Tales and Traditions of the High Peak

By William Wood (1862)

Transcription by Andrew McCann, © Copyright 2002

The Death Token

OR, THE GABRIEL-HOUND

NO district in England has afforded such a stronghold for superstitious notions, such omens of family calamity, and tokens of death, as the High Peak of Derbyshire.

There, in the secluded valleys, and among the mountain fastnesses, the soul-absorbing vampire-superstition, found an abiding place, long after its expulsion from other parts of the kingdom, by the combined and irresistible force of knowledge and science.

Proteus-like, superstition can assume numberless forms and shapes; and of these, that of a yelping hound, generally designated Gabriel-hound, is the most frequent and ominous. In the locality alluded to, this dreadful visitant was, about half a century ago, almost unremittingly heard for nights prior to some expected death, that is the days and even hours of the invalid were numbered from the first, frequent, soft, or loud yelping of this imaginary canine messenger of death.

In these days of light and knowledge, it is scarcely necessary to observe, that what was imagined to be the yelping of the fabled Gabriel-hound, is nothing more or less than the squeaking or shrieking of a bird which soars to some height in the air about, or immediately after, the close of a summer's day; nevertheless, this superstition has, not infrequently, been attended with some laughable or ludicrous circumstances, of which the following, with many others, are duly chronicled in the recollection of many living inhabitants of the Peak.

About midway between the villages of Hathersage and Eyam - a distance of four miles - there is a deep dingle or dell called the Clough, in which there are scattered some half dozen farm houses, situated at a little distance from one another, and inhabited by families whose respective ancestors resided in the same dwellings from time immemorial.

At the bottom of this lonely dell is the habitation of an old bachelor named Bowman, a man who has seen nearly eighty summers, and who throughout his long life has been as remarkable for eccentricity of conduct as for his rusticity. Full six feet high, and straight as an arrow is Bowman; indeed, take him altogether, he presents a pure specimen of what we have represented to us as the prominent characteristics of the patriarchal age. But back to the tale. Bowman, and a sister Mary, were the only children of their affectionate parents; and, perhaps, no children were more idolized by father or mother than were the loving daughter and son of good old Master Bowman.

In this mountain-girt dell they were brought up together; apart from the world they revelled with innocence and peace. Mary was a few years younger than her brother; and, as is still recollected, extremely beautiful. She was tall and stately in shape and bearing. Her features had a peculiar modest expression; her hair and eyes of a bright black; her forehead high - her eyebrows arched, almost into semi-circles - her nose slightly aquiline - her cheeks high coloured, still most delicately so; and her complexion dark, but not swarthy; indeed, from these and other often repeated traits of her beauty, she may be supposed to have had a rather Jewish cast of countenance, yet there is no reason whatever to suppose that Mary Bowman had one drop of Israelitish blood in her veins, but from numerous reasons that might be deduced, in all probability rather Celtic.

Mary, in her eighteenth year, became attached to a neighbouring young man named Birch, whose parents inhabited a house, and cultivated a small farm in the same dell or clough. The affection of Birch and Mary is represented to have been not only reciprocal but excessively ardent: their love had no mercenary cast, it was holy, pure, and enrapturing. The father of Mary, although he permitted the visits and attentions of his daughter's lover, did not very markedly countenance the apparently would-be matrimonial match; he, as he sometimes hinted, “would rather graft on a better stock”. Notwitstanding these cold intimations, Mary's affection for the harmless and innocent Birch, waxed stronger and warmer; and the consummation of their love at the altar of Hymen, became a circumstance of immediately expected occurrence.

A few weeks prior to the time fixed for the marriage of Miss Bowman, her father received a polite letter from the owner of the land on which he dwelled, stating, that a kinsman was desirous of spending a week or two in shooting on the adjoining moor, and that, if convenient, Mr. Bowman or his son might accompany him in his sport, and that his relative would also sojourn at his house during his stay of pleasure.

Bowman received this intelligence with some degree of joy, and in reply he communicated his ready assent to the honoured proposal.

The time came and my lord's relative arrived;- a very handsome and particularly engaging young man of the name of Galliard.

The sprightly visitor was enraptured with the beauty of Miss Bowman; her simplicity of demeanour threw a charm round the heart of Galliard, slightly intoxicating. The sport was neglected; the visit prolonged; but although the young gentleman made open and fervent declarations of his attachment and the unquestionable honour of his intentions, still Miss Bowman could not be moved from her resolve to be true and faithful to Birch.

The entreaties of her father; the incessant persuasions of her mother, to accept the advantageous offer were fruitless and unavailing.

In this dilemma Mary had recourse to the affections of her brother, who, partly in regard to the injured feelings of his sister, and for the tender and affectionate friendship that had invariably subsisted between himself and Birch, promised to devise some scheme whereby she might be delivered from her tribulation of spirit.

To be brief,- a plan was immediately projected, to which Mary, her brother, and Birch were alone cognizant. Mary feigned sudden and excessive illness; she looked pale, and was a little feverish in consequence of an emetic she had secretly taken.

For a few days she apparently became worse, and her parents began to entertain some doubts as to the result; Galliard, also, was fearful that her sickness would terminate fatally, and every attention, on his part, was shown to the fair invalid.

It was a fine evening in the month of August, when Bowman, his wife, and GaIliard were standing by the bedside of Mary; the bed was on the ground floor in a small back parlour; the dusky shades of evening had rendered a candle necessary, which stood on the bed's-head, casting a pale and feeble light over the face of Mary, who was then apparently much worse.

While the three bystanders were glancing at each other, a sudden yelping sound issued through a.lattice window into the room. “My God”, said Mrs. Bowman, “'tis the Gabriel-hound - death is in our dwelling”.

In a few minutes the same sound was heard again, and then a third time much louder, on which Bowman exclaimed, “ Ah! this death token - I never knew it fail - my Mary, thy doom is sealed”.

Galliard was thrown into a state of great perplexity. He imagined that Mary could not survive, and on the following morning took his departure.

The consternation which filled the habitation of Bowman rendered the longer visit of Galliard impolitic; but he left the dwelling of his dying love with a grief and reluctance he had never experienced before. Bowman accompanied Galliard for a few miles, and on his return he was met by his dame, exhibiting every symptom of the deepest distraction.

On approaching her husband, she exclaimed, “She is gone, my Mary! ”

Bowman expected his daughter was dead, burst into tears and sobbing, replied, “Heaven receive her spirit”.

His sorrow, however, was changed into utter amazement on being informed that his daughter had disappeared soon after his outset with Galliard, and could not be discovered anywhere.

To be brief, Mary had fled with Birch to be married; her illness had been feigned, the yelping of the supposed Gabriel-hound was performed by Birch and young Bowman; and on the departure of Galliard, the young couple had fled to the altar of Hymen, with hearts bursting with gladness.

The green sod now covers the graves of Birch and his fond wife Mary, but her beloved brother lived on many years after them to tell the tale of the death-token - the yelping Gabriel-hound.

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Transcribed by Andrew McCann in March 2002.

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