‘YOU good-for-nothing boy, you! It’s always meal-times when you come home: that’s all you care about here. Look at the knees of your trousers; why, playing marbles in the street with all the other filthy little brats is about all you’re fit for. How d’you think I’m going to spend all my time patching up your holes and tatters? Drat you! Get out of it and wipe your boots before you come into a clean kitchen. I’ve been all the afternoon tidying up for the good Friar’s visit this evening, and now you----’
‘Hang the good Friar!’ said Jack under his breath, for he was sick and tired of his stepmother’s sour tongue, and more than sick and tired of the good Friar, who, he knew, was only ‘good’ when he was not feeling well. Taking a fairy-tale book from the shelf he went and sat in the inglenook, thus sheltering himself from a further storm of abuse from his stepmother.
The fact of the matter was, that thrice upon a time his father had married. Jack, a merry-hearted boy, and lovable for all his mischief, was his son by his first wife. The other two had no children, and the stepmother now living seemed to resent the fact of Jack’s existence. His father loved him dearly, but, when the father was away, Jack had a sore time with his sour-tempered stepmother. No wonder he only came home to meals; no wonder he preferred his fairy-tale book to her venomous tongue.
When supper-time came, Jack was always summoned to his food well in time for it to be cleared away before his father came in; and the reason for this was that his father should not see how he was stinted.
But one day the father got to know about these things, and taxed his wife on her treatment of the boy.
‘Look here, sir,’ said she, ‘I wish to goodness you would take your wretched son away and put him in a school for saints, since you think he is so good. As for me, he plagues my life out, and, if you keep him here with his ne’er-do-well ways, you’ll come home some evening to find me gone.’
Instead of beating his wife for these words--as some men do when their wives so beseech them--the goodman put his hand on her shoulder and said, ‘Nay, nay, my dear; the boy is only a boy; let him stay with us another year until he can fend for himself. Now, I’ll tell you what: let the man who looks after the sheep come in here and do the work about the house, and Jack will take his place in the field. The man can have Jack’s bed, and Jack will be delighted to sleep in the outhouse. What say you?’
The wife could not object to this, for, at least, the man would be more useful and less troublesome about the house than Jack could ever be. So she agreed to her husband’s proposal.
The next day the plan was put into operation.
The man was set to work about the house, and Jack was sent out into the fields to mind the sheep. As he went he sang merrily, for he loved the green fields and the animals. He doubted the dinner his stepmother had put up for him, wrapped in a kitchen clout; yet he sang merrily as he went in search of the sheep:
’Green gravel! Green gravel!
Thy grass is so green.
‘Tis the fairies’ green gravel
With the daisies between.’
Then, when he had found them:
Save your wool for me;
Then in snowy yuletides
Snug and warm I’ll be.’
Then, later, when he began to get hungry, it was:
’Sheepie, wander, wander
All the fields about;
Grass is growing under,
Clover budding out.
My mother does not squander
Cakes on me, I doubt;
What is here, I wonder,
In this kitchen clout?’
And, sitting down on a mossy bank, he opened the clout in which his stepmother had wrapped his dinner. Lo and behold, it was dry bread, with a very thick layer of dripping scraped off from it back into the pot. He ate very little, thinking that surely his father would give him something nicer to eat when he got home.
In the afternoon he sat on the hillside watching the sheep and singing merrily, when he saw an aged man with a staff making his way towards him.
‘God bless you, son,’ said the aged one.
‘Good-morrow, father,’ replied the boy. ‘You are weary. Rest a while on this mossy bank.’
‘Ay, I will,’ said the old man, sitting down beside the boy. ‘You speak truly: I am weary, and hungry, and thirsty too. Have you any food? And would your young legs take you to the stream to bring me back a draught of water?’
‘I have food, such as it is,’ replied Jack readily; and he offered him the dry bread and scrape that his stepmother had given him. ‘As for water, I have a pannikin, and I’ll soon fill it at the stream.’ And with that he hurried off to fetch the water.
When he returned, and the old man had eaten and drank, he thanked the boy. ‘God love you, child,’ he said; ‘you have been kind to me. And now, in return, I am minded to grant you three wishes of your heart. Think well, and then name them; and it shall be as I say.’
Jack thought and thought; but all he could decide on to begin with was a bow and arrow. So he asked for that.
‘Certainly!’ said the old man; and, rising, he went behind the bank, and presently returned with the bow and arrow, which he gave to the boy.
‘This will last you all your life,’ he said; ‘and it will never break. All you have to do is to draw it with the arrow on the string, and whatever you aim at will fall, pierced by the arrow.’
Jack was delighted, and, in order to test it, he fixed an arrow and let it fly at a hawk passing overhead. The arrow sped and pierced the body of the hawk, which came down plump at their feet.
