Lough Tor Hole. The Huccaby Courting.
THE retreats of the pixies at Sheeps Tor and Huccaby Cleave, and their place of rendezvous at New Bridge, having been described, and the kind of actions with which they have been credited made known to us by the people at the farmhouse we have in imagination visited, I have now to relate some stories of these little elves, which I have gleaned from time to time on the moor.
It is true that a great deal of confidence in their authenticity is not manifested by those who still narrate these doings of the little folks, but yet the Dartmoor peasant delights to relate what he has heard about them. These "fictions of our fathers," as we have seen, often point the moral that when not interfered with the pixies have frequently been great benefactors to the farmer, their favourite mode of helping him being by threshing his corn, and have also rendered considerable assistance to his good wife by churning the butter occasionally, and by otherwise taking upon themselves the execution of various household duties. The maid-servants, too, have had their labours lessened, when they have shown themselves deserving of it, the tiny sprites seeing to the sweeping of the kitchen, and keeping the cupboards free from cobwebs. But should any inquisitive feelings be exhibited, and the proceedings of the fairy elves be watched by prying eyes, the accounts which we have of them invariably agree in stating that from that time forth the pixies abstain from doing the would-be observer of their actions any further service.
As we have gathered, they have also a habit of visiting in another fashion those who have spoken lightly of them, or who have doubted their power, for we find the wayfarer on the moor is oft-times pixy-led, and becomes so bewildered that he in vain endeavours to find the desired path; or it is found to be impossible for the good dame at the farm to make her butter, and the contents of the churn are rendered useless. These and a hundred other tricks are played upon the hapless wight who has chanced to gain the displeasure of the little elves.
But these things are only told on the moor now as what "old people used to say," and while there is yet lingering a kind of belief that there may have born some sort of truth in them, it is not sufficiently strong to assail in any great degree the scepticism that now exists, or to induce the belief that the pixies are ever likely to be seen again; while for many of the effects which were wont to be ascribed to their agency, explanations in natural causes are found. A workman who lives near Gobbet Mine, on the moor, once told me of an adventure that befel him--a kind of "Fakenham Ghost "experience--which, happening to a rustic prone to believe in the supernatural, might not improbably have been regarded as a genuine appearance of the Arch Enemy of mankind, but which our workman, quickly recovering from his fright, discovered to be caused by something of a very innocent character. He was--to use his own expression--returning from "courting" one dark night, when he suddenly found himself sprawling at full length on the ground, and a dusky form with two immense ears bending over him. His first impression was that it was "wishtness," but this was quickly dispelled when on scrambling to his knees and boldly facing it, he discovered it to be a black donkey, which, having lain down to rest in his path, he had stumbled over.
A fruitful source of stories of pixies having been observed leaping about at night is the ignis fatuus, or Will-o'-the-Wisp, but which, though its appearance is not always understood by the peasants, is not now looked upon by them as anything other than a natural phenomenon. You will sometimes be told on the moor that this luminous meteor will rise wherever a mineral lode occurs, and that many have been discovered by means of it. "Old Billy Williams," a mine captain of former days, and a man of some renown on the moor, I have been informed was a firm believer in this, and stated that its appearance was due to the heat of the lode beneath the surface.
The amusements of the pixies seem principally to have consisted in dancing in a ring on the green sward in the moonlight, New Bridge, as already stated, having been a favourite resort of theirs when indulging in this diversion. But the spot is deserted now, and the times of the pixies have passed away. They have vanished one and all, and on the old moor, so long the scene of their merry freaks and gambols, the memory of them is alone retained. The tor is still pointed out where their fairy ring was often found at dewy morn, the grot where they dwelt may yet be seen amid the rocks or overhung by the shady sycamores, and the cottage and the farm-house where they practised their vagaries are yet remembered in the gossip's tale, but the elves themselves are gone. Dartmoor, where old customs and old superstitions linger yet, has been deserted by this elfin tribe, and the stillness of the night will never more be broken by the sounds of fairy revelry.
