Once upon a time there was, in this celebrated town [Tavistock], a Dame Somebody, I do not know her name, and as she is a real character, I have no right to give her a fictitious one. All I with truth can say, is, that she was old, and nothing the worse for that; for age is, or ought to be, held in honor as the source of wisdom and experience. Now this good old woman lived not in vain, for she had passed her days in the useful capacity of a nurse; and as she approached the term of going out of the world herself, she was still useful in her generation, by helping others into it — she was, in fact, the Sage-femme of the village; for though I have the utmost dislike to mixing up French, or any foreign words, with the good, plain English of my native land, I here for once venture on a French expression, because it is, in certain particulars, considered as a refinement so much in fashion, that I must not venture to neglect it.
One night, about twelve o’clock in the morning, as the good folks say who tell this tale, Dame Somebody had just got comfortably into bed, when rap, rap, rap came on her cottage door, with such bold, loud, 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 favor 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 upon “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 divel.”
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 Dame Somebody 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 the 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 the child’s eyes with it.”
Now you must know that this word strike in our Devonshire vocabulary, does not exactly mean to give a blow, but rather what is opposite, to rub, smooth down, or touch gently.
The nurse performed her task, though she thought it an odd one; and as it is nothing new that old nurses are generally very curious, she wondered what it could be for; and 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 fairyland, 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 redoubted father: whilst two or three children more had undergone a metamorphosis as uncouth as that recorded by Ovid when the Cercopians were transformed into apes. 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 ointment, and what she had beheld in consequence of doing so. The sour-looking old fellow once more handed her up on the coal-black horse, and sent her home in a whip-sissa. Now what a whip-sissa means is more than I can tell, though I consider myself to be tolerably well acquainted with the tongues of this “West Countrie.” It may mean, perhaps, “Whip, says he,” in allusion to some gentle intimation being feelingly given by the rider to the horse’s sides with a switch, that he should use the utmost dispatch; but my derivation of the word, like that of some better etymologists on difficult occasions, may be a little far fetched. I, therefore, leave the point to be settled by the learned. Certain it is, the old woman returned home much faster than she went. But mark the event.
On the next market day, when she sallied forth to sell her eggs, who should she see but the same, wicked-looking old fellow, busied, like a rogue as he was, in pilfering sundry articles from stall to stall.
“O! ho!” thought the dame, “have I caught you, you old thief? But I’ll let you see I could set master mayor and the two town constables on your back, if I chose to be telling.”
So up she went, and with that bold free sort of air, which persons, who have learnt secrets that ought not to be known, are apt to assume when they address any great rogue hitherto considered as a superior, she inquired carelessly after his wife and child, and hoped both were as well as could be expected.
“What!” exclaimed the old pixy thief, “do you see me today?”
“See you! To be sure I do, as plain as I see the sun in the skies; and I see you are busy into the bargain.”
“Do you so! ” cried he. “Pray with which eye do you see all this?”
“With the right eye to be sure.”
“The ointment! The ointment!” exclaimed the old fellow. “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 on the right side; thus dearly paying for having gratified an idle curiosity in the house of a pixy.
[Anna Eliza Bray, ‘Traditions, Legends, Superstitions, and Sketches of Devonshire on the Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy’, vol. 1 (1838)]