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Cornish Folk Tales
By Mike O'Connor
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Mike O'Connor
All rights reserved.
It was a spring morning full of promise and birdsong. The day was sky-bright and clear. A child standing in the lane looked up in surprise as a figure came into sight. The hamlet of Cury saw few visitors. To the north and south were byways to the farms at Nanfan and Sowanna. Away to the west was the sea, always audible. But from the east came the stranger.
The sun was at his back as he walked down from White Cross. His clothes were weather-beaten; once they had been military uniform. Over his shoulder was a canvas sack. At his left side a green cloth bag hung from his belt. His right hand held a stick that constantly swept to right and left, sensing the grass verge by the dry-stone wall. Then he stopped and ran his fingers across the stones.
'What are you doing?' asked the child.
'That'll be the town hedge', said the stranger, smiling. Dry-stone walls are always called hedges in Cornwall.
The boy saw how the irregular field-stones in the wall had given way to a neater, vertical pattern.
'What's your name, boy?'
'Anthony James Vingoe,' he chanted, 'but Mam calls me Jamie. What's yours?'
The man paused, then smiled broadly.
'My name's almost the same', he said. 'It's just Anthony James. Where do you live, Jamie?'
'Up Churchtown', said the boy.
'Please Jamie, would you take me to meet your mam?' said Anthony.
'Wait,' he continued, 'let me put my hand on your shoulder.'
'What for?' said Jamie.
'I can't see, so you must be my eyes. Be sure that you tell me when we reach your house, and don't call out.'
Half a mile later they stopped at a small cottage. The irregular thatched roof was in need of maintenance, but a wisp of smoke curled upwards from the chimney. The stranger opened the bag at his belt and from it took a violin. He put it to his chin and drew the bow across the strings. The music was swift and light, but soulful all the same. The notes echoed through the open door.
From inside there was a cry that was a laugh and a shout all together, and a young woman ran to the door, a babe in her arms.
'Anthony James,' she cried, 'they said you were dead!'
Then she stopped, inches from him. 'Oh my love!' she said, 'What have they done to your eyes?'
Their embrace was long, full of smiles and tears.
'Would you have some nettle tea?' said the young mother.
'Martha,' said Anthony, 'there are two things a man should never refuse from a good woman, and the first of them is a cup of tea.'
'You old rogue,' she said, 'what's the second?'
'Another cup of tea, of course,' he replied, 'what did you expect? Jamie, guide me to the table. Then, Martha, I'll tell you my story if you tell me yours. May I sit down?'
'You need to rest before midday?' she asked.
'I just walked from Plymouth!' was the reply.
At the table Martha nervously took Anthony by the hand.
'I've married,' she said, 'Alan Vingoe, from the farm. They told me you were dead. I knew I was expecting. What could I do?'
'You did the right thing,' said Anthony, 'even if it hurts me to say it. I couldn't keep you now. I'm no match for any maid.'
Martha looked questioningly. 'They said you'd run off to sea, couldn't face your responsibilities.'
'Your father and mother?' asked Anthony.
'Both long gone', she sighed.
Anthony drew a deep breath. 'You shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but I can't help but think your father and the recruiting sergeant had words. Your old man was never too keen on me. The soldiers were up Cross Lanes, the Wheel Inn, and they seemed to have money to burn, enough to buy me ale. When I woke there were shackles on my ankles and I was on my way to Devonport. Since then I've been half way round the world with the 32nd Regiment of Foot. They kept us overseas so we wouldn't run away; Cork, Haiti and the Bahamas. I only got home 'cause Johnny Frenchman put chain shot in the rigging of our transport and a spar fell on my head.'
'Now I'm a pensioner of the quartermaster general. If I were in London they'd call me a Chelsea Pensioner. They put me in the Royal Military Hospital in Stonehouse. Now I'm fit enough to get about; so come the spring they let me go on the road. In the winter I'll go back to Devonport and reclaim my bed.'
'But how will you live?'
'I could just sit at Stonehouse with my memories. But a man will choke soon enough on army grub and old dreams. This is my land; I'd rather be here. I've enough tales and tunes for all of Cornwall.'
