Incorporating Research into a Story Line:
Today, I thought I would spend some time on how I incorporated my research into Dorset’s superstitions and legends into the text of one of my Austen-inspired cozy mysteries. Enjoy the short history lesson below and then an excerpt from Chapter 8 of The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy.
While writing The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy, I explored many of the superstitions and beliefs of the 18th and 19th Centuries in England. In doing so, I collected information on tales of fairies, the Cerne Giant, and witchcraft. One of the plot devices I have incorporated into the story line is that of a “Witch Bottle.” What is a Witch Bottle, you may ask? How could it be a weapon in a mystery book? The purpose of a witch bottle is to trap the evil spirits operating in a household. A traditional witch bottle was made of blue or green glass and was about 3-4 inches high.
Bellarmine jugs, are named after Robert Bellarmine, an ardent Catholic Inquisitor, who earned his reputation in the prosecution of Protestants and the burning of Giordano Bruno at the stake. Bruno was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. For claiming that the Sun was one of many stars and there was likely other inhabitable worlds containing intelligent beings, Bruno was burned alive for the crime of heresy in 1600. Bellarmine jugs, some 9 inches in height, were made of brown or gray stoneware. They were embossed with faces of bearded men to scare off the evil spirits.
The victim’s urine, hair, nail clippings, or red thread (sprite traps) were included in the bottle. Sometimes iron nails or pins were included. The bottle was traditionally buried beneath the house’s hearth or at the farthest corner of the property. Some say that the witch bottle wards off the spirit, keeping the witch from entering the house. Others believe the bottle captures evil and impales the dark spirit on the pins and nails before being drowned by the liquid (urine, holy water, wine, sea water, etc.).
The Dorset Echo carried a story of an unusual bottle buried under a wall near Langton Matravers. Dated October 27, 2005, the article says, “Experts believe that the rare find is a ‘witch bottle’ used to fend off evil spirits, which were thought to cause horned cattle distemper. The bottle’s contents was dark brown syrup and is one of only four bottles discovered in the UK with liquid still inside. Since then, a series of tests has revealed the liquid contained 30 different components including a salt solution–known as holy water at the time–covered with a layer of decayed animal fat.”
So now you, the reader, can identify what a witch’s bottle might contain, please enjoy the excerpt below from my Austen-inspired release: The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy.
The characters with which you may not be familiar are Thomas Cowan (a former Bow Street Runner and close associate of Colonel Fitzwilliam); Mr. Franklyn (an archaeologist from the British Antiquarian Society); Mrs. Ridgeway (the Woodvine Hall housekeeper) and Captain Lewis Tregonwell (the real-life founder of Bournemouth). Please remember that in my Austen books, as Miss Austen did not provide a Christian name for Colonel Fitzwilliam, he is “Edward,” my father’s middle name. (I am aware others use the name “Richard” in their fan fiction stories.) Please share any reactions below.
Darcy arrived at Woodvine Hall to a flurry of activity. Servants scurried forth and back in a frenzied state. Whatever Elizabeth had said to the Woodvine housekeeper had proved effective: Mrs. Ridgeway oversaw the moving of furniture in the front drawing room. Two footmen rolled a heavy carpet, likely one brought to Dorset from the East. Its intricate patterns spoke of looms accustomed to prideful artisans. As they passed the room’s open door, Darcy noted his cousin’s wry smile. Edward leaned closer to say, “Mrs. Darcy has performed a miracle.”
“My wife never ceases to amaze me,” Darcy said honestly. He wanted to see her. Needed to see her. To observe how she fared. To speak of his admiration. It was the way with him. Darcy despised being separated from her more than a few minutes. At Pemberley, he had set up a desk for her in his study. He had found he accomplished more work whenever Elizabeth was in the room. If she were elsewhere in the house, Darcy was often on the move: In search of his Elizabeth.
