Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The pillion - Part 2

Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne.


Part 1

THE PILLION.

(Concluded from page 108.)

Like all other partnerships, though in a greater degree than most, the pleasure of riding double was dependent upon being suitably matched. Nothing, for instance, could look more incongruous than a large woman seated on a pillion behind a little man, especially as the thick cushion, provided for her use, was always much higher than the saddle before it. A boy was sometimes sent to escort a portly matron in this way, of which a curious instance occurred under the observation of a friend of mine. She had been struck with the length of time that a horse remained at a gate upon the road near her residence, and looking out more intently to ascertain the cause, she perceived a large female-figure seated on a pillion behind; but, to all appearance, a vacant saddle in front. On further investigation, however, she discovered that an extremely little boy was stretching himself downwards to open the gate, but in vain, the horse being an animal of more than usual height. The majestic dame, however, was not one to be baffled by a difficulty of this kind; so, reaching out her powerful arm, she held the little boy by one leg while he unfastened the gate, thus securing his safe reinstatement in the saddle.

Scenes of a similar kind to this were by no means unfrequent at that time of the year, when servants in the North and East Riding of Yorkshire changed their places. It was a custom of old standing in the agricultural parts of that county, for all servants to enjoy one week of entire liberty, to return to their homes, visit their friends, or do what they liked; so that, whether they went to new situations or not, they all left the old one to take care of itself, during the whole week at Martinmas. In addition to this, the women all expected to be fetched to their places—boxes, bundles, and all—holding out under all circumstances against walking, or going by themselves without conveyance or escort. Thus, where the women servants were numerous, and the places wide apart, the riding about with pillions created quite a stir in the country; and the arrival of each with her bundle on her lap—or perhaps her bandbox there, and the bundle on the arm of the man or boy—was a very dignified, as well as interesting occasion.

I remember a circumstance connected with this mode of transit for female servants, which exceeded most things I ever met with for coolness, or, if one might choose to call it so, for heroism; and indeed, there can be little doubt but that the word heroism has often been used with no more legitimate application, for how much of what people call daring is, in reality, like that which I am about to describe—nothing but ignorance?

I was staying at the country residence of a family, the two oldest sons of which were amongst the first to make that melancholy experiment of a settlement on Swan River. Emigration, especially to Australia, was a very different affair at that time from what it is now. The two sons were taking out with them a number of workmen, each to be mated with a wife, or if not married, the men and women were to be equal in number; and by way of preparation for at least two years’ payment of these people in clothing instead of money, an immense assortment of goods had been made ready, besides a wood house in compartments, to be fitted up on their arrival.

It would be impossible to describe the interest at that time attaching to such transactions, all going on within and around a spacious country mansion, to which almost everything was brought before the final departure of the little company. Amongst other provisions were a number of fighting dogs, intended as a defence against the wild dogs of the country, and specimens of this tribe of animal were brought every day to have their warlike capabilities tested in single combat with other dogs; so that the sounds, as well as the sights, by which we were surrounded, were both animated and extraordinary.

All went on, however, steadily and successfully, with only one exception. The case of one female of the party seemed doubtful. I forget whether it was that one of the men did not feel secure in his matrimonial speculations; but so it was, that failing this one woman, another must be found. My friend, the sister of the emigrants, was never at a loss. Devoted to the interests of her brothers, she did not fail them here; but spoke confidentially to a robust young kitchen-maid in the house, whose characteristic reply was, that she “didn’t mind.” She was therefore kept in reserve to supply the deficiency, as the case might turn out; and in the meantime, she milked her cows, washed her dishes, and went about her work in every respect exactly the same as usual. The place from which the party were to sail was distant about twenty miles; and, as the time drew near, and all things were got into a state of readiness, the probability of this girl being wanted died away.

