True Stories of Girl Heroines

by Evelyn Everett-Green

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Jessy Varcoe

A picture for the book True Stories of Girl Heroines

"There goes the witch's darter! Yonder goes the witch's maid! Heave a stone at the likes of her, lads! 'Tidden fitty as such spawn should live!"

Poor Jessy had grown up with taunts like these in her ears, till she had come to be too well used to them to pay much heed. Sometimes a stone would strike her; but she could throw as well as any lad along the coast, and she had proved as much upon the persons of her persecutors many a time and oft. On the whole the children and the lads and girls of Morwinstow had come to think it best to leave Jessy alone, especially since it had been whispered that she was learning the black art from her old grandmother, the Black Witch of the neighbourhood, and could overlook an enemy, or curse him and his goods and smite his crops with blasting and mildew.

So Jessy's life was perforce a lonely one. No kith or kin had she ever known save her old grandmother who lived in the hut upon the rolling downs land, not far from the margin of the cliffs. The old woman went out by night to gather herbs and simples, and these she brewed over the fire by day, muttering her strange incantations the while.

Although she was known as a Black Witch in her own neighbourhood, there were many persons who bought her wares, and found them excellent for sprains, rheumatics, and the like. But nobody visited in a friendly way at the lonely hut save certain wild and fierce-looking men, who always came at night, and were generally laden with packs of merchandise, which they hid away in some secret hiding-place beneath the floor of the cottage.

This much Jessy knew from peeping through the crevices in the floor of the upper room where she slept. She was never permitted to be present when these men came. She was sent to bed up the rickety ladder; and the ladder was invariably removed, so that she could not get down if she would, the bolt in the trapdoor by which she reached her attic being always drawn by the grandmother.

As the child grew to girlhood, she began to understand very well the nature of these visits from seafaring men. They brought smuggled goods to be concealed beneath the witch's hut, well knowing that nobody would willingly run the risk of being cursed or overlooked by the old woman. Moreover, Jessy had reason to believe that the cottage masked an entrance into a very large cave, which was probably a valuable hiding-place; for she always noted the extreme civility with which the rough men treated her grandmother, and how anxious they seemed to please her in the bargains that they made.

Nor was Jessy in any way disturbed by the knowledge of what was going on. Smuggling was a regular trade all along the coast, and she regarded it as a matter of course.

As the old grandmother grew more and more infirm, Jessy was of necessity taken more into her confidence, and soon found that her suspicions were quite correct. The old woman received the contraband goods from the smugglers, and hid them in the recesses of the great cave—the secrets of which were known only to herself; and though very occasionally the revenue officers came to the cottage and insisted upon examining the place most carefully, they never discovered the secret hiding-place. For the small cave was only the ante-chamber to a very much larger one behind, and the entrance to the latter was so cleverly masked that it was long before even Jessy could learn the trick of the sliding shale of rock, though she had been shown it many times by her grandmother.

Exciting scenes were often witnessed along the coast in those days; and bloody scenes were enacted between the smugglers and the "gaugers" or revenue officers, in which lives were often lost. One gauger, more resolute than some of his predecessors, after having killed many desperate smugglers himself, was dragged bodily into a boat that he was pursuing, whilst his head was chopped off on the gunwale and flung into the sea.

The Black Prince was a trim little vessel that did a great deal of illicit traffic all along the coast at that time, and was well known to every man, woman, and child in Morwinstow. Whorwell was the name of her captain. A daring fellow he was, and one of the most popular smugglers in those parts, free with his money, free with his contraband spirits, making friends with villagers, parson, and sexton alike, and even bribing old Tom Hockday, this latter functionary, to let him deposit his kegs and bales in the church till he could find a convenient opportunity of getting them away to old mother Varcoe's, or some other convenient hiding-place. The farmers would lend him their stout little horses to lade up with his goods from over the water; and the horses would be so shaved and soaped that they were slippery as eels, and being accustomed to follow some well-trained animals, would gallop away to the hiding-place, safe from any hostile clutches!

In scenes such as these Jessy had been reared, and although she herself was something of an outcast in the scattered community where she dwelt, her sympathies, such as they were, were for a time all with the smugglers, whom she regarded as friends; till something came to change the face of affairs for her.

It seemed to begin from one Sunday morning, when Jessy, for a wonder, went to the church, in spite of her natural timidity at facing the jeers of the boys and girls, and the suspicious looks of their parents. She often hung about the little windswept church whilst Sunday service was going on, feeling in her heart a vague yearning after intercourse with her own kind, and a longing for some knowledge of the mysteries of religion; but she seldom ventured inside the porch, and might not have done so to-day had it not been that there was a little lad, with curly hair and blue eyes, whose face she did not know, whom she encountered when not far from the building, and who began to talk with her in an unsuspicious and friendly fashion that went straight to her heart.

