Sunday, 25 May 2014

The Pirate-Wrecker and the Death Ship

ONE lovely evening in the autumn, a strange ship was seen at a short distance from Cape Cornwall. The little wind there was blew from the land, but she did not avail herself of it. She was evidently permitted to drift with the tide, which was flowing southward, and curving in round Whitesand Bay towards the Land's-End. The vessel, from her peculiar rig, created no small amount of alarm amongst the fishermen, since it told them that she was manned by pirates; and a large body of men and women watched her movements from behind the rocks at Caraglose. At length, when within a couple of pistol-shots off the shore, a boat was lowered and manned. Then a man, whose limited movements show him to be heavily ironed, was brought to the side of the ship and evidently forced--for several pistols were held at his head--into the boat, which then rowed rapidly to the shore in Priest's Cove. The waves of the Atlantic Ocean fell so gently on the strand, that there was no difficulty in beaching the boat. The prisoner was made to stand up, and his ponderous chains were removed from his arms and ankles. In a frenzy of passion he attacked the sailors, but they were too many and too strong for him, and the fight terminated by his being thrown into the water, and left to scramble up on the dry sands. They pushed the boat off with a wild shout, and this man stood uttering fearful imprecations on his former comrades.

It subsequently became known that this man was so monstrously wicked that even the pirates would no longer endure him, and hence they had recourse to this means of ridding themselves of him.

It is not necessary to tell how this wretch settled himself at Tregaseal, and lived by a system of wrecking, pursued with unheard-of cruelties and cunning. "It's too frightful to tell," says my correspondent, "what was said about his doings. We scarcely believed half of the vile things we heard, till we saw what took place at his death. But one can't say he died; because he was taken off bodily. We shall never know the scores, perhaps hundreds, of ships that old sinner has brought on the cliffs, by fastening his lantern to the neck of his horse, with its head tied close to the forefoot. The horse, when driven along the cliff, would, by its motion, cause the lantern to be taken for the stern-light of a ship; then the vessel would come right in on the rocks, since those on board would expect to find plenty of sea-room; and, if any of the poor sailors escaped a watery grave, the old wretch would give them a worse death, by knocking them on the head with his hatchet, or cutting off their hands as they tried to grasp the ledges of the rocks.

A life of extreme wickedness was at length closed with circumstances of unusual terror--so terrible, that the story is told with feelings of awe even at the present day. The old wretch fought lustily with death, but at length the time of his departure came. It was in the time of the barley-harvest. Two men were in a field on the cliff, a little below the house, mowing. A universal calm prevailed, and there was not a breath of wind to stir the corn. Suddenly a breeze passed by them, and they heard the words, "The time is come, but the man isn't come." These words appeared to float in the breeze from the sea, and consequently it attracted their attention. Looking out to sea, they saw a black, heavy, square-rigged ship, with all her sails set, coming in against wind and tide, and not a hand to be seen on board. The sky became black as night around the ship, and as she came under the cliff--and she came so close that the top of the masts could scarcely be perceived--the darkness resolved itself into a lurid storm-cloud, which extended high into the air. The sun shone brilliantly over the country, except on the house of the pirate at Tregaseal--that was wrapt in the deep shadow of the cloud.

The men, in terror, left their work; they found all the neighbours gathered around the door of the pirate's cottage, none of them daring to enter it. Parson--had been sent for by the terrified peasants, this divine being celebrated for his power of driving away evil spirits.

The dying wrecker was in a state of agony, crying out, in tones of the most intense terror, "The devil is tearing at me with nails like the claws of a hawk Put out the sailors with their bloody hands !" and using, in the paroxysms of pain, the most profane imprecations. The parson, the doctor, and two of the bravest of the fishermen, were the only persons in the room. They related that at one moment the room was as dark as the grave, and that at the next it was so light that every hair on the old man's head could be seen standing on end. The parson used all his influence to dispel the evil spirit. His powers were so potent that he reduced the devil to the size of a fly, but he could not put him out of the room. All this time the room appeared as if filled with the sea, with the waves surging violently to and fro, and one could hear the breakers roaring, as if standing on the edge of the cliff in a storm. At last there was a fearful crash of thunder, and a blaze of the intenest lightning. The house appeared on fire, and the ground shook, as if with an earthquake. All rushed in terror from the house, leaving the dying man to his fate.

