Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 1, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
A few years ago, an aged tinner of Lelant told us a story in which, among other matters, he related something about the doings of the captain of a stream-work with the black and white witches of Zennor and the Pellar of Helston, which will throw some light on certain proceedings and afford a sketch of characters but little known.
The spoken parts of the story are, for the most part, given in the tinner's words, to serve as an example of the every-day language of the old country folk:—
When Jack Tregear (who tells the story) was a youngster, he worked for Uncle Matthew Thomas, who employed ten or a dozen men, off and on, in streaming some of the moors in Trewe Bottom. These moors, which lie up towards Zennor from Nancledrea, have been streamed for tin over and over again. They say that there are still to be seen about Trewe the remains of old bals which had been worked before the Flood. Uncle Mathy had a cothouse and a few little quillets and crofts up in Treen, or some other place near Zennor cliff; but here he was seldom to be found, as he left his few cattle, and the land, to the care of the old woman and the children, to do the best they could. Some of the men were often away from the stream-work, for weeks on a stretch, as they formed good part of a noted crew of Ludgvan smugglers who always made three or four trips every summer, over to Roscoff, in Brittany, for brandy, silk handkerchiefs, lace, and other things.
The goods were mostly run in on the eastern green, landed about Long Rock, and good part of the liquor taken off the horses (kept ready waiting) up to the moors, and secreted among the stream-works.
Uncle Mathy and all his men had a venture. Our free traders ran but little risk then, as there was no Preventive Service of any note. The excisemen were supposed to keep a sharp look-out, but they were often the greatest smugglers of all. If the boat escaped the revenue cutter they didn't care a cuss for anything else.
No riding officer would like to venture among the stream leats and bogs in Trewe moors, where scores of ankers of brandy were often kept among the burrows till the innkeepers, gentry, and other regular customers wanted them. Now and then there was a bit of a shindy with the streamers, excisemen, and riding-officers for mere sham, and the smugglers would leave an anker or two, now and then, to be taken, in places where they
never kept their stock. This served for a decoy, and the government crew knew well now that was their share and they had better not look for any more.
The streamers built a much larger moor-house than was usual for such sized tin-works, because many of the men lived down in Ludgvan, and others over in Towesnack, miles away from the work: besides, as some always remained on the place by night, when there was much liquor to be disposed of, and as they wanted a good shelter for bad weather, all hands turned-to and soon got up a house more than thirty feet long and twelve feet wide, with a broad deep chimney in one end, and a wood-corner that would hold a cartload of turves, and furze enough to do the cooking for a week. Between the fireplace and the end wall of the house, there was a place contrived to be entered from the wood-corner, large enough for storing away a score of ankers or more, besides other goods which required to be kept dry. When the wood-corner was full of fuel no person could see that the chimney-end wall was double. A low doorway, no more than four feet high, was made in the middle of one side wall. There was room enough and to spare, on the left side of the entrance, to pile up more tin than they ever washed out in six months; so they had no occasion to take their stuff to the smelting-house when the price was low.
On the chimney side of the door some planks, fastened to stakes driven into the floor, kept together, quite tidy-like, a few bur’ns of heath, rushes, ferns, or straw, which served for the men to stretch themselves on when they had to remain there over night. There were no windows but the portholes all round, which were wanted to have a shot at the wild fowl that came over the moors in large flocks in the winter, and settled down on the fowling-pool at the back of the house. "Well", says Uncle Jan, "that old moor-house was a comfortable place enough, with the tin piled up in one end, a blazing turf fire in the other, and plenty of good liquor at hand. We lived there like fighting-cocks. When we wished to have a few rabbits for a pie one had only to go out with the dog, and half-a-dozen nets to set in the gaps round a barley arish, and come back in an hour or two with as many rabbits as were wanted for a week. The place was safe enough too, for if any of the preventives had a mind to pay us a visit, one man inside could keep out a hundred. The door was made low on purpose that if any persons we didn't want stooped down and poked their heads in, one could crack their skulls as easy as so many eggs into a frying-pan."
Many of the hardy old gentlemen, from the town and about, who often came over the moors hunting in the winter, would stop and pass a jolly night with the streamers. Capt. Mathy seldom went home, from Monday morning till Saturday night, when there were much goods in the moor-house, and, as Jack Tregear's quarters were some miles away,
he mostly brought his week's provisions and stayed there for company. When the Ludgvan men were on a trip to France, the captain and Jack had all the place to themselves except when the innkeepers or others came there to deal for the liquor. Jack and Uncle Mathy got on capitally together. After supper they would drink a good jug of toddy between them; then turn in; but the worst was, best part of the night Capt. Mathy would keep Jack awake by talking about the places where he thought crocks of gold and other treasures were buried among the rocks in the Giant's Castle on Trecrobben hill, and about Choon and Bossigran Castles as well. And it was thought by the old people that much riches were put in the ground at no great distance from the quoits (cromlechs), barrows, and rounds, when the red-headed Danes, the pirates, settled here for seven years, made the people quit their old dwellings, give up to them all the enclosed and cultivated lands, and go to live on the commons and wastes in the best way they could. It was then that the old natives made the gurgoes one may still see about on the cliffs, moors, and other land not worth cultivating. Many of the rich people, who then buried their treasures and went to Wales, or over sea to seek for help to conquer the pirates, never lived to come back.
