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.
A Faustian pact or bargain is also sometimes known as a Deal with the Devil. This is where someone makes an agreement or contract with the Devil or his demonic representative. It is named after a character from German literature, legend and folklore named Faust, sometimes known as Dr Faustus or Faustus, who made just such a contract. The devil grants their material or worldly desires such as riches, knowledge and power, usually for a set length of time, in return for their soul. The pact must be honored and when that time comes the devil or his representative arrives to take the soul of his contract partner.
Presented here is a retelling of a tale from Goblin Tales of Lancashire, a collection of folktales by James Bowker that appeared as The Demon of the Oak. For those who like a little bit of history with their folk tales the story is set in an ancient fortified manor in Lancashire, England called Hoghton Tower. This was the ancestral home of the de Hoghton family descended directly from Harvey de Walter, who was a companion of William the Conqueror. Their female line of descent is also impressive descending from famous Lady Godiva of Coventry, wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia. The setting in time is uncertain but it is known the the land has been in the hands of ancestors of the de Hoghton’s since at least the 12th century and the present house dates from about 1560–65 and rebuilt and extended between 1862 and 1901. The narrative centers around a young gentleman named Edgar Astley who in the story stayed at the manor and whose actual existence is much more nebulous than that of his hosts.
In fact, Edgar was a rather earnest young man whose habit of dressing in black indicated that he was still in mourning for someone dear who had passed away. The servants of the tower, much like servants everywhere, discussed among themselves the reason for his sombre style of dress and melancholy air. They came to the conclusion he mourned for a woman whom he greatly loved and had deceived him and had married a rival instead of him. The lady in question had died mysteriously soon after for reasons unknown.
The speculations were sufficient to give the young man an aura of mystery and romance among the servants. This was fueled when it was reported among them that strange colored lights had been seen from his room in the Tower at night. This increased their suspicion making them wary and uncomfortable with the air of melancholy that he exuded
The more the superstitious servants thought about him the more they saw in him that was strange and abnormal. They noticed how he would suddenly start out of a gloomy mood when approached making no secret of his desire to avoid where possible all society and companionship. Even so, no one could ever accuse him of being unfriendly or rude and he was always very kind and patient with the youngsters of the household. He always found time to chat cordially with the females of the household. When asked he would accompany them on rambles through the woods and countryside and escort them on excursions to the local towns.
Yet it was noticeable that he did so more out of a sense of duty and chivalry rather than his own pleasure and quickly return to his station under the oak. There he would read his dark books lost and become lost in dark thoughts. The ladies regarded him with an affectionate pity. They would try to encourage him to join them in more cheerful and sociable activities. All though he complied he would only bear so much before politely returning to his books and dark dreaming.
The Baronet who was his host and master of the Tower liked him greatly despite his melancholy and strange ways. Everyone else looked on him with pity. The general consensus was that time alone would eventually heal the darkness that appeared in his soul and were happy for him to be amongst them. For his part, Edgar appreciated their sympathy and the freedom they allowed him in their home. He came and went as he pleased and the hosts were content to allow him this freedom asking no questions, just accepting him and his ways as they were.
In the servant’s quarters the talk about Edgar was of very different kind. One particular servant claimed he knew a servant who had known a footman, who had worked for Edgar’s family and there was a tragic story attached to the young man. Apparently Edgar had once been betrothed to a young lady by the name of Anna. She was a very attractive lady and had many suitors but she narrowed these down to Edgar and another young man. She saw both of them at intervals and was very much in love with both but could not decide which she preferred and was well aware which ever one she rejected would be terribly hurt.
Nonetheless, she enjoyed the attentions of both men and would play them off against each other. Both suitors had been the best of friends but then a bitter rivalry developed between them for the love of Anna. Both loved her with a passion and would have done anything in the world to win her favor and it seemed when she accepted Edgar’s proposal of marriage that he had won. The date was set for the happy event and Edgar was looking forward to spending the rest of his life with the woman of his heart’s desire.
Edgar’s rival was not one to simply accept whatever fate should throw at him and the night before the wedding went to Anna and begged she elope that night with him. She agreed and the two made off in her father’s coach and horses with all speed heading for Gretna Green.
The next morning word came to Edgar of the disappearance of Anna. Of course he was devastated. Knowing that it could only have been at the instigation of his rival he took off after them intending a final confrontation with his rival.
Such was the talk in the servant’s quarters and their curiosity towards Edgar grew and grew and were fed by the peculiarity of his own habits. It had been noticed that he stayed up late at nights in his room and strange lights and sounds could sometimes be seen and heard coming from it. It was therefore decided that one of them should creep up to his room at midnight and listen at the door and look through the keyhole to try and learn more of this mysterious young man’s behaviour. To his chagrin it was the servant who knew a servant who knew a footman that worked for Edgar’s family that was chosen for this dubious task. Therefore at the stroke of midnight, wishing he had kept quiet, the servant was sent up stairs to listen at Edgar’s bedroom door and spy through his keyhole.
Once at his station the reluctant spy knelt and put his eye to the keyhole listening intently for any sounds that should come through the door. Through the keyhole he saw that Edgar was seated at a table intently studying an ancient black book he had spread out before him. With one hand he shaded his eyes from a flame that burnt in a small cauldron upon the table.
The Pale Student
Suddenly he leaned forward and with a quick movement of his hand took a pinch of a bright blue powder placed in a saucer and sprinkled it upon the flame. The room was filled by strange, sickly aroma while the flame burst upwards with sudden life. The pale student of unhallowed arts turned over a page in the book and began to softly chant strange words unaware he was being watched. Then he looked puzzled and muttered,
“Strange, I have bat’s blood, the severed hand of a dead man, viper’s venom, mandrake root and the flesh of a newt. These are the ingredients stated and yet I still fail. Must I use the spell of spells at the risk of losing my life?