Martha smiled, 'A travelling droll teller! Just like old Billy Foss from Sancreed.'
'That's right,' said Anthony, 'and a good man is "Frosty" Foss. He used to go to the feasts all round Penwith, and was well entertained in the public houses for the sake of his drolls. But now he tells more tales at his forge, or in his mason's yard out the back. Anyway, Cornwall is big enough for both of us.'
'What's a droll?' asked Jamie.
'It's just what they call the old stories', said Anthony. 'Sometimes they're spoken; sometimes they take the form of songs; sometimes both.'
So all afternoon, by the fireside, Anthony played his fiddle, sang songs and told tales. As if by magic, around him gathered more children. Soon to them, as to all the world, he was their 'Uncle Anthony'. Some tales were funny, some were magic, many were of Cornwall and some were of far-away places. But somehow, whatever happened and wherever Anthony led his listeners, at the end of each tale they found themselves safely home again. As Anthony sowed his seeds in words and music, Jamie was captivated by the images that grew in his mind.
At the end of the day the room darkened as a figure filled the door.
'Alan!' exclaimed Martha.
'Well, I'll be blowed! Anthony James, back from the dead.'
Alan looked at Martha, then at Anthony.
'Well, Anthony James,' he said, 'you're not stopping here.'
Anthony gave a wry smile. 'Nor did I think to', he said.
Martha spoke urgently. 'Alan, he could sleep in the shed, couldn't he? Just tonight.'
'Yes, just tonight', said Alan. 'But the door'll be bolted, mind.'
'I want no trouble, I'll be gone before dawn', said Anthony.
That evening was clear and still, and the stars were very bright. The sound of the sea filled the heavens. With the dawn it was Martha who found that the door of the cottage was unbolted. It was neighbours who heard her crying out, 'Jamie, Jamie! Where are you Jamie?'CHAPTER 2
A worried crowd had gathered outside the cottage at Churchtown. Occasionally one or other figure would peer into the distance; the conversation ebbed and flowed. Suddenly their attention was drawn by a shout from the direction of White Cross.
Jamie Vingoe, suspended by his belt, was wriggling like an eel. Anthony James struggled to keep his balance, holding the boy in his left hand, and feeling the way with the stick held in his right hand. From a distance of a hundred yards the crowd could hear the boy crying out, between sobs and intakes of breath, 'I ... don't ... want ... to ... go ... home.'
They arrived outside the cottage. There Martha gratefully seized the errant boy. Despite being home Jamie still seemed comfortable in his mother's embrace.
'Jamie,' said Anthony James, 'if you ever, ever, want to come on the road with me in the future, you must come home now. You cannot just run away from everything you've ever known. Life won't let you, I know that, and anyway you owe it to your folks to ask them first.'
'But I want to go with you' sobbed the lad.
'Don't you love your Mum and Dad?' asked Anthony.
'Don't you like it at home?'
'But you want to come with me?'
'Yes, I could help ...'
There was an uneasy silence, punctuated with snuffles from Jamie.
Alan Vingoe spoke next. 'He's too young to work on the land. He's too daft to work in the house. He might just learn something.'
'No!' cried Martha.
'Please mum ...' cried Jamie.
'No', repeated his mother.
As the debate continued, Anthony James quietly took a pace backwards, turned and headed back up the lane towards the rising sun. No one seemed to notice his going.
He was sitting in the hedge deep in the shade of the elder tree at White Cross when a small figure came scurrying up the lane. The lad carried a bag on his shoulder, but ran with great urgency. By the time Anthony James extricated himself from the hedge, the figure had passed him and was heading up towards Cury Cross Lanes.
'Hey Jamie,' said Anthony, 'wait for me.'
