This story appears in Christmas in Cornwall 60 Years Ago by Mrs. John Bonham. Unicorn Press, London: 1898.
St. Cadge Cove nestled between two bold headlands, which afforded some shelter from the east and west winds. A rough, shingly beach, with large boulders cropping up here and there, made landing somewhat difficult at times for the crabbers who sold their shellfish to the “smacks” which called weekly and then sailed away with their purchases to some seaport towns.
The village itself lay at the back of the Cove in a hollow between sloping fields and orchards. A few cottages, however, were perched on a high part of the cliff and looked down on the beach. A quite out-of-the-way spot was St. Cadge in those days. A tourist was rarely seen, its natural beauties being little known. Yet there were grand freaks of nature within a short distance, one being a wonderful cave, into which in stormy weather the waves rushed furiously, tossing and foaming in awful grandeur ; and then again during calm days and nights all was still and placid.
It was then perfectly safe for a boat to penetrate till it became almost dark, and still the end of this weird and gloomy cave had not been reached.
We sang Rock of Ages there once while sitting in a crabber’s boat, and the effect cannot be described ; the echo tossing the melody from side to side. We were all filled with awe. The dim light, the water around us looking so black, and the rocky roof scarcely discernible in the gloom, sent a shudder through us all ; and it was with a sense of relief that we found ourselves once more in the light at the mouth of the cave, one of the party at least inwardly vowing that she would never go through another such experience.
Near the Cove, too, there was a natural amphitheatre formed by the subsiding of the cliff through the action of the waves, an object of wonder to thousands of tourists during the last thirty years.
Our story, however, has to do with homely village folk, so we must curtail our description of nature’s beauties. Clean and trim the cottages looked as you descended to St. Cadge, for everyone believed in whitewashing, and the good housewives vied with each other as to whose home should look the cleanest. The east and north winds being cut off, geraniums and fuchsias lived out of doors through the winter, the latter often reaching the top of the kitchen windows.
There was the Inn, too, most properly managed and respectably kept. There were few habitual drunkards : in fact but one who belonged really and truly to that unhappy class ; but of him, more anon.
Christmas was near. Everyone was counting the days, and every cottage was whitewashed and thoroughly cleaned. Many a pig was slain in order that his loins and spareribs might grace the Christmas dinner-table, and many were the dying screeches heard in various yards during these busy days. Geese and fowls too were dispatched and got ready for roasting, and making into pies.
So Christmas Eve came round once more. The saffron buns and cake were made, and everyone looked bright and smiling.
Mr. James Collins, who kept the “White Goose,” was a man highly respected. His wife, too, was held in great esteem, and was spoken of as a motherly sort of woman, and a kind friend to the poor.
They had two grown-up daughters who possessed powerful voices ; in fact, they and their brothers could beat every one for miles around in singing carols. Mary Jane sang soprano and Sarah Ann alto. Jimmy came in with a deep bass ; George and William usually sang tenor ; while little Joe sometimes took one part, sometimes another, just as the fancy seized him.
To hear the Collinses sing was a treat indeed, though none of them had ever taken a lesson ; and to none more than to their uncle, William Collins. He was a bachelor, but there was a whisper that when young he had admired a lady far above him socially, and that when she married and his hopes were shattered (though she knew nothing of them) he had never looked at womankind in that way again.
The old man lived alone and “did” for himself ; and his two rooms were a credit to him. He was very fond of his nieces, especially liking to hear them sing. So on this Christmas Eve he called, asking them to come over and have some “eggy hot” with him, the usual drink at that season.
“Iss, uncle,” said Mary Jane, quite pleased with the prospect ; “we’ll come arver an maake the eggy hot, an’ sing to ’a bit afterwards.”
“No, no,” he replied quickly. “I’ll git’n all ready ’gen you come. I can maake eggy hot s’well as any womon I knaw, you see ef I caan’t.”