A few years after, when King Arthur drove all the Danes, he didn't kill, over cliffs into the sea, there was nobody living here who knew the meaning of the marks made on some of the rocks found about in out-of-the-way places, to show where to dig. They say that there are records still kept in Wales concerning what took place then, which would explain all about where the gold is to be found if one could but get hold of them.
"I wish we could but catch a spriggan, a piskey, or a knacker," says Capt. Mathy one night, "ef one can but lay hands on any of the smale people unawares before they vanish, or turn into muryans (ants), they may be made to tell where the goold es buried."
"Ded ’e ever hear of anybody who ever catched on?" Jack asked.
"Why ess, and knowed his son too; he was my near neighbour, and lived in Trevidga: he told me all about et. One day Uncle Billy, his father, was over in the craft, Zennor church-town side of the hill, cuttan away down in the bottom, where the furze was as high as his head, with bare places here and there, among the brakes all grown over with three-leaved grass (white clover), hurt-trees (whortleberry plants), and griglans (heath). Uncle Billy was cuttan an openan into one of these place, thinkan to touch pipe there, eat his fuggan (heavy cake), and have a smoke. As he opened the furze, to come to work his hook handy, he spied the prettiest little creature of a smale body one ever seed, sleepan away on a bank of wild thyme all in blossom. The little creature wasn't bigger than a cat, yet every inch like a man, dressed in a green coat, sky-blue breeches and stockings, with diamond-buckled shoes; his little three-cocked hat was drawn over his face to shade en from the sun while
he slept. Uncle Billy stopped and looked at am more than a minute, langan to carry an home some way or other. 'Ef I could but keep am,' thought he, 'we should soon be rich enow to ride in a coach.' Then he put down the furze-hook easy, took of the cuff from his arm, and slipped the little gentleman into the cuff, feet foremost, before he waked up. The little fellow then opened his pretty brown eyes and said, 'Mammy! where are ’e, mammy and daddy! and where am I? And who are you? You are a fine great bucca sure enough; what are ’e caled, an?' says he to Uncle Billy. 'I want my mammy! can ’e find her for me?' 'I don't know whereabouts she do put up,' says Uncle Billy; 'come, you shall go home with me, ef you will, and live with our people till your mother do come for ’e.' 'Very well,' says the spriggan, 'I dearly love to ride the kids over the rocks, and to have milk and blackberries for supper; will ’e give me some?' 'Ess, my son, and bread and honey too, says the old man Uncle Billy, as he took the small body up in his arms and carried him home.
"When the little chap was took out of the curze-cuff and placed upon the hearth-stone, he begun to play with the children as if he had lived with them all his lifetime. The old man and woman were delighted. The children crowed for joy to see the pretty little man jumpan about, and they called am Bobby Griglans. Twice a day a little chayne cup of milk, fresh from the cow, was given to Bobby. He was very nice in his diet, and didn't care for anything but a drop of milk, and a few blackberries, hurts, or hoggans (haws) for a change.
"In the mornings, when the work was going on, he would perch himself up on the furze and ferns in the top of the wood-corner, to be out of the smut and dirt. There he would sing and chirrup away like a robin redbreast. When the hearth was swept, the turfy fire made up, and the old woman fixed on the chimney stool, to knit for the afternoon, Bobby would dance for hours together on the hearth-stone, before her; the faster the knitting-needles clicked, the quicker Bobby would spin round and round. Uncle Billy and An Mary wouldn't leave Bobby go out to play, for fear he might be seen, or run away, before the next good moonlight nights, when he promised to show the old couple the exact spot, on Rosewall Hill, where there was lots of money buried, and another place on the hill where there was a good lode of tin.
"Three days after Bobby Griglans was catched and carried up to Trevidga, half-a-score or more of the neighbours came, with their horses and leaders, to help Uncle Billy to get home his furze from the hill, in trusses, and to help him make the rick for winter, as the custom was before wheel-roads were made and wains came into use. The old man didn't like for the spriggan to be seen, so he shut him and the youngest children up in the barn and put a padlock on the door. The smale people had been getting scarcer and scarcer, as so much laming and love of
unpoetical facts came into fashan, until they were nearly all frightened away. However, Uncle Billy would keep his out of sight for the time, because you see it was become such a rare thing to see a spriggan or piskey that the folks would be coming about in troops to have a look at Bobby, who didn't like to be gazed at and made to show all his parts to strangers. 'Now, stay in the barn and play like good children, but ef on of ’e cry, or try to get out, you will get your breeches warmed with a good wallopan,' says Uncle Billy.
"The children wer sometimes heard laughan and sometimes cryan. Bobby passed the time dancean on the barn-boards and peepan through the cracks in the door at the furze-carriers; but, as soon as ever the men went in to dinner, up jumped Bob, unbarred the winder, called to the children, 'Come along, some, quick; now for a game of mop-and-heede' (hide and seek). Bob and the children jumped out and away, to play among the trusses of furze dropped all round the stem of the rick. In turnan a corner they saw a little man and woman no bigger than Bob. The little man was dressed just like an, only he wore high ridan boots with little silver spurs. The little woman's green gound was spangled all over with silver stars; diamond buckles shone in her high-heeled shoes; and her little steeple-crowned blue hat, perched on a pile of golden curls, was wreathed round with griglan blossoms. The pretty little soul was wrigan her hands and cryan, 'Oh! my dear and tender Skillywidden; wherever can’st a be gone to? Shall I never cast eyes on thee any more, my only joy?' 'Now go ’e back, do,' says Bob to the children, 'my dad and man are come here too!' On the same breath he called out, 'Here I am, mammy.' By the time he said 'Here I am,' the little man and woman, with the precious Skillywidden, were no more to be seen, and they have never ben seen there since.
