Sacred Texts  Legends and Sagas  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 

Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 1, by William Bottrell, [1870], at

p. 90

The White Witch, or Charmer of Zennor

Part Second

"I think I'd like to be a witch,
   To sail upon the sea,
 In a tub or sieve, in storm or shine,
   ’Mid wild waves flashing free.

 I'd catch the billows by the mane,
   The bounding billows and strong,
 Goad them, and curb them, or trample them down,
   Or lull them with a song.

 I'd churn the sea, I'd tether the winds,
   As suited my fancy best,
 Or call the thunder out of the sky,
   When the clouds were all at rest.

 I'd wreck great ships, if they crossed my path,
   With all the souls on board,
 Wretched, but not so wretched as I,
   In the judgements of the Lord.

 And then, maybe, I'd choose out one
   With his floating yellow hair,
 And save him, for being like my love,
   In the days when I was fair;

 In the days when I was fair and young,
   And innocent and true;
 And then, perhaps, I'd give him a kiss,
   And drown him in the blue,

 In the blue, blue sea, too good to live
 In a world so rotten and bad:
 I think I'd like to be a witch,
 To save me from going mad."—Anon.

Soon after, the good dame started for the streamwork, the young woman Mary Polteer ran down to the cliff, that she might put Margaret on her guard. The kids and lambs were seeking their nightly places of shelter among the ricks, and the bees were returning in haste to their hives, when the young woman entered the open door and saw the old dame's dwelling, as usual, nicely swept and sanded—her cat beside the pot of sweet margery, on the window-ledge, backing in the rays of the setting sun. The hares were jumping forth and back over the bars of the high-backed chair, in which Margaret was seated, reading from a conjuring-book, with large brass clasps and corners. Her book was full of such queer figures as are put in the almanacks (Moore's) every year, to show those who can understand such things, what is to take place for the next twelve months. Marget was, at the same time, watching the sun go down. When it touched the waves, she placed the hour-glass on the board, before she spoke to or noticed Mary.

p. 91

"What made you come here now, Mary?" said the dame, as she turned the hour-glass and replaced it on the table. "Before the sands are half down you may have to hear the evil which the stars in their courses mark for me during the next hour; yet you will witness how I shall overcome the evil ones by the aid of more powerful spirits, who are always at my command. Thou needn't fear no great harm under their, and my, protection."

Margaret closed and clasped her book; then, as the evening was rather cold, she placed her short red scarlet mantle over her shoulders, and her old-fashioned steeple-crowned hat on the pile of grey hair which she wore, turned up from her forehead, over a pad or cushion.

Margaret was as tall and upright as a grenadier, and her high headdress and steeple-crown made her appear taller still.

Then she took, from a rack over the chimney, an ivory-headed cane—a present from her lover. This was thought to be a conjuring-stick, because the neck of the ivory head was encircled with a broad flat silver plate, or ferule, on which were engraved five or more shields. These were charged with very uncouth figures on one, an eagle displayed

with two heads; on another, three rampant toads; on the others a goblet, spreading tree, and other such strange things as made everyone round about her believe there must be something magical in this stock thus ornamented, and this enchanter's staff was almost as much feared as the stuffed crocodile, mounted by a stuffed ape, which swung from the rafters overhead, and so contrived, by the cord, which suspended these choice presents from some old sailor friend, being passed over the key-beams to the talfat, that she could raise or lower them at pleasure.

Next she mounted a step or two of the stair-ladder, and took from the talfat floor a pair of old horse-pistols. These, ready-loaded, she placed on the book beside the hour-glass, and sat down with her cat on her shoulder.

It was not to be wondered at that Margaret’s strange surroundings, queer doings, and frightful threats and curses, when in her tantrums, made her poor ignorant neighbours fear her as a most powerful witch. Mary begged her not to use the pistols whatever might happen.

