From Cornwall’s Wonderland, by Mabel Quiller Couch; London & Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., [undated — circa 1914]; pp. 118-133.
LUTEY AND THE MERMAID
ONE lovely summer evening many, many years ago, an old man named Lutey was standing on the seashore not far from that beautiful bit of coast called the Lizard.
On the edge of the cliff above him stood a small farm, and here he lived, spending his time between farming, fishing, and, we must admit it, smuggling, too, whenever he got a chance. This summer evening he had finished his day’s work early, and while waiting for his supper he strolled along the sands a little way, to see if there was any wreckage to be seen, for it was long since he had had any luck in that way, and he was very much put out about it.
This evening, though, he was no luckier than he had been before, and he was turning away, giving up his search as hopeless, when from somewhere out seaward came a long, low, wailing cry. It was not the melancholy cry of a gull, but of a woman or child in distress.
Lutey stopped, and listened, and looked back, 119 but, as far as he could see, not a living creature was to be seen on the beach but himself. Even though while he listened the sound came wailing over the sand again, and this time left no doubt in his mind. It was a voice. Someone was in trouble, evidently, and calling for help.
Far out on the sands rose a group of rocks which, though covered at high water, were bare now. It was about half ebb, and spring tide, too, so the sea was further out than usual, so far, in fact, that a wide bar of sand stretched between the rocks and the sea. It was from these rocks that the cry seemed to come, and Lutey, feeling sure that someone was out there in distress, turned and walked back quickly to see if he could give any help.
As he drew near he saw that there was no one on the landward side, so he hurried round to the seaward, — and there, to his amazement, his eyes met a sight which left him almost speechless.
Lying on a ledge at the base of the rock, partially covered by the long seaweed which grew in profusion over its rough sides, and partially by her own hair, which was the most glorious you can possibly imagine, was he most beautiful woman his eyes had ever lighted upon. Her skin was a delicate pink and white, even more beautiful than those exquisite little 120 shells one picks up sometimes on the seashore, her clear green eyes sparkled and flashed like the waves with the sun on them, while her hair was the colour of rich gold, like the sun in its glory, and with a ripple in it such as one sees on the sea on a calm day.
This wonderful creature was gazing mournfully out at the distant sea, and uttering form time to time the pitiful cry which had first attracted Lutey’s attention. She was evidently in great distress, but how to offer her help and yet not frighten her he knew not, for the roar of the sea had deadened the sound of his footsteps on the soft sand, and she was quite unconscious of his presence.
Lutey coughed and hem’d, but it was of no use — she could not or did not hear; he stamped, he kicked the rock, but all in vain, and at last he had to go close to her and speak.
“What’s the matter, missie?” he said. “What be doing all out here by yourself?” He spoke as gently as possible, but, in spite of his gentleness, the lovely creature shrieked with terror, and diving down into the deep pool at the base of the rock, disappeared entirely.
At first Lutey thought she had drowned herself, but when he looked closely into the pool, and contrived to peer through the cloud of hair which 121 floated like fine seaweed all over the top of it, he managed to distinguish a woman’s head and shoulders underneath, and looking closer he saw, he was sure, a fish’s tail! His knees quaked under him, at that sight, for he realized that the lovely lady was no other than a mermaid!
She, though, seemed as frightened as he was, so he summoned up his courage to speak to her again, for it is always wise to be kind to mermaids, and to avoid offending them, for if they are angry there is no knowing what harm they may do to you.
“Don’t be frightened, lady,” he said coaxingly; “I wouldn’t hurt ’ee for the world, I wouldn’t harm a living creature. I only wants to know what your trouble is.”
While he was speaking, the maiden had raised her head slightly above the water, and now was gazing at him with eyes the like of which he had never seen before. “I ’opes she understands Carnish,” he added to himself, “for ’tis the only langwidge I’m fluent in.”
“Beautiful sir,” she replied in answer to his thoughts, “we sea-folk can understand all languages, for we visit the coast of every land, and all the tribes of the world sail over the kingdom, and oft-times come down through the waters to our home. The greatest kindness you can do 122 me is to go away. You are accustomed to women who walk, covered with silks and laces. We could not wear such in our world, sporting in the waves, swimming into caverns, clambering into sunken ships. You cannot realize our free and untrammelled existence.”
