If legends be true, tis a rare old lane in Lancashire that boasts neither a boggart or some other queer doings. Indeed, during the dawn of the 1800s, there were tales of a particular pathway troubled by an apparition that local folk referred to as Dobbie. Connecting Clarke Hall to Holker House, the lane was narrow with high hedges that overhung with claw like menace. Even on a summer’s day it breathed a melancholic air of tunnel like gloom.
Clarke House was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stockdale and their quartet of servants. The housekeeper, Cook, Tom the page boy and scullery maid, Nola, the most recent arrival below stairs. Aged between 15 and 17 years, the girl had no knowledge of a birthday, her only history being a written reference from the orphanage from which she came. Nola was lowest in the pecking order of servants, something Cook was forever taunting her about. Consequently, the girl was meek in manner and tended to carry herself with head slightly bowed. While the other staff had their own rooms in the house’s attic, Nola was confined to an outhouse at the end of the back yard, facing the old lane and cut off from human company.
Not that Nola’s lot was all bad. Mrs. Stockdale had taken to schooling the girl in reading and writing for an hour every mid morning, which she practised during the evenings in the sanctuary of her room. The others did at least encourage her in this self betterment, except Cook who professed Nola to be as dim as a smouldering candle and that educating her was like teaching a dog to perform tricks. She never said these things in front of the mistress, of course, and confined any bullying or beating of the scullery maid to the kitchen when they were alone.
It was early one autumn evening that Mr. Stockdale sent Tom across to Holker House to deliver some newspapers, a task he performed once every week. The boy was usually back before dusk, but this time seemed to be taking longer than usual. Nola had just finished putting away the dried dishes and asked Cook if she could now be excused to practise her lesson.
“Suppose so,” the woman shrugged, being more concerned about what was keeping Tom now the night was drawing in. Nola took her leave and Cook busied herself preparing the breakfasts for next morning, while the housekeeper caught up on her sewing. Later, as the clock chimed eight bells, the two women were startled as the kitchen door burst open and Tom ran in like a man possessed by a thousand devils. Coming to a halt in the middle of the kitchen, he tried to speak and then promptly passed out, crumpling to the floor.
The housekeeper and Cook were attending the unconscious boy when Nola came running in through the same door, exclaiming
“I saw him racing from lane like a fox hunted. Is he right?” The sight of the boy’s current state answered her question, as Cook ordered “Don’t just stand there! Go fetch the Mr. And Mrs!” As Nola made haste, the housekeeper then turned to Cook, suggesting “Hartshorne and burnt feathers be the best restorative for this lad.”
By the time Nola returned with Mr. and Mrs. Stockdale, the boy had been applied with the remedy and was stirring awake. Mr. Stockdale crouched down to take a closer look, when Tom suddenly shot upright, yelling “Dobbie!” The Master grabbed the boy’s shoulders, saying “Take it steady, lad.” Having been calmed, Tom was sat up on a chair to relate his story. “I usually set off home before dark, but master at Holker House insisted I stayed a while and shared libation with him. Couldn’t say no.”“Quite right, lad,” Stockdale interjected. “So what happened.”“Was nearly home, when I heard whispering behind me. Looked around and there was this great white ball, glowing and following. Then whisper became singing and in ball I could see sprite dancing round in circle fashion. She then came at me faster, laughing horribly. So I ran and daren’t look back. It were Dobbie, I know it.” His master looked doubtful. “Are you sure about all that?”“I swear it, sir!” The housekeeper then testified “Tom’s not one for spinning yarns. He‘s an honest lad.” Stockdale patted the boy’s arm, commenting “I dare say you saw something. But maybe not as it were meant to be seen. Dark nights and lanes with strange tales can do much to deceive the eyes and ears.”
Tom sighed, realising he was not going to be fully believed. Nola leapt to his defence with “I’ve heard notorious happenings regarding Dobbie Lane, sir. Tis said that is where Jack O’Lantern tricked the devil.” Stockdale laughed “I had that tale as a boy. And it be not of our parish, but of our Irish cousins.”“Take no heed of her, sir,” Cook insisted. “Girl’s head is full of fancies and she probably filled Tom with them. No wonder he took fright”“I never,” she began to protest but the Cook cut her short. “Speak not to your betters with such a tongue! I’ll fetch wooden spoon.” She bowed her head in quiet submission, having once again been reminded of her place. Then Mr. Stockdale made his announcement. “Tell you what. This very evening I shall walk the lane there and back. Maybe I will get to the bottom of what menaced you so, Tom.” All present agreed this to be a satisfactory course of action, except Nola who continued to look downwards in resignation.
Mr. Stockdale was as good as his word. As the sun began to set, he took to the lane confident that the whole business would be resolved. The staff busied themselves with chores, except Nola who suggested she wait in her outhouse to watch for the master returning. The housekeeper agreed a lookout was a good idea, even if Cook opinionated this to be a ploy to skip chores, concluding “Girl’s not as daft as she seems.”
Night fell and all those present in Clarke Hall began to wonder what had become of Mr. Stockdale. Then as the eighth hour approached, Nola came running through the kitchen door announcing “Master’s back! And he look fair troubled!” She jumped out of the way as Stockdale ran in behind her, breathless and distraught. He ordered the housekeeper to assemble the others while Cook fetched him a brandy.
The housekeeper returned with Tom and Mrs. Stockdale, whose husband was now sat on a chair with the consoling glass in his hand. He waved Tom over with a “Come ‘ere, lad” and gripped the boy by the hand. “Forgive me for ever doubting you. It’s just as you told. The whispering, the singing, the glowing sprite. It followed me back too.” Tom looked down on his master with relief, while the others looked at each other in disbelief. After taking another swig, Mr. Stockdale stood up and proclaimed “Tomorrow word shall be put around. The lane is henceforth closed once dusk sets in. No Christian soul should traverse it after dark.” With that, he dismissed the staff and then returned upstairs with his wife.
Cook looked at Nola whose head was held in its usual forward tilt, but with eyes silently looking straight up at the woman. “You needn’t expect apology from me, girl! It were Willo the Wisp master saw, not your Jack O’Lantern.”“May I be excused?” Nola asked politely. “Aye, away to your lesson with yer. For what it’s worth,” Cook sneered. She then added “Careful Dobbie don’t come for you, out there in your little shack. All alone.” And with that, the woman laughed as Nola picked up a lit candle and nervously made her way out across the yard to the only place she could call home. Entering the outhouse, she closed the door and sat by her window, watching through the curtain and waiting.
An hour passed before she was confident that all in Clarke Hall had retired to bed. Blowing out the light, Nola turned away from the curtain and stood up straight, raising her head high in a change of countenance. She pulled off her bonnet and threw it to the floor, her raven hair falling shoulder length. She then removed the servant’s garb, revealing a silk dress underneath that shimmered with a white glow. The girl’s face opened up a powerful smile of satisfaction and she swung right around in a pirouette. Nola’s hair and flesh now radiated the same white glow as her dress, her figure illuminating like a brightly burning candle. Raising her arms upwards, she gave a reverberating laugh of triumph. The Lane was hers. And now, hers alone. Opening the door, she left the quarters of the human self and twirled into the night, dancing her infernal dance. And making mischievous plans for Cook.
Originally published in the Lancashire Everning Post March 1st 2014