From Cornwall’s Wonderland, by Mabel Quiller Couch; London & Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., [undated — circa 1914]; pp. 68-92.
THE FAIRY OINTMENT
NOW I will tell you a story of a very foolish woman, whose curiosity got the better of her, and of how she was punished.
The old woman’s Christian name was Joan. I will not tell her surname, for it does not make any difference to the story, and there may be some of her descendants left who would not like it to be known. Joan was housekeeper to Squire Lovell. The name of his house shall be kept a secret too, but I will tell you this much, that he lived a few miles out of Penzance.
Now one Saturday afternoon it fell out that Joan wanted to go to Penzance Market to get herself a pair of shoes, and to buy some groceries and several Christmas things for the house, for it was Christmas Eve, and the Squire had a lot of folks coming to supper that very night. So, the weather being fine, Joan started off soon after her twelve o’clock dinner, to walk into Penzance to market. Having, though, a great fancy for company, and loving a little gossip, 69 she thought she would step in on her way to see if her friend Betty Trenance was going to market too. It would be so nice to have each other’s company on the way.
Now many persons in those parts told some very queer stories about Betty Trenance, and amongst themselves some called her a witch, and were afraid of her. Joan, though, argued that if she was a witch, there was all the more reason for keeping friendly with her. And if one did not offend Betty, she was always ready to give one a cup of tea, or to do anything to oblige one.
Betty lived down at Lamorna Cove, which was a little way out of Joan’s road, but she did not mind that if she could get Betty’s company. She walked quickly though, for the days were short, and she had a long way to go, and to be back in time to cook the Squire’s supper. On her way she met two of Betty’s elder children carrying baskets of fish on their backs, and down in the cove she saw all the younger ones at play with the limpets and crabs in the rock-pools, and paddling about in the water. But she could not stay to watch them, for she had no time to spare, so she hurried on to the cottage.
When she got there, though, to her astonishment she found the front door was closed and 70 fastened, not only latched either, but bolted! This was such an unusual thing in those parts, that Joan was quite startled. At first she thought something must really have gone amiss, then she comforted herself by deciding that Betty had already started for the market, and had locked the children out to keep them from ransacking the place. Just, though, as she has settled all this in her mind, and was about to turn away, the sound of voices reached her, and voices talking very earnestly, too.
Joan looked round her nervously, the voices sounded quite near to her, but there was no sight or sign of any living thing except some seagulls, and Betty’s old black cat.
What did it all mean? Joan was frightened, but her curiosity made her stay and try to get to the bottom of the mystery. She stood quite still and listened very closely. Yes, there were the voices again, plainly enough, but where? She tiptoed close up to the door and placed her ear against the keyhole. This time she heard Tom Trenance’s voice quite distinctly, — Tom was Betty’s husband. He was talking very earnestly to someone too, more earnestly than she had ever heard him speak in all her life before, but, try as she would, she could not make out to whom he was speaking, nor what he was saying.71
This was more than inquisitive Joan could endure. She must know what was going on in that cottage, or she would know no peace day or night, for thinking about it. So she made up her mind to knock and knock until those inside were obliged to come to the door, but first of all she thought she would have a peep in through the finger-hole by the latch. So she stooped down and put her eye to the hole, and there she saw Tom sitting on the settle, and after all it was only Betty that he was talking to.
Betty was standing beside him with a little box in her hand, from which she took something that looked like ointment, which she smeared over her husband’s eyes, and all the time she did it she seemed to be mumbling some verses or something that sounded like a charm. There seemed to be other voices as well, though, and to Joan’s great annoyance she could not see from whence they came.
All this put old Joan in a fearful flutter. People had always told her that Betty was a witch, and that Tom had the power of the evil eye, and now she began to believe them. You would not have thought so to look at him, for though they were very piercing, they were handsome hazel eyes, clear and kind-looking, — unless he was angered, and then ——72
Completely mystified, and more inquisitive than ever, Joan went round to the window by the chimney, to see if from there she could hear what they were saying; but it was of no use. The door of the cottage was on the landward side, and the windows of the cottage were to seaward, and round the kitchen window was a great bush of honeysuckle and “Traveller’s Joy,” which prevented anyone’s getting quite close, and what with the sound of the sea, the singing of the birds, and the shouting of the children below, one might as well have been a mile off, for all one could hear!