'They said I could come', said Jamie. 'Oh! Why are you crying?' They tramped through the rest of the morning. As they walked they worked out the ways of guiding a blind man across Cornwall. Much depended on the going underfoot. Towns sometimes had cobbled streets or flags. Where roads were regularly used by carts, either for tin ore or for farm produce, the surface was often crushed stone. Lanes were often just rough earth, sometimes pitted and puddled. Many tracks were just used by pack horses or donkeys and they were often winding and uneven. Where the going was good Anthony could walk unaided, his stick identifying the kerb, hedge or wall. Sometimes they would walk independently, each holding the opposite end of a piece of hairy string left over after binding the stooks of corn at harvest time. Where the going was more difficult they would hold hands, or Anthony would place a hand on Jamie's shoulder. Sometimes Jamie would hold one end of Anthony's walking stick to guide him. But such was their joy at being together, the going did not seem to matter.
As they walked they swapped jokes, riddles and tall tales; the very best way to make the miles fly past. Once again Jamie noticed that without thinking he visualized the stories as Anthony told them. 'It's not like in books,' said Anthony, 'a storyteller says just enough for the listener to create the images in their own mind. If you say too much you can spoil it.'
By midday they had reached the Helford River. They sat under the trees, ate bread and cheese, and Jamie watched the sparkling water.
That afternoon they reached the farm of Carwythenack. 'Lead me to the door,' said Anthony James. He knocked on the door and in a while it opened. Anthony heard a female voice call out, 'It's just two beggars, shall I send them on their way?' But by then he had taken his fiddle from its bag and had started to play. Jamie heard a man's voice answer in a London accent, 'No, Harriette, ask them inside.'
They were shown into the farm kitchen. A pretty young woman stood nervously in the corner. An alert young man spoke to them. 'Come in. You, lad, show your dad the way. Sit at the table.'
Jamie started, 'He's ...'
'Shhh!' said Anthony, 'Thank you sir. What is your will? A tale or a tune, a song or a story?'
The man replied, 'I hope I shall hear all of those in a moment. But come, sir, we have not yet been introduced.'
Anthony smiled, 'Sir, I am Anthony James of Cury, and late of the 32nd Regiment of Foot, and this is young Jamie, who is my guide and my best friend.'
'Splendid,' came the reply, 'my name is William Sandys and this is Miss Harriette, my fiancée, and the heiress of Carwythenack.'
'My congratulations to you both,' said Anthony, 'I'm sure you make a handsome couple. I am happy your courtship pleases you both. But let me tell you of one that did not.'
Anthony held his fiddle in the crook of his arm and started to play in jig time. After a few bars he started to sing as he played. 'Excellent,' exclaimed William Sandys as Anthony sang of a farmer's unsuccessful but amusing courtship of a parson's daughter. Every so often the chorus came round, and everyone joined in: 'Dumble-dum deary, dumble-dum deary, dumble-dum, dumbledum, dumble-dum dee!'
At the end of the song the poor farmer retreated in confusion, but in the farmhouse of Carwythenack all were laughing fit to bust at the tale of Richard of Taunton Dean. Small ale was brought in, and more food. The evening passed in good humoured self-entertainment. Although William Sandys had a London accent, he knew a lot about Cornwall and could tell a fine tale himself. 'Just like the old minstrels.' Sandys laughed, 'Do you know any more?'
'Well,' said Anthony, 'many Cornish ports have stories of mermaids. I learned this tale from fishermen on the Lizard ...'
Lutey and the Mermaid
Once there was an old fisherman named Lutey. He divided his time between farming and fishing, as the weather and season took him. Well, one summer evening Lutey had finished his work early, so he took his dog Venture for a walk on the sands to see if he could find any flotsam or jetsam. But as he walked on the sand he heard a sad, sad cry. It sounded like a woman or child in distress.
On the sands were rocks. They were covered at high tide, but at low tide they were far from the sea, with rock pools between them. The cry seemed to come from the rocks so Lutey went there to see if he could help. At first he could see no one, but on the seaward side, in a rock pool, he saw something that nearly left him speechless.
Lying on a ledge in a rock pool was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her hair was long and golden. Her eyes were green and they sparkled like sun on the waves. This beautiful girl was gazing sadly at the sea and occasionally gave the pitiful cry that had first attracted Lutey. She was clearly in great distress.
