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"THE GHASTLY HEAD OF THE DOOMED SINNER GRINNED HORRIBLY DOWN."
"Thrice he began to tell his doleful tale,
And thrice the sighs did swallow up his voice."
WHO has not heard of the wild spirit Tregeagle? He haunts equally the moor, the rocky coasts, and the blown sand-hills of Cornwall. From north to south, from east to west, this doomed spirit is heard of, and to the day of judgment he is doomed to wander, pursued by avenging fiends. For ever endeavouring to perform some task by which he hopes to secure repose, and being for ever defeated. Who has not heard the howling of Tregeagle? When the storms come with all their strength from the Atlantic, and urge themselves upon the rocks around the Land's End, the howls of the spirit are louder than the roaring of the winds. When calms rest upon the ocean, and the waves can scarcely form upon the resting waters, low wailings creep along the coast. These are the waiings of this wandering soul. When midnight is on the moor, or on the mountains, and the night winds whistle amidst the rugged cairns, the shrieks of Tregeagle are distinctly heard. We know then that he is pursued by the demon dogs, and that till daybreak he must fly with all speed before them. The voice of Tregeagle is everywhere, and yet he is unseen by human eye Every reader wilt at once perceive that Tregeagle belongs to the mythologies of the oldest nations, and that the traditions of this wandering spirit in Cornwall, which centre upon one tyrannical magistrate, are but the appropriation of stories which belong to every age and country. Tradition thus tells Tregeagle's tale.
There are some men who appear to be from their births given over to the will of tormenting demons. Such a man was Tregeagle. He is as old as the hills, yet there are many circumstances in the story of his life which appear to remove him from this remote antiquity. Modern legends assert him to belong to comparatively modern times, and say that, without doubt, he was one of the Tregeagles who once owned Trevorder, near Bodmin. We have not, however, much occasion to trouble ourselves with the man or his life; it is with the death and the subsequent existence of a myth that we are concerned.
Certain it is that the man Tregeagle was diabolically wicked. He seems to have been urged on from one crime to another until the cup of sin was overflowing.
Tregeagle was wealthy beyond most men of his time, and his wealth purchased for him that immunity which the Church, in her degenerate days, too often accorded to those who could aid the priesthood with their gold or power. As a magistrate he was tyrannical and unjust, and many an innocent man was wantonly sacrificed by him for the purpose of hiding his own dark deeds. As a landlord he was rapacious and unscrupulous, and frequently so involved his tenants in his toils that they could not escape his grasp. The stain of secret murder clings to his memory, and be is said to have sacrificed a sister whose goodness stood between him. and his demon passions; his wife and children perished Victims to his cruelties. At length death drew near to relieve the land of a monster whose name was a terror to all who heard it. Devils waited to secure the soul they had won, and Tregeagle in terror gave to the priesthood wealth, that they might fight with them and save his soul from eternal fire. Desperate was the struggle, but the powerful exorcisms of the banded brotherhood of a neighbouring monastery drove back the evil ones, and Tregeagle slept with his fathers, safe in the custody of the churchmen who buried him with high honours in St. Breock Church. They sang chants and read prayers above his grave, to secure the soul which they thought they had saved. But Tregeagle was not fated to rest. Satan desired still to gain possession of such a gigantic sinner, and we can only refer what ensued to the influence of the wicked spiritings of his ministers.
A dispute arose between two wealthy families respecting the ownership of extensive lands around Bodmin. The question had been rendered more difficult by the nefarious conduct of Tregeagle, who had acted as steward to one of the claimants, and who had destroyed ancient deeds, forged others, and indeed made it appear that he was the real proprietor of the domain. Large portions of the land Tregeagle had sold, and other parts were leased upon long terms, he having received all the money and appropriated it. His death led to inquiries, and then the transactions were gradually brought to light. Involving, as this did, large sums of money--and indeed it was a question upon which turned the future well-doing or ruin of a family--. it was fought by the lawyers with great pertinacity. The legal questions had been argued several times before the judges at the assizes. The trials had been deferred, new trials had been sought for and granted, and every possible plan known to the lawyers for postponing the settlement of a suit had been tried. A day was at length fixed, upon which a final decision must be come to, and a special jury was sworn to administer justice between the contending parties. Witnesses innumerable were examined as to the validity of a certain deed, and the balance of evidence was equally suspended. The judge was about to sum up the case and refer the question to the jury, when the defendant in the case, coming into Court, proclaimed aloud that he had yet another witness to produce. There was a strange silence in the judgment hall. It was felt that something chilling to the soul was amongst them, and there was a simultaneous throb of terror as Tregeagle was led into the witness-box.