"Never fear," she replied; "there will be no bones broken; and if there be a trifle of blood shed, it will neither be thine nor mine. Why, the very sight of a pistol or smell of gunpowder is enough to frighten a troop of the cowardly villains who would join to molest a lone inoffensive old woman. Now, let them come, the wretches."

The words were scarcely out of her mouth before two men (old Bluebird and Tom the Grunter) came to the open door leading a great

p. 92

gaukum of a girl between them. Cherry squeaked out, "You have gauve (given) me fits, you have, you d—d old black witch, you!"

Old Bluebird looked in and said, "We want some fire from thy hearth, Mag, to heave the cheeld across that thee hast bewitched, and fire we will have too."

"So you shall if you come an inch farther," said Margaret, levelling a pistol at old Bluebird's head.

The men went back scared, dragging the maid Cherry with them.

"You old timdoodles, you, to be afraid of old Mag," says Katey the Kite, as she advanced to the door with a stone in her hand. "Now, by gambers, old witch, I'll fill thy shiman brass warmanpan with fire, and put thee to set upon an, that I will; and here go for thy smart dresser, chayne, and beautiful dome, that thee art so proud of," says Katey, as she threw a stone and smashed some of the crockery. But before she had time to pick up another stone, the old woman sent some shot into Katey the Kite, which made her sting.

Then Margaret picked up the stone with her left hand, and taking her staff in her right, went out and stood beside the rock before her door. The frightened men, and ten or a dozen women, fell back for fear of another charge of shot.

Margaret was little short of six feet, and, as she stood beside the rock, with the old-fashioned steeple-crown mounted on the upturned hair, and her short red mantle floating in the evening breeze, she appeared taller and stranger than ever. For a minute's space Margaret looked towards the setting sun, of which only a mere point of fire could be seen above the ocean, sending a stream of golden light over the waters from the verge of the horizon to the foot of the cliff on which these mad proceedings were taking place. The sea-fowl were nesting together in the cleeves, overhanging the surging waves; lambs and kids had gone to their resting-places among the rocks; the murmur of the sea was like a mother's gentle lullaby; the bright stars were beginning to shed their beauty on the evening air; everything, above and around, betokened peace and rest, except with these human animals who, through their superstitious fears, were ready to tear in pieces a poor half-crazy old woman.

Margaret seemed entranced, or lost in thought, till the last glimpse of the sun disappeared beneath the ocean, and drew after it the stream of golden light which bridged the blue waters a minute before. Then, an old black goat, disturbed by the noise came and stood beside her; the tame hares mounted the rock on the other side of their mistress; and an old tame magpie left its roost in the wood-corner, flew out of the door, and perched on the chimney. When the bird began to chatter, Mag seemed to become herself again, or to recover her suspended energy. Holding the stone in her left hand, above her head, and pointing her staff at the confused crew, she began to speak in a slow measured tone.

p. 93

"Now is come the hour of sweet rest, for man and beast, and now the devil, and all things evil, give double power to blast and ban."

Advancing a few steps, with he staff pointed at Katey the Kite, she threw the stone on the ground and spoke in a louder key,

"My curse descend on the arm that cast that stone! Before three moons have come and gone, thy arm, from finger-tops to shoulder-blade, shall wither and waste to skin and bone."

The magpie, flapping its wings and shrieking, seemed to say amen to the dame's curses.

At this instant, Captn. Mathy, Curnow, and Tregeer sprang over the hedge, from the field above, and ran down between Mag and her tormentors.

