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The Impounded Crows
A small boy called Jim Nancarrow was sitting one day eating a pasty on top of the Crow Pound, a large enclosure built on a common by the far-famed St. Neot to impound the pilfering crows of the parish that bears his name.

Jim was the son of a thatcher, and he was waiting to accompany his father to a distant hamlet to help him to thatch a cottage. He looked a nice little lad in his clean white smock and nankeen breeches and soft felt hat—much the worse for wear—shading his bright young face and clear blue eyes.

As he was waiting for his father and eating his pasty, which his mother had given him for his dinner, he saw a crow flying over Goonzion Downs, of which the Crow Pound common was a part.

As he watched it he thought of the pilfering crows which, according to the old tale, little St. Neot impounded there from morning till evening on Sundays, that his people might go to church undisturbed by fear of the great black thievish birds which ate up the corn sown in their fields. Jim had often heard this story from the old people of the parish, and whenever he saw a crow he wondered if it were a [102]relation of the wicked crows their patron Saint had impounded.

The crow that the boy was watching was flying in the direction of the Crow Pound, and when it came near it alighted on the top of the wall quite close to the lad.

The crow was lean to look at, and scanty of feathers, and such a sorry-looking bird that Jim broke off a piece of his pasty and threw to him, which he ate as if he were starving.

‘One would think you were one of the pilfering crows of St. Neot’s time,’ said Jim, tossing him another piece of his pasty; and to his surprise, the bird answered back:

‘I am!’

‘Are you?’ cried Jim, staring hard at the crow. ‘Well, you look ancient enough to be one of those birds, though I have always understood that our patron Saint lived ever so long ago, when Alfred the Great was a little chap like me. But p’r’aps crows tell lies as well as pilfer.’

‘If I am not one of the identical crows St. Neot was unkind enough to put into this pound,’ croaked the big black bird, eyeing Jim and his pasty with his bright little eye, ‘I am a descendant of theirs in the direct line. I truly am,’ as the lad stared as if he did not believe the assertion. ‘Those poor impounded crows learnt the language of men during the long hours of their imprisonment, listening to all the little Saint and his people said about them outside [103]this pound, and they passed on their dearly-bought knowledge to their children through long generations.’

‘Then you are quite “high learnt,” as the old Granfer men say,’ cried Jim, gazing up at the bird in open-eyed amazement.

‘I confess I am,’ returned the crow with due modesty, ‘especially in the old Cornish tongue, in which I can swear to any extent. I am not going to use bad language now,’ as Jim took up a stone to throw at him. ‘You would not understand it if I did. I am also “high learnt” in the needs of the body, and I shall be ever so grateful for a bit more of your pasty. It isn’t nice to have an aching void inside one’s little feather stumjacket.’

‘I suppose it can’t be,’ said the lad, dropping the stone and breaking off a large piece of his pasty to toss to the bird.

He was a feeling-hearted little fellow, and the crow’s quaint appeal touched him, and the sorry-looking bird, with his bedraggled tail, had most of his pasty.

‘I have had a good meal for once in my life, and am full fed,’ said the crow, when the last of the pasty was eaten; and he perched on a stone, starred with stonecrop, and fluffed out all the feathers he possessed, and looked with a comical expression at Jim.

‘I am better fed than little St. Neot after his poor little meal of fish,’ he continued, still eyeing the boy, [104]‘and I am feeling so comfortable that I am inclined for a chat.’

‘Are you?’ cried Jim, who thought this great black crow was a wonderful crow, which he certainly was. ‘I don’t know what to yarn about.’

‘I do, then,’ answered the bird quickly. ‘I suppose you have heard the old whiddle1 how the little St. Neot put the poor crows into this pound.’

‘Yes, I have heard about it from the Granfer men and Grannie women here at Churchtown,’ said Jim, turning his face towards a little village close to the church which he could just see from where he was sitting. ‘But they never made much of a story of it.’

‘Didn’t they? Then perhaps you would like to hear the crows’ version of the old tale,’ said the crow. ‘It will tell you that their morals were not so black as the farmers in this parish made out to the Holy Man.’

‘I don’t mind, if you are quick about it,’ said Jim. ‘I am going to a farm with my father to help him do some thatching when he has finished his dinner.’

‘I cannot be driven after such a heavy meal of pasty,’ croaked the crow; ‘and if I may not take my time, I won’t tell it at all.’
‘Perhaps you would like to hear the crows’ version of the tale?’

‘Perhaps you would like to hear the crows’ version of the tale?’

‘As you like,’ cried Jim with fine indifference; but the bird was anxious to tell the whiddle, and he began:

‘We crows always considered it within our right to take what we could,’ said the crow, ‘and pilfering, [107]as the farmers hereabouts were pleased to call it, was the only way the crows had of picking up a living, and they watched their opportunity to take what they needed to satisfy their hunger when the farmers were not about. But back in those far-away days when St. Neot dwelt here to try and make people good, times were dreadfully bad, especially for crows. The people were all tillers of the land in those days, and lived by the sweat of their brow, as crows did by pilfering. There was no other way open to them, and the farmers had their eyes on the land and on us poor hungry birds from dawn to dark, except on the Rest Day; and the only chance the crows had of filling their stomachs was on Sunday, when the people went to church.