I shall never forget the morning of the great departure, for such things were great in those days, nor how my friend and I stood at the dining-room windows, looking out over the then silent fields, wondering and prognosticating what would be the probable future of the party, though scarcely apprehending anything so disastrous as the reality which ensued. Indeed, there was a good deal of hope mingled with our speculations; only that the vast amount of bustle, and life, and interest about the place suddenly ceasing, had left us rather flat.

We had risen early, and had a long morning for our cogitations. We knew the vessel was to sail that afternoon. Silent as everything was around us, we were constantly looking out from the windows, when, a little before twelve o’clock, we espied a man on a great horse, tearing the ground at full gallop, with an empty pillion behind him. He had come at that speed to fetch the kitchen-maid to go out to Australia. The other woman had failed them; and he must be back, over his twenty miles ride, as fast as the horse could carry them both. And what did the kitchen-maid do? She neither screamed, nor shed a tear; but washed her hands, and packed up her things in a bandbox and bundle, and was off in half an hour on the pillion behind the man at full gallop. If this was not behaving like a heroine, I should be glad to know what is.

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(Page 134.)

In connection with the same friend of my early years—a sort of Diana Vernon in her way—there comes vividly back to my recollection a scene which I have heard her describe, of a very different character from the last, though still connected with the pillion. This lady and three or four of her companions dared, or were dared by their gentlemen friends, to go out coursing with them on pillions. I think there were five or six couples in the field. All of course went well enough until the hare was started. The horses were of high mettle, and then away they went. The ladies kept their seats until a ploughed field had to be crossed, when the horses with their double load plunged so violently, that they all flew off in different directions, not one remaining to risk the experiment of the leap over the surrounding fence.

But if the female partnership in the double-riding was of a somewhat subservient and dependent nature, there were cases—and my father used to tell of one—in which the man had undoubtedly the worst of it. To this man, at least, it was so, though many might have considered his situation less disagreeable than he did. On this occasion a lady of great dignity and importance had to be conducted, in the usual way, along with other members of the family with whom she was visiting; and, as there must always have been considerable difficulty in portioning out the different couples in the outset, it so chanced that an unusually bashful young man was appointed to be her conductor. To a man of this description it must have been rather a delicate affair to find himself completely fixed into a place so very close to any woman; but, in this instance, he was especially covered with confusion. Once in the saddle, however, and his back to the lady, the worst would be over, and his blushes, because unseen, would naturally cease. Whether from embarrassment attendant upon his circumstances, or from some other cause, this ill-assorted couple had not proceeded far before the young man dropped his whip. He had to dismount to pick it up, and being, most probably, not a very experienced rider, in mounting again he committed the oversight of turning himself the wrong way, and put his foot in the stirrup so that his seat in the saddle was exactly reversed—his back being to the head of the horse, and his face almost in direct collision with that of the lady.

Upon the whole, however, with the exception of a few rare instances, this mode of travelling was most sedate and dignified. It was by no means confined to the ruder portions of society—many a lady of wealth and influence being conducted in this manner by her footman, when making her formal calls. Many pleasant parties, too, were made up by such couples, and long journeys, as far as from York to London, were performed by slow stages in this manner. A little farther back, we see even the fair young bride conveyed to her new home on a pillion behind her happy husband, with her wedding garments still upon her.

I have often listened with peculiar interest to the descriptions which I persuaded a very handsome old lady to give me of the style in which she rode to her husband’s home, on a pillion behind him, on her wedding-day. She said her hat was of white satin, tied with a broad white ribbon. I forget what was the kind of gown she wore, but I know there was spread over it in front a wide, clear, India muslin apron; that over her shoulders was drawn a delicate silk shawl, neatly pinned down at the waist; while on her arms she had long silk mittens, which just left uncovered a bit of the fine round arm near the elbow. The gentleman was a physician of talent and property, so that it was from no degrading necessity that they travelled in this style; and if the wonderfully handsome countenance of a woman of eighty may be interpreted as a record of her youthful beauty, he must, in that journey, have turned his back upon a picture as attractive as ever charmed a lover’s fancy.

S. S.