"Who sent ye hither?" said she. "Think not that I require your aid to overcome a legion of such wretches." Then making on the air with her staff what passed for magical signs: "I summon to my aid the spirits of fire and air, of earth and water. Behold! they come, followed by plague pestilence." Motioning the streamers to stand on one side, as she still advanced toward the retreating crowd, she continued in a louder voice, "You set of cowardly villains! be out of my sight and in your dwellings before that bright star, close in the wake of the sun, sinks beneath the waves. If one soul of ye remain within the sound of my voice a minute longer, I'll blast ye all, both great and small; your blood shall turn to water and the flesh rot from your bones. I curse ye all, from the crown of your head to the sole of your foot, at home and abroad, in eating and drinking, sleeping and waking." Thus she continued, according to a formula then well known, with increasing vehemence, to pour out her imprecations until she had spun almost as comprehensive a curse as was ever composed by ancient priest or pope, though some of the latter were famous, in the old times that we so much admire, for their curses of execration, interdicts, and other powerful saintly anathemas, which (to compare great things with small), in their effects on the superstitious, priest-ridden multitude, were not unlike a witch's spells on those within her more limited sphere. And our poor old charmer was driven to use her ghostly weapons, too, in self-defence. Before Margaret came within half-a-score paces of the two women, who were the chief instigators of the attack, they turned tail and fled, followed by all the rest of the rabble rout,—old Bluebird and Tom the Grunter bringing up the rear.

"Bravo, old dear," says Curnow, "see ther, how they go, helter-skelter, like a pack of pralled dogs with tin pans and kettles tied to their tails."

Margaret turned round to the Captn., and said in her familiar voice, "Old friend Mathy, thee dostn’t, I hope, think me a real black witch, dost a? No, no! The fears and malice of the fools made them give me

p. 94

the name, and that put it into my head to try the game, which you see answers as well as one could expect. Come in now, my brave boys," says she, "and drink health and success to the witch; perhaps, after all, if you hadn't been here they mightn't have taken so much notice of my ranting. You shall just give me a minute's grace, if you will, that I may put the place to rights a bit."

There was no great damage done to the rare old furniture of An Meg's dresser after all, as she had, the day before, put all her choicest china and glass away in her chest. Probably she had an inkling of what was about to take place from some of the children, who were always glad to visit her. The broken jugs, with two grinning faces under one hat, and other pieces of curiously-ornamented crockery, she could procure again from St. Ives. When the men were about to follow into her dwelling, they heard somebody whistling to them. Mathy went towards the sound, and found old Bluebird creeping along under the hedge of the field above.

"Oh! Captn. Mathy, come closer, do; I'm so scared I can hardly speak. Do beg An Marget to forgive Katey, and to take the spell from her; the pain es already set in her arm; a es going all stiff and dead! Think of me, and all our poor dear children weth Katey not able to do a hand's turn for us poor dears. Tell An Marget I'll go down to St. Ives tomorra and buy the prettiest cloman jugs I can get for her, full of old wry faces, like her's, your's, mine, Katey's, and Gracey's, of she will but take off the spell from her."

"Well, old neighbour, I'll do the best I can weth her for ’e. Stop here a minute."

When the Captn. begged Margaret to leave it all be over and be friends again with Katey the Kite, An Meg replied,

"Well, you may go and tell old Bluebird that I'll do nothing farther against her for this time, but it is past my skill, or that of any woman, to undo what's done. She must go to the Pellar of Helston and tell him to give her the Abracadabra charm; the sooner she starts the better for her and all the rest; and tell old Bluebird that I want no jugs of his buying."

The old man was much comforted when he received such a favourable answer from Margaret, and declared he would stay up all night that his wife Katey and Gracey Winkey should start by break of day to see the Pellar of Helston, who was then the most noted conjuror of the country.

When the tinners entered Meg's dwelling all the conjuring traps had disappeared—even the swinging crocodile was drawn up to the thatch, out of sight. Meg had picked up the broken crockery, put the

p. 95

dresser to rights, as well as she could; a bright fire blazed on the hearth; bottles of brandy, cordials, cake, barley bread and honey, were placed on the board. Margaret, steeple-crown and mantle thrown aside, bade them welcome with as much cheerfulness, heartiness, and old-fashioned courtesy, as if the diablerie of the last hour had never existed.