Back tiptoed Joan again, and sat down on the bench outside the house to think, but her curiosity would not let her keep still, so up she jumped again, and peeped through the door once more. This time she saw that Tom was standing up, preparing to come out; so not wanting to be caught prying, she tapped at the door, and lifting the latch at the same time, walked in as if she had but that moment arrived. She was so excited by what she was doing that she did not notice that the door opened quite easily now. She went in so quickly, too, that she was just in time to see Betty push something under the dried ferns at the back of the chimney.
After saying “good day,” and hearing what 73 she had come for, Tom went out, leaving them to make their plans by themselves, but Betty, though she seemed pleased to see her friend, could not be persuaded to go to market with her. She was very sorry, she said, but she was very bad, she had not been well for days, and she still had a good day’s work to get through making ready for Christmas. She was not too busy, though, to make a cup of tea, and Joan must stay and have one with her, and away she bustled to the talfat,1 where she had a special case of tea put away. This was Joan’s opportunity, and she seized it. As soon as Betty’s back was turned, she whipped the pot of ointment out from under the ferns, stuck her finger in it, and popped the pot back again, in no time. But no sooner had she touched her eye with the ointment than, oh! such a pain shot through it, she very nearly shrieked aloud. It was as though a red-hot knitting needle had been run right through her eyeball! And, oh, the smarting and the burning that followed! To prevent a sound escaping her she had to hug and squeeze herself with all her might, she dared not open 74 her lips to speak, and the tears poured down her cheeks like rain.
It was lucky for her that Betty had some trouble in dragging the chest of tea from under the bed, for if she had come back quickly she could not have helped seeing what Joan had been doing. By the time she returned, though, the worst of the pain was over, and keeping up her hand to that side of her face, Joan managed to conceal the injured eye, and Betty was too busy with her fire and her kettle to be very observant.
“I’m glad you came in to have a cup with me, and drink my health, it being Christmas Eve and all,” said Betty as they drew up to the table. Then, having drunk each other’s health, they had a third cup to drink the health of the children, for, as Joan said, “there wasn’t a healthier, handsomer family in the whole parish.” Then they drank the health of the mermaids, for it is always wise to be civil to them, and after that Joan rose to go.
Before she could go, though, she felt she must manage to open her injured eye, which still watered and smarted a good deal. So she rubbed it and blinked and winked until at last she managed to part the lids, — when, lo and behold! to her amazement and alarm she saw that the house, which she had thought empty save for 75 herself and Betty, was simply thronged with Little People!
There was not a spot that was free of them! They were climbing up the dressers, hanging on to the beams, swinging on the fishing nets, hanging across them, playing pranks on the clock, on the table, and the mantlepiece, sliding down the saucepan handles, riding races on mice, — they were everywhere, in fact, and up to every kind of game.
They were all very beautifully dressed. Most of the little men wore green velvet, trimmed with scarlet, and their long green caps, which most of them were waving frantically, had long scarlet feathers in them. They all wore little red boots, too, and large silver spurs, — at least, large for fairies.
The ladies were very consequential little people indeed, and swept about in their long-trained gowns as though they were Court ladies at a Drawing-room. On their little shoes they had diamond buckles, and their great steeple-crowned hats were garlanded with beautiful flowers. Such flowers as are seldom seen on Christmas Eve, but the Little People have gardens under the sea where the flowers bloom in wonderful beauty all the year round. Fishermen see them sometimes on moonlight nights, 76 when the water is clear and the wind calm, and if they listen closely they can hear exquisite fairy music floating across the waters from bay to bay.
Back in the corner by Betty’s wood heap were a lot of Spriggans, poor depressed little creatures, dirty and sullen-looking. They were not lively like the others, for you know they have to guard the Fairy treasures all the year round, and they get no fun at all, as other fairies do. So they are naturally not very lively.
