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The Woman in White

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

A tale of history, ghosts, and romance at the Black Bass Hotel in Lumberville, PA.


If the woman in white hadn’t visited me in the Grover Cleveland Suite, I’d probably be writing a story about President Cleveland, or George Washington, or the men who dug the Delaware Canal, all of whom are connected in some way to the Black Bass Hotel.

Until recently, I was an adjunct professor of history at Temple University. But after my wife died, I knew something needed to change because… well… life is short, and I’d just turned thirty. So I left teaching and enrolled in an MFA program to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a writer. And it was a writing assignment that had brought me to the Black Bass for a three-night, one-man “writer’s retreat,” where I could work alone and uninterrupted. The assignment was to write a story in a genre we didn’t particularly like. And there were so many that left me cold: Thriller, Horror, Paranormal, Romance, Gothic, Fantasy, and all their subgenres.

When I learned that the Black Bass dated back to 1745 and George Washington had once been turned away by the Tory owner, I entertained the idea of writing an alternate history in which the British won the Revolutionary War. But the professor wanted us to “stretch our minds,” and alternate history wouldn’t be much of a stretch for me, even if I called it speculative fiction (yet another genre that didn’t appeal to me).

#

My first night at the Black Bass, I treated myself to dinner at a table by the window, which offered a scenic view of the Delaware River, the canal, and the nearby pedestrian bridge that spanned the river. The waiter told me the bridge had been built by John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, the same Roeblings who had built the Brooklyn Bridge, a fact that stirred bittersweet memories. Sweet because my wife and I had honeymooned at a New York hotel that overlooked the Brooklyn Bridge. Bitter because a drunk driver had run her down. I raised a glass of red wine to the Roebling bridge, toasting the past and pivoting to the future, deciding it was time to start dating again. Perhaps I’d meet someone here in Lumberville or in nearby New Hope, a charming town filled with shops, restaurants, and tourists.

Could that someone be the woman dining alone at the next table? As she studied her menu, I studied her. She was wearing a silky white dress that shimmered in the candlelight and accentuated her olive skin and the abundant dark curls framing her face. When she caught me looking at her, she smiled, then went back to reading the menu. Had her eyes lingered a beat before they left mine? Did I have the nerve to engage her in conversation? Before I could decide on my next move, she was telling the waiter she didn’t want dessert and asked him to charge the dinner to her room. So, she was staying here. Another smile in my direction, and she was gone. If I wrote a romance, I could call it New Hope. But that wasn’t going to happen. Romance was nothing more than fluff written by women for women, right? So I’d leave that genre to the fairer sex.

#

The Grover Cleveland Suite was a journey back in time to the 1880s. Clawfoot soaking tub, antique bed with draped headboard, and matching curtains, all beiges, browns, and golds. Except for the modern plumbing and the glitzy Happy New Year 2022 cardboard crown someone had left in the nightstand drawer, it felt authentically nineteenth century. And best of all, a wing chair next to a stone fireplace, an ideal spot for writing. My last thought before falling asleep was that woman in the shimmering white dress.

#

It might have been the strong smell of lavender that woke me in the middle of the night, or the sound of a chair scraping against the wood floor, or the sudden chill in the air. Inches from my bed stood a woman wrapped in a diaphanous white gown, a veil covering her face. It had to be her. As she untied her sash, I closed my eyes in anticipation of the pleasure to come. But when I opened them, I was greeted by the barrel of a pearl-handled revolver wielded by a portly, middle-aged woman. Her hair was pulled back in a severe bun and her wrinkled face contorted with rage.

“Caught you, you miserable cheating—” Her desiccated voice matched her face.

“Whoa.” I raised my hands in a gesture of truce.

“When Hannah told me you had a mistress, I …”

“Who’s Hannah?”

