Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 1, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
Though Mathy lived many miles from Margaret’s new dwelling, he often came to visit her that he might keep her garden-ground in order (as he said), but more for the sake of a gossip about old times. He gave up his share of the stream-work, and had but little more to do with smuggling. The stream-work was kept by the smugglers more for its convenience in their contraband dealings than for the sake of the tin. Soon after the old Captn. stayed at home to cultivate his little quillets,—barley, oats, and pillas, ever (rye-grass), and clover, were seen on his ground in place of brambles, furze, griglans (heath), and gadjevraws (ox-eye daisies). His cattle, having abundance of food, kept to their own bounds, and but little troubled the neighbours. And Mathy lived in such a sober, respectable way, that we never heard of him but once more;—that was on the occasion of his yearly visit to the Pellar of Helston.
According to ancient usage, the folks from many parts of the west country make their annual pilgrimage to some white witch of repute, for the sake of having what they call "their protection renewed." The spring is always chosen for this object, because it is believed that when the sun is returning the Pellar has more power to protect them from bad luck than at any other season.
As the Captn. was rather prone to indulge in a little too much drink at such times, Aunt Joan persuaded her spouse to take along with him Jan Tregear, that he might see the old man safe home: she couldn't well go herself; besides, the good man much preferred her room to her company on such an occasion, when he was sure to meet with many old cronies all as fond of a drop as himself.
There used to be rare fun among the folks in going to the conjuror in the spring, when they were sure to meet, at the wise man's abode, persons of all ages and conditions, many from a great distance. Then the inhabitants of the Scilly Isles came over in crowds for the purpose of consulting the white witches of Cornwall, and that they might obtain their protection, charms, spells, and counter-spells. Many of the captains
of vessels, belonging to Hayle, St. Ives, and Swansea, often visited the Pellar before they undertook a voyage, so that, with seaman and tinners, there was sure to be great variety in the company.
The Captn. and Jan started from Zennor, the master carrying before him a quarter of pork, and the man riding on a sack of corn, some hours before the break of day. They left thus early, not so much for the sake of arriving betimes at the Pellar's abode, as for keeping the when and where of the conjuror a secret from the neighbours, many of whom were become so wise in their own conceit as to laugh at the ancient custom, even when they often resorted to the same practices themselves whenever bad luck assailed them.
Though they arrived at the Pellar's by the middle of the forenoon, such a crowd was already assembled that they waited long before their turn came to be admitted to the presence of the wise man. The conjuror received the people and their offerings, singly, in the room by courtesy styled the hale (hall). Few remained closeted with him more than half-an-hour, during which time some were provided with little bags of earth, teeth, or bones taken from a grave. These precious relics were to be worn, suspended from the neck, for the cure of prevention of fits, and other mysterious complaints supposed to be brought on by witchcraft. Others were furnished with a scrap of parchment, on which was written the ABRACADABRA or the following charm:—
SATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, ROTAS.
These charms were enclosed in a paper, curiously folded like a valentine, sealed and suspended from the neck of the ill-wished, spellbound, or otherwise ailing person. The last charm is regarded as an instrument of great power, because the magical words read the same backwards as forwards. A gritty substance called witch-powders, that looked very much like pounded brick, was also given to those who required it. An aged crone of the pellar blood, mother or sister of the white witch in chief, received some of the women upstairs to cure such of the least difficult cases, as simple charming would effect; but the greatest part of them preferred the man, as his charms only were powerful enough to unbewitch them.
Instead of the earthy powder, some are furnished with a written charm, which varies according to the feelings of the recipients. Most of the very religious folks have a verse of scripture, concluded with the comfortable assurance that, by the help of the Lord, the White Witch hopes to do them good.
But those who have no particular religious sentiments he furnishes with a charm, of which the following is a literal copy:
On one side of a bit of paper, about an inch and a half by one inch,
Here follows a picture of what must have been the conjuror's own creation, as such an object was never seen by mortal eyes in the heavens above, the earth beneath, nor in the waters under the earth. The only object we can compare it to is a something which is a cross between a headless cherub and a spread-eagle. Underneath what might have been intended for angel or bird, there is an egg, on which the creature appears to be brooding. There is another egg at the extremity of one of the outstretched legs of the creature. This picture, which is the most singular part of the charm, can only be represented by the aid of the pencil. The word
is under it. On the reverse,
HAVE MERCY ON A POOR WOMAN.
From the worn condition of the charm (which had been in use many years before it came into our hands) it is difficult to make out the writing.
Another amulet, which is commonly given by the Pellar to his patients, to be worn suspended from the neck, is a small bag of earth taken from a man's grave.