The storm raged with fearful violence, but appeared to contract its dimensions. The black cloud, which was first seen to come in with the black ship, was moving, with a violent internal motion, over the wrecker's house. The cloud rolled together, smaller ana smaller, and suddenly, with the blast of a whirlwind, it passed from Tregaseal to the ship, and she was impelled, amidst the flashes of lightning and roarings of thunder, away over the sea.
The dead body of the pirate-wrecker lay a ghastly spectacle, with eyes expanded and the mouth partly open, still retaining the aspect of his last mortal terror. As every one hated him, they all desired to remove his corpse as rapidly as possible from the sight of man. A rude coffin was rapidly prepared, and the body was carefully cased in its boards. They tell me the coffin was carried to the churchyard, but that it was too light to have contained the body, and that it was followed by a black pig, which joined the company forming the procession, nobody knew where, and disappeared nobody knew when. When they reached the church stile, a storm, similar in its character to that which heralded the wrecker's death, came on. The bearers of the coffin were obliged to leave it without the churchyard stile, and rush into the church for safety. The storm lasted long and raged with violence, and all was as dark as night. A sudden blaze of light, more vivid than before, was seen, and those who had the hardihood to look out saw that the lightning had set fire to the coffin, and it was being borne away through the air, blazing and whirling wildly in the grasp of such a whirlwind as no man ever witnessed before or since.

 from Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt

The Wrecker and the Death Ship.

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  by William Bottrell

Friday, 9 May 2014

The Legend of the Padstow Doombar

In a far-away time Tristram Bird of Padstow bought a gun at a little shop in the quaint old market which in those days opened to the quay, the winding river, and the St. Minver sand-hills. When he had bought his gun he began forthwith to shoot birds and other poor little creatures.

After a while he grew more ambitious, and told the fair young maids of Padstow that he wanted to shoot a seal or something more worthy of his gun; and so one bright morning he made his way down to Hawker’s Cove, near the mouth of the harbour. [54]
When Tristram got there he looked about him to see what he could shoot, and the first thing he saw was a young maid sitting all alone on a rock, combing her hair with a sea-green comb.

He was so overcome at such an unexpected sight that he quite forgot what had brought him to the cove, and could do nothing but stare.

The rock on which the maiden sat was covered with seaweed, and surrounded by a big pool, called in that distant time the Mermaid’s Glass.

She was apparently unconscious that a good-looking young man was gazing at her with his bold dark eyes, and as she combed her long and beautiful hair she leaned over the pool and looked at herself in the Mermaid’s Glass, and the face reflected in it was startling in its beauty and charm.

Tristram Bird was very tall—six feet three in his stockings—and being such a tall young man, he could see over the maiden’s head into the pool, and the face in its setting of golden hair reflected in its clear depths entirely bewitched him, and so did her graceful form, which was partly veiled in a golden raiment of her own beautiful hair.

As he stood gazing at the bewitching face looking up from the Mermaid’s Glass, its owner suddenly glanced over her shoulder, and saw Tristram staring at her.

‘Good-morning to you, fair maid,’ he said, still keeping his bold dark eyes fixed upon her, telling himself as he gazed that her face was even more bewitching than was its reflection.