“Who’s Hannah!” She lowered the gun. “Don’t play dumb with me, you son of a bitch. You know perfectly well she’s my sister. I didn’t believe her when she said you were cheating on me. But here you are, the both of you—”

“There’s no one else in this room.” I patted the pillow with a shaky hand. “You must have mistaken this pillow—”

“I ain’t mistaking nothing. I caught you red handed in that fancy bed with your floozy.”

“My what?”

“Your whore, you bastard. How could you? After I gave you the best years of my life. Now look at me. Open your eyes and look at me. Look at me!”

I forced myself to look her in the eyes. They were dark, bottomless, and scary as hell. Y-you looked b-beautiful in the white dress you were just wearing. Like a bride. Why don’t you put it back on?”

She reconfigured her mouth in what could have been a smile.

“Yes, beautiful,” I babbled on. “Reminds me of the dress you wore the day we were wed.” If I kept sweet-talking her, maybe she’d drop the gun. “So beautiful, with flowers in your hair.”

Flowers! There weren’t no goddam flowers in my hair.”

She looked down at the pistol, running a thumb along the grip.

“You always had a way with the ladies, Mack. Certainly had me fooled, telling me I was the love of your life. Can’t even remember what I wore on the day we got married, can you? Look at me when I talk to you, you two-timing bastard. Look what you’ve done to me.”

She raised her revolver. “Take one last look.”

A bang. A flash. I rolled off the bed onto the floor and everything went black.

I didn’t know what time it was when I woke up, but it was still dark, and I was in bed. That was one hell of a nightmare. A quick scan of the room confirmed there was no woman and no gun, though the scent of lavender lingered in the air. Unable to get back to sleep, I got out my laptop and checked the hotel’s website. Under “Spirits and Lore,” I found reports of alleged sightings of a woman in white. Some people described a shimmering, evanescent figure wandering the halls. Others described a pistol-packing woman in white who favored the Grover Cleveland Suite. They said her presence was often accompanied by the smell of lavender. Just my luck that I ended up with the pistol packer. Not that I believed in any of that stuff.

Unable to sleep, I wrote an account of my nightmare. By the time I got back into bed, only a whisper of lavender lingered in the room.

#

When I woke up, light was streaming into the room and the lavender smell had dissolved. I needed coffee, so I went across the street to the Lumberville General Store, which had started out as a general store in the late eighteenth century, but was now a café. On my way in the door, I encountered the flesh-and-blood woman in white from last night’s dinner, who was on her way out. This morning she was wearing sturdy black boots and a gray down jacket.

“Going for a walk?” I said. “Good day for it.”

“Yes, perfect. Cool, crisp. A long walk on the towpath gets the brain working.”

“I think it’s the serotonin.”

“Or dopamine, I can never remember which.”

“Me neither,” I said.

Could I have been more awkward? I wanted to engage her in conversation, ask if she’d like company on her walk, but all that came out of my mouth was “Have a nice day.”

I’ll get better at this, I thought as I sipped my coffee. But right now, I need to get serious about my writing. I came here for a writer’s retreat, not a meet-and-greet.

Back in my room, I turned on the gas fire, grabbed my notebook, and settled into the wing-back chair. Once I decided upon a genre and got started on a story, I’d reward myself with a leisurely walk along the towpath.

By all rights, I should have settled on a ghost story, but I couldn’t make myself believe that my “encounter” with the woman in white last night was anything more than a vivid nightmare. I’d always found ghost stories lame. At summer camp, when the counselor pointed the flashlight up at his face and told us spooky stories, I laughed while the rest of the kids shrieked.

#

Four hours and zero progress later, I couldn’t sit still, so I went downstairs to explore the hotel. A narrow staircase at the back of the dining room led to the Canal Bar, the original 1745 tavern.

