The parish of Lydford in Devonshire, is said to be the largest parish in England: its extent ought to be measured in square miles instead of acres, for nearly the whole of the great Forest of Dartmoor is included within its boundaries.
Dartmoor is no longer, if it ever were, a forest, in the ordinary meaning of the term, for there is scarcely a tree upon it; but it is a splendid waste, where a man may walk twenty miles on end, and see nothing but granite rocks, and heather, and mountain-streams, and bogs, save where from some hill-side the bare stone walls of some moorland farm, the dark, sharp outlines of which lie stretched like a map before hiin on the other side of the valley, or a group of white-washed houses near a bridge, give some signs of human habitation.
The pale green fields and patches of turnips look ten times more desolate, struggling as they are for existence with swamp and rock, than the primeval moor beyond, which partakes of a certain grandeur clothed in nature’s own rich colours.
But if Dartmoor is wild now, a hundred and thirty years ago it was wilder, and in that enormous parish some difficulty occurred in reaching the parish church. In the present day there is an orthodox church at Princetown (the convict establishment), and dissenting chapels have arisen in lonely places; and these places of worship have graveyards in which the moor-men can bury their dead; but a hundred and thirty years ago every funeral had to go to Lydford church, ten, fifteen, twenty miles over hill and valley, rock and mire.
The curious old “Leech-path” by which they took their weary journey is still in existence, and may be seen winding its melancholy way through the wildest morasses on the moor. Bog on every side, you can turn neither to the right nor left, but on the Leechpath there is firm footing. This was the Churchwalk of the old moor-men before roads were known, and along it, on the shoulders of their neighbours, or the back of mountain pony, were the ancestors of the present race borne to their last home in Lydford churchyard.
In the early part of the last century one Syddall of Exeter was called on important business to Tavistock. The distance by road was sixty miles at least, but not more than thirty across the moor; Syddall was a bold man, and moreover pressed for time, so he determined to ride across the moor. It was winter, and snow had fallen, and still lay thinly on the ground in the cultivated country, but our traveller was not prepared for the quantity he found when he arrived at the borders of the moor.
However, he was not dismayed; the track lay well defined before him, for it had been already trodden since the snow fell; so, calculating upon crossing the moor before dark set in, he rode on. But his difficulties began to increase with the wildness of the country, what with the roughness of the path and the snow, he found he could go at little better than a walking pace, and the afternoon of a January day found him about the centre of Dartmoor, with nothing but snow on every side, a leaden sky above him, black and threatening towards the southeast, and a chill wind blowing, that froze his very blood.
Presently, even while he was deliberating about proceeding, the snow began to fall thickly, and to drift furiously across his path. He foresaw that the track behind him would become obliterated, and that there was nothing for it but to push on to where some granite walls, looking black against the snow, in the valley beneath him, proclaimed the vicinity of a farm-house; with some little difficulty he traced his way to the house before dark, and there found shelter.
The inmates consisted of three young farmers, their sister, and two labourers; our traveller was introduced to a decent bed-room in which a great turf-fire was blazing, and you may be sure he congratulated himself inwardly with fervid thankfulness upon having fallen upon such hospitable quarters, instead of perishing in the snow as many a man had done in those wild parts. He found his host and hostess civil and obliging people, and after sharing their supper with them at the kitchen table, was not sorry to get to bed.
Having arrived in his own room, however, he found it so warm and comfortable that he began to undress in a very leisurely manner, and at the same time to glance curiously at the room and its furniture; the latter was simple enough — an enormous oak-chest, and old cabinet of drawers, and two dilapidated chairs. Syddall began lazily to speculate about these things — where they came from? how they came there? how old they were? The great box especially puzzled him; he could not divine its use, but with some vague idea that it held the family-linen, he dismissed it from his mind, as he thought, for ever.
Whether it was the cider he drank at supper, or what, I know not; but certain it was that Syddall could not sleep; he was restless and feverish, and if he did snatch a doze he suddenly jumped up again with some vague haunting idea on his mind he could not shake off even for the first few minutes of wakefulness.
Finding sleep did not suit him he determined to lie awake; by-and-by the flickering of the fire-light upon the old furniture recalled his attention to that — that box! What on earth could be in it? Then he recalled stories of travellers murdered in lonely places on nights like this, and stowed away in chests, till his hair stood on end. Then dismissing these foolish fancies from his mind, he bent his thoughts resolutely on his sweetheart, but in vain! That box haunted him, and opened it must be, “just to relieve his mind.” Getting up cautiously, therefore, he proceeded to light his candle and approach the chest; he found it fastened only by an ordinary clasp; he lifted the heavy lid quietly, and what sight met his eyes?
Horror! The dead body of a man!
Whether Syddall’s blood curdled in his veins or not, I am unable to say; but as this phenomenon almost invariably occurs on like occasions, I should think it must then. However that may be, there is no doubt that Syddall was in a tremendous fright, the immediate prospect of being murdered is calculated to appal any man; after a minute of stupefaction, being, as I have said, a bold man, he began to act, and having ascertained by a glance that there was no egress by the window, he rushed to the door, but alas! there was only a common latch!
So placing the two chairs and the fender against it, he sat down upon the end of the bed, and gave himself up for lost. That being the case, he forthwith began deliberately to dress himself, and prepared to meet his doom, determined with the assistance of the poker (fool, and drivelling idiot had he not left his pistols below with the saddle), to sell his life as dearly as possible.
The house, however, continued noiseless — not a mouse stirred, but there sat Syddall till morning broke, and a weary, fearful watch he had of it. When it was light enough he looked out of window, and surveyed the dreary prospect, now one mass of snow, white and unbroken in all directions. Presently, he saw all the men (looking, it must be confessed, strangely unlike murderers) leave the premises, and overheard them say that they were going to look for lost cattle on the moors, and might not be back till nightfall.
Now was Syddall’s time! He let them get to a safe distance and then summoned the girl. Putting his back against the door to prevent escape, he at once told her that he knew her crime, that denial and dissimulation were vain, and he besought her to endeavour to escape the fate that must follow such a deed by a full confession.
“What is it then? what do y’ mean?”
Syddall was not the man to be baulked or turned aside from his purpose by feigned innocence. He pointed to the box, and was about to speak, when a light seemed to break upon the maiden, and a smile hovered on her mouth. She replied, however, with perfect gravity:
“Tis naught but Vather salted in,” she said; “‘a died last week, and us couldn’t car’ un to Lydvur in the snaw, so us salted ‘un in.”
John F. Collier.