‘Good-morning, sir,’ said she.
 ‘Doing your toilet out in the open,’ he said.
 ‘Yes,’ quoth she, wondering who the handsome youth could be and how he came to be there.
 ‘Your hair is worth combing,’ he said.
‘Is it?’ said she.
 ‘It is, my dear,’ he said. ‘’Tis the colour of oats waiting for the sickle.’
‘Is it?’ quoth she.
‘Yes; and no prettier face ever looked into the Mermaid’s Glass.’
‘How do you know?’ asked she.
‘My heart told me so,’ he said, coming a step or two nearer the pool, ‘and so did my eyes when I saw its reflection looking up from the water. It bewitched me, sweet.’
‘Did it?’ laughed she, with a tilt of her round young chin.
‘Yes,’ he said, with an answering laugh, drawing another step nearer the pool.
‘It does not take a man of your breed long to fall in love,’ said the beautiful maid, with a toss of her golden head and a curl of her sweet red lips.
‘Who told you that?’ asked the love-sick young man, going red as a poppy.
‘Faces carry tales as well as little birds,’ quoth she.
‘If my face is a tale-bearer, it will tell you that I love you more than heart can say and tongue can tell,’ he said, drawing yet nearer the pool.
‘Will it?’ said she, combing her golden hair with her sea-green comb.
‘Indeed it will, and must,’ he said; ‘for I love you with all my soul, and I want you to give me a lock of your golden hair to wear over my heart.’
‘I do not give locks of my hair to landlubbers!’ cried she, with another toss of her proud young head and a scornful curl of her bright red lips.
‘A landlubber forsooth!’ he said, with an angry flash in his bold black eyes. ‘Who are you to speak so scornfully of a man of the land? One would think you were a maid of the sea.’
‘I am,’ quoth she, twining the tress of her hair she had combed round her shell-pink arm.
‘No seamaid is half as beautiful as you,’ said Tristram Bird, incredulous of what the maid said. ‘But, maid of the sea or maid of the land, I love you, sweet, and I want to have you to wife.’
‘Want must be your master, sir,’ said she, with an angry flash in her sea-blue eyes.
‘Love is my master, sweet maid,’ he said. ‘You are my love, and you have mastered me.’
‘Have I?’ said she, with a little toss of her golden head.
‘Yes,’ he said; ‘and now that I have told you you are my love, and I want you to marry me, you will give me a lock of your golden hair, won’t you, sweet?’
‘I cannot,’ said she.
‘Give me one little golden wire of your hair, if you won’t give me a lock,’ he pleaded, coming close to the edge of the pool. ‘I will make a golden ring of it,’ he said, ‘and wear it in the eye of the world.’
‘Will you?’ said she.
‘I will, my dear,’ he said.
‘But I will not give you a hair of my head even to make a ring with,’ said she.
‘Then give me one for a leading-string,’ he said. ‘If you will, my charmer, you shall take the end of it and lead me whithersoever you will.’
‘Even to the whipping-post?’ said she.
‘Even to the whipping-post,’ he said. ‘So you will be my fair bride, won’t ’ee, sweet? If you will consent to love me, I’ll make you as happy as the day is long.’
‘Will you?’ cried she, with a warning look in her sea-blue eyes and a strange little laugh.
‘Yes,’ he said, thinking her answer meant consent. ‘And I’ve got a dear little house at Higher St. Saviour’s, overlooking the river and Padstow Town low in the valley.’
‘Have you?’ said she.