“Now, my lovely lady,” said old Lutey, who did not understand a half of what she was saying, “don’t ’ee think anything about such trifles, but stop your tears and tell me what I can do for ’ee. For, for sure, I can help ’ee somehow. Tell me how you come’d here, and where you wants to get to.”
So the fair creature floated higher in the water, and, gradually growing braver, she presently climbed up and perched herself on the rock where Lutey had first seen her. Her long hair fell about her like a glorious mantle, and she needed no other, for it quite covered her. Holding in her hand her comb and mirror, and glancing from time to time at the latter, she told the old man her story.
“Only a few hours ago,” she said sadly, “I was sporting about with my husband and children, as happy as a mermaiden could be. At length, growing weary, we all retired to rest in one of the caverns at Kynance, and there on a soft couch of seaweed my husband laid 123 himself down to sleep. The children went off to play, and I was left alone. For some time I watched the crabs playing in the water, or the tiny fish at the bottom of the pools, but the sweet scent of flowers came to me from the gardens of your world, borne on the light breeze, and I felt I must go and see what these flowers were like whose breath was so beautiful, for we have nothing like it in our dominions. Exquisite sea-plants we have, but they have no sweet perfume.
“Seeing that my husband was asleep, and the children quite happy and safe, I swam off to this shore, but when here I found I could not get near the flowers; I could see them on the tops of the cliffs far, far beyond my reach, so I thought I would rest here for a time, and dress my hair, while breathing in their sweetness.
“I sat on, dreaming of your world, and trying to picture to myself what it was like, until I awoke with a start to find the tide far out, beyond the bar. I was so frightened I screamed to my husband to come and help me, but even if he heard me he could not get to me over that sandy ridge; and if he wakes before I am back, and misses me, he will be so angry, for he is very jealous. He will be hungry, too, and if he finds no supper prepared he will eat some of the children!”124
“Oh, my dear!” cried Lutey, quite horrified, “he surely wouldn’t never do such a dreadful thing!”
“Ah, you do not know Mermen,” she said sorrowfully. “They are such gluttons, and will gobble up their children in a moment if their meals are a little late. Scores of my children have been taken from me. That is how it is,” she explained, “that you do not oftener see us sea-folk. Poor children, they never learn wisdom! Directly their father begins to whistle or sing, they crowd about him, they are so fond of music, and he gets them to come and kiss his cheek, or whisper in his ear, then he opens wide his mouth, and in they go. — Oh dear, what shall I do! I have only ten little ones left, and they will all be gone if I don’t get home before he wakes!”
“Don’t ’ee take on so, my dear. The tide will be soon in, and then you can float off as quick as you like.”
“Oh, but I cannot wait,” she cried, tears running down her cheeks. “Beautiful mortal, help me! Carry me out to sea, give me your aid for ten minutes only, and I will make you rich and glorious for life. Ask of me anything you want, and it shall be yours.”
Lutey was so enthralled by the loveliness of 125 the mermaid, that he stood gazing at her, lost in wonder. Her voice, which sounded like a gentle murmuring stream, was to him the most lovely music he had ever heard. He was so fascinated that he would have done anything she asked him. He stooped to pick her up.
“First of all, take this,” she said, giving him her pearl comb, “take this, to prove to you that you have not been dreaming, gentle stranger, and that I will do for you what I have said. When you want me, comb the sea three times with this, and call me by my name, ‘Morwenna,’ 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, cool arms around his neck, until he felt half suffocated. “Tell me your wishes,” she said sweetly, as they went along; “you shall have three. Riches will, of course, be one.”
“No, lady,” said Lutey thoughtfully, “I don’t know that I’m so set on getting gold, but I’ll tell ’ee what I should like. I’d dearly love to be able to remove the spells of the witches, to have power over the spirits to make them tell me all I want to know, and I’d like to be able to cure diseases.”
“You are the first unselfish man I have ever met,” cried the mermaid admiringly, “you shall have 126 your wishes, and, in addition, I promise you as a reward, that your family shall never come to want.”
