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Chapter VIII

The Borrowed Colts.--The Boulder in the Room.--Vickeytoad.--Modilla and Podilla.


A STORY is related by Mrs. BRAY in her Tamar and Tavy of a "wise woman," who was summoned by a pixy--as it afterwards turned out--to attend his wife, and who was given some ointment wherewith to annoint the eyes of the child of which the woman was delivered. The nurse out of curiosity touching one of her own eyes with it, beheld a wonderful transformation, and saw that she had been attending upon a pixy. This coming to the knowledge of the pixy father some few days after, he asked her with which eye she saw him, he being invisible to other people at the time, and on being told it was the right, he struck it a violent blow, and she was from that time forth blind in that optic. This story, or variants of it, I have had related to me more than once, the locale of the catastrophe sometimes being Tavistock, sometimes Moreton, while some narrators do not profess to say precisely where the old pixy actually met the woman and destroyed the sight of her eye, though all agree in stating it to have been in the market-place.

One elderly man in the parish of Brent, who has been a good deal upon Dartmoor, still relates the story but, I may add, does not believe it, characterizing all pixy lore as a "passel 'o ole crams."

Many of these tales, if not actually invented to account for matters which could not otherwise be satisfactorily explained, have, like the Three Black Crows, lost nothing in their narration. As already observed, many things, purely the effects of natural causes, but not understood by the peasantry to he so, have been attributed to the pixies and to their agency also have the misdeeds of mortals sometimes been ascribed. The thunder has turned the milk sour, and in! the pixies have been blamed for it; a depredation has been committed in the hen-roost, and this has been laid to their charge, for was there not a green ring in the meadow, close to the poultry yard, to be seen plainly enough, where the elves had been dancing? In such a case as the latter we can readily imagine that the real culprits would be eager to foster the belief that supernatural agencies had been at work, in order to divert suspicion from themselves. Sometimes, however, these stories seem to owe their origin to little other than pure invention. An inhabitant of the parish in which I reside--South Brent

--has told me that he very well remembers how, in his youth, the people used to believe implicitly in the pixy riders, or, at all events, some of the people did. Farmers' horses which were kept on Aish Ridge, a common adjoining the moor, were frequently found in the morning in a very exhausted condition, having, apparently, been ridden hard during the night. This was set down as the work of the pixies, and it was, of course, very easy for those who desired that such a belief should be accepted to go so far as to actually aver that they had seen the little goblins riding them. And that there were those who had such a desire is true enough. It appears that some of the more adventurous spirits in the neighbourhood were, at this time, engaged in the not unprofitable practice of smuggling, and on the expected arrival of a cargo of contraband goods on the coast--generally somewhere about Tor Cross--would make their way across country through the night, in order to assist at the landing, and afterwards to bear away the kegs of cognac. Now, the horses employed upon these midnight journeys were borrowed (without going through the form of making an application for them to their owners) from those kept on Aish Ridge, and were duly returned before daybreak. Such good people as were totally oblivious of the fact that there were men engaged in "deeds of daring" living in their midst, saw the condition of the animals, and not being able to account for their tired and jaded appearance in any other way, straightway supposed that they had been ridden by the pixies. Though their surmises were incorrect, it is still true enough that the steeds would never have been found in such a state, were it not for the spirits.

More than one story is related of the narrow escapes from capture by the coastguard, which the contrabandists experienced, having been chased by them, on several occasions, far inland.

Stories are sometimes told of pixy doings to account for eccentricities in the construction of buildings, such as a hole in a wall--said to have been left for the little sprites to go in and out of--or a piece of the natural rock awkwardly showing itself in a corner of the farm kitchen. This latter, though it may seem a rather strange object to find in a living apartment, is, in some of the rougher built of the moorland cottages, not such a very uncommon thing after all. If a big lump of granite rock happened to lie within the area designed by the builder of a house to be enclosed by his walls, he didn't seem to mind it, but proceeded with his erection, knocking off as much of the protruding rock as he conveniently could, and allowing the rest to remain, to excuse which slovenly mode of building stories of the supernatural were invented.

