The Old Wandering Droll-Teller of the Lizard, and his Story of the Mermaid and the Man of Cury
(Given as an example of the manner in which old Cornish Drolls were constructed, on some simple and well-known Legends.)
"To you will I give as much of gold As for more than your life will endure; And of pearls and precious stones handfuls; And all shall be so pure." Duke Magnus, Duke Magnus, plight thee to me, I pray you still so freely; Say me not may, but yes, yes! "I am a King's son so good How can I let you gain me? You dwell not on land, but in the flood, Which would not with me agree."—Duke Magnus and the Mermaid.
From a period, more remote than is now remembered, to the present time, some members of the family called Lutey, who for the most part, resided in the parish of Cury, or its vicinity, have been noted conjurors or white witches. They have long been known, all over the west, as the "Pellar Family." The word Pellar is probably an abridgment of repeller, derived from their reputed power in counteracting the malign influences of sorcery and witchcraft.
According to an oft-told story, the wonderful gifts of this family were acquired by a fortunate ancestor, who had the luck to find a mermaid (here by us pronounced meremaid), left high and dry on a rock by the ebbing tide. Some forty years ago, uncle Anthony James—an old blind man, belonging to the neighbourhood of the gifted family—with his dog, and a boy who led him, used to make their yearly tour of the country as regularly as the seasons came round. This venerable wanderer, in his youth, had been a soldier, and had then visited many foreign lands, about which he had much to tell; but his descriptions of outlandish people and places were just as much fashioned after his own imagination, as were the embellishments of the legends he related, and the airs he composed for many old ballads which he and his boy sing to the melody of the old droll-teller's crowd (fiddle). However, in all the farm houses, where this old wanderer rested on his journey, he and his companions received a hearty welcome, for the sake of his music and above all for his stories, the substance of most of which every one knew by heart, yet they liked to hear these old legends again and again, because he, or some of his audience, had always something new to add, by way of fashioning out the droll, or to display their inventive powers. Uncle Anthony had much to tell about ghosts, witchcraft, and conjuration; curious traditions connected with some old families formed the substance of many strange tales; he had always something new to relate concerning the extraordinary powers of his neighbours, the white-witches of Cury, and of many other things which were equally wonderful and fraught with interest to us simple folks at the Land's-End. Among all the favourite legends, related by this humble relic of our old bards, none were oftener told, or more varied in the telling, by adding to the story whatever struck his fancy at the moment, than the following
DROLL OF THE MEREMAID
Hundreds of years ago, there lived somewhere near the Lizard Point a man called Lutey or Luty, who farmed a few acres of ground near the seashore, and followed fishing and smuggling as well, when it suited the time. One summer's evening, seeing from the cliff, where he had just finished his day's work of cutting turf, that the tide was far out, he sauntered down over the sands, near his dwelling, in search of any wreck which might have been cast ashore by the flood; at the same time he was cursing the bad luck, and murmuring because a god-send worth securing hadn't been sent to the Lizard cliffs for a long while.
Finding nothing on the sands worth picking up, Lutey turned to go home, when he heard a plaintive sound, like the wailing of a woman or the crying of a child, which seemed to come from seaward; going in the direction of the cry, he came near some rocks which were covered by the sea at high water, but now, about half ebb and being spring tides, the waves were a furlong or more distant from them. Passing round to the seaward side of these rocks, he saw what appeared to him a fairer woman than he had ever beheld before. As yet, he perceived little more than her head and shoulders, because all the lower part of her figure was hidden by the ore-weed (sea-weed; query, is ore a corruption of mor, sea?) which grew out from the rocks, and spread around the fair one in the pullan (pool) of sea-water that yet remained in a hollow at the foot of the rocks. Her golden-coloured hair, falling over her shoulders and floating on the water, shone like the sunbeams on the sea. The little he saw of her skin showed that it was smooth and clear as a polished shell. As the comely creature, still making a mournful wail, looked intently on the distant and ebbing sea, Lutey remained some minutes, admiring her unperceived. He longed to assuage her grief, but, not knowing how to comfort her, and afraid of frightening her into fits by coming too suddenly on her, he coughed and ahem’d to call her attention before he approached any nearer.