In a state of great delight, Lutey trudged on with his lovely burthen, while she chatted gaily to him of her home, of the marvels and the riches of the sea, and the world that lay beneath it.
“Come with me, noble youth,” she cried, “come with me to our caves and palaces; there are riches, beauty, and everything mortal can want. Our homes are magnificent, the roofs are covered with diamonds and other gems, so that it is ever light and sparkling, the walls are of amber and coral. Your floors are of rough, ugly rocks, ours are of mother-of-pearl. For statuary we have the bodies of earth’s most beautiful sons and daughters, who come to us in ships, sent by the King of he Storms. We embalm them, so that they look more lovely even than in life, with their eyes still sparkling, their lips of ruby-red, and the delicate pink of the sea-shell in their cheeks. Come and see for yourself how well we care for them, and how reposeful they look in their pearl and coral homes, with sea-plants growing around them, and gold and silver heaped at their feet. They crossed the world to get it, and their journeys have not been failures. Will you come, noble stranger? Come 127 to be one of us whose lives are all love, and sunshine, and merriment?”
“None of it’s in my line, I’m thinking, my dear,” said Lutey. “I’d rather come across some of the things that have gone down in the wrecks, wines and brandy, laces and silks; there’s a pretty sight of it all gone to the bottom, one time and another, I’m thinking.”
“Ah yes! We have vast cellars full of the choicest wines ever made, and caves stored with laces and silks. Come, stranger, come, and take all you want.”
“Well,” answered the old smuggler, who was thinking what a fine trade he could do, if only he could reach those caves and cellars, “I must say I’d like to, ’tis very tempting, but I should never live to get there, I’m thinking. I should be drownded or smothered before I’d got half-way.”
“No, oh no, I can manage that for you. I will make two slits under your chin, your lovely countenance will not suffer, for your beard will hide them. Such a pair of gills is all you want, so do not fear. Do not leave me, generous-hearted youth. Come to the mermaid’s home!”
They were in the sea by this time, and the breakers they wanted to reach were not far off. Lutey felt strangely tempted to go with this Siren; her flashing green eyes had utterly bewitched 128 him by this time, and her promises had turned his head. She saw that he was almost consenting, almost in her power. She clasped her long, wet, finny fingers more closely round his neck, and pressed her cool lips to his cheeks.
Another instant, and Lutey would have gone to his doom, but at that moment there came from the shore the sound of a dog barking as though in distress. It was the barking of Lutey’s own dog, a great favourite with its master. Lutey turned to look. At the edge of the water the poor creature stood; evidently frantic to follow its master, it dashed into the sea and out again, struggling, panting. Beyond, on the cliff, stood his home, the windows flaming against the sun, his garden, and the country looking green and beautiful; the smoke was rising from his chimney, — ah, his supper! The thought of his nice hot meal broke the spell, and he saw his danger.
“Let me go, let me go!” he shrieked, trying to lower the mermaid to the ground. She only clung the more tightly to him. He felt a sudden fear and loathing of the creature with the scaly body, and fish’s tail. Her green eyes no longer fascinated him. He remembered all the tales he had heard of the power of mermaids, and their wickedness, and grew more and more terrified.129
“Let me go!” he yelled again, “unwind your gashly great tail from about my legs, and your skinny fingers from off my throat, or I’ll — I’ll kill you!” and with the same he whipped his big clasp-knife from his pocket.
As the steel flashed before the mermaid’s eyes she slipped form him and swam slowly away, but as she went she sang, and the words floated back to Lutey mournfully yet threateningly. “Farewell, farewell for nine long years. Then, my love, I will come again. Mine, mine, for ever mine!”
Poor Lutey, greatly relieved to see her disappear beneath the waves, turned and waded slowly back to land, but so shaken and upset was he by all that had happened, that it was almost more than he could accomplish. On reaching the shore he just managed to scramble to the shed where he kept many of the treasures he had smuggled from time to time, but having reached it he dropped down in a deep, overpowering sleep.
Poor old Ann Betty Lutey was in a dreadful state of mind when supper-time came and went and her husband had not returned. He had never missed it before. All through the night she watched anxiously for him, but when breakfast-time came, and still there was no sign of him, she 130 could not rest at home another minute, and started right away in search of him.
