One of these days I hope to write a treatise on the Mayors of Cornwall—dignitaries whose pleasant fame is now night, remembered only in some neat by-word or saying of the country people. Thus you may hear, now and again, of “the Mayor of Falmouth, who thanked God when the town gaol was enlarged,” “the Mayor of Market Jew, sitting in his own light,” or “the Mayor of Calenich, who walked two miles to ride one.” But the one whose history perplexed me most, till I heard the truth from an eye-witness, was “the mad Mayor of Gantick, who was wise for a long day, and then died of it.”
It was an old tin-streamer who told me—a thin fellow with a shrivelled mouth, and a back bent two-double. And I heard it on the very hearthstone of the Mayor’s cottage, one afternoon, as we sat and smoked in the shadow of the crumbling mud wall, with a square of blue sky for roof, and for carpet a tangle of brambles, nettles, and rank grass.
It seems that the village of Gantick, half a mile away, was used once in every year to purge itself of evil. To this end the villagers prepared a huge dragon of pasteboard and marched out with it to a sandy common, since cut up by tin-works, but still known as Dragon’s Moor. Here they would choose one of their number to be Mayor, and submit to him all questions of conscience, and such cases of notorious evil living as the law failed to provide for. Summary justice waited on all his decisions; and as the village wag was usually chosen for the post, you may guess that the horse-play was rough at times. When this was over, and the public conscience purified, the company fell on the pasteboard dragon with sticks and whacked him into small pieces, which they buried in a small hollow called Dragon Pit; and so returned gladly to their homes to start on another twelve months of sin.
This feast of purification fell always on the 12th of July; and in the heyday of its celebration there lived in this cottage a widow-woman and her only son, a demented man about forty years old. There was no harm in the poor creature, who worked at the Lanihorne slate-quarries, six miles off, as a “hollibubber”—that is to say, in carting away the refuse slate. Every morning he walked to his work, mumbling to himself as he went; and though the children followed him at times, hooting and flinging stones, they grew tired at last, finding that he never resented it. His mother—a tall, silent woman with an inscrutable face—had supper ready for him when he returned, and often was forced to feed him, while he unlocked his tongue and babbled over the small adventures of the day. He was not one of those gifted idiots who hear voices in the wind and know the language of the wild birds. His talk was merely imbecile; and, for the rest, he had large grey eyes, features of that regularity which we call Greek, and stood six foot two in his shoes.