Half-way between the west and east coasts of the western claw of Cornwall, a few miles south of
the line St. Just-Penzance, lies the little village of Sancreed. In 1783 undoubtedly the best0known
inhabitant of Sancreed, then known as San Crete, was John Thomas.
Thomas was a man of sixty-four, tough and vigorous, which was surprising when one
considers that for more than two-thirds of his life he had been one of the most notorious
drunkards in the whole Duchy of Cornwall, a region renowned for its hard-drinking men. It was
the reputation which lifted his fame head and shoulders above all the other villagers.
Thomas at this time had been a widower for approaching fifteen years, and he had not yet
accustomed himself to the loneliness which the death of his wife had brought into his life. For
despite his drunkenness she had loved him deeply and he had worshiped the ground she trod.
There were some among the more sympathetic who would excuse his failing by claiming that it
was the loss of Mary, at an age when she could have anticipated another quarter of a century of
life, that had increased his indulgence of ale and rough cider when un-Customed brandy and
armagnac were not to be come by, and anything else he could lay hands on, maintaining that it
was only during the last decade and a half that he had taken no measures to curb his weakness for
strong drink. Their toleration did them credit; unfortunately it led them into some error; for there
were those who had known John Thomas as a young man who remembered the villagers running
into their houses and securing their doors as soon as it was known that the handsome, sturdy
smallholder was roaring his way home.
The true facts were that from the first moment he had broached the keg of cognac which
he had found washed up on the beach in Whitesand Bay after the wreck of a French merchantman
on her way to Dublin, he had formed a passion for hard liquor. Before he was thirty his outbreaks
of tipsiness had become part of the canon of local legend, and since then he had done nothing
which might have helped the legend to fade.
Before Mary had died she had given him two sons and two daughters, all of whom, in
1783, were married with families of their own. His children having grown up with his excesses,
had become accustomed to them, and, having watched heir mother patiently drive the devil out,
had had no fear of him when he was in his rampageous cups. Sons-in-law and daughters-in-law
had come to share wives' and husbands' tolerance, and when he was left alone all of them had
encouraged him to make his home with them, for all were aware of the profound, if somewhat
strangely based, relationship that had existed between him and their mother, and knew that he
would be lonely.
Their invitations had warmed him, but he had declined them.
'You know I can't keep off the drink,' he told them, 'and you know what I get like then.
You've all young children, and it would not be right for them to see the degradation into which a
man can fall when he's plagued with the thirst I have.'
'What harm did it do to us?' they asked.
'You were my flesh and blood, and hers,' he said. 'Besides, times are changing and, with
'You're changing, too, by all accounts,' they pointed out. 'Now, instead of getting drunk
every night, you get drunk once a week.'
'I told you people were changing,' he grinned.
But they could not persuade him. The fact was that his talk of his drinking was an excuse.
The real reason for his refusal was that he could not bear the leave the cottage where he and Mary
had lived all their married lives, where every article had been found a place and out in it by her,
where her spirit still seemed to hover with kindly protection, as in life she had always surrounded
him with the guard of her understanding and love.
Once every other year, however, he visited his children and stayed a week, or two or three,
as the fancy took him, at Easter and at Christmas. This Christmas it was the turn of his son Frank
to have him for the festival.
'Come over on the Sunday before,' Frank's wife had told him. 'Maybe then you'll get
here safely. If you wait for Christmas Eve those well-meaning friends of yours at Sancreed will
want to drink with you, and like as not you'll spend the holiday in a stupor and we'll never see
you. Besides, there'll be a wreck, I shouldn't wonder, and it would be useful to have an extra
He saw the point of her argument about the drink, but it was her hint of the wreck that
'I'll come in the morning of Sunday,' he answered her. 'If I leave Sancreed at midmorning,
I'll be in St. Just in time for dinner.'
'And don't call at the inn on the way!' she warned him.
'I promise solemnly,' he said.
They were right when they had said he had changed, and not only in the frequency of his
bouts, but in the effects he exhibited after them. He no longer became pugnacious, wreaking his
vengeance on anything or anyone that got in his way. And he seemed to have soaked up so much
strong drink in the past that as much as he drank now, though he might sway and reel, he did not
lose consciousness of what he was doing or must do. It was only when he reached the cottage,
kicked off his boots and dropped into a chair, that he would sink into a sleep from which he might
not wake from Saturday night to Monday morning.
From Monday morning to Saturday night he pottered about his garden patch or his little
house, passing the time with odd jobs, gathering kindling and chopping logs and being in every
sense a good neighbor. This was why it was that he only got drunk on Saturday nights, for,
appreciative of the many good turns he did them, the inhabitants of Sancreed were always willing
to pay all their indebtedness to him at the inn. Otherwise he could not have afforded to drink
enough to get drunk.
They were surprised therefore when he had not appeared in the taproom on the eve of the
Sunday before Christmas by the time the evening was nearly spent.
'Do you think the old man's ill?' someone asked.
'He wasn't just before dusk,' he was told. 'I came by his cottage and he'd lit his lamp
and was sawing wood in the kitchen.'
'Then why hasn't he come?'
'I seem to have heard someone say that he's spending Christmas with Frank at St. Just,
and has agreed to go over tomorrow. Maybe he intends to stay sober tonight so as to keep his
'Ah, that'll be it,' it was agreed.
'Dang it, I owe him a drink,' a man sitting on the settle before the fire remarked. 'He
brought the missus two sacks of logs on Thursday. Well, I suppose it will wait until the New
'If you don't forget,' he was chaffed.