Looking round and catching a glimpse of the man, she uttered a more unearthly yell than ever, and then gliding down from the ledge, on which she reclined, into the pullan, all but her beautiful head and swan-like neck was hidden under the water and the ore-weed.
"My dear creature," says Lutey, "don't ’e be afraid of me, for I'm a sober and staid married man, near thirty years of age. Have ’e lost your clothes? I don't see any, anywhere! Now, what shall I do to comfort ’e? My turtle-dove, I wouldn't hurt ’e for the world," says Lutey, as he edged a little nearer. He couldn't take his eyes from the beautiful creature for the life of him. The fair one, too, on hearing his soothing words, stayed her crying, and, when she looked on him, her eyes shone like the brightest of stars on a dark night. Lutey drew near the edge of the pullan and, looking into the water, he discovered the fan of a fish's tail quivering and shaking amongst the floating ore-weed: then, he knew that the fair one was a mermaid. He never had so near a view of one before, though he had often seen them, and heard them singing, of moonlight nights, at a distance, over the water.
"Now my lovely maid of the waves," said he, "what shall I do for ’e? Speak but the word; or give me a sign, if you don't know our Cornish tongue."
"Kind good man," she replied, "we people of the ocean understand all sorts of tongues, as we visit the shores of every country, and all the tribes of earth pass over our domain; besides, our hearing is so good that we catch what is said on the land when we are miles away over the flood. You may be scared, perhaps," she continued, "to see me simply dressed, like naked truth, because your females are always covered with such things as would sadly hinder our sporting in the waves."
"No, my darling, I am’at the least bit frightened to see ’e without your dress and petticoats on," Luty replied, as he still drew nearer, and continued as kindly as possible to say, "now my dear, dont ’e hide your handsome figure in the pullan any longer, but sit up and tell me what makes ’e grieve so?"
The mermaid rose out of the water, seated herself on a ledge of the rock, combed back her golden ringlets from her face, and then Lutey observed that her hair was so abundant that it fell around and covered her figure like an ample robe of glittering gold. When this simple toilette was settled, she sighed and said, "Oh! unlucky mermaid that I am; know, good man, that only three hours ago I left my husband soundly sleeping on a bed of soft and sweet sea-flowers, with our children sporting round him. I charged the eldest to be sure and keep the shrimps and sea-fleas, that they mightn't get into their daddy's ears and nose to disturb his rest. "Now take care," I told them, "that the crabs don't pinch your dad's tail and wake hint up, whilst I'm away to get ’e something nice for supper, and if you be good children I'll bring ’e home some pretty young dolphins and sea-devils for ’e to play with. Yet noble youth of the land," she went on to say, "with all my care I very much fear my merman may wake up and want something to eat before I get home. I ought to know when the tide leaves every rock on the coast, yet I was so stupid as to remain here looking at myself in the pullan as I combed the broken ore-weed, shrimps, crabs, and sea-fleas out of my hair, without observing, till a few minutes since, that the sea had gone out so far as to leave a bar of dry sand between me and the waves."
"Yet why should ’e be in such trouble, my heart's own dear?" Lutey asked, "Can't ’e wait here, and I'll bear ye company till the tide comes in, when you may swim away home at your ease?"
"Oh, no, I want to get back before the turn of the tide; because, then, my husband and all the rest of the mermen are sure to wake up hungry and look for their suppers; an, can ’e believe it of my monster (he looks a monster indeed compared with you), that if I am not then at hand with half-a-dozen fine mullets, a few scores of mackerel, or something else equally nice to suit his dainty stomach, when he awakes with the appetite of a shark, he's sure to eat some of our pretty children. Mermen and maidens would be as plenty in the sea as herrings if their gluttons of fathers didn't gobble up the tender babes. Score of my dear ones have gone through his ugly jaws, never to come out alive."