"The children got a good threshan for leavan Skillywidden get away, and serve them right, for ef they had kept an in tell night, he would have shown their daddy where plenty of crocks of gold are buried, and all of them would be gentry now."
"Old tinners will have it," continued Mathy, "that underground spriggans are nothing more than the sperats of the Jews who used to work the bals. I know the first verse of an old song about King John and the Jews. Here it is:
"Captn., ded ’e ever know one to see the knacker workan under ground?" asked Jack. "Ded I ever know one! I have, known scores of tinners, in my time, my son, who have seen the little buccas workan
away, or settan down for touch-pipe, and the men liked to see them too, because et es a sure sign that, wherever they are seen or heard, the lode es rich ahead. Many a good tribute-pitch I have found by the sound of the knackers; for, wherever there es good ground, one es sure to hear the sound of their picks.
"Why I ought to know somethan about them, for I once seed three workan away as plain es I now see thee, my dear, settan upon the chimley-stool weth thy pipe in thy mouth. When I was twenty years younger I worked in Balleswidden for a spell. I always worked on tribute when I could; that suited me better than wages, for, work or play, I was then my own master.
"One night I was workan away for dear life, the sweat going over me like rain. I was in good heart, because for every stroke of my tool I heard three of four clicks from the knackers, workan away ahead of me. By the sound they seemed to be very near. My head ached, and my back too, when I said to myself, 'I'll only break a foot or two more and touch pipe a bit.' After a few strokes the ground crumbled down loose and easy, and I found that I had broken into a vug (an aperture in a lode, frequently lined with crystals and of capacious size). My eyes were dazzled at fust with the glistening of the bunches of diamonds and crystals of all colours which hung down from the roof and surrounded the sides of this sawn in the lode, which I came on just like as when one do break a spar stone and find, sometimes, the clearest Cornish diamonds in the middle of en. When I rubbed my eyes and looked sharper into the inner end there I spied three of the knackers. They were no bigger, either one of them, than a good sixpenny doll; yet in their faces, dress, and movements, they had the look of hearty old tinners. I took the most notice of the one in the middle. He was settan down on a stone, his jacket off and his shirt-sleeves rolled up. Between his knees he held a little anvil, no more than an inch square, yet as complete as any you ever seed in a smith's shop. In his left hand he held a boryer, about the size of a darning-needle, which he was sharpan for one of the knackers, and the other was waitan his turn to have the pick he held in his hand new cossened, or steeled.
"When the knacker-smith had finished the boryer to his mind, he rested the end of the hammer-hilt on the anvil and looked out towards me.
"'What cheer, comrade,' says he; 'I couldn't think where the cold wind was coman from, and my light es blown out.' 'Aw! good mornan, es that you? how are ’e, an?' says I; 'and how is all the rest of your family? How glad I am to see ’e; I'll fetch ’e my candle in a wink, that you may see better; your own es too small,' says I to am, 'for to stand the draft I've left into your shop, but I'll give ’e a pound of my candles, my dear, with all my heart I will, ef you have a mind to have them.'
"In less than no time I turned round again weth my candle in my hand. And what dost a thing, Jan? When I looked again into the vug there wasn't one of the knackers to be sen nor their tools neither. 'Arrea than!' says I, 'where are a gone to, an, in such a hurry? One might think you wed be glad to shake a paw with an old comrade, who had been workan on the same lode weth ’e for months past.' I heard them, away somewhere in the lode ahead, tee-hee-an, fust; then squeakan like youn rabbits that whitnecks (weasels) had got by the throat. 'Well,' says I, 'you are very unsociable like, seeman to me,—you little old smoke-dried hook-nosed, goggle-eyed Jews that you are. I s’pose you are vexed because I've broken into your pretty workshop. Well, I dont' care of you are,' thought I, and weth all the Cornish diamonds and other beautiful stones round this I shall make a good penny, and I ded too, by sellan them to the gentry, who will give any money sometimes for what they cale specimens. But lots of the best of the diamonds that I found then are down in that bal now, covered up with the deds, because I hided away the finest and clearest crystals tel there was a good chance to take them away, and the cappens know nothan about at, but before the chance came I lost and forgot them, among so much stuff as was thrown back.
"What dost a say Jack, 'How did the knackers get away?' Well, how should I know that, or how they got there either, any more than how a toad to get into the middle of a rock, scores of fathoms underground. There es no satisfaction in life in tellan a story to such a doubting Jack as thee art. Have faith in what older people tell thee; for that es nothan to the wenders I have sen, and hope to see agen before die."
Every night Uncle Mathy would talk of the small folks and buried treasures, till he fell asleep, and then he would be sure to dream of some particular place, about the old castles, or quoits, where the gold was to be found. At last he got so crazy about the matter that, when he dreamed three nights following of the same place, he would steal away some night as soon as the moon was in the second quarter (that being the time for good luck) wander miles away over the hills, with pick and shoul on his shoulder, to dig round the quoits, or castles. Choon, Carn Galva, and Bossigran were all tried in turn. He always contrived, when he could, to pass over Burn Downs at midnight, that he might touch the Witches’ Rock and go round it nine times, to be safe from bad luck. In the morning, by break of day, he would come down to the moors, so tired he could hardly drag his legs after him, and often as wet as a shag.