‘The starving crows looked forward to Sunday as only poor starving birds with empty crops could, and the moment one of the elder crows gave the signal, which he did in the crow way, they all flew off to the corn-sown fields, and had a regular feast. My word! and didn’t they feed! They picked out with their sharp beaks every grain of corn they could find.

‘When the farmers found out the hungry crows had eaten up all the corn they had sown, there was the Black Man to pay, and the poor crows were anathematized from one end of the parish to the other.

‘The farmers resowed their fields, but they took good care to watch and see that the crows did not [108]rob them of their toil; and they were always about the corn-sown land, Sundays as well as week-days, and the crows had to go supperless to bed, and little St. Neot had to preach to bare walls.

‘The Saint was greatly distressed at his people’s neglect of their religious duties, and he told them how wicked it was to stay away from church. The people said they were sorry, but declared it was the fault of the pilfering crows.

‘“The pilfering crows!” cried the Holy Man. “What have the crows to do with your stopping away from the House of God?”

‘“Everything,” answered the farmers; and they told little St. Neot that whenever they sowed bread-corn in their fields the wicked crows came and ate it all up, and that if he could not prevent them from doing this wickedness, they must keep away from church and watch their fields. “We and our children must have bread to eat,” they added, which was true enough—true for crows as well as men.

‘The Holy Man was very much grieved to hear the cause of their not coming to church, and he said he would devise some means to prevent the crows from robbing the fields whilst they were attending to their worship.

‘St. Neot was as good as his word, and it was noised about in the parish that he was building a great square enclosure of moorstone and mould about half a mile from the church; and when it [109]was finished, he told his wondering people it was a pound for crows, which he meant to impound on Sundays from dawn till dusk, so that the farmers might come to church and worship without having their minds disturbed by fear of those black little robbers eating their corn.

‘There was a fearful to-do among the poor hungry crows when they learned what St. Neot had done; and although they knew they were within their right to steal when they were hungry—and they were always hungry, poor things!—they were sorry they ate up the corn the farmers had sown, and every crow looked forward to the coming Rest Day with fear and trembling.

‘Well, Sunday came, as Sundays will,’ continued the crow, ‘and before the sun had risen little St. Neot made known his will to the crows that they were to come to be impounded, and such power had the Saint over beast and bird that the crows had no choice save to obey, and long before St. Neot’s bell rang out to call his people to worship in the little church which he had built for them by the aid of his two-deer team and one-hare team, all the crows in the parish came as they were bidden to be impounded in the Crow Pound.

‘And, my gracious! what a lot of them came! There were crows of all sorts and conditions, all ages and sizes! There were great-great-great Granfer and Grannie Crows! there were great-great Granfer and Grannie Crows! great Granfer and Grannie [110]Crows by the score! Grannie Crows by the hundred! Mammie and Daddy Crows by the thousand! and as for the children, and great-great-grand-children, they could hardly be counted! Even poor little Baby Crows, just able to fly, were there!

‘The Crow Pound was chock-full of crows, and all the place was as black as St. Neot’s gown. And as for the noise they made, it was enough to turn the Holy Man’s brain; but it didn’t.

‘The little Saint did not expect to see so many crows, it was certain, though he expected a goodly number, by the big enclosure he had made; and the old tale says that, when he saw so many birds, he exclaimed with uplifted hands, “My goodness! what a lot of crows!” and he looked round at this great assemblage—all in respectable black—in open-eyed amazement.

‘The people who came flocking to church when they heard that the crows were safe in the Crow Pound were almost as astonished as St. Neot to see such a big congregation of birds.

‘The church was too far away from the pound for the crows to hear the little Saint preaching, but when the wind blew up from Churchtown they could hear the singing, and to show you they were not so bad as the farmers made out to the Holy Man, they croaked as loud as ever they could when Mass was sung, and were as silent as the grave during the time St. Neot was preaching.

‘Every year, from sowing time till the corn was [111]reaped and safe in the barn, the crows were impounded every Sunday from the early morning till evening whilst little St. Neot lived.’

‘Is that all?’ asked Jim, who listened to the crow’s version of the old tale till it was finished.

‘Yes,’ answered the great black bird with a croak, and when he had said that he took to his wings and flew away as fast as he could fly over Goonzion Downs, the way he had come.

‘That wisht-looking crow did not tell the old whiddle half bad,’ said Jim to himself, as he watched the bird fly away. ‘Shouldn’t I like to have seen this old pound full of crows! It must have been terribly funny when St. Neot looked in upon them and cried, “My goodness! what a lot of crows!” It must have been as good as a Christmas play. There, father is coming. That sharp-eyed old crow must have seen him climbing the hill.’


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