Rambles Beyond Railways, by Wilkie Collins

xiii.

Legends of the Northern Coast.

From the time when we left St. Ives, we walked through the last part of our journey much faster than we walked through the first; faster, perhaps, than the reader may have perceived from these pages. When we stopped at the town of St. Columb Major, to visit the neighbouring vale of Mawgan, we had already advanced half way up the northern coast of Cornwall. Throughout this part of the county the towns lay wide asunder; and, as pedestrian tourists, we were obliged to lengthen our walks and hasten our pace accordingly.

After we had quitted St. Columb Major, our rambles began to draw rapidly to their close. Little more was now left for us to examine than the different localities connected with certain interesting Cornish legends. The places thus associated with the quaint fancies of the olden time, were all situated close together, some fifteen or twenty miles farther on, along the coast. The first among them that we reached was Tintagel Castle, an ancient ruin magnificently situated on a precipice overhanging the sea, and romantically, if not historically, reputed as the birthplace of King Arthur.

The date of the Castle of Tintagel is as much a subject of perplexity among modern antiquaries, as is the existence of King Arthur among modern historians. We may still see some ruins of the Castle; but when or by whom the building was erected which those ruins represent, we have no means of discovering: we only know that, after the Conquest, it was inhabited by some of our English princes, and that it was used as a state prison so late as the reign of Elizabeth. The rest is, for the most part, mere conjecture, raised upon the weak foundation of a few mouldering fragments of walls which must soon crumble and disappear as the rest of the Castle has crumbled and disappeared before them.

The position of the old fortress was, probably, almost impregnable in the days of its strength and glory. The outer part of it was built on a precipitous projection of cliff, three hundred feet high, which must have been wrenched away from the mainland by some tremendous convulsion of Nature. The inner part stood on the opposite side of the chasm formed by this convulsion; and both divisions of the fortress were formerly connected by a draw-bridge. The most interesting portion of the few ruins now remaining, is that on the outermost promontory, which is almost entirely surrounded by the sea. The way up to this cliff is by a steep and somewhat perilous path; so narrow in certain places, where it winds along the verge of the precipice, that a single false step would be certain destruction. The difficulties of the ascent appear to have impressed the old historian of Cornwall, Norden, so vividly that he tries in his “Survey,” to frighten all his readers from attempting it; warning “unstable man,” if he will try to mount the cliff, that “while he respecteth his footinge he indaungers his head; and looking to save the head, indaungers the footinge, accordinge to the old proverbe: Incidit in Scyllam qui vult vitare Charybdim. He must have eyes,”— ominously adds the worthy Norden —“that will scale Tintagel.”

The ruins on the summit of the promontory only consist of a few straggling walls, loosely piled up, rather than built, with dark-coloured stone. Some still remain entire enough to show the square loopholes that were pierced in them for arrows; and, here and there, fragments of rough irregular arches, which might have been either doorways or windows, are still visible. Those parts of the building which have fallen, are concealed by long, thickly growing grass — the foot may sometimes strike against them, but the eye perceives them not. These are all the vestiges which remain of the once mighty castle; all the signs that are left to point out the site of the old halls, where the bold knights of Arthur gathered for the feast or prepared for the fight, at their royal master’s command.

The Cornish legends tell us that the British hero held his last court, solemnized his last feast, reviewed his last array of warriors, at Tintagel, before he went out to the fatal battle-field of Camelford, to combat his nephew Mordred, who had rebelled against his power. In the morning, the martial assemblage marched out of the castle in triumph, led by the king, with his death-dealing sword “Excalibur” slung at his shoulder, and his magic lance “Rou,” in his hand. In the evening the warriors returned, fatally victorious, from the struggle. The rebel army had been routed and the rebel chief slain; but they brought back with them, their renowned leader — the favourite hero of martial adventure, the conqueror of the Saxons in twelve battles — mortally wounded, from the field which he had quitted a victor.

