THE beginning of this collection of Popular Romances may I be truly said to date from my early childhood. I remember with what anticipations of pleasure, sixty-eight years since, I stitched together a few sheets of paper, and carefully pasted them into the back of an old book. This was preparatory to a visit I was about to make with my mother to Bodmin, about which town many strange stories were told, and my purpose was to record them. My memory retains dim shadows of a wild tale of Hender the Huntsman of Lanhydrock; of a narrative of streams having been poisoned by the monks; and of a legend of a devil who. played many strange pranks with the tower which stands on a neighbouring hill. I have, within the last year? endeavoured to recover those stories, but in vain. The living people appear to have forgotten them; my juvenile note-book has long been lost those traditions are, it is to be feared, gone for ever. Robert Hunt
Saturday, 22 February 2014
In old times there lived in a cavern on the sea-shore, about ten miles to the east of Hayle, a giant called Wrath, who had a bad character given him by the people of St. Ives. Folks didn't believe half the evil they said of him, but thought their fears of the giant, when alive, made them take the dastardly revenge of abusing him when dead. Yet whether he liked or disliked them it's hard to say, because if he killed them he ate them, according to their own accounts—a proof that his stomach was as strong as his arm. The place in which Wrath lived is the fissure or gorge near Portreath, known by the name of the Giant's Zawn, or more generally by that of Ralph's Cupboard. This latter name, of recent date, was given to the place after it had been inhabited by one Ralph, a famous smuggler who found the place most convenient for his trade. By being better acquainted than most other persons with the reefs and currents on this rock-strewn coast, Ralph did not fear to run his little vessel into the gorge on the darkest nights, safely land his goods, and whistle at the king's men. In the time of the giant Wrath this remarkable gorge was a deep cavern or zawn, into which the sea flowed, as it does still at high tide. The roof has fallen in since the death of the giant. Here Wrath would lie in wait and watch for any ships or fishing-boats from St. Ives that might come sailing by. If they approached within a mile of his hole, he would wade out, tap the fishermen or sailors on the head with the tip of his finger to settle them, then tie the ships and boats to his girdle, and quietly draw them into his den. He would save for provision the well-fed and fleshy men,—the lean ones he threw overboard.
Ships bound for St. Ives, sailing in too deep water for him to reach by wading, he sunk by slinging rocks on them from the cliff above. Many of these rocks may still be seen above water at ebb-tide, and form a dangerous reef stretching away from Godrevy Head. Long after the death of the giant, his hole was the terror of the fishermen of St. Ives, who always avoided the Cupboard, as they said that nothing ever came out of it had had the bad luck to get into it; yet many unfortunate vessels were often drifted thither by currents and driven in by storms, to become the prey of the demon of the cavern. Many believed that much of this legend was created by the fears of the fishermen out of the natural dangers of the rock-bound coast about Portreath.
from Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 1, by William Bottrell, 1870
from Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 1, by William Bottrell, 1870
Posted by Alex Langstone at 12:27
Sunday, 16 February 2014
Wherever there was a well a saint took possession of it. The votive offerings of the natives to the bright, sparkling divinity dwelling in springs of water passed into their hands. The water cures became miracles, and chapels and baptistries were built over the wells. Chapels and hermits' cells abound in Cornwall. There is one spring which ensures a man will not hang if he is but christened with its water in childhood. There is another in which a madman may be ducked until he is cured. In another a maiden may see her future, and there are others which can cure sad souls and sadder bodies. St. Tue was one of these saints who had a little well all to himself, and this is his story.
The tale opens at a period when the saints had been some time in the land, and the people took kindly to them, and brought them fish on Fridays. The giants grew jealous and resolved on holding a conference. When they were all assembled, Uther was voted to the chair, because he had the broadest shoulders and the best head-piece of all the race from the Tamar to Pol-Pedyn. The question was, "What shall we do with the saints?" Various methods had been already tried - boiling, baking and grilling were no use. Uther, the president, put the matter before them in a statesmanlike way. First of all, he counted up six saints on his fingers, and then he counted half a dozen. Then he said, "If you take six from six, there's nothing, but if you wipe six, six remain." The speech seemed very precise and clear to the giants. So much so that it was pencilled down on a half-sheet of notepaper, and, in time, became the model for future prime ministers. It was certainly very well received. Then there was a discussion, and some said one thing, and some another, and when all spoke at once, it was very difficult to know what was said or meant. The president tried to keep order, but was just as helpless as Madam Speaker in modern days. Fortunately it was an open-air meeting, and the sky was not cracked.
Saint Tue was a small and weakly man, who took to fasting on cod-liver oil. He was, however, young and full of zeal. The conference was held in what he called his "sphere of influence" and, when he heard the mighty shouts, he looked upwards and saw a sign in the sky. So he hastened to the conference, and, by dodging in and out between the giants' legs, he managed to reach the president, who was threatening to leave the chair unless better order was kept.
"Pick me up," said St. Tue. So Uther picked him up and showed him to the assembly, for, being a strong man himself, he admired the saint's pluck.
"What do you want here, my little man?" asked Uther, thinking into which pocket he should pop him to ensure his safety.
"I want to challenge you to a trial of strength; but let me speak to the giants," replied the saint.
