What happens when two very down to earth and plain Cornish people who like their drink perhaps a bit too much discover that the fairies took, or tried to take, their child off in the night?
In the"high countries," as the parishes of Morva, Zennor, and Towednack are called, there has long existed a tradition that the children of dirty, lazy,"courseying" women are often taken away by the Small People, carefully cleansed, and then returned—of course all the more beautiful for being washed by the fairies in morning–dew. This notion has evidently prevailed for many ages, and, like many an old tradition, it has been remodelled in each generation to adapt it to the conditions of the time. The following, is but slightly modified in its principal characteristics from a story somewhat coarsely told, and greatly extended, by an old woman in Morva. A woman, up the higher side, called Betty Stogs, very nearly lost her baby a few months ago. Stog's was only a nickname, but every one knew her by that and no other. It was given to her because she was so untidy about the feet and legs. She could not darn a hole in her stocking—the lazy slut could never knit one. Betty was always pulling the legs of her stockings down under her feet, that the holes in her heels might not be seen—as long as the tops would come under the garter—and she often gartered half–way down the leg to meet the necessities of the case. Betty was reared up in Towednack, at no great distance from Wheal Reeth, at which Bal the old man, her father, worked. He also farmed a few acres of land, and,"out of care," he and his daughter worked on it. The old people used to say—they couldn't put the poor innocent chield to work to Bal, for fear the great rough heathens from Lelant might overcome her; so they kept her at home, and the old man would brag how his Betty could cut furze and turf. Instead of staying at home in the evenings, Betty was always racing round the lanes to class meetings; for she had been a"professor ever since she was a chield." Betty was an only child, and the old people had saved a little money, and they hoped some one"above the common" would marry her. In Higher Side there lived a man called Jan the Mounster (monster), and, tempted by the bit of money, he resolved to lay himself out to catch Betty. Jan became a converted character—he met in the same class with Betty, and expressed himself as being"so fond of the means of grace." Things went on in this way for some time, and it was found that Betty"had met with a misfortune." The old people were now in a great hurry to marry their daughter, and promised Jan money enough to buy a set of cheene (china), and lots of beautiful clome (earthenware); but Mounster required more than this, and fought off. He left the"people," that he mightn't be read out. He said he was heartily sick of the lot, told strange stories about their doings, and became as bad a character as ever. Time advanced, and Betty's mother—Who was herself a wretchedly dirty woman, and, as people said, too fond of the"drop of drink"—saw that she must lose no chance of making her daughter an honest woman. So she went to Penzance and bought a new bed—a real four–poster—a new dresser, painted bright lead and liver colour—an eight–day clock, in a painted mahogany case—a mass of beautiful clome—and a glass milk–cup. When all these things were ranged in a cottage, Jan was well enough pleased with them, and hung his"great turnip of a watch" up in the middle of the dresser, to see how it would look. When he had satisfied himself, he told the old woman he would marry Betty out of hand, if she would give them their great pretty, bright, warming–pan to hang opposite the door. This was soon settled, and Jan the Mounster and Betty Stogs were married.
In a little time the voice of a baby was heard in Jan's cottage, but the poor child had no cradle, only a"costan" (a straw and bramble basket); and, in addition to the ordinary causes of neglect, another cause was introduced—Betty took to drink. A great, nasty suss of a woman, who went about pretending to sell croshar–work, but in reality to sell gin—which she kept in a bottle under the dirty rags, which she called"the most beautiful croshar–work collars and cuffs, that all the ladies in the towns and up the country wear on Sundays and high holidays"—formed a close acquaintance with Jan's wife. The result was, things went from bad to worse. Jan was discontented, and went to Bal, and returned from Bal always a sullen man. One day Betty had to bake some bread— she had never before done so, as her mother had always attended to that job. Jan had left his watch hanging to the dresser, that Betty might know the time. All went well till the middle of the day; and, just as the bread was ready to put down, in came the crochet–woman. First Betty had a noggin of gin—she then had her fortune told—and because she was promised no end of good luck and the handsomest children in the country, and Jan the best luck in tribute–pitches, the kettle was boiled, and some pork fried for the fortune–teller.