Whether he ever found a crock of money or no wasn't known to many. Some say that he did, and sold the old coins to the Jews.
He had in his possession some queer old green pieces, on which was stamped the figure of a head wearing a crown with long spikes on it; the coin was rough round the edge, just like a deaden bullet beaten flat with a hammer. If he didn't find money, says the old tinner, I know
he found the rheymaticks, and then he thought himself bewitched and his cattle too. The few cows that An Jone and the maidens looked after, were gone to skin and bone; in the little poor quillets, never dressed nor tilled, there was scarcely grass to keep a goat alive; the poor cows, do what they would, couldn't make much milk out of the thistles, gadjevraws (ox-eyes, daisies), and furse, that had overgrown the ground. They were for ever rearing calves, and nothing to keep the young cattle half the year, but what they could pick up about the lanes or in other persons’ ground. The old woman and children were, great part of the time, racing all over the country after their strayed yearlings. The hedges of the crofts were, all round, full of gaps; and, as a bad hedge makes a breachy beast, no fence that a greyhound could get over would stop Captn’ Mathy's cattle out of the neighbours’ grass, or corn; and, as es well known, nobody up in that country (where the cow starved in the church-yard, broke into the belfry, and ate the bell-rope of straw), have anything to spare from their own cattle.
Mathy's cows were most gone to sew (dry) and the young cattle were so often beaten and bruised, by those on whose fields they trespassed, that the poor wisht-looking things always seemed to be pining away from their legs. Math was sure some of the neighbours had ill-wished them, and the cows and hisself. He would serve them out for et, that he would, before many days. He said he would give An Magge a golden guinea to make them all wish their cake dough, who had begridged, overlooked, or ill-wished his stock.
In a hollow, almost surrounded by the carns of Zennor cliffs, and not far from the hamlet of Treen, there was a solitary hut, which had been built near an old boujey (sheep-fold and shed). This lonely dwelling, hidden amongst the huge rocks, would not be noticed by the one who passed the cliff unless the attention were arrested by the smoke which arose amidst the rude earns or by the numerous sheep, goats, and poultry about the rocks, and on pools formed by the brook which flowed down the little glen. At this time an elderly dame lived here with no other company than a great number of tame animals. By many of these she was always surrounded when in her dwelling, and was usually attended by half a dozen sheep, as many kids or goats, dogs, cats, tame hares, and poultry, when she walked out.
At times, many visitors came to this out-of-the way dwelling, because the elderly woman who resided there was one of the most noted wise women, or white witches, of the northern parishes. She had charms for all kinds of skin diseases, salves for wounds and bruises, water of her own distilling for tender eyes and mullygrubbs, besides some nostrum for most other disorders then known. This charmer, in her character
of white-witch, also professed to be able to put a spell of pain on anyone (though unknown to her) who illwished, begrudged, or overlooked (blighted with the evil eye) any person or anything, so as to make the illwisher confess and lift, that is dispel, the evil from the blighted object, in order to be released from the pain inflicted by the wise woman or those who follow her instructions. When the illwishers were known to her, she had the skill to make an image of them in wax, and, by means of this effigy, she would punish them to her heart's content, or to the satisfaction of those who employed her. She also knew all about the lucky and unlucky times, and enough of the black art to become a witch if she had a mind to. This step she sometimes threatened to take if provoked beyond endurance. On the whole this aged charmer was more feared than loved by many of her neighbours.
The dame, then only known as An (aunt) Maggey, or Marget the witch, belonged to one of the old, decayed, poor, and proud families of Morvah, who disowned her because, when only in her teens, she had wedded with a brisk young sailor who was killed, in an engagement on board the privateer, or as some say, pirate ship, which he commanded. Then the sorrow-stricken woman made her habitation amidst the rocks of Zennor cliff. The poor widow's maiden name was Margaret D——. This decayed family was, a century or so ago, connected by marriage with all the ancient blood of the West. On two or three particular times in every year the old lady might still be seen, dressed out in all the grandeur of her youthful days. On these rare occasions she was visited by many who had been the cherished friends of her youth, and the greatest part of them claimed cousin-ship to the poor old lady. Capt. Mathy was one of the favoured, who always visited Margaret on these occasions; he had been her lover's comrade until the latter left, with a roving commission, for the high seas.
Why she kept these tides no one knew but the few intimate friends who were admitted to see her. Perhaps these days were hearts’ festivals for the poor lone women, when, for a time, she was cheered by the remembrance of former joys. Anyone who had the rare chance to behold An Marget then, however, would see her attired in a blue silk gown almost thick enough to stand on end. The open front of the trailing, robe-like gown showed a quilted petticoat of white satin, half concealed by an apron of muslin. which was so skilfully embroidered with Margaret’s own needle that it looked like the richest old-fashioned lace. The quilting of the petticoat was done with chain-stitch of blue silk. In the middle of each raised square was a sprig of some dainty little blue flower, all worked in silks of the natural colours of the stem, leaves, and blossoms; each sprig of the same size yet of different kind of flowers and work. A running pattern of wild rose sprays and convolvulus surrounded the bottom. On her arms she wore long netted silk gloves, reaching to the elbows, there met by lace ruffles which hung far below her waist. Her
silver-grey hair, raised from her forehead on cushions, was crowned with a lace cap like a fairy web. Then she wore amber beads on her neck, diamond rings, on her fingers, and silver buckles shone in her velvet shoes. On all ordinary occasions she wore the same simple dress as other cottagers round.