That night, the wise and valiant king died in the castle of his birth; died among his followers who had feasted and sung around him at the festal table but a few hours before. The deep-toned bells of Tintagel rang his death peal; and the awe-stricken populace from the country round, gathering together hurriedly before the fortress, heard portentous wailings from supernatural voices, which mingled in ghostly harmony with the moaning of the restless sea, the dirging of the dreary wind, and the dull deep thunder of the funeral knell. About the heights of the castle, and in the caverns beneath it, these sounds ceased not night or day, until the corpse of the hero was conveyed to the ship destined to bear it to its burial-place in Glastonbury Abbey. Then, dirging winds, and moaning sea, and wailing voices, ceased; and in the intervals between the slow pealing of the funeral bells, clear child-like voices arose from the calmed waters, and told the mourning people that Arthur was gone from them but for a little time, to be healed of all his wounds in the Fairy Land; and that he would yet return to lead and to govern them, as of old.

Such is the scene — strange compound of fiction and truth, of the typical and the real — which legends teach us to imagine in the Tintagel Castle of thirteen centuries ago! What is the scene that we look on now? — A solitude where the decaying works of man, and the enduring works of Nature appear mingled in beauty together. The grass grows high and luxuriant, where the rushes were strewn over the floor of Arthur’s banqueting hall. Sheep are cropping the fresh pasture, within the walls which once echoed to the sweetest songs, or rang to the clash of the stoutest swords of ancient England! About the fortress nothing remains unchanged, but the sun which at evening still brightens it in its weak old age with the same glory that shone over its lusty youth; the sea that rolls and dashes, as at first, against its foundation rocks; and the wild Cornish country outspread on either side of it, as desolately and as magnificently as ever.

The grandeur of the scenery at Tintagel, the romantic interest of the old British traditions connected with the castle, might well have delayed us many hours on these solitary heights; but we had other places still to visit, other and far different legends still to gossip over. Descending the cliff while the day gave us ample time to wander at our will; we strolled away inland to track the scene of a new romance as far as the waterfall called Nighton’s Keive.

A walk of little more than half-a-mile brings us to the entrance of a valley, bounded on either side by high, gently-sloping hills, with a small stream running through its centre, fed by the waterfall of which we are in search. We now follow a footpath a few hundred yards, pass by a mill, and looking up the valley, see one compact mass of vegetation entirely filling it to its remotest corners, and not leaving the slightest vestige of a path, the merest patch of clear ground, visible in any direction, far or near.

It seems as if all the foliage which ought to have grown on the Cornish moorlands, had been mischievously crammed into this place, within the narrow limits of one Cornish valley. Weeds, ferns, brambles, bushes, and young trees, are flourishing together here, thickly intertwined in every possible position, in triumphant security from any invasion of bill-hook or axe. You win every step of your way through this miniature forest of vegetation, by the labour of your arms and the weight of your body. Tangled branches and thorny bushes press against you in front and behind, meet over your head, knock off your cap, flap in your face, twist about your legs, and tear your coat skirts; so obstructing you in every conceivable manner and in every conceivable direction, that they seem possessed with a living power of opposition, and commissioned by some evil genius of Fairy Mythology to prevent mortal footsteps from intruding into the valley. Whether you try a zig-zag or a straight course, whether you go up or down, it is the same thing — you must squeeze, and push, and jostle your way through the crowd of bushes, just as you would through a crowd of men — or else stand still, surrounded by leaves, like “a Jack-inthe-Green,” and wait for the very remote chance of somebody coming to help you out.

Forcing our road incessantly through these obstructions, for a full half-hour, and taking care to keep our only guide — the sound of the running-water — always within hearing, we came at last to a little break in the vegetation, crossed the stream at this place, and found, on the opposite side of the bank, a faintly-marked track, which might have been once a footpath. Following it as well as we could among the branches and brambles, and now ascending steep ground, we soon heard the dash of the waterfall. But to attempt to see it, was no easy undertaking. The trees, the bushes, and the wild herbage grew here thicker than ever, stretching in perfect canopies of leaves so closely across the overhanging banks of the stream, as entirely to hide it from view. We heard the monotonous, eternal splashing of the water, close at our ears, and yet vainly tried to obtain even a glimpse of the fall. Adverse Fate led us up and down, and round and round, and backwards and forwards, amid a labyrinth of overgrown bushes which might have bewildered an Australian settler; and still the nymph of the waterfall coyly hid herself from our eyes. Our ears informed us that the invisible object of which we were in search was of very inconsiderable height; our patience was evaporating; our time was wasting away — in short, to confess the truth here, as I have confessed it elsewhere in these pages, let me acknowledge that we both concurred in a sound determination to consult our own convenience, and give up the attempt to discover Nighton’s Keive!

