While researching the Vale of Lanherne I came across this lovely old folk tale. I have reproduced it in full courtesy of the magnificent Project Gutenberg.
Unlike most tales about White Hares this is not one of betrayal and revenge. The beauty of Lanherne obviously had a beneficial influence, or the nearby convent of nuns!
The Piskey-Purse -Legends and Tales of North Cornwall
The Little White Hare
When our great-great-grandmothers were young, a small lad called William John Pendarvey went on a visit to his Great-Aunt Ann, a very silent, austere old maid, who lived by herself in the Vale beautiful of Lanherne.
ever went into it, because it was known to be haunted by something, in the shape of a little White Hare which had been seen there from time unknown, wandering like a shadow over the grass, and in and out amongst the trees, or sitting motionless at the foot of a blasted apple-tree.
Great-Aunt Ann being old and very quiet, was the last person in the world that a tender-hearted, sensitive little chap as William John was should have gone to stay with.
The house where she lived was rather small and very gloomy, and had nothing nice about it, but it possessed a large and beautiful orchard, protected from the rough and cutting winds by the escarpment of the downs that rose above it and the valley.
But delightful as this orchard was, nobody except Great-Aunt Ann—and she not often—
Who or what this apparition was nobody could tell, but not a man, woman or child in the Vale, except Great-Aunt Ann, would have gone into that orchard for all they were worth.
Little William John might never have known there was an orchard belonging to the gloomy old house if he had not wandered into a bedroom at the back of the house overlooking the entrance to the orchard and peeped out of the window.
He asked to be allowed to go and play there, as it looked so bright and sunny in its open spaces, but Great-Aunt Ann said: ‘Not to-day.’
It was always ‘Not to-day’ whenever he asked to go into that orchard, and probably he would never have gone into it at all if the old maid had not occasion one day to go to St. Columb, a small market town three miles from where she lived.
She could not take the boy with her, she said, and so she left him at home to take care of the house.
Looking after a house was not in little William John’s line, and Great-Aunt Ann had not been gone more than an hour before he found himself at the small wicket-gate opening into the orchard, where to his joy he saw a great multitude of golden-headed daffadillies rising out of the lowly grass, and a light that was softer than silver moving mysteriously in and out amongst the trees.
The temptation to go into that sun-lighted, fascinating spot was irresistible, and finding the gate unlocked, little William John opened it and went in.
It was the spring of the year, and the spring was late, and there were as yet no carmine buds on the apple trees, but their upper branches were misty with the silvery green of budding leaves. And the pear trees were in virgin whiteness, and so were the plum and cherry trees, which made a shining background to all the yellow lilies in blossom there.
‘It makes me feel happy only to be here,’ whispered little William John to himself; ‘and oh! the daffies are making golden dawns under the trees!’
He wandered about to his heart’s content, staying his young feet now and then to listen to a blackbird’s liquid pipe, and to touch with reverent hand a daffadilly’s drooping head, or to watch with puzzled eyes that thing of brightness moving on in front of him amongst the trees and blossoms.
He lost sight of this wandering light when he had gone the length of the orchard; but he saw it again as he turned across to its top, and when he got close he saw, to his astonishment, it was a little Hare of silvery whiteness.
It was sitting on its haunches under the blasted tree, and did not move away as the boy drew near.
A thrill of gladness filled William John’s kind young heart at so fair and strange a vision, and his delight was even greater when the small White Hare suffered him to stroke its fur.
‘Oh, you dear little soft thing!’ he cried. ‘I am so glad you are not afraid of me; I love all animals, and would not hurt any of them for worlds, nor a hair of your beautiful white coat.’
‘I knew you would not,’ answered the little White Hare. ‘I was sure your heart was gentle and good the moment I saw you.’
‘What! Can you talk?’ asked little William John in amazement. ‘I never knew animals could speak like human beings before. I am so glad you can. It is so nice to have someone to talk to. Nobody hardly ever speaks to me here, and I have felt so lonely.’
‘Poor boy!’ said the little White Hare; ‘I can sympathize with you, for I know what it is to be lonely and have nobody to speak to. You are the first human being who has spoken to me since a wicked Witch turned me into the shape of a hare.’
‘What! Are you not really a hare?’ asked little William John, more and more amazed.
‘The small White Hare suffered him to stroke its fur.’
‘No,’ answered the little creature sadly; ‘I am a maiden in the shape of a hare, and I have had to bear the hare-shape ever since the Witch worked a spell [upon me, which was back in the days of the “giants.”’
‘What a shame!’ cried the boy. ‘Whatever made her turn you into a hare?’
‘She had a spite against me because I would not be wicked like herself.’
‘How dreadful of her!’ cried little William John indignantly. ‘Will you never be able to get back your real shape, you poor little thing?’
‘I am afraid not,’ said the little White Hare sadly, ‘unless somebody who is really sorry for me, and is not afraid of me, can find the Magic Horn—by the blast of which Jack the Giant-Killer overthrew the Giant Galligantus and Hocus-Pocus the Conjurer—and blow over me three strong, clear blasts.’
