Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 1, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
There may still be found, just at the entrance of the vale of Lamorna, a few minutes’ walk ascending from the bare boulders of the cove, close beside the beautiful stream that leaps from rock to rock amidst the eddying pools and overhanging ferns and shrubs, some remains of the dwelling of a noted wise woman called Betty Chenance, and her husband Tom, who flourished here more than two centuries ago—if the story told about them in the old guise-dance of "Duffy and the Devil" may be relied on. We have been informed by several elderly persons that they remembered, on the spot we have endeavoured to indicate, the ruins of what appeared to have been a cottage and outbuildings, which were then known by the name of Chenance's old walls. A few years ago, in seeking for the remains of the old dwelling, we discovered such a heap of stones and rubbish surrounding what appeared to have been a hearth and chimney-jambs, as satisfied us that we had found the house where Tom lived.
Little more is known of these folks than what has been preserved by an old Christmas-play. This ancient piece of mummery, or primitive drama (if one may apply so grand a term to what was probably never known the other side of Penzance) sayeth that, in the cider-making season, old squire Lovel, of Trove, rode up to Buryan church-town in the morning early, to procure some help to gather in his apples, when, as he came to Janey Angwin's door, he heard a terrible noise of scolding within, between the old woman and her step-daughter, Duffy. Such a cloud of ashes and smoke was coming out of the doorway that the squire was almost blinded before he could make out that old Janey was beating the girl about the head with the skirt of her swing-tail gown, that the old dame (in her distraction—not knowing what she was about) had just used to carry out the ashes. The squire called out, "What cheer, Janey? What's all the devil to pay with you in there, than?" Out ran the old woman, told his honour how the maid Duffy was all the time out courseying, or couranting with the boys,—that she would neither boil the porridge, knit, nor spin. "Don't believe the old hussey," says Duffy, for my knitting and spinning is the best in the parish, whatever the old slut may tell your honour;" with much more to recommend herself to the squire, who told Duffy that as she was such a good spinster he would take her down to Trove right away, if she would go, to spin for him, as his old housekeeper was blind of one eye and couldn't see very well on the other. Duffy was glad enough to have a ride down to Trove behind the squire—anything for a change: so off they jogged. Duffy, mounted behind the squire,
without either pillion or pad, arrived at Trove, where, by the aid of the devil, she soon becomes the squire's wife (With this part of the play we have, however, nothing to do yet). The squire sent Duffy into the kitchen to tell Joan that she was come down to do the knitting and spinning for her. Then aunt Joan tells Duffy how she became blind of her right eye, all through the villany of Tom Chenance. We can tell the story no better than it is told by Joan in the guise-dance.
Sit down, Duffy, my dear; eat some bread and cheese; don't be afraid to drink the beer, it's all my own brewing,—the more you take the more good it will do ye; and I will tell ye how I lost the sight of my eye.
Now, I know for sure and certain that there isn't a ranker witch in all the country round than old Betty down in the cove, and her great long lanky Tom isn't a bit better than the St. Levan witches; they have all got strange dealings, I can assure ye.
The last Christmas Eve that ever was, I went to Penzance to buy a pair of shoes for myself, and some thread, buttons, and things to mend the skates (rents) in master's clothes; for he, good man, do what I may, is always as ragged as a colt: but how shouldn't he be when he is out hunting all the time, from the break of day till dark night, through bogs and brambles, furze and thorns, in all sorts of ploshes? No clothes could ever stand on his back, if one made them of leather. But he wouldn't care a cuss if he hadn't a coat to his back not a breeches to his legs,—no, not he, so give him his horse, and his dogs, and his old croney squire Pender, to have a carouse with every night.