At this Jack considered his second wish, for he said to himself, ‘An old man who can give me a bow and arrow that can never miss, can give me almost anything.’ Then he made up his mind and asked for a pipe on which to play tunes.
‘I have always wanted a pipe,’ he said; ‘I would like one so much, no matter how small it is.’
Then the old man got up and went behind the bank, and came back presently with a beautiful pipe, which he gave to the boy.
‘It is a strange pipe,’ he said. ‘When you play upon it any one besides yourself who hears the music must dance, and keep on dancing till the music stops.’
Jack thought this was fine, and would have played a tune there and then, but he looked at the aged man and saw that it would hurt him to dance; so he waited: there was always the ‘good Friar’ to pipe to.
‘Now, child,’ said the old man at last, ‘what is your third and last wish?’
Jack pondered a long time, and at last he chuckled and clapped his hands with glee. When the old man asked him what tickled him so, he could not reply at once, as he was so busy enjoying some joke beforehand. At last, when he was able to speak, he said, ‘Father, it has just crossed my mind that my stepmother is always looking at me sourly and always scolding me. I wish that when she does this she will laugh, and go on laughing till I give her the word to stop. Can you grant that wish, father?’
‘I can,’ said the old man; ‘and it will be so. When she looks at you sourly or speaks to you crossly, she will laugh until she falls to the ground, and then go on laughing until you tell her to stop.’
When Jack had thanked him, the old man said good-bye and tottered away, leaning heavily on his staff. Meanwhile Jack sat and nursed his three wishes, feeling as gay-hearted about his good luck as a lambkin with three tails.
When the sun set at last and his day’s work was done, he rose and trudged homewards in great glee. As he went he played his pipe, and all the sheep and cattle and horses and dogs danced, till he left off for laughing at the sight of them kicking up their heels. Even the birds and the bees waltzed in the air, and, as he crossed a bridge, he saw the little fishes pirouetting in the stream below.
As soon as he reached home he put the pipe away, and, going into the house, found his father at supper.
‘Father,’ said he, ‘I am terribly hungry after looking to the sheep all day; and, besides, my dinner was very dry.’
‘Here you are, my son,’ replied his father; and, cutting a wing from the roast capon on the table before him, he set it on a plate and pushed it over to the boy.
At this the stepmother, grudging to see such a nice portion given to the boy, turned upon him with a look that would have made a cow give sour milk. Then, on the instant, she burst out laughing. Her husband stared at her in amazement, but still she laughed, her sides shaking with her shrill peals; and louder and louder she laughed, until the rafters shook and she fell to the ground, still laughing as if she would die of it.
At last Jack, with his capon’s wing in both hands before him, stopped eating to cry, ‘Enough, I say!’ And immediately the stepmother ceased her laughter and struggled to her feet, looking more dead than alive.
Now, the next day, when Jack was minding the sheep, the good Friar called at the house, and the stepmother told him what a naughty boy Jack was, and how he had made her laugh till she had nearly died, and then mocked her.
‘Go you, now,’ she said; ‘go and find him in the fields and give him a sound beating for my sake. It will do him good--and me too.’
So the Friar went out into the fields and at last found the boy, with his bow and arrow in his hands.
‘Young man,’ said the Friar, ‘tell me at once what you have done to your stepmother that she is so angered with you. Tell me at once, I say, or I will give you a sound beating.’
‘What’s the matter with you?’ replied Jack. ‘If my stepmother wants me beaten, let her do it herself. See that bird?’ He pointed to a very plump bird flying overhead. ‘If you fetch it when it drops, you can have it.’
With this he let fly an arrow and pierced the bird, which fell to earth a little way off in a bramble patch. As the Friar darted forward to get it--for it was indeed a plump bird--Jack drew forth his pipe and began to play.
It is said that he who hops among thorns is either chasing a snake or being chased by one; and it looked as if either the one or the other was the Friar’s case, for he hopped high in the bramble bushes and danced as if he had gone mad in both heels at once.
To see the good Friar dancing willy-nilly among the bramble bushes, kicking up his heels to the tune of the pipe, higher still and higher--oh, it was a sight for Jack’s eyes, for he loved the Friar to distraction in less ways than one. So long as Jack piped, the Friar danced. His dress was torn to shreds, but that seemed a small matter. The thorns did admirable work, but the Friar did not care. On with the dance! Tara-tara-tara-ra-ra--the Friar seemed to be enjoying himself, though more for Jack’s benefit than his own. Faster and faster shrilled the pipe, and faster danced the Friar, until at last he fell down among the brambles, a sorry spectacle, still kicking his feet in the air to the merry rhythm. Then Jack ceased piping, but only to laugh; for he had small pity for the Friar.
