ST NECTAN'S KIEVE AND THE LONELY SISTERS.
FAR up the deep and rocky vale of Trevillet, in the parish of Tintagel, [a] stands on a pile of rocks the little chapel of the good St Nectan. No holy man ever selected a more secluded, or a more lovely spot in which to pass a religious life. From the chapel rock you look over the deep valley full of trees. You see here and there the lovely trout-stream running rapidly towards the sea; and, opening in the distance, there rolls - the mighty ocean itself. Although this oratory is shut in amongst the woods, so as to be invisible to any one approaching it by land, until they are close upon it, it is plainly seen by the fishermen or by the sailor far off at sea; and in olden time the prayers of St Nectan were sought by all whose business was in the "deep waters."
The river runs steadily along within a short distance of St Nectan's Chapel, and then it suddenly leaps over the rock--a beautiful fall of water--into St Nectan's Kieve. This deep rock basin, brimming with the clearest water, overflows, and another waterfall carries the river to the lower level of the valley. Standing here within a circular wall of rocks, you see how the falling fluid has worked back the softer slate-rock until it has reached the harder masses, which are beautifully polished by the same agent. Mosses, ferns, and grasses decorate the fall, fringing every rock with a native drapery of the most exquisite beauty. Here is one of the wildest, one of the most untrained, and, at the same time, one of the most beautiful spots in Cornwall, full of poetry, and coloured by legend. Yet here comes prosaic man, and by one stroke of his every-day genius, he adds, indeed, a colour to the violet. You walk along the valley, through paths trodden out of the undergrowth, deviously wandering up hill, or down hill, as rock or tree has interposed. Many a spot of quiet beauty solicits you to loiter, and loitering, you feel that there are places from which the winds appear to gather poetry. You break the spell, or the ear, catching the murmur of the waters, dispels the illusions which have been created by the eye, and you wander forward, anxious to reach the holy " Kieve,"--to visit the saint's hermitage. Here, say you, is the place to hold "commune with Nature's works, and view her charms unrolled," when, lo, a well made door, painted lead colour, with a real substantial lock, bars your way, and Fancy, with everything that is holy, flies away before the terrible words which inform you that trespassers will be punished, and that the key can be obtained at ---------. Well was it that Mr Wilkie Collins gave "up the attempt to discover Nighton's Kieve ; " [b] for had he, when he had found it, discovered this evidence of man's greedy soul, it would have convinced him that the "evil genius of fairy mythology," who so cautiously hid "the nymph - of the waterfall," was no other than the farmer, who, as he told me, "owns the fee," and one who is resolved also to pocket the fee before any pilgrim can see the oratory and the waterfall of St Nectan. Of course this would have turned the placid current -of the thoughts of" the Rambler beyond Railways," which now flow so pleasantly, into a troubled stream of biliary bitterness.
St Nectan placed in the little bell-tower of his secluded chapel a silver bell, the notes of which were so clear and- penetrating that they could be heard far off at sea. When the notes came through the air, and fell on the ears of the seamen, they knew that St Nectan was about to pray for them, and they prostrated themselves before Heaven for a few minutes, and thus endeavoured to win the blessing.
St Nectan was on the bed of death. There was strife in the land. A severe struggle was going on between the Churchmen, and endeavours were being made to introduce a new faith.
The sunset of life gave to the saint the spirit of prophecy, and he told his weeping followers that the light of their religion would grow dim in the land; but that a spark would for ever live amidst the ashes, and that in due time it would kindle into a flame, and burn more brightly than ever. His silver bell, he said, should never ring for others than the true believer. He would enclose it in the rock of the Kieve; but when again the true faith revived, it should be recovered, and rung, to cheer once more the land.
One lovely summer evening, while the sun was slowly sinking towards the golden sea, St Nectan desired his attendants to carry him to the bank which overhung the "Kieve," and requested them to take the bell from the tower and bring it to him. There he lay for some time in silent prayer, waiting as if for a sign, then slowly raising himself from the bed on which he had been placed, he grasped the silver bell. He rang it sharply and clearly three times, and then he dropped it into the transparent waters of the Kieve. He watched it disappear, and then he closed his eyes in death. On receiving the bell the waters were troubled, but they soon became clear as before, and the bell was nowhere to be seen.
