The Wrecker and the Death Ship

Over two centuries ago a strange tale unfolded around St Just, a small town in the far west reaches of Cornwall. A stranger appeared, a dark swarthy man with an evil gaze. No one new from where he came but it was believed that he had been put ashore by pirates. Imagine a man too evil or dangerous to be allowed to consort with the brigands of the high seas.

This stranger seemed not to want for money. He took a small cottage outside St Just, near the cliffs, married a local widow and went about his business, whatever that might be. The locals would avoid the stranger on account of his foul reputation and the evil look in his eye.

Over time he grew rich yet none knew from where his wealth came, until he was seen one dark night. The stranger was leading a horse along the cliff top. Hanging from the halter was a lantern and the horse was hobbled. Such was this arrangement that from out at sea the bobbing of the lantern would resemble the stern light of a ship, an indication to sailors of the presence of clear water and safe passage. Many ships followed the false lantern and their vessels were wrecked upon the rocks. The stranger was a ‘wrecker’ and lived off the cargo from the ships he lured to their doom.

And what of those ship’s crews? Many died in the wreckage of their vessels. Some survived and swam ashore, climbing the cliffs to seek safety. None survived the wrecker who would dispatch them with his axe or chop off their hands so they fell to their death. And the wrecker grew rich by his sin.

Yet to all men comes a day of reckoning. In time, the wrecker was called by his master. He fell ill and took to his bed where he lay delirious and screaming. “Leave me be!” “The Devil he comes, don’t let him take me!” “Keep away! Keep away!” Doctors came to heal the man and found nothing amiss that they could treat. Those physicians would tell of his terrible torment and the sound of the sea crashing against his bedside.

A priest came from St Just to exorcise the demons that assailed the wrecker. He too reported that the bedchamber was filled with the sound of waves as if they were breaking within the room itself. And still no peace could be brought to his tortured soul. Days passed and his suffering continued unbroken. None ventured near the wrecker’s cottage except those with both courage and purpose.

A day dawned with clear skies and no wind. If you had been standing on the cliffs near the cottage on that day, and could put away your fear, then you would have been witness to events beyond ordinary experience. Gazing out to see a ship appeared, sailing straight towards the shore. A ship with full sails on a windless day. A ship approaching at great speed. A black ship, with black hull and black sails. A ship with no crew and no captain.

The black ship stopped at the foot of the cliffs. Keeping a stout heart you would have seen a black mist creep from the substance of that ship. The mist swelled and rolled up the cliffs and over the fields completely enveloping the wrecker’s cottage. If your courage had not failed you would have heard a voice speaking from within that black cloud. A voice deep and solid like Cornish granite, “The hour is come. The man is not come.”

The mist rolled away whence it came and was sucked back into the blackness of the death ship. The great ship turned and sailed out to sea with full sails on a windless day beneath a clear sky.

The least fearful of St Just ventured to the wreckers cottage. They found him still lying on his bed, stone dead. Wishing to rid themselves of this loathsome man, a coffin was quickly brought. The wrecker’s body was laid inside and carried by a small procession to the churchyard for burial. The men carrying the coffin would all swear that it was too light to contain a body. The procession was followed by a black pig. From where it came, no one knew.

As they neared the church gates the sky began to darken. Heavy black clouds rolled across the sky, thunder crashed and lightning flashed. The first bolt struck the coffin. The bearers dropped it and ran. Minutes later the storm passed and the skies cleared. When they ventured to the coffin all they found were the handles and a few nails. The rest had been consumed by fire. The black pig had vanished and was never seen again.

So passed the wrecker of St Just, returned aboard the ‘Death Ship’ to his Master. It is also told that you can stand by the sea near St Just and listening to the waves a deep whispering voice can be heard, “The hour is passed. The man has come”

© GrahamWhitford