Think, man! What is there for one such as me to fear in death? So far I remain unharmed from my experiments but were it otherwise I must still proceed to the bitter end.
There was a time when I would have given all my future happiness for her to be called by my name. What is there left in this empty life for me that I should fear in this desperate enterprise to gain one last glimpse of her lovely face?”
As thepale student bent over the book studying the dreadful words on the cracked pages for the spy at the door the silence was almost palpable. The night appeared to stand still and a harsh, rasping voice from the air cut through the silence saying,
Answer truly, will you give your very soul in exchange for a glimpse and a brief exchange of speech for she who you were once betrothed.”
The pale student quickly jumped to his feet excited and declared,
“Make no mistake, what ever you are, whoever you are, if you deliver her to me for a glimpse, a brief word or two for the briefest of time my soul shall be yours forever!”
The night, inside the house and outside, fell silent and the world seemed to stand still. The spy at the door could hear the beating of his own heart and the the disembodied voice spoke once again,
“So it shall be! You have one last spell left that you must invoke at midnight beneath the spreading arm of the old oak and there and then shall you be rewarded with your heart’s desire. Dare you look upon my face?”
replied the pale student.
“Devil or demon, whatever kind of beast you may be, I have no fear of seeing you”
This was not the case for the spy at the keyhole who knelt shivering in
fear at what he was witnessing and as soon as the lights flared a lurid
blue he fell in a faint at his station by the door.
The Spy Discovered
When the spying servant finally came to he found himself inside the dread room with the pale student standing over him demanding,
“Who are you? Why do you spy on me and what have you seen? Tell me all, tell me true!”
Trembling in fear the terrified servant told him everything he had seen and heard while Edgar listened gravely. When the servant had finished he would not allow him to leave until he had sworn on all that he held valuable that he would not tell a soul of what he had seen and heard that night. To ensure the complete silence of the servant Edgar bound him by several terrifying threats of what would happen should he speak and then gave further instructions.
When the servant returned to the servant’s quarter his fellows all wanted to know what he had seen and heard. They were disappointed when he told them he had spied so long and seen nothing and overcome with fatigue and boredom fallen asleep at his station. Nevertheless, this appeared to satisfy his eager friends who could not help wondering what would have happened should he have been discovered.
The day passed in much the same way as other days with the only notable exception being Edgar’s absence from the table under the old oak. As evening fell dark clouds swept in from the distant sea and the wind began to rise and shake the old oak in its rage.
As usual the household had retired at eleven that night and only Edgar and one other were awake. Edgar sat in his room at studying intensely the black book, but every now and then glancing impatiently at the clock. At last he stood up and sighing to himself said,
“The time I have longed for draws near. Once again we shall meet!”
Taking up his small cauldron, the book and a few other items he left his room and went down the ancient staircase. As he did so the servant stepped from the shadows and followed him. Calmly walking down to the old oak Edgar place his items at the foot of the tree and then taking a hazel wand from his pocket drew a circle around him and the servant. Placing some red powder in the cauldron he put it down before him. As he did so a red flame leapt up from cauldron blazing with a steady flame while the wind roared in fury all around.
In the gateway of the tower the chained guard dogs howled mournfully but Edgar pressed on with his task, striking the ground three time with his hazel wand, crying,
“Anna my love, my heart’s desire I summon thee! Hear my words and obey, come to me this night!”
No sooner had he stopped speaking when the filmy figure of a most beautiful child appeared and floated around the outside of the circle. The servant groaned in fear and sunk to his knees covering his eyes. The necromancer took no notice and as lightning flashed and thunder rolled he began incanting a new spell before finishing with these words,
“Soul of Anna, spirit of my love, spirit of my heart’s desire, I summon thee! Come to me with all haste and without deceit and without power over my earthly body, spirit or soul. May the shadow of death fall upon thee for ever if you refuse! Come now to me”!
With these last word the storm abated and all around fell to brooding silence. Suddenly the flame in the cauldron flared upwards several yards in height and a sweet voice could be heard engaged in a melodious chant. A rasping, invisible voice said,
“Are you ready to behold the dead?”
“I am ready!”
Before his eyes a column of mist formed and swirled and in that column slowly appeared the form and face of a beautiful woman still wrapped in her burial shroud. She looked at him with sad, mournful eyes and asked,
“Why, Egar, why”
“Because I loved you, Anna! Did you love me?”
“And did you love him Anna, did you really love him?
Edgar gazed upon the ghost of his betrothed in tortured silence for some time. Slowly he reached out into the mist trying to embrace her. As he did so the servant fainted at his feet as if struck down by death and thunder broke the silence.
“Edgar Astley, thy time is done and thou art mine forever!”
hissed a harsh disembodied voice at his side. As these word were spoken the door of the tower were flung wide open and out rushed the baronet followed by his servants.
“Keep back, keep back! Save yourselves!”
“We would save you too! In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti!”
cried the baronet striding forward to the circle holding a silver crucifix before him. No sooner had he spoken when the thunder fell quiet and the lightning ceased to flash and the moon broke through the dark clouds throwing down a soft light.
The servant was found face down trembling in the circle and carried indoors. Edgar was found leaning against the trunk of the old oak. His eyes glazed and fixed upon the spot in the air he had last seen the ghost of his betrothed. Gently the baronet took him by the hand and led him away as one would lead an innocent and trusting child. All reason and purpose had left his mind and his body was but an empty husk for he had gained his heart’s desire but in doing so given away his soul.