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"HE FELL ON HIS KNEES."
NEITHER Brand in his Popular Antiquities, nor Sir Walter Scott in his Witchcraft and Demonology, mentions spectre-dogs as a peculiar class of apparitions, yet they seem to occupy a distinct branch of English mythology. They are supposed to exist in one form or another in almost every county, and few kinds of superstition have more strongly influenced the credulous mind. To have the "black dog on the back" has become a general phrase, though perhaps few who use it have an idea of its origin. The following anecdotes about spectre-dogs will illustrate this phrase, and show how generally this branch of superstition is received.
According to popular psychology, the subject may be divided into three parts: 1. Black dogs, which are really fiends that have assumed the form of dogs. 2. The spirits of evil persons, who, as part of their punishment, have been transformed into the appearance of dogs. 3. Evil spirits, that, to mimic the sports of men, or to hunt their souls, have assumed the form and habits of hounds. We will begin with the black dog apparition.
In almost every county there is a popular belief in a spectral dog, which, although slightly varying in appearance in different parts, always bears the same general characteristics. It is described as large, shaggy, and black, with long ears and tail. It does not belong to any species of living dogs, but is severally said to resemble a hound, a setter, a terrier, or a shepherd-dog, though often larger than a Newfoundland. It bears different names, but is always alike supposed to be an evil spirit, haunting places where evil deeds have been done, or where some calamity may be expected. In the Isle of Man it is called the Mauthe Doog, and, according to tradition, was accustomed to haunt Peel Castle, where it was seen in every room, but especially in the guard-chamber. Here, as soon as candles were lighted, it used to go and lie down before the fire, in presence of the soldiers, who became so accustomed to its appearance, that they lost much of the awe which they first felt at its presence. But knowing its malicious character, they never ventured to molest it, till one of them, in a drunken fit, swore that "he would try whether it were dog or devil!" He made his trial, and was instantly sobered, but rendered speechless. He lived only three days afterwards, and then "died in agonies more than is common in a natural death." "I heard this attested," says Mr. Waldron, "by several, but especially by an old soldier, who assured me he had seen it oftener than he had then hairs on his head." Sir Walter Scott, in his Lay of the Last Minstrel, thus alludes to this tradition
"For he was speechless, ghastly, wan,
Like him, of whom the story ran,
Who spoke the spectre-hound in Man."
A similar story is related of a man who lived at a village near Aylesbury, in Buckinghamshire. This man was accustomed to go every morning and night to milk his cows in a field, which was some distance from the village. To shorten his walk, he often crossed over a neighbour's field, and passed through a gap in the hedge; but one night, on approaching the gap, he found it occupied by a large, black,
fierce-looking dog. He paused to examine the animal, and as he looked at him his fiery eyes grew larger and fiercer, and he had altogether such a fiend-like and "unkid" appearance, that he doubted whether he were "a dog or the bad spirit." Whichever he was, he thought he would be no pleasant antagonist to encounter. So he turned aside, and passed through a gate at the end of the field. Night after night he found the same dog in the gap, and turned aside in the same manner. One night, having fallen in with a companion, he returned homeward with him across his neighbour's field, being determined, if he found the dog in the gap, to make an attack upon him, and drive him away. On reaching the gap there stood the dog looking even fiercer and bigger than ever. But the milkman, wishing to appear valiant before his companion, put down his milk-pails, which were suspended from a yoke across his shoulders, and attempting to speak very bravely, though trembling all over, he exclaimed: "Now, you black fiend, I'll try what ye're made of!" He raised his yoke in both his hands, and struck at the dog with all his might. The dog vanished, and the milkman fell senseless to the ground. He was carried home alive, but remained speechless and paralytic to the end of his days.
A certain spot near the writer's residence is said to be haunted at midnight by "the black dog." Once, at the awful hour of midnight, he happened to pass the dreaded spot, and, sure enough, he met the black dog apparition. It was a light summer's night, and as he approached the awful apparition, he soon saw it was far too substantial "to try what it was made of." He knew it to be a fine black dog, half Newfoundland and retriever, belonging to a gamekeeper, who, doubtless, was near at hand watching his master's preserves. It is no uncommon manoeuvre for poachers and such characters to give certain spots the reputation of being haunted.