Uther stood St. Tue on the palm of his hand and held out his arm, so that he might speak. This he did, in a loud voice, telling them solemnly that they were warring against heaven and one mightier than they. He finished by challenging the mightiest to a contest of rock-hurling. If he were beaten, all the saints would leave the land; but if he won, then the giants were to cease their persecutions and be baptised with the sign of the cross.
Now, the giants were not a united family, and were fond of hurling rocks at one another, and fighting and wrestling for fun or glory, just when the fancy took them. Uther was a champion rock-hurler, and it was a pastime with him to throw rocks like quoits, and so truly as to balance them one over the other, the top being the largest. The game was no child's play, and the assembly agreed that, if Uther would accept the challenge, they would abide by the result. When they looked at St. Tue and the rocks to be hurled, they laughed mockingly.
There were twelve rocks in all. They had been used before and were fairly round. The smallest was hurled first, and Uther pitched it one hundred feet. St. Tue's knees shook. What if his faith should fail now? He cast his eyes upwards. Then, oh, blessed miracle, the rock became as a feather in his hand, and he hurled it with such precision that it capped number one as though it had grown there.
So the game went on, and the pile grew more and more like a mushroom. The giants shouted mightily when Uther's rock capped the saint's, but when the saint's capped Uther's, they groaned aloud and showed their tempers.
It was the saint's turn to hurl the last rock which, being the heaviest and largest and having to be thrown the highest, required the greatest skill and judgement and strength. The slightest error, and the pile would topple over. The silence was so great that a grasshopper was heard to chirp. True as a die the rock settled on the rest, and the whole mass swayed upon its stem, but fell not.
The victory was not yet won however, and a thirteenth rock was brought. So huge was it that the giant knew it was beyond his powers to hurl. Still, he raised it with both hands and threw it with all his might and strength, and fell prone to earth, exhausted. The rock fell short and was rolled back to where St. Tue stood, trembling once again. Would Heaven fail him now? But no. His eyes were opened and he saw an angelic host raise the stone to his hand, carry it through the air and place it as a crown upon the "wring", that man might wonder at it for evermore. The giants, however, were blind with rage, and saw not.
Then Uther bowed his head in humility, confessed his sins and was baptised. Some followed his example, but more returned to their castles and made what trouble they could. The saints rejoiced, all the same, when they heard what St. Tue had done. For they were made free in this land, and from then on they made so free with the land that all the best they took for themselves. They pursued the giants with soap and water and Sunday clothes, and so trimmed their beards and nails, that the race dwindled and dwindled and died out. So the saints triumphed, and the Cheese-wring is their memorial.
St. Tue founded the "Union of Saints", and then his troubles began in such earnest that he had to increase his doses of cod-liver oil in order to bear them. An elm, an oak, and an ash tree grew over his grave, and their roots formed an arch. Under the arch a spring of pure water gushed forth, and St. Keyne came to live by the well. Up to this century, Cornish brides still drank from the water, wearing divided skirts, and fed their husbands with long spoons.
From "Cornish Saints and Sinners" by J. Henry Harris
Posted by Alex Langstone at 12:43
Saturday, 15 February 2014
When winter brought the cold north wind, and the snowflakes began to fall, the little North Cornwall children were always told that the Old Woman was up in the sky plucking her Goose.
The children were very interested in the Old Sky Woman and her great White Goose, and they said, as they lifted their soft little faces to the grey of the cloud and watched the feathers of the big Sky Goose come whirling down, that she was a wonderful woman and her Goose a very big Goose.
‘I want to climb up to the sky to see the Old Woman plucking her Goose,’ cried a tiny boy; and he asked his mother to show him the great Sky Stairs. But his mother could not, for she did not know where the Sky Stairs were; so the poor little boy could not go up to see the Old Sky Woman plucking the beautiful feathers out of her big White Goose.
‘Where does the Old Woman keep her great White Goose?’ asked another child, with eyes and hair as dark as a raven’s wing, as he watched the snow-white feathers come dancing down.
‘In the beautiful Sky Meadows behind the clouds,’ his mother said.
‘What is the Old Sky Woman going to do with her great big Goose when she has picked her bare?’ queried a little maid with sweet, anxious eyes.
‘Stuff it with onions and sage,’ her Granfer said.
‘What will she do then with her great big Goose?’ the little maid asked.
‘Hang it up on the great Sky Goose-jack and roast for her Christmas dinner,’ her Granfer said.
‘Poor old Goose!’ cried the little maid.
‘I don’t believe the Old Sky Woman would be so unkind as to kill and pluck her great big Goose,’ said a wise little maid with sunny hair and eyes as blue as the summer sea.
‘Winter-time is the Sky Goose’s moulting time, and the Old Sky Woman is sweeping out the Sky Goose’s house with her great Sky Broom, and the White Goose’s feathers are flying down to keep the dear little flowers nice and warm till the north wind has gone away from the Cornish Land.’
‘Perhaps that is so, dear little maid,’ her Granfer said.
From North Cornwall Fairies and Legends by Enys Tregarthen
Posted by Alex Langstone at 00:21
Friday, 7 February 2014
HIS mighty man held especial possession of the hill formerly known as Carne Bury-anacht or Bury-anack, [a] "the sparstone grave," sometimes called St Agnes' Ball and St Agnes' Pestis, but which is now named, from the use made of the hill during the long war, St Agnes' Beacon. He has left his name to a very interesting, and undoubtedly most ancient earthwork, which still exists at the base of the hill, and evidently extended from Trevaunance Porth to Chapel Porth, enclosing the most important tin district in St Agnes. This is constantly called "The Bolster."