A lady, who frequently visited poor Margaret, (who was also related to her) told of another dress which she often wore. This was of fine white linen, printed with a running pattern of flowers and foliage, the colours of which were all so bright and natural that the fine white holland appeared to be covered with wreaths of convolvulus, pimpernel, roses, pinks, lilies, cowslips, speedwell, and other tiny wild blossoms most artfully entwined. With this summer's dress she wore a round white satin hat, garlanded with rare flowers. This small flat hat was jauntily placed on one side the raised hair, and fastened to it by jewel-headed pins, stuck through the cushion. There were lace ruffles and all the other accessories.
The hut in which the dame lived, with her lambs, kids, cats, tame hares, and poultry (besides the robins, wrens, and sparrows, which nested under the thatched roof) was only just large enough to hold her turn (spinning-wheel), table, high-backed carved oak chair, a few stools, and opposite the door, her dresser, which was the pride of the old lady's heart. On the few blue-painted shelves were arranged, with the greatest care and an eye to effect, many rare pieces of old china, earthenware of brilliant colours and of graceful or grotesque forms, besides many singularly-shaped glasses of all hues; these her roving lover had brought her from abroad.
Over the fire-place were a large bright warming-pan and hour-glass, foreign shells, coral, and many other fancy things, brought her from distant lands, by the young mariner for whose love she had forsaken her home and proud kinsfolks long ago. An Maggey's bed, large carved oak chest, small treadle-turn for spinning thread, and a few others things, were placed on a talfat which extended over half the length of the hut. A little window, a few inches wide and a foot or so high, at the head of the old dame's bed, always stood open—that she might hear, she said, the voice of her sailor, V—— in the roar of the billows, the murmur of the waves, and the calling of the cleves.
Whatever converse she might have held with the spirit of the departed through the little open window, the robins and wrens made good use of it to pass in and out at their pleasure, to their nests beneath Margaret’s roof, and a swarm of bees, from the garden below, had found their way through it and made their habitation in the angle of the punion under the roof. The honeycombs hanging from rafters and key-beams, were within reach from the floor. Everything about the place was as clean as
clean could be, and as sweet as the roses, pinks, and thyme in the garden beside the door, notwithstanding her large family of pet animals.
The dame made the principal part of her livelihood by spinning and knitting. She made better thread for saddlers and shoemakers than they could get elsewhere. As she had abundance of good bog-turf (peat) and furze for fuel, and a great quantity of mint, savoury, and other herbs in her garden, she made excellent still-waters, and good cordials by distilling fermented wort with aromatic herbs, and her sweet drink (mead) prepared from the purest of honey and richest of spices, was the best of all her cordials. Besides these resources, she had always abundance of poultry, and the folks who came to be charmed, or to be benefited in other ways by her more mysterious arts of white witchcraft, though they never gave her money (that would spoil the charm) always left on the rock outside the door, good offerings of provisions, wool, flax, corn for her poultry, and other goods, which those who came to consult the wise woman thought she might require.
What seemed the strangest of all the dame's freaks was a fondness for using firearms. They say that, when young, she was a capital shot, and in all weathers went out hunting with her brothers, or other sportsmen, none of whom would kill more game than Margaret. When she settled in the lone hut, often of a winter's day, she alight be seen, with a man's coat and hat on, stalking over the cliff, or moors, to get a shot at the wild fowl. At other times she would amuse herself, for hours together, with a brace of old horse-pistols, in firing ball at the target she made of her outhouse door. The young tinners, who often came down of a summer's evening to have a shooting-match with An Meg, supplied her with plenty of powder and the lead, from which she moulded the bullets and cast the shot, or rather slugs, for herself and the boys. And, as Jan Tregear said, the goats, dogs, and even the hares, seemed to like the sport, for they would crowd round as if they enjoyed the smoke and noise. The vagaries of the dame were not thought so very strange a century or so ago, when the ladies took as much, or more, delight in the sports of the field, and other outdoor exercises, as the men do now. Many thought it likely enough that the old lady might be "a little touched in the head," as her grandmother or her great-granny was one of an ancient family, many of whom were remarkable for their flighty ways, which every now and then (from grandfather to grandson in general) culminated in downright madness.
This family, notwithstanding their spice of insanity, produced many learned astrologers, who, however, do not seem to have profited much by their science, as they failed to secure Alverton, and other of their ancient possessions, to their descendants, some of whom still claim to be legal heirs to this property.
Though An Maggey was feared by many, and loved by few except by the children of the neighbours round and the old friends of her youth, Captn. Mathy and the wise dame were always wonderfully thick; so, when he took it into his head that he and his cattle were bewitched, off he went to consult her. An Marge told him that it was no wonder if his young cattle were ill-wished every hour in the day, because they were as breachy as goats; half the time they were never spanned and in other people's fields. One could hardly help ill-wishing the things that were for ever troubling. And as for himself, she said that he brought the aches and pains in his limbs by hunting for gold when he should have been in his bed, and, as he knew that if anyone had ill-wished his cattle, in the black minute, their curse would not fall to the ground, he might find out the ill-wishers, if he would make use of the bottle of water in the way she had told him, so as to give them such pains as would make them confess and consent to raise the spell.
