By TOM HOPKINSON
AHANDFUL of gravel against the window-pane woke me up. Down below in the frosty night a man was standing. " There's a lad missing from t'village. Started out to work night-shift; not bin seen since. All the men are off to look for him. Bring your brother and come down to the Institute."
Schoolboys home on holiday, we were proud to be included among the men of the village, and within five minutes, wear- ing two of everything and carrying sticks, we were ready. The schoolmaster had taken charge of the search, and was sending everybody out by couples, in all directions. " Look behind haystacks. Knock the farmers up. Search barns and out- houses. Each group'11 need a torch. The lad get i taken like this sometimes; just wanders off and lies down anywhere. If he lies out till morning he'll be done for." I was paired with a man I'd never seen, some stranger staying in the village, I supposed, and we were told to go up on to the hill-road %nd walk the six-odd miles to the tarn on the fell-side. Then we could drop back by the lower road and wake the local con- stable, whose house was further up the valley. When we'd all made our rounds we were to look in at the Institute and leave word of what we'd found. " And I can make certain you haven't lost yourselves as well," the schoolmaster added. It was a bitterly cold night, and the stars seemed to crackle in the sky. We stopped at one or two farms, but the upper road was a lonely place, and after we'd been twice threatened by farmers with guns from their bedroom-windows, we agreed to search no more outhouses, but walk our round and get it over. My companion asked me the questions everyone asks schoolboys. Then it was my turn to find out what he did and where he came from : " The luckiest village in Cumber- land," he told me, "Croglin. At least that's where I was born. But I don't see a lot of it now. I'm a corn-chandler; travel around the countryside with a van, buying and selling. Wish to God we'd got the old van here now."
" Why's Croglin lucky ? " ' " Always has been. Peaceful, contented sort of place. Good soil—so it's not too hard to make a living. Sheltered from the wind. Easy going lot—and lucky ! Why, there was once thirteen Croglin lads in the trenches at one time, and all the lot came back ! "
" If there's a luckiest village, there must be an unluckiest." " ' Course there is. That's Renwick, not so far away. Renwick's the opposite of Croglin, Poor soil. Very exposed. Always having rows—and talk about unlucky. . . . Mind you, they've got reason for their bad luck."
" How's that ? "
" The old folks blame it on the crack-a-christ."
" On the what ? "
" The crack-a-christ. They let it loose." He vanished behind a haystack which showed silver in the starlight, the frozen grass crunching underneath his feet. But there was nothing there, and he went on : " Hundreds of years ago, they say, the Renwick people got fed up with their church. It was a nice little building, so I've heard, but it wasn't fine enough for Renwick folk. No tower or something. So they started to pull it down, meaning to build a bigger. Well, they haven't got more than a corner of the north wall broken up when there's a rushing noise and a screech, and this crack-a-christ darts out of the wall—where it had been built up. long ago by some old monk—and starts going for the Renwick men. It'd have done for the lot, by all accounts, but there was one lad there, by the name of Tallentire, knew what to do. He seized a bough of the holy tree—rowan, you know, or mountian- ash they sometimes call it—and he battered this crack-a-christ about the head till he drove it back into the wall. Then, while he kept it there with the rowan, the other' lads fetched stones and mortar and built it in. . . , Well, they got it back, all right, but the bad luck had been let out, and it's stayed about Renwick ever since."
" But what is a crack-a-christ ? "
" Can't say I exactly know. I've heard it was like what they call a vampire. Anyway, if you want to get yourself a black eye in Renwick, just call one of the lads a ' Renwick bat.' That's what they are called in the villages around, of course, but not out loud."
We walked our twelveTmile round, and when we got home it was full day. The missing boy had been found ten minutes after we set off, not more than a hundred yards or so from his home. He'd left to go-to the mill, turned in through the first gate he came to, crossed a field and lain down under a hedge. He'd had his sleep, and now it was our turn to have ours.
I said good-bye to the corn-chandler, whom I never saw again, though I always remember his story, and often wondered what a crack-a-christ would look like. The other day, that is nearly thirty years after our walk, it crossed my mind to try and find out. I got out a ,History and Topography of the Counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, edited by Wm. Whellan in 1860, and looked up Renwick. The church, I found, is " a neat structure in the Norman style, rebuilt in 1733, at the expense of the parishioners, and again in 1845." But that wasn't all, for : " The landowners in this parish formerly paid .a prescription in lieu of tithes, excepting the owners of one estate at Scalehouses, long held by the Tallentire family, who claimed exemption on account of an ancient owner having slain a cockatrice at some remote period."
I tried an older volume, The History of the County of,Cum- berland, by Wm. Hutchinson, 1794. There was a good deal of rather dubious derivation for the name of Renwick. But then, once more, the rushing noise and the screech : " All the pro- prietors pay a prescription in lieu of tithes, except the owner of one estate (John Tallentire of Scale Houses) who has a total exemption, derived from a circumstance which happened about 200 years ago, almost too ridiculous to be rehearsed or. credited. The ancient possessor is said to have slain a noxious cockatrice, which the vulgar call a crack-a-christ at this day, as they rehearse the simple fable. There is some record (said to be dated 7th of James I) which the owner of the estate holds to testify this exemption, perhaps in a language and letter not to be understood by the villagers; and which he is too tenacious to suffer to be read by curious visitors."
So there it is. Do the vulgar still " rehearse the simple fable" which the corn-chandler told me long ago ? Does the record " in a language and letter not to be understood by the villagers," still exist; and, if 'it does, is the owner still too tenacious to suffer it to be read " ? Is a noxious cockatrice, or crack-a-christ, the same thing as a vampire ? And what happens if you go into the pub at Renwick, and remark that , the air tonight appears to be woundily full of bats ?