Illustration by Charles Gliddon – Believed to be Public Domain
Presented below is a retelling of a story from Goblin Tales of Lancashire called the Pillion Lady collected by James Bowker.
The Pillion Lady
It had been a beautiful summer day and after conducting a good day’s business in the local market Humphrey Dobson had spent a few hours drinking with his friends in his favorite tavern. Deciding he had drank his fill he mounted his easy tempered mare and set off on the road home.
It was a warm and balmy evening and the moon was throwing down her light making the road easy to follow. There was one place along the route that Humphrey was always wary about. This was where a road crossed over a stream which was said to be the scene of where a maiden was murdered many years ago. Nevertheless the moon was high and lighting the road sufficiently for Humphrey to see the stream and fortified by the beer he pushed on.
The bridge was shrouded in darkness caused by dense branches of overhanging trees that blotted out the moonlight. It was the dark bridge that gave Humphrey the shivers. He had heard many eerie stories of a headless woman reputed to haunt the bridge that appearing to terrified travellers. To bolster his spirits he began to sing an old song and stoutly urged his horse onwards.
“He rode and he rode till he came to the dooar,
And Nell came t’ oppen it, as she’d done afooar:
‘Come, get off thy horse,’ she to him did say,
‘An’ put it i’th’ stable, an’ give it some hay.”‘ (1)
Nevertheless, as he approached the bridge he could feel his heart beginning to quail and suddenly he spurred his horse forward to gallop cross the bridge. No sooner had his horse’s hooves struck the stone on the bridge when an eerie, unearthly laugh rang out from beneath the arch. The horse shuddered and snorted and galloped nervously forward but as it did so Humphrey’s blood turned to ice as he felt a deathly cold arm creep smoothly around his waist and at the same time experienced faint, cold, pressure against his back as if someone or something was close behind and leaning on him.
Shocked and startled by the experience his heart racing and breaking into a cold sweat he hardly daring to look around. His horse galloped wildly out of control itself sweating in fear, eyes wild and rolling. Humphrey fought to gain control of the terrified beast as its iron-clad hooves thundered upon the cobbled stones causing flashing sparks in the darkness.
Another eerie cackling laugh split the night but this time seemed so close to his ear that Humphrey looked quickly around and was shocked and terrified at what he saw. It was not the headless woman he had heard so many frightening tales about. The thing behind him with its arm wrapped tightly around him certainly was not headless but more grotesque and terrifying than that. The ghastly thing had a head, or rather a grinning skull that looked out of black hood so close to his face they were almost cheek to cheek, a pale light flickering from its empty eye sockets and its ample teeth white in the light of the moon.
Paralyzed by fear Humphrey was forced to ride cheek by jowl with the terrifying thing as the mare galloped wildly down the road. Every now and then his ghastly pillion passenger let out a hideously laugh its jaw snapping grotesquely close to his ear. As its arm tightened around him he slipped his own arm down to feel but was alarmed to discover that what encircled his waist was the cool hard skeleton of an arm.
Shocked and terrified to the core Humphrey continued on the wild ride clasped in the loving embrace of his skeletal companion. He lost all sense of time as frozen in fear he careered wild down the road on his frantic horse. Suddenly the horse came upon a sharp corner in the road and had to turn sharply to get round it as the ghastly figure behind let out another terrifying laugh. Humphrey was completely unready for such a sudden a manoeuvre and was thrown over the head of his terrified steed landing heavily upon the road.
There he lay unconscious through the night until the sun began to rise. He finally regained consciousness with the dawn chorus in the trees above in full song. Looking around he saw his horse quietly grazing just along the road. Climbing painfully to his feet, for he was battered, bruised and bleeding, he managed to mount the horse and ride carefully home.
On his return he was greeted by several farm lads who listened to his story with disbelief and not a little humor. They jibed him and jested at the idea of his ghastly skeletal passenger making great fun of him. Yet thereafter, not one of his tormentors, dared cross the bridge over the stream alone after dark, ever since the night Humphrey Dobson had a fright.
This a retelling of a story called the The White Dobbie, set in part of the historic county of Lancashire which became part of the the modern county of Cumbria and comes from a book by James Bowker called Goblin Tales of Lancashire. It comes from a time when the cartographic and administrative borders of the land were different than they are today. Such borders are very much the creation of the human mind and can change on a whim. Furthermore, the map is not the territory and the borders between this world, the next, or indeed others, are not subject to human laws. There are times they can be crossed and this story tells of a strange liminal being and his familiar spirit in the form of a white hare who appeared every now and then from across such a border at certain times.
The White Dobbie
Many many years ago the people who lived in villages between Bardsea to Rampside in the area of Furness told of a strange wandering being that roamed the remote roads along the coast. No one ever learnt who this strange being was or the reason that brought him on his lonely, melancholy way, past the remote cottages in the darkest of nights and foulest of weather. His arrival was a well known phenomenon in that area and local people called him the White Dobbie or Dobby, which is a local name for a ghost.
This wandering ghost had a sad, wan and desolate look about him. Wild, hungry, eyes stared out of a wild face covered by a long unkempt beard, giving him an aura of feral mystery and terror. Stranger still he did not walk alone. He had an uncanny companion; a familiar spirit that loped along before him. This familiar took the appearance a of ghastly white hare. A famished, impoverished looking creature with bloodshot eyes and an ill aura about it that marked it being clearly not of this world.
An Unknown Mission
No one knew or could foretell when this wandering ghost would appear. He never spoke or answered to anyone but totally disregarding all he came across. He simply kept his eyes before him and ignored any startled cries of surprise or fear, by anyone who inadvertently came across him, as he sojourned upon his lonely way. Never once did he stop to gaze through the window panes at the cheery glow of a roaring fire while he, an outsider, stood watching the cosy life of the inhabitants inside. He simply carried on past the few cottages continuing on his unknown mission, whatever that may be, as if life and death were dependent upon it, letting nothing and no one get in his way. Not that anyone would have dared to try to impede or obstruct him for his very presence exuded a fearful warning and no one would willingly have attempted interference with him for the very life of them.