Mathy determined to bury the bottle, as directed by the wise woman. Then he wished Margaret good night, saying he should see her again soon.
"I wish ’e well till I see ’e again, Mathy," said she, "but one can hardly blame the neighbours for ill-wishing ’e. I am sorry for the cattle, poor things; but you know very well, Mathy, and everyone else who know ’e, that, at times (always when you haven't your own way) you are as cross a devil as ever lived, and I advise ’e, like a sister, give up steaming and smuggling, and stay at home to till the land, that the half-starved cattle may have something to eat. I wish ’e well. And don't cork the bottle too tight, for fear of what may happen."
Captn. Mathy took the bottle of water from the ill-wished cattle down to the moor-house, and buried it under the tin, that it might be close at hand, to be quickly uncorked should anyone be in extremis. An Joney, the captn’s wife, found out what had been done by the directions of Marget. Without delay, she spoke of it to another dame, her next neighbour, and begged her not to say anything about it. Before Joney left the door, the woman to whom she told the secret felt herself ailing in a queer way; and as soon at Joney was out of sight, the gossiping dame went round and told the secret, and how she felt herself ailing, to every other woman in Treen.
"Good lord," said they all, "we don't know, any of us, but we may have ill-wished the cussed breachy things in the evil hour and minutes, and now we shall all suffer—God knows what—through the scheming of old Marget and he."
Scores in the parish knew they had often ill-wished and ill-used the troublesome cattle, which were always ranging about and no one to keep them to stays. Mathy so frightened many of the self-accused ill-wishers,
particularly the women, by threatening what he and An Marget would do by them, if they didn't confess and do all they could to break their spell, and that before the day was over scores believed they felt the pains which they say are sure to follow when such measures are taken
As one fool makes many, in a few days, whenever the women round met at the mill or market, they talked of nothing else but the pains some were suffering for having ill-wished Captn' Mathy's cattle, and the fancy seemed to spread among them like the plague; for those who listened no sooner heard the pains described than they felt the very same. Before a week was over half the women in Zennor, and many of the men, felt as if they had a spell put on them, and, in the gloom of the evenings, when the streamers had left work and most of them gone home, troops of women might be seen slowly beating their way down over the moors, through brambles, furze, and bots, to see Captn. Mathy, confess that they had ill-wished his cattle, and beg that the bottle might be uncorked for they were ready to burst.
"No, you black witches, you shall suffer longer yet, for bewitching me and ill-wishing my cattle," was the only answer they got.
At last the men, belonging to the self-accused witches, threatened that they would all come down in a body, and burn the moor-house and Mathy in it, if the women didn't get the relief they wanted. They would come down, they swore, in force strong enough to thrash him and all his smuggling crew. And sure enough, one evening, about dusk, when the Ludgvan men were, some of them, taking off their high streamers’ boots, making ready to go home, and consulting together whether they hadn't better remain with the old Captn. for fear of what the Zennor goats might, in their madness, take it into their heads to do (they had a quantity of goods about; besides all, the streamers left in the moor-house the long boots they wore when working knee deep in the water; these were as high as seamen's boots and cost little short of three pounds a pair) one of the men called Curnow, who lived down near Terrassow, some miles away, said he very much wanted to go home that night, and before he took off his heavy boots, to put on lighter gear for walking in, he stepped out to take a look round. In a few minutes he was in again.
"Now no fuss nor noise, my boys," says he, "but be quick and load all the old muskets with a slight charge of powder, small shot, and peas; put a heavier charge, and more lead, in the new fowling-pieces. The pistols are all right. We shall have some fun, for I be cussed ef there esen't some scores coman down the moors within gunshot carryan on their backs burns of furze, and some are skulking down by the fowling-pool to see who of us is about, thinkan no doubt that all of us, except the Captn. and Jack, are off home. You leave them to me, Captn.," says Curnow, "we will set the door open for them, and we waun't give them any shot, unless we are forced to, for fear of hurting the women among
them. Yet we arn’t going to be beaten either. No, it shall never be said the 'Ludgvan Hurlers' were thrashed by a set of 'Zennor Goats.'"
The moor-house was rather dark, because all the portholes, which served also for windows, were bunged up with wads of ferns or rushes, to keep out the cold, except two or three near the chimney.
"By the time we had the guns charged," said Jan Tregear, "about three score or more, the greatest number of them women, came within a hundred yards of the house, and in front of the door. Here they threw into a heap nearly a wainload of furze." Curnow placed himself to sit on the side of the bunk or bed opposite the open door, that he might watch their proceedings. The Zennor folks talked all together a few minutes; then one of them took from his picket a tinder-box, struck a light, and fixed a candle in a lantern.
Next, Uncle Dick Thomas, a near neighbour and cousin to the Captn., came within a few yards of the door, and called out "Mathy, boy! art thee in there, Mathy, or where art ah?" No speak with the Captn. Uncle Dick now came nearer to the door, and several of the rest followed close on his heels, drawing the faggots of furze with them.