At eight o’clock the two girls stepped across the village to their uncle’s little cottage. There was no blind to the kitchen window, so they peeped in to see how the preparations were going on. There sat the old man at the table with a quart basin before him, eating something out of it with a spoon. Wondering to see him taking broth on such an evening, they watched him with much curiosity, and soon discovered that it was the eggy hot he was devouring with all haste. They could plainly see the great lumps of egg in the spoon as he raised it to his mouth.
“Poor uncle,” cried Mary Jane, convulsed with laughter. “Why, aw ben maakin’ the eggy hot, an’ aw dedn’t knaw how to thraw et foorth an’ back, an’ the eggs es all gone in great lumps.”
“Sarve’m right,” said Sarah Ann, decisively. I wanted for ’n to lev es maake et, but aw do alles think aw can do so well as any womon. “Hallo, uncle !” she cried, bursting into the room, “what are ’a eaten’ of ’on ?”
“Why, I was ’aven’ a bit of somefen’ ’fore you come. Now, my dears, lev es be gone an’ maake the eggy hot far our lives.”
The girls had not the heart to let out the secret. All three set to work, and soon a large brown jug was filled with the smoking beverage. And they sat around the Christmas logs in the old open chimney, and the girls sang the old-fashioned carols, much to uncle’s delight. Evidently he was not grieving over the loss of the beer, eggs, and sugar that had turned out such a miserable failure.
“Now,” said Mary Jane, after they had sung several carols, “lev es he gone hoome, ’cause our people will he wanten’ some singen’ too.”
Uncle came out with them, closing the door behind him—no need for locking up in St. Cadge ! At William Gendall’s door stood Jinny his wife, looking eagerly up the road. They could see her distinctly in the moon-light.
“Who are ’a looken’ far ’on, Jinny ?” asked one of them.
“Why, Willyom, chul,” she replied sadly, “aw ben gone up Tresodder far hours, sein’ far drop cider, an’ ed’n come yet. What aw man aw es ! Noberry knaw what I got to put up weth.” Her face was naturally a long one, but now it was stretched lengthways to the very utmost.
“I’m fine an’ sorry for ’a, Jinny,” said Mary Jane, sympathetically. “What aw mis’roble man he es !”
“Aw ! no, no,” she replied, seeming rather “niffed ;” “I caant say es that. Never aw better ’usbunt lived when he’s sober, an’ as good a workman as ever took tool in hand.”
“Come along,” whispered Sarah Ann. “You can see,” she continued, when they were out of hearing, “that she caan’t abide far anybody to say a word agen ’om. I heard faather say that one time Philly Trebilcock was screechen’ murder far ’ar very life, an’ when he runned up, theere was Rechey pounden’ way ’pon ’ar an’ knocken’ ’ar about, an’ faather cried out, ‘Why, lev the womon aloone ; why, wha’s matter weth ’a, you’re killen’ ’ar ;’ an’ ef she ded’n tell faather to go ’bout his bisness—that be wasn’t wanted theere.”
“Aw iss,” remarked uncle, “wemmen es very contrary—never knaw how to taake them.”
“ ’Tes aw true ol’ sayen’ that
“ ‘When two married folks are flouten’
An’ a stranger pokes es snout in
He es sure to git aw tweak far es pains.’ ”
They had reached the Inn now, and all the family joined in singing carols till they were hoarse. How they rolled out the choruses, doubling over the words, trilling and shaking, taking solos, and then all joining in with such a tremendous burst of sound, that at last Mrs. Collins held up her hand, and begged them to sing softer, for she said her head was ready to “bust !”
They had few listeners on a Christmas Eve, for nearly everyone kept to his own house and sang carols ; so that from all parts of the village melodies soft or loud resounded. The Collinses were singing the last carol when the maid came into the room, and whispered to her mistress, who turned to her husband and said a few words. The young people, observing all this, were longing to know what was going on. Scarcely had the last note died away when Mary Jane asked eagerly,
“Wha’s the matter ’on, mawther ?”
“Why the Christmas plays es out theere ; want to come in bit.”
“Aw, mother,” cried all the children together, “lev thom come in, iss mawther do.”
“But they’ll kick up such a ranty-mis-skit” (uproar), said she.
“Never mind for wance,” replied her husband, “the rooüds es dry as boones, so they waan’t dirty the floor.”