Bolster must have been of enormous size: since it is stated that he could stand with one foot on St Agnes' Beacon and the other on Carn Brea; these hills being distant, as the bird flies, six miles, [b] his immensity will be clear to all. In proof of this, there still exists, in the valley running upwards from Chapel Porth, a stone in which may yet be seen the impression of the giant's fingers. On one occasion, Bolster, when enjoying his usual stride from the Beacon to Carn Brea, felt thirsty, and stooped to drink out of the well at Chapel Porth, resting, while he did so, on the above-mentioned stone. We hear but little of the wives of our giants; but Bolster had a wife, who was made to labour hard by her tyrannical husband. On the top of St Agnes' Beacon there yet exist the evidences of the useless labours to which this unfortunate giantess was doomed, in grouped masses of small stones. These, it is said, have all been gathered from an estate at the foot of the hill, immediately adjoining the village of St Agnes. This farm is to the present day remarkable for its freedom from stones, though situated amidst several others, which, like most lands reclaimed from the moors of this district, have stones in abundance mixed with the soil. Whenever Bolster was angry with his wife, he compelled her to pick stones, and to carry them in her apron to the top of the hill. There is some confusion in the history of this giant, and of the blessed St Agnes to whom the church is dedicated. They are supposed to have lived at the same time, which, according to our views, is scarcely probable, believing, as we do, that no giants existed long after their defeat at Plymouth by Brutus and Corineus. There may have been an earlier saint of the same name; or may not Saint Enns or Anns, the popular name of this parish, indicate some other lady?
Be this as it may, the giant Bolster became deeply in love with St Agnes, who is reputed to have been singularly beautiful, and a pattern woman of virtue. The giant allowed the lady no repose. He followed her incessantly, proclaiming his love, and filling the air with the tempests of his sighs and groans. St Agnes lectured Bolster in vain on the impropriety of his conduct, he being already a married man. This availed not; her prayers to him to relieve her from his importunities were also in vain. The persecuted lady, finding there was no release for her, while this monster existed, resolved to be rid of him at any cost, and eventually succeeded by the following stratagem:-- Agnes appeared at length to be persuaded of the intensity of the giant's love, but she told him she required yet one small proof more. There exists at Chapel Porth a hole in the cliff at the termination of the valley. If Bolster would fill this hole with his blood the lady would no longer look coldly on him. This huge bestrider-of-the-hills thought that it was an easy thing which was required of him, and felt that he could fill many such holes and be none the weaker for the loss of blood. Consequently, stretching his great arm across the hole, he plunged a knife into a vein, and a torrent of gore issued forth. Roaring and seething the blood fell to the bottom, and the giant expected in a few minutes to see the test of his devotion made evident, in the filling of the hole. It required much more blood than Bolster had supposed; still it must in a short time be filled, so he bled on. Hour after hour the blood flowed from the vein, yet the hole was not filled. Eventually the giant fainted from exhaustion. The strength of life within his mighty frame enabled him to rally, yet he had no power to lift himself from the ground, and he was unable to stanch the wound which he had made. Thus it was, that after many throes, the giant Bolster died.
The cunning saint, in proposing this task to Bolster, was well aware that the hole opened at the bottom into the sea, and that as rapidly as the blood flowed into the hole it ran from it, and did
"The multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red."
Thus the lady got rid of her hated lover; Mrs Bolster was released, and the district freed from the presence of a tyrant. The hole at Chapel Porth still retains the evidences of the truth of this tradition, in the red stain which marks the track down which flowed the giant's blood.
From Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt. Illustration by George Cruikshank.
Posted by Alex Langstone at 13:53
Sunday, 2 February 2014
PERSONS of a notoriously wicked character were said to have been frequently taken off bodily by Old Nick when they died. The following is one of many stories to that effect.
More than a hundred years ago a dark strange man appeared in St. Just; no one knew whence he came, but it was supposed, however, that he was put ashore from a pirate ship, by way of marooning him; as the crews of such are wont to do by any wretch that is too bad even to consort, with high sea robbers.
He didn't appear to want for money as he soon rented a small, lone, tenement, near the shore, and married a widow of the neighbourhood. People wondered, for a long while, how so many vessels got wrecked under the cliff that bordered the stranger's farm. At length it was discovered that, on dark winter nights—when honest folks were a-bed—he made it his practice to fasten a lantern to the neck of a horse, which he had hobbled, by tying down its head to a fore-leg; then he drove the horse along near the cliff, and the lantern, from its motion, would be taken for a vessel's stern-light.
Consequently those on board ships sailing by, expecting to find plenty of sea room, would come right in and be wrecked on the rocks. Any of their crews that escaped a watery grave the wretch would knock on the head with his axe, or cut off their hand when they tried to grasp the rocks.
He lived long and became rich by his sin. At length, however, the time came for the fiend to claim his own. When he was dying his awful shrieks were heard far away, as he cried, "Do save me from the devil, and the sailors, there, looking to tear me to pieces." Several parsons and other pious folks were sent for,—all those of the neighbourhood readily came, for the dying sinner was rich.
