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Tales about Pixies

To come to the present times. There is no stronger proof of the neglect of what Mr Thoms has very happily designated "Folk-lore" in this country, than the fact of there having been no account given anywhere of the Pixies or Pisgies[347] of Devonshire and Cornwall, till within these last few years. In the year 1836, Mrs. Bray, a lady well known as the author of several novels, and wife of a clergyman at Tavistock, published, in a series of letters to Robert Southey, interesting descriptions of the part of Devonshire bordering on the Tamar and the Tavy. In this work there is given an account of the Pixies, from which we derive the following information:

According to the Devon peasant, the Pixies are the souls of infants who died before they were baptised. They are of[Pg 299] small dimensions, generally handsome in their form. Their attire is always green. Dancing is their chief amusement, which they perform to the music of the cricket, the grasshopper, and the frog,—always at night; and thus they form the fairy-rings. The pixie-house is usually in a rock. By moon-light, on the moor, or under the dark shade of rocks, the Pixy-monarch, Mrs. Bray says, holds his court, where, like Titania, he gives his subjects their several charges. Some are sent to the mines, where they will kindly lead the miner to the richest lode, or maliciously, by noises imitating the stroke of the hammer, and by false fires, draw him on to where the worst ore in the mine lies, and then laugh at his disappointment. Others are sent

To make the maids their sluttery rue,
By pinching them both black and blue.
On this account, says Mrs. Bray, "the good dames in this part of the world are very particular in sweeping their houses before they go to bed; and they will frequently place a basin of water beside the chimney-nook, to accommodate the Pixies, who are great lovers of water; and sometimes they requite the good deed by dropping a piece of money into the basin. A young woman of our town, who declared she had received the reward of sixpence for a like service, told the circumstance to her gossips; but no sixpence ever came again, and it was generally believed that the Pixies had taken offence by her chattering, as they do not like to have their deeds, good or evil, talked over by mortal tongues."

The office of some is to steal children; of others, to lead travellers astray, as Will-o'-the-wisps, or to pixie-lead them, as it is termed. Some will make confusion in a house by blowing out the candle, or kissing the maids "with a smack, as they 'shriek Who's this?' as the old poet writes, till their grandams come in and lecture them for allowing unseemly freedoms with their bachelors." Others will make noises in walls, to frighten people. In short, everything that is done elsewhere by fairies, boggarts, or other like beings, is done in Devon by the Pixies.

It is said that they will sometimes aid their favourites in spinning their flax. "I have heard a story about an old[Pg 300] woman in this town," says Mrs. Bray, "who suspected she received assistance of the above nature; and one evening, coming suddenly into the room, she spied a ragged little creature, who jumped out of the door. She thought she would try still further to win the services of her elfin friend, and so bought some smart new clothes, as big as those made for a doll. These pretty things she placed by the side of her wheel. The pixie returned, and put them on; when, clapping her tiny hands, she was heard to exclaim—

Pixie fine, pixie gay,
Pixy now will run away;
and off she went. But the ungrateful little creature never spun for the poor old woman after."

Mrs. Bray has been assured that mothers used frequently to pin their children to their sides, to prevent their being stolen by the Pixies; and she heard of a woman in Tavistock who avowed that her mother had a child which was stolen by them, as she was engaged hanging out clothes to dry in her garden. She almost broke her heart when she discovered it; but she took great care of the changeling, which so pleased the pixie, that she soon after gave the woman back her child, who proved eminently lucky in after life.

The being pixie-led is a thing very apt to befall worthy yeomen returning at night from fair or market, especially if they sat long at the market-table; and then, says our authority, "he will declare, and offer to take his Bible-oath upon it, that, as sure as ever he's alive to tell it, whilst his head was running round like a mill-wheel, he heard with his own ears they bits of Pisgies a-laughing and a-tacking their hands, all to see he led-astray, and never able to find the right road, though he had travelled it scores of times long agone, by night or by day, as a body might tell." Mr. Thoms, too, was told by a Devon girl, who had often heard of the Pixies, though she had never seen any, that "she once knew a man who, one night, could not find his way out of his own fields, all he could do, until he recollected to turn his coat; and the moment he did so, he heard the Pixies all fly away, up into the trees, and there they sat and laughed. Oh! how they did laugh! But the man then soon found his way out of the field."

This turning of the coat, or some other article of dress, is found to be the surest remedy against Pixy-illusion. Mrs. Bray says that the old folk in Tavistock have recourse to it as a preventive against being pixie-led, if they have occasion to go out after sun-down. It appears to have been formerly in use in other parts of England also; for Bishop Corbet thus notices it in his "Iter Boreale:"

William found
A mean for our deliverance, Turne your cloakes
Quoth hee, for Pucke is busy in these oakes;
If ever wee at Bosworth will be found
Then turne your cloakes, for this is fairy ground.
In Scandinavia, also, we learn the remedy against being led astray by the Lygtemand, Lyktgubhe, or Will-o'-the-Wisp, is to turn one's cap inside out.

Mrs. Bray gives, in addition, the following legends, which we have taken the liberty of abridging a little.

The Pixie Labour

One night, about twelve o'clock in the morning, as the good folks say, who tell this good tale, Dame —— the sage femme of Tavistock, had just got comfortably into bed, when rap, rap, rap, came on her cottage door, with such bold and continued noise, that there was a sound of authority in every individual knock. Startled and alarmed by the call, she arose from her bed, and soon learnt that the summons was a hasty one to bid her attend on a patient who needed her help. She opened her door, when the summoner appeared to be a strange, squint-eyed, little, ugly old fellow, who had a look, as she said, very like a certain dark personage, who ought not at all times to be called by his proper name. Not at all prepossessed in favour of the errand by the visage of the messenger, she nevertheless could not, or dared not, resist the command to follow him straight, and attend on "his wife."