Besides the above-mentioned precious charms, the Pellar gives his neophytes powders, to throw over their children, or cattle, to preserve them against witchcraft, ample directions as to the lucky and unlucky times, and a green salve, which is said to be an excellent healing ointment. I have talked with many who have visited the Pellar every spring, for years running, that they might get their protection renewed. Yet there is no finding out all that takes place at the time of this important pilgrimage, as the directions are given to each individual separately, and all are bound to preserve the greatest secrecy about some portion of the charm, or it will do no good.
Others were supplied with blood stones, milpreves, or snake-stones, and other trumpery, manufactured by the pellar family, to be worn as amulets. The blue-stone rings, in which some fancied they saw the figure of an adder, or when marked with yellow veins the pattern of a snake, were particularly prized, because it was believed that those who wore them were by that means safe from being h armed by any reptile of the serpent tribe, and that man or beast, bit and envenomed, being given some water to drink, wherein this stone had been infused, would perfectly recover of the poison. The amulets, reliques, and charms supplied by the white witch served to tranquillize the diseased fancy as well as the bread pills, coloured waters, and other innocent compounds of more
fashionable practitioners, or the holy medals and scapulars of other professors. There are no new notions under the sun; the only difference is the fashion in which they are disguised.
As Captn, Mathy brought the Pellar a liberal offering he was favoured with an hour of the conjuror's valuable time.
"Come, Jan, boy," said the Captn., as he came out of the Peliar's sanctum, well satisfied, "let’s be off homeward. I wish ’e well, friends, and good luck to ’e all."
They soon arrived at the old wayside public-house near what is now called the Buck's-head. Here, many other pilgrims to the Pellar were collected, that they might bait themselves and their beasts.
After dinner, the afternoon was spent in telling witch stories. Everyone present had many cases, each within his own experience, to vouch for. They compared the merits of the different conjurors of repute, and all agreed that none could surpass the Pellar of Helston. Not even the "cunning man" of Bodmin nor the "white witch of Exeter" could possess more power to lift a spell or to punish a witch, or to find out who had stolen whatever was missed, and to put out the thief's eye.
’Twas long after dark when Mathy and Jan left the inn. Then the old Captn. was pretty well slewed (drunk), yet not so far gone but that he could sit on horseback and keep his tongue going. After jogging along a mile of two, the Captn, said, "Jacky, boy, I'm afraid I mayn't remember all the conjuror told me to do; so now I'll tell ’e some things, and mind thee doesn’t forget. The powder must be thrown over the backs of the cattle, now and then, to prevent bad luck; but, of any spells of witchcraft happed to strike, we must, after sunset, bring the ill-wished beast into a ploughed field, there bleed it on straw, and, as the blood and straw are burning together, the witch will either come bodily into the field or her apparition will appear in the smoke plain enow for us to know her. Many burn a calf alive to save the rest of their stock, and that ensures them from bad luck for seven or nine years, I've forgotten which, the same as bleeding a white hen on a mill-stone once in a while prevents danger from the mill, for they say the mill will have blood every seven years." Yet, with all the free talk about the cattle and charms Mathy, drunk as he was, couldn't be got to say a word about the ceremony which is said to be performed by the pellar, or priest of the old one, to protect the persons of his patients against bad luck for the next year.
There has always been profound secrecy observed respecting some of the proceedings which take place between the white witch and his patients.
Master and man were so deep in the mysteries of witchcraft that they got piskey-led when near St. Erth Praze; and, instead of taking the
road they intended, which would have brought them through St. Erth church-town and out by Treloweth, they found themselves led down to Hayle, and the old mare stopped at the door of the 'Standard' before they discovered that they were on the wrong road.
The old inn, as usual, was all alive with sailors—drinking, singing, dancing, and carousing. Here the Captn. was well known and as good as at home, drinking the brandy with which he and his crew supplied the house. Here they agreed they would rest awhile as the tide would suit for them to cross the sands at any time till nearly daybreak. The jolly jack-tars were delighted with the jovial old buck. He joined in the chorus of the sailors’ roaring songs, or danced as long as he could stand. Nor did Mathy spare the drink. But Jack Gregeer took care to keep pretty fresh, as he was well aware of the danger of crossing Hayle sands then, which was long before the causeway was built across the salt marsh. At that time there was no artificial obstruction to the current which flowed up to St. Erth bridge, and the quicksands, bars, and water-courses, shifting with every tide and wind, made the crossing over to Lelant to be dreaded even in broad daylight and at low water. About an hour before day some men, on their way to work in Copperhouse, told Jan that they had no time to spare, as the tide would soon be in. The smelters came over two hours before work-time, that they might not have to take the journey of several miles round by St. Erth church-town.
