Love, said the Singer who wrote that lovely anomalous book the Song of Songs, is as strong as death.
The Lovers of Porthgwarra were another Romeo and Juliet couple, but they proved that love is indeed as strong as death–
perhaps even stronger.
In the early nineteenth century, there lived, in the wee Cornish coastal town of Porthgwarra, a young couple in love. The boy’s name was William Pullen, and he was the seafaring son of a widow. His true love was a breathtakingly lovely girl called Nancy Hocking, the only daughter of a pair of prudish and class-conscious parents who were unutterably opposed to her marrying a seafarer. They thought all seamen were rough drunken rounders with a girl in every port.
Never mind that William was the polar opposite of that stereotype, a loving, gentle teetotaler who was saving his money to buy his own ship, so that his Nancy could travel with him. Their daughter was going to marry a land-based craftsman or–preferably–a well-to-do merchant, settle in Porthgwarra, give them a passel of grandchildren, and die in her bed, and devil take the hindmost.
Naturally, Nancy hated the very idea.
William was outward bound on a voyage that would last, possibly, three months to a year. Upon his return, he and Nancy decided, they would marry in defiance of her parents. If he hadn’t manage to save enough from his pay by voyage’s end to buy his own vessel, he would surely be close enough to that goal that a few months spent working ashore would enable the purchase. Then he and Nancy, man and wife, would sail away from Porthgwarra. When the time came for him to leave the sea forever, they would buy a cottage and settle down together.
They made a pledge to each other, the night before he was to sail, cradled in each other’s arms, in a cove not far from town. He would be home soon, and all would be well.
William shipped out with the next morning’s tide. Nancy, naturally, was depressed and tearful: less at his departure than at the knowledge that her parents were already planning a parade of eligible young men, determined to break her of her attachment to William. She confided to a friend, an elderly woman who kept a general store and who was called Mother Treglown by the whole village, that she was deathly afraid her life with William would never be.
The old lady reassured her the best she could.
Nancy felt more hopeful for some time after talking with her friend, but an unforeseen complication arose: William had promised to write to her daily and post letters when he could. No letters came, and Nancy’s parents took this as an opportunity to assure their daughter that he had forgotten all about her, and to press her to marry another.
Nancy grew pale and thin with worry.
There was a coach that came to Porthgwarra once a week. One early morning when it was in town, about five months after William’s departure, Nancy slipped out of the house and boarded the coach. Its destination was London.
She was missed within a few hours.
Her parents were if anything more embarrassed than worried that she had taken off for the sinful big city, and found a hitherto unfound comfort in religion.
Nancy had been gone for several months when, for a marvel, two letters from William arrived: one for his widowed mother, one for Nancy. His mother spread the word that his voyage had not gone smoothly at all; they had missed several ports of call, and he had mailed a great batch of letters from South Africa, only to learn later that the ship that was returning them to England had sunk with all hands off Lagos. This letter was written from Australia. He added that he would be sailing for home shortly.
Nancy’s parents didn’t open her letter; they placed it on the mantelpiece at home, thinking that perhaps she would come home too, although they hadn’t heard a word from her since she had slipped away on the coach.
Mother Treglown,the elderly shopkeeper, friend to Nancy and William alike, was out on the High Street one morning when, unexpectedly, she met Nancy Hocking, back from London–an oddly different Nancy, still pale and ill-looking, uncommunicative except to say that she had been a long, long way away. Not even when the old lady told her about William’s letter, carefully saved for her on the mantelpiece at her parents’ home, did she show any emotion.
Word spread through town that Nancy Hocking was home. A few hours later, her mother came into Mother Treglown’s shop in considerable distress to report that, while she and her husband had been out, someone had gotten into their house. Nothing had been taken save the letter to Nancy, from the mantelpiece. Neither she nor her husband had seen their daughter, although several villagers had told them about seeing Nancy talking with Mother Treglown earlier.
Not only that: Nancy hadn’t been seen by anyone since that conversation in the High Street.
It was a mystery, and no mistake.
A week later, during an unexpected warm spell, on a Sunday, just as November slipped into December, Mother Treglown took a walk down toward the cove. When she arrived, she was startled and delighted to see Nancy walking ahead of her.
Nancy seemed to pay no attention to anything around her, not even to Mother Treglown calling her name. That good lady decided that, for whatever reason, Nancy didn’t want to be disturbed, and continued her walk down the beach.
She got an almighty surprise on her return. There at the cove, on a great boulder, sat Nancy.
Beside her, his arms as tightly around her as hers around him, sat William Pullen.
Mother Treglown could see what the two, entwined and oblivious, could not see: the tide was sweeping in and would overwhelm the rock on which they sat.
As fast as she could go the old woman went down the beach, calling to the two, pleading with them to come back out of danger.
She fell, still calling, just out of reach of the foaming tide. When she managed to get back up, Nancy and William were gone.
Sobbing with fear and pain, Mother Treglown made her way back to the village and reported that two people had been swept away by the tide.
The valiant Cornishmen put out to sea in boats, seeking the bodies, but never found any.
Well, that was indeed another mystery, one that was only solved when William’s mother received word that her son had drowned when his ship went down with all hands two months earlier, somewhere in the Pacific.
He and Nancy had both come a long long way to keep their promised rendezvous.
Neither was ever seen again. That cove, however, has been called Sweethearts Cove ever since.
After all, as the Singer continued, many waters cannot quench love.
Neither can death.
The story of the Lovers of Porthgwarra comes from an account by Douglas Collier in John Canning’s 50 Strange Stories of the Supernatural (1974).