But the consequences of interfering with such things are no longer dreaded. Old Daniel Leaman, of Dart-meet, in order to rid his cottage of such an obstacle to the proper disposition of his furniture, sought the aid of gunpowder, determined upon clearing his room of the rock, in spite of all the pixies on Dartmoor. Like Mrs. Brown, the washerwoman, who, desirous of curing a smoky chimney, poured the contents of a powder-horn into the fire "to burn up by degrees," Daniel was not so well acquainted with the power of the agent he employed as he imagined, and the contents of his room, and window glass, suffered in consequence.

An unweeded garden has been shown as an example of a spot on which no plants would grow, and for the reason that having originally been laid out and planted with flowers for the special delectation of the pixie's, it was afterwards taken away from them, and sought to be put to other uses.

On the banks of the Teign, not far from Holy Street, near Chagford, is a rock, known as the Puggie or Puckie Stone, in the midst of wild and romantic scenery. The name of this rock has been thought to be equivalent to Pixy Stone, and that the word pixy is derived from puck or pwc, meaning sprite or goblin, there does not seem much reason to doubt. Shakespeare's Puck is our pixy exactly. The Fairy asks him:--

Are you not he,

That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk; and sometimes labour in the quern;
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?"

To which Puck replies:

Thou speak'st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night." [a]

The Puckie Stone is not the only object in that neighbourhood connected by tradition with the elfin race, for a group of rocks further down the river, near the gorge of the Teign, is known as the Pixies' Parlour.

Though it is generally in the barn or pound-house that the pixy takes it upon himself to assist the farmer, yet there are not wanting instances when he has meddled in his out-of-door concerns, as the following story will show. It will be seen, however, that in this case there is a doubt whether the goblins were bent on mischief, or were endeavouring to help forward the good man's labour.


It was harvest time, and the sun had not long risen, when a yeoman, whose farm was situated on the borders of the moor, betook himself to the field where, on the previous day, the sickle had been busy among the golden grain. What was his surprise on arriving there to find that a great number of the sheaves, which had been left standing in shocks, had been dragged to one corner of the field, and there piled in a confused heap, while others were lying about time ground. He was completely mystified at first, but upon turning the matter over in his mind, came to the conclusion, that it was nothing less than the work of the pixies, though what cause they had for acting in such a manner he could not readily divine. He could scarcely bring himself to believe that they had done it out of mischief, for he had always heard that they seldom played such pranks upon those who had never given them any cause for it, and he had certainly no recollection of having done aught to incur their displeasure.

His surmises were of course of no avail. It was perfectly plain what had been done, and all that now remained was to put the sheaves up again in shocks, and this he accordingly set about doing without wasting any more time, and with no little labour accomplished the task.

But when evening drew nigh, the farmer began to reflect that it was extremely probable that the pixies would visit his field again, and being desirous of preventing a repetition of their mischievous pranks, determined upon keeping watch.

The sun went down, and time shades of evening began to creep over the face of nature, till at last the big harvest moon mounted into the heavens, and shed around a light of such silvery brightness that every object was plainly discernible. The farmer stepped out upon the threshold and looked about him. Everything was calm and peaceful, and with the exception of an occasional bark of some sheep-dog, no sound broke the quiet of the night. The moon mounted higher and higher, bathing in its beams the old house, and the barn across the yard, and plainly revealing the path which led to the harvest field. This was but a short distance from the house, and on time very edge of the common that rose beyond it, where the grey granite rocks cast dark shadows upon the tall patches of fern that almost covered the surface of time ground.

The good yeoman approached the field very cautiously, and peeping through the interstices of the rough moorstone wail, beheld a sight, which, though partially prepared for, filled him with astonishment.

A considerable number of diminutive elves were busily engaged in pulling down the sheaves of corn, and dragging them to the corner of the field. They were all working very hard indeed, and it was evidently as much as several of them could do, to remove a sheaf. They did not, however, appear to be at all dismayed at the magnitude of the task they had set themselves to do, but all worked with a hearty good will, chattering incessantly to one another, though what they were saying the farmer was not close enough to hear. So interested was he in what was going forward, that he almost forgot he had come to prevent any such proceedings, and could not for the life of him bring himself to frighten the pixies away, but stood for a long time behind the wall, watching them at their self-imposed labours.

