Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
A hundred years or more ago—one afternoon in harvest time—a woman called Jenny Trayer, who lived in Brea Vean (a little out-of-the-way place at the foot of Chapel Carn Brea) gave her baby suck, rocked it to sleep, then covered up the fire, turned down the brandis, placed fire-hook and furze-prong across the hearth for good luck, and, leaving the child alone, away she hastened over to Brea to "help cut the neck." It was nearly dark when the last handful of wheat, called "the neck," was tied up and cut by the reapers throwing their reap-hooks at it. Then it took a good bit longer to cry the neck according to the old custom of the harvest-hands dividing themselves into three bands—one party calling, three times, as loud as they could cry, "We have it, we have it, we have it!" The second demanding, "What have ye? What have ye? What have ye? And the third replying, "A neck! a neck! a neck!" Then all join, hats in hand, in a "Hip! hip! hip! Hurrah!"
The neck was then decorated with flowers and hung over the board.
Jenny, thinking about her babe all alone, didn't stop for the neck-cutting carouse, but got a good drink of beer, and her neck-cake, to take home; and hastened away. When she opened her door, she saw, by the moonlight, that the cradle was overturned.
[paragraph continues] Straw and rags were on the floor, but no child was in sight.
Jenny groped round the room a long time; then, not finding any live embers among the ashes, she took the tinder-box and struck a light. "The more haste the worst speed." It was a long time before she got the porvan (rush-wick) lit in the chill (iron lamp). In searching all the holes and corners, she came to the wood-corner and there among turves, ferns, and furze, she found the "cheeld," fast asleep. Being very tired, she took up the child and went to bed. Next morning, when she looked at the babe, by daylight, it seemed to her that there was something strange about it—she didn't know what—it was hearty enow, for it seemed never satisfied unless it was all the time sucking or eating it would roar like a bull if it hadn't its will; and always wanted to be in her arms or eating pap.
The poor woman couldn't do her "chars," and had no rest of her life with the squalling, hungry brat. Yet, with all its sucking and eating, it seemed wasting to skin and bone. So it kept on all the winter—the more it ate the leaner it became. Many of the neighbours shook their heads when they saw it, and said they feared the "small people" had played her a trick that afternoon when she went to "neck-cutting." "Whether or no," said they, "you can do nothing better, Jenny, than to bathe it in the Chapel Well as soon as May comes round."
Accordingly, the first Wednesday in May she took it on her back and trudged away to Chapel Uny Well.
Three times she put it through the water from west to east, then dragged it three times round the well against the sun. Whether the bath made it any better or not she couldn't tell in one week. The following Wednesday, however, the troublesome creature seemed to expect the jaunt, and to enjoy it as it rode away on her shoulder over hill and moor to the spring, where it had the same ducking again. The third Wednesday was a wet day; yet, not to spoil the spell, Jenny took the brat, placed it astride on her shoulder, held one foot in her hand, whilst he grasped her hair to keep himself steady, as they beat over the moors against wind and rain. The thing seemed to enjoy the storm, and crowed, like a cock, when the wind roared the loudest.
They had nearly passed round Chapel Carn Brea and were coming by some large rocks, near the open moor, when she heard a shrill voice, seemingly above her head, call out,—
Jenny was surprised to hear the shrill voice and nobody in
sight. When she stopped an instant to look round, the thing on her shoulder cried out in a voice as shrill and loud,—
Frightened out of her senses, to hear the miserable little object talk like a man about his wife and his child, the poor woman cast it on the ground and there it lay sprawling, until she took courage, threw it across her shoulder, and ran back as fast as she could lay feet to ground till she came to Brea town. She stopped before some houses a little below Brea mansion, threw down the thing, that clung to her neck for dear life, on to a dung-heap beside the road.
The women of Brea all ran out to see what could be the matter. As soon as she recovered her breath she told them what she had heard. "Ah," exclaimed one, "didn't I tell thee, months ago, that thee wert nussan a small body's brat, ever since the neck-cuttan night, when thy child was spirited away, and that thing left in his place."
"Shure enow," said another, "anybody of common sense might see that. Only look at the thing there, sprawling upon his back in the mud. Did one ever see a Christian cheeld like that, with his goggle eyes, squinting one way; his ugly mouth drawn another, and his pinched-up nose all a-wry too?"
"And now, Jenny," broke in the oldest crone, "’Tis lucky for ’e that I can tell ’e what you must do to get rid of this unlucky bucca, and get back thy own dear cheeld. Now there's an old way, and I don't know but it es the best; and that es to put the smale body upon the ashes’ pile and beat it well with a broom; then lay it naked under a church-way stile; there leave et, and keep out of sight and hearan till the turn of night; and, nine times out of ten, the thing will be took off and the stolen cheeld put in his place. There's another plan but I never seed et tried—to make by night a smoky fire, with green ferns and dry. When the chimney and house are full of smoke as one can bear, throw the changeling on the hearth-stone; go out of the house; turn three times round; when one enters the right cheeld will be restored."
The women of Brea—resolved to try what a beating on the ashes’ pile would do towards getting rid of the goblin—threw it on a heap near at hand and commenced belabouring it with their brooms. But they had scarcely touched it than it set up such a roar that it was heard in Brea mansion; and Dame Ellis came running down the town-place to see what could be the matter. She asked what they were beating in that cruel way. Being
nearly dark and the wet ashes sticking to the creature she couldn't tell what gave out such a doleful noise.