Though it was in harvest time and high day, the old wrecker's chamber became, at times, as dark as night. The parsons saw the devil in the room, when others could not; by their reading they drove him to take many shapes, but for all that he would not be put out; at last, when he took the form of a fly, and buzzed about the dying wretch, they saw it was in vain for them to try any longer.
During the time the exorcists were engaged, the chamber seemed—by the sound—to be filled with the sea splashing around the bed; waves were heard as if surging and breaking against the house, though it was a good bit inland.
Whilst this was taking place at the dying wrecker's bedside, two men, who were about harvest work in one of his fields near the cliff, heard a hollow voice, as if coming from the sea, which said, "The hour is come but the man is not come."
Looking in the direction whence the words came, they saw no person; but far out to sea, they beheld a black, heavy, square-rigged ship, with all sail set, coming fast in, against wind and tide, and not a hand to be seen aboard her.
She came so close under cliff that only her topmast could be seen; when black clouds—that seemed to rise out of the deep—gathered around her and extended thence straight to the dying man's dwelling.
The harvest-men, terrified at the sight of this ship-of-doom so near them, ran up to the town-place, just as the old sinner died, when his dwelling shook as if about to fall. Everybody, in great fright, rushed out and saw the black clouds roll off towards the death-ship, which, at once, sailed away amidst a blaze of lightning—far over sea, and disappeared.
The weather immediately cleared, and nothing unusual occurred until a few men assembled to put the wrecker's ghastly remains quickly off the face of the earth; then, as the coffin was borne towards the churchyard, a large black pig came—no one knew from whence—and followed the bearers, who all declared the coffin was too light to contain any body. The sky, too, became suddenly overcast, and a tempest raged to that degree, they could scarcely keep on their legs to reach the churchyard stile, where such sheets of blinding lightning flashed around them, that they dropped the coffin and rushed into the church.
The storm having abated, they ventured out, and found nothing of the coffin but its handles and a few nails, for it had been set on fire, and all else consumed, by the lightning.
It does not appear what business the black pig had in the funeral procession; such is the way, however, in which the story is always told.
From Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, by William Bottrell, 1873.
Posted by Alex Langstone at 12:01
Picture © Alex Langstone
King Arthur.--'We always thought of King Arthur as a great warrior. And many a time I've heard old people say that he used to appear in this country in the form of a nath.' This was all that could be told of King Arthur; and the conversation finally was directed toward piskies, with the following results:--
Piskies.--'A man named Bottrell, who lived near St. Teath, was pisky-led at West Down, and when he turned his pockets inside out he heard the piskies going away laughing. 2 Often my grandmother used to say when I got home after dark, "You had better mind, or the piskies will carry you away." And I can remember hearing the old people say that the piskies are the spirits of dead-born children.' From pixies the conversation drifted to the spirit-hounds 'often heard at night near certain haunted downs in St. Teath parish', and then, finally, to ordinary Cornish legends about the dead.
Our next witnesses from Delabole are John Male, eighty-two years old, one of the very oldest men in King Arthur's country, and his wife; and all of Mr. Male's ancestors as far back as he can trace them have lived in the same parish.
Piskies in General.--Mr. Male remarked:--'I have heard a good deal about the piskies, but I can't remember any of the old women's tales. I have heard, too, of people saying that they had seen the piskies. It was thought that when the piskies have misled you they show themselves jumping about in front of you; they are a race of little people who live out in the fields.' Mrs. Male had now joined us at the open fire, and added:--'Piskies always come at night, and in marshy ground there are round places called pisky beds where they play. When I was little, my mother and grandmother would be sitting round the fire of an evening telling fireside stories, and I can remember hearing about a pisky of this part who stole a new coat, and how the family heard him talking to himself about it, and then finally say:--
Pisky 's got a bright new coat,
Pisky now will run away.
No, here am I with a dog and cat,
And apples to eat and nuts to crack.'
but that they never did you any serious injury.' Of the Arthurian folk-legend at Tintagel he said:--'The spirit of King Arthur is supposed to be in the Cornish chough--a beautiful black bird with red legs and red beak.'
From "The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries", by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, 
Posted by Alex Langstone at 02:50
Saturday, 1 February 2014
I HAVE already told you, my young friends, a story in connexion with Tintagel; and now purpose to relate to you another; the events of which occurred in the same place, though at a somewhat more recent period, when a certain Baron was Lord of that ancient castle, and lived there with much splendour and state.
This great Baron had only one child, a daughter, who was as fair as a lily, and when she turned her head, her neck moved with the grace and beauty of the swan; at least in such terms of praise was she described by the old harper in his songs, as, every feast day, he gladdened the halls of Tintagel with the thrilling notes and full chords of his harp. She was commonly called Serena, on account of her generally placid demeanour; and as her father was very fond of seeing her dressed in white and silver, because he thought she looked prettiest when so attired; she was not unfrequently called the silver lady.
Her nurse declared, that, when the child was in the cradle, she had been blessed by the Pixies; and it was that which made her look so fair and beautiful, and caused her to be so lucky in all she took in hand. "But woe be to her," would the old gossip add, when she said this, "woe be to her, if my lady Serena should offend the Pixies; for, like us mortal sinners, they will often most hate where they have most loved; and especially if they be jealous or offended."