‘Where is the Magic Horn?’ asked little William John.
‘I do not know the exact spot, but it is buried somewhere in the ruins of an old castle called the Castle of Porthmeor, which is on a cliff above Porthmeor Cove.’
‘Why, that old castle is mine, or will be, I am told, when I am of age!’ cried little William John. ‘It is not a great way from where I live, and often I go there to play. I wish I wasn’t only a little boy, and could look for the Magic Horn,’ he added, after a moment’s silence.
‘Age is no barrier to your seeking it,’ said the little White Hare. ‘All that is needed to loosen the wicked old Witch’s spell is what I have now told you.’
‘Then I will look for the Magic Horn directly I get home,’ cried little William John, ‘and if I can find it I’ll come back and blow it over you, if you think I can.’
‘I am sure you can,’ answered the little White Hare. ‘You must go now, for your Great-Aunt is coming into the valley. It is not wrong to come into this orchard, since she has not forbidden you; but she knows it is haunted by a little White Hare, and is afraid if you see it it will work you harm. So you must be patient with her.’
The Hare vanished as it spoke, and little William John found himself alone with the yellow-headed daffadillies, and the trees and dear little birds, and he soon went back to the house.
‘Have you been out anywhere?’ asked Great-Aunt Ann, when she had come in and taken off her bonnet.
‘Yes, into the orchard,’ said the boy truthfully. ‘It is a lovely place, full of song-birds and flowers.’
‘Was that all you saw there?’ she asked anxiously.
‘No,’ answered little William John again, lifting his clear child-eyes to the stern old maid’s. ‘I saw trees with snow on them, and a dear little Hare with fur as white as milk.’
The old lady shook all over like a wind-tossed leaf when he said that, but she did not scold him or say he ought not to have gone into her orchard, but the next day she sent him home.
At the end of three years William John came again to stay with his Great-Aunt Ann—not that she wanted him, but because his guardian thought the balmy air of the lovely Vale would do him good.
The spring was very early this year, and when William John arrived the daffadillies had gone, and the pear and cherry trees had scattered all their snow-white blossoms on the grass; but the apple flowers were out in rosy splendour on the gnarled old trees, and where the daffadillies had made ‘golden dawns’ there were blue-grey periwinkles trying to lift themselves to the heavenly blue shining down upon them.
William John was anxious to go out into the orchard directly he came, but Great-Aunt Ann said the grass was too wet.
The grass was always ‘too wet,’ according to the old maid, and the boy was afraid she would not allow him to go into the orchard at all.
When he had been there two weeks and a day, Great-Aunt Ann had again occasion to go to St. Columb town, and as there was only room in the gig for the driver and herself, she was obliged to leave him at home.
The moment the gig was out of sight William John made his way to the orchard, where he found the grass as green and beautiful as spring grass could be, and his little friend the Hare sitting under the blasted tree, whiter and smaller than ever.
‘I began to fear you would never come into this orchard again,’ said the White Hare plaintively.
‘I began to fear so myself,’ responded William John, stroking very gently the little White Hare. ‘This is my first opportunity of coming here.’
‘Have you found the Magic Horn?’ the small creature asked anxiously.
‘Not yet, and I have never stopped looking for it since I was last here. I have searched all over the old castle, and every stone has been lifted on the place, and the ground dug up both outside the ruins and inside, and I am afraid the Magic Horn was not hidden away in that old castle, as you said.’
‘It was hidden there, and is there now,’ insisted the little White Hare, ‘and I do hope you aren’t going to give up looking for it.’
‘I won’t, for your sake, you dear little soft thing!’ cried the boy, and again he stroked her gently and tenderly; ‘and as you are sure it is there somewhere, I’ll search until I find it.’
‘Have you looked in the cave under the castle?’ asked the little White Hare.
‘No,’ returned William John; ‘the entrance to it is not known, and even if it were, the passage leading down to the cave is so foul with bad air, my guardian said, that it would be death to anybody who went through it.’
‘If you are not afraid to go down into the cave, I can give you a plant that will purify all the foul air you pass through.’
‘I will not be afraid for your sake, dear little White Hare,’ said the boy.
The Hare vanished, and in a little while became visible again, and in her mouth she held a strange-looking weed, the like of which he had never seen before.
‘It is called the little All-Pure,’ said the White Hare, as William John took it in his hand. ‘Keep it close to your heart until you have discovered the passage to the cave, and when it is foul hold it in your hand until its brightness shines on the Magic Horn.’
Again she disappeared, and the boy, after waiting some time to see if she would appear again, went back to the house, where he found his Great-Aunt Ann limping in at the front-door.
The old lady had hurt her leg in getting out of the gig, and when he told her he had been in the orchard, she made her slight accident an excuse to send him back to his home, which she did that same day.
William John did not have the chance of paying another visit to his Great-Aunt Ann until he was a youth of nineteen, and he would not have come then if he had waited to be invited.