While Joan was standing gazing, open-mouthed, bewildered by what she saw, strains of the most beautiful music reached her ears, and gradually a change began to come over the whole house. It was no wonder that she thought her head was turned! The music came nearer and nearer, and mingling with it was the tramp of hundreds of little feet; at last it came quite close, and through the window marched a regiment of robins as unconcernedly as a regiment of soldiers entering their barracks. Quite gravely they stepped down from the window, marched across the room, and flew up to the beam, where they perched themselves in perfect order, and began to sing as hard as they possibly could. In a moment or two they were followed through the window by a regiment of wrens, and then 77 by a regiment of Little People, all playing on every kind of musical instrument ever invented, and on a number made out of reeds, and shells, such as had never been seen before or since.
Stepping down gracefully from the window to the floor, the band, followed by numbers of little ladies and gentlemen, carrying branches of herbs and flowers, marched with stately treads past old Betty Trenance, bowed to her in a most respectful manner in passing, then arranged themselves in perfect order behind her. Last of all came another troop of fairies, and these took the herbs and flowers brought by the little ladies and gentlemen and placed them in Betty’s apron.
“These are what she makes her salves and ointments of,” thought Joan to herself; “no wonder she is thought so clever.”
This done, all the other fairies who had been playing about the house came down to the floor and joined the new-comers. Such a crowd never was seen! No sooner had the flowers and herbs been heaped in Betty’s lap than another troop of fairies came forward with fox-glove bells full of dyes, which they poured over Betty’s dress, when in a moment her russet gown was changed to the softest white velvet, her apron to the filmiest lace, edged all round with a delicate 78 fringe of harebells and snowdrops. Other fairies outlined the quilted “diamonds” of her petticoat with silver cord.
When her dress had been transformed in this way, all the troop of Little People came forward with dainty bunches of flowers to complete her toilet, sweet wild flowers they were, delicate speedwells and forget-me-nots with their fresh green, and their innocent blue eyes; the warm scarlet pimpernel, violets, snowdrops, heather bells, and ladies’ white petticoats. Some of each and every kind of flower we find in the lanes and hedges. The little ladies stitched a small nosegay in each “diamond” of Betty’s petticoat, and every nosegay was different. The tiniest flowers of all they laid on sprays of feathery moss, others had background of graceful ferns, or delicate grass. Around the hem of the skirt were sprays of pink and white dog-roses, while the bodice was wreathed with tiny pink and white convolvulus. Sparkling at Betty’s throat were such brilliant jewels that Joan had to look away, her eyes were so dazzled.
The strangest part of all this was that Betty did not seem in the least surprised at what was going on, and was apparently quite unaware the Joan was watching her.
As soon as the gown was completed, another 79 group of the clever little creatures clambered up to the top of the high-backed chair in which Betty was seated, and began to arrange her hair. Some had quaint little pots in their hands from which they poured delicate perfumes over Betty’s head, — Joan picked up one of the pots, which they threw aside when empty, and found to her astonishment that it was only a poppy head. Then they carefully arranged every curl and wave of Betty’s hair, until she looked as beautiful as a queen, and as dignified and stately, too; for Betty, though a mischievous witch, was not at all like our ideas of one. She was as clean as a new pin, and as neat and tidy as anyone could be. Her features were unusually handsome, and her thick dark hair, which reached the ground when she sat down, was full of the prettiest curls and waves.
As soon as the last curl was arranged, and her tire-maidens satisfied, they placed a spray of jessamine amongst her tresses, and jumped down, their task completed.
All this time the music was playing the most bewitching melodies.
Very soon after this Joan began to have a feeling that Betty wished her gone. The Little People, too, were making signs that she could not fail to understand, and such hideous 80 grimaces at her, too, that made her long to box their ears. Of course, neither Betty nor the fairies knew that she had used the Fairy Ointment, and could see them, and to save herself from being found out, she bade her friend “good-bye” with all speed.
When Joan got outside, though, she could not resist one more sly peep in, just to make sure she had not been dreaming. So down went her eye to the finger-hole again, but all she saw was the kitchen, with its sanded floor and bright turf-fire, the key-beam with the nets hanging across it, and Betty stitching away as fast as her fingers could fly.
“This is the most extraordinary thing I ever heard tell of,” said Joan to herself. “I’ll have another look.”