"I'm very sorry for your sad bereavements," said Lutey. "Yet why don't the young fry start off on their own hook?"
"Ah! my dear," said she, "they love their pa, and don't think, poor simple innocents, when they hear him whistling a lively tune, that it's only to decoy them around him, and they, so fond of music, get close about his face, rest their ears on his lips, then he opens his great mouth like a cod's, and into the trap they go. If you have the natural feelings of a tender parent you can understand," she said, after sobbing as if her heart were ready to burst, "that, for my dear children's sakes, I'm anxious to get home in an hour or so, by which time it will be near low water; else, I should be delighted to stay here all night, and have a chat with you, for I have often wished, and wished in vain, that the powers had made for me a husband, with two tails, like you, or with a tail split into what you call your legs; they are so handy for passing over dry land! Ah," she sighed, "what wouldn't I give to have a pair of tails like unto you, that I might come on the land and examine, at my ease, all the strange and beautiful creatures which we view from the waves. If you will," she continued, "but serve me now, for ten minutes only, by taking me over the sands to the sea, I'll grant to you and yours any three wishes you may desire; but there's no time to spare,—no, not a minute," said she, in taking from her hair a golden comb in a handle of pearl, which she gave to Lutey, saying, "Here, my dear, keep this as a token of my faith; I'd give ’e my glass, too, had I not left that at home to make my monster think that I didn't intend to swim far away. Now mind," she said, as Lutey put the comb into his pocket, "whenever you wish me to direct you, in any difficulty, you have only to pass that comb through the sea three times, calling me as often, and I'll come to ye on the next flood tide. My name is Morvena, which, in the language of this part of the world, at the time I was named, meant sea-woman. You can't forget it, because you have still many names much like it among ye."
Lutey was so charmed with the dulcet melody of the mermaid's voice that he remained listening to her flutelike tones, and, looking into her languishing sea-green eyes till he was like one enchanted, and ready to do everything she desired; so stopping down, he took the mermaid in his arms, that he might carry her out to sea.
Lutey being a powerful fellow, he bore the mermaid easily on his left arm, she encircling his neck with her right. They proceeded thus, over the sands, some minutes before he made up his mind what to wish for. He had heard of a man who, meeting with similar luck, wished that all he touched might turn to gold, and knew the fatal result of his thoughtless wish, and of the bad luck which happened to several others whose selfish desires were gratified. As all the wishes he could remember ended badly, he puzzled his head to think of something new, and, long before he came to any conclusion, the mermaid said,
"Come, my good man, lose no more time, but tell me for what three things do ye wish? Will you have long life, strength, and riches?"
"No," says he, "I only wish for the power to do good to my neighbours—first that I may be able to break the spells of witchcraft; secondly that I may have such power over familiar spirits as to compel them to inform me of all I desire to know for the benefit of others; thirdly, that these good gifts may continue in my family for ever."
The mermaid promised that he and his should ever possess these rare endowments, and that, for the sake of his unselfish desires, none of his posterity should ever come to want. They had still a long way to go before they reached the sea. As they went slowly along, the mermaid told him of their beautiful dwellings, and of the pleasant life they led beneath the flood. "In our cool caverns we have everything one needs," said she, "and much more. The walls of our abodes are encrusted with coral and amber, entwined with sea-flowers of every hue, and their floors are all strewn with pearls. The roof sparkles of diamonds, and other gems of such brightness that their rays make our deep grots in the ocean hillsides, as light as day." Then, embracing Lutey with both her arms round his neck, she continued, "Come with me, love, and see the beauty of the mermaid's dwellings. Yet the ornaments, with which we take the most delight to embellish our halls and chambers, are the noble sons and fair daughters of earth, whom the wind and waves send in foundered ships to our abodes. Come, I will show you thousands of handsome bodies so embalmed, in a way only known to ourselves, with choice salts and rare spices, that they look more beautiful than when they breathed, as you will say when you see them reposing on beds of amber, coral, and pearl, decked with rich stuffs, and surrounded by heaps of silver and gold for which they ventured to traverse our domain. Aye, and when you see their limbs all adorned with glistening gems, move gracefully to and fro with the motion of the waves, you will think they still live."