With each step I descended, the temperature seemed to drop a degree. The Canal Bar was the kind of room that normally called out to the historian in me—pre-revolutionary with stone walls and wood paneling. Beautifully restored, furnished with comfy brown leather chairs and dining tables, it was a cozy room in which I would normally linger as I imagined the lives of the people who had passed through before me. Though the room was well heated, I shivered. I sat down on an old wood plank that served as a bar stool, and a chill like an electric current ran up my spine and jolted my extremities. I jumped up from the seat, and my body temperature returned to normal. A few calming breaths and I was laughing at my overactive imagination. Just an ordinary bar. Despite the lovely view of the canal, I was not inclined to linger. So I took the steps two at a time to the main floor.

I explored the “Pewter Bar,” named for the solid pewter bar that dominated the room. On the back wall, a miniature replica of Queen Victoria’s coronation ran the length of the bar.

Shelves on two walls were filled with two hundred years of royal memorabilia, including china plates and cups emblazoned with images of Victoria and Albert and royal figurines. An Anglophile’s dream. No wonder George Washington had not slept here.

A young woman came in to clean the room and stock the shelves. She explained that the pewter bar had been purchased at auction from Maxim’s, a famous restaurant in Paris. Then, she pointed to a polished, rustic-looking table across the room.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said, “but that was an autopsy table. It has an interesting story.” Unfortunately, she was called away before she could say more.

Now that was an oddity—an autopsy table that had been repurposed as a dining table. I seated myself at one of the chairs, ran my hand across the table, and imagined the story behind it.

I must have fallen asleep, for when I woke up, I was stretched out on a hard surface.

What’s wrong with my mattress? I’ll have to complain to management. It’s way too hard and my back hurts.

“Good Lord. You’re not dead.”

I jumped. The man standing over me wore a blood-spattered white coat and was poised to plunge a scalpel into my heart.

I crossed my arms protectively over my body. “Damn straight, I’m not dead, and I’d like to stay that way. Please lose the knife.”

He lowered the knife, though it was still too close for comfort.

“Who are you?” we asked each other simultaneously.

“You first,” I said.

“I’m the coroner.”

That’s when I recognized the table I was lying on as the one I’d seen earlier. The one they called the autopsy table.

“Coroner? In the Pewter Bar of a high-class hotel?”

“Pewter Bar? Fancy hotel? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Look around you, man. We’re in a tavern.”

Sure enough, the autopsy table and its current occupant had somehow been magically transported downstairs to the original section of the hotel, now called the Canal Bar—the room that had creeped me out barely an hour earlier. Gone was the lovely, polished wood paneling and cushy leather chairs. The stone walls were still there, but everything else was different, rough-hewn. I recognized the old bar stool from my earlier visit, but that was all. The room smelled of stale booze and something even worse that I couldn’t identify.

“What year is this?”

“What year? Have you been living in a cave? It’s the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and thirty.

“I need to get off this table.”

“You’re free to do what you want. Not like those poor dead souls in the morgue.” He pointed to a black door in the wall—a door that had only recently led to the restrooms.

“Dead souls?” Was it rotting flesh I was smelling?

I slid off the plank and staggered when my feet hit the floor. The coroner steadied me.

“That’s where they store the bodies of the men digging the Delaware Canal,” he said. “Lots of them dropping dead. Mostly cholera. Other diseases we can’t always identify.”

“But a morgue in a tavern?”

“Temporary storage. I’m the only coroner in these parts, so I can only stop by every couple of weeks to perform autopsies and carry the bodies upriver to dispose of them. Mostly poor Irishmen.” He crossed himself. “So many of them dying on the job. Some of the bodies are buried along the shore. Others are brought here.”

None of this made sense. “I still can’t believe there’s an actual morgue behind that door.”

“You can’t smell it?” He tightened his hold on my arm. “If you don’t believe your nose, believe your eyes.” He pointed with the blood-tipped knife he still held in his other hand.

I tried to pull away, but he squeezed harder and dragged me, gagging, toward the door.

“I believe you. I believe you. Let me go!”

But we were already inches from the door. He dropped the knife. Now he was turning the handle. Now he was opening the door. I closed my eyes. The stench was overpowering. I passed out.