As I said, I made up my mind to jog off to town. As [ dearly like company, and Betty down in the cove is always ready for a jaunt, thinks I to myself if she is a witch she will never hurt me, as I never crossed her in my life; and, witch or no witch, bad company is better than none they say; so I put on my hat and cloak, took my basket and stock, then off to the cove. Down by the end of Bosava lane I met two of Tom's great skates of maidens, with cowals, seemingly full of fish, on their backs. We stopped and had a chat. They always carry something in the cowals under the ferns that they make more of than the fish; whenever they call at any house, and they find the men out of the way, they give the tip-of-the-wink to their wives, for they all like a drop, and the jars of rum, gin, or brandy, are dragged out from among the ferns under the fish. If the wives haven't money they will give meat or other things of twice the value, and they never know when they had had enough of a good thing, as I tell master and squire Pender, when they are both so drunk
that they can neither see, stand, nor go (nor lie on the ground without holding), that they destroy good liquor, instead of taking a little like I do, in moderation. Tom's girls asked me to take a dram. I told them I thought a thimbleful or so would do me good, as I had a long walk before me, and to come up to the squire's some time in the Christmas holidays and I would remember their kindness. It wasn't much turned of noon when I got to the cove, but there wasn't a soul to be seen about the place. All Tom's children, that belong home, were, according to custom, down by the seaside, ranging over the rocks, gathering limpets, catching pulcronnacks in the pullans, or paddling about in the sea—winter or summer no difference, a hardier set were never reared; and, to see the piles of croggans (limpet-shells) about outside of the house, one would think they ate nothing else but limpets and gweeans (periwinkles).
The door of Tom's house was shut. I heard him inside saying something to Betty. I listened, but couldn't make out what they were talking about. That I might know what was going on, before lifting the latch, I took a peep through the finger-hole (latch hole) and seed Tom sitting down on the chimney-stool, with Betty standing alongside, taking some ointment from a box which she held in her hand, and rubbing it over Tom's eyes, mumbling all the time something that sounded like the verse of a charm. There seemed to be other voices within as well. I listened with all my ears to find out was going on. Many said that Betty was something worse than a white witch, and Tom's piercing dark eyes made some believe that he had all the power of the evil eye; yet they are beautiful eyes too. You have seen the bright sky shining in a smooth pool, when the water seemed as deep as the sky was high; such are the dark-hazel eyes of Chenance, until an angry cloud passes over them; then the lightning-flashes dart on those who dare cross the man and make cowards quail.
Not being able to hear from the door, I went round to a little window (a sort of air-hole always open), in the chimney-end, looking out over the brook. When there I was not much the wiser, because there is such a brake of ivy and honeysuckle growing all over the walls, the roof, and wreathing together round the chimney-stack, that there is scarcely a stone or any thatch to be seen, and a thicket of sweet-briar sprouting out under the window hid all within from sight; and, with the murmuring of the waters, the singing and tweeting of the robin-red-breasts that flew in and out of their nests on the rafters, and the buzzing of the bees that had long made their home in the hollow wall, flying about the same as on a summer's day, hindered me from hearing what was going on within. The windows of Tom's house looked towards the sea. The door is on the land side; so I returned to the door side and sat down a moment on the bench placed under the ash-trees that are planted round the house according to the old custom for the sake of keeping the adders away. Then, going to the door and peeping through the finger-hole again, I saw that Tom rose to come out, and noted that Betty put the box of ointment
in a hole beside the chimney. When Tom came close to the door I lifted the latch and entered. After all the "how-de-does," "how glad I am to see Aunt Joan," and so on, out went Tom.
As soon as he was gone out of hearing, says Betty, "Now we will have a good drop to ourselves as it is Christmas-eve; it will do us good. I shan't be able to go to town," says she, "because I have been very bad all day with the wind in my stomach, and can't get well all I can do, for all that I have been crameing, standing on my head, taking milk and soot, brandy and rue, gin and pepper, and everthing else I ever heard to be good for curing the mullygrubs." "I'll take a thimbleful, just to drink your health and a merry Christmas to ye, with all my heart," says I. She asked me if I would take a cup of sweet drink, or a glass of rum or brandy, or some of both. Betty is noted for making the best of sweet drink, but as that is rather cold I told her to put a dash of rum in the sweet drink, and I would take a drop of brandy after. Then she went to the spence that is screened off under the talfat * in the other end, and all shelved round with old wreck timber, to get the liquor. As I said before, everybody had often wondered how the great long Tom's eyes were always so bright and piercing, but now I knew that it must be all owing to the fairy ointment or witch-salve that they made and used. "Well," thought I, "if the salve is so good for his eyes it will do no harm to mine, as they are rather dull sometimes." So, as soon as Betty entered the spence, I took the box of green ointment from the hole where she had covered it up with some ferns, and, taking the least bit on the top of my finger, put it to my right eye. The confounded stuff had no sooner touched my poor eye than I felt as if a stick of fire, or all the needles and pins in my pocket, had been thrust into it!