Here, a group of several were endeavouring to raise a sheaf upon their shoulders, and at every fruitless attempt to do so would chatter rapidly to one another in a very excited manner. There, a knot of six or eight in number were slowly dragging a sheaf across the field, towards the corner where they had taken so many on the previous night.,and at that spot the commotion and uproar was tremendous. Quite a crowd of little elves were calling and gesticulating, and running hither and thither, some pulling the sheaves this way, and some that, but all endeavouring to pile them in a heap. On the wall close by, many of the pixies were perched, and their features, upon which were self-satisfied looking grins, were plainly to be seen in the bright light of the moon.

The farmer looked on with amazement. What the object of the goblins could be, he was unable to comprehend, for he could scarcely imagine they would put themselves to so much trouble merely to cause him annoyance. Then it struck him all at once that possibly their intention was to help him by stacking his sheaves for him into a mow, but that being unable to accomplish it on the preceding night, they were obliged to leave them in the disordered heap in which he had found them at early morn. All this passed rapidly through his mind as he surveyed the busy groups, the interest he felt in watching them preventing him from taking any action.

At length beginning to realize what a deal of extra work the elves would give him to put things straight again, he considered it was high time for him to interfere. Just as he had made up his mind to this, one of time pixies, an odd-looking little fellow, with a cunning leer on his face, and a most horrible squint, came up very near to where he was hidden, and laying hold of a sheaf of corn, began tugging at it with all his might, at the same time calling to some others, who were near for assistance, and crying, "I twit! I twit I " The sight of the sheaf being pulled about in such a rough fashion almost under his very nose, irritated the farmer, who sprang suddenly over the wail, and running towards the pixie, cried out loudly, "Leave alone my corn, thee little toad." instantly the goblins dropped the sheaves, and ceased their chatter, and ere the farmer had time to look around him, had disappeared over the wall at the further end of the field. The farmer ran towards it, and as he neared it, he heard a low, mocking laugh. He paused, and looked about him. There on the gate, with the same grin on his countenance, and his little squint eyes turned towards him, sat the pixy who had approached so near to him as he watched from behind the wall. Two others were perched on the rail by his side, and to these the squint-eyed pixy said, pointing to the fanner, "Little doth that old man know my name is Vickeytoad," and immediately he and his companions vanished.

Possibly we see in the first syllable of the pixy's name a corruption of fach, (f. pron. as v), meaning little. Unless this is so the remark of the goblin appears to be quite meaningless, but if it be the case, we can understand that he is referring to the farmer having, when calling to him, unwittingly given him his name.

It is not often that we hear of a pixy entering a room where there are occupants, and yes: being unconscious of their presence. The little rogues generally keep a sharper look-out, but an instance of this kind is nevertheless afforded by the following story.


One winter evening the female inmates of a lonely farm-house, on the borders of the moor near Brent, were seated at the large kitchen table, busily engaged in preparing some good things for supper, for they were about to celebrate some family festival. A huge joint was slowly turning on the spit before the fire, and a most appetizing odour pervaded the apartment. The work was going forward briskly, the women being intent upon their employment, when the door was pushed gently open, and a little figure made its appearance.

The occupants of the room remained perfectly silent, watching with a great degree of curiosity the actions of the intruding pixy, who was a slim little fellow, clad in tight pantaloons and a neat jacket of green. He approached the hearth, and looked closely at the joint of meat revolving on the spit, and then, as if satisfied with his examination, turned away, and commenced to scrutinize the various objects within the chimney corner. At length he stood up before the fire, and plucking a single hair out of his head, let it fall into the blaze. This he repeated a number of times, but in a very slow and deliberate manner, the women looking on, quite at a loss to understand the meaning of so strange a proceeding. It was evident that time pixy was unaware of their presence, and, quite at his ease, he continued his hair-pulling before the fire.

In the midst of this a tiny voice was beard, calling from without, in a tone of warning, as though danger was near, " Modilla! Modilla!

The pixy started, and instantly cried out, "Podilla! Podilla!"

"Modilla;" repeated the voice, this time in a very peremptory manner.

"Podilla! "responded the elf by the fire, and instantly darted through the door-way.

The women rose and rushed cut after him, but the pixy was nowhere to be seen, though the outer door was securely fastened. His companion without had by some means become aware of the presence of the people in the kitchen, and had at once called him away from a spot where he was likely to run into danger.


[a] Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II., Sc. I.

Next: Chapter IX: The Lost Path.--The Pixies' Revel.--Conclusion