Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
A little above Penberth Cove, and near the Green, there is an ancient cottage in an orchard. In this dwelling lived an old dame called Joan Taskes, who kept a kind of public-house, as liquors and other goods were entrusted to her, by smugglers, for sale.
One afternoon, about nineteen or twenty years after Willy's
death—when he and the I’ans were almost forgotten—An’ Joan, whilst busy spinning flax with a treadle-turn heard a knock at her open door, and, thinking it was somebody come to buy liquor, or "honey-pins"—a sweet apple for which her orchard was noted without rising she called out, "Come ’e in cheeld, and don't ’e stay knacking at the door." But An’ Joan was rather startled when, on looking round, she saw two ladies standing near her. They were both tall. One appeared about fifty and the other near twenty years of age. Their dresses made her think they must be foreigners. The elder was clad in some kind of white woollen stuff, by whatever name one might call her garb: it had loose, hanging in sleeves, and its ample folds were confined by a girdle to her waist. Over her head she wore a square of black serge; its ends hanging on her shoulders, and shading her face gave it a pallid appearance, which was rendered somewhat ghastly by a white linen band across her forehead. The younger wore a silver-grey dress of more ordinary mode, and for head-dress a lace veil that covered, without concealing, her braided dark brown hair.
An’ Joan, rising, drew out her form and said, "Pray be seated, ladies, and excuse me, as I thought you might have been some neighbours’ children knocking at the door."
"We called," the elder lady replied, "to enquire if there be any small dwelling unoccupied in Penberth, or Treen, or in any place near."
"Be pleased to sit, ladies, and leave me think a moment," said the dame; "but I havn't heard of any place that would be good enough for you, and the only one I know of, close at hand, is Chynance. Why it seems to me," she continued, "as if I had heard the sound of your voice, years agone, somewhere, but can't call ’e to mind."
"Look at me well, Aunt Joan," the lady rejoined, "and tell me if you can think of anyone you ever saw like me."
The dame having adjusted her barnacles, peered at the lady's face and at length said in tremulous tones, "You can't be a spirit to come here high by day! Yet now I look at ’e again there's the dark brown eyes, straight nose, small mouth, and pitted chin of our poor lost Beatie! You can't be she? But with that white band across your forehead one can't see a lock of your hair; her's was of the darkest chesnut colour; besides the .the black kerchief or scarf, over your head, shades your face."
"If you saw my hair, now nearly as white as your own, you wouldn't know me by that," the lady answered. "But don't be frightened, dear An’ Joan," continued she, in folding back her veil, "look again and you will see Beatrice I’an, and this dear girl my daughter is daughter Mary."
An’ Joan sprung from her seat, kissed Mary, clasped Beaton to her breast, and wept aloud for joy. She then took from her cupboard a bottle of brandy and another of sweet-drink (mead), filled two rummers with a mixture of the strong and sweet, saying, "Hear, dears, drink this, and help yourselves to more while I get something for ’e to eat before I hear another word."
The old dame skipped about as if the sight of Beaton and her daughter had made her twenty years younger.
In a few minutes An’ Joan fried fish, boiled eggs, and placed on the board milk, cream, and butter, with bread and honey, apple pasties, a jug of beer, and more bottles of her choice cordials. When all three had done ample justice to the repast, Beaton, looking round the dwelling, said, "Now Aunt Joan, I am again at home and as happy as I can ever hope to be, but I always felt like one banished for all the years I dwelt in the land where Mary was born and bred. Everything here looks the same as long ago, when my delight was to run down for some of your choice fruit and sweet flowers, and to play with your turns till you learnt me to spin just as well as yourself." Seeing Mary's gaze fixed on the dresser, she continued, "You may well admire that, dear, and all its shelves contain; a dresser is the crowning glory of every Cornish cottage. You have never seen such quaint looking old jugs, ornamented with queer figures and wry faces, grinning amidst flowers and fruit, as those on the upper shelf; see on the next there are bright coloured glasses with long threaded or twisted stems, and scores of rare pretty things besides, brought from over sea or saved from wrecks; the dresser-bed is covered with a cloth as white as snow, and many ladies would covet the bowls and other vessels of old china that rest on it; and one might take the bright pewter flagons and platters for silver. A brass warming-pan, such as you see on the other side, is an article for ornament rather than use, but every couple here, however poor, think they must get one before they be married. And that shelf of wooden trenches, butter-prints, mustard-bowls, and other 'temberan things,' scoured with 'gard,' have a look of cleanliness not to be surpassed by more costly furniture."