“Well thon,” said his wife, “tell thom to come in,” and Cherry disappeared, delighted to carry out the command.
After some shuffling outside the door in walks a masked figure with a nose —out of all proportion to the rest of his face. This striking personage is attired in a black coat, gaily adorned with bits of red cloth sewn here and there. Short pieces of straw threaded like beads, intermixed with tiny circles of red cloth, hang from different parts of his body. His head is adorned with an immense paper hat in the gayest of colours, with cock’s feathers stuck in to add to the effect. After making a few turns up and down the room, in a feigned voice he introduces himself as follows—
“Here come I, old Father Christmas,
Welcome or welcome not,
I hope old Father Christmas
Will never be forgot.
With a head like a pig
And a body like a sow
And a great long nose
Like the beam of a plough.”
This speech being finished, two more figures, also gaily dressed and masked, enter. All talk together, till the new-comers quarrel and commence to fight with swords (blunt ones of course). The skirmish comes to a sudden end by one of them falling on the floor. The conqueror looks around and asks in a tone of distress—
“Es other doctor to be found,
To cure this deep and deadly wound ?”
“wound” rhyming with “found.” In an instant he who personates the doctor, and who has been waiting outside, springs in holding a black bottle, but, instead of going to his patient at once, he gives to the audience an account of the various ills he professes to cure, and all the while the figure on the floor lies stretched at full length without any sign of life. Then stooping over him the doctor puts the bottle to his lips and shouts,
“Rise, and fight King George again.”
Up jumps the wounded man, suddenly cured, and he and his former enemy go at it once more. But after a while the fighting turns to dancing, turning, jumping, and other movements in which join Father Christmas, doctor, and other figures in masks. At last a hat is passed round, the Collinses feel in their pockets, and out come pence, which are willingly given, all being delighted with the performance.
Mrs. Collins brings in some saffron cake, which the poor creatures cannot eat because of their masks ; so they take it away with them. The family then begin to guess who the performers are—some having rather betrayed themselves by not carefully feigning their voices.
Mr. Collins and his brother have thoroughly enjoyed it all. They have been accustomed every Christmas since their boyhood to see the old play acted. For several nights this is repeated in the neighbouring farmhouses and cottages, till by the time the festive season is over, the pence which the performers have collected amount to quite a respectable sum.
William Gendall, so they said, could no more be spared from St. Cadge than the parson or the grave-digger. William’s real trade was that of a mason, but there were few kinds of work that he could not undertake. A handy man was William ; moreover he was obliging, respectful, honest in his dealings, and good-behaved except when he was not himself. But—ah ! that but !—he “dearly loved the drop.” Not that he got drunk every day, but placed in temptation’s way he always fell.
Jinny, his wife, was a Christian woman, and this trial was the bitter drop in her cup ; but with Some One to lean on, she bore up bravely on the whole. She never paraded her husband’s failings, rarely allowing herself even to speak at all of his besetment.
However William might neglect the means of grace, Jinny and the children were regularly at the house of God. She was doing her best to bring up her little ones respectably ; but it was a hard struggle, for when William had his “bouts” the money quickly wasted away. The villagers pitied Jinny, but they had little hope of her husband ever abandoning his habits.
On this Christmas Eve he “changed himself” after the early dinner, fully intending to spend the evening with his family.
“Now, Jinny,” said he, in a pleasant tone, “I shall run up Tresodder fur drop cider sure to git it good up theere.” Besides he knew there would only be a trifle to pay, as cider was plentiful in most farmhouses in those days. So William took a gallon jar, and putting a rope through the handle, slung it over his shoulder and set out.
“Doont ’a stop, Willyom,” called his wife after him in a coaxing voice. She knew there was the risk which attended his going.
“I stop,” he answered back cheerfully. “No, no, Jinny, I shaan’t stop, never fear. I shall be back agen in a crack, you see ef I ar’n’t.”
“Aw !” she thought, “ef I cud but depend ’pon ’om, how putty et wud be.”