Down went her eye again, but the right one this time, and, lo and behold! there was the kitchen turned into a splendid banqueting hall, hung around with tapestry representing everything that had ever happened in the world. The talfat-rail was turned into a balcony hung with pale blue satin, where sat a number of little ladies and gentlemen watching the dancing which was going on below. The costumes of all were magnificent, the cottage was as beautiful as a bit of Fairyland, and seated on a golden 81 chair of state under a velvet canopy was Betty Trenance looking as royal as a queen.
Betty, though, seemed to be keeping a sharp eye on the door, and as she had a crowd of wicked little piskies about her, Joan thought it wise to get away to safer quarters. So off she hurried, but as she went she met numbers of fairies all hurrying away to Betty’s cottage, while from the rocks below came the doleful wail of the mermaids, and all was so uncanny Joan was glad to hurry along as fast as she knew how. She was really scared by this time, and the light was growing dim, for it was already past three o’clock.
Once arrived at Penzance, Joan did her marketing quickly, but by the time she had finished she was very tired and very hungry, for she had had nothing to eat since twelve o’clock dinner, and had been trudging about for hours. So, having a piece of saffron cake in her basket, she turned into an inn in Market Jew Street, to get something to drink with it, and a place to sit down for a while to rest.
When she got there she found the house so crowded that she had to sit on a bench outside, and here she met a lot of friends, and had a thorough good gossip. They drank each other’s health too, and passed the compliments of the 82 season, until Joan remembered all of a sudden that she ought to have been on her way home by that time, for the Squire would be very angry if she were not there to see to things for the supper-party.
Up she jumped in a great flurry, and had said “good-bye” all round when she suddenly remembered that she had not yet bought several of the things she had come to town on purpose to get. She was dreadfully vexed, but there was no time to stay and think about it, she had just to hurry back into the market and make her purchases as quickly as possible.
At last she had really bought everything, and was about to leave, when unfortunately some wonderful bargains caught her eye, and it did seem to her sinful to go away without taking a glance at them when she might never have such a chance again. So she lingered by the stalls, and wandered up and down having a good look at everything, when whom should she see doing the very same thing but Tom Trenance!
He did not see Joan, so she thought she would go up and speak to him, and ask if he was going home soon, for it would be nice to have his company on the way. He was so busy, though, darting about from stall to stall, that Joan could never get up to him. But she could see 83 what he was doing, and the sight made Joan’s blood boil with indignation! He was helping himself to everything thing that took his fancy! Yarn, stockings, boots, spoon, clothing, until the wonder was that he could manage to stow the things away.
The oddest part of all, though, was that nobody seemed to see him. Joan looked again and again to make sure she was not dreaming, but no, he was there right enough, and pocketing things as fast as he could, right under the stall-keepers’ very noses, and they paying no heed whatever to him!
Joan could bear it no longer! She could not stand by and see such wickedness going on; it made her blood boil with indignation. So over she bustled and touched him on the arm.
“Tom Trenance,” she cried, “I’m downright ashamed of ’ee! I wonder you ain’t above carrying on such dishonest ways, and you with children to set an example to! I didn’t think you capable of such wickedness.”
Tom for a minute looked, and was too much taken aback to speak. But he quickly recovered himself. “Why, Joan,” he said, taking no notice of her accusations, “I take it very kind and neighbourly of ’ee to come up and speak. What sharp eyes you’ve got! Now which of 84 them did you ’appen to catch sight of me with?”
“Which? Why, both, of course,” cried Joan, but she put up her hand first over one and then over the other, and found she could only see Tom with the right one. “Why, no, I can’t see ’ee with both,” she cried in astonishment. “The left one don’t seem to be a bit of good!”
“The right one is it?” said Tom, and his look went through her like a gimlet. Then, pointing his finger at it, he muttered: —
And at that very moment a sharp pain shot through her right eye. It was so sharp that she screamed aloud, and from that moment she never could see with it again.
