Once upon a time there was an unjust steward, called Tregeagle, who made himself rich on other people’s money. He did so many wicked things that in a whole book there would not be room to tell of them. But he had to the in the end, like everybody else, and no one was sorry when he was safely buried.
There was a wealthy landlord who had employed Tregeagle to collect his rents for him, and this landlord now, after the steward’s death, declared that one of his tenants had been owing him money for years. The tenant said he had paid the money to Tregeagle, but he couldn’t prove it, because Tregeagle hadn’t given him any receipt.
Well, the landlord and the tenant went to law, and the lawyers on each side squabbled for a long time as to whether or not the money had been paid; till at last it was decided that the case should be tried before a judge and jury. So they all assembled in the court, the judge in his wig and robes, the lawyers in their wigs and gowns, the jurymen in their box.
But when one man says he has paid the money, and the other man says he hasn’t received it, how can judge, or lawyers, or jurymen decide who is right and who is wrong? The tenant stuck to his story that he had paid the money to Tregeagle, and he said it over and over again, till the landlord lost patience, and jumped up and shouted, ‘Well, if Tregeagle received the money, I wish Tregeagle would come and say so!’
Scarcely were the words out of his mouth before the floor opened, and Tregeagle, in his shroud and covered with earth, stood in the court.
Some people screamed, some people fainted, and some ran out. The jurymen leaped from the box and fled, the lawyers hid their faces in their hands, the landlord and the tenant shuddered and groaned, the judge trembled, gripped the arms of his seat, and whispered, ‘Tregeagle, in the name of Heaven, tell us the truth!’
‘I can no longer bear false witness,’ said the ghost, in a voice that went echoing through the court like the echoing of waves inside a cavern. ‘The money was paid to me, and I spent it.’
There was now no case to be tried. The money was gone, and that was the end of it. The judge, in a great hurry, dismissed the case; then, standing up and gathering his robes about him, as if his one idea was to get out of the court as quickly as he could, he told Tregeagle to depart whither he had come.
Tregeagle did not move.
‘Begone! Begone!’ said thejudge. ‘The case is ended.’
Still Tregeagle did not move.
The lawyers had gone, the landlord and the tenant had gone. There was no one in the court but the judge, standing on the dais, and Tregeagle, motionless as a statue, standing beneath him. The judge spoke once more, then, since still Tregeagle did not move, the judge picked up his papers and scuttled from the court.
Next day Tregeagle was still standing in the very same spot. He stood there day after day, and week after week; because, all round the court, and in the earth under the court, and in the air above it, fiends were waiting to snatch this wicked spirit and drag him down to hell, the moment he should move from the place to which he had been summoned. The fiends screamed round the place, and beat at the doors, and thundered under the floor, and whistled over the roof, and terrified everyone in the town so much that people dared not put their noses outside their houses, and all business was at a standstill.
Now there were in Cornwall at that time a great many saints; and as it is impossible to be holy unless you are brave, the saints weren’t a bit afraid of the fiends. So when they heard of the distress of the townspeople, these saints came in a great body from their chapels and their cells, and walked past the crowd of fiends as if those fiends were no more than so many tiresome, noisy tom–cats. The saints marched into the court and surrounded Tregeagle with a circle of light, and led him out and through the town, and away to the high moors. The fiends followed after, howling with rage, but they dared not come within the circle of light, so they could not get at Tregeagle.
High up on the moors was a deep, dark pool, called Dosmery, and to the edge of this pool the saints led Tregeagle, and there they stopped.
‘We will give you a task, Tregeagle,’ said Saint Probus, who was their spokesman. ‘This pool is bottomless, and your task is to empty its waters with a holed limpet shell. As long as you labour steadily the fiends cannot touch you; but, should you pause for a moment, they will seize you and drag you down to hell. Labour unceasing, that is your penance for all the sins you have committed in your lifetime. But, in ages after ages, when the world comes to an end, your penance will be over, and you may rest in peace.’
Then he put the holed limpet shell into Tregeagle’s hand.
The saints went away, Tregeagle began his task, the fiends waited round the pool. Day in, day out, in darkness and in light, in storm and in sunshine, Tregeagle stooped to his baling. The water as he lifted it in his limpet shell streamed back into the pool through the hole in the bottom of the shell, and not by one drop did the water in the pool decrease. The fiends crowded close and grinned in his face, and jeered at him. Tregeagle shivered and moaned, but went on baling.
Then the fiends dried up the air, and caused a scorching vapour to rise from the earth and envelop Tregeagle, so that he became faint with heat, but still he went on baling.
Then the fiends summoned black rain clouds, and the rain clouds stood over the pool and emptied themselves with a great roaring, and the rain beat on Tregeagle’s head without cease for forty days and forty nights, but still he went on baling.