#

I had no memory of what happened after that, but I was told later by the general manager that someone had found me on the floor and summoned him. He said I’d assured him I was okay, and I didn’t need a doctor, so they escorted me up to my room. I had only a vague memory of someone coming into the room later to ask how I was doing. When I woke up in the middle of the night, there was a cup of tea and a plate of crackers on my nightstand. Though the tea was cold, and it was an herbal brew—not my cup of tea, so to speak—I found it surprisingly comforting.

Wide awake now, I wanted to know more about what I thought I’d experienced. I watched a YouTube of the general manager telling the story of the morgue. Then I read a writeup of the makeshift morgue in the “Spirits and Lore” section of the hotel’s website, which included reports of rapid temperature drops and sobbing sounds, but no mention of a coroner making an appearance. In that same section there was the story of a man named Hans, the proprietor of the Black Bass, who got into a dispute with one of the canal workers and was stabbed to death. Next to the story was a photo of the barstool he was sitting on when he was killed. The same barstool that had spooked me in the Canal Bar. There were also reports of a large burly man lurking near the spot where Hans was murdered. At least I’d been spared that.

The next morning, I was the only customer at the Lumberville General Store. I was on my second mug of coffee when she entered the café, walked straight to my table, and took off her jacket. She was wearing an L.L. Bean hiking shirt. White, of course. She draped her jacket on the back of the chair and sat across from me, our knees almost touching.

“Arabella Richmond,” she said, extending a hand.

“Paul Weber.”

“I knew you’d be here, Paul Weber.”

“How could you possibly …”

“I’m a writer. I have a knack for sizing people up.”

“You must be damn good if you can make predictions like that.”

“I am a good writer. But full disclosure. I knew you’d be here because I saw you cross the street, not because of my extraordinary ability to read people.” She chuckled.

“Arabella Richmond,” I said. “The name sounds familiar.”

“You may have seen my novels at airport newsstands or on pharmacy shelves. But you probably haven’t read any of them because I write romance and, well, you’re a man. From what I can tell, men think women write fluff for other women.”

My exact words. She’s a bestselling author and she reads minds.

My red face spoke for itself, but I felt she deserved a verbal response. “Guilty as charged.”

“Men should read more women authors. Then maybe they’d have a clue about what women want.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. By the way, I’m a writer, too, but I know you haven’t read any of my work.”

“Why is that?”

“Because my stories are published in journals so obscure that the editor is probably the only one who has read them.”

“The editor and you. That makes two. Are they good stories?”

I had to think about that for a moment. “I think so, but I’ve got a lot to learn. That’s why I’m studying for my MFA.”

It could have been her warm smile that encouraged me to open up, or my own need to talk to someone after two closed-mouthed years. Or maybe it was the memory of how she looked in that sleeveless white dress. Whatever the reason, I told her about my assignment, what brought me to the Black Bass, and my change of career. When I talked about my late wife and how I missed her, she murmured, “I know, I know,” and I suspected that she, too, had experienced loss. Finally I spoke in great detail about my so-called visitations the last couple of days. I expected her to be skeptical, but she didn’t crack a smile. When I had no more to say, I picked up my water glass, surprised to find it empty. I must have been talking a long time.

Arabella rested her chin on her tented fingers and narrowed her eyes. Then she lowered her arms and leaned forward, her eyes never leaving mine.

“You are one hell of a storyteller. Those ghost stories …”

“They’re not ghost stories. They’re nightmares. I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“Paul Weber, you are one stubborn guy. You insist you’ll never write a ghost story. But you’ve already written one. Doesn’t matter whether you believe in ghosts or think they’re a bunch of crap. You had me believing they were real. That’s what writers do. They use their imagination as ink to fill pages.”

I had to restrain myself from kissing her. Is that what happens when an attractive woman compliments you for the first time in two years? Or was it her hazel eyes playing hopscotch between brown and blue?

“Thank you, Arabella. Coming from a published author … who has actual fans. I’m curious. What brought you to New Hope?

