The Lost Path.--The Pixies' Revel.--Conclusion.
OF all the superstitions connected with the pixies, that, already remarked upon, of wayfarers being liable to be led astray by them, seems to be the one which has longest continued to keep a hold upon the country-people. There are many now in our villages, who while they would not admit that they believed in the pixies' doings, yet are full of instances of folks having missed their way in the most mysterious manner, and are more ready to incline to the idea that supernatural agencies were at work, than to seek the actual causes of such mishaps.
Two instances occur to me at the moment, of villagers of Brent having lost themselves in a neighbourhood with which they were thoroughly acquainted, and being unable for a very long time to discover their road. One of these was on his way homeward from Ugborough, which is some three miles distant from Brent, and somehow found himself at fault in the lanes near Sandowl Cross, wandering about in them during the greater part of the night. The other was merely proceeding from the village to the hamlet of Aish, only half a mile away, and got mystified in the same manner. Now positively they say that if this was not the work of the pixies, they are unable to account for it. The toads were known to them, but by some means they constantly took the wrong turning, and seemed to be entirely at fault. We had better perhaps, be not too inquisitive about the matter; the true cause may not he far to seek. I mention the circumstance in order to show that the belief in this liability to be drawn away from one's path by supernatural means is not yet extinct. [a]
The tradition connected with Fitz's, or Fice's Well, near Princetown, is of pixy-led travellers, and affords an instance of the virtue of water in all such cases.
John Fitz and his lady falling under the spell of the goblins, when riding over Dartrnoor, were utterly at a loss to find their way home, but chancing to light upon a spring, they had no sooner tasted of the water, than all difficulty about the matter vanished, and they were able to proceed without difficulty. The erection over the well, which has inscribed upon it the initials of John Fitz, and the date 1568, was erected by him out of gratitude at having been delivered from so perplexing a predicament. [b]
That such a superstition as the belief in the efficacy of water to destroy the spells cast over the traveller should obtain on Dartmoor, is not much to be wondered at, for there is no doubt that many a wanderer, lost in a mist, and believing himself to be pixy-led, has found his way off the moor by coming upon a stream of water and following its course.
And that the mists are responsible for a great deal is certain. Often do we hear of farmers being unable to find the gate by which they have entered a field or new-take, and of their great perplexity in consequence; and it is more than probable that such misadventures have happened during one of these mists, which frequently arise very suddenly, but the pixies have nevertheless had to bear the blame.
But if the elfin sprites occasionally mislead the traveller, they more than make up for it, if it be true as we are sometimes told, that they indicate spots where metals may be found. Beneath the fairy rings where they dance and sing by night, the miner has only to dig and he will be sure to hit upon a precious lode; that the goblins themselves occasionally engage in such a pursuit almost seems to be the case, for it is told how they may be heard knocking within the rocks. And if you apply your ear to the granite sides of some of the tors of the moor, it is said you may hear the pixies ringing their bells within; the "pixies " in this case probably being the faint echo of some distant village peal.
We have seen how these goblins delight to dance in the moonlight, on the turf, and how the little fellows throw themselves right heartily into their merry-makings. We shall now see that they sometimes choose the farmhouses to be the scene of their meetings for indulging in the dance, and after the inmates have retired to rest, enjoy themselves to their hearts' content in the kitchen.
THE PIXIES' REVEL.
Once upon a time--we will begin the story in the orthodox fashion--an old farmer and his wife dwelt in a lonely house on the moor. Fortune could not exactly be said to have frowned upon them, for the couple might have been very much worse off than they were, but yet she had not turned towards them her brightest of smiles, they having rather more than their full share of toil. The farmer was out in his fields from morning till night, and when he reached the house was glad, after his supper and a short rest by the fire, to take himself off to his bed. But unfortunately, although he so much needed sleep, he was at length unable to obtain it, in consequence of the pixies having suddenly taken a fancy to visiting his house at night, and keeping up an incessant chattering in the kitchen, which was situated immediately underneath his bedroom. And so he frequently lay tossing about, not able to get a wink of sleep until far into the night, and sometimes never closed his eyes at all. He was reluctant to incur the enmity of the "little people" by driving them away, and so he bore this state of things for some time, till one night the noise was so great, that he jumped out of bed, determined to put a stop to it.