"Now, I tell thee," says the leader of the Zennor men, "thee may’st see that we are in downright earnest, and unless thee dost come out, unbury, and smash to shreds that damned bottle, we will burn thy moor-house and thee too, that we will; and ef thy cowardly Ludgvan crew had been weth thee, we'd serve tham all the same, that we wed, wedn as comrades? Thee wesn’t so much as speak to us! I'll come in this minnat and drag thee out by the scruff of the neck, that I will. I'm coman to thee." "Look sharp boys! Keep close behind me! We'll get some of their liquor or es much to me!" says Uncle Dick, in a whisper to his crew.
Before the streamers’ captain had time to think what to do, the Treen men's champion, with a thick stick in his hand, stooped down, bent most in double, as was necessary to enter the low doorway.
Uncle Dick no sooner poked his head over the drussel (door-sill) than Cornow rose from the bed, where he had been quietly watching, spun round, and gave Uncle Dick a back kick, ar as we say a poot, right on the crown of his head, with his heavy iron-plated boot, and sent his sprawling on the cawnse outside the door.
"I am very weel I thank ’e! How are you Richard? I hope you haven't hurt your horns, have ’e my old buck?" says Curnow: "dear me, how dedn’t ’e stoop lower; you are too proud, you are! Uncle Dick do ’e happen to have in your pocket a pipeful of the tobacca you brought away from the last burran (burial) you went to, away over in Gulval or some place where they still make good funerals? And ded ’e well fill your pockets with biske, to carry home to the children? And how often
ded ’e change your place among the ring of people out of the town-plat that you might drink twice or three times to every other body's once, when the toddy (grog) was carried round the pile of tin, the water turned out, and all were satisfied. No, you dedn’t help the poor people to carry the corpse over the hills to church-town, ded ’e, after you had busted yourself on toddy and cake, and stuffed a few ounces of shag in the palm of your hand instead of the bowl of you pipe, and pocketed pipe and all! One might hear ’e for miles away, coman home so jolly, singan, "Here's a health to the baarley now," to the tune of the Old Hundred.
Next, up carne, with a gurze-pike (fork) in his hand, Tom, the son of the man laid sprawling on the cawnse. Curnow settled him in the same way as he had served his dad.
"Ah! es that you, Tom? how are ’e, my son? Weren't ’e tired agan you got back to the hills t’other night weth the great sack of apples you stole from Trassow orchard?"
Whilst the back kicks and banter were going on, the folks outside still thought there was no person in the moor-house but the Captn. and his mate Jack Tregear, who was well up to banter; and, thinking Mathy was only laughing at them, the women brought the faggots close round the house, under the eaves of the thatch, took the candle from the lantern and set the furze on fire, when one of those within, seeing what they were up to, seized an old musket loaded with peas, and let fly among them. The woman ran away howling that they were all killed dead; "and faith," says Jan, "we gave chase and well peppered some of them."
The streamers rushed out of the moor-house just in time to drag the blazing faggots away from under the eaves of the thatched roof. The affray was now getting serious, for the Ludgvan men, sallying out in chase of their besiegers, were again going to fire on them, when they saw the parson of Gulval and some other gentlemen, who had been up hunting on the hills, approach the fleeing Zennor folks. The gentlemen having heard the firing and seen the crowd of women in the moors, came down to know what was going on. The parson's common sense enabled him to understand, that the self-accused ill-wishers were suffering more from illusory fears than from any bodily ailment. "Yet," he said, "the old wives’ fancies are no more to be trifled with than any other contagious disease."
The hunters advised both parties to make the matter up. They were both to blame. The Captn. should keep his fences in repair and his stock from trespassing on his neighbours; and they, in turn, had ill-used the poor beasts, and what some called an evil conscience was making cowards and fools of them all.
After much good advice from the preaching hunters, Mathy consented to produce the bottle and break it before their eyes, that all might see
the result, if they chose. A large case-bottle, which contained water from all the diseased animals, was then dug out of
On the evening of the attack on the moorhouse, several persons, who were neither so weak or wicked-minded as the company of ill-wishers’ came down to the streamwork, out of curiosity, to see what would take place,—among others a young woman called Mary Polteer, who lingered until after the crowd of distressed ones had departed, that she might tell Captn. Mathy how she became aware that some mischief was brewing for Margaret, because Old Katey the Kite (a small farmer's wife of Treen) had been going round the parish telling everyone that Margaret was a rank black witch and nothing better—she could be sworn that her dairy, and everything in the house was bewitched, since she refused to leave Old Mag have a pint of cream from the pan before it came in turn to be unreamed (skimmed).