‘I have,’ he said. ‘And the little house is full of handsome things—a chestful of linen which my own mother wove for me on her loom against the time I should be wed to a pretty maid like you, an oaken dresser with every shelf full of cloam,1 and a cosy [60]settle where we can sit hand in hand talking of our love. You will marry me soon, won’t you, sweet? The little house, and all that’s in it, is waiting for my charmer.’
‘Is it?’ cried the beautiful maid, taking up another tress of her golden hair, and slowly combing its silken length with her sea-green comb. ‘But let me tell you once and for ever, I would not marry you if you were decked in diamonds and your house a golden house, and everything in it made of jewels and set in gold.’
‘Wouldn’t you?’ cried Tristram Bird, in great amazement.
‘I wouldn’t,’ said she.
‘You are a strange young maid to refuse an upstanding young man like me,’ he said, ‘who has a house of his own, to say nothing of what is inside it. Why, dozens of fair young maidens up to Padstow would have me to-morrow if I was only to ax them.’
‘Then ax them,’ cried the beautiful maid, turning her proud young head, and looking out towards Pentire, gorgeous in its spring colouring.
‘But I can’t ask any of them to marry me when I love you,’ cried the infatuated youth. ‘You have bewitched me, sweet, and no other man shall have you. If I can’t have you living, I’ll have you dead. I came down to Hawker’s Cove to shoot something to startle the natives of Padstow Town, and they will be startled, shure ’nough, if I shoot a beautiful little vixen like you and take home to them.’
‘Shoot me if you will, but marry you I will not,’ said the beautiful maiden, with a scornful laugh. ‘But I give you fair warning that if you shoot me, as you say you will, you will rue the day you did your wicked deed. I will curse you and this beautiful haven, which has ever been a refuge for ships from the time that ships sailed upon the seas;’ and her sea-blue eyes looked up and down the estuary from the headlands that guarded its mouth to the farthest point of the blue, winding river.
‘I will shoot you in spite of the curse if you won’t consent to be mine,’ cried the bewitched young man.
‘I will never consent,’ said she.
‘Then I will shoot you now,’ he said, and Tristram Bird lifted his gun and fired, and the ball entered the poor young maiden’s soft pink side.
She put her hand to her side to cover the gaping wound the shot had made, and as she did so she pulled herself out of the water, and where the feet should have been was the glittering tail of a fish!
‘I have shot a poor young Mermaid,’ Tristram cried, ‘and woe is me!’ and he shivered like one when somebody is passing over his grave.
‘Yes, you have shot a poor Mermaid,’ said the maid of the sea, ‘and I am dying, and with my dying breath I curse this safe harbour, which was large enough to hold all the fighting ships of the Spanish Armada and your own, and it shall be cursed with a bar of sand which shall be a bar of doom to many a stately ship and many a noble life, and it shall stretch from the Mermaid’s Glass to Trebetherick Bay on the opposite shore, and prevent this haven of deep water from ever again becoming a floating harbour save at full tide. The Mermaid’s wraith will haunt the bar of doom her dying curse shall bring until your wicked deed has been fully avenged;’ and looking round the great bay of shining waters, laughing and rippling in the eye of the sun, she raised her arms and cursed the harbour of Padstow with a bitter curse, and Tristram shuddered as he listened, and as she cursed she uttered a wailing cry and fell back dead into the pool, and the water where she sank was dyed with her blood.'