Betty remained, by good luck, a long time in the spence, sucking a drop from the jar by herself, I s’pose. Before she came out I had fixed myself in the dark corner of the chimney, and dragged the brim of my hat down over the right side of my face (I wore my best steeple-crowned, broad-leaved beaver), and never made sight nor sign to her of anything. After we had drinked each other's healths three or four times, in some capital French brandy, the pain went off a little, but I couldn't think where in the world she could contrive to stow away all the children by night: they have ten or a dozen home, besides ever so many away to sea. Tom don't know himself how many she's got, half the time, for Betty never makes any fuss about bringing them into the world. No one comes near her (that anybody knows of), but all are born by the hearth,—the last child is turned out of the costan (straw and bramble basket), where
it lays on green ferns, and the new one, wrapped in a few clean rags, is put on some frech ferns in its place. Then she goes about her work. There is no fuss about the matter. Ten to one if Tom knows anything about it for days after. I asked Betty where all of them contrived to roost. "Wherever they have a mind to," says she; "some of the smallest (except the babies) get up on the talfat and stretch themselves in the bed, round the bed, and under the bed, as they like; and look there at that little talfat, or bunk if you will, in the top of the wood-corner, that Tom made out of some wreck timber the other day, that the bigger boys might have a place to themselves. As you see, he put in two strong beams to reach across from the wall-plat to the side of the chimney, then put some planks upon them. To be sure the place isn't so deep in as it ought to be for the boys to stretch out at full length, as the outside only just reaches to the bowings of their knees; but what matter? they like the place well enough, and their legs hanging down over, when they have a mind to stretch out, will make them grow all the longer! Half the time they are never in the house at all by night, but sleep down in the boat, when she is moored to the ring-rock and all afloat." "Well," says I, "there isn't a healthier nor a handsomer set of boys and maidens in the parish than yours:" and, to give the devils their due, no more there isn't.
"Come, you shall take another dram, Aunt Joan" said she, "to drink health and long life to them all, in some of as good French brandy as ever you tasted. All our maidens, as well as our boys, swim like gulls and dive like shags. They will no more be drowned than a conger. What do you think of the freak of the maid Jenefer? After hearing a lot of stories about the mermaids combing their hair and singing on the half-tide rocks, she took it into her head to play the same pranks, in the summer evenings, on the rock you know we call the mermaid's rock. There she would fix herself to sing with the tide rising over her, and there remain until she was more swimming than sitting, when she would dive under the waves and swim ever so far away before come ashore. Now, ever so many of the rest carry on the same fun, so that sailors going by, who hear their songs and see them seated on the rocks, would swear that they saw a whole shoal of mermaids in the cove."
When we had drunk to the health of the mermaids, I ventured to wipe the water from my face with my apron, and to open my anointed eye, and oh! the Lord deliver me from what I see’d—the place was full of sprites and spriggans; in all the folds of the nets and sails, that were thrown over the key-beams, in the clews of ropes that hung from the rafters, troops of small-people were cutting all sorts of capers; some of them were playing in pairs at see-saw all along the talfat railing; the little creatures were tossing up their heels, waving their feathered caps and fans as they launched up and down on the merest bits of stick or green twigs; numbers of them were swinging in the cobwebs that hang
from the rafters, or riding the mice in and out through the holes in the thatch.
I noted that all the little men were dressed in green pinked out with red, and had feathered caps on their head, high riding-boots (with silver spurs) on their heels; their ladies, if you please, were all decked out in the grand old fashion—their gowns were of green velvet with long trains, some looped up with silver chains and bells or tassels; other had their trains sweeping behind them as they walked in grand state, on their way up and down and all about the place: they seemed to think there was nobody in the house but themselves forsooth, prancing about in their high-heeled shoes, sparkling with diamond buckles. The little women all wore high-crowned, steeple-hats like mine, to make themselves look taller I s’pose, the vain little mortals, with wreaths of the most beautiful flowers of all colours around them, sprigs and garlands on all the other parts of their dress and in their hands as well, flirting their fans in the faces of the men. They were the sauciest little mortals I ever did see. What puzzled me the most was to see so much sweet flowers with them at that time of the year.