Captn. Mathy was mounted and set going with all speed. However drunk he might be he could sit on horseback as steady as an oak, and to all appearances as sober as a judge. The old grey mare, at such times, took her own way, being well aware that she was, then, the wisest of the two. It was clear starlight, and all went right till they were near enough to the red muddy stream coming down from Lelant, to make out the posts and balls, whitewashed, to serve as a guide to persons crossing the sands to the village. Then Jan saw that they were too high up. They hadn't gone many yards farther when the grey mare, determined to keep the lead, to show herself the better horse, soused into a deep pit, which had been washed out by the eddying tide, and was then full of red slime and slush from the stamps and other tin-works up the bottom. The slime reached to the saddle-girths. The old mare grunted and stood still, to think what she had best do next. Mathy was so fast asleep that he only roused with the shock to snore out, "Ah! Jackey boy, so we're come, are es? Dedn't think we should have got home so soon. Now then, I'll get off and tumble into bed alongside of my old ’oman. Drag off my boots a minute, west a, before turn the mare in the craft?"
"Stay where you are, and don't ’e budge for your life," says Jan. "We are still on Hayle sands, the old mare es stuck fast in a slime-pit, and the tide es rising fast."
"Why thee art drunk, or dreaman," the Captn. replied; "here's the old mare stopped at the door, and now I shall get off."
The tide was then flowing in and spreading over the sands like a rapid river. Jack was aware of the danger of delay, but didn't know what way to turn. If the Captn. got off in the mud there he would lie and die. The old mare couldn't get out of the pit with his burthen on her back, and not without help, even when disencumbered. By good luck, Mathy soon fell asleep again; and it was all the same, for all that he cared, whether he was at his own door, or fast in the pit of slime and quicksand, with the tide rising round him.
By good luck, Jan Tregeer saw two men in great haste crossing over the stream, on the stepping-stones a few hundred yards farther down. The sands were two feet under water when Jan called to them "What cheer, comrades? Come and help us, do. Here's Captn. Mathy Thomas fast asleep and dead drunk on his old mare, stuck fast in a pit of slime and quicksand. Corn and help us, do! The mud and sea is above the saddle-girths," "Hold on," replied the men, "we'll get a clue of ropes from the dock, and be to ’e in a crack." The men seeing the only way of getting man and horse out of danger was to unhorse the rider, made a loop in a rope's end, cast it over the Captn's head, pulled him off the mare and out of the slime-pit in a moment. The shaking roused Mathy a little. Whilst one of the men, with Jan, got the mare out of the pit, the other held the old Captn, in a sitting position to keep his head above water, which was two feet deep or more on the level sand. Next, without opening his eyes, he shouted out, "Jacky boy! Jacky boy! woo! Where art a, woo! Strike a light! strike a light! and fry some pork and eggs. I'm hungry and cold rather; and how's the bed so wet as muck?" The Captn. again fell fast asleep by the time he was once more settled on horseback, and beating through the water, now so deep in places as to float the horses with their riders and the two Lelant men holding fast by the stirrups. At last they were all safely landed on the St. Erth shore.
’Twas by a mere cat's jump they got off the sands in time to save themselves from drowning. Many would prefer to swim their horses across at high water(as was then often done), rather than to pass over the sands between Lelant and Treleesec (dwelling on the dry land) or Carnsew (rocks left dry) in that state of the tide. When once more on dry land they passed round the salt-marsh at St. Erth Bridge, and came out into the Penzance and Harle road at Treloweth. It was near sunrise when they arrived at Rose-an-grouse smelting-house. They wer glad enow to rest at the old inn of the "Lamb and Flag." Here the landlady provided them with dry clothes and a good breakfast of pork and eggs, beef-steaks cooked on tin, in the smelting-house close at hand, and many good things besides.
During the day, several persons came to the smelting-house with their tin, which was then mostly carried on horses or pairs of moues (mules). As all the carriers stopped at the public-house, to have a drink
with their pasties, there was a large number assembled at the "Lamb and Flag" by noon, and more continued to arrive. Everyone knew the Captn. and Jan, and all would treat them to drink because they had a narrow escape from the dreaded quicksands of Hayle. Captn. Mathy made light of the matter. It would, we said, have been all right with him and the mare (she knew well enow what to do) if they had been left alone; for as soon as the tide rose high enough she would swim across, as she had often done before now, with half-a-dozen tubs of liquor and he on her back. This he had often done for a wager, or when hard pressed by the riding officer, who seldom ventured to follow Mathy and his mare through the brine. As Captn. Mathy and his man Jan are now as good as at home, we shall wish them fare-well. And what follows is merely an appendage to their story.