St Nectan died, and two strange ladies from a foreign land came and took possession of his oratory, and all that belonged unto the holy man. They placed--acting, as it was believed, on the wishes of the saint himself--his body, all the sacramental plate, and other sacred treasures, in a large oak chest. They turned the waters of the fall aside, and dug a grave in the river bed, below the Kieve, in which they placed this precious chest. The waters were then returned to their natural course, and they murmur ever above the grave of him who loved them. The silver bell was concealed in the Kieve, and the saint with all that be. longed to his holy office rested beneath the river bed. The oratory was dismantled, and the two ladies, women evidently of high birth, chose it for their dwelling. Their seclusion was perfect. "Both appeared to be about the same age, and both were inflexibly taciturn. One was never seen without the other. If they ever left the house, they only left it to walk in the more unfrequented parts of the wood; they kept no servant; they never had a visitor; no living soul but themselves ever crossed the door of their cottage." [c] The berries of the wood, a few roots which they cultivated, with snails gathered from the rocks and walls, and fish caught in the stream, served them for food. Curiosity was excited; the mystery which hung around this solitary pair became deepened by the obstinate silence which they observed in every~ thing relating to themselves. The result of all this was an anxious endeavour, on the part of the superstitious and ignorant peasantry, to learn their secret. All was now conjecture, and the imagination commonly enough filled in a wild picture : devils or angels, as the case might be, were seen ministering to the solitary ones. Prying eyes were upon them, but the spies could glean no knowledge. Week, month, year passed by, and ungratified curiosity was dying through want of food, when it was discovered that one of the ladies had died. The peasantry went in a body to the chapel; no one forbade their entering it now. There sat a silent mourner leaning over the placid lace of her dead sister. Hers was, indeed, a silent sorrow--no tear was in her eye, no sigh hove her chest, but the face told all that a remediless woe had fallen on her heart. The dead body was eventually removed, the living sister making no sign, and they left her in her solitude alone. Days passed on; no one heard of no one probably inquired after, the lonely one. At last a wandering child, curious as children are, clambered to the window of the- cell and looked in. There sat the lady; her handkerchief was on the floor, and one hand hung strangely, as if endeavouring to pick it up, but powerless to do so. The child told its story--the people again flocked to the chapel, and they found one sister had followed the other. The people buried the last beside the first, and they left no mark to tell us where, unless the large flat stone which lies in the valley, a short distance from the foot of the fall, and beneath which, I was told, "some great person was buried," may be the covering of their tomb. No traces -of the history of these solitary women have ever been discovered.'
Centuries have passed away, and still the legends of the buried bell and treasure are preserved. Some long time since a party of men resolved to blast the "Kieve," and examine it for the silver bell. They were miners, and their engineering knowledge, though rude, was sufficient to enable them to divert the course of the river above the falls, and thus to leave the "Kieve" dry for them to work on when they had emptied it, which was an easy task. The "borer" now rung upon the rock, holes were pierced, and, being charged, they were blasted. The result was, however, anything but satisfactory, for the rock remained intact. Still they persevered, until at length a voice was heard amidst the ring of the iron tools in the holes of the rock. Every hand was stayed, every face was aghast, as they heard distinctly the ring of the silver bell, followed by a clear solemn voice proclaiming, "The child is not yet born who shall recover this treasure."
The work was stopped, and the river restored to its old channel, over which it will run undisturbed until the day of which St Nectan prophesied shall arrive.
When, in the autumn of 1863, I visited this lovely spot, my guide, the proprietor, informed me that very recently a gentleman residing, I believe, in London, dreamed that an angel stood on a little bank of pebbles, forming a petty island, at the foot of a waterfall, and pointing to a certain spot, told him to search there and he would find gold and a mummy. This gentleman told his dream to a friend, who at once declared the place indicated to be St Nectan's waterfall. Upon this, the dreamer visited the West, and, upon being led by the owner of the property to the fall, he at once recognised the spot on which the angel stood.
A plan was then and there arranged by which a search might be again commenced, it being thought that as an angel had indicated the spot, the time for the recovery of the treasure had arrived.
Let us hope that the search may be deferred, lest the natural beauties of the spot should be destroyed by the meddling of men, who can threaten trespassers,--fearing to lose a sixpence,--and who have already endeavoured to improve on nature, by cutting down some of the rock and planting rhododendrons.
The Rev. R. S. Hawker, of Morwenstow, has published in his "Echoes of Old Cornwall" a poem on this tradition, which, as it is but little known, and as it has the true poetic ring, I transcribe to adorn the pages of my Appendix X.
[a] TINTAGEL. is the usual name. Gilbert, in his "Parochial History," has it "DUNDAGELL, alias DYNDAGELL, alias BOSITHNEY;" in "Doomsday-book" it is called "DUNECHEINE." Tonkin writes "Dindagel or Daundagel," and sometimes DUNGIOGEL. "A King Nectan, or St Nectan, is said to have built numerous churches in several parts of Scotland, as well as in other parts of the kingdom of the Northern Picts."--Wilson's Prehistoric Annals of Scotland.
[b] It is called indifferently Nectan, Nathan, Nighton, or Knighton's Kieve.
[c] Rambles beyond Railways. By Wilkie Collins. Mr Collins was curiously misled by those who told him the tradition. The building which these strange solitary women Inhabited was St Nectan's, or, as he and many others write it, St Nighton's, Chapel, and not a cottage. They died, as Mr Collins describes it: but either he, or those from whom he learned the tale, has filled in the picture from imagination. I perceive, on referrIng to Mr Walter White's admirable little book, "A Londoner's Walk to the Land's End, that he has made the same mistake about the cottage.