As we have seen, hours passed. Night settled in. But no William came. The children were all in bed, eleven o’clock had struck, and still Jinny watched and waited. It was a sad, lonely Christmas Eve for her, and tears were in her eyes as she contrasted her lot with that of so many of her neighbours, who she knew had been sitting round the fire with their wives and children, singing carols, and spending a happy evening and a feeling of neglect and loneliness stole over her. It soon passed though, and the blessed reality of her friendship with God rose above everything else. “Lord,” she sobbed out, “Thou knowest all things, how I am tried and cast down. Thou knowest that I love Thee.” The feeling of loneliness was gone, Christ seemed near her as a real presence.
The village was now quiet, and all lights out. Jinny had no fears for her husband’s safety, but putting a shawl over her head she thought of going up the road to meet him.
Before proceeding many yards she heard footsteps approaching, and listened. “Iss,” she said, “ ’tes Willyom, sure enough, I knaw ’om by his staps,” so she walked back quickly to wait for him in the doorway.
Up he came, walking very doubtfully.
“Why, wheere’s the jar, Willyom ?” she asked mildly as he was passing into the kitchen.
He put his hand behind him and felt up and down his back, staring at her with great vacant eyes. “Why, whatever es become ob,n ?” he asked still staring, and then it all seemed to come back to him, and he stammered out, “Aw ! I knaw now, why ’tes they ol’ mis’roble rough rooüds-an’ I full down-an scat the ol’ jar in rags.”
Jinny said nothing. What use was it talking to a tipsy man ?
Next morning when the villagers were going up to church, everyone came to a standstill at a certain spot ; for there was a big wet place in the road ; the body of the jar lay on one side of it, and the neck and handle with the rope still through it on the other. So the secret came out, for many had seen William pass through the village with the jar on his back, and the bit of gossip went the round of St. Cadge.
Although the rest of William Gendall’s simple history has no particular connexion with Christmas, it made so deep an impression on St. Cadge that perhaps it may be narrated here.
Jinny was failing, as everyone but her husband could see, but she rarely complained, and none knew how she suffered. The neighbours looked on her as an ill-used woman and could not understand her taking so meekly her husband’s neglect.
“He ar I shud ’ave ben in our graaves fore this time ef he was my ’usbunt,” said Eleanor Bolitho, a woman who stood six feet in her shoes, and was a veritable Amazon. “Do ’a think I wud put up weth such a greüt lavarock ? Not sure ’nough.”
“Aw iss, he’s an anointed wan, Eleanor,” cried Polly Allen, “but after all we wemmen shud find’n wanten’ ef aw was gone. Who would do our lill’ mason’s jobs, an’ put in our hill’ graates an things like Willyom ? No, no. I doon want far’n to die, but ’tes thousand pities he’s so fullish.”
Jinny Gendall believed in the power of prayer, and though her faith was severely tried, she had a strong assurance that her husband would be saved. The answer was coming sooner than the good woman thought. William, returning home one night rather the worse for liquor, found his wife lying on the kitchen floor, He called out, but there was no answer. Going up close to her, he again called, in some alarm, “Jinny, Jinny !” Still there was no response. He raised her up—the face was pale, the eyes closed. Tremblingly he carried her upstairs, laid her on the bed and rushed out of the house like a wild man, to call a neighbour.
When he returned out of breath and as sober as ever he was in his life, there lay his wife in the same position. The five minutes that intervened between his arrival and Kitty’s were enough to work a mighty change in this hardened man.
His life rose up before him like a great mountain, and he saw himself a sinner, he had moreover an impression that this was his wife’s death-bed. Taking her wasted hand in his he bathed it with tears—tears of deep repentance too. Jinny’s prayers were answered ; and the stricken man fell on his knees by the bedside.
When Kitty entered she was almost stunned. William was loudly sobbing, “Oh, Lord, ’ave marcy ’pon me, saave me, the worst of sinners.” Then turning again to his wife he wailed piteously, “Jinny, speak to yer good-far-nawthen’ ’usbunt. Oh ! I’v killed ’a by my wicked ways.”