Though old mistress, the squire's mother, the Lord rest her, had often told me that the fishermen, when out to sea on moonlight nights, see the small-people's gardens down among the cleves and carns, blooming with the gayest flowers all the year round, and the most soothing music is often heard by them resounding along the shore, from sawn to carn, I wasn't much frightened to see them, for I had heard about them and their doings ever since I was born, and knew then that Betty had the secret (among many others she had learned in her strange dealings) of making the fairy ointment, that made me see with my anointed eye all that was going on in the fairy world. When I peeped round into the wood-corner, under the boys’ bunk, I spied some of the ugly spriggans seated in the dark corner looking very gloomy, because they are doomed to guard the treasures, and to do many other irksome things that the merry small-people are free from; besides, the small-people are very restless and changing, even when they hold their fairs: for these merry meetings, to show their vanities, only last an hour or two.
Whilst looking into the dark corner, I heard the strains of sweet but unearthly music outside the house and, looking again around the house, all was changing. Ever so many robin red-breasts were coming in through the open window and, perching themselves on the key-beams, sang as if they had a mind to split their throats. The tittering wrens left the mossy balls of nests they had built themselves under the perlins, and, hopping and flying, came down on the clews of ropes, to do all they were able with their tweeting to increase the music that was now close at hand under the little window, through which a moment aft, a troop of the small-people entered, playing such sweet strains on the pipes, flutes,
flageolets, and other instruments they had made with green reeds of the brook and shells of the shore, as made even the pert robins keep silence after they had tried in vain to equal the notes of the fairy strains.
The fairy-band stepped down most gracefully from the little window-seat, on to the floor, and were closely followed by pairs of the little ladies, and some few of their gentlemen, all bearing bunches of herbs or flowers. All walked in orderly procession, bowed or curtseyed to dame Chenance, and stood at a little distance behind her until some elderly fairy gentlemen, who closed the procession, came up and cast their herbs into her apron. I saw among them many bunches of the four-leaved clover (with which the ointment is made that enabled me to see all their doings). They brought her sprigs of agrimony, bettony, camomile, vervain, mouse-ear, and hundreds of other plants from down and moor that I don't know the names of. With these she makes her salves and charmed lotions. Now, all the fairies who had been enjoying themselves in all parts of the house, came around the musicians and the others who had returned with herbs and flowers. Betty seemed to be so used to what was going on that she did not look surprised, and I said nothing to let her know what I saw. She is always as clean as water can make her, or as the whitest shell on the shore; that day she had on, as usual, her dark russet-coloured quilted petticoat, with a white jacket of her own knitting made of the softest lamb's-wool yarn. For the sake of showing her dark chestnut curling hair, she seldom puts a hat, and never a cap, on her head; whether good or bad, she is always clean and handsome. As soon as the small people who bore herbs retired, others approached, and poured over her dress (from the unopened flowers or bottles of the foxglove) such dews or dyes as they gathered from sea or land, or God knows whence. The dyes had no sooner touched her dress than it was changed into a three-piled velvet of the same colour; the jacket became the finest and softest cloth, of a rich cream colour. Then others laid silver cord all over the quiltings that divided out the petticoat into diamond-shaped squares. The whole troop then advanced to deck out the dame with their flowers. Many brought little nosegays of the sky-coloured speedwell, with its flowers so like innocent eyes; other of the pimpernel, its dainty blossoms and globes of seed; the forget-me-not, eyebright, sweet lady's tresses, violets, heath-bells, and abundance of the dainty little bells—blue, pink, or white—that we find in such plenty on the moors in summer time, and hundreds of other fairy flowers like stars, bells, or butterflies that I never heard any names for. All these flowers were made up into the daintiest little sprigs of nosegays you ever saw—all of the same size yet all differently composed. These delicate sprigs were stitched (by the ladies who came down from the talfat) all over the silver-corded petticoat; a sprig in the middle of each square. Some very tiny flowerets were placed in a ground of delicate branching moss and flowers of wild grass; others they placed on the smallest leaves of the lady fern, or of the camomile
plant. Near the bottom of her skirt, all around, the little ladies made a wreath of small bramble leaves, intermixed with the most delicate bramble roses, and their berries red and black. There was little other ornament on the jacket than the finest of lace turned over collar and cuffs, and a few such sparkling jewels to fasten it as dazzled my eyes—even the charmed one.