Before they had got to the church she had gathered that the boy was the son of one of the revenue officers lately come into the neighbourhood, and that he often went out in the cutters that pursued the smuggling boats, or hunted the coast for them. The fearless little fellow had had some adventures already, which he retailed to Jessy with great gusto; and remarked that he did not think the people of Morwinstow liked him or his father.

To this Jessy answered that they did not like her either, and this seemed a bond drawing the pair together; so that when they reached the church they passed in together, and sat side by side in a shadowy corner behind a big pillar.

But the service had not proceeded very far before there was a whisper and then a buzz at the porch door, and one by one folks slipped from their seats and stole out, till at last only Jessy, and Tim (as the boy told her he was called), and the parson, and clerk were left; and the parson shut up his book and whipped off his surplice, saying:

"Sure there is something amiss; and I must needs go and see!"

The churchyard overlooked the sea, and there sure enough was the Black Prince close under the land, and a revenue cutter in full chase, and so near that all held their breath to watch; and Tim seized hold of Jessy's hands, and cried:

"They'll get her!—they'll get her! Oh, why was not I there with them to-day?"

"Hush!" cried Jessy in sudden fear, "don't let the lads hear you talk so. They'd wring your neck, some of them, as soon as look at you! But look!—look! Whorwell is making for the Gull Rock! They'll never dare follow him there! There's not a man 'ud venture near that, save Whorwell himself; and they say the devil has given him a special chart, so as he can find his way through the rocks and shoals. There!—see, the cutter is sheering off. She daren't follow into that surf. The Black Prince will get off this time!" And Jessy's eyes lighted, for her sympathies were with the smugglers; and the congregation assembled on the cliff above gave vent to a lusty cheer.

"And now, my friends," said the parson mildly, "let us return and proceed with divine service."

He drove the flock back into the building, got into his surplice again, and went on exactly as though there had been no interruption: "Here beginneth the second lesson."

But though the hardy seaman Whorwell escaped the revenue cutter and got safe away, he did not live long after that, but was washed overboard on a dark night in a heavy storm; and his nephew and mate, one John Moffat, became commander in his stead.

Now Moffat was as daring a smuggler as Whorwell had been; but a man of a very different temper, fierce, morose, cruel, and of an implacable savageness towards any who had offended him. He had vowed vengeance against all King's officers with whom he should come into conflict. He had tasted once of prison discipline, and had had a narrow shave of the gallows. Since then his violent temper had become increasingly savage; and Rogers, the new officer, the father of Tim, found that he had a foe to deal with as daring as, and even more unscrupulous than, Whorwell had been.

Moreover, Jessy herself found cause to rue the day when Moffat had been left in command of the Black Prince. Her grandmother was now so infirm, that Jessy was obliged to receive the smugglers on their visits, and to show them to the hiding-places where the contraband goods were hidden. Before long Moffat began to make love to her in his fierce masterful way; whilst Jessy, who feared the fellow and dreaded his visits, shrank from him more and more each time she saw him.

She had grown to be a very beautiful girl, in a strange, wild fashion. Her hair was a tawny, golden colour, and it grew very abundantly, waving down below her waist when the wind caught it and loosened it from the heavy coils in which it was twisted up. Her eyes seemed to match it in colour, as did the thick brows and heavy lashes which veiled the fierce light that sometimes leapt into her glance when she was aroused to anger or hate.

The village folk, who liked either dark hair or flaxen locks, had no admiration for Jessy's tawny tresses. But little Tim Rogers told her that she was beautiful, and looked like a queen. The girl and little boy had become fast friends, drawn together by their own isolation and by kindred tastes.

Tim loved the sea and the rocks and the deep clefts and chasms of the coast; and Jessy knew every crevice and cranny as well as the sea-gulls themselves. They spent hours together, unseen by others, exploring strange spots, telling tales and legends, and growing in friendship every day.

As Jessy heard her boy-friend's stories of the hardships of the lives of the King's excise officers, and had the other side of the question unfolded to her—the need for taxes to be levied, to keep up England's power and greatness, to preserve her coasts from foreign invaders, to enable her to be a power amongst other nations with greater territories—she began to understand that the smugglers were really defrauding the King of his rightful dues; and whatever might be said in favour of the landing of an occasional keg of spirits or bale of silk without paying duty, the regular nefarious traffic of such a vessel as the Black Prince could not be regarded as anything but a wrong done against the King and the nation.

