies Laura. Same person she saw on the path, says Mall. 

The party started to dance and asked Laura to join them and cross the brook. But Laura, not feeling she was dressed for the occasion, refused. Mall warns Laura again: 

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,

Laura says she’s bound to be married before she’s baptized. Take care, says Mall, it’s not that marriage. Laura can’t understand what all the fuss is about. The lord even offered her a fine ring though she didn’t take it. 

Mall then makes herself very clear:

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. 

This does not please Laura. If the lord was a fairy, why was she not afraid of him? Why did he look so happy? Laura presses for her fortune. But Mall isn’t going to give her one. Laura should say her prayers because Mall can’t help her. 

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

Is Laura really in love with the “lord”? Yes, she is, and Mall realizes she’s bewitched. 

Then she asks Laura if she’s seen the man since then. She thought she saw him walking in the woods near the path when she came to Mall’s house. Mall again tells her to go home, say her prayers, and not leave the house except to be baptized the next Sunday. (Thus delivering more than the usual three warnings you find in such tale.) 

Laura leaves and a strange cat, seeming to get bigger in the twilight, follows her home. 

The next day Bessie, a neighbor girl, asked Laura to go with her to pick blueberries near Hawarth Castle. The two girls, picking berries, lose sight of each other, and that night Laura has still not returned home. But Bessie’s account of what happened mentions that Laura 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. 

The figure made Bessie uneasy, but Laura seemed to look on him with something close to rapture. She spoke of how beautiful he looked, how fine he was dressed which Bessie thought was “daft”. The man outstretched an arm across the stream. Laura took it and crossed. Laura says she’s going away “to be happy”. Bessie tried to follow the couple but, though they looked to be slowly ambling, she had to run to keep up and still lost sight of them. 

Laura isn’t seen again for over a year.

(Spoilers ahead)

At the end of that time, one of Mall’s goats dies. Since she suspects the work of a “rival witch” living at the far end of Dardale Moss, she casts a spell to compel the culprit to visit her. 

In the night, someone knocks at her door, and a man’s voice calls out to her. Outside she sees a fine four-horse coach with footmen. A tall men enters Mall’s cottage and says he needs the services of a midwife, and she’s the only one available to attend Lady Lairsdale who Mall has never heard of. She lives 12 miles away near Golden Friars. 

Mall’s “avarice is roused”, and she gets in the coach and is seated across the tall man. Mall is anxious when the path the coach takes is not a familiar one. She sees a “noble old castle” by the bright light of the moon. 

But then she falls asleep, but not totally, sensing the movement under her. 

She wakes up having sensed the path has gotten rougher. She sees a familiar figure and a single “ill-favoured beast” drawing a “rude hurdle”. And there’s no castle in sight just a very dilapidated house. 

But Mall feels she “must go through with it” and follows him into the house. 

Inside she is introduced to the Lady Lairdale. It’s Laura, but she’s no longer beautiful but a “faded half-starved creature” who is so begrimed that it looks like she’s never washed. The lord acts in weirdly inappropriate, almost mocking ways: 

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 saturnine derision. 

Laura births her child, but it’s not a human child. 

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. 

The man tells Mall she will not go unrewarded and leaves. Laura whispers to her as the man goes into another room: 

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. 

The man returns with a bag of gold and silver coins and tells Mall to help herself. But she is careful to take only her customary fee, four shillings. Despite the man’s pleas, she won’t stay and leaves the house with the man runnning after her, screaming for her to take the money and hurling the bag at her. It strikes Mall, and she falls to the ground unconscious.

 She wakes up in her own house. Mall ends the story, chagrined at how she opened herself up to dealings with the folk: 

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. 

I liked this story for its old fairy lore and the realistic psychology of a young, attractive girl unable to be persuaded not to go off with her poorly chosen lover. Le Fanu kept the old spirit of the fairies alive to make them malicious, strange creatures unlike what later Victorian writers did with them.

One thought on ““Laura Silver Bells”

  1. Bookstooge April 12, 2023 / 4:31 am

    I like the fay as deadly and malignant instead of otherwise. I thought Tad Williams did a good job of updating that idea in both his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy as well as his Shadowmarch series.

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