Kitty saw at a glance that the poor woman had had a seizure. A neighbour hurried for the doctor who lived ten miles away, but William never left the bedside of his dying wife, and there in the face of a great and awful loss he truly repented and was mercifully forgiven.
The joy of pardon was his, but it was tempered by deep sorrow for her who was slipping away from him and bitter remorse for the past. No doctor could save Jinny now, and she never spoke again. A few hours after, Jinny had gone to a land where neither loneliness nor neglect is ever known. From this time William was the most devoted Christian in St. Cadge. Neither old companions nor favourite haunts had any more attraction for him. Everything intoxicating he avoided as he would a serpent. He never regained his Old cheerfulness, nor was he ever known to indulge in any frivolous conversation.
A great sorrow indeed had fallen on him, and a sad thoughtful look gradually settled on his face.
When some out of kindness tried to rally him on his sober manner and to rouse him, William would shake his head and often quote—
“No room for mirth or trifling here,
For worldly hope or worldly fear
If life so soon is gone !”
There is a quiet, beautifully kept churchyard, shaded by trees, only a short distance from St. Cadge, where some years ago they, amid many expressions of grief, laid an old man to rest. It was the mason of St. Cadge.
The Christmas morning service was always looked forward to on account of the special anthem and Christmas carols. Parson Sterling was getting into years, and it was a great relief when he could sit down, and for five or ten minutes give the service into the hands of Tom Tobbett, the leader of the choir.
The “singing seat” in those days was directly under the reading desk. The musicians were Jerry Johns, with his bass viol, and sitting next to him brother Henry, who was deaf, with his flageolet. Brother Benny sat on the other side of Jerry with a clarionet, and Peter Permewan with his great bassoon always occupied the corner. The singers filled up the remaining places.
Up jumps Tom Tobbett to do his part. “Now,” he says looking round the church, “we’re gooen to ’ave the ol’ Christmas h’em. Now sing all of ’a—sing, an’ they that caan’t sing must ‘toadley’ ” (make some sort of a sound).
Then in a high, drawling, nasal tone he gives out the first two lines,
“While shep’ards watch theer flocks by night,
All seüted on the grou-ou-ound,”
running down the scale in the last three syllables to give the correct starting note. Off they go. Bassoon, flageolet, clarionet, and bass viol. Benny the deaf man leans towards Jerry in the second line and shouts out, “Am I playen’ right ?” Jerry, all intent on his bass viol, is so annoyed that he gives Benny a whack across the arm with the bow and a sharp and loud “Go on weth ’a.” Oh ! the squeaks, thunder, discord, bad time, puffing in and out of mouths, and the shrill untrained voices of the singers ! But what a performance to the humble worshippers !
“Grand esn’t et, Uncle Toby,” whispers one aged man to another, with eyes fixed on the struggling musicians.
“Aw iss, Caleb, ’tes like ’eaven ’pon earth come down.”
Benny’s face is the colour of a boiled lobster, and his eyes are like two bull’s-eye sweets on Matty Edwards’s “stanen” at Stonley.
Just before the sermon they have the grand Christmas anthem, in which Henry plays a clarionet solo, followed by a full chorus. When the performance is ended, the hot musicians, looking round the church, smile and nod to their friends, as much as to say, “There now, what do ’a think of that ?”
Hannah Cock and Molly James were rarely absent from church. Neither of them could read, but they joined in the responses, especially in the Litany when it came to “We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord.”
Molly used to say that her eyelids would never keep up while the parson was reading his sermon. Reading, she said, always sent her off to sleep like a top ; but she believed the Lord knaw’d all about it, and was sure He wouldn’t be hard ’pon her for an infirmity. During the service Hannah had been “burnen’ inside,” for she had a bit of news for her old friend Molly.
“What do ’a think, Molly ?” asked Hannah, in a “Tom Hollow’s whisper” as soon as they got out of the porch. “Maester George Jenkin es thinken’ ’bout mar-ren’ agen.”
“Never ! to be sure, Hannah ; why, aw hab’n got aw tooth in es ’ead.”
“My dear chield, ded’n ’a hear et ’on ? Why, aw ben away seem’ aw man ’bout ’aven’ some false wans, chul.”
