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Chapter VII

Nanny Norrish and the Pixies.--The Ploughman's Breakfast.--The Pixy Riders.--Jan Coo.


IT has been observed that the pixies will sometimes visit with punishment those who have spoken contemptuously of them, or who have dared to doubt the power they are capable of exercising. And these visitations have invariably compelled the scoffers to acknowledge themselves to be in the wrong, and to be careful how they spoke of the fairy elves in the future. Numerous are the instances of folks having been pixy-led and obliged to wander about on the moor until the spell, under the influence of which they were, has been withdrawn; and many are the incidents related of people having been plagued or frightened in various ways, who have gained the displeasure of the goblins. But the following adventure of Nanny Norrish will suffice to show the folly of treating the pixies with disdain.


In the days when the oldest man now living on the moor was but a child, a village pedagogue dwelt in the parish of Widecombe whose name was John Norrish.

His abode, which also served as his school-house, was at Dunstone Cottage, near Widecombe church-town, and here honest John, who was unfortunately a cripple, wielded the birch for the benefit (?) of the youth of that moorland village.

The education to he acquired at John's establishment was of a most elementary character, but while the good schoolmaster had not much learning to impart to his pupils he was perfectly honest towards their parents, for he took but little fee or reward; so little, indeed, that had it not been for the earnings of his wife Nanny, he would have found it an impossibility to "make the two ends meet." But her exertions were such that they produced wherewith to supplement what the parents of John's scholars paid him to such an extent as to enable them to live very comfortably.

And in what manner was it that Nanny was able to contribute to the income of the pedagogue? While his time was devoted to training the young ideas, and instilling into their minds good moral precepts, she found employment for hers at the wash-tub, visiting many farm-houses in the course of a week, for the purpose of pursuing her very necessary avocation.

A good-tempered old creature was Nanny. Never afraid of work, and never grumbling if on her arrival at the scene of her day's labour she found that a greater number of articles than usual needed the application of her soap and water, but always entering heartily upon her duties, and ceasing not until everything that had passed through her hands had been spread out on the furze bushes to bleach. And then Nanny, after her supper, would take the small wage she had earned by her day's labour and trudge merrily homeward. Sometimes her walk would lead her for several miles over the moor, but so well did old Nanny know her way about that she never minded it, and whether it was summer or winter was all one to her.

Often would the neighbours ask her whether she was not afraid of being pixy-led when out so late at night, and on more than one occasion, when she chanced to arrive home later than usual, her husband had exclaimed as she entered the door, "Good gracious, Nanny, I'm mortal glad thou art back safe; I was beginning to think thou hadst met with the pixies.' But Nanny always laughed at such fears, and declared she knew how to take care of herself, and was not to be frightened. "Pisgies, indeed," she would say, "I can't believe what they say about mun; I never zeed wan, an' what's more, if I ded I should'n be afeared." And so Nanny continued her lonely walks after dark, and laughed at the pixies.

One evening, after having finished her day's work at a farm-house called Dockwell, in the parish of Widecombe, she prepared to set off on her homeward journey. The people of the house, who were in the kitchen' when she left, bade her "Good night," and told her to be careful not to be led away by the pixies. "Oh, drat the pisgies," exclaimed Nanny, as she tied her bonnet strings, "I don't believe there's wan left. I've heerd tell of yolks havin' zeed mun, but I can't believe it, till I zee wan vor myself; but I knaw I shall never do that;" and bidding those assembled "Good night," she stepped out into the yard, and gaining the road, walked boldly on.

The stars were shining brightly, and as Nanny strode forward she very soon forgot all about the pixies, and began thinking how pleased her good man would be to see her home so early, for she was rather before the time she had told him she should return.

But the pixies had not forgotten Nanny. Often had they heard her jeering at them, but they had suffered her to go unmo!ested, for she had done them no personal injury. On this particular night, however, she had actually gone so far as to express her belief that none of the elfin tribe remained, and they decided it was time that old Nanny should be taught better, and should be made to speak more respectfully of them in the future; so they determined upon giving her an ocular demonstration of their existence.

Nanny trudged on, and when her thoughts were far away from the pixies and all their works, she was suddenly startled by a loud hubbub, as of numberless voices close to her, chattering in a shrill key, and as she afterwards declared, "makin' sich a clatter, as you never heerd."

She stopped--and before she could well collect her senses she saw before her an immense crowd of little people, standing on one another's heads, and forming a living pyramid, reaching to an immense height--"piled up," as my informant of the circumstance put it, "tower high." (I remember how the old man's eyes would sparkle when he spoke of the pixies assembling in such numbers and reaching to such a height, and pictured to himself Nanny's discomfiture.) But there the little creatures were, perched one upon the other, "tower high," chattering with all their might--a veritable tower of Babel--and Nanny Norrish knew she had met the pixies at last.

