Seamus stared out into the thick fog watching as Sweethearts’ Cove grew closer and closer. He had told the story of William and Nancy so many times he knew it by heart.
“It was long ago, on these very shores that the love story of William and Nancy first began. You see, Nancy was the only daughter of the wealthiest farmer in these parts. She was a beautiful, vibrant girl and the fairest maiden in all of the country. She could have her pick of any eligible bachelors, but beautiful Nancy only had eyes for one man. His name was William, and their eternal love for each other is why this story is still known today.
“William was a handsome lad. He was the son of a local fisherman, and worked for Nancy’s father during the winter months. William loved the sea. He loved the adventures and the places he had seen, but it was Nancy that brought him back to these shores each time. He would bring her trinkets from far off lands, and reveled in the joy they brought her. They would sneak away for walks along the shore, away from the watchful eyes of Nancy’s mother. The young couple found solace at the little cove by the shore. On moonlit nights, the young lovers would meet right over there at the little cove that is named after them. There, it is said, they planned their future.
“Nancy’s mother had plans for her daughter to marry one of the wealthier young men of their town. She did not approve of the relationship between Nancy and William. She forbade William from coming to see Nancy, and kept a watchful eye on her daughter. Nancy’s father, however, loved his only daughter. He could see how much in love the two young people were. Her father told the young couple that if William could provide for his only daughter, he would allow them to be married.
“William knew he had to take to the sea in order to make a name for himself. The young couple met one last time at the cove, the night before William was to leave. There, amidst the sea spray and fog, they made their true love vow to each other.
“In the moonlight with the sea breeze blowing around them, William promised to return to his one true love.
“Now, many years had passed since William left on his sea voyage. Meanwhile, Nancy wandered the sea cliffs and shores, watching the horizon, hoping to see her true love. Her fears and grief grew with every passing day.
“Nancy’s mother did not encourage her daughter’s foolish vigil for a fisherman’s son. No indeed, she had no sympathy for her young daughter. She often told her daughter to forget him; he was probably at the bottom of the sea. Yet for all her conniving ways, she was unable to sever the tie that bound William and Nancy together.
“Nancy’s father was very worried for his daughter. He sent for her cousin, and asked her to watch over Nancy. One night, the fog rolled in thick and ominous. Nancy was staring out her bedroom window, when she heard William’s voice from somewhere in the fog.
“He called for her, saying "Nancy my love, I have returned for thee. Come quickly and we will run away together."
“Nancy was overjoyed, and ran to her door before her cousin could stop her. Her cousin peered out the window, and saw young William below. He was wet and pale, illuminated in the moonlight and fog. The cousin, fearing for Nancy, ran after her. She watched from behind the couple, running as fast as she could, but never able to catch them. A great sea of fog descended over the young lovers. Slowly the fog dissipated. Nancy’s cousin was paralyzed with fear. The young couple had vanished. Only the wild sea lay before her eyes.
“A few days after their disappearance the ship William had been sailing on was docked and the captain brought the news of William's death to his father. The captain told him that his son had died at sea the day the couple disappeared.
“Everyone knew what must have happened. William’s ghost had returned to his beloved Nancy, and now they are together for eternity.
“Young couples still see them on nights just like this, out there in the cove holding hands and laughing, or walking along the shore. Those that encounter the ghosts of William and Nancy are not afraid. You see, young lovers around here think of it as a good omen to catch a glimpse of the two lovers. Many marriages take place out by the cove, celebrating the new lovers and remembering the story of William and Nancy."
Seamus smiles with a glint in his eyes. “I always like to tell people that story first. It warms people's hearts. This country is full of passionate, strong women who love with all their hearts, just like Nancy loved her William.
“It brings to mind the story of Grace O’Brien. Grace O’Brien was just that kind of woman. She was a strong woman, who loved her husband and family with a fierce kind of love. But alas, the good Lord had different plans for Grace, yet even death can’t suppress the spirit of these strong women."
Seamus looked over his broad shoulder. “Would you like to hear the story of Grace O’Brien?” he asked.
Author's Notes: This tale comes from west Cornwall. In particular, it comes from a place in west Cornwall called Pargwarra. William Bottrell found the story in the form of a poem called The Tragedy of Sweet William and Fair Nancy. He retold the story in prose. I decided to use a different title for my version because this tale was a tragedy, but it is also a love story that can stand the test of time.
I chose to keep my own retelling of this story close to the original. The original story begins by introducing us to William. He is indeed the son of a fisherman, and since boyhood worked for the rich farmer. In this first part of the story, William is a bit of a wanderer, and enjoyed his sea voyages, always coming back and entertaining the farmer and his only daughter with tales. The original version has many details about William's adventures but I left this out because I wanted to focus on the love story of William and Nancy. In my own retelling, William does love the sea, but it is his love for Nancy that keeps him returning home. In the original story, William's ghost returns to his father and mother before going to Nancy. His father, believing it was his son, goes the next day to look for him at the farmer’s place. There he finds out what had happened the night before.
I thought this story was wonderful. Cornwall is located in a remote part of England, and this story has preserved its ancient traditions to this day. It has a Romeo & Juliet quality about it, which I thought would be perfect for my Storybook. I hope you enjoyed reading my retelling of this story, and, I hope you read the original for yourselves.
“The Tragedy of Sweet William and Fair Nancy” from Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, by William Bottrell (1873). The Tragedy of Sweet William and Fair Nancy
Image: Sea Cove, by Christopher Michelmore, from Live Rural Newfoundland and Labrador. Web Source: Sea Cove.