"They are flown,
Beautiful fictions! Hills, and vales, and woods,
Mountains and moors of Devon, ye have lost
The enchantments, the delights, the visions all--
The elfin visions that so blessed the sight
In the old days, romantic." [a]
That the peasants are not slow to perceive that many circumstances which were formerly looked upon as mysterious may be accounted for in a simple manner, is evidenced by the fact that they are ready to offer explanations of many. of the seemingly perplexing incidents which they relate. The following, which was told me by old George Caunter, of Dartmeet (Uncle George), may be given as an instance of this, for the solution of what had appeared strange and for which the pixies were made responsible, was readily forthcoming from the old man. A man named Hannaford, together with his wife, once lived at Lough Tor Hole, [b] which is situated on the East Dart, at no great distance below Bellaford Bridge. The few dwellers in the neighbourhood had often heard them speak of their children, but no one, when chancing to call at the house, had ever seen anything of them there. Sometimes as they approached it a troop of ragged little imps would appear for a moment to their view, and immediately vanish among the bracken as if by magic. Occasionally a farmer or a moor-man seeking his cattle near the place, would see several little forms scrambling among the boulders of granite, but on the slightest attempt to get near them they disappeared. At length it was hinted among the people round about that what Hannaford and his wife called their children were nothing more nor less than a troop of pixies, for they disappeared in the same extraordinary fashion, on the approach of anyone, that those little elves were said to do. This belief continued to grow, and in a short time there were none who doubted that Hannaford and his wife were connected in some mysterious manner with that tribe of little goblins, and folks began to shun passing that way. But of witchery there was none, for, as Uncle George explained, Lough Tor Hole is a very out-of-the-way place, and those who visited it but few, and the young children being accustomed to see scarce anyone but their parents became frightened on the approach of a stranger, and hid themselves with all speed, keeping out of the way until they had departed.
But it is not explanations of the stories of the pixies with which we have to deal, but simply to record them as they now exist, and in furtherance of this we will, without longer preface, beg the reader's attention to the story of
THE HUCCABY COURTING.
On the left bank of the West Dart, just above Hexworthy Bridge, stands Huccaby Farmhouse, where, several years ago, the presiding genius of the dairy was a buxom lass, whose attractions were not unheeded by the youthful swains of the neighbourhood.
But the rivalry for the smiles of the damsel was of a friendly nature, and the passion of her admirers, though in all probability not deficient in ardour, was not of so deep-rooted a character but that they were able to bear up against the disappointment of losing her, for when at last it became known that Tom White, of Post Bridge, was the favoured suitor, the others took a very philosophical view of the matter, and instead of straightway rushing off and hanging themselves to the nearest tree, or--as trees are scarce objects on the moor--taking a fatal plunge in the waters of the Dart, they thought no more about it, but quietly left Tom with the field to himself.
Post Bridge, where, it has been remarked, Tom resided, is nearly five miles from Huccaby, and as the farm duties of our "gay Lothario" would not permit him to visit the lady of his love by day, he was forced to content himself with seeing her at eventide, when labour was over. After a hearty evening meal--for Tom did not believe in making love upon an empty stomach--he would set out to walk the five miles like a man, and at the close of the interview with his fair "Dulcinea" would trudge back again to his home. A walk of ten miles after a day spent in labour is an undertaking that many men would shrink from: but what is it to a man in love? And the plucky way in which Tom accomplished it, several evenings a week, proved the ardour of his passion. Boldly would he set forth from his home, and his walk over Lakehead Hill and by the rugged rocks of Bellaford Tor was rendered light and easy by the anticipation of the blissful time in store for him, and his journey back was made cheerful by the recollection of it.
One would suppose that a man who could look with equanimity upon a walk of this kind would be so firm in his determination of winning the hand of the mistress of his heart, that nothing would turn him from it. But, alas I it was not to be so. One summer night Tom had stayed rather later than usual, and as he strode onward, after having mounted the slope behind the house, he saw that the stars were beginning to pale before the coming dawn. He walked rapidly on, for he began to think that he should have but a short time in bed before the hour when he must rise to go to his labour would arrive, and he was anxious to get home as soon as he could.