Our wanderings, however, though useless enough in one direction, procured us this compensating advantage in another: they led us accidentally to the exact scene of the legend which we knew to be connected with this part of the valley, and which had, indeed, first induced us to visit it.

We found ourselves standing before the damp, dismantled stone walls of a solitary cottage, placed on a plot of partially open ground, near the outskirts of the wood. Long dark herbage grew about the inside of the ruined little building; a toad was crawling where the leaves clustered thickest, on what had once been the floor of a room; in every direction corruption and decay were visibly battening on the lonesome place. Its aspect would repel rather than allure curiosity, but for the mysterious story associated with it, which gives it an attraction and an interest that are not its own.

Years and years ago, when this desolate building was a neat comfortable cottage, it was inhabited by two ladies, of whose histories, and even names, all the people of the district were perfectly ignorant. One day they were accidentally found living in their solitary abode, before any one knew that they had so much as entered it, or that they existed at all. Both appeared to be about the same age, and both were inflexibly taciturn. One was never seen without the other; if they ever left the house, they only left it to walk in the most unfrequented parts of the wood; they kept no servant, and never had a visitor; no living souls but themselves ever crossed the door of their cottage. They procured their food and other necessaries from the people in the nearest village, paying for everything they received when it was delivered, and neither asking nor answering a single unnecessary question. Their manners were gentle, but grave and sorrowful as well. The people who brought them their household supplies, felt awed and uneasy, without knowing why, in their presence; and were always relieved when they had dispatched their errand and had got well away from the cottage and the wood.

Gradually, as month by month passed on, and the mystery hanging over the solitary pair was still not cleared up, superstitious doubts spread widely through the neighbourhood. Harmless as the conduct of the ladies always appeared to be, there was something so sinister and startling about the unearthly seclusion and secrecy of their lives, that people began to feel vaguely suspicious, to whisper awful imaginary rumours about them, to gossip over old stories of ghosts and false accusations that had never been properly sifted to the end, whenever the inhabitants of the cottage were mentioned. At last they were secretly watched by the less scrupulous among the villagers, whom intense curiosity had endowed with a morbid courage and resolution. Even this proceeding led to no results whatever, but increased rather than diminished the mystery.

The expertest eavesdroppers who had listened at the door, brought away no information with them for their pains. Some declared that when the ladies held any conversation together, they spoke in so low a tone that it was impossible to distinguish a word they said. Others, of more imaginative temperament, protested, on the contrary, that their voices were perfectly audible, but that the language they talked was some mysterious or diabolical language of their own, incomprehensible to everybody but themselves. One or two expert and daring spies had even contrived to look in at them through the window, unperceived; but had seen nothing uncommon, nothing supernatural — nothing, in short, beyond the spectacle of two ladies sitting quietly and silently by their own fireside.

So matters went on, until one day universal agitation was excited in the neighbourhood by a rumour that one of the ladies was dead. The rustic authorities immediately repaired to the cottage, accompanied by a long train of eager followers; and found that the report was true. The surviving lady was seated by her companion’s bedside, weeping over a corpse. She spoke not a word; she never looked up at the villagers as they entered. Question after question was put to her without ever eliciting an answer; kind words were useless — even threats proved equally inefficient: the lady still remained weeping by the corpse, and still said nothing. Gradually her inexorable silence began to infect the visitors to the cottage. For a few moments nothing was heard in the room but the dash of the waterfall hard by, and the singing of birds in the surrounding wood. Bitterly as the lady was weeping, it was now first observed by everybody that she wept silently, that she never sobbed, never even sighed under the oppression of her grief.