On the chimney-piece they might have noticed an hour-glass between tall brass candlesticks, branches of choral, sea-birds’ eggs, sea-urchins, and foreign shells. Turning to An’ Joan, Beaton remarked as if delighted, "there, too, beside the door is the same sweet-brier; rosemary, thyme, and other sweet flowers, blooming all over the garden; and the house swarming with bees, as of old, coming and going through the open window, and alighting on your cap as if to tell e’ they were going on well, and to see how you were looking."
"I hope, dears, you are now come home to live for the rest of your days," said Joan. "Your grand old house is cut to pieces, and three families dwelling in it; but most of your furniture is still there, packed away in the best chamber, with all in that room as you left it, and the door hasn't been unlocked for many years,—scarcely opened, indeed, since you last slept there." Beaton replied to the effect that during all the time she lived abroad, her greatest desire was to return and end her days where she was born, and to be buried beside the one she loved above all the world; and that she intended, after a short rest, to go along the cliff to church-town to see his grave, and that she wished to go alone.
"Poor dear Willy, the Lord rest with him," said An’ Joan, "you will see by his grave that he hasn't been forgotten. On his breast there's a rosemary, the pride of my heart, grown to a bush that overtops his tombstone; a box-tree grows at the foot, and betwixt them sweet-brier, tansy, ace and such other long-lived and evergreen plants as are herb-of-grace, for remembrance besides a border of pinks and lillies. You'll see that none in the church-hay have been more lovingly tended, for I and others have planted on his grave fresh flowers when old ones died."
When Cribba Head threw its shadow over the water, Beaton started on her sad pilgrimage, saying to her daughter, who wished to accompany her, "Remain, dear, with our old friend; tell her all about your uncle John, and how we lived in Brittany; she is longing to know but don't like to ask."
The kind dame took Mary round her garden, well stocked with sweet old-fashioned flowers and many hives of bees; then passing through her orchard from one tree of choice fruit to another, equally good, they came to a clear brook, overhung by branches weighed down by their load of apples, pears, and plums that often fell in the stream and floated out to sea, unless found on their passage by children who often watched the water, gurgling among reeds and rocks below the orchard, for An’ Joan's apples and plums.
Milking time being come, Joan took her bucket, and the up to Penberth Green where the old dame's cow—little and good—was waiting to be milked. At that time, and long after, almost every cotter kept a cow, which found sufficient pasture in green lanes, and commons. An’ Joan, having finished her out-door evening work, made a mullet-and-parsley pie, as that was a favourite supper dish. When placed on the hearth to bake, she said, "I have, for many years, been longing to know how it fared with your mother and uncle and had given up all hopes of ever again seeing them, not knowing if they
were alive or dead; and you, poor lonely flower, have no other relations on your mother's side that I know of."
"I have a good many cousins in Brittany," replied Mary, "as my uncle has a large family." She then related what she had heard from her mother, and what she remembered, to the effect that when I’an settled in Brittany he hired a small farm, and soon after married a person of good property. For a short time, he cultivated the land acquired by his marriage, but he soon tired of a farmer's life, and went to sea as captain of a large ship; he was often away for years together. Mary seldom saw him, as there appeared to be little desire, on the part of brother or sister, for such intimacy. Yet, on his return from a voyage, he always sent them money and goods, which they didn't require, because Beaton, by her spinning, and Mary, by her lace-work and embroidery, gained more than 'sufficed for their needs. Her uncle often took her lace-work abroad, where he traded, and brought her more for it than its weight in gold.