“False teeth ! Why, tes dreadful to think about, Hannah, gooen’ ’bout weth dead people’s teeth in yer mouth, auh !”
“Well, Molly, they say he’s after aw womon way arver to Stoonley somewheere, an’ that she’s come into braa bit aw money lately, an’ ef he can catch she he’ll weer false teeth ar anything else to maake hisself look spruce, the ol’ whipper-snapper ; an’ aw got aw new cooüt, an’ aw blaw’d up our Tilly sky high yes’day ’cause she dedn’t maake es collars stiffer. So you may be sure theere’s somefen in it.”
“Aw, iss, iss, Hannah, you may be sure he’s ’coorten’ ef he’s gitten’ peticler ’bout es collars an’ things. Well, he’s aw fullish ol’ man, an’ gitten’ up in ’ears too.”
The two women now parted roads, each busy in thought over their bit of gossip.
Mr. George Jenkin, the subject of their talk, was nearly seventy, and a man who had seen better days. He “looked high,” having descended from one of the best families in the neighbourhood.
Miss Rosina Tyack’s tender point was “family.” She often said she would rather never marry than get into a low family. “I’m not like a young and foolish girl. I like to know who I’m going to be mixed up with, and who my relations will be.”
Mr. Jenkin’s teeth were finished, but did not fit. They were altered, and forwarded in a neat little box. The excited man fitted them in, but they gave him great pain. Was there not a rumour, however, that another lover, attracted like himself, perhaps, by the recent fortune, was hovering round Miss Rosina ? Pain or no pain he would ride over, and bring matters to a crisis for weal or woe. He felt himself looking twenty years younger, and Miss Rosina, he was certain, would scarcely take him for more than fifty. Though they had never been introduced, he had often seen her at Stonley market, and he felt he could live very contentedly with her. It was simply owing to the delay with the teeth that matters had not been already settled one way or another ; but while he awaited them he had thrown out hints to a friend or two not noted for still tongues, and in a small village it is the easiest thing in the world to set a bit of gossip rolling.
“Well, ’tis wonderful how things do turn up,” said Miss Rosina softly, as she furtively watched the happy candidate out of sight. “Just the family I should like to get into— a nice, sober man, and not at all bad-looking. As for his teeth, one would think they were false, so white and regular, too ; but Mr. Jenkin, we know, would never be so vain as to wear false teeth. I do like to see a man with a good set of teeth !”
From this it will be seen that in Cornwall fifty years ago the wearing of artificial teeth was attributed to vanity, and never to a desire to help mastication and digestion. And if any reader grumbles that we have wandered, in the latter part of this chapter, too far from the church porch, and asks what teeth have to do with Christmas, he must inquire of the first little boy he meets how we should dispatch the Christmas goose without them.
Every village in Cornwall had its own particular ghosts, and St. Cadge was no exception to the rule, its ghost appearing, as was meet and right, one Christmas Eve. But we must go back a few years in order to make things plain.
Billy Bottrell and Betty Coade were a quiet-going pair during their courtship. Betty, who lived in farm service, always said that once a week, namely, Sunday, was often enough for any decent young woman to see her “shiner ;” and no mistress, we may be sure, would dispute that matter with her. Folks said that Billy was not very bright, and that Betty, fairly good-looking and a capital servant, might do better ; but she was pleased with her choice, and that settled it.
Christmas Eve, the day before the wedding, had arrived, and Billy in great glee clapped his hands, grinned, and leaped about like one demented. “Ah !” he exclaimed exultingly to some friends, “I’m Billy Bottrell to-day, I shall be William Coade to-morrow.” His brain was in a whirl, and he had somehow mixed things up.
Billy and Betty began housekeeping in a long, low, thatched building containing only one large room. There was a lovely view of St. Cadge cove and cliffs from the cottage, though doubtless the inmates thought little of that.
The surplus vegetables from their large garden partly provided a pig, which they would feed up for killing. Billy’s idea of feeding a pig was a novel one, for it had a feast one day, and a fast the next, so as to make streaky pork, as he used to say.