People began to urge each other, superstitiously, to leave the place. It was determined that the corpse should be removed and buried; and that afterwards some new expedient should be tried to induce the survivor of the mysterious pair to abandon her inflexible silence. It was anticipated that she would have made some sign, or spoken some few words when they lifted the body from the bed on which it lay; but even this proceeding produced no visible effect. As the villagers quitted the dwelling with their dead burden, the last of them who went out left her in her solitude, still speechless, still weeping, as they had found her at first.

Days passed, and she sent no message to any one. Weeks elapsed, and the idlers who waited about the woodland paths where they knew that she was once wont to walk with her companion, never saw her, watch for her as patiently as they might. From haunting the wood, they soon got on to hovering round the cottage, and to looking in stealthily at the window. They saw her sitting on the same seat that she had always occupied, with a vacant chair opposite; her figure wasted, her face wan already with incessant weeping. It was a dismal sight to all who beheld it — a vision of affliction and solitude that sickened their hearts.

No one knew what to do; the kindest-hearted people hesitated, the hardest-hearted people dreaded to disturb her. While they were still irresolute, the end was at hand. One morning a little girl, who had looked in at the cottage window in imitation of her elders, reported, when she returned home, that she had seen the lady still sitting in her accustomed place, but that one of her hands hung strangely over the arm of the chair, and that she never moved to pick up her pocket-handkerchief, which lay on the ground beside her. At these ominous tidings, the villagers summoned their resolution, and immediately repaired to the lonesome cottage in the wood.

They knocked and called at the door — it was not opened to them. They raised the latch and entered. She still occupied her chair; her head was resting on one of her hands; the other hung down, as the little girl had told them. The handkerchief, too, was on the ground, and was wet with tears. Was she sleeping? They went round in front to look. Her eyes were wide open; her drooping hand, worn almost to mere bone, was cold to the touch as the waters of the valley-stream on a winter’s day. She had died in her wonted place; died in mystery and in solitude as she had lived.

They buried her where they had buried her companion. No traces of the real history of either the one or the other have ever been discovered from that time to this.

Such is the tale that was related to us of the cottage in the valley of Nighton’s Keive. It may be only imagination; but the stained roofless walls, the damp clotted herbage, and the reptiles crawling about the ruins, give the place a gloomy and disastrous look. The air, too, seems just now unusually still and heavy here — for the evening is at hand, and the vapours are rising in the wood. The shadows of the trees are deepening; the rustling music of the waterfall is growing dreary; the utter stillness of all things besides, becomes wearying to the ear. Let us pass on, and get into bright wide space again, where the down leads back to happier solitudes by the seashore.

We now rapidly lose sight of the trees which have hitherto so closely surrounded us, and find ourselves treading the short scanty grass of the cliff-top once more. We still advance northward, walking along rough cart-roads, and skirting the extremities of narrow gullies leading down to the sea, until we enter the picturesque village of Boscastle. Then, descending a long street of irregular houses, of all sizes, shapes, and ages, we are soon conducted to the bottom of a deep hollow. Beyond this, the bare ground rises again abruptly up to the highest point of the high cliffs which overhang the shore; and here, where the site is most elevated, and where neither cottages nor cultivation appear, we descry the ancient walls and gloomy tower of Forrabury Church.

The interior of the building still contains a part of the finely-carved rood-loft which once adorned it. Its rickety wooden pews are blackened with extreme old age, and covered with curiously-cut patterns and cyphers. The place is so dark that it is difficult to read the inscriptions on many of the mouldering monuments, fixed together without order or symmetry on the walls. Outside are some Saxon arches, oddly built of black slate-stone; and the window-mouldings are ornamented with rough carving, which at once proclaims its own antiquity. But it is in the tower that the interest attached to the church chiefly centres. Square, thick, and of no extraordinary height, it resembles in appearance most other towers in Cornwall — except in one particular, all the belfry windows are completely stopped up.

This peculiarity is to be explained simply enough; the church has never had any bells; the old tower has been mute, and useless except for ornament, since it was first built. The congregation of the district must trust to their watches and their punctuality to get to service in good time on Sundays. At Forrabury the chimes have never sounded for a marriage: the knell has never been heard for a funeral.