Although her mother died when she was an infant, Serena received a very good education; for her nurse taught her so well how to work with the needle, that all the finest tapestry hangings in the castle were said to be in part wrought by her. The old minstrel instructed her in playing the harp; and she often sang to it many a Cornish ballad or ditty; and above all, Father Hilary had well disciplined her in her religious duties. She had given him a promise that she would never be absent from church at the ringing of the vesper bell; never, she said, unless prevented by sickness, would she be tempted to stay away when that bell was calling her to prayers, let what would happen. She gave this promise to Father Hilary so seriously, that he, as well as the nurse, assured her, if ever she broke it, the good spirits who were her guardians would fly away from her, and leave her exposed to injury from the bad ones. Serena said, in reply, "No music was so sweet to her ears as the vesper bell."
But though the Baron's daughter had so many good qualities, she had, I am sorry to say, some very great faults. She was excessively vain and fond of dress, and at times sadly whimsical and capricious. When she grew up to womanhood, her father wanted her to marry some one of the gallant young knights who came to the castle; but such was her vanity, she deemed none good enough. Among them was a very gentle and amiable youth, who was so comely and graceful, that every body said how happy she would be as his wife. And the old nurse declared that, from the dreams she had about him, and his having first been brought to the sight of her young lady, by the sounds of sweet music, which seemed to float in the air and to guide his steps to Tintagel, at the very moment Serena was issuing from the castle gates, she was quite sure it was the Pixies, and nothing but the Pixies, who thus led him along to give him, as a very great favour, to Serena for a husband. Serena at first appeared to like him well, and he came very often to the castle; but at length she changed her mind, tossed her head, disappointed him, and said that neither he nor any other of her father's friends, were handsome enough to please her; and in the caprice of her mood, she declared that she would never marry unless she could meet with a young prince who was handsomer, and dressed better, and played on the lute sweeter, than any one she had ever yet seen or heard.
Her old nurse sighed as she listened to all this, and said, "O my dear young lady, do not talk so! Beware what you say. You have behaved ill and whimsically to that poor young gentleman, whom every body loved; he was so good and kind. Depend upon it, the Pixies will take their revenge one of these days for the manner in which you treated him, or I don't know them or their doings. The only way to save yourselves from their spite, is to be very penitent for your fault; and to be mindful of your promise to Father Hilary. For if you go wrong again, the evil spirits may take advantage of your folly, sadly to mislead and deceive you; and I should break my old heart if any harm happened to my dear young lady, whom I have nursed in these arms from the hour she was born."
Serena paid little heed to this good advice, but soon after indulged in such extravagance and gaiety, in so much dancing and singing, that Father Hilary interfered, and strictly enjoined her, as a sort of penance for spending her time so idly, to repair alone every day for one month to come, to a little chapel which stood near St. Nathan's Kieve, and to be sure, according to her promise, always to enter within its doors before the ringing of the vesper bell had ceased.
St. Nathan's Kieve was three miles and a half from Tintagel, a long and weary way, and over a difficult road; and though Serena now and then went on horseback, yet as walking far through such rough paths was a sort of penance, to please old Hilary, who was rather cross-grained and crabbed, and had no pity for her poor feet, she more frequently walked than rode.
On the day of which I am about to speak, Serena set out early on foot, as she was determined not to be hurried in her walk. She was dressed in a long grey cloak, and upon her head she wore a little grey cap made of cloth; a scallop shell was seen in front of it, to show that she was going on a sort of pilgrimage. As she put on her cloak, her nurse gave her a caution to let nothing stay her by the way, but to go on straight to the chapel, to enter before the bell had ceased ringing, come straight home, for, said the good old woman, "those who allow anything they meet with to delay them when they are going to prayers, are sure to lay themselves open to the power of those wicked spirits that I told you of before, they are sure to be punished for it."
Serena took leave of her aged counsellor with repeated promises to mind what she said. She passed the castle gates in a somewhat hurried manner, for fear .of meeting Father Hilary, as she liked not to be lectured by him on her way. With a quick step did she also pass the village of Trevenna. As she began to ascend the high ground beyond it, she slackened her pace, and looked back upon Tintagel, which now opened with all its grandeur of castle and cliff upon the view. She had never so attentively observed it as on this day; and, she could not tell why, but she then gazed upon it with a melancholy interest.
It was indeed a fine sight, and whilst the walls and towers of her father's ancient dwelling were lit up with a flood of light, the rock called Long Island, was in complete gloom from the overshadowing clouds. This rock wild, lofty, broken, close in shore, though surrounded by the waves, was said to be peopled, and especially after nightfall, by sea-gulls and spirits. Serena now, therefore, looked upon it in its sombre hue with a secret sense of dread. Nor was it without a shudder that as she turned to continue her walk she saw a solitary magpie pacing up and down on the very road she had to cross. She did not like the evil sign, and she thought that she would take a shorter way, and find out that the country people sometimes took in going to chapel.
But Serena was soon bewildered, and at length got into a strange rough road over a field that descended as precipitously as the roof of a house to the bottom of a ravine, beautifully clothed with wood. She could hear the running of water, and soon came in sight of a stream that ran rapidly under a vast number of trees. This she crossed and still advanced. She now perceived some overhanging rocks, and on the hill above these stood the little chapel. She had not advanced very far, when she heard the vesper bell. Mindful of her promise she determined to retrace her steps as speedily as possible, and no longer linger, though in so lovely a scene.