"Thy wife!" thought the good dame; "Heaven forgive me, but as sure as I live I be going to the birth of a little divil." A large coal-black horse, with eyes like balls of fire, stood at the door. The ill-looking old fellow, without more ado, whisked her up on a high pillion in a minute, seated himself before her, and away went horse and riders as if sailing through the air rather than trotting on the ground. How she got to the place of her destination she could not tell; but it was a great relief to her fears when she found herself set down at the door of a neat cottage, saw a couple of tidy children, and remarked her patient to be a decent looking woman, having all things about her fitting the time and occasion. A fine bouncing babe soon made its appearance, who seemed very bold on its entry into life, for it gave the good dame a box on the ear, as, with the coaxing and cajolery of all good old nurses, she declared the "sweet little thing to be very like its father." The mother said nothing to this, but gave nurse a certain ointment, with directions that she should strike (i. e. rub) the child's eyes with it. The nurse performed her task, considering what it could be for. She thought that, as no doubt it was a good thing, she might just as well try it upon her own eyes as well as those of the baby; so she made free to strike one of them by way of trial, when, O ye powers of fairy land! what a change was there!

The neat, but homely cottage, and all who were in it, seemed all on a sudden to undergo a mighty transformation; some for the better, some for the worse. The new-made mother appeared as a beautiful lady attired in white; the babe was seen wrapped in swaddling clothes of a silvery gauze. It looked much prettier than before, but still maintained the elfish cast of the eye, like his father, whilst two or three children more had undergone a strange metamorphosis. For there sat on either side the bed's head, a couple of little flat-nosed imps, who with "mops and mows," and with many a grimace and grin, were busied to no end in scratching their own polls, or in pulling the fairy lady's ears with their long and hairy paws. The dame who beheld all this, fearing she knew not what, in the house of enchantment, got away as fast as she could, without saying one word about striking her own eye with the magic[Pg 303] ointment and what she had seen. The sour-looking old fellow once more handed her up on the coal-black-horse, and sent her home in a whip sissa[348] much faster than she came.

On the next market-day, when she sallied forth to sell her eggs, she saw the same old fellow busy pilfering sundry articles from stall to stall, and going up to him she enquired about his wife and child. "What!" exclaimed he, "do you see me to-day?" "See you! to be sure I do, as plain as I see the sun in the sky; and I see you are busy, too." "Do you?" says he, "and pray with which eye do you see all this?" "With the right eye to be sure."

"The ointment! the ointment!" cried he. "Take that, for meddling with what did not belong to you; you shall see me no more."

He struck her eye as he spoke, and from that hour till the day of her death she was blind of that eye.

Pixie Vengeance

Two serving-girls in Tavistock said that the Pixies were very kind to them, and used to drop silver for them into a bucket of fair water which they took care to place for them in the chimney-nook every night. Once it was forgotten, and the Pixies forthwith came up to the girls' room, and loudly complained of the neglect. One of them, who happened to be awake, jogged the other, and proposed going down to rectify the omission, but she said, "for her part she would not stir out of bed to please all the pixies in Devonshire." The other went down and filled the bucket, in which, by the way, she found next morning a handful of silver pennies. As she was returning, she heard the Pixies debating about what they would do to punish the other. Various modes were proposed and rejected; at last it was agreed to give her a lame leg for a term of seven years, then to be cured by an herb growing on Dartmoor, whose name of seven[Pg 304] syllables was pronounced in a clear and audible tone. This the girl tried by every known means to fix in her memory. But when she awoke in the morning, it was gone, and she could only tell that Molly was to be lame for seven years, and then be cured by an herb with a strange name. As for Molly, she arose dead lame, and so she continued till the end of the period, when one day, as she was picking up a mushroom, a strange-looking boy started up and insisted on striking her leg with a plant which he held in his hand. He did so, and she was cured and became the best dancer in the town.

Pixie Gratitude

An old woman who lived near Tavistock had in her garden a splendid bed of tulips. To these the Pixies of the neighbourhood loved to resort, and often at midnight might they be heard singing their babes to rest among them. By their magic power they made the tulips more beautiful and more permanent than any other tulips, and they caused them to emit a fragrance equal to that of the rose. The old woman was so fond of her tulips that she would never let one of them be plucked, and thus the Pixies were never deprived of their floral bowers.

But at length the old woman died; the tulips were taken up, and the place converted into a parsley-bed. Again, however, the power of the Pixies was shown; the parsley withered, and nothing would grow even in the other beds of the garden. On the other hand, they tended diligently the grave of the old woman, around which they were heard lamenting and singing dirges. They suffered not a weed to grow on it; they kept it always green, and evermore in spring-time spangled with wild flowers.

Thus far for the Pixies of Devon; as for the adjoining Somerset, all we have to say is, that a good woman from that county, with whom we were acquainted, used, when making[Pg 305] a cake, always to draw a cross upon it. This, she said, was in order to prevent the Vairies from dancing on it. She described these Vairies as being very small people, who, with the vanity natural to little personages, wear high-heeled shoes, and if a new-made cake be not duly crossed, they imprint on it in their capers the marks of their heels. Of the actual existence of the Vairies, she did not seem to entertain the shadow of a doubt.

In Dorset also, the pixie-lore still lingers. The being is called Pexy and Colepexy; the fossil belemnites are named Colepexies'-fingers; and the fossil echini, Colepexies'-heads. The children, when naughty, are also threatened with the Pexy, who is supposed to haunt woods and coppices.[349]

"In Hampshire," says Captain Grose, "they give the name of Colt-pixie to a supposed spirit or fairy, which in the shape of a horse wickers, i. e. neighs, and misleads horses into bogs, etc."