The Flying Weathercock by Edward Page Mitchell
There were two peculiar things that I remarked about the little
brick meetinghouse on the hill at Newaggen. The first was the fact that
it had once been chained to the ground, as are some structures on
mountain summits. Big iron eyebolts were to be seen in the ledge on
each side of the meetinghouse, and to one of them was still attached a
rusty link of heavy chain. The hill was not high. A steep path led down
to the harbor, and you could count the shingles on the roofs of the
square, old-fashioned houses. On the other side of the hill was a boggy
meadow, with scattering ricks of salt hay, bonneted with aged canvas.
The front of the church breasted the wind that blew in across the
islands from the ocean.
The second unusual feature was the vane on the stubby steeple. The
vane was a great gilt codfish, evidently very sensitive to atmospheric
influences. Its nose wavered nervously between south-southeast and
southeast by east.
"Why was the meetin'house tied down to the rock?" repeated my
companion, Deacon and Captain Silas Bibber. "Well, I'll tell ye.
Because the congregation allowed that this here hill was a fittiner
location for a house o' worship than the salt ma'sh yonder."
The deacon and captain paused to shy a stone at a disreputable sheep
that was foraging among the gravestones.
"Why do we fly a weathercod instid of a weathercock?" he continued.
"I'll tell ye. Because the rooster's the Devil's own bird."
He stooped for another missile just as the excited sheep, which had
been surreptitiously flanking him while watching his movements with
vigilant eyes, cleared the stone wall at a plunge and disappeared over
the edge of the hill.
"Durn the critter!" remarked the deacon and captain.
The unwritten legends of the coast of Maine are kept by a generation
that is rapidly going. Men and women are pretty old now who were young
in the golden age of the seaport towns; when not only Portland and Bath
and Wiscasset and the places to the eastward but also all the little
settlements wedged in between rock and wave enjoyed a solid prosperity,
based on an adventurous spirit and keen commercial insight in the
matters of Matanzas molasses and Jamaica rum. Between the Maine towns
and the West Indian ports there was and is a straight ocean way. Time
was when direct communication with foreign parts brought sharp and
increasing contrasts into the daily life of the coast people. This was
the time, too, when the prevailing orthodoxy in theological doctrine
still left room for a curious and in some respects peculiar
supernaturalism that concerned itself chiefly with the malevolent
enterprises of the Enemy of Mankind.
It appears from Captain Silas' narrative that about fifty years ago
Parson Purington was the chief bulwark of the faithful against the
Devil's assaults upon Newaggen. The parson was a hard hitter, both in
petition and in exhortation. It was generally believed at the harbor,
and for miles both ways along the coast, that nothing worried the evil
one half so much as Parson Purington's double-hour discourses,
mercilessly exposing his character, exhibiting his most secret plans,
and defying his worst endeavors.
It was partly this feeling of triumph and pride in the prowess of
their champion that led the congregation to construct a substantial
church edifice, conspicuously situated on top of the hill, and
possessing both a steeple and a bell that could be heard as far out at
sea as Ragged Tail Island, with the wind favorable. The parson himself
chose the site. He eagerly watched the progress of the workmen, and his
heart was in every additional brick that went into the walls.
At half past eleven o'clock one moonlight Saturday night, just after
the last touch of gilt had been put on the fine rooster vane--the
donation of an unknown friend--Parson Purington ascended the hill on
purpose to delight his eyes with the completed structure. Imagine the
astonishment with which the good man discovered that no meetinghouse
was there! No weathercock, no steeple, no belfry, no brick walls and
wooden portico, not even the faintest trace of foundation or
The parson stamped his feet to see if he was awake. He wondered if
the three tumblerfuls of hot rum toddy with which his daughter Susannah
had fortified him against the night air could have played his senses
such a trick. He rubbed his eyes and stared at the moon. The round face
of that luminary presented its usual aspect. He gazed at the village
under the hill. The well-known houses in which his parishioners
slumbered were all distinctly visible in the moonlight. He saw the
ocean, the islands, the harbor, the schooners at the wharves, the
streets. He even made out the solitary figure of Peleg Trott,
zigzagging home from the tavern, as if beating against a head wind. The
parson tried to shout to Peleg Trott, but found that he had no voice
for the effort. Everything in the neighborhood was as it should be,
except that the new meetinghouse had disappeared.