When the awe-struck assembly had recovered, the lawyers for the defendant commenced their examination, which was long and terrible. The result, however, was the disclosure of an involved system of fraud, of which the honest defendant had been the victim, and the jury unhesitatingly gave a verdict in his favour.
The trial over, every one expected to see the spectre witness removed. There, however, he stood powerless to fly, although he evidently desired to do so. Spirits of darkness were waiting to bear him away, but some spell of holiness prevented them from touching him. There was a struggle with the good and the evil angels for this sinner's soul, and the assembled court appeared frozen with horror. At length the judge with dignity commanded the defendant to remove his witness.
"To bring him from the grave has been to me so dreadful a task, that I leave him to your care, and that of the Prior's by whom he was so beloved." Having said this, the defendant left the court.
The churchmen were called in, and long were, the deliberations between them and the lawyers as to the best mode of disposing of Tregeagle.
They could resign him to the devil at once, but by long trial the worst of crimes might be absolved, and as good churchmen they could not sacrifice a human soul. The only thing was to give the spirit some task, difficult beyond the power of human nature, which might be extended far into eternity. Time might thus gradually soften the obdurate soul, which still retained all the black dyes of the sins done in the flesh, that by infinitely slow degrees repentance might exert its softening power. The spell therefore put upon Tregeagle was, that as long as he was employed on some endless assigned task, there should be hope of salvation, and that he should be secure from the assaults of the devil as long as he laboured steadily. A moment's rest was fatal; labour unresting, and for ever, was his doom.
One of the lawyers remembering that Dosmery Pool was bottomless, and that a thorn bush which had been flung into it, but a few weeks before, had made its appearance in Falmouth harbour, proposed that Tregeagle might be employed to empty this profound lake. Then one of the churchmen, to make the task yet more enduring, proposed that it should be performed by the aid of a limpid shell having a hole in it.
This was agreed to, and the required incantations were duly made. Bound by mystical spells, Tregeagle was removed to the dark moors, and duly set to work. Year after year passed by, and there day and night, summer and winter, storm and shine, Tregeagle was bending over the dark water, working hard with his perforated shell; yet the pool remained at the same level.
His old enemy the devil kept a careful eye on the doomed one, resolving, if possible, to secure so choice an example of evil. Often did he raise tempests sufficiently wild, as he supposed, to drive Tregeagle from his work, knowing that if he failed for a season to labour, he could seize and secure him. These were long tried in vain; but at length an auspicious hour presented itself.
Nature was at war with herself; the elements had lost their balance, and there was a terrific struggle to recover it. Lightnings flashed, and coiled like fiery snakes around the rocks of Roughtor. Fire-balls fell on the desert moors and hissed in the accursed lake. Thunders pealed through the heavens, and echoed from hill to hill; an earthquake shook the solid earth, and terror was on all living. The winds arose and raged with a fury which was irresistible, and hail beat so mercilessly on all things that it spread death around. Long did Tregeagle stand the "pelting of the pitiless storm," but at length he yielded to its force and fled. The demons in crowds were at his heels. He doubled, however, on his pursuers and returned to the lake; but so rapid were they that he could not rest the required moment to dip his shell in the now seething waters.
Three times he fled round the lake, and the evil ones pursued him. Then, feeling that there was no safety for him near Dosmery Pool, he sprang swifter than the wind across it, shrieking with agony, and thus--since the devils cannot cross water, and were obliged to go round the lake--he gained on them and fled over the moor.
Away, away went Tregeagle, faster and faster the dark spirits pursuing, and they had nearly overtaken him, when he saw Roach Rock and its chapel before him. He rushed up the rocks, with giant power clambered to the eastern window, and dashed his heed through it, thus securing the shelter of its sanctity. The defeated demons retired, and long and loud were their wild wailings in the air. The inhabitants of the moors and of the neighbouring towns slept not a wink that night.
Tregeagle was safe, his head was within the holy church, though his body was exposed on a bare rock to the storm. Earnest were the prayers of the blessed hermit in his cell on the rock, to be relieved from his nocturnal and sinful visitor.