Yelling, and pressing her fist into her throbbing eyeball, she rushed hither and thither, calling to people to come and help her, and to go and catch Tom Trenance, all in one breath; but as they could not see Tom, — nor could she, either, now, — they unkindly said the poor soul was crazy, which, of course, was most unjust and cruel of them, and shows what mistakes people can make.85
Of course, it was the Fairy Ointment on her eye which enabled her to see so much, and it was that same ointment which rendered Tom Trenance invisible to everyone but to her.
How poor Joan ever found her way back to Market Jew Street again she never could tell, but when she did arrive there she had, of course, to stay a little while and tell her sad story, so that it was really quite late and dark before she started for home; and then, what with the darkness and her blindness she could only crawl along. She groped her way painfully down Voundervoor and over the Green, stumbling over the ruts and sandy banks until she was very nearly driven crazy. Through only being able to see with her left eye, she kept bearing away to the left side of the road, and I cannot tell you how many times she fell into the ditch, marketing and all! And so afraid was she of falling into the sea, and so close did she keep to the other side of the road away from it, that at last she went right through the hedge and fell over into a place called “Park-an-Shebbar!”
Luckily one of the farm-boys was in the field, and helped her up and picked up her parcels for her; then, seeing how bad she was, he took her into the house to rest and recover, for she seemed quite dazed by that time. There they gave her 86 something to bring her round, and presently she began to feel better and able to go on again.
By this time she was very anxious to get home, so the lad helped her over the stream and set her on the right road once more. This time Joan stepped out briskly, for she was really very troubled about the Squire’s supper, and all the people who were expected to it. If she did not get home soon, they would have arrived first, and, oh, how angry the Squire would be!
By the time, though, that she got to the top of Paul Hill, she was so tired she felt she could not go another step without a rest, so, though she could badly spare the time, she dropped with a sigh of relief on to a soft green spot, when, oh! what a shriek she gave! for the soft green spot was a duck-pond covered with duck-weed! How she got out of the pond she could never tell, but she did and crept over to the other side of the road, where she fell back on the hedge quite exhausted.
“Oh dear, oh dear!” she moaned, “I’m nearly dead. Oh, if only I’d got our old Dumpling here to give me a lift; or any other quite old horse I’d be thankful for. I shall never reach home to-night on my two feet, I’m sure, they are ready to drop off already!”
Barely had she uttered her wish when there by 87 the roadside stood an old white horse, cropping quietly away at the brambles and dead ferns. How he came there I can’t tell you. Whether he had been there all the time without her seeing him, or whether he came by magic, no one can say, but there he was.
Many persons in Dame Joan’s place would have been afraid to mount him, fearing witchcraft, or fairies’ pranks, but Joan was too tired to have many scruples. So up she got and untied his feet, for he was hobbled, put the rope round his head, and then managed somehow to clamber up on his back, basket and all. It was hard work, but she got settled after a bit, then picking up the rope, called to him to start.
“Gee wug! Gee wo!” she called, “get up, you lazy old faggot!” and she hammered away at his side, with her heels with all her might — and her shoes were none of the daintiest! but in spite of her coaxings and her threats, her kicks and her thumps, the old horse did not move an inch.
“Come up, can’t you! Gee wug, come here!” She beat him and kicked him again until she was really too tired to move hand or foot; then, when she had given up in despair, the tiresome creature made a start. But such a start! he went at a slow snail’s pace, and try 88 as Joan would she could not make him go faster.
At last, though, when she reached the top of a hill, there came from the valley below the cry of hounds, devil’s hounds they must have been, for no others would be out at that time of night. As soon as the sounds reached the old horse’s ears, he pricked them up, whinnied loudly, and with a toss of his head and a fling of his tail started away like any young colt.
Away, away, uphill and downhill they tore as fast as the wind. Joan clung to the horse’s mane with both hands, and yelled and yelled to him to stop. She might as well, though, have held her breath. All her marketing flew out of her basket, her precious beaver hat was carried away, her shawl was whisked off her back! On and on the old horse tore, jumping over everything that came in his way, until Joan was nearly flung from his back. Presently, too, to her horror she saw that the creature was growing bigger and bigger, and higher and higher; soon he shot up above the trees, then he was as high as the church tower. Poor Joan, perched on his back, grew sick, giddy, and terrified. She was afraid to slip off lest she should be dashed to pieces, and was afraid to stay there lest she should fall off.89
For miles and miles they travelled like this, until at last they came to Toldave Moor, on the further side of which there was, Joan knew, a deep black pool, and for this pool, to Joan’s horror, the monster galloped straight!