In the adjoining county of Hertford the same superstition prevails, and the black dog apparition is still a dreaded bogie. Within the parish of Tring, but about three miles from the town, a poor old woman was, in 1751, drowned for suspected witchcraft. A chimney-sweep, who was the principal perpetrator of this atrocious deed, was hanged and gibbeted near the place where the murder was effected. While the gibbet stood, and long after it had disappeared, the spot was haunted by a black dog. The writer was told by the village schoolmaster, who had been "abroad," that he himself had seen this diabolical dog. "I was returning home," said he, "late at night in a gig with the person who was driving. When we came near the spot where a portion of the gibbet had lately stood, we saw on the bank of the roadside, along which a ditch or narrow brook runs, a flame of fire as large as a man's hat. 'What's that?' I exclaimed. 'Hush!' said my companion, all in a tremble; and, suddenly pulling in his horse, made a dead stop. I then saw an immense black dog lying on the road just in front of our horse, which also appeared trembling with fright. The dog was the strangest looking creature I ever beheld. He was as big as a Newfoundland, but very gaunt, shaggy, with long ears and tail, eyes like balls of fire, and large, long teeth, for he opened his mouth and seemed to grin at us. He looked more like a fiend than a dog, and I trembled as much as my companion. In a few minutes the dog disappeared, seeming to vanish like a shadow, or to sink Into the earth, and we drove on over the spot where he had lain." The same canine apparition is occasionally still witnessed at the same place or near it.
In Norfolk, and in some parts of Cambridgeshire, the same kind of apparition is well known to the peasantry by the name of "Shuck," the provincial word for shag. Here he is said chiefly to haunt churchyards, but other lone. some places are not secure from his visitations. Thus a dreary lane, in the parish of Overstrand, is called, from his frequent visits there, Shuck's Lane. The spot on which he has been seen, if examined soon after his disappearance, is found to be scorched, and strongly impregnated with the smell of brimstone!
In some districts in the county of Lancaster, this spectre-dog bears the names of "Trash" and "Skriker." Its general appearance is the same as in other parts, but its habits, and the object of its visits, seem somewhat different. It does not haunt particular spots, but appears to certain persons to warn them of the speedy death of some relation or intimate friend. Occasionally, however, it gives its warning, not by its appearance, but only by uttering a peculiar screech, from whence it is called, in the local dialect, Skriker. Its name, Trash, is applied to it because the noise made by its feet is supposed to resemble that of a person walking with heavy shoes along a miry, sloppy road. If followed, it retreats, but always with its eyes fronting the pursuer, and either sinks into the earth with a frightful shriek, or, if the pursuer averts his eyes from it for a moment, it disappears he knows not how. If struck at with a stick or weapon, it keeps its ground, but, to thehorror of the striker, his weapon passes as harmlessly through it as if it were a mere shadow. 2
Lyme-Regis, in Dorsetshire, has a famous story about one of these canine apparitions. About a mile from the town stands a farmhouse, which once formed part of an old mansion that was demolished in the parliamentary wars, except the small portion still existing. The sitting-room now used by the farmer, and also by his predecessors for a century or two, retains the large old-fashioned fireplace, with a fixed seat on each side under the capacious chimney. Many years ago, when the then master of the house, as his custom was after the daily toils were over, used to settle himself on one of these snug seats in the chimney corner, a large black dog as regularly took possession of the opposite one. This dog in all essentials resembled the spectre-dog already described. For many nights, weeks, and months this mysterious visitor, sitting vis-à-vis to the farmer, cast a gloom over his evening enjoyment. At length, as he received no harm from his companion, and became accustomed to his appearance, he began to look on him as one of the family circle. His neighbours, however, often advised him to drive away the fiend-like intruder; but the farmer, not relishing a contest with him, jestingly replied: "Why should I? He costs me nothing--he eats nothing, he drinks nothing, he interferes with no one. He is the quietest and frugalest creature in the house."