But at that very moment she heard strains of the most enchanting music. Nothing earthly seemed to mingle with those sounds. "O Serena! Serena, quickly turn, hark to the vesper bell." She fancied that a voice above the rocks spoke these words. But, alas! she neglected the friendly warning. She looked this way, that way, up the ravine, among the trees, and could see no one; whilst every step she advanced, the music of the unseen musician appeared to move on before her. "I will but tarry a few minutes to see who it is plays thus sweetly, and where the sounds come from," said Serena, "I shall yet reach the chapel yonder, before the bell has done ringing."
She now continued descending the difficult and winding path, which turned sharply round among rocks that peered above her head in the most fantastic forms; the roots of the trees clung to them in all directions. So narrow had the path become between the rocks and the stream, that it scarcely afforded room to pass; and as the stones were slippery with moss and damp, and here and there the arm of a tree crossed close above the head, to pass along was both precarious and dangerous.
Again did Serena listen, and still could she hear, even above the sounds of the rushing waters, the vesper-bell. She now in good earnest determined to turn back. But at that moment, such a strain of sweetness arose; it caught her ear, and she became once more fixed by the spell of such enchanting harmony. Alas! it was of more power than the call of duty over her wavering mind.
The music now seemed to come from the opposite side of the stream; and so much was her curiosity excited, that she took the resolution to try to cross it, and to find out the unseen minstrel. She looked round and perceived some large loose stones, which served, though not without risk, for stepping-stones. Serena was light of foot and very active; and so by marking well, where to venture, and springing from rock to rock, she managed to get over the stream. Again did she enter on a narrow path, and followed it for a few yards, when, on a sudden turn, she came in sight of the loveliest waterfall that she had ever beheld.
It was situated at the extremity of a recess among the wildest rocks. These formed so complete an inclosure, that it was only in front facing the fall that a view of it could be gained. The cascade itself was not lofty, not above fifty or sixty feet in height; it was its form and accompaniments which rendered it of such surpassing loveliness. A few yards distant from the fall, there stood fronting it some rocks, which half way up had the appearance of a natural arch; and through this opening the foaming waters were seen leaping and dashing over the rocks, with the most beautiful effect. Thence they rushed on in the wildest tumult over vast masses of granite, which lay in the bed of the stream as if to impede its course. Here and there, occasioned by the hollows beneath, might be found a calm deep pool, undisturbed by the impetuosity of the flood.
Serena stopped, delighted with the beauty of the scene. "This is the sweetest ravine in the world," she said; "such a beautiful waterfall, and the rocks so wild and broken; and all shut in to keep it, as it were, from the approach of common mortals. Surely this must be the very place in which my nurse tells me, that Merlin of old, the great magician, in the days of Prince Arthur, used to work his spells; where the Pixies make their favourite haunt, and where they are now most powerful, and, therefore, most to be feared. But that must be false; for nothing to be feared can ever come into such a charming scene as this. But I must not linger; and now to hasten back, for here no vesper-bell can be heard, nor even that delightful music which led me hither, for here the waterfall lets no music but its own meet the ear."
Well might Serena thus admire the scene, for what she so gazed upon were the rocks and fall of Nathan's Kieve.
Serena gave the cascade one last farewell look, and then turned to retrace her steps; but who shall speak her wonder, when, at a short distance from the spot she had quitted, she found it impossible to proceed without the danger of stepping upon a human being, who lay outstretched, with a lute by his side, on the narrow path under the rocks, and so close to the water's edge, that no space was left for her to glide by without disturbing him. She paused a moment; her eyes became as much fascinated by the beautiful appearance of the sleeping figure, as her ears had before been charmed by the mysterious music.
It was a strange place for repose. The sleeper was a young man, of a very good person, and handsome features, with light brown curly hair. His attire was at once rich and elegant. He wore such a cloak and vest as Serena had never before seen; the plumage of the finest birds seemed to have been rifled to give it splendour. And then the cap on his head, and the tiara which was bound around his brows, was so radiant and glittering with jewels, that they looked as if diamonds, and emeralds, and rubies, and sapphires had been clustered together so as to emulate in the manner of their arrangement the colours of the butterfly's wing.
Serena gazed till her admiration of the manly beauty and splendid attire of the youthful sleeper became as great as that which she had felt, a little while before, for the music; and far exceeded her admiration of the beauties of the scene. She thought that, if ever she married, it should be to just such a beautiful youth; and then his dress was so graceful, so rich; and as for his tiara, it would be the prettiest thing imaginable to have just such another to bind around her own dark and flowing hair. She felt quite sure none but a prince could altogether be so charmingly dressed, and so handsome; and he it must be who had produced from that lute such exquisite tones.
Serena was now in no hurry to pass on, but looked about her, and seeing an opening in some rocks near at hand, that were overshadowed by thick and pendant boughs, she determined to conceal herself and to survey more at her leisure the noble features and the splendid adornments of the. sleeper; hoping that, when he awoke, he would again touch the strings of his lute. The vesper bell was forgotten; and O to think from what a cause! Serena had given herself up to the influence of a vain curiosity! Soon had she cause to rue her folly; for most sadly was she beguiled by what could be nothing more than an illusion to ensnare and deceive her; the work of an enemy to her peace.