The old maid was now terribly old and feeble, and had to keep a servant. Unhappily for William John, the servant was quite as crabbed and silent as her mistress, and even more opposed to his going into the old orchard. She even locked the orchard-gate and kept the key in her pocket.
But William John, being now no longer a child, but a handsome youth with a strong will of his own, was determined to get into the orchard with or without permission, for he had found the Magic Horn.
He watched his opportunity, and one day when the servant was out he went to the wicket gate and sprang over it, and quickly made his way to the blasted tree, where he found, as he had expected to find, the little White Hare sitting on her haunches under it.
She was very white and ever so small—so small, in fact, that she did not look much bigger than a baby hare.
‘You have come at last,’ she said, as the tall handsome lad knelt on the grass and caressed her. ‘Have you found the Magic Horn?’
‘I have found it,’ he answered gladly.
‘When did you find it?’
‘Only yesterday,’ returned the youth. ‘Every day since I last saw you I have searched for the entrance to the cave, and at last, when I was in despair of ever finding it, I came upon it under my bedroom window. I discovered it quite by accident, as I was planting maiden-blush rose-trees. I never knew till then that our house was built on the old castle grounds. The passage opened on to steps, which led down and down till they ended at the door of the cave.’
‘Were you not afraid?’ asked the little White Hare very softly.
‘I was a little bit,’ confessed the youth, ‘for I did not know where it would lead me. But love and pity for poor little you made me go on. And I had the little All-Pure to cheer me; for it not only made the foul air through which I passed pure and sweet, but gave out a soft clear light. I found the Magic Horn on a slab of stone in the corner of the cave. I took it up quickly and returned the way I came, and started the earliest moment to pay a visit to my Great-Aunt Ann.’
‘Have you brought the Magic Horn with you?’ asked the little White Hare, with deep anxiety in her voice.
‘Yes,’ he said, with shining eyes, ‘and here it is;’ and he laid a black thing in the shape of a horn on the grass beside her.
‘It is the Magic Horn!’ cried the little White Hare joyfully. ‘Will you blow over me three strong, clear blasts, dear William John? If you are as pure-hearted as you are kind-hearted, as I am sure you are, the last blast will break the Witch’s spell, and give me back my own shape. The Horn should be blown at sunset.’
‘It is sundown now,’ said William John, looking westward, where between the trees he could see a splendour of rose and gold painted on the lower sky.
‘Then blow it now!’ cried the little White Hare; and stiffening herself on her form, she crossed her paws on her breast and waited.
‘Took up the Magic Horn and put it to his mouth.’
William John took up the Magic Horn in his strong young hands and put it to his mouth, and in a minute or less there sounded out through the orchard, all gay with apple-blossom and melody of birds, and over the Vale of Lanherne, a great blast, so rich in sound that the thrushes stopped their singing, and the people in St. Mawgan village came rushing to their doors to know whatever it was. It was quickly followed by two more blasts, richer and louder than the first. When the last blast had died away, William John, looking down at the foot of the blasted tree, saw in the place of the little White Hare the most beautiful maiden he had ever seen.
‘He had not expected to see her half so beautiful.’
The Magic Horn fell from his hand at so lovely a sight, and he blushed red as the buds clinging in rosy infancy to the apple-trees, and stammered something out that he had not expected to see her half so beautiful.
‘I am myself now, thanks to you,’ laughed the maiden; and William John thought it was the sweetest laugh he had ever heard in all his life. ‘I can never be sufficiently grateful for all you have done for me.’
‘Mine is the gratitude for having been allowed to find the Magic Horn and loosen you from the wicked spell,’ said the lad, still stammering and blushing.
‘You are very good to say so,’ said the lovely maid, blushing in her turn as she felt the gaze of the handsome youth upon her. ‘Now the evil spell has been undone I must go my way.’
‘What way?’ asked William John eagerly, drinking in the beauty of her face.
‘To a country beyond the sun-setting, where all who love me are,’ she said gently.
‘If you go, I must also go,’ said William John in a masterful way, still keeping his eyes on her face. ‘I learnt to love you in your hare-shape, dear, but I love you a thousand times more now I see you as you are. I could not live without you now.’
‘If you love me as you say you do, and cannot live without me, you may come,’ said the lovely maid, lifting her shy eyes to his. ‘You have the right to come with me by the good you have wrought. It is a fair land whither I am going, where there are always buds and blossoms on the trees, where the happy birds are always in song, and where the Foot of Evil dare not enter. It is time I was away. The sun is setting, and his path of glory is narrowing on the sea. Come, if you will. I love you, too, dear.’
And giving him her little hand, which he gladly took, they went both of them together out of the old orchard in the glow of the setting sun; and as they climbed a slope above the place of blossoming trees, an old man crossing the downs wondered who that handsome youth and lovely maid were making their way with locked hands and steadfast faces towards the sunset. But he never knew.
‘In the glow of the setting sun.’
From that day onwards the little White Hare was never again seen in the old beautiful orchard, and nobody ever knew what had become of William John.