Yet, before he could seek her out, Mr. Franklyn appeared on Woodvine’s steps. “Thank Goodness, you have returned. I must speak to you, Mr. Darcy. It is a matter of great urgency.”
Silently, Darcy groaned. He turned to his cousin. “If you would please inform Mrs. Darcy of our return, I would appreciate it. And instruct my wife she is welcome to join me in Samuel’s study.”
Edward’s mouth widened into a sly grin. A familiar tease followed. “Your wife likely holds no taste for this loathsome business. Perhaps I will convince Mrs. Darcy to join me for a walk in the gardens.”
Darcy could not stifle the chuckle. He and Edward had competed in every facet of their lives: strength, education, marksmanship, and women. Darcy excelled in the first three. Edward in the last. “I am certain Mrs. Darcy would prefer experiencing the gardens on my arm,” he said confidently.
“The lady preferred my company over yours at Rosings Park,” Edward taunted good-naturedly. “Miss Elizabeth liked me first.”
Darcy bowed to his cousin. If it had not been for Edward’s good counsel, Darcy would never have approached Elizabeth a second time. “’Tis true, Cousin. First impressions are often mistaken ones. The lady may have preferred your acquaintance first, but she loves me last.”
Edward returned a flamboyant bow. “I concede to your mastery, Darcy.” With a hearty laugh, Edward attacked the staira two at a time.
Darcy motioned to the archaeologist to follow him. Entering his cousin’s study, he said, “What may I do for you, Franklyn?”
The man rushed to close the door behind him. He nervously cleared his throat before saying, “I have taken the liberty of sending for others to assist me in this task.”
Darcy nodded his agreement. “I have previously given my permission to do so. You have a phenomenal task before you, and I fear neither the colonel nor I hold any expertise in the field.”
Franklyn appeared relieved. “I have some concerns on how the many artifacts have been handled, and I am, obviously, anxious to witness the items in the secret room you have described previously.”
Darcy sighed heavily. “I had thought we might accidentally discover the vault some time after supper.”
Franklyn’s anticipation was what Darcy had expected. “I will be glad of it, but on second thought, I hold misgivings about the Woodvine staff knowing of the room’s existence. Just today I have seen evidence that someone has rifled through your cousin’s treasures, likely looking for items to pawn. Once the staff knows of the room, it must be guarded at all hours of the day and night.”
Darcy agreed. “Allow me to speak to the colonel and Mr. Cowan on how best to handle this. Perhaps Cowan knows of men in the area we can trust. Or I could seek the aid of Captain Tregonwell.”
“I would find those actions most satisfying, Mr. Darcy. Such treasures must be secured as part of mankind’s history.”
Having excused Franklyn to his own devices, Darcy made his way quickly through Woodvine’s passages. He had hoped Elizabeth would join him in Samuel’s study, but she had yet to make an appearance. After the drama of earlier, he had a distracted need to hold his wife in his embrace. Cowan’s warning clung to Darcy’s shoulders. He could not shake the foreboding the man’s words had left behind. All he had wanted since he, Cowan, and his cousin had set their sights on Woodvine was to catch Elizabeth up in his arms and bury his face in his wife’s scent. He had only felt alive in her presence, and with death closing in on everything Darcy held dear, he desperately desired to look upon her fine eyes.
He had just turned into the passageway to their quarters when the blood-leaching scream filled the ground floor and ricocheted off the high ceilings. Darcy froze in mid stride. Immediately, he was on the move. Skipping steps and vaulting over the landing. “Elizabeth!” he bellowed. “Elizabeth! Where are you?” He did not think it his wife’s voice he had heard, but he could not shed the dread building in him.
Darcy heard a heavy tread behind him and realized it was his cousin. Both men skidded to a stop in the front foyer as Cowan burst through a side entrance. “What is amiss?” the Runner asked in an anxious exhale.
“Not certain.” Darcy’s eyes scanned the hall. “Where are the servants?”