The records do not tell us how poor Nanny reached her home. We hope in safety, for we would fain believe that the pixies only desired to frighten her, and had no wish to do her harm. The moral, however, is plain. If you would avoid being molested by these little fairies don't pretend to despise their power.

The following instance of the pixies' benevolence is worth recording, as showing us that these merry little goblins are always ready to do an act of kindness to the cheerful labouring man.


One beautiful morning a labourer on one of the Dartmoor farms was engaged in ploughing a field. He had commenced his task at break of day, and with his team and wooden plough--still called by its old name of "sull" or "soil," on the moor--had completed many furrows, as the hour for breakfast drew near. The keen moor air had sharpened his appetite to such an extent that he more than once looked wistfully towards the gate of the field, in order to see whether his little son was making his appearance with his morning meal. But the boy was not to be seen, and our labourer, trying to forget his hunger, determined to wait patiently, continuing to plough steadily on, whistling merrily, and ever and anon calling cheerfully to his team.

In the middle of the field in which he was engaged at work was a huge granite block, which when the enclosure had been reclaimed from the moor had been left where it stood, its size forbidding any attempts to clear it away. As the ploughman passed near this rock on his way across the field, he was startled at hearing voices, apparently proceeding from beneath it. He listened, and distinctly heard one, in a louder tone than the rest, exclaim, "The oven's hot!"

"Bake me a cake, then," instantly cried the hungry ploughman, in whose mind the very mention of an oven had conjured up thoughts of appetising cheer; "Bake me a cake, then."

He continued the furrow to the end of the field, when, turning his plough, he set out on his return journey. When he approached the rock, what was his surprise and delight at seeing, placed on its surface, a nice cake, smoking hot. He knew at once that this was the work of the obliging little pixies, who evidently had a resort under the rock, and who had taken pity upon his hunger, and provided him with a morning meal. Seizing the dainty morsel, and seating himself upon the stone, the ploughman was almost as expeditious in causing it to disappear as the pixies had been in providing it for him, but while satisfying his hunger he failed not to feel grateful to the kind little people who, about to enjoy their own breakfast, were not unmindful of the wants of the poor labourer.

It is not an unusual thing for the manes of the Dartmoor ponies--or colts, as they are always termed--to be found tangled in a most intricate manner, and oft-times looped in such a curious fashion as to very closely resemble the form of stirrups. This has been looked upon by the peasants as the work of the pixies, and has helped to give rise to various stories of the fondness of that diminutive race for riding the wild colts at a rapid pace over the moor. Ponies have been known to get their hinder legs entangled in these loops, which, preventing them from rising, has caused their death.

Of the many tales related of these fairy riders, the following one will suffice as an illustration.


Some colts belonging to a farmer on the moor, which were running in a large new-take, being required, a boy was despatched to fetch them. When he reached the spot where the animals were, he was astonished to find them galloping madly over the ground, while sitting astride on the neck of each, was a diminutive rider, urging them on their wild career, and shouting uproariously. In vain the boy attempted to stop them. Faster and faster the terrified animals flew over the new-take, while their riders twisted their manes, and forced them onward among the boulders of granite in a most reckless manner.

At length the pixies, on gaining a corner of the new-take, suddenly threw themselves off their steeds, which, covered with sweat and foam, gathered closely together, gazing fearfully around them. Where the pixies went to the boy could not tell, but the skilful manner in which they managed the animals they bestrode convinced him, as he afterwards said, that "twudn' the fust time that they piskies had been up to thackey!"

Instances are recorded of persons having been spirited away by the pixies in a manner most mysterious. These elves have probably some good reason for this, although it has not at all times been discoverable. In certain cases it has been known that the missing one had somehow contrived to render himself obnoxious to the little goblins, but in others, as in that of the boy at Rowbrook, whose fate we are about to relate, no reasons for the pixies' interference have been apparent.


At Dartmeet, the east and west branches of the river from which the great moor derives its name mingle their waters, and the course of the united stream, until it leaves the uplands, is through the deep and narrow valley, overhung with rugged tors, which we have already briefly described. An observer from one of the eminences crowning the sides of this valley marks the course of the river, as it rushes along its rocky channel, by the white flashes of foam. The grey granite sides of the tors contrast: strikingly with the coppices of oak, and the whole scene is one of great wildness.