She did not have to search far, though. Outside the door of the shed she found the dog sleeping, and as the dog was seldom seen far from his master, she thought she would search the shed first, — and there, of course, she found her husband.
He was still sound asleep. Ann Betty, vexed at once at having been frightened for nothing, shook him none too gently. “Here, Lutey, get up at once do you hear!” she cried, crossly. “Why ever didn’t ’ee come in to supper, — such a beautiful bit of roast as I’d got, too! Where’ve ’ee been? What ’ave ’ee been doing? What ’ave ’ee been sleeping here for?”
Lutey raised himself into a sitting position. “Who are you?” he shouted., “Are you the beautiful maiden come for me? Are you Morwenna?”
“Whatever are you talking about? You haven’t called me beautiful for the last thirty years, and I ain’t called Morwenna. I’m Ann Betty Lutey, your own lawful wife, and if you don’t know me, you must be gone clean out of your mind.”
“Ann Betty Lutey,” said the old man solemnly, “if you’re my lawful wife you’ve had a narrow 131 escape this night of being left a widow woman, and you may be thankful you’ve ever set eyes on me again.”
“Come in and have some breakfast,” said Ann Betty Lutey sternly, “and if you ain’t better then I’ll send for the doctor. It’s my belief your brain is turned.”
Lutey got up obediently and went in to his breakfast; indeed, he was glad enough of it, for he was light-headed from want of food. His breakfast did him good. Before he had finished it he was able to tell his wife about his adventure the night before, and he told it so gravely and sensibly that Ann Betty believed every word of it, and no longer thought his brain was turned.
Indeed, she was so much impressed by his story that before many hours had passed she had gone round to every house in the parish spreading the news, and to prove the truth of it she produced the pearl comb.
Then, oh dear, the gossiping that went on! It really was dreadful! The women neglected their homes, their children, and everything else for the whole of that week; and for months after old Lutey was besieged by all the sick and sorry for miles and miles around, who came to home to be cured. He did such a big business in healing people, that not a doctor for miles round could 132 earn a living. Everyone went to old Lutey, and when it was found that he had power over witchcraft, too, he became the most important man in the whole country.
Lutey had been so rude and rough to the mermaiden when he parted from her, that no one would have been surprised if she had avenged herself on him somehow, and punished him severely. But no, she was true to all her promises. He got all his wishes, and neither he nor his descendants have ever come to want. Better far, though, would it have been for him had it been otherwise, for he paid dearly enough for his wishes in the end.
Nine years from that very time, on a calm moonlight night, Lutey, forgetting all about the mermaid and her threats, arranged to go out with a friend to do a little fishing. There was not a breath of wind stirring, and the sea was like glass, so that a sail was useless, and they had to take to the oars. Suddenly, though, without any puff of wind, or anything else to cause it, the sea rose round the boat in one huge wave, covered with a thick crest of foam, and in the midst of the foam was Morwenna!
Morwenna! as lovely as ever, her arms outstretched, her clear green eyes fixed steadily, triumphantly on Lutey. She did not open her 133 lips, or make a sign, she only gazed and gazed at her victim.
For a moment he looked at her as though bewildered, then like one bereft of his senses by some spell, h rose in the boat, and turned his face towards the open sea. “My time is come,” he said solemnly and sadly, and without another word to his frightened companion he sprang out of the boat and joined the mermaid. For a yard or two they swam in silence side by side, then disappeared beneath the waves, and the sea was as smooth again as though nothing had happened.
From that moment poor Lutey has never been seen, nor has his body been found. Probably he now forms one of the pieces of statuary so prized by the mermaiden, and stands decked with sea-blossoms, with gold heaped at his feet. Or, maybe, with a pair of gills slit under his chin, he swims about in their beautiful palaces, and revels in the cellars of shipwrecked wines. The misfortunes to his family did not end, though, with Lutey’s disappearance, for, no matter how careful they are, how far they live from the sea, or what precautions they take to protect themselves, every ninth year one of old Lutey’s descendants is claimed by the sea.