One night, however, the farmer, having been drinking too freely with a neighbour, and excited by his taunts about the black dog to an unusual degree of irritation, was determined his courage should no more be called in question. Returning home in a rage, he no sooner saw the dog on his usual seat, than, seizing the poker, he rushed with it towards his mysterious companion. The dog, perceiving his intention, sprang from its seat, and ran upstairs, followed by the infuriated farmer. The dog fled into an attic at the top of the house, and just as the farmer entered the same room, he saw it spring from the floor, and disappear through the ceiling. Enraged at being thus foiled, he struck with the poker the ceiling where the dog had passed through, and
down fell a small old-fashioned box, which, on being opened, was found to contain a large sum in gold and silver coins of Charles I.'s reign. The dog was never more seen within doors, but to the present day continues at midnight to haunt a lane which leads to this house, and which has long borne the name of "Dog Lane," while a small inn by the roadside still invites the passing stranger by the ominous sign of "The Black Dog," portrayed in all his spectral frightfulness. So late as the year 1856, a respectable intelligent woman told the writer that she herself had seen the dog-ghost. "As I was returning to Lyme," said she, "one night with my husband down Dog Lane, as we reached about the middle of it, I saw an animal about the size of a dog meeting us. 'What's that?' I said to my husband. 'What?' said he, 'I see nothing.' I was so frightened I could say no more then, for the animal was within two or three yards of us, and had become as large as a young calf, but had the appearance of a black shaggy dog with fiery eyes, just like the description I had heard of the 'black dog.' He passed close by me, and made the air cold and dank as he passed along. Though I was afraid to speak, I could not help turning round to look after him, and I saw him growing bigger and bigger as he went along, till he was as high as the trees by the roadside, and then seeming to swell into a large cloud, he vanished in the air. As soon as I could speak, I asked my husband to look at his watch, and it was then five minutes past twelve. My husband said he saw nothing but a vapour or fog coming up from the sea." A case of this kind shows how even a sensible person may become the victim of self-delusion; for in all practical matters this woman was remarkably sober-minded, intelligent, and ludicious; and well educated for a person of her calling--that of sick-nurse, the duties of which she discharged in the writer's house for several weeks to his fullest satisfaction, showing no symptoms of nervousness or timidity.
The foregoing examples belong to the class of fiends who have assumed the appearance of dogs. We will now give a few instances of human spirits that, as a punishment, have been transformed into similar apparitions.
Lady Howard, a Devonshire notable of the time of James I., was remarkable for her beauty, her wealth, her talents, and accomplishments. But she had many bad qualities. Amongst others, she was unnaturally cruel to her only daughter, and had a sad knack of getting rid of her husbands, having been married no less than four times. At last she died herself, and, for her misdemeanours while living, her spirit was transformed into a hound, and compelled to run every night, between midnight and cock-crowing, from the gateway of Fitz-ford, her former residence, to Oakhampton Park, and bring back to the place from whence she started a single blade of grass in her mouth; and this penance she is doomed to continue till every blade of grass is removed from the park, which she will not be able to effect till the end of the world. How these particulars were communicated to our fellow-living mortals we are not informed, and we dare not venture a conjecture. Our rustic psychologists have been rather more explicit in the following story:--
There once lived in the hamlet of Dean Comb; Devon, a weaver of great fame and skill. After long prosperity he died and was buried But the next day he appeared sitting at the loom in his chamber, working as diligently as when he was alive. His Sons applied to the vicar, who accordingly went to the foot of the stairs, and heard the noise of the weaver's shuttle in the room above. "Knowles," he cried, "come down; this is no place for thee." "I will," replied the weaver, "as soon as I have worked out my quill" (the quill is the shuttle full of wool). "Nay," said the vicar, "thou hast been long enough at thy work; come down at once." So when the spirit came down the vicar took a handful of earth from the churchyard and threw it in its face. And in a moment it became a black hound. "Follow me," said the vicar, and it followed