It was the easier for Jessy to assimilate this new teaching because of her hatred towards Moffat, which was growing with every visit he paid. Her grandmother was now almost in her dotage, and was no real protection to the girl; and she sometimes almost feared that Moffat would carry her off to his vessel by force, so wild were his outbreaks of so-called love-making, and his gusts of rage when she repelled him, and would have none of his courtship.

Jessy's one weapon of defence was in the superstition of the man and his subordinates. They believed that the girl had inherited, or had acquired from her grandmother, some occult powers, and that she had the power to do them some injury by her fiery glance, or by word or spell. This knowledge had come accidentally to Jessy, from something she had overheard the men saying one to the other; but she had found that it was true, and that they really had some superstitious fear of her when she flung herself away from Moffat, and stood regarding them with her fiery glances of fear and desperation. Afterwards Jessy made some study of her part, and got her grandmother to teach her some spells and some curses; and although still in no small fear of Moffat's evident intention of making her his wife, she felt not quite so unprotected as before.

Soon, however, she was to find, as other women have found before her, that the surest way to turn a man's love to hate is to flout him, and refuse his courtship. When Jessy, driven one day to bay, flatly refused to marry Moffat, and added that she hated him worse than she hated any one but the devil himself, and didn't see as there was much to choose between them!—then the man's passion flamed forth, and the girl might have been killed, had not the old woman, suddenly aroused and alarmed, begun to curse so lustily that the seamen were filled with terror, and dragged their leader off with them, he shouting out all sorts of threats against Jessy, and vowing to be revenged upon her before he had done.

It seemed as though disappointed love had filled the man's heart with passions fiercer than their wont. It was but a few days later that Tim told the girl how his father had heard that the Black Prince was coming in soon with a contraband cargo, and that he was going to keep a very sharp look out for her.

"I wish your father would kill Moffat, and have done with him," cried Jessy, with sudden vehemence.

"Why, then, Jessy, you must be on our side?" cried Tim joyfully. "I never quite liked to ask you before; because, of course, all the folk you know are with the smugglers——"

"But they don't care for me, and I don't care for them—not a snap!" cried Jessy; "and as for Moffat, I'll never be quite happy so long as he's above ground. But my granny she cursed him properly the other day. Maybe that'll bring him bad luck and you good!"

"Then is it true as your grandmother is a witch, Jessy?"

"I dunno; that's what folk say. She don't do nobody no harm as I can see; nor good neither, save with her herb potions, and them I make as well as she. But she's got a few queer books, and things she calls charms. She tells me about them sometimes, and she teaches me spells and curses and things; but I'd be half afraid to use them. Suppose they came true; how would one feel?"

"If it were a curse against Moffat and his crew, and it came true, I don't think I should feel very bad," answered Tim. "They're a wild, bad lot, my father and his men say. The sooner they are got rid of, the better for some of us!"

"Yes, indeed!" answered Jessy with a sigh; "but they are bad ones to tackle, and no mistake."

It was a few days after this, and Jessy was alone in the cave just as the sunset light was beginning to turn the water red. A load lay upon her heart; she knew not why. She felt as though something terrible were going to happen, but she could not guess what it could be.

Suddenly from over the water there came the sounds of voices,—angry, passionate, triumphant voices,—voices that she knew.

She ran out of her shelter; and then what did she see? The well-known sails and masts of the Black Prince almost close in shore, not being pursued by, but in hot pursuit of the revenue cutter, that had been watching for her, and had suddenly darted out to seize the prey.

Now it was a most unusual thing in those days for a smuggling vessel to turn aggressor. They were always built for speed, with a view of getting clear away from the King's boats and officers. The Black Prince had always escaped by speed or seamanship hitherto; but to-day it seemed as though the fierce demon of hatred that possessed Moffat had dominated every other feeling.

It was he, not the revenue cutter, that was in pursuit; and even as Jessy gained the cave's mouth she saw the terrible work of butchery begin.

Moffat was the first to spring into the cutter and slash with furious rage at the man Rogers, whose head was laid open by a ghastly blow. Other daring smugglers had followed, and the water was dyed red with something beside the sunset glow.

To her horror Jessy saw that Tim was in the boat.

"Swim for your life!" she cried; "you can do nothing there. Jessy is here. Jessy will help you!"

The boy heard; the men did not. They were otherwise engrossed. The boy, powerless to help either father or friends, obeyed the call that had reached him, and as he dropped silently over the gunwale of the boat and struck out, Jessy plunged into the sea from her rock, and swam bravely out to meet him, uncertain whether or no he might have received some wound.