Although they wanted for nothing, and everybody was kind to them, Beaton was always pining to return; and in spite of I’an's wishes for them to remain, she made a vow that before Mary became of age, she would go home and pass the rest of her life in the practice of some devotion for the repose of Mary's father. About a week ago, Beaton having heard there was a smuggling craft from Cornwall in a cove near their dwelling, she packed up all her household goods that she cared about, and they left, bag and baggage, in the boat which landed them in Mousal that morning. When Mary had just ended her recital, her mother silently glided in, kissed her, and placed in her bosom a few flowers, saying, "Cherish these from a garden I prize above all others, and we will soon plant it with choicest flowers." "And now," she continued, "we must bid dear Aunt Joan good-bye, and proceed to Buryan Church-town, where we can remain for the night." "No, my dears," An’ Joan interposed, "there's a pie baking for your supper, and a spare bed on the talfat as good as any in Church-town, though I say it; remain with me till you have found a better place, or hired Chynance for a time, as there may be more delay than you calculate before our house in Treen will be ready for ’e." Both ladies gladly accepted the kind dame's hearty welcome, and enjoyed her savoury pie and good ale, of her own brewing; no woman their expected to get a husband, unless she knew how to make a good barley-brew, and they say that people of that day, who drank good beer as their ordinary beverage, were stronger by far than their descendants, raised on tea-wash.
Beaton hired Chynance, procured a few articles of furniture—in addition to what she brought from over sea—also a cow and
poultry; had the garden planted, the house thatched, and comfortably arranged for winter. Owing to delay in getting possession of Beaton's property in Treen they lived here a year or more, and, when all was ready for their removal, Mary would have much preferred to remain in that sunny sheltered cot, nestled at the foot of Buryan Hill; but her mother got into a restless fidgetty state that caused An’ Joan to look more grave than was her wont. She had heard that as far back as there was any record, many of the I’an family—particularly the women—when between forty-five and fifty years of age, either went mad or died; and she feared that the gloomy grandeur of Beaton's old home, with the sad remembrances, likely to be renewed thereby, would tend to bring on this family infirmity. It was all in vain, however, for Mary to say, "Dear mother let us remain here in this sunny nook, where flowers grow all the year; spotted trout sport in the stream; and our goats, lambs, and poultry can range at their own sweet will." When all was arranged in Beaton's part of the mansion, so as to give it an air of its former state, thither they removed, but still retained Chynance for the sake of having pasture for their cow, and to please Mary, who took a great fancy to it.
Beaton was not in her old habitation many days when she had her 'turn' and other spinning utensils taken into the chamber where Taskes breathed his last. There she passed most of her time, and often kept all night at her work; the rumble of her spinning-wheel and doleful noises that she frequently made, soon caused those living in parts of the house, not in her possession, to quit rather than have their rest nightly disturbed; and she rejoiced that the house was cleared of all strangers and interlopers, as she styled its other occupants. Often she would be away to St. Levan churchyard at dead of night—unknown to Mary and their servant—pass hours, in prayer it was supposed, beside Willy's grave; and bring thence flowers, wet with morning dew, to be kept in her chamber, and when withered all were laid by in her chest. This penance, as much inspired by love as enjoined by her faith, was duly observed, in spite of her failing health. On dark, stormy nights, she would often be met wandering along the cliffs between Church-town and Treen; or seen kneeling on the rock where her lover received his fatal hurt.
Many persons were startled by encountering, at unexpected times, her phantom-like figure, gliding along the clever or amongst the carns of Castle-Treen, in her strange dress of white robe, black veil, and ghastly linen band across her forehead, that made her look like one escaped from a grave in a winding-sheet and shroud. It was evident that Beaton was at times
insane; yet, sad as such a state seems, it may not have been the most melancholy portion of this poor soul's destiny; for when her mind was burthened with more grief than it could bear, her reason became unsettled, and her memory infolded with clouds that were often of roseate hue. Old crones whispered that they had heard of more than one Beatrice I’an, and men of that family as well, who went crazy; and that their madness began in melancholy seclusion, and the practice of old-fashioned devotions that few cared about since they were declared Popish and unlawful. Yet, the same old dames took good care to preserve many charms for the cure of diseases, and to use them as in Catholic times, and the same are retained and practised by their descendants to this day, with others that are probably transmitted from an age when sun-worship was in vogue.