Plodding onward, the slope of Bellaford Tor was shortly reached, and as Tom passed by the walls of the new-takes, and approached the tor itself, he fancied he heard sounds as of merry voices in the distance. Once or twice he paused to listen, but the sounds were so very faint, and the probability of anyone being abroad at that early hour in such a spot so very slight, that he came to the conclusion that he had mistaken the sighing of the wind for voices, and pressed on his way.
And now the rocks of the tar began to rise dimly. before him, assuming, in that uncertain light, uncouth and fantastic shapes. The ground over which he was passing was strewn with granite blocks, and he was fain to proceed more cautiously. Arrived at the tor, he was threading his way among the scattered rocks with the intention of passing on one side of it, when suddenly sounds similar to those he had previously heard struck upon his ear, but so plainly as to convince him that he was certainly now labouring under no delusion. Ere he could look around him to discover whence they proceeded the sounds increased tenfold, and it was evident that a very merry party was somewhere close at hand. Instantaneously it flashed into his mind that he had approached a pixy gathering, and stepping at that instant round a huge granite block, he came upon a strange and bewildering sight.
On a small level piece of velvety turf, entirely surrounded by boulders, a throng of little creatures were assembled, dressed in most fantastic costumes. A great number of them had joined hands, and were dancing merrily in a ring, while many were perched upon the rocks around, and all were laughing and shouting with glee. Poor Tom was frightened beyond measure, and knew not whether it was better to proceed or endeavour to retreat. If he could steal away unobserved he might pass on the opposite side of the tor, and this he determined upon doing. But no sooner had he made up his mind to pursue this course, than the little folks observed him, and instantly forming a ring round him, danced more furiously than ever. As they whirled around, Tom was constrained to turn around with them, although, so rapid was their pace. that he was utterly unable to keep up with their frantic movements. Each one, too, was joining in the elfin chorus as loud as his little lungs would enable him, and although they danced and sting with all their might they never seemed to tire. In vain Tom called upon them to stop--his cries only causing the pixies to laugh the merrier--while they seemed to have no intention whatever of discontinuing their antics. Tom's head began to swim round; he put out his arms wildly, his legs felt as if they would give way under him; but yet he could not avoid spinning around in a mad whirl. He would have given worlds to stop, and endeavoured in vain to throw himself on the grass: the mazy gallop still continued, and poor Tom was compelled to take his part in it.
In the height of the din the sun began to rise above the ridge of Hameldon, and at the first sight of the bright orb the noise suddenly ceased, the little folks instantly vanished among the crevices of the rocks, and Turn found himself lying alone on the moor.
Plucking up his courage, he made his way towards home as fast as he was able, devoutly hoping he might reach it without encountering any more pixies. This he fortunately did, and got to rest without delay.
But, alas! the pixies had done more harm than merely worrying a poor mortal: they were the means of the buxom damsel of Huccaby losing her lover. Poor Tom was so frightened at his nocturnal adventure that he made a vow he would never go courting anymore--and he kept it. It is probable there were not wanting those who were ready to doubt that Tom White ever saw the pixies at all, and were prepared to assign as a reason for his belief that he did so the probability of his having been regaled on something a little stronger than water, ere leaving his lady-love, and this would account for the spirits getting into his head. Be that as it may, Tom stoutly declared it was all as he said, and resolutely stuck to his determination of eschewing the fascinations of the fair sex in the future. We are told that "faint heart never won fair lady"; it was certainly so in Tom's case. The fear that he might again encounter the pixies proved stronger than the affection he bore for the damsel who had so often lured him by her charms. On the subject of the fortunes of the rustic beauty, history is silent. We know not whether she bestowed her hand on any of the swains of the moor, or whether fate destined her to a life of "single blessedness "; but we shall be perfectly safe in believing that, unlike Tom, she never made any vow after he left her that she would never go courting again!
[a] Carrington, The Pixies of Devon.
[b] I am not sure as to the correct mode of spelling the name of this place. The tor above it is sometimes rendered Laugh Tor, and sometimes Lough Tor. The old spelling of the name is Lafter Hole, and it is often so pronounced at present n the moor, though more frequently spoken of as Larter Hall.