Many of the little creatures perched themselves on the top of the high-backed chair, on which dame Chenance sat, and even on her shoulders that they might come to arrange every curl and every hair on her head. Some took the lids off the pretty little urns they bore in their hands and poured a perfume on her head, that spread the sweetest odour around the place. I very much admired the neat little urns, and their grooved lids, but when I picked up one it was only the seed-cup of the wild poppy. And her apron! oh, I forgot to tell how her check apron became (after she had placed the herbs away) a cross-barred sheeny silk, bordered with wreaths of convolvulus.
They placed no other ornament in her hair than a small sprig of holly with a few red berries on it, or was it a cluster of ivy-berries I can't say: yet the dame of Chenance, decked out by her fairy friends, was more gay than the loveliest queen of the May. The work was done by the fairy fingers in less than no time; their band playing such lively airs all the while that they could not be slow in their motions.
My senses were overcome with the smell of the fairy odours, the scent of the wall-flowers and honey with which the hollow walls of the house were bursting, and even the honeycombs were hanging down outside the stones under the ivy-leaves, so that they contrived to get much honey without ever killing the bees. The bees might always be seen flying about the house like the birds, and never stung anyone belonging to it.
When I waked up from my doze, I saw that many of the small trade were making wry faces at me, and Betty herself looked as if she wished me to be gone; and, to tell the truth, I was getting rather frightened at the strange doings around me, though we have all heard of such things from our cradles. I soon took my basket and stick, and wished her good afternoon, when I had asked her up to Trive to try our Christmas cheer. Tom is always sure to be here, as he takes the part of the Turkish knight in the quire's guise-dance: he is black enow, to be sure, to pass for any Turk, and my son, the squire's man Jan, as everyone calls him, acts the part of St. George.
When I had passed out and shut the door, for the life of me I could not leave the strange place without taking another peep through the finger-hole, and—would ye believe it?—when I looked first with my left eye there was nothing strange to be seen: the house was all bright
and clean, as it always is; the sun was shining in through the windows on the newly-sanded floor; the robins, wrens, and bees are half fairies, I do believe,—they were there flitting about the house, and Betty was seated on the chimney-stool mending some of the children's clouts. I winked, and, looking again with my other eye, saw that the room was changed into a chamber-of-daiz, or banqueting-room, such as I have often seen in my younger days, when old mistress put me with her in the visits she made to a grand place up the country, where some of the squire's rich relations live. But nothing I saw there was so gay as the dwelling of Chenance. The walls were all hung with tapestry, where one might see, as large as life, the pictures of everything on sea and land. In place of the talfat was a grand balcony, with lords and ladies looking down over the railing on the sports below, where the small people were dancing. These left circles of sparkling diamonds behind them wherever they moved on the marble floor. The mistress of the house I saw seated in state under the canopy, casting glances at the door that I didn't much like, and some of her imps looked as if they had a mind to play me a trick.
I tore myself away, glad to get out of the cove. All about the place seemed enchanted. As I crossed over to Kimyal cliff I met many more of the fairy tribe, all bound for the dwelling of Chenance. As I went up the cliff the tide was flowing. One might hear the singing of mermaids above the murmur of the waves, yet it might only have been the wild children of Lamorna sporting on the rocks.
209:* Talfat, mentioned above, is a half, or part, floor at one end of a cottage on which a bed is placed. Sometimes this kind of stage, or gallery, is screened by a boarding from the floor (planching) to the key-beam; oftener there is only a railing placed to prevent anyone from falling over into the room. When the room under the talfat is not wanted for a bed-place, it is mostly dignified with the name of the "spence."