Dazed by that tremendous fact, the parson wandered aimlessly about
the summit of the hill for fully half an hour. Then he perceived that
he was not alone, for a tal! individual, wrapped in a black coat, sat
upon the stone wall. The stranger looked like a Spaniard or a Portugee.
His elbows were on his knees, his chin was in his hands, and he was
watching the parson's movements with obvious interest.
"May I venture to inquire," said the stranger, "whether you are
looking for anything?"
"Sir," the parson replied, "I am sorely perplexed. I came hither
expecting to behold the sacred edifice in which I am to preach tomorrow
morning for the first time, from a text in thirteenth Revelations. Not
longer ago than this afternoon it occupied the very spot on which we
"Ah, a lost meetinghouse!" said the stranger, carelessly. "Pray, is
it not customary in this part of the world to send out the crier with
his bell when they stray or are stolen?"
There was something in the tone of voice which caused the parson to
inspect his companion more closely than before. The tall foreigner
withstood the scrutiny with perfect composure, twirling his black
mustachios. His eyes were bright and steady, and they seemed to grow
brighter as the parson gazed into them.
"Well," said the stranger at last, "I fancy you would know me
"I think I know you now," retorted the parson, "although I do not
fear you. If I am not prodigiously mistaken, it is you who have
destroyed our meetinghouse."
The other smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "Since you press me on
that point, I must admit that I have taken a trifling liberty with your
property. Destroyed it? Oh, no; I have simply moved it off my land. The
truth is, this hill is an old camping ground of mine, and I can't bear
to see it encumbered with such a villainous piece of architecture as
your brick meetinghouse. You'll find the whole establishment, to the
last pew cushion and hymnbook, clown yonder in the meadow; and if you
are a man of taste, you'll agree with me that the new site is a great
The parson glanced over the edge of the hill. True enough, there
stood the new meetinghouse in the middle of the marsh.
"I know not," said the parson resolutely, "by what diabolical
jugglery you have done it, but I do know that you have no just claim to
the hill. It has been deeded us by Elijah Trufant, whose father and
grandfather pastured sheep here."
"My pious friend," returned the other calmly, "when Adam was an
infant this hill had been in the possession of my family for millions
of years. Would it interest you to peruse the original deed?"
He produced from beneath his cloak a roll of parchment, which he
handed to the parson. The parson unrolled the document and tried to
read it. Strange characters, faintly luminous, covered the page. They
grew fiery bright, and as the parson's hand trembled--for he afterward
admitted that it did tremble--they danced over the parchment charring
the surface wherever they touched. At last Parson Purington's hand
shook some of the fiery hieroglyphics quite to the margin of the sheet,
the edge curled and crinkled, a thin line of smoke went up, and
presently the entire document was ablaze.
"Rather awkward in you," said the stranger, "but it's of no great
consequence. I happen to have a duplicate of the deed."
He waved his hand. The same flaming characters, enormously enlarged,
danced now all over the ground where the meetinghouse should have
stood. The parson's head swam as his eyes sought in vain to decipher
the unhallowed inscription. There lay the claimant's title, burned into
the top of the hill. The dry grass caught fire, the twigs and blueberry
bush stems crackled in the heat, and for a moment the tall stranger was
enveloped in smoke and flame that cast a lurid light over the features
of his forbidding countenance. He stamped his feet and the unnatural
conflagration was immediately extinguished.
"You perceive that my title is perfectly valid. Nevertheless, I am
not a hard landlord. You have set your heart upon this location.
Suppose you occupy it as my tenant at will. It will only be necessary,
as the merest form, to sign this little--"
"No, sir," shouted the parson, now thoroughly aroused. "I make no
compact. Whether you be indeed Beelzebub in person, or only one of his
subordinate devils, your claim is a lie, your title of fire is forged,
and I shall defy you and all your works in the sermon which I shall
preach tomorrow morning in that brick meetinghouse, no matter if it is
on the hill or on the marsh, no matter if you have meanwhile spirited
it away to the bottom of the bottomless pit!"
"I shall do myself the honor to listen to your discourse," replied
the stranger, with an exasperating grin.
