A MINER, who was also a small farmer, living in Zennor, once consulted me on the condition of his daughter, a little girl about five or six years of age. This child was evidently suffering from some scrofulous taint. She was of a delicate complexion, with, usually, a hectic flush on her cheeks; the skin being particularly fine, and so transparent that the course of the veins was marked by deep blue lines. This little girl had long suffered from indolent tumours, forming on the glands in various parts of the body; and, as her father said, "they had taken her to all the doctors in the country round, and the child got worse and worse."
I prescribed for this child; and for two or three weeks she was brought into Penzance on the market-day, that I might observe the influence of the remedial agent which I was employing. Right or wrong, however, the little girl was evidently benefited by the medicine I recommended.
Suddenly my patient was removed from my care, and many months passed away without my seeing either the child or the father. Eventually I met the parent in the market-place, and after some commonplace remarks he informed me, on my inquiring for his daughter, that she was cured. I expressed satisfaction at hearing this, and inquired why he had not brought the child to me again. After some hesitation he said he had discovered what ailed the child --" she was overlooked." Requiring some explanation of this, I got possession of his story, which was to the following purpose:
At a short distance from their farm there resided an old woman who was feared by her neighbours, owing to her savage and uncontrollable temper, and who hated all around her in consequence of the system of ill-usage to which during a long life she had been subjected.
I have visited this miserable creature in her home. A stone-built hut in the wildest part of the bleak coast, forming but one room, was her dwelling. The door was rotten through age, and the two small windows, neither of them more than eighteen inches long by twelve inches wide, which had once been glazed, had been broken to pieces, and the holes were filled in with old rags. Consequently, when the door was closed, the hovel would have been dark, but for the light which descended through the hole in the roof; which we must call a chimney, and that which gained admission through the cracks in the door--these gave a tolerable amount of illumination.
A low truckle-bed in one corner, with very scanty, dirty, and ragged covering,--a small round table, roughly made and standing on four square legs,--a log of wood, and a three-legged stool, formed, with one exception, all the furniture in the place. This exception was the "dresser." Those who are not acquainted with western England will require to be told that no dwelling, however poor, is regarded as complete without the set of framed shelves and drawers which constitute the dresser.
This old woman's dresser was painted white and blue, and on its shelves were cups and saucers, a few plates, one or two dishes, and some mugs. Here was an orderly arrangement, and a tolerably clean display, strangely contrasting with the dirt and disorder of everything around. At the period of my visit this old woman was seated on the block of wood, with her naked arms folded before her, rocking herself to and fro. Margery Penwarne, for so she was called, though usually spoken of as "An'," or Aunt "Madge," must have been nearly eighty years old. Her hair was an iron gray, and it struggled out from under a cotton cap, which had once been white, in long thin locks. Her eyebrows were long enough to fall over her disagreeable gray eyes; and this, with the accumulation of long hair around her toothless mouth, gave her a most repulsive appearance. There were still living two or three old people who had known Margery in her youth, and they spoke of her as having been a pretty girl. The general idea evidently being that she had sold her soul to the devil, and that it was the influence of her evil mind which gave her so wretched an aspect.
From Margery I had a long story of the wrongs she suffered, and I believe this sad example of humanity may be regarded as an instance of the reaction of uncontrolled passion. Ignorant in the extreme herself; and dwelling amongst a class of people who were at that time but little superior to her in any respect, Margery succeeded in exerting much power over them by her violence. In addition to this, she was more industrious than her neighbours, of which her small farm bore the evidences. Violence begat its like, and where Margery, by her energy, became the apparent conqueror, she called into play all kinds of low cunning against herself, and was always, in the end, the sufferer. Her crops were injured, her pigs died suddenly, her fowls were killed, and even her donkeys were lamed.
As age crept on, the power to provide the necessities of life failed her, and she had, at the time I speak of; been receiving pay from the parish for many years. With age Margery's infirmities of temper increased. She had long been used by the mothers of the parish as a means for frightening the children. Their tears were stopped more readily by a threat, "I'll give 'e to An' Madge," than by any other means; and good conduct was insured if An' Madge was to be sent for "to take away." From this state she passed into another stage. Margery, from being a terror to the young, became the fear of the old. No one would dare refuse her a drop of milk, a few potatoes, or any of those trifles which she almost demanded from her neighbours, every one trembling lest she should exert her evil eye, or vent her curses upon them.
This was the being who had "overlooked" the miner's daughter. He told me that the cause of this was that he caught Margery stealing some straw, and that he "kicked her out of the yard."
The gossips of the parish had for some time insisted upon the fact that the child had been ill-wished, and that she never would be better until "the spell was taken off her." The father, who was in many respects a sensible man, would not for a long period hear of this, but the reiteration of the assertion at length compelled him to give way, and he consulted some "knowing man" in the parish of St Just.
It was then formally announced that the girl could never recover unless three burning sticks were taken from the hearth of the "overlooker," and the child was made to walk three times over them when they were laid across ott the ground, and then quench the fire with water.
The father had no doubt respecting the "overlooker," his quarrel with Madge determined this in his mind; but there were many difficulties in carrying out the prescribed means for effecting the cure. Without exposing themselves to the violence of the old woman it was impossible, and there was some fear that in forcibly entering her dwelling they might be brought "under the law," with which Margery had often threatened the people.
It was found, however, that nothing could be done for the child if they neglected this, and the father and two or three friends resolved to brave alike the old woman and the law.
One evening, the smoke, mixed with sparks, arising from the hole in the roof of Margery's cottage, informed them that the evil crone was preparing her supper, and as she evidently was burning dry furze, now was the time to procure the three blazing sticks. Accordingly three men and the little girl hurried to the hovel. The door was closed, but, not being secured on the inside, the father opened it. As they had planned, his two companions rushed in, and, without a word, seized the old woman, who fell from her block to the floor, to which, with unnecessary violence, they pinned her, she screaming with "the shriek of a goshawk." In the meantime the parent dragged three blazing pieces of furze from the hearth, hastened to the door, laid them one across the other, and then, without losing a moment, forced the trembling child across the fire three times, and compelled her to perform the other necessary portion of the ordeal by which the spell was to be broken.
Margery, weak, aged, and violent, was soon exhausted, and she probably fainted. I was, however, informed by the man, that as the fire was quenched in the sticks, the flames which appeared to kindle in her eyes gradually died away; that all the colour forsook her lips, and that at last she murmured, "My heart! my heart! bring me the girl, and I 'll purge her of the spell;" upon which they left her as though dead upon the rough earth floor on which she had fallen.
Many other examples might have been given of the existence of a belief in the "virtue of fire," as I have heard it expressed.