"What be the matter?" asked his dame, to whom he had not communicated his intention.
"'Way, these here pisgies be a makin' sich a rattle that I want put up wi't no more. I'll zee what they he up to; I can zee mun droo the 'all in the planchin'."
The farmer peeped down through the hole in the floor, and unobserved by the pixies was able to become a spectator of their proceedings. In the middle of the kitchen a number of them were dancing in a ring, while others were running and jumping about the room, at the same time all were shouting and making a great noise. On the shelves of the dresser several were perched, to the imminent danger of the good wife's cups and plates, while some were climbing up the clock-case, and mounting the deal table, and jumping again to the floor, to run in and out of the circle of merry dancers. They were evidently enjoying themselves heartily, and the farmer felt almost inclined to let them alone, till the many sleepless nights he had endured came to his recollection. As he was considering the best means of ridding himself of his unwelcome company, he observed a pixy perched upon a stool immediately beneath him, and thinking how greatly he should frighten the noisy party if he could but strike one of them, he took up a steel-pronged fork which lay near him, and noiselessly putting his arm through the hole in the floor, let it drop right on to the pixy. The little fellow happened to commence capering about just as the farmer did this, and luckily for him the fork did not enter his body, but pinned him by the leg to the stool. He set up a great cry, and the pixies seeing what had happened, flew towards the door and rapidly made their exit through the keyhole. The unfortunate victim of the farmer's vengeance attempted to follow, but while he was able to reduce his own size so as to go through the smallest of crevices without difficulty, he had no power to alter that of the stool, and consequently he stuck fast in the keyhole. Here he was captured by the master of the house, who had hurried down stairs when he saw the effect of his aim, and speedily released from his encumbrance.
The rural narrator from whom I had this story was unable to say what the farmer did with his prize, but let us hope that he merely intimated to him his desire to be permitted to sheep quietly in the future, and let him go.
The foregoing are but a few examples of the many tales that are related of the pixies, but they will serve to illustrate the various parts played by that fairy race when interesting themselves in the affairs of mortals. While they often manifest a readiness to assist in the work of the farmer, their actions were certainly somewhat erratic. A spirit of mischief seems not infrequently to have ruled them, though it would generally appear that unless some cause had been given them to tease or punish those who dwelt near their haunts, the latter were more likely to receive good than harm at their hands.
We have said that the age of the pixies is gone. And that they have almost disappeared before "the march of intellect " is indeed the case; but while this is so, the exploits which are yet related of them remain as a not uninteresting portion of our folk-lore.
[a] While these sheets were passing through the press, an instance of superstitious belief was reported in the Western Daily Mercury, of 6th June, 1890. It appears that a few days previous to that date, some labourers were engaged in ripping bark in a wood at a short distance from Torrington, in North Devon. When the time arrived for them to leave their work, one of them separating himself from his companions went to another part of the wood, in order to fetch a tool which he had left there. As he stooped to pick it up, a most strange feeling came over him, and he felt himself utterly unable to regain an upright position. Around him he heard peals of discordant laughter, and became seized with the conviction that he had fallen under a spell of the pixies. In this uncomfortable predicament he averred that he remained for the space of five hours, and was even then only able to crawl away on his hands and knees. Not knowing in what direction he was proceeding, he fell at length into a stream, and on pulling himself out of it, recognized his whereabouts, and made the best of his way home. Here he was remonstrated with by his wife for not having turned his pocket inside out, a charm which could not fail to counteract the magic power of the pixies. It is stated that a man named Short--a tailor--was a few years since pixy-led in the same wood, and continued under the spells of the goblins until morning.
[b] It is somewhat interesting to note that in the story which comes to us from Torrington. the man was unable to find his way home until he met with a stream.