“If I don’t slip off now, I shall surely be drowned outright!” thought poor Joan, for the pond was deep, she felt her powers were failing her; her hands were numb, her limbs cramped. She knew she could not swim. “Better a dry death than a wet one, it will save my clothes, anyway!” So, letting go her hold of the creature’s mane, she was about to let herself slide down, when the wind caught her and carried her right off the horse’s back. They were going at a terrific rate, and the wind was very keen on the moor; it lifted her right up in the air, high above the horse, and then, just as she thought she was going to disappear through the clouds, she was dropped plump into the rushes by the edge of the very pool itself.
At the same moment the air became filled with the most awful clamour, such yells and cries, and terrible laughter as no living being had ever heard before. Poor old Joan thought her last hour had really come, and gave herself up for lost, for when she looked round she saw 90 the fearful great creature she had been riding, disappearing in the distance in flames of fire, and tearing after it, helter-skelter, pell-mell, was a horrible crew of men and dogs and horses. Two or three hundred of them there must have been, and not one of the lot had a head on his shoulders.
Joan would have screamed, too, if she had not been stricken dumb with fright; so, very nearly scared to death, trembling with cold and fear, there she lay until they had disappeared.
How she scrambled out of her soft, damp resting-place she could never tell, but she did, somehow, and got as far as Trove Bottom, though without any shoes, for they had come off in the ditch. Her shawl was gone, too, and all her marketing, and, worst of all, her precious broad-brimmed beaver hat.
There was a linhay down at the Bottom, where Squire Lovell kept a lot of sheep, and into that Joan crept, and lay down, and from sheer exhaustion fell asleep and slept until morning. How much longer she would have slept no one knows, but on Sunday mornings it was the Squire’s habit to go down and look over his sheep, and on this Sunday, though it was Christmas Day, he visited them as usual.
His entrance with his boys and his dogs and 91 his flashing lantern woke old Joan with a start, and so certain was she that they were the horse, and the huntsmen, and their hounds come again, that she sprang up in a frenzy of terror. “Get out, get out!” she cried, “let a poor old woman be!” But instead of the hollow laugh of the huntsmen, it was the Squire’s voice that answered her.
“Why, here’s our poor old lost Joan!” he cried, amazed, “and frightened out of her wits, seemingly! Why, Joan!” he said, “whatever have you been spending the night out here for? We’ve been scouring the country for you, for hours!”
“Oh, Master!” she cried, almost in tears as she dropped trembling at his feet, “for the sake of all the years I’ve served ’ee from your cradle up, do ’ee let me die in peace, and bury me decent!” and then, her tongue once set going, she poured out all the long tale of the dreadful things that had happened to her since she set out for Penzance Market.
How long she would have talked no one knows, but the Squire sent for his men, and between them they carried her home, and warmed and fed and comforted her, for she was black and blue, wet to the skin, and half frozen. However, with all their care she soon recovered, and when she 92 was dry, and warm, and rested she poured out all her adventures and disasters.
To her astonishment, though, and anger and pain, they refused to believe a word of it. They did not pity her a bit; they even laughed at her. Indeed, they tried to make her believe that the enchanted steed was only the miller’s old white horse, that the demon huntsman and hounds were no more nor less than her own son John riding across the moor with the dogs, in search of her, that her lost eye must have been scratched out by a ‘fuz’-bush; and so they went on pooh-poohing the whole of her story, — which was very nearly the most aggravating thing of all she had had to bear.
One thing, though, Joan had not told them, and that was about her stealing the Fairy Ointment, or they would have known that she had been pisky-led that night, by order of the Fairies, as a punishment, and would one and all have agreed that she richly deserved it.
1 A “talfat,” is a raised floor at one end of a cottage, on which a bed is placed. Sometimes it is divided off by a wooden partition, but more often there is only a bar, to prevent the sleeper from falling out of bed.