“I’ll let you in on a little secret.” She lowered her voice. “I’m here because I plan to set my next novel at the Black Bass, but I’m not ready to make that public yet. One of my local fans suggested the locale, and I’m running with it. I thought it would be fun to have the two lovers meet in the Canal Bar, which is why I happened to be there when you hit the floor. I’m the one who summoned help and brought tea and crackers to your room. Don’t you remember any of that?”

“No. But thank you for the tea. It was just what I needed.”

“My pleasure.” She looked at her watch and stood.

Please don’t go.

“I have an idea,” she said. “I’m meeting the general manager in the Canal Bar to talk about the room. Why don’t you come with me? When I’m done, we can take a walk. You told me your personal story. I’d like to share some of mine with you.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d rather skip the Canal Bar.”

“I understand.”

I couldn’t tell whether her answer came from a place of sympathy or she was just being polite; but it didn’t matter because her eyes were now speckled with gold.

“But I’d love to take a walk with you after your meeting. I was thinking of visiting the Locktenders House, a restored 19th century house on the canal that is now a museum. Why don’t we drive downriver—or is it upriver?—to town, park, and pick up the towpath there? Walk the trail to the Locktender’s House, where someone might be able to tell me whether the morgue story is plausible.”

“And I can tell you my story on the way. Two birds with one stone.”

We walked for an hour, and by the time we got to the museum, she was holding my hand. I was thrilled. Together we looked at the photographs and artifacts that illustrated the story of the Delaware Canal. A woman who worked there asked if we had any questions.

“I do have a question,” I said. “Is it possible that the bodies of workers who died building the canal could have been stored in the cellar of the Black Bass?”

“Other people have asked that same question,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of research and found nothing definitive. There’s also a story that they stored gunpowder at the Black Bass in the 1830s, and when a fire broke out, the proprietor carried it outside and saved the hotel. I’d say it’s hardly likely that bodies or gunpowder were stored at a tavern.”

I turned to Arabella and shrugged.

“But that’s not to say it didn’t happen,” said the woman.

#

That night I left the door to my room unlocked. Wishful thinking. I had barely closed my eyes when I sensed a presence in the room. And sure enough, a woman in white was closing the door behind her. I was momentarily frozen at the intersection of hope and dread. Was the woman holding a pistol, or did she come emptyhanded? She came closer and I barely got a glimpse of her mane of dark curls before she slipped off her white nightgown and climbed into bed.

I won’t describe what happened next. I’ll leave that to the expert—the romance writer, who is now lying beside me sound asleep. But I will say that I now know why her books sell so well. And I also learned a lot about what women want. If a version of me finds its way into one of her novels, so be it.

She opened her eyes and I whispered. “Now I know why women love your novels and why men should read them.”

“And I know why I’m here next to you. I’ve decided my next book will be a paranormal romance novel. Nothing like mixing genres.”

#

“Did you enjoy your stay?” asked the woman at the desk who took my key.

“More than I could ever have imagined.”

“Please visit us again.”

“Oh, I will.”

Arabella and I had talked about spending our first real date at the Black Bass so I could do more research for my ghost story, she could immerse herself in the setting for her next novel, and we could immerse ourselves in each other.

As the woman printed my receipt, a man with a suitcase approached the front desk.

“I hear this is a great place.”

“It is,” I said.

“They say this place is haunted. But I think that’s a crock.”

“You’re going to love it here.”

I smiled to myself and walked out the door.


Note: Although used as the setting for this work of fiction, the Black Bass is indeed a very real place based in the Bucks County river town of Lumberville. The historic building, which dates back to the 1740s, is considered one of the nation’s oldest inns and is included in the National Register of Historic Places. Over the years, people have reported seeing ghosts, including a woman with a revolver.


Appeared in the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of Neshaminy, The Bucks County Historical and Literary Journal. Neshaminy is published by the Doylestown Historical Society in association with the Bucks County Writers Workshop.

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