Then the fiends summoned thunder and lightning and hail and an earthquake, and a mighty storm of wind; fire balls fell hissing into the pool, the ground heaved under Tregeagle’s feet, the waters of the pool boiled and seethed, lightning coiled about him like fiery snakes, hailstones big as walnuts beat on his back. Tregeagle screamed and shrieked, but went on baling.
Then the earth cracked open and legions of new demons, all fresh from hell, rose out of it. Tregeagle could bear no more. He flung down the limpet shell and fled. Over the moors he fled shrieking, with all the demons at his heels. Half across Cornwall he fled, whilst the thunder rattled, and the hail poured down, and lightning split the toppling clouds. One moment the chase was lit by the glare—the agonized face of Tregeagle, the hideous faces of the fiends, their stretched limbs, their long shadows—the next moment all was blotted out, and only the screams of Tregeagle and the jeers and laughter of his pursuers marked the direction of the flight.
That night, in a chapel on a high rock in the middle of a bleak common, a hermit was at his prayers. Tregeagle saw the light shining from the chapel window, and fled towards it. Here was sanctuary, if he could but reach it! With a great bound he rushed up the rock and thrust his head in through the window. But the window was too small, he could not get his body through, and the fiends caught him by the legs and tugged and pulled. Tregeagle clung to the window bars and roared with pain, for though his head was safe, the fiends’ claws dug into his legs like red hot pincers. The hermit looked up, saw the terrible face glaring down at him, and prayed more loudly.
Day after day the hermit prayed without stopping, and Tregeagle howled and writhed, and the demons tugged and clawed, and filled the air with their screams. The hermit could neither eat nor sleep, he was wasting to death. What was to be done?
The saints heard of it, and came again, and the holiness that streamed from them was so powerful that the demons let go their hold of Tregeagle’s legs and fell back wailing. The saints led Tregeagle away to the north coast of Cornwall and gave him a new task. They set him down on a bar of sand at the mouth of a river, and bade him make trusses of the sand and bind them with sand ropes.
Tregeagle gathered the sand into bundles, but the sea washed the bundles away; he tried to make the ropes, but the sand fell through his fingers. And since he could not accomplish his task, he began to howl and rave.
Now just inside the sand bar there was a fishing town, and the noise of Tregeagle’s howling was so loud that no one in the town could sleep. Day and night the howling went on, until at last all the people fled. They went to the good Saint Petroc, who lived near by, and besought him to remove Tregeagle. The good Saint Petroc had pity on them. He forged a mighty chain of which every link was a prayer, and with this chain he bound Tregeagle and led him away to a sandy bay on the south coast of Cornwall.
‘Tregeagle,’ said he, ‘I give you yet another task. Take this sack and fill it with sand, and carry it round the headland into the next bay. Empty it there, and return and fill it again, and continue until this bay we are standing in is clear of sand down to the rocks. As long as you labour steadily the fiends cannot touch you. Labour without cease, then, and in ages after ages, when the world comes to an end and your task is done, may you rest in peace!’
The good Saint Petroc put the sack into Tregeagle’s hands, and walked away. Tregeagle began his task, and the fiends crowded close to watch and mock him. He scooped up the sand till the sack was full, heaved the sack on to his back, and waded out through the waves and round the headland to the next bay, and there he tipped out the sand and waded back again. But before he could reach the first bay, the sand was back in it, for the tide took it and washed it round the headland to where it had come from. And when this had happened time after time, Tregeagle knew that his task was endless and hopeless, and again he began to howl and shriek. He howled so long and so loud that people heard him for miles round, and there was no rest nor peace for anyone.
So the people sent messengers to all the saints in the neighbourhood, beseeching them to deliver them from Tregeagle’s howling, and Saint Erth and Saint Hilary and Saint Ludgvan came and bound Tregeagle with holy spells and led him away to Land’s End. They put a broom in his hand, and bade him sweep the sands round the mighty cliffs from a bay on the south of the cliffs to a bay on the north.
And there, whilst the giants who inhabit the cliff castles watch in amazement, and the witches swirl in the wind over his head, and the fiends clamour about him, waiting to pounce, Tregeagle sweeps, and sweeps, and sweeps. But ever the sand comes back against his broom, and so he is sweeping to this day.
Sometimes, on dark nights when gales are raging, in his despair he throws down his broom and flees. Then the hunt is up, and right across Cornwall Tregeagle, howling with terror, runs and doubles, turns and twists, with the yelling fiends at his heels. On such nights, folk who are wise draw close the curtains, light the lights, poke the fire into a blaze, and stay snug at home. For it is ill work to be out in the darkness when the shrieks of Tregeagle are heard above the wind, and his howlings above the roar of the sea.
Source: Ruth Manning-Sanders