And it was well she did; for, though unwounded, the boy had had a severe blow upon the arm, and was only able to swim a short distance without feeling the numbness and powerlessness come again upon him. But Jessy was beside him; she could swim like a fish, and even weighted by her clothes, could give her shoulder to Tim, to support his useless arm, whilst she made her way with swift, strong strokes towards one of the darkest and narrowest crevices between the frowning cliffs, where she thought she and he might be safe from pursuit.

No direct rays of light came into this narrow cave, and there was a ledge of rock upon which she hoisted Tim, and where she scambled herself when he was safe, both gasping and exhausted; but, as they hoped, safe.

"Jessy, you have saved me! How brave you are!" cried Tim. But Jessy suddenly laid a hand upon his mouth.

"Hist! be quiet!" she whispered; "they are coming after us! I hear their voices—and the plash of oars!"

It was too true. Moffat's wicked eyes had seen the golden head of Jessy; and he had missed the boy from the bottom of the boat, where he had been knocked over.

"They are in here!" cried a cruel voice; "I saw them go myself. We have them here like rats in a trap."

"Tim, have you a knife?" asked Jessy between shut teeth.

"The first man that touches him I'll kill!" cried Jessy.

The boy was trembling; but he did not give way. He pulled a little dirk from his belt.

"Yes; but I must defend you, Jessy; not you me. You have risked your life already. You must not do more. It is me they want—not you."

But the injured arm had no power to strike a blow. Jessy tenderly took the dirk from between the numbed fingers.

"Say your prayers, Tim, if you can remember any," said Jessy, between long breaths, "for we shan't easily get out of this alive."

"There they are—see them? The witch-wench and the boy? Ah, ha, my fine maid, you'll sing a more civil tune to-day I warrant. Give us over the boy, and maybe we'll let you off easy!"

"The first man that touches him I'll kill!" cried Jessy.

"Curse her for a witch," cried one of the men, recoiling before the fierce aspect of the girl; but Moffat was filled with the lust of blood and of fury, and with a yell of menace, he pushed up the boat against the narrow shelf on which the pair were cowering.

"Hand over the boy."

A yell of pain interrupted him. Jessy, seeing better than she could be seen, had seized the moment and driven her dagger clean through the arm of the man who was seeking to clutch at the shelf.

Just for a few minutes the girl held her ground against the six furious men below, who, losing all sense of humanity at last, lifted their cutlasses and struck her blow upon blow; some of which missed their aim, for Jessy was nimble as a wild cat, but some of which fell upon her flesh, and at last brought her blinded with blood to her knees.

A stifled gasp close at hand told her of another deed of cruel cowardice. She turned to see Moffat wiping his cutlass, and little Tim lying stark and dead at her very feet.

At that sight a strange phrensy fell upon Jessy. Forgetting her wounds and her weakness, inspired as it seemed by some spirit other than her own, she rose to her feet, her eyes blazing in her head, and, with a loud and sonorous voice, she spoke the words of a terrible curse. She cursed the vessel whose crew had done this deed of infamy and shame; she cursed the men who had been the instruments of a bad man's rage; above all, she cursed the master himself, turning her gaze upon Moffat with such fearful effect, that he slipped back into the boat, and his men pulled away in the direst terror they had ever experienced.

Next morning Jessy Varcoe was found by some fishermen, seated on a ledge of rock just above high watermark, with the corpse of little Tim, whose life she had sought to save at risk of her own, folded in her arms.

She begged them not to wake him; she called him her baby, her darling. When they laid him to rest in the churchyard, she would spend long days sitting beside the mound, gazing over the sea for the sails of the Black Prince.

But from that day forward the Black Prince was never seen or heard of again. Perhaps the crew, fearing to return to a place where they had done such evil work, changed its name and rig, and took up life elsewhere. Perhaps she foundered in a gale, or fell a prey to some enemy's ship. But no news of her ever reached Morwinstow again.

Somehow the story of Jessy's curse got abroad, and her reputation as a witch was made for ever; but she hardly knew it herself. From that day she never fully regained her faculties; and at last poor Jessy's life was ended through a fall down the cliffs from the heights above, near to the grave of the little boy, and from whence she had kept a ceaseless watch for the return of the Black Prince; terrified alike at the thought of its return with the dreaded Moffat, or of its destruction in response to her curse.

The children will look fearfully down this chasm, and whisper that Jessy leapt down it to expiate the curse; but whether or not this was so, will hardly now be known, for her mind was never the same from the dreadful day when she risked her life to save that of the boy, and saw him slain at her feet.

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.