To know the reason of this; to discover why the church, though tower and belfry have always been waiting ready for them, has never had a peal of bells, we must seek instruction from another popular tradition, from a third legend of these legendary shores. Let us go down a little to the brink of the cliff, where the sea is rolling into a black, yawning, perpendicular pit of slate rock. The scene of our third story is the view over the waters from this place.

In ancient times, when Forrabury Church was still regarded as a building of recent date, it was a subject of sore vexation to all the people of the neighbourhood that their tower had no bells, while the inhabitants of Tintagel still possessed the famous peal that had rung for King Arthur’s funeral. For some years, this superiority of the rival village was borne with composure by the people of Forrabury; but, in process of time, they lost all patience, and it was publicly determined by the rustic council, that the honour of their church should be vindicated. Money was immediately collected, and bells of magnificent tones and dimensions were forthwith ordered from the best manufactory that London could supply.

The bells were cast, blessed by high ecclesiastical authorities, and shipped for transportation to Forrabury. The voyage was one of the most prosperous that had ever been known. Fair winds and calm seas so expedited the passage of the ship, that she appeared in sight of the downs on which the church stood, many days before she had been expected. Great was the triumph of the populace on shore, as they watched her working into the bay with a steady evening breeze.

On board, however, the scene was very different. Here there was more uproar than happiness, for the captain and the pilot were at open opposition. As the ship neared the harbour, the bells of Tintagel were faintly heard across the water, ringing for the evening service. The pilot, who was a devout man, took off his hat as he heard the sound, crossed himself, and thanked God aloud for a prosperous voyage. The captain, who was a reckless, vain-glorious fellow, reviled the pilot as a fool, and impiously swore that the ship’s company had only to thank his skill as a navigator, and their own strong arms and ready wills, for bringing the ship safely in sight of harbour. The pilot, in reply, rebuked him as an infidel, and still piously continued to return thanks as before; while the captain, joined by the crew, tried to drown his voice by oaths and blasphemy. They were still shouting their loudest, when the vengeance of Heaven descended in judgment on them all.

The clouds supernaturally gathered, the wind rose to a gale in a moment. An immense sea, higher than any man had ever beheld, overwhelmed the ship; and, to the horror of the people on shore, she went down in an instant, close to land. Of all the crew, the pilot only was saved.

The bells were never recovered. They were heard tolling a muffled death-peal, as they sank with the ship; and even yet, on stormy days, while the great waves roll over them, they still ring their ghostly knell above the fiercest roaring of wind and sea.

This is the ancient story of the bells — this is why the chimes are never heard from the belfry of Forrabury Church.

Now that we have visited the scene of our third legend, what is it that keeps me and my companion still lingering on the downs? Why we are still delaying the hour of our departure long after the time which we have ourselves appointed for it?

We both know but too well. At this point we leave the coast, not to return to it again: at Forrabury we look our last on the sea from these rocky shores. With this evening, our pleasant days of strolling travel are ended. To-morrow we go direct to Launceston, and from Launceston at once to Plymouth. To-morrow the adventures of the walking tourist are ours no longer; for on that day our rambles in Cornwall will have virtually closed!

Rise, brother-traveller! We have lingered until twilight already; the seaward crags grow vast and dim around us, and the inland view narrows and darkens solemnly in the waning light. Shut up your sketch-book which you have so industriously filled, and pocket your pencils which you have worn down to stumps, even as I now shut up my dogs-eared old journal, and pocket my empty ink-bottle. One more of the few and fleeting scenes of life is fast closing, soon to leave us nothing but the remembrance that it once existed — a happy remembrance of a holiday walk in dear old England, which will always be welcome and vivid to the last, like other remembrances of home.

Come! the night is drawing round us her curtain of mist; let us strap on our trusty old friends, the knapsacks for the last time, and turn resolutely from the shore by which we have delayed too long. Come! let us once again “jog on the footpath way” as contentedly, if not quite as merrily, as ever; and, remembering how much we have seen and learnt that must surely better us both, let us, as we now lose sight of the dark, grey waters, gratefully, though sadly, speak the parting word:—

FAREWELL TO CORNWALL!

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:29