In vain were the recluse's prayers. Day after day, as he knelt at the altar, the ghastly head of the doomed sinner grinned horribly down upon him. Every holy ejaculation fell upon Tregeagle's ear like molten iron. He writhed and shrieked under the torture; but legions of devils filled the air, ready to seize him, if for a moment he withdrew his head from the sanctuary. Sabbath after Sabbath the little chapel on the rock was rendered a scene of sad confusion by the interruption which Tregeagle caused. Men trembled with fear at his agonising cries, and women swooned. At length the place was deserted, and even the saint of the rock was wasting to death by the constant perturbation in which he was kept by the unholy spirit, and the demons who, like carrion birds, swarmed around the holy cairn. Things could not go on thus. The monks of Bodmin and the priests from the neighbouring churches gathered together, and the result of their long and anxious deliberations was that Tregeagle, guarded by two saints, should be taken to the north coast, near Padstow, and employed in making trusses of sand, and ropes of sand with which to bind them. By powerful spell Tregeagle was removed from Roach, and fixed upon the sandy shores of the Padstow district. Sinners are seldom permitted to enjoy any peace of soul. As the ball of sand grew into form, the tides rose, and the breakers spread out the sands again a level sheet; again was it packed together and again washed away. Toil! toil! toil I day and night unrestingly, sand on sand grew with each hour, and ruthlessly the ball was swept, by one blow of a sea wave, along the shore.
The cries of Tregeagle were dreadful; and as the destruction of the sand heap was constantly recurring, a constantly increasing despair gained the mastery over hope, and the ravings of the baffled soul were louder than the roarings of the winter tempest.
Baffled in making trusses of sand, Tregeagle seized upon the loose particles and began to spin them into a rope. Long and patiently did he pursue his task, and hope once more rose like a star out of the midnight darkness of despair. A rope was forming when a storm came up with all its fury from the Atlantic, and swept the particles of sand away over the hills.
The inhabitants of Padstow had seldom any rest. At every tide the howlings of Tregeagle banished sleep from each eye. But now so fearful were the sounds of the doomed soul, in the madness of the struggle between hope and despair, that, the people fled the town, and clustered upon the neighbouring plains, praying, as with one voice, to be relieved from the sad presence of this monster.
St. Petroc, moved by the tears and petitions of the people, resolved to remove the spirit; and by the intense earnestness of his prayers, after long wrestling, he subdued Tregeagle to his wilL Having chained him with the bonds which the saint had forged with his own hands, every link of which had been welded with a prayer, St. Petroc led the spirit away from the north coast, and stealthily placed him on the southern shores.
In those days Ella's Town, now Heiston, was a flourishing port. Ships sailed into the estuary, up to the town, and they brought all sorts of merchandise, and returned with cargoes of tin from the mines of Breage and Wendron.
The wily monk placed his charge at Bareppa, and there condemned him to carry sacks of sand across the estuary of the Loo, and to empty them at Porthieven, until the beach was clean down to the rocks. The priest was a good observer. He knew that the sweep of the tide was from Trewavas Head round the coast towards the Lizard, and that the sand would be carried back steadily and speedily as fast as the spirit could remove it.
Long did Tregeagle labour; and of course in vain. His struggles were giant-like to perform his task, but he saw the sands return as regularly as he removed them. The sufferings of the poor fishermen who inhabited the coast around Porthieven were great. As the howlings of Tregeagle disturbed the dwellers in Padstow, so did they now distress those toil-worn men.
"When sorrow is highest,
Relief is nighest."
And a mischievous demon-watcher, in pure wantonness, brought that relief to those fishers of the sea.
Tregeagle was laden with a sack of sand of enormous size, and was wading across the mouth of the estuary, when one of those wicked devils, who were kept ever near Tregeagle, in very idleness tripped up the heavily-laden spirit. The sea was raging with the irritation of a passing storm; and as Tregeagle fell, the sack was seized by the waves, and its contents poured out across this arm of the sea.
There, to this day, it rests a bar of sand, fatally destroying the harbour of Ella's Town. The rage of the inhabitants of this seaport--now destroyed--was great; and, with all their priests, away they went to the Loo Bar, and assailed their destroyer. Against human anger Tregeagle was proof. The shock of tongues fell harmlessly on his ear, and the assault of human weapons was unavailing.
By the aid of the priests, and faith-inspired prayers, the bonds were once more placed upon Tregeagle; and he was, by the force of bell, book, and candle, sent to the Land's End. There he would find no harbour to destroy, and but few people to terrify. His task was to sweep the sands from Porthcurnow Cove round the headland called Tol-Peden-Penwith, into Nanjisal Cove. Those who know that rugged headland, with its cubical masses of granite, piled in Titanic grandeur one upon another, will appreciate the task; and when to all the difficulties are added the strong sweep of the Atlantic current--that portion of the Gulf stream which washes our southern shores--it will be evident that the melancholy spirit has indeed a task which must endure until the world shall end.
Even until to-day is Tregeagle labouring at his task. In calms his wailing is heard; and those sounds which some call the "soughing of the wind," are known to be the moanings of Tregeagle; while the coming storms are predicated by the fearful roarings of this condemned mortal.
1 Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 1st series, p. 133.