All this time the dough was forgotten, and it was getting sour and heavy. At last, when the woman went away the lump of sour"leven" was put down to bake. The neglected child got troublesome, and as Jan would be home early to supper, Betty was in a great hurry to get things done. To quiet the child, she gave it Jan's watch; and, that it might be the better pleased, she opened it,"that the dear chield might see the pretty little wheels spinning round." In a short time the"machine" was thrown down in the ashes, and it, of course, stopped. Betty, at last, wished to know the time; she then found the watch clogged full of dirt. To put the thing to rights she washed it out in the kettle of dishwater, which had not been changed for two or three dabs, and was thick with salt pilchard–bones, and potato–skins. She did her best to clean the watch, for she was now terribly afraid of Jan, and she wiped all the little wheels, as far as she could reach, with the corner of the dishcloth, but the confounded thing would not go. She had to bake the bread by guess; and, therefore, when she took it up, it was as black as soot, and as hard as stone.
Jan came home; and you may judge the temper he was in at finding things as they were, and his watch stopped. Betty swore to the deepest that she had never taken the thing into her hands. Next morning Jan got up early to go to Bal and taking, the burnt loaf, he tried to cut it with a knife, but it was in vain—as well try to cut a stone; next he tried the dag (axe), and Mounster said it strook fire, and the dag never made the least mark in the crust. The poor fellow had to go to his work without his breakfast, and to depend upon the share of a comrade's fuggun for dinner.
Next day, Friday, was pay–day, and Jan having got his pay, went to St Ives for bread, and took the precious watch with him to be set to rights. The watchmaker soon found out the complaint; here was a bit of fish–bone, there a piece of potato–paring; in one tooth a piece of worsted from a dishcloth, in another a particle of straw, and ashes everywhere.
The murder was out; and that night Jan, having first drunk to excess in St Ives, went home and nearly murdered his wife. From this time Jan was drunk every day, and Betty was so as often as she could get gin. The poor child was left half the day to suck his thumbs, and to tumble and toss on the filthy rags in the old costan, without any one to look after it.
One day Betty was in a"courseying" mood, and went from house to house, wherever she could find a woman idle enough to gossip with her. Betty stayed away till dark—it was Jan's last core by day—and the poor child was left all alone.
When she came home she was surprised not to hear the child, but she thought it might have cried itself to sleep, and was not concerned. At last, having lit the candle, she looked in the costan, and there was no child to be seen. Betty searched about, in and out, every place she could think of; still there were no signs of the child. This pretty well sobered Betty, and she remembered that she had to unlock the door to get into the cottage.
While yet full of fear and trembling to meet her husband, Jan came home from Bal. He was, of course, told that his"croom of a chield was lost." He didn't believe a word of what Betty told him, but he went about and called up all the neighbours, who joined him in the search. They spent the night in examining every spot around the house and in the village—all in vain.
After daybreak they were all assembled in deep and earnest consultation, when the cat came running into the house, with her tail on end, and mewing anxiously. She ran forth and back round a brake of furze, constantly crying, as if she wished the people to follow her. After a long time some one thought of going after the cat, and in the middle of the furze–brake, on a beautiful green, soft spot of mossy grass, was the baby sleeping,"as sweet as a little nut," wrapped carefully up in some old dry gowns, and all its clothes clean and dry. When they unwrapped the child, they found he was covered over with bright flowers, as we place them round a babe in the coffin. He had a bunch of violets in his dear little hands, and there were wallflowers and primroses, and balm and mint spread over his body. The furze was high all around, so that no cold wind could reach the infant. Every one declared that the child never looked so handsome before. It was plain enough, said the old women, that the Small People had taken the child and washed it from top to toe; that their task of cleansing the babe was a long one, and that the sun arose before they could finish it; that they had placed the child there it was found, intending to take it away the next night.
They were never known to come for the babe, but every one said that this affair worked a great change in Betty Stogs and in Jan the Mounster. The cottage was kept tidy, the child clean; and its father and mother drank less, and lived happier, for ever afterwards.
(Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, First Series, pages 107–107.)