When the parson reached home his daughter Susannah heard his story,
gave him another glass of hot rum toddy, tucked him comfortably in bed,
and then dispatched the hired help to the other end of the village with
instructions to arouse Peletiah Jackson, first mate of the
hermaphrodite brig Sister Sal.
After beating through all the streets of the little settlement, and
sailing in great circles over several of the outlying pastures without
making a port, Peleg Trott found himself about an hour after midnight
halfway up the hill path, with a heavy sea on and the wind still dead
He sat down on a rock to take his bearings. "Peleg!" he shouted from
his lookout on the forecastle deck.
"Aye, aye, Cap'n Trott!" he responded from the wheel. "Howz hellum?"
he demanded from the forecastle.
"Har' down, Cap'n Trott," he reported from the wheel. "Makin' much
"Beat's nater, the starnway, Cap'n Trott."
"Shake down the centerboard a peg, Peleg."
"It's clean chapped now, Cap'n Trott."
"Lez hear box ze compash. Believe ye're drunk agen; ye
"Sartainly, Cap'n Trott. Cod, codcodfish, codfish becod, codfish;
codfish-befish; fishcodfish, fish becod, FISH, Cap'n Trott."
"Whazzat light, Peleg, bearin' codfish becod, half fish?"
"Make it out for the moon, Cap'n Trott."
"Orright, Peleg. Head's she is till the moon's astarn, then make a
half hitch an' drap anchor to low'rd new meetin'house to take
'zervation' ze wezzercock."
"Aye, aye, sir," and the difficult navigation was resumed, with
Peleg and Trott both on deck.
At the brow of the hill Trott encountered the same surprising fact
which had stupefied the parson an hour or more earlier in the night.
The meetinghouse was not there.
"Salt me down ef the gale hain't blowed her off her moorin's," he
After carefully scrutinizing the horizon on every side, he
"I'll be salted an' flaked ef she hain't adrift yonder on the
Peleg studied the situation attentively. In none of his nocturnal
voyages had he run against anything so extraordinary. His spiritual
interest in the new edifice was perhaps less than that of any other
inhabitant of the harbor, since he never went to meeting. Yet he had
transported several cargoes of brick for the church from Wiscasset in
his celebrated four-cornered clipper, the scow Dandelion, and his
interest in the progress of the building had been greatly enlarged by
an incident which happened several weeks before the night of which we
One afternoon a tall, dark man, in an outlandish cloak, stood on the
wharf at Wiscasset watching Peleg as he thrust bricks into the
capacious maw of the Dandelion. "What's building?" asked the foreigner
in excellent English. "Meetin'house," said Peleg. "Orthodox?" persisted
the inquiring stranger. "No, Parson Purin'ton's at N'waggen," replied
Peleg curtly. "Ali!" said the man on the wharf, "I have heard of that
eminent divine. I am glad he is to have a new church. Have they
everything they need?"
Peleg was about to say yes, for that was the last cargo of bricks
and the other material was already on the ground. But his eye happened
to wander to the steeple of the Wiscasset church, and an idea struck
him. "Ef you're minded to contribute," said he, "they're desprit for a
rooster vane like the there." The mysterious benefactor smiled. "I'll
send them a bird," said he. In due course of time there arrived by
schooner from Portland a fine wooden weathercock, properly boxed and
ready for mounting and gilding. Peleg's story had been received with
some incredulity at Newaggen, but now he found himself a hero. His
presence of mind was highly commended by the deacons of the church, and
they presented him with half a barrel of Medford rum. By the time the
weathercock went aloft the half barrel was empty, and Peleg was chock
full of rum and theological enthusiasm.
There was the meetinghouse fully a quarter of a mile off its
anchorage. There was the well-known chanticleer--Peleg's especial joy
and pride--resplendently conspicuous in the moonlight. But what strange
spell was on the world that night? As Peleg gazed upon the bird, it
appeared to him to be disproportionately large. There was no wind, and
yet it began to revolve violently. Peleg distinctly heard a prolonged
crow and the gilt rooster flapped its wings as if about to assay a
flight into the upper air. True enough, up it went, carrying the
meetinghouse with it, the church swaying and the bell tolling sadly as
it rose, until the brick walls of the structure actually eclipsed the
moon. Then the weathercock and its quarry slowly settled back to earth,
hovering an instant over the waters of the harbor, and finally landing
not in the meadow, but on top of the hill, not a dozen yards from where
Peleg stood, his knees shaking, his teeth chattering, and his heart
a-thump like the flat bottom of the Dandelion in a chopping cross
"You may split me, salt me, and flake me!" ejaculated the mariner
when he had partially recovered from his stupefaction. "Am I Peleg
Trott, marster 'n eighth owner of the skeow Dandy-line, or am I a blind
haddock, a crazy hake, or a goramighty tomcod?"