After a while, a thick mist suddenly fell like a cloud over every object around her. The very rocks and trees which sheltered her were no longer visible: The wind moaned, and the river rushed along in tumult as the roar of the waterfall became loud as rolling thunder. Serena trembled in every limb; her heart beat quick; she knew not what to do. Move from the spot of her concealment she dared not; she was on the verge of despair, when gradually the mist rose like a veil that had been thrown over the landscape, and now raised by an invisible hand. The rocks, woods, and waterfall once more were distinctly seen, but under a melancholy aspect; no sun-beam fell upon them; all was shadow and gloom. She looked down on the narrow pathway; but neither the beautiful sleeping youth, nor the lute by his side were to be seen; they ware gone; and she saw only the broken and mossy rocks wet with the spray and foam of the stream!
At length she arose, retraced her steps, and approached the chapel; but the vesper bell had long ceased ringing, and the doors of the chapel were closed--closed indeed, for the vesper service had been concluded half an hour before she reached the spot. Serena could net but feel ashamed of her folly; and she added to it by keeping the knowledge of it confined to her own bosom; for neither to Father Hilary, nor to the nurse did she tell what had happened.
She was, however, often seen stealing down the pathway. that led to Nathan's Kieve; for by a strange fascination she was fond of going there alone; although it was in that spot she first received those impressions which now rendered her so melancholy and unhappy.
At length Father Hilary saw something was the matter, and obtained from her a confession of the truth, but only in part told; for she confined herself to the statement of having wasted her time in wandering up to the waterfall in Nathan's Kieve, and being too late for the vespers. She blushed, but was so ashamed to confess how much she had been led astray, that she said not one word about the musician, his attire, or the music. But Father Hilary was quite sufficiently shocked by what she confessed, and imposed upon her a very severe penance, namely, that she should take the ten marks given to her by the Baron to buy a splendid dress to wear at a high festival to be held at the castle, and should expend the same in the purchase of a silver bell, on which she must cause to be engraved an image of herself attired as a penitent, with her hair hanging down her back, and carrying a taper in her hand, in token of sorrow for what she had done amiss. Serena obeyed, and purchased the silver bell, of which I here give the picture.
This Father Hilary presented in her name to the little chapel situated on the hill above Nathan's Kieve.
But though this was done, and though Serena had worn her old robes at the high festival of Tintagel, to the amusement of all her gaily-clad young friends, who tittered at her shabby apparel and envied her pretty looks, and though she had taken care that her many visits to the waterfall should never again interfere with the hour of ringing the vesper bell; yet was she dull and melancholy. Her spirits flagged, indeed they had never returned with their natural vivacity since that unluckly day on which she committed so great a fault. Still she longed and sighed once more to hear the charming music, and to see the handsome and gaily dressed minstrel. But she was always disappointed in her hopes and expectations.
At length she became so unhappy that she told all her secret to nurse Judy. Now, nurse Judy, though good-natured was not a very wise counsellor, for fearing Father Hilary would put the young lady to a more severe penance than the former did he know all the truth, she gave her very wrong advice as will presently be seen.
She told Serena that she was convinced all that had happened to her was a Pixy delusion, brought about by some of those malignant and spiteful beings, who it was well known were powerful in Nathan's Kieve, and more especially over any one who had been negligent in the performance of their duty. She did not doubt that the music was the work of their spells; and as to the beautiful musician, she felt certain that he was nothing more than some mischievous imp, who had assumed that appearance on purpose to deceive her.
In order therefore to counteract these spells, she persuaded Serena to go and consult old Swillpot, the famous Cornish wizard, who dwelt near the waterfall at Nathan's Kieve, and who, nurse Judy said, was noted for being a kind wizard in his way, that was if he entertained no spite against the person who came to consult him; and more especially if the individual gave him a purse full of money, and a jar of strong rich metheglin or mead, which had been made at the full of the moon (then considered the best time for making it), and was three years old at least. Judy declared, that she had metheglin in her own particular cupboard which had been made under all the quarters of the moon, and old Swillpot should have that decocted at the full.
Serena, though not without fear, took all the money she had and put it into her purse; she took also Judy's jar of metheglin, which was so large she found it difficult to carry it under her cloak, and set out for the wizard's dwelling.
A very poor and miserable cottage was not the most agreeable place for so delicate a young lady as Serena to visit; but she was unhappy and wanted relief, and so she did not care to be nice, but after a gentle rap at once entered the dwelling. She was civilly received by old Swillpot, more especially when he handled the purse, and took
the jar of metheglin, and with a good-humoured chuckle tucked it under his arm. He then bade Serena sit down, and he would presently taIk with her.
Old Swillpot had not much the look of a wizard, for he was stout and burly, had a round full face, not unlike the moon (as that luminary is painted on the face of a clock), a very round red nose, and a beard so thick and long it reached quite down to his waist. He was in an exceeding good humour, placed himself at the head of a little table, produced a brown loaf and some Cornish cheese, as hard as if it had been cut out of the rocks, or from one of the Cornish mines, bustled up to his cupboard, produced a couple of horn cups, opened the jar, and very heartily pressed Serena to partake with him some of her own choice metheglin. This, with a smack of the lips, he pronounced to be excellent, clear as amber, rich as the honey from which it was originally made, and fit for the king himself if he ever came into Cornwall. Serena, not to offend him, just tasted the cup, and then would have proceeded to tell her tale; butt the charms of the metheglin were so much greater than those of the young lady in the estimation of old Swillpot, that not until he had half emptied the jar would he hear a word she had to say.