A jolly night was passed with the old dame, young woman and the tinners. They sung "Here's a health to the barley mow!" with other old three-men's songs, over and over. They danced hornpipes and three-handed reels. Margaret showed off many of the steps for which she was famous in her younger days. When the men were going to leave, Margaret said,

"You know, Mathy, to-morrow is my feasten-day: be sure to come early; and if the rest of you, my brave boys, will come here in the evening, you shall be heartily welcome. Something tells me that I shan't be here another year; so let’s keep it up with a houseful!"

Although Mary Polteer remained with An Meg all night, yet she had no invitation to come down in the evening, when the dame expected a visit from her old friends, who were all related to her within the degrees of third cousinship, then thought pretty near: they were also said to be as whimsical as Meg, with a screw more or less loose in their upper storey. Margaret didn't mind the visits of the tinners, but she had a mortal dislike to any of the gossiping, prying women of the village, to come near her hut at such times. Mary, however, determined not to have her curiosity baulked, and made a fool's errand to buy or borrow some yarn, as an excuse for going down to Margaret’s dwelling in the afternoon. Before she came in sight of the cot she saw half-a-dozen, or more, stately old dames walking away, at some distance, over the cliff.

When Mary looked in through the open door of Meg's dwelling she saw no one but Captn. Mathy, with his back towards her, very busy keeping in the furze fire under two brandasses (trivets): a good-size crock, with a piece of beef, was boiling on the one, and on the other a small pot of water for the ladies’ tea. There was no such thing as a teakettle then in the parish, nor for many years afterwards. The table was laid with a tea-set of old India china; the tea-pot was just the size of a saffron-pot, and the cup but little larger than a thimble. There was good store of fruit-cakes, and other nice things, on the bed of the dresser, all ready to be cut and placed on the board. Mathy, hearing the girl's step, as she came over the drussel, turned round and said,

"Hallo Mary? What brought thee here than? Ah, I needn't ask, thou daughter of old Mother Eve—nothing more than thy itching curiosity to see the old lady's set-out, but come thee wayst in. Upon my soul, I verily believe, as much as I believe anything one don't know much about, that a precious lot of you petticoat creatures will go to the hot

p. 96

place below, merely to satisfy your troublesome curiosity as to how the time es passed there, and that you may take the exact measure of the old black gentleman's tails; and your mischief-making tattle will be a greater plague than the brimstone down below. Yet after all," Mathy continued, "I'm not sorry you come here, to stop an hour or so with me, while the old ladies are away for a walk, and I'm left here, as you see, to keep house and look after the cooking. I can't abide to stay in this place by myself, even high by day; for if ever there was a place haunted this is. The queer things, too, all about the old dwelling make one's flesh creep on the bones—there's that old chattering magpie and the hares! See them looking at me, just as if they understood, like human creatures, every word we say. This feasten tide of Mag's is, to me, the wishtest time of all the year. This was her wedding-day, now nearly thirty years ago; and, a week after this time, I saw the last in life of my old comrade, her husband, who was as dear to me as a brother, though many a fair fight we've had together. And don't think me fancy foolish when I tell thee that on this day, three years ago, I saw the sailor V—— standing there just inside the door, as plain as I see thee! Why you needn't start: he is’nt there now. Some folks talk about spirits as if they were quite familiar with them, but, for my part, I can't abide to see them. I don't think I should much like to have a visit even from an angel or a cherry-beam if they are anything like their pictures drawn on the tombstones. I can't see, for my part, how the poor things, all head and wings, can either stand, sit, or fly, without a body to balance them, or a tail to steer by.

"Now the pots are both boiling, and it's time to put the cake down to bake. Bring it here, from the table in the spence, while I sweep the ashes from the baking-iron."

When the fire was made on the cake, and the glass turned, Mathy said, "This is hot work, I'll have a dram, Mary; you take a drop too; don't think me faint-hearted, that I should have been frightened with what I saw but sit down on the form and just listen to me: I'll tell ye first some of the sailor V——'s history, which I fear me when the end be known, will prove a woeful tragedy. You have never heard anything of it from Margaret, I expect, because what is always in her thoughts she never speaks of to any but her husband's oldest friends."

Next: The Sailors History