‘Friend Jack!’ cried the Friar, gathering himself up, ‘forbear, I pray you. I am nigh to death. Permit me to depart and I will be your friend for ever.’
‘Get up and go, then,’ cried Jack, ‘before I begin to play again.’
The good Friar needed no further permission. What remnant of a robe was left him he gathered up, and fled to his own home. There he clothed himself decently and made all haste to Jack’s parents.
When they saw his woebegone countenance they questioned him closely.
‘I have been with your son,’ he replied. ‘Grammercy! By these scratches on my face, and by others you cannot see, he is in league with the Evil One, or I am no holy Friar. He played a tune on his pipe and I danced--danced!--think of it! And all in the bramble bushes! Your son is plainly lost; I hesitate to think what it will cost you to save his soul from the devil’s clutch.’
‘Here is a fine thing,’ exclaimed the wife, turning to her husband. ‘This your son has nearly killed the holy Father!’
‘Benedicite!’ said the good man fervently, and the Friar wondered for a moment what he meant exactly.
When Jack returned home his father at once asked him what he had been doing. He replied that he had been having a merry time with the good Friar, who was so fond of music that he could dance to it anywhere--among bramble bushes for preference. These saints, of course----
‘But what music is this you play?’ broke in his father, who was growing vastly interested. ‘I should like to hear it.’
‘Heaven forfend!’ cried the Friar, getting uneasy.
‘Yes, yes; I should like to hear it,’ persisted his father.
‘Then, if that is so, and you must hear his accursed tune, I beg that you will bind me to the door-post so that I cannot move. I have had more than enough of it.’
They took him at his word and bound him securely to the door-post; so that he was, so to speak, out of the dance when Jack took his pipe and began to play.
Then had you seen a merry spectacle! At the first notes the good man and his wife began to tread a sprightly measure, while the Friar, bound fast to the post, squirmed and wriggled, showing plainly that he would foot it if he could, and dispense with the brambles for once.
As the piping went on, the merry measure became a tarantelle. The staid old folks threw off their age, and kicked their heels high in the air. Faster and faster went the music; wilder and wilder grew the dance. The Friar burst his bonds and joined in. Nothing was safe: chairs were hustled into the fire; the table was pushed this way and that, and the lighted lamp upon it was rocking.
Seeing the fury of the thing, Jack got up and led the way out into the street, still piping. They followed; the neighbours flocked out and joined in the dance; even those who had gone to bed rushed down, and all followed at Jack’s heels down the village street, dancing madly to his wild piping. People jostled and fell and went on dancing on all fours, but the Friar kept his feet, if not his head, and whirled many a maid into the thick of it.
At length, when they had reached the village green, and the scene had become one of indescribable confusion and abandon, Jack’s father drew near him and said, as he whirled by: ‘Jack! if you have any consideration for your poor old father, for heaven’s sake, stop!’
Now the boy loved his father; so, on hearing these words, he ceased his piping. Suddenly all came to a standstill. There was a rapid melting away as if people had awakened from a dream in which they had been making themselves ridiculous. And, in the midst of this, came forward the Friar with Jack’s stepmother in close attendance.
‘That cursed boy!’ cried he, shaking his fist at Jack. ‘See here, my fine fellow, you cannot do this kind of thing with impunity. I hereby summon you before the Judge next Friday, and see to it that you appear in person to answer the charges I shall bring against you.’
At this the boy raised his pipe again to his lips; but, before he could blow a single note, they had all taken to their heels in dismay, leaving him standing there alone in the empty square.
* * * * *
It was Friday, and the Judge, be-wigged and severe, sat on the bench, with all the appearance of a great case before him. The Friar was there as prosecutor; the King’s Proctor was watching the case--in case; the Public Persuader was there with his suave and well-paid manner, admonishing all sides; Jack’s parents and all his relations and friends were there, wondering greatly whether Jack, who stood in the dock, would live to tell the tale of what death was meted out to him.
‘M’lud!’ said the Friar when there was silence in court; ‘I have brought before you a wicked boy who, by associating with the Evil One, has corrupted the manners of this community, and brought sorrow and trouble to all. Though young he is none the less a wizard, having infernal skill.’
‘Ay, that he is,’ put in the stepmother. ‘He is in league--in league----’ But she got no further, for, in a trice, she was laughing as none had ever been known to laugh.
The Judge was scandalised.
‘Woman!’ he said. ‘This Court itself has been known to laugh, but this behaviour on your part is unseemly.’
‘Stop it!’ said Jack from the dock, and he spoke short and sharp.
She ceased immediately, and then the Judge requested her to tell her tale; but she was so exhausted that the Friar had to tell it for her.
‘M