"Now it happened in this way," says the mistress of the dairy. "One day, a few months ago, Old May came up for a pound of butter to pay for some spinning work she had done for me. When the old jade tasted the butter (as good a butter as ever was made), she spat et out agen, and said, 'Why, this butter, of one can cale et butter forsooth, es sour and stinkan and too salt by half! The cream,' says she, 'es left twice too long on the milk weth this hot weather, but if you like I will take a pint of cream, that haven't been scalded more then four-and-twenty hours, instead of the butter.' Well, I was vexed when I answered her that neither for the devil, nor for the devil's dame, wed I unream a pan of milk before the proper time. 'You waan’t, waan’t ’e?' says Old Mag, goan backward and shakan her bony finger at me. Before another moon you shall wish you had, that you shall.' She mumbled much more to herself, that I couldn't make out. I told her I dedn’t fear her, the black witch, and took the fire-shovel of humers (embers) and throwed at her, but there didn't a spark reach her." (if you can throw fire over a witch that will break the spell they say.) "The old witch turned again, called me a dirty, greedy slut, and said, 'Thee shust rue the day that thee hast refused me a cup of cream; though a pig must have a good stomach to eat en out of thy spence, that do smell as bad of train as a stinkan fish sellar, with the pots of rusty pilchards and other lumber under the benches.' She said much more, mumblan to herself, like all the old witches do, than I could make out. Well, as true as we stand here, from that day to this I have found nothing but bad luck in the house, and haven't been able to make a bit of sweet butter for the summer. One day the milk will turn all to wey and cruds (curds) when over scaldan; the next all es gone sour in the pans, and no more cream on them than I can hold in my hand. Cuss the black witch! I don't fear her neither. As for the buck (fermentation) why for more than a week runnan the milk will be foaman over the pans and not a midgan of cream to be seen. When all the time there's no buck in other people's dairies, and how often the cow have kicked the bucket
[paragraph continues] I can't tell thee. Our boy Honney's wife and I have agreed that we will go down soon, and bring blood from old Mag, ef we run a pin in her arm to the bone." (If you don't fear a witch, and can bring blood from her, that too will break the spell, they say.)
"Well, and thee art in the right too," says Gracey Winkey, the dame who was listening to old Katey.
"I don't know," says Jan Tregear, "what her right name was; I believe I never heard, any more than that of old Katey. I only know that everybody called her Gracey Winkey, because she was always blinkan her peepers. Why there are so many of one name up there in the high countries that they have to give each other necknames to know who is meant, and one is sure to remember them when the neck-names seem suitable, as they, for the most part, are. Old Katey the Kite was all legs and wings, weth a hooked bill. Her old Timdoodle of a husband was always goan about puffed up like a sellack, and everybody called am Old Blue-Bird; and Gracey's old lutterpooch (lazy sloven), was known to everyone as Tom the Grunter."
"I will go down why (with ye), for sure as I'm alive," says Gracey, "my ducks are begrudged by old Mag, and all because I wedden’t save for her a settan of ducks’ eggs, when my old hen had been cluckan for weeks and I'd no eggs to put under her. 'A may be you will wish you had,' mumbled Old Mag, as she crossed the drussel (door sill). Now before the ducks had laid half the eggs I wanted, the mollard (drake) was straddelan about like a toad weth a broken back, all the settan of eggs went addle under the hin, and no hin can set better than our old coppy, for she most starved herself to death on the nest; her eggs were never cold. And a es my belief that out Tom's maid, Cherry, es bewitched to—the poor wisht-lookan creater that she es! How else shud she be so queer in the head, and havan fits now, any more than other times, years agone? We have done all we can to cure her of the fits. She have begged a penny a piece from twenty-seven young men to buy a selver ring to cure her. She may wear the ring, or lev at alone, the fits come all the same. And we have made her do other things that everybody says es good for curean fits."
Katey now joined in:—"We will go down one evnan, the five of us, your Tom and our Jan shall go too, and pass the cheeld, poor deer, across the fire; that's the surest way to break the spell and unbewitch her." Katey the Kite continued to say, "All that old Mag do keep the hares for es that she may take their shape by night and prowl about unbeknown to anybody. Haven't more than one gave chase to a hare that no dogs can ever catch, and, when last sen to jump in through the winder of old Mag's spence, nothan like a hare was found there, inside the dwellan, bot only the old witch gaspan for breath?"
Another woman, who joined the dames, declared that more than one cheeld had been born in the parish, with a hare-lip, all through the fright given by old Mag's hares when they crossed the women's path, in spite of the mother's smock beean rented from bottom to top.
Mary further informed the Captn. that, before the three dames parted, they were joined by several others who had all made up their minds that Margaret was more of a black witch than a white one, and all agreed they would go down and make her quail and break the spells of bad luck. "Else," sai they, "ef nothan else will do we must, One and Ale, go over to Helston for the Pellar."
Now the tinner went on to say, as Mathy well knew that Mary Polteer and Margaret had always ben stanch friends, he (Mathy) told the young woman to be sure to keep her eyes and ears open, to find out what was going on among them; and, as fools and cheldran tell the truth, they say, by means of Cherry, and the young fry, she could know what was planned, and send him word in time to prevent more mischief, for he well knew that ef Margaret had powder and lead by her she would be like enow to give some to the first who entered her dwelling against her will.
One afternoon, a few days after the siege of the moor-house, about an hour before sunset, the streamers saw An Joan, the Captn.’s wife, coman down the moors, in great haste, and beckonan the men to come to her. "Run down to the cliff, do, Mathy, and three or four of the rest of ’e; run quick, or they will tear Marget lem from lem; for Mary found out how, this evenan, Katey the Kite, Gracey Winkey, and three or four other women, and some men, agreed to bring blood from Marget and lift the maid Cherry across the fire. Take your cudgels, or guns, and run boys, run, to keep the villans from Marget. She es no more a witch than I am; she's only a little cracked to think herself one sometimes, and now the moon es near the full."
The streamers armed themselves with sticks, and went off to the cliff, by the shortest cut, as fast as they could lay feet to ground.