The local people came to be able to predict his appearances by the weather. Whenever the salt wind whipped the sea into a foam, or drove blinding snow across the land forming drifts as high as the window-sills and piling it against the doors of the cottages, he would appear. When storms rolled in from the sea and wreaked their anger upon the land then it was certain that this lonely figure would appear from no one knew where. As the storm raged through the darkness he made his lonely way on his unknown, solitary, mission.
The Ghastly White Hare
As the snow fell and the wind wailed folk could be heard calling to the Lord to save them from the wandering White Dobbie and his ghastly white hare. Drawing their curtains they quickly ushered their little ones into the safety of a back room until he passed by on his lonely way with his ghastly familiar running on before. If by mischance some unwary traveler should venture across these two bizarre specters the ghostly white hare would instantly leap and bury itself into a cavernous pocket in the dobbie’s coat. There it would peer with baleful red eyes at the unfortunate passerby.
Its strange behaviour and ghastly appearance though repulsive to humans was more terrifying to animals. Dog, cats, farm and even wild birds and animals could sense its presence, falling silent and scurrying away to hide at its approach. Any creature unfortunate to encounter the white hare face to face invariably uttered a shriek of terror and bolted in the opposite direction over ditch and hedge through thicket and briar to escape the devil beast and its baleful stare.
For many many years these two weird and lonely specters could be seen walking the lanes and roads. Grown men could remember them from their early childhood and their parents and grandparents and great grandparents remembered them. Way back further than living memory folk had spoken of the ghastly wanderers but there was no memory of the dobbie ever speaking a single word to anyone. Nevertheless there came a time when that rule was to be broken.
The Bardsea Bell
One darkling evening as the wind began to rise heralding the coming storm along the road came the White Dobbie and his ghastly familiar. The road led up to the old church where the Bardsea bell was sadly tolling for the passing of the newly dead. In this way for years beyond count the good residents of Bardsea were informed of the the presence of a new death in their community. The bell ringer had tolled out the news of death over the years more times than she cared to remember but this night was different. Instead of the melancholy sadness usually experienced an atmosphere of cold fear prevailed in the bell tower lit by a single lantern. Most of the times she had tolled out the news had been in daylight and rarely by night. Every now and then she glanced around and over her shoulder, fearful of the flickering shadows cast by the lantern and murmuring a quiet prayer to keep her safe. Having closed the door to prevent the wind from blowing out the lantern she was conscious of the isolation of the tower in that little world alone on the hillside. Suddenly to her fear and alarm she heard a hissing whispering next to her and was overcome by a feeling of dread, fear and loneliness.
As she looked around she saw a white hare dancing grotesquely around the bell tower and a whispering voice near her face said “Who for this time?” causing her to scream in terror and loosen her grip on the bell rope. “It’s the Dobbie!” she cried and turned to look into the pale eyes of the spector who stood at her elbow staring at her. The white hare jumped into the safety of the cavernous pocket of the dobbie and cast its bloodshot eyes in her direction.
Despite, or perhaps because of her fear, she continued to toll the bell but in a mechanical fashion, unlike the usual tone for informing the world of the presence of death in their little community. As she did so and to her relief two men from Bardsea burst through the door. They had been alarmed by the change of tone from the bell which had traditionally rung out the same sombre notes time and again without fail and this break from tradition had caught their attention. They were completely taken aback to see the ghastly dobbie and his strange familiar and the bell ringer mechanical tolling the bell, a look of fear and horror frozen upon her face.
As soon as they entered the bell tower the white hare hid itself in the deep confines of the pocket. The White Dobbie floated past them and out through the door without saying a word or giving a glance to the left or right. Out through the door it went and disappeared into the darkness of the graveyard. For many long years there after the bell-ringer of the little church was often accosted by the ghastly phantom pair when tolling news of death at night. Each time she heard the hissing whispering question, “Who this time?” before the phantom turned and floated out through the door to dissolve into the night.
For many, many, years thereafter the White Dobbie and his companion were seen at times roaming the coastal lanes and roads of the district but gradually their sightings grew less and less. There was always a dark cloud of mystery that clung to them either when they appeared or when they left. No one could say where he had come from or where they had gone. Of the ghastly white hare there was much speculation. Some speculated that the two had once been evil humans who were undergoing a form of divine punishment for some evil.
The Wandering Jew
There is also an idea that this tale is a variant of the Wandering Jew, or the legend of Ahasuerus. According to this, Ahasuerusrefused Jesus a drink of water as he carried his cross to his crucifixion but instead told him to walk quicker. Jesus replied, ‘I go, but thou shalt thirst and tarry till I come!” Ahasuerus was made to wander the earth until judgement day. What the significance of the white hare is in this tale is unknown but there are legends and traditions in English folklore that tell how a cruelly treated woman may become a white hare at her death and haunt her wicked lover finally causing his own death at a time of her choosing. Could it be that the ghastly hare that accompanied the White Dobbie was the spirit of his old lover whom he had cruelly murdered or mistreated and was doling out punishment? Their lonely wandering continued for many years thereafter but gradually became less and less and what became of them no one knows.
Yet another, perhaps, stranger thought springs to mind. We all go out about our daily lives passing people in the streets of our towns and cities or maybe out in the countryside. Many of these we never speak to and they never speak to us as they go about their purpose and we ours. How many of these like the White Dobbie, could be liminal beings just passing by on their nameless mission and indeed, what are we to them and what of our own mission?