Thus it happened that the people of Newaggen Harbor had information,
more or less trustworthy, as to what occurred on the disputed territory
that memorable night between the time of Parson Purington's departure
and the arrival of the army of relief, led by Susannah and Peletiah
When Peleg's somewhat incoherent story had been told, the parson's
daughter turned to the first mate of the Sister Sal. "Peletiah," said
she, "what is to be done?"
"My idee," remarked Deacon Trufant, "is that the adversary purposes
to sperrit away the parson and the whole congregation. He is subtile
and fule of wiles."
Peletiah Jackson was not a theologian, but he was a practical young
man and very fond of Susannah. He took off his coat. "My idee," he
said, "is that if we cut away the mainmast, the ship'll weather any
gale the Devil can send. Somebody fetch a hatchet."
In ten minutes Peletiah Jackson's head was seen to emerge through
the window opening above the bell deck. Two minutes later he was
clasping one of the four little pinnacles that surrounded the base of
the steeple. In a surprisingly short time he had a running noose around
the stubby spire, high above his head. The story of his ascent is the
heroic episode in the annals of Newaggen. A dark cloud threatened to
obscure the moon. The group of eager spectators on the ground below
watched with breathless interest the slow progress of the first mate up
the steeple. If he should lose his hold? If the running knot in his
rope should slip? If the moon should go behind the cloud? Worse than
all, as Peleg Trott suggested, if the weathercock should choose this
moment for another flight?
Up went Peletiah, hand over hand, until his arms, and then his legs,
encircled the steeple. Now he scrambled aloft with the agility of a
monkey. The free end of the rope was thrown around the very apex of the
steeple, and in no time at all Peletiah, seated comfortably in a sling,
was hacking vigorously at the woodwork under the gilt ball on which the
diabolical rooster was perched.
Blow after blow resounded in the still night air. Down in the harbor
settlement windows were thrown open and nightcapped heads appeared. The
racket was infernal. The edge of the cloud covered the moon, and it was
difficult to distinguish Peletiah's form, except now and then when a
flash of lightning lit up the weathercock and its bold assailant. The
strokes of the hatchet ceased. It began to rain and blow. The hatchet
strokes were heard again. The people huddled together. "My idee," said
Deacon Trufant, "is that the adversary will presently come in a
cherriat of fire and--" A clap of thunder interrupted the development
of the idea. Thud, thud, thud, thud went the hatchet, more viciously
persistent than before. Another brilliant flash--was the weathercock
toppling at last? Peleg Trott declared in an awestruck whisper that he
saw the cock's wings flapping, as a preliminary to another flight, with
meetinghouse, Peletiah, and all. At that instant the storm burst in
full fury. There came a blinding glare, a deafening peal, a blast of
thunder and hurricane combined that shook the church and the hill
itself, a wild shriek overhead, half a human yell of triumph and half a
chanticleer's defiant cry, and with a tremendous crash something like a
ball of fire fell to the ground not a dozen yards from the affrighted
group by the meetinghouse portico.
A moment later, Peletiah came down the rope on a run, dripping wet.
Susannah put her arms around his neck and gave him a kiss which could
be heard even above the uproar of the elements.
They searched the hill all over next morning for some trace of the
flying weathercock. Not a splinter of wood nor a spangle of gilt was
ever discovered, but on the ledge near where the fiery ball must have
fallen there was found a mark like this, burned deeply in the granite:
[Similar to footprint of three-toed bird--Ebook ed.]
On the highest point of Ragged Tail Island, seven miles out to sea,
they still show you another footprint, also deeply indented in the
rock. It is precisely similar to the first, and it points the same way.
Taken together, the two tracks are held by the local demonologists to
indicate a flying stride from the mainland to the island, a hasty
departure from the latter point, and--who knows?--either a final flight
into the upper air, or a despairing plunge into the deepest depths of
the Atlantic Ocean.