On the left bank of the river rises the bold, conical pile of Sharp Tor, and on the slope of this hill stands a solitary farm-house called Rowbrook, overlooking the valley below. At this farm a boy was once employed to tend the cattle--a quiet, inoffensive lad, who fulfilled his duties to the satisfaction of his master. One evening in the winter season, when he had been nearly twelve months on the farm, he came hurriedly into the kitchen, exclaiming that he had heard someone calling, and imagined it must be a person in distress. The farm labourers who were gathered around the cheerful peat fire arose with alacrity, supposing it not unlikely that some wayfarer had lost his way in the valley. They quickly gained the spot where the boy said he had heard the voice, and paused to listen. Nothing but the sound of the rushing river below met their ears, and the men declared the boy must have been mistaken. He, however, stoutly asserted that he was not, and as if to bear him out in what he said, a voice was suddenly heard, seemingly at no great distance, calling out, "Jan Coo! Jan Coo!"

The men shouted in reply, when the voice ceased. Lights were procured, and they searched around the spot, but no traces of anyone could be seen, so after spending some further time in calling, but without obtaining any response, they re-entered the house, not knowing what to think of the perplexing circumstance.

The next night came; the men were gathered around the hearth as on the preceding evening, when the second time the boy rushed in with the information that the voice might again be heard. Up jumped the men, and running to the spot to which they had been directed on the occasion of the first alarm, intently listened. Out on the stillness of the night came the voice, calling again, "Jan Coo! Jan Coo!" They looked at one another, but shouted not in reply, waiting until the voice should be heard once more, ere doing so. And again upon the night air came the cry, "Jan Coo! Jan Coo!" at which they gave a lusty shout, but waited in vain for any response. All was silent, and after endeavouring by repeated calls to get an answer from the mysterious visitor, they once more sought the warmth of the chimney corner.

"Tis the pisgies, I'll warn," said an old man, as he settled down on his low seat by the fire; "I've heerd mun say that you can't tell mun, when they be callin', from a Christian."

"Ees, that's what that is, vor sartin; an' us had better let 'em bide, and not meddle wi' em," said another, and it was consequently determined to take no further notice of the strange voice, should it again be heard.

And heard again it was. Not a night passed but, as soon as the men were gathered around the fire after their evening meal, the mysterious voice again rang through the valley--"Jan Coo! Jan Coo!"

The winter had nearly passed away, and the people at the farm were looking forward to the fast-approaching spring, when the lad, with one of the labourers, was mounting the slope that stretched from the house down to the river. It was dusk, and they were returning home to their supper, having finished their work for the day. Suddenly the voice was heard in Langamarsh Pit, on the opposite side of the river, calling as before, "Jan Coo! Jan Coo!" The boy instantly shouted in reply, when, instead of the calls ceasing, as on the occasion when the men had replied to them, they were heard again--"Jan Coo! Jan Coo!"

Once more the lad shouted, and again came forth the same cry--this time louder than before.

"I'll go and see what 'tis," exclaimed the boy; and before his companion could attempt to dissuade him from it he had commenced to run down the hill towards the river. The many boulders in its rocky bed afforded crossing places at certain points--when the stream was not swollen with the rains--known to those living in the vicinity, and towards one of these the boy made his way. His companion watched him but a short distance, for in the deepening twilight he was speedily lost to view, but as the man continued his ascent of the bill the voice still came from Langamarsh Pit--"Jan Coo! Jan Coo!" Again, as he approached the farm-house, could he hear it, and as he neared the door the sounds yet rang through the valley--"Jan Coo! Jan Coo!" Gaining the threshold, he paused before entering, with his hand holding the string which raised the latch, and listened for the voice once more. It had ceased.

He waited, but no sound broke the stillness of the evening, and seeking the kitchen he related what had happened to those gathered there, who wondered what the lad would have to tell them when he came back. Hour after hour passed away; the boy came not. The men went down to the river and called him by name, but they received no reply; they waited in the expectation of seeing him return, but he did not appear, and as no tidings of him were ever obtained, and the mysterious voice ceased its nightly calls, they came to the conclusion that he had been .spirited away by the pixies.

There may be those whose scepticism will not permit them to admit the agency of the pixies in this matter, but who will be ready to recognise in the mysterious sounds the hooting of an owl, and in the disappearance of the boy another proof of the truth of the rhyme:--

"River of Dart, Oh, River of Dart!
Every year thou claimest a heart,"

It is not for me, as the chronicler of a pixy story, to say how this is:--

"I cannot tell how the truth may be,
I say the tale as 'twas said to me."

I can only aver from what I have been informed that, however much the pixies' agency may be discredited, it was, at all events, firmly believed in at the lonely farm of Rowbrook.

Next: Chapter VIII: The Borrowed Colts.--The Boulder in the Room.--Vickeytoad.--Modilla and Podilla