Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 1, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
Few who came to the comfortable old inn of the "Lamb and Flag" thought of leaving before night. Witch stories and drolls became the order of the time. Most of these were of the ordinary class, in which man or beast is said to wither, pine, or die, because some malicious neighbour begrudges the possession of the blighted thing. There were, however, a few other stories told which may be worth repeating, as they show how prone our simple country-folks are to think some supernatural agency must be the cause of everything unusual or mysterious, and how, the more particularly in whatever may be regarded as a calamity, the devil and his hags are sure to have the blame attributed to them. The following story (which we select from a number of others told on a like occasion) will serve as an example of this, and that the pellar sometimes endeavoured to serve his clients by more trustworthy means than by his charms, powders, bones, and stones. Perhaps, after all, these fanciful remedies were as good as anything else which is usually prescribed for imaginary ailments. It is well known that the old Pellar of the south-country was as skilful a cow-leech as any then going, and when persons came to him in the belief that because their cattle, by some unaccountable means, didn't thrive, they must be bewitched, he often accompanied them home, and detected the true cause of the disaster.
A young couple (the man a tinner, the woman also worked to bal), after many years of hard work and care in scraping everything together, took a small farm, which they were barely able to stock, and their chief dependance for raising the rent was the profit of three milk cows. About Christmas, the cows were taken to house and kept there on turnips and straw. A few weeks after the cows were taken in, it was found that they left their food, and an unusual stench in the cattle-house was thought to proceed from the diseased kine. One of them soon died, and the others, though all that could be thought of, as likely to entice them to eat, was
placed before them, yet refused corn, hay, and everything else untasted in their cribs. Next, the wife took to her bed;—she did not know what was the matter with her, but felt as if she had neither the power nor the heart to rise. The neighbours advised the farmer, called Tom Treva, to go, without delay, to the conjuror. Someone, they said, had begrudged the land or the cattle, and had bewitched his wife. The man couldn't be persuaded to do anything of the sort;—he had never injured man, woman, or child that he knew of; all the neighbours were on good terms with them; what should he be ill-wished for? And as for begrudging, he didn't fear nor believe in it. Everybody knew it was better to be envied than pitied. But the wife (Molly) would have it that she was illwished, and begrudged to her husband, by the mother of a young woman Tom was once courting of and left for her.
As the young farmer had no peace, with his wife and the other folks, about the witchcraft, he consented to go and see if the conjuror could do them any good. Early in the morning, last thing before starting, he slipped the ropes from the necks of the beasts, and left open the cattle-house door. If they got out and caught cold he thought they would but die a little sooner. They didn't appear able to rise from the straw, and his wife was in bed, seemingly worse than ever when he left home.
The young farmer arrived at the Pellar's abode about noon. The wise man, as usual, asked if he knew of anyone who had a grudge against him. Tom, replied, as he had answered his wife and others before, that he was on good terms with everyone, as far as he knew, and couldn't condemn anybody in his mind for illwishing him or his: his wife he believed to be merely fretting over their loss. The conjuror, wishing to do his best for the young farmer, said he would go home with him and try if he could find out what caused the bad speed.
Now, about the hour that the farmer arrived at the conjuror's, some men, passing through the town-place on their way home from bal, were surprised to see that the two cows, left untied in the house in the morning, were then out in the fold eating from the litter thrown out of the stable—the roots, leaves, and rotten refuse of turnips, anything and everything they could find, like half-starved things.
The tinners went into the house, called up to the woman, who was fast asleep, "Molly, we have good news for ’e; the cows, that were all but dead when your good man started for the conjuror, are now out in the fold eating everything they can find." The goody, on hearing that, thought no more about her illness, but jumped out of bed and came down half-dressed to see the cows. "Now," said they all, "who wouldn't put faith in what the pellar can do? An hour ago, perhaps, not more, your Tom got there and put him to work to undo the spells, and now see, here are you and the cows as well as ever you were in the world. Why the spell is broke as soon as the word is spoken by the pellar's mouth."
[paragraph continues] The cows were turned into a field, and a few turnips given them, which they ate and looked for more.
Towards night, Tom Treva came home with the pellar, found the cows eating heartily from the straw that his wife had given them, and she and several of the neighbours gathered together to behold the wonder. The wise man was regarded by all the assembled multitude with awful respect. Everyone present believed that his conjurations had effected the wonderful change in Tom's wife and cows.
The conjuror took good care not to undeceive them, and declined to say or do anything before those who hadn't paid for his services; but, as soon as the way was clear and the curious neighbours all gone, he took a lanthorn and went into the cattle-house, to look round the place, and more particularly to examine the food which the cows rejected. Though the cows were in the fold and the house clean, yet there was all about the place a sickening stench which seemed to proceed from the old hollow wall, close over the cribs where food was placed for the cows. On nearer inspection he observed a green slimy substance oozing from between the stones and tricking down on the food in the cribs. The pellar, taking a bar of iron, ripped out some of the stones, and there in the hollow of the old wall (from which all the clay filling had long departed) he saw a mass of corruption which accounted for the supposed bewitching. A score or more of dead rats were there, all in a heap, in such a state of rapid putrefaction as is only caused by poison. Some few weeks before the cattle became ill, as the premises were swarming with rats, the young farmer procured some "mundicky stuff" from a burning house. This poison he mixed in dough, made with flour and cream, which was placed for the rats in their holes opening into a barn adjoining the cow-house; and, as is frequently the case, they gathered together in a great number to breathe their last in the same place. The mass of corruption cleared away, the wall rebuilt, with plenty of lime and mortar, and every precaution taken to prevent any farther mischief from the poisonous compound, the cows and wife were soon as well as ever. Yet many attributed the harm to witchcraft rather than to the poisoned rats, and gave the pellar all the credit of working the cure by his conjurations.
We know of many cases, within the last few years, of persons going off to the conjuror, under the impression that members of their family or their cattle were illwished, when the cattle were only suffering from ordinary complaints often caused by insufficient or unwholesome food and want of cleanliness.
An acquaintance who long had a run of bad luck, told us, the other day, that, partly out of curiosity to see the pellar's performance and in part to satisfy the whims of some relatives, he visited the wise man J.T., at his abode in or near Helston. He found a great number seated in the outer room waiting their turn to be admitted to the inner apartment
that they might consult the oracle. Tired with waiting, and finding no one inclined for a chat, he said to the company in general, "Why, when will the old conjuror send us all going. He ought to have somebody to help him, seeming to me." "Dear me friend," one of the company replied, "You seem to take it very light, but you ought to think that we are met here on a very solemn occasion." "Yes, indeed," said other "it would be well if we passed the time in prayer to beg that wisdom from on high might be imparted to the good man."
Our acquaintance, being one of those who make no mystery of anything, because he rates little what others think or say of his proceedings, related to the neighbours what he saw and heard at the conjuror's. Then he found out that there was scarcely a person in the parish but had been to the pellar more than once. They didn't mind making it known to anyone who had been there too, because they couldn't laugh at each other.
Many of the witch stories we hear of are what we call "funny but wisht." They are sad indeed, being a melancholy proof of the superstitious ignorance still common in many districts, and among many of the most religious of the country folks.