The Hand of Glory
(Author's foreword: This is firstly and foremostly intended as an ever so slightly scary story for the younger reading audience, and as such is my first ever posting on WB Schools channel. But it might just be that some of the grown ups may privately enjoy it too ...! Reviews as ever are welcomed and appreciated.)
When all the household lies in sleep,
Then shall the Hand of Glory flame!
Save a north country maid be left a-peep,
As others their dreams forced remain ...
Late one wild and stormy night in the County of Cheshire in the year of Our Lord seventeen hundred and twenty-five, there came a rap upon the door of a remote wayside inn. Mary, the youngest and prettiest of the servant girls, was just finishing clearing away the last of the plates of the night's guests now departed - along with the rest of the servants - to their beds. The innkeeper, a foul tempered old man, paused briefly on the stone flagged floor near the foot of the rickety old open wood staircase that led to his own quarters on the first floor. He bade Mary un-bolt the door and admit the weary looking traveller who said he'd walked the eight miles from the nearest town.
“Well give the man some supper, girl!” the old innkeeper barked irritably. But then he added in a hoarse whisper: “But watch him close till he go a'bed ...”
Mary did as she was told. She sat by the corner of the old stone inglenook fireplace watching the flickering flames dancing off the rough hewn walls and reflecting off the polished brass and copper ware that lined the various shelves, and also off the traveller's knee length boots as he stretched his feet out towards the heat of the fire while silently eating his bread and cheese meal. There was something not quite right about the man. Mary's brow furrowed in worried thought. She could see how his crimson coloured coat was made of a good quality material. And likewise his black tri-corne hat. A gentleman's apparel, no doubt. No, it wasn't that. Her gaze dropped down onto the shiny black boots once more. Of course! She felt her breath catch. How could the man's boots be so clean and polished if - as he'd claimed - he'd just walked eight miles over wet and muddy tracks in the teeth of raging storm?
She lifted her gaze and found herself at once mesmerized by the hypnotic stare of the two piercingly dark eyes which bored into her own from out of the heavily bearded face. Long minutes passed as Mary desperately sought to break their mind controlling hold, finally managing to close her own eyes in a pretense of falling asleep. She fixed her mind upon the slow, measured beat of the innkeeper's old long case clock, a friendly familiar sound against the buffetings of the storm outside. Her frightened young heart raced. After many more minutes had passed a quiet scuff on the stone floor told her that the traveller had stood up ...
She risked taking a peep from under still three-quarters closed eyelids, and watched as the man pulled what she at first took to be a large grey coloured glove from out of one of his coat pockets. And then to her amazement he lit the tips of each of the fingers in turn and then the thumb from the flames of the fire.
As realization came Mary stifled another horrified gasp. What the man was holding was not a grey glove at all but a dead human hand, a withered hand, from which the blood had long since drained. And wooden spills which now burned brightly had been pushed behind each one of its nails. The traveller next took a long iron spike from his opposite coat pocket and with a determined shove rammed one end of it into the severed end of the macabre torch still held in his hand. He then forced the other end of the spike into a crack in the wooden shelf running above the fireplace thus mounting the hideous, burning thing up there.
Mary continued to watch surreptitiously as the man now turned his head as though listening for something above the howling of the wind. When it came Mary heard it too. It was the sound of horses, several horses and possibly a carriage or wagon of some sort, arriving outside the inn door.
The man at once made for the re-bolted door, but in his confusion of the unfamiliar surroundings mistook the cellar door alongside the main door for the entrance, and tumbled headlong down the cellar steps into the Stygian darkness. His muffled cry and the dull 'lump' of his body landing at the bottom finally snapped Mary out of her trance like state.
With a courageousness that belied her tender years Mary leapt up and raced over to the cellar door, closing it, then rapidly slipping its hasp onto the iron staple sticking out from its frame. But there was no padlock, no means at all of securing the door and keeping the man imprisoned. Her heart pounding, her breath coming in short painful pants, Mary frantically searched around the room for something suitable. She screamed out for help, the loudness of her voice rebounding back at her from off the walls. But neither the old innkeeper nor any of the other servants nor guests made any response.
Mary darted back to the cellar door and listened intently. Above the noise of the storm outside she plainly heard a low moan as the traveller began to regain his stunned senses. In but a few more moments he would find the stone steps and begin to feel his way up them ...
There was a sudden loud thumping on the outside of the inn door. With a further wave of fear Mary realized it must be the traveller's accomplices in crime - burglary, murder, whatever- demanding entrance. Simultaneously Mary heard an angry bellowing coming from the foot of the cellar steps. She forced her mind into concentrated thought. If only she could find a long, narrow object made of iron with which to secure the cellar door? About six inches long ...
The burning hand, each of its five dead digits still giving off an intensely pale blue flame, caught her attention above the fireplace. With fear plus the need for decisive action overcoming her natural revulsion Mary grabbed the hideous object down, detached the spike from the hand which fell at once onto the stone floor, and raced back to the cellar door. Just as she reached it the door shook from a ferocious clout on its other side, the loose hasp holding by a hare's breath only on the empty staple. The savage hammering on the outer door meanwhile repeated again. One more push on the cellar door like that and ...
Mary forced the spike through the staple in the nick of time.
Despite the rain of blows and attempts by the traveller to force the door it remained firmly secured. Mary ran once more to the foot of the staircase and again shouted up for help. As before, there was no response. The still burning hand was lying in the middle of the stone floor where she had dropped it. Quickly fetching a pail of water from the adjacent scullery Mary made a short prayer and then doused the liquid over the loathsome thing extinguishing the flames at once.
Immediately the hammering on the inn's outer door ceased, and moments later Mary heard the whinnying of horses followed by the rumble of a rapidly departing wheeled vehicle. A commotion from the first floor landing, then the old inkeeper and several of the guests and other servants all came piling down the stairs together in their night clothes.
The following day, after the imprisoned traveller had been handed over to a specially summoned detachment of the County of Chester Yeomanry, the old innkeeper enquired of Mary as to why she hadn't called for help sooner. She was about to explain that it was only after the hand had ceased to burn that she'd been able to make anyone hear. But instead she simply shrugged. Any thought of the horrible thing still sent a tingle of fear up her spine, and she had in any case kicked it straight into the heart of the fire before any of them had arrived. And her sweetheart, Tom the ostler, had that very morning presented her with a beautiful new pair of lady's silken gloves.
(Author's afterword: There was once an old folklore legend current in northern English counties concerning robbers who would use a burning hand or a 'Hand of Glory' stolen from a newly buried corpse in a churchyard to act as a 'sleeping charm' for the purpose of keeping the occupants of a house or an inn soundly asleep whilst they ransacked it. But it was, of course, nothing more than that: An old folk tale ...)
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