‘I have committed a wicked deed,’ said Tristram Bird, gazing into the blood-stained pool, ‘and verily all be punished for my sin;’ and he turned away with the fear of coming doom in his heart.

As he went up the cove and along the top of the cliffs the distressful, wailing cry of the Mermaid seemed to follow him, and the sky gloomed all around as he went, and the sea moaned a dreadful moan as it came up the bay.

When he reached Tregirls, overlooking the Cove, he stood by the gate for a minute and gazed out over the beautiful harbour. The sea, which only half an hour ago was as blue as the eyes of the seamaid he had shot, and full of smiles and laughter, was now black as ash-buds, save where a golden streak lay across the water from Hawker’s Cove to Trebetherick Bay.

‘The Mermaid’s curse is already working,’ moaned Tristram Bird, and he fled through the lane leading to Padstow as if a death-hound was after him.

When he reached Place House he met a little crowd of Padstow maids going out flower-gathering.

‘Whither away so fast, Tristram Bird?’ asked a little maid. ‘You aren’t driving a teem of snails this time, ’tis plain to see. Where hast thou been?’
‘Need you ask?’ said a pert young girl. ‘He has been away shooting something to startle the maids of Padstow with! What strange new creature did you shoot, Tristram Bird?’
‘A wonderful creature with eyes like blue fire,’ returned the unhappy youth, looking away over St. Minver dunes towards the Tors—’a sweet, soft creature with beautiful hair, every wire of which was a sunbeam of gold, and her face was the loveliest I ever beheld. It clean bewitched me.’
‘A beautiful maid like that, and yet you shot her?’ cried all the young maids of Padstow Town.
‘Yes, I shot her, to my undoing and the undoing of our fair haven,’ groaned Tristram Bird; and he told them all about it—where he had seen the beautiful Mermaid, of his bewitchment from the moment he saw her face of haunting charm looking up at him from the Mermaid’s Glass, and of the curse she uttered ere she fell back dead into the pool.
All the smiles went out of the bright faces of the Padstow maids, as he told his tale.
‘What a pity, Tristram Bird, you should have been so foolish as to shoot a Mermaid!’ they said; and they did not go and pick flowers as they had intended, but went back to their homes instead, and Tristram Bird went on to Higher St. Saviour’s, where he lived in a little house overlooking Padstow Town nestling like a bird in its nest.
A fearful gale blew on the night of the day Tristram Bird shot the Mermaid, and all the next day, too, and the next night; and through the awful howling of the gale was heard the bellowing of the wind-tormented sea.
Such a terrible storm had never been known at Padstow Town within the memory of man, so the old Granfer men said, and never a gale lasted so long.
When the wind went down the natives of Padstow ventured out to see what the gale had wrought, and sad was the havoc it had made; and some went out to Chapel Stile, where a small chapel stood overlooking the haven, and what should meet their horrified gaze but a terrible bar of sand which the Mermaid’s curse had brought there; and it stretched from Hawker’s Cove to the opposite shore, and what was worse, the great sand-bar was covered with wrecks of ships and bodies of drowned men.

‘It is the bar of doom brought there by the fearful curse of the maid of the sea whom I shot with my brand-new gun,’ cried Tristram Bird, who was one of the first to reach the stile when the wind had gone drown; and he told them all, as he had told the Padstow maids, of what the Mermaid had said before and after he had shot her. ‘And because of the wicked deed I did,’ he said, ‘I have brought a curse on my native town, and Padstow will never be blessed with a safe and beautiful harbour till the poor Mermaid’s death be avenged.’

There was a dreadful silence after Tristram Bird had spoken, and the men and women of Padstow Town gazed at each other, troubled and sad, knowing that what the youth, who had been bewitched by the Mermaid’s face, had said was true, for there below them was the great bar of sand dividing the outer harbour from the inner, and on it lay the masts and spars of broken ships and the lifeless bodies of the drowned. The wind was quiet, but the sea was still breaking and roaring on the back of the Doombar, and as the waves thundered and broke, a wailing cry sounded forth, like the wail that Tristram heard when the Mermaid disappeared under the water; it sounded like the distressful cry of a woman bewailing her dead, and all who heard shivered and shook, and both old and young looked down on the Doombar with dread in their eyes, but they saw nothing but the dead bodies of the sailors and their broken ships.

‘It is the Mermaid’s wraith,’ cried an old Granfer man.
‘It is the Mermaid’s wraith,’ cried an old Granfer man, leaning against the grey walls of the ancient chapel, ‘and she is wailing the wail of the drowned; and, mark my words, everyone,’ letting his eyes wander from one face to another, ‘each time a ship is caught on this dreadful bar and lives are lost—as lost they will be—the Mermaid’s wraith will bewail the drowned.’

And it came to pass as the old man said, and whenever vessels are wrecked on that fateful bar of sand lying across the mouth of Padstow Harbour and men are drowned, it is told that the Mermaid’s distressful cry is still heard bewailing the poor dead sailors.

From: North Cornwall Faries and Legends by Enys Tregarthen