At first, Lutey tried to be subtle, but could not attract her attention. Eventually he called out, 'What's the matter, miss? What are you doing here by yourself?' He spoke softly, but the girl cried with terror and disappeared into the rock pool.
Lutey thought she had drowned. But when he looked into the pool, he saw her hair, then her head, shoulders, body, and then a fish's tail! He trembled with fear for he realised he had found a mermaid! The mermaid raised her head above the water, and gazed at him with her bright green eyes.
However, she was just as frightened as he was so he spoke again, for it's always best to be kind to mermaids and not offend them. If they are angry there is no knowing what they may do.
'Please don't be frightened,' said Lutey, 'I only want to help.' So the mermaid floated higher and higher, and eventually was brave enough to climb up and perch on a rock. Her long hair fell about her, and in one hand she held a comb and in the other mirror.
'Just a few hours ago,' she said, 'I was with my husband and children, as happy as a mermaid could be. Then we all went to rest in a cave at Kynance Cove. My husband went to sleep. The children went to play in the waves and I was left alone. But after a while the sweet scent of flowers came to me from the gardens of your world, and I felt I must go and see them.'
'I swam here, but I found I could not get near the flowers; but I thought I would rest here and comb my hair, and breathe in their sweetness.'
'I was dreaming of your world, then I suddenly found the tide was far out. I was so frightened. If my husband wakes and misses me he will be angry, for mermen are very jealous. He will be hungry, too, and if he finds no supper ready he will eat some of the children!'
'No,' cried Lutey, 'surely he wouldn't do such a thing!'
'Mermen are gluttons', she said. 'They gobble up their children in a moment if their meals are late. I have only ten little ones left, and they will all be gone if I don't get home before he wakes!'
'Don't worry my dear. The tide will be soon in.'
'I can't wait', she cried, tears running down her cheeks. 'Please help me! Carry me to the sea; help me for ten minutes, and I will make you rich for life. Ask of me anything you want, and it shall be yours.'
Lutey was so enthralled by the beauty of the mermaid that he would have done anything she asked him. He stooped to pick her up.
'Take this,' she said, giving him her pearl comb, 'take this, to prove to you that you have not been dreaming, and that I will do for you what I have said. Whenever you want me, comb the sea three times with this, and call me by my name, "Morvena", and I will come to you. Now take me to the sea.'
Stooping again, he picked her up in his arms. She clung tightly to him, twining her long arms around his neck. 'Tell me your wishes,' she said sweetly, 'would you like long life, strength and riches?'
'No thank you, lady' said Lutey thoughtfully. 'But I'd dearly love to be able to remove the spells of the witches, to have power over spirits to make them tell me all I want to know so I can help others, and I'd like these gifts to carry on in my family forever.'
'Your wishes are granted,' cried the mermaid, 'and as you have been so selfless, I promise that your family will always be provided for.'
Lutey trudged on, while the mermaid held him ever closer and told him all about the delights of the world under the sea. Soon they passed the water's edge and Lutey started to wade out into the deeper water.
'Come with me, Lutey,' she cried, 'come with me to our caves and palaces; there are riches, beauty and everything any mortal can want. Come to be one of us whose lives are all love, and sunshine, and merriment.'
The breakers they wanted to reach were not far off. Lutey was tempted to go with the mermaid; her green eyes had utterly bewitched him. She saw that he was almost in her power. She clasped her long fingers round his neck and pressed her cool lips to his.
Another instant and Lutey would have gone, but at that moment there came from the shore the sound of a dog barking. It was Venture, Lutey's dog, left behind on the sand. Lutey turned to look. Venture was at the water's edge. Beyond, on the cliff, stood his home, the windows reflecting against the sun, his garden, and the country looking green and beautiful; the smoke was rising from his chimney. All of a sudden the mermaid's spell was broken. He remembered all the old tales he had heard of the power of mermaids and their ability to seduce humans.
'Let me go!' cried Lutey, trying to lower the mermaid into the water. But she clung on even more tightly.
Excerpted from Cornish Folk Tales by Mike O'Connor. Copyright © 2011 Mike O'Connor. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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