"Perhaps I should think them all very fine," Lutey replied, "yet faix (faith) I'd rather find in your dwellings, a few of the puncheons of rum that must often come down to ye in the holds of sunken ships, and one would think you'd be glad to get them in such a cold wet place as you live in! What may ’e do with all the good liquor, tobacco, and other nice things that find their way down below?"
"Yes indeed," she answered, "it would do your heart good to see the casks of brandy, kegs of Hollands, pipes of wine, and puncheons of rum that come to our territory. We take a shellful now and then to warm out stomachs, but there's any quantity below for you, so come along, come."
"I would like to go very well," says Lutey, "but surely I should be drowned, or smothered, under the water."
"Don't ’e believe it," said she, "you know that we women of the sea can do wonders. I can fashion ’e a pair of gills; yes, in less than five minutes I'll make you such a pair as will enable ’e to live in the water as much at your ease as a cod or a conger. The beauty of your handsome face will not be injured, because your beard and whiskers will hide the small slits required to be made under your chin. Besides, when you have seen all you would like to see, or get tired of my company and life in the water, you can return to land and bring back with you as much of our treasures as you like, so come along, love."
"To be sure," said Lutey, "your company, the liquor, and riches below are very tempting; yet I can't quite make up my mind."
The time passed in this kind of talk till Lutey, wading through the sea (now above his knees), brought her near the breakers, and he felt so charmed with the mermaid's beauty and enchanted by the music of her voice that he was inclined to plunge with her into the waves. One can't, now, tell the half of what she said to allure the man to her home beneath the flood. The mermaid's sea-green eyes sparkled as she saw the man was all but in her power. Then, just in the nick of time, his dog, which had followed unnoticed, barked and howled so loud, that the charmed man looked round, and, when he saw the smoke curling up from his chimney, the cows in the fields, and everything looking so beautiful on the green land, the spell of the mermaid's song was broken. He tried long in vain to free himself from her close embrace, for he now looked with loathing on her fishy tail, scaly body, and sea-green eyes, till he roared out in agony, "Good Lord deliver me from this devil of a fish!" Then, rousing from his stupor, with his right hand he snatched his knife from his girdle, and, flashing the bright steel before the mermaid's eyes, "By God," said he, "I'll cut your throat and rip out your heart if you don't unclasp your arms from my neck, and uncoil your conger-tail from my legs."
Lutey's prayer was heard, and the sight of the bright steel (which, they say, has power against enchantments and over evil beings), made the mermaid drop from his neck into the sea. Still looking towards him, she swam away, singing in her plaintive tone, "Farewell my sweet, for nine long years, then I'll come for thee my love."
Lutey had barely the strength to wade out of the sea, and reach, before dark, a sown (cavern) in the cliff, where he usually kept a few tubs of liquor, buried in the sand, under any lumber of wreck, secured there above high-water mark. The weary and bewildered man took a gimlet from his pocket, spiled an anker of brandy, fixed a quill in the hole, and sucked a little of the liquor to refresh himself; then lay down among some old sails and was soon asleep.
In the meantime, dame Lutey passed rather an anxious time, because her husband hadn't been home to supper, which the good man never missed, though he often remained out all night on the sands to look after wreck, or with smugglers or customers in the "sown" and on the water. So, as there was neither sight nor sign of him when breakfast was ready, she went down to the "sown" and there she found her man fast asleep.
"Come! wake up," said she; "and what made thee stay down here without thy supper? Thee hast had a drop too much I expect!"
"No by gamblers," said he, rising up and staring round, "but am I here in the "sown" or am I in a cavern at the bottom of the sea? And are you my dear Morcenna? Ef you are, give me a hornful of rum, do; but you don't look like her."