As Penberth and Mousal fair-traders maintained a constant intercourse with Roscroff, I’an's family often sent Beaton presents of flax, clothing, and other goods; they did not require them, however, for Mary, like her mother, was an excellent spinster and skilful in embroidery and lace-work. Treen being a noted place for good weavers, they provided them with plenty of spinning-work; and when Mary showed her rare lace to An’ Joan, she assured her that ladies, within a short distance, paid large sums to smugglers for what was no better. The old dame took it round to gentlemen's seats, and soon returned with much more money than Mary expected for her wares; and with orders for more lace-work than she could execute in a long time.
Beaton's lucid intervals became less and less frequent. When crazy fits prevailed, she seemed happy, nay joyful; but when reason,—such as it was,—or more sober moods intervened, she would talk regretfully, often moaning to herself, "The Lord help me, alas it was all my fault, I brought blood on my brother's head, he can never have rest, nor I, no, nevermore, not even in the grave." One of her strange freaks was to sleep by day and to visit the churchyard or spin by night. Sometimes she knitted stockings and other things for her Willy; these were to be put in her coffin. She would often say, "Willy, dear, I am working for thee, love, and will soon fetch thee back; we will live here, nobody shall ever put us out of this chamber. Oh! what delight I took in spinning years ago, when thou didst card the wool of winter's nights. I can never pass the time in singing, for ever singing. I should be weary in a day, and would rather spin the time away with thee to card the wool; and as of old thou shalt give me a kiss, such a long sweet kiss, with every rull I take from the cards."
Her last whim was to spin and knit herself a shroud, which she called her wedding-dress. This was made of the whitest
and finest lamb's-wool she could procure. Mary, to please her, had to give much of her best lace for trimming this 'wisht' garment; and at length after much alteration, she had it to her mind, and repeated to her daughter and An’ Joan all her whimsical fancies about her bridal arrangements, as she called her funeral ceremonies. The following night she walked alone to the churchyard, and returned late.
About midnight Mary, as was her custom, looked into her mother's room, and saw by the glimmering light of a chill (iron lamp), hanging on the wall, her mother sitting in a high-backed chair, apparently in a sweet sleep, with a placid smile on her countenance; as she sometimes dosed in her chair, Mary, loath to disturb her, stepped quietly back to her own room; but feeling uneasy from her mother's unusual silence she lay awake till daybreak and then returned to her mother. On approaching her, Mary noticed that over a fine white dress she wore her shroud, with its face-cloth turned back on her head. Mary took her hand, and feeling it cold and stiff, the truth struck her that her mother was dead. Yet she hoped that it might only be a trance, as she looked so life-like and pleasant, as when asleep, in her happiest moods. But a neighbour, who was called in, assured Mary that her mother had been dead some hours. "Yet to behold her thus," said the dame, "sitting in her chair, with fresh flowers in her bosom, the hour-glass beside her, and beads in her hand, one would think she had only fallen asleep whilst saying her prayers; the Lord rest her poor soul." On looking round, when the rising sun-beams streamed in-through an open window, they saw that her best quilt was spread on the bed, and on that the clothes Taskes wore on that unlucky night when he received his death-wound, and other things that belonged to him. Where, or how, Beaton could have kept them so long no one knew. An’ Joan had these, and withered flowers, with other things that Beaton prized, put into her coffin, in hopes to give her spirit rest; and Beatrice I’an, according to her oft-repeated request, was laid in St. Levan churchyard, beside the dust of Willy Taskes.
"And we Treen people" said the old man who related her story," would have been glad if she had stayed there, but she hadn't been under the turf three days when she was back again and spinning, as she always said she would, in the chamber that was locked up with everything with in it as it stood when she was carried out; and it was supposed that other spirits came back with her, by the capperouse they often made." We will leave them, however, and their ghostly doings, for a while, to follow Mary's destiny.