He motioned his cousin to search a side hallway, but before either man could take a step Elizabeth called, “In here, Fitzwilliam!”
Darcy followed her voice to come upon a most unusual setting. “What has occurred?” he asked as he knelt beside his wife. Elizabeth cradled Mrs. Ridgeway’s head in her lap. Meanwhile, one of the younger maids wrapped the housekeeper’s bloody hand with a strip of cloth he suspected had come from Elizabeth’s petticoat.
“Mrs. Ridgeway has suffered some sort of injury,” Elizabeth explained. “I have sent for Doctor Glover.”
Edward slowly circled the room’s periphery. From his eye’s corner, Darcy noted his cousin palmed a small pistol. “Why such drama?” the colonel asked suspiciously.
“I am uncertain.” Elizabeth directed the maid cleaning the housekeeper’s wound.
An older woman eyeing the proceedings from her place in the corner said, “The lady be burned when she tuched the witch’s bottle.”
Darcy stood slowly. He surveyed the room. From where his wife nursed the housekeeper, soft sobs and whispers continued. “Explain,” he demanded as his eyes rested on the woman’s wrinkled countenance. The woman showed no signs of alarm. In fact, she appeared almost gleeful in her attitude.
“Thar be a witch’s bottle under the lose hearth stone. None of us be tuching it, but Mrs. Ridgewy said we be fools. Yet, when she grasped it, it burned her skin. Brought the blood.”
“A witch’s bottle,” Edward said with some amusement. “Why would there be a witch’s bottle in this house?”
“Protect those within,” the woman insisted. “We not be overlooked by a witch from without. No familiar.”
Cowan retrieved pieces of the offending item from the floor where Mrs. Ridgeway had dropped it. “Not many use such conjures these days.” He closely inspected the bottle’s contents. “Appears to be some bent iron nails. Some thorns. Pins.” He touched the spilled liquid with his fingertip before sniffing his finger. “Blood. Maybe some holy water. Very likely a person’s urine.”
“You jest,” Darcy said incredulously.
“No. Seen them many times in Cornwall.” The Runner stood slowly.
Darcy was not certain whether the reference to Cornwall was part of the story they had concocted for the villagers or whether Cowan truly knew something of England’s historic shire. “I still do not understand what could have burned Mrs. Ridgeway’s hand.”
Cowan explained, “Generally, several pins are set within the stoneware. When the lady dropped the Bellarmine Jar, your housekeeper was cut by the jar and the items within. Then the liquid poured over the wounds.”
The old woman scowled. “Perhaps it be as you say or perhaps not. Thar be many among those who live about that believe those which the bottle burns know the worst of the arts.”
With all it implied, the woman’s prediction annoyed Darcy. “We will have no such talk in this house. Do you understand?”
The maid obediently dropped her eyes, but he did not think it was from a subservient deference to his position in the household. “Yes, Mr. Darcy.”
Elizabeth assisted Mrs. Ridgeway to a seated position. She examined the woman’s hand again. Darcy noted her frown of disapproval. “There are several lacerations.” She sighed heavily. “We have done all we may until Doctor Glover arrives. Els would you see Mrs. Ridgeway to her quarters?”
“Yes, Mrs. Darcy.”
The housekeeper struggled to her feet. With what appeared to resemble fear, she glanced toward the hearth. “When Dunstan returns, I want him to check each of the fireplaces. I want no more accidents.”
After the maid had assisted Mrs. Ridgeway from the room, Darcy caught his wife’s hand and brought her to his side. To the remaining Woodvine staff he ordered, “I want this situation resolved before the bottle’s contents stain the floor.”
Darcy led Elizabeth from the room, but in the main foyer, he turned to speak privately with Cowan and the colonel. “Edward, if you would join Elizabeth and me in her sitting room, I would appreciate it.”
“Of course, Darcy.”
To the Runner, he said, “Cowan, please locate Mr. Franklyn and then join us also. It is odd the gentleman did not respond to the chaos.”