"Why mistress," says Jenny, "that thing there on the ashes’ pile es what was left in our house, when my dear cheeld was spirited away, by smale people, while I was reapan in your field the very day we cut the neck. All the neighbours know the trouble I've had ever since—how this thing that looked like my cheeld have ben all the time screechan, suckan, or eatan, and have never grown a bit, nor will make any use of his legs."
"But thats nothan," said she, recovering her breath, "to what happened a few hours ago, and most frightened me out of my senses. You mayn’t believe at—that when, on my way to Chapel Uny Well, with that thing astride on my shoulder, somebody that couldn't be seen by mortal eyes cried out, "Tredril, Tredril, thy wife and children greet thee well!" Then, in an instant, good lack, that thing from my back replied, 'That little cared he for wife or child when he rode on Dowdy's back (meaning me) to the Chapel Well, and had good pap his fill.' Nobody can tell the fright I was in, to hear that thing talk like a man about his wife and child."
Dame Ellis, lifting the creature from the ashes’ heap, said to Jenny, "I believe that thou wert either drunk or in a waking dream when passing round the hill, and that this child, used so ill, is as truly thine as any thou hast born. Now take it home, wash it well, feed it regular, and don't thee leave it all day lying in its cradle; and, if thee canst not make it thrive, send for Dr. Madron."
Jenny and the other women at first refused to comply with Dame Ellis's advice; told her that she knew next to nothing about such matters, and related many things to prove that the creature was no mortal's child, till the lady tired with their stories, turned to go in, saying to Jenny,
"My husband shall come out and talk to thee; peradventure he may convince thee of thy error."
Squire Ellis and his wife being quakers—a sect then but little known in the West—they were thought by Brea women, and many others, to be no better than unbelieving Pagans, "who haven't the grace," said they, "to know anything about such creatures as spriggans, piskies, knackers (knockers of the mines) and other small folks, good or bad, that haunt our carns, moors, and mines; who can vanish or make themselves visible when and how they please, as all more enlightened folks know."
They well knew, however, what concerned them more—that Squire Ellis was their landlord, and that, quiet and quaker-like as he and his wife were in their talk, and demure in their looks, they were not to be trifled with; and that their will was law for
all living on their estate unless they could contrive to deceive them.
Squire Ellis came down and, finding that Jenny (with her bantling and all the others) were gone into a house, where he heard them loudly talking, he had nothing to Say to them; perhaps, he kept an eye on their proceedings.
Brea women, in spite of "unbelieving quakers," as they called Squire Ellis and his wife, among themselves—determined to have their own way—waited till all was dark in the great house; then Jenny, with the bantling or spriggan, and another woman, who was very knowing about changelings, passed quietly up Brea town-place, and under a stile on the Church-way path crossing a field from Brea lane, they left the creature (then asleep) that had been such a plague to them.
Jenny returned to Brea Vean, and there stayed till morning. Being fatigued and worried she overslept herself, for it was nearly daybreak when she awoke and hurried away, between hopes and fears, to the stile; and there, sure enough, she found her own "dear cheeld," sleeping on some dry straw. The infant was as clean, from head to foot, as water could make it, and wrapped up in a piece of old gay-flowered chintz; which small folks often covet and steal from furze-bushes, when it is placed there in the sun to dry.
Jenny nursed her recovered child with great care, but there was always something queer about it, as there always is about one that has been in the fairies’ power—if only for a few days. It was constantly ailing and complaining, and, as soon as it was able to toddle, it would wander far away to all sorts of out-of-the-way places. The good lady of Brea often came to see it and brought it many nice things that its mother couldn't afford to buy, and when he was about nine years of age Squire Ellis took the changeling (as he was always called) into his service, but he was found to be such a poor simple innocent that he could never be trusted to work in the fields alone, much less with cattle; as a whim would take him, every now and then, to leave his work and wander away over hills and moors for days together. Yet he was found useful for attending to rearing cattle and sheep—then kept in great numbers on the unenclosed grounds of Brea. He was so careful of his master's flock in lambing time that there was seldom any lost. Forsaken or weakly lambs were often given to him by the neighbours, and he contrived to rear them so well that, in a few years, he had a good flock of his own that Squire Ellis and everyone else allowed him to pasture wherever he and his sheep choose to wander—everybody knew the poor changeling and made him welcome. When he grew to man's estate, however, he became
subject to fits, and had to remain at home with his mother great part of his time.
Yet, when the fits were over, nothing could restrain his propensity for wandering, and his sheep, goats, and even calves, always followed, and seemed equally to enjoy their rambles. He often talked to himself, and many believed that he was then holding converse with some of the fairy tribe, only visible to him, who enticed him to ramble among the earns, hills, and moors—their usual haunts.
When about thirty years of age he was missed for several days; and his flock had been noticed, staying longer than usual near the same place, on a moor between the Chapel Hill and Bartinné, and there—surrounded by his sheep—he was found, lying on a quantity of rushes which he had pulled and collected for making sheep-spans.
He lay, with his arm under his head, apparently in sweet sleep, but the poor changeling of Brea was dead.