"No indeed," said the wife, "they cale me An Betty Lutey, and, what's more, I never heard tell of the lass thee art dreaman about before."
"Well then, of thee art my old woman, thee hast had a narrow escape, I can tell thee, of being left as bad as a widow and the poor children orphans, this very night." Then on the way home, he related how he found a stranded mermaid; that for taking her out to sea, she had promised to grant his three wishes, and given him the comb (which he showed his wife) as a token; "but," said he, "if it hadn't been for the howling of our dog Venture, to rouse me out of the trance, and make me see how far I was from land, as sure as a gun I should now be with the mermaidens drinkan rum or huntan sharks at the bottom of the sea." When Lutey had related all particulars, he charged his wife not to say anything about it to the neighbours, as some of them, perhaps, wouldn't credit his strange adventure; but she, unable to rest with such a burden on her mind, as soon as her husband went away to his work, she trotted round half the parish to tell the story, as a great secret,to all the courtseying old women she could find, and showed them what Lutey gave her as the mermaid's comb, to make the story good. The wonder (always told by the old gossips as a great secret) was talked of far and near in the course of a few weeks, and very soon folks, who were bewitched or otherwise afflicted, came in crowds to be helped by the new pellar or conjuror. Although Luty had parted from the mermaid in a very ungracious manner, yet he found that she was true to her promise. It was also soon discovered that he was endowed with far more than the ordinary white-witch's skill. Yet the pellar dearly purchased the sea-woman's favours. Nine years after, to the day on which Lutey bore her to the water, he and a comrade were out fishing one clear moonlight night; though the weather was calm and the water smooth as a glass, about midnight the sea suddenly arose around their boat, and in the foam of the curling waves they saw a mermaid approach them, with all her body, above the waist, out of the water, and her golden hair floating behind and around her.
"My hour is come," said Lutey, the moment he saw her; and, rising like one distraught, he plunged into the sea, swam with the mermaid a little way, then they both sunk, and the sea became as smooth as ever.
Lutey's body was never found, and, in spite of every precaution, once in nine years, some of his descendants find a grave in the sea.
Here ends the droll-teller's story.
(That the extraordinary powers, said to have been conferred by the mermaid, have continued with this gifted race, down to the present day, there are hundreds alive to testify among those who yearly consult Tammy Blee and J. Thomas. This worthy couple of white witches seem to be equally successful in the exercise of their art, though many say that the former only is of the true old pellar blood. So strong was the faith in this woman's power, a short time since, that many believed she could raise spirits from their graves. We have heard of a person who employed, and well paid her, for that purpose, not seven years ago. We will relate this adventure when we learn more particulars of the transaction, which terminated in a way Tammy little wished or expected.
It is somewhat remarkable that, from a very remote period, the parish of Cury, or its vicinity, has been the head quarters of persons noted for performing extraordinary cures. There have been various opinions with respect to the derivation of the name of Cury (pron. Cure). We will suggest another, which may be as probable as some others. It has occurred to us that the name of this place may be derived either from St. Gueryr, or from some other Cornish saint, equally celebrated, in ancient times, for effecting miraculous cures, as we find the following passages of great interest to Cornish antiquaries) in Alfred le Grand, by Guizot:—
"Un jour, tout en chassant, il (Alfred) était arrivê dans le Cornwall prés de Liskeard: il vit un village et le clocher d’une église; il y entra. Là était enterré un saint homme du pays de Cornwall, appelé Saint Guéryr, nom de bon augure pour un malade; car il avait au temps d’ Alfred et garde encore aujourd’ hui, dans le patois du canton, le même sens que le mot français guérir."
Alfred, as is well known, was afflicted with a disease which had hitherto baffled all ordinary means of cure. May not the patron of Cury be the saint referred to in the above quotation? There is also much curious matter about Alfred's cousin, St. Neote, in the above work).
from Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 1, by William Bottrell
Illustration taken from "Legend Land, Volume 2. Being a Collection of Some of The Old Tales Told in Those Western Parts of Britain Served by The Great Western Railway"