Time went on till the cottage swarmed with children. Betty had decent ideas, and she worried over so many sleeping in one room that served for every purpose. She soon conceived a plan, bought a few laths and some thin lengths of wood, and then with her own hands fixed up two or three partitions to form cubicles. These partitions she covered with newspapers, begged from the respectable farmers for miles around, for in those days papers were scarce, costing fourpence halfpenny and even sixpence each.
After great exertions she managed to secure a little privacy for the elder children, though her achievement only consisted of a very frail structure ; so that one morning, when there was a strong southerly wind blowing directly against Betty’s door, and Mr. Collins, wishing to speak to Billy, lifted the latch and opened it, a blast swept through the interior, and the papered partitions rattled and quivered like aspen-leaves.
“Aw ! my dear saul !” cried Betty in great alarm ; “shut the doer, quick-shut’n, ar my screens will be down all of a heap.”
Billy’s wages were small, but the large family managed somehow to get along on them, supplemented occasionally by a little smuggling job.
In course of time the elder boys went into farm service and times grew somewhat better.
One Christmas Eve just seventeen years after Billy’s wedding, Jackman the eldest boy came home very ill ; and Billy thinking him in danger rode off on a borrowed horse for the doctor, who prescribed, gave Betty her orders and left.
Mother and father had passed an exciting day, and as the boy now quietly slept, they left him in charge of his eldest sister, and hurried down to the “White Goose” to have a little drop before the house was closed.
Young Collins, and his friend Joe Bennett, always ready for any fun, listened while the story of Jackman’s sudden illness was related for the good of every one in the kitchen, and then the two young men slipped out. Their plans were soon formed, and both creeping under an old hedge, that near the ground had been dug out, they waited in a crouching position, their backs to the road, and each with a white garment drawn over the extremity nearest to any passer-by. In a few minutes they heard footsteps coming up the hill.
“Wha’s that, Betty, up theere in the ’edge ?” asked Billy, tremblingly.
“Wheere, Billy ?”
“Why, up theere—look.”
“Law, whatever es et ? Why ’tes aw tooken, Billy, Jackman ’ll die, I knaw aw will. They’re ghoostes.”
“No, no, Betty,” he replied reassuringly, though himself trembling with fear, “they’re two white pigs,” and he approached cautiously, feeling before him with his stick, but still keeping at some distance. “Aw hooay—aw hooay,” he cried out to the pigs.
The young men, after allowing him to call and beat his stick on the ground for a minute or two, without in the least altering the position of their bodies, hopped out of the hedge, and to the horror of the frightened couple hopped away down the hill. And such ghostly sights they looked in the partial darkness that Betty in great distress cried out :
“Aw, Billy, my dear boy’ll die. Iss aw will, thus aw tooken chul tha’s what that es.”
They were riveted to the spot with fear. Meanwhile the merry youths were no sooner out of sight, than, scampering through the village, they climbed some hedges, ran up the fields, and planted themselves, white backs outwards, near a path along which the couple had to pass to get to their cottage.
At last, partially recovered from their terrible fright, Billy and Betty came slowly up the hill, talking quietly and solemnly. They got over the stile, and there, before them, was the strange vision once more !
“Oh ! my goodness guide me, Billy, what shall es do ? theere’s the ghoostes agen. Oh ! wheere shall I go ? Lem me shut my eyes. Oh ! Billy, catch hawld of me—Oh ! Now we do knaw ’tes two ghoostes, ’cause they was down bottom of the hill jest now, an’ now they’re up ’long here.”
The ghosts once more went hop, hop, down the field, when the horrified couple rushed wildly one after the other, Betty screaming at the top of her voice, and on reaching the cottage, forgetting Jackman, she beat wildly on the door, arousing the poor boy from his peaceful sleep ; and then she sank down on the floor and almost fainted away.
The tale of the two ghosts seen on Christmas Eve went the round of St. Cadge and its neighbourhood, and was told, not always without exaggeration of its horrors, to many a shuddering circle round the Christmas fire when the carol-singing was over : but the ghosts themselves laughed in their sleeves, and kept their secret for years.
