The Crosby Leiper House on the left at todays Bullens Lane and Chester Pike looking east, about 1920
LUKE NETHERMARK’S RIDE
An incident of the Queen’s Highway aka Chester Pike
The last part of Luke's ride a legend handed down thru the years
PART III – Polly Van Culin, during the long weary night, vainly sought sleep. She tried to find comfort with the repeated self-assurance that she had done all the maidenly pride permitted her to do to bring about a reconciliation with Luke, and that he had insolently rejected all her advances, demanding an abasement on her part which she hesitated to make, and which held forth no hopeful augury for the future. Had he returned when she called as he rode away, she acknowledged to herself, she would have yielded all in desire to close the breech that had come between them. Often during the wakeful hours she had arisen and looked forth into the night. By midnight here and there the clouds had parted and through the rifts the stars twinkled. The sight brought a measure of relief to her, but vainly she strove to cast aside the despondency which depressed her. Often before she recalled Luke had been abroad in heavy storms and save a thorough drenching had been the worse of the exposure.
It was the period of early rising. Shortly before five the following morning Polly made her appearance in the kitchen where Lilly, a dark Guinea Negress, was busy preparing breakfast. Only a moment did she give to her household duties then she went out on the porch and made a hasty inspection of the scene. Traces of the storm were discernible in all directions. Huge limbs severed from the trunks, save where more strips of wood and bark held them, hung in many places, the branches resting upon the earth. A great oak, a giant sentinel near the front gate, showed a cleavage from top through the trunk here the lightning bolt had blasted it, while everywhere were strewn small branches torn off and widely distributed by the gale in its passage. Crum Creek, swollen beyond its bank, was a turbid rushing stream on whose muddy surface floated wreckage that had been swept into it during the deluge of the preceding night. The morning sun, now shown in an almost unclouded sky.
Early in the forenoon bits of news reached the Van Culin plantation. The destruction had been widespread. The highways, indifferently graded, and ill-kept in those days, had been seriously washed in many places. Great trees growing on the bank side at some deep ruts had been uprooted by the wind and had fallen into the roads, obstructing for hours their use to the public. On the east side of the ford at Little Crum Creek where the highway rose more abruptly, then than now, there were marks showing where a horse and slipped, fallen and struggled; the footprints made by the rider in compelling the animal to arise and where the man stood when he mounted into the saddle were clearly discernible. The inmates and frequenters of the Plow Tavern who at the windows of the taproom had watched the storm at its height, told how a horseman, urging his beast to its utmost speed, was disclosed to sight by a vivid flash of lightning, was seen passing the Inn, and who, notwithstanding the shouted admonition to halt and seek shelter there, made no response, but continued on his way in the direction of Darby.
By noon, Polly Van Culin had learned all that was ever known of Luke Nethermark’s ride to death. Much was told by the footprints left by the mare in the mire clay of the highway. Apparently she was moving rapidly and descending the slope at the point where the Tinicum Ferry Road enters the Queen’s Highway and had reached some distance beyond where the road presents a deep cut in ascending the hill at whose summit is the White Horse Tavern. A great oak on the bank from under whose reels much of the earth had been removed in annual repairs to the road, had blown over and blocked the highway. In the crash one of the limbs had broken so, as to leave a part projecting horizontally. Against that “Sweetheart” had rushed with such force that her breast was impaled by the jagged limb, while her rider had been hurled from the saddle, killing him instantly. When found by the slaves of Edmund Fitz Randolph, main host of the White Horse Tavern, who were set forth in the early morning to clear a way for travelers, Luke Nethermark had been dead many hours.
Polly Van Culin made no display of her sorrow. She seldom spoke of the interview that had taken place the night Luke Nethermark fled from her presence into that of death. Even to her father she told but little of what had then occurred. She seldom complained, yet those who loved her were aware that the girl was fading, despite the increasing luster of her eyes and the dash of color in her cheeks. There came a time in the early autumn when she no longer went abroad, but sat for hours bolstered by pillows on the porch where she and Luke met and parted for the last time in life. One day when November was waning, she and her father were in the accustomed place. Polly held his hand lovingly in hers. At length she spoke.
“Life at best is beset with cares and few on earth attain happiness. I have tried, Daddy, dear, to be a good daughter to the best of fathers. When I die promise me you will place the ring which is in the leather case on my dressing table on the third finger of my left hand.”
“Why not wear it now, daughter?”
“Not now. After I am dead. It is my desire that it should be buried with me. It was Luke’s last gift to me.”
Hardly had a week elapsed when Abram Van Culin made good his promise to his dead child.
For fully a century the Negroes and not a few of the illiterate whites of the neighborhood believed that on dark and stormy nights the phantom mare and her spectral rider re-enacted that wild ride to death. There were not wanting those who undoubtedly declared that by the flashes of the lightning on dark stormy nights they had caught momentary glimpses of the ghost of Luke Nethermark at various locations between Crum Creek and Tinicum Road, coursing along the Queen’s highway and that on every such occasion, the appearance had within a few hours been followed by intelligence that some resident of the neighborhood had met sudden death.