him to the gate of the wood. And when they came there, "it seemed as if all the trees in the wood were coming together, so great was the wind." Then the vicar took a nutshell with a hole in it, and led the hound to the pool below the waterfall. "Take this shell," said he, "and when thou shalt have dipped out the pool with it, thou mayest rest--not before!" And at midday and at midnight the hound may still be seen at its work. 3 It is difficult to understand why the industrious weaver was consigned to such a hopeless doom. Many spectral dogs, believed to be the souls of wicked persons, are said to haunt the sides of rivers and pools, and sometimes their yelping is so dreadful, that all who hear them lose their senses. 4
Besides such apparitions of solitary dogs, whole packs of spectral hounds are said to be occasionally heard and seen in full cry in various parts of England and Wales, but chiefly in mountainous districts. They are everywhere described much in the same way, but with different names. In the north they are called "Gabriel's Hounds;" in Devon, the "Wisk," "Yesk," or "Heath Hounds;" in Wales, "Cwn Annwn," or "Cwn Wybir;" and in Cornwall, the "Devil and his Dandy-dogs." But few have ever imagined that they have seen these hounds, though popular superstition has described them as black, with fiery eyes and teeth, and sprinkled all over with blood. Generally, they are only heard, and seem to be passing swiftly along in the air, as if in hot pursuit of their prey; and though not very high up, yet they cannot be seen, because they generally choose cloudy nights. Their yelping is said to be sometimes as loud as the note of a bloodhound, but sharper and more terrific. Why they have anywhere received the name of Gabriel's hounds appears unaccountable, for they are always supposed to be evil spirits hunting the souls of the dead, or, by their diabolical yelping, to betoken the speedy death of some person. Thus Mr. Holland, of Sheffield, describes in the following sonnet the superstition as held in Yorkshire:--
"Oft have I heard my honoured mother say
How she hath listened to the Gabriel Hounds;
Those strange unearthly and mysterious sounds
Which on the ear through murkiest darkness fell;
And how, entranced by superstitious spell,
The trembling villager not seldom heard,
In the quaint notes of the nocturnal bird
Of death premonished, some sick neighbour's knell.
I, too, remember once, at midnight dark,
How these sky-yelpers startled me, and stirred
My fancy so, I could have then averred
A mimic pack of beagles low did bark I
Nor wondered I that rustic fear should trace
A spectral huntsman doomed to that long moonless chase."
Wordsworth, alluding to another form of this, superstition, similar to the German story of the Wild Huntsman, thus writes
"He oftentimes will start,
For overhead are sweeping Gabriel's Hounds,
Doomed, with their impious lord, the flying hart
To chase for ever through aerial grounds."
Many wild and amusing stories are told respecting these aerial hounds, especially in the secluded districts of Devon and Cornwall. The following is a specimen:--
A herdsman was journeying homeward across the moors of Cornwall one windy night when be heard at a distance the baying of bounds, which he was not long in recognising to be the dismal yelp of the Devil's Dandy-dogs. He was three or four miles distant from his home; and, much terrified, he hurried onward as fast as the treacherous nature of the soil and uncertainty of the path would allow; but the melancholy yelping of the hounds and the fiendish shout of the hunter came nearer and nearer. After a long run they appeared so close upon him that he could not help turning round to look at them. He was horror-struck, for he could distinctly see the hunter and his dogs. The huntsman was terrible to behold. He was black, had large fiery eyes, horns, a tail, and carried in his clawy-hand a long hunting-pole. The dogs, a numerous pack, blackened the ground as far as it could be seen, each snorting fire and yelping in the most frightful tone. What was the poor rustic to do? No cottage was near, no rock, no tree to shelter him--nothing remained but to abandon himself to the fury of these hell-hounds. Suddenly a happy thought flashed into his mind. He had been told that no evil spirit can resist the power of prayer. He fell on his knees, and at the first holy words he uttered the hounds stood still, but yelped more dismally than ever; and the huntsman shouted, "Bo Shrove I!" which "means," says the narrator, "in the old language, The boy prays!" The black huntsman then drew off his dandy-dogs, and the poor herdsman hastened home as fast as his trembling frame permitted. 5
1 Chambers's Book of Days, vol. ii. p. 433.
2 Notes and Queries.
3 Notes and Queries, vol. ii. p. 515.
4 ibid., vol. i. p. 295.
5 Notes, and Queries.