At last he seemed a little boozy with the strength of the potation; as he sat, neither quite awake nor yet asleep, tapping his fingers on the table, his nose three times redder than it was before, he bade her tell her story, and gave a yawn and a lengthened hum at the end of every sentence, to let her know how very attentive he was to her discourse.
He then leaned back in his chair, looked wise, considered, made a snatch at a fine tabby cat that was rubbing herself against the side of his chair, took her up on his knee, and rubbed her hair the wrong way, as she raised up her tail till it reached his chin and brushed his beard. After consulting either his own thoughts, or the motion of the cat's tail, it was doubtful which, he very solemnly assured Serena, that all her sufferings and uneasiness proceeded from a wicked delusion--that, in fact, she had been Pixy-led in the most injurious manner. Having said this, he proceeded to the subject of her cure--to free her from the powerful spell under which she was still labouring; to cure her vain desire to hear again the mysterious music, and to see the handsome musician, which so disturbed her peace. Lastly, as what she had to do must be performed at the Kieve, and in sight of the waterfall, at the full of the moon, he offered to accompany her to the spot. As the moon would be at the full that very night, he said no time should be lost; it was therefore agreed that they should set out together. fore departing, old Swillpot tucked the jar, containing the remainder of the metheglin, under his arm, and so the speedily gained the place of their destination.
But what were the fears and astonishment of Serena, when, on arriving there, the wizard directed her to climb up to the top of the rock which forms the natural arch in front of the waterfall, and lies directly over what may truly be styled a boiling and foaming cauldron. And, when there, he directed her to perform certain magical rites to appease the Pixies; for Pixies, he still declared, had been her foes.
In what all these rites consisted, I do not know; but, watching the moon till a cloud passed over her disk, and then repeating certain words of mysterious signification, were among them. Lastly, she was enjoined to stay on the rock till she heard, even above the fall of the water, the scream of a night-bird that was said to haunt the ravine, and there to make the most dismal shrieks that could be imagined. No one knew where it had a nest. It was popularly believed to be the spirit of the great enchanter, Merlin, thus inhabiting the body of a bird for a certain term of years. Merlin, it was said, had been a cruel enemy to the Pixies. Serena was directed to watch; and when she saw something dark come sailing over the rocks above, on out-spread wings, and with loud screams prepare to dash itself into the midst of the fall, then was she to address it in a form of words, which the wizard instructed her how to repeat. This done, she might descend from the rock, and would no more be troubled with any mischievous spells or fancies.
Serena, with much fear, and a quickly-beating heart, managed to ascend the rock, and to take her perilous stand upon the natural arch above the rapid and roaring flood: she did all as commanded. At length she heard a flapping of wings, and saw the dark form of a majestic bird, whose plumage shone bright and silvery in the moonbeams, rise from among the trees. Instantly she addressed it, in a firm and plaintive tone--
Thy nest, and seek St. Nathan's Kieve;
Bird of power o'er Pixy dells,
Disenchant me from their spells.
Give me freedom from their thrall,
Ere thou seek'st yon waterfall;
Drive from me idle Fancy's mood,
Or drown my folly in the flood."
Serena, as she spoke these last words, raised herself hastily from the summit of the rock on which she was so precariously placed. At that very moment the bird with outspread wings dashed against the moon-illumined waterfall, she lost her footing and tottered. Before she could regain her balance, old Swillpot, as fast as he could make the effort, stepped forward to give assistance. Unfortunately whilst Serena had been performing the rites he dictated, in order to keep the night air from chilling his stomach, he had emptied into it the remaining half of the jar of metheglin, so that he was a little more unsteady than before; and neither his foot in stepping, nor his hand in helping, were so much under his control as at all to be sure of their purpose; and he bungled so terribly in trying to give aid, that his foot slipped, and having caught Serena by the arm, down he pushed her; and both were soused into the water. Swillpot was nearer to the banks, and some how or other managed to scramble out.
But not so the unfortunate young lady; she had been pushed so completely over the rock by the tipsy wizard, that she fell at once into a pool which lay immediately below it; the most deep and dangerous in the whole course of the stream. Poor Serena was seen no more. But long did her memory survive her unhappy fate; long was her story told as a sad example of so young and so lovely a creature being led into folly by her vain and idle curiosity.
Old Swillpot, who was not of an unkind heart, though he did not possess a very clear head, was so shocked and concerned at what had happened, owing to his having bewildered his brains and rendered his footing unsteady, by making too free with the metheglin; that, as the very severest penance he could possibly inflict upon himself, he renounced strong drink for ever after. And old nurse Judy was so vexed and angry with herself for having recommended her young lady to go and consult him, and for sending such an old fool, as she called him, her best and stoutest metheglin, that she took the resolution never more to give away one drop of it to any mortal creature; and so well did she observe this determination that it never more went down any throat but her own. And as a reward for keeping so strictly her purpose, old Swillpot's red nose seemed to have passed from his face to her own.
It is said to this day, when the moon is at the full, and her beams sparkle, like filaments of diamonds on the beautiful waterfall of Nathan's Kieve, Serena's Silver Bell is heard ringing in a slow and melancholy cadence, like a funeral chime; though the chapel to which it was given has long been destroyed, and neither the belfry nor bell are any more to be found.
From A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West by Anna Eliza Bray, 1854. Illustration by Hablot K. Browne.
Posted by Alex Langstone at 12:53