The Christmas Eve that stands out before all others, and is even now referred to with emotion by the very oldest inhabitant of St. Cadge, was that on which a great sorrow fell on the entire neighbourhood.
It was between two and three in the afternoon, and there was an ugly ground swell in the Cove.
Two crabbers—brothers, who had gone to Rackover to fetch a boatload of withs for making their crabpots—now made for the Cove in their small heavily-laden boat. They were men much respected, especially the elder brother, who was a sincere Christian and whose consistent life and kindly disposition had endeared him to his neighbours.
There were many speculations among those on shore as to the risk of landing with such a sea, but none seemed to think it necessary to warn them by signs not to approach. On came the boat, and cautiously the two men watched their opportunity to run her in between one wave and another.
The beach was lined with anxious watchers, among them the son and two daughters of the elder brother ; all of them excited, but not realising the awful risk to which the two men were exposed. After keeping the boat tolerably stationary for some minutes, and then taking advantage of a temporary lull, they exerted all their strength, and pulled vigorously for the shore.
Alas ! the task was too great. A huge wave behind curled over, entirely swamping the boat. Everyone stood panic-stricken and riveted to the spot. Then the three children rushed wildly up and down ; Mattie, her father’s pet, falling heavily into some woman’s arms. Both men were seen to rise, striking the waves vigorously at first with their hands ; but neither of them could swim. Presently the hands moved more feebly, and then altogether disappeared.
Meanwhile a young and courageous fisherman had hurriedly launched a boat, which was put off, and the bodies were quickly picked up.
All that could possibly be done to restore life was resorted to, but the improved methods of inducing respiration, little enough understood by a crowd even in our own day, were then scarcely known or practised at all, and the unfortunate men finally succumbed.
Mattie recovered consciousness just as they were engaged in rescuing the drowning men. As soon as they were brought ashore, she sank down by the body of her father, fixing her eyes intently on his face, and watching for the least sign of returning life. Mattie was bound up in her father : for her mother dying when she was quite a child, her love had been lavished on her remaining parent. “She is like the apple of my eye,” he used to say ; and to a busybody who asked him one day why he did not marry again, he replied somewhat severely, “No, I’ll never have any woman to come between me and my little Mattie.” Her sister too and brother overcome with grief were tremblingly watching the fruitless efforts of the rescuers.
“ ’Tes all arver, I b’lieve,” incautiously whispered one man to another. Mattie, who had been suppressing her feelings with a great effort up till now, overheard the remark :
“What ! my faather gone ?” she asked, and fell on his body in an agony of grief. “Lem me die weth’n” She cried. “My dear, dear faather. Lem me go to he and mawther.’ You dear, good faather.” She was fervently kissing his lips, but no sign of life followed. The other sister and brother hung over their father, bitterly crying. It was a pitiful sight. Rough men standing around were freely giving way to grief.
The afternoon was closing in, but still the three orphans hung over the corpse.
“We must git the poor little sauls away,” said a fisherman ; “ ’twill be dark soon now.”
“Come, come,” said an old woman coaxingly, “doon’t a’ give way so. Why ted’n as ef yer faather wasn’t fit to go. He, dear creatur’, es spenden’ his Christmas Eve with the Lord.”
“Come in weth me, an’ ave some tay. Come, Mattie dear,” said Gracie, gently lifting up her sister’s head. She quietly obeyed. Then turning her woe-begone face towards the cove, she shuddered, murmuring sadly as if to herself, “Dear faather, lost, and nearly home !”
This might seem too sad an ending for our little book ; but no doubt it will be read by some to whom Yule-tide will come laden with new sorrow or with memories of old loss, as well as by the festive and lighthearted. Upon such mourners the merry makings of others will perhaps jar, and they may find it hard to restrain murmurous envy of happier friends. Possibly it. will help them to learn that they are not after all outcasts of Fortune, and most tried of human kind, if they are reminded that it was thus they sometimes spent Christmas at St. Cadge, and that Mrs. Olliver’s tea-party, and pawns, and cakes, and mummers, and carols were only one side of Christmas in Cornwall sixty years ago.