05 March 2012

St. Piran and the Visitation

This story comes from The Delectable Duchy: Stories, Studies, and Sketches, by ‘Q’ (Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch), 1893.


A full fifty years had St. Piran dwelt among the sandhills between Perranzabuloe and the sea before any big rush of saints began to pour into Cornwall: for 'twas not till the old man had discovered tin for us that they sprang up thick as blackberries all over the county; so that in a way St. Piran had only himself to blame when his idle ways grew to be a scandal by comparison with the push and bustle of the newcomers.

Never a notion had he that, from Rome to Land's End, all his holy brethren were holding up their hands over his case.  He sat in his cottage above the sands at Perranzabuloe and dozed to the hum of the breakers, in charity with all his parishioners, to whom his money was large as the salt wind; for his sleeping partnership in the tin-streaming business brought him a tidy income.  And the folk knew that if ever they wanted religion, they had only to knock and ask for it.

But one fine morning, an hour before noon, the whole parish sprang to its feet at the sound of a horn.  The blast was twice repeated, and came from the little cottage across the sands.  "Tis the blessed saint's cow-horn!" they told each other. "Sure the dear man must be in the article of death!"  And they hurried off to the cottage, man, woman, and child: for 'twas thirty years at least since the horn had last been sounded.

They pushed open the door, and there sat St. Piran in his arm-chair, looking good for another twenty years, but considerably flustered.  His cheeks were red, and his fingers clutched the cowhorn nervously.

"Andrew Penhaligon," said he to the first man that entered, "go you out and ring the church bell."  Off ran Andrew Penhaligon.  

"But, blessed father of us," said one or two, "we're all here!  There's no call to ring the church bell, seein' you're neither dead nor afire, blessamercy!"

"Oh, if you're all here, that alters the case, for 'tis only a proclamation I have to give out at present.  Tomorrow mornin' – Glory be to God! – I give warnin' that Divine service will take place in the parish church."

"You're sartin you hain't feelin' poorly, St. Piran dear?" asked one of the women.

"Thank you, Tidy Mennear, I'm enjoyin' health.  But, as I was sayin', the parish church'll be needed tomorrow, an' so you'd best set to and clean out the edifice: for I'm thinkin'," he added, "it'll be needin' that."

"To be sure, St. Piran dear, we'll humour ye."

"'Tisn' that at all," the saint answered; "but I've had a vision."

"Don't you often?"

"H'm! but this was a peculiar vision; or maybe a bit of a birdeen whispered it into my ear.  Anyway, 'twas revealed to me just now in a dream that I stood on the lawn at Bodmin Priory, and peeped in at the Priory window.  An' there in the long hall sat all the saints together at a big table covered with red baize, and plotted against us.  There was St. Petroc in the chair, with St. Guron by his side, an' St. Neot, St. Udy, St. Teath, St. Keverne, St. Wen, St. Probus, St. Enodar, St. Just, St. Fimbarrus, St. Clether, St. Germoe, St. Veryan, St. Winnock, St. Minver, St. Anthony, with the virgins Grace, and Sinara, and Iva – the whole passel of 'em.  An' they were agreein' there was no holiness left in this parish of mine; an' speakin' shame of me, my childer – of me, that have banked your consciences these fifty years, and always been able to pay on demand: the more by token that I kept a big reserve, an' you knew it.  Answer me: when was there ever a panic in Perranzabuloe?'  'Twas all very well,' said St. Neot, when his turn came to speak, 'but this state o' things ought to be exposed.'  He's as big as bull's beef, is St. Neot, ever since he worked that miracle over the fishes, an' reckons he can disparage an old man who was makin' millstones to float when he was suckin' a coral.  But the upshot is, they're goin' to pay us a Visitation tomorrow, by surprise.  And, if only for the parish credit, we'll be even wid um, by dad!"

(St. Piran still lapsed into his native brogue when strongly excited.)

But he had hardly done when Andrew Penhaligon came running in – "St. Piran, honey, I've searched everywhere; an' be hanged to me if I can find the church at all!"

"Fwhat's become av ut?" cried the saint, sitting up sharply.

"How should I know?  But devil a trace can I see!"

"Now, look here," St. Piran said; "the church was there, right enough."

"That's a true word," spoke up an old man, "for I mind it well. An elegant tower it had, an' a shingle roof."

"Spake up, now," said the saint, glaring around; "fwich av ye's gone an' misbestowed me parush church?  For I won't believe," he said, "that it's any worse than carelussness— at laste, not yet-a-bit."

Some remembered the church, and some did not: but the faces of all were clear of guilt.  They trooped out on the sands to search.

Now, the sands by Perranzabuloe are forever shifting and driving before the northerly and nor'-westerly gales; and in time had heaped themselves up and covered the building out of sight.  To guess this took the saint less time than you can wink your eye in; but the bother was that no one remembered exactly where the church had stood, and as there were two score at least of tall mounds along the shore, and all of pretty equal height, there was no knowing where to dig.  To uncover them all was a job to last till doomsday.

"Blur-an'-agurs, but it's ruined I am!" cried St. Piran. "An' the Visitashun no further away than to-morra at tin a.m.!"  He wrung his hands, then caught up a spade, and began digging like a madman.

They searched all day, and with lanterns all the night through: they searched from Ligger Point to Porth Towan: but came on never a sign of the missing church.

"If it only had a spire," one said, "there'd be some chance."  But as far as could be recollected, the building had a dumpy tower.

"Once caught, twice shy," said another; "let us find it this once, an' next time we'll have landmarks to dig it out by."

It was at sunrise that St. Piran, worn-out and heart-sick, let fall his spade and spoke from one of the tall mounds, where he had been digging for an hour.  "My children," he began, and the men uncovered their heads, "my children, we are going to be disgraced this day, and the best we can do is to pray that we may take it like men.  Let us pray."

He knelt down on the great sand-hill, and the men and women around dropped on their knees also.  And then St. Piran put up the prayer that has made his name famous all the world over.

Hear us, 0 Lord, and be debonair: for ours is a particular case.  We are not like the men of St. Neot or the men of St. Udy, who are for ever importuning Thee upon the least occasion, praying at all hours and every day of the week.  Thou knowest it is only with extreme cause that we bring ourselves to trouble Thee.  Therefore regard our moderation in time past, and be forward to help us now. Amen.

There was silence for a full minute as he ceased; and then the kneeling parishioners lifted their eyes towards the top of the mound.

St. Piran was nowhere to be seen!

They stared into each other's faces. For a while not a sound was uttered. Then a woman began to sob – "We've lost 'en! We've lost 'en!"

"Like Enoch, he's been taken!"

"Taken up in a chariot an' horses o' fire.  Did any see 'en go?"

"An' what'll we do without 'en?  Holy St. Piran, come back to us!"

"Hullo! hush a bit an' hearken!" cried Andrew Penhaligon, lifting a hand.  They were silent, and listening as he commanded, heard a muffled voice and a faint calling as it were from the bowels of the earth.

"Fetch a ladder !" it said: "fetch a ladder!  It's meself that's found ut, glory be to God!  Holy queen av Heaven! but me mouth is full av sand, an' it's burstin' I'll be if ye don't fetch a ladder quick!"

They brought a ladder and set it against the mound. Three of the men climbed up.  At the top they found a big round hole, from the lip of which they scraped the sand away, discovering a patch of shingle roof, through which St. Piran – whose weight had increased of late – had broken and tumbled heels over head into his own church.


Three hours later there appeared on the eastern sky-line, against the yellow blaze of the morning, a large cavalcade that slowly pricked its way over the edge and descended the slopes of Newlyn Downs.  It was the Visitation.  In the midst rode St. Petroc, his crozier tucked under his arm, astride a white mule with scarlet ear-tassels and bells and a saddle of scarlet leather.  He gazed across the sands to the sea, and turned to St. Neot, who towered at his side upon a flea-bitten grey.

"The parish seems to be deserted," said he: "not a man nor woman can I see, nor a trace of smoke above the chimneys."

St. Neot tightened his thin lips. In his secret heart he was mightily pleased. "Eight in the morning," he answered, with a glance back at the sun. "They'll be all abed, I'll warrant you."

St. Petroc muttered a threat.

They entered the village street.  Not a soul turned out at their coming.  Every cottage door was fast closed, nor could any amount of knocking elicit an answer or entice a face to a window.  In gathering wrath the visiting saints rode along the sea-shore to St. Piran's small hut.  Here the door stood open: but the hut was empty.  A meagre breakfast of herbs was set out on the table, and a brand new scourge lay somewhat ostentatiously beside the platter.  The visitors stood nonplussed; looked at each other; then eyed the landscape.  Between barren sea and barren downs the beach stretched away, with not a human shape in sight.  St. Petroc, choking with impotent wrath, appeared to study the hollow green breakers from between the long ears of his mule, but with quick sidelong glances right and left, ready to jump down the throat of the first saint that dared to smile.

After a minute or so St. Enodar suddenly turned his face inland, and held up a finger.  "Hark!" he shouted above the roar of the sea.

"What is it?"

"It sounds to me," said St. Petroc, after listening for some moments with his head on one side, " it sounds to me like a hymn."

"To be sure 'tis a hymn," said St. Enodar, "and the tune is ' Mullyon,' for a crown." And he pursed up his lips and followed the chant, beating time with his forefinger

When, like a thief, the Midianite
Shall steal upon the camp,
O, let him find our armour bright,
And oil within our lamp!

"But where in the world does it come from ?" asked St. Neot.

This could not be answered for the moment, but the saints turned their horses' heads from the sea, and moved slowly on the track of the sound, which at every step grew louder and more distinct.

It is at no appointed hours,
It is not by the clock,
That Satan, grisly wolf, devours
The unprotected flock.”

The visitors found themselves at the foot of an enormous sand-hill, from the top of which the chant was pouring as lava from a crater.  They set their ears to the sandy wall.  They walked round it, and listened again.

But ever prowls th’ insidious foe,
And listens round the fold.

This was too much.  St. Petroc smote twice upon the sand-hill with his crozier, and shouted—"Hi, there!"

The chant ceased.  For at least a couple of minutes nothing happened; and then St. Piran's bald head was thrust cautiously forward over the summit.

"Holy St. Petroc!  Was it only you, after all?  And St. Neot – and St. Udy!  O, glory be!"

"Why, who did you imagine we were?"  St. Petroc asked, still in amazement.

"Why, throat-cutting Danes, to be sure, by the way you were comin' over the hills when we spied you, three hours back.  An' the trouble we've had to cover up our blessed church out o' sight of thim marautherin' thieves!  An' the intire parish gathered inside here an' singin' holy songs in expectation of imminent death!  An' to think 'twas you holy men, all the while!  But why didn't ye send word ye was comin', St. Petroc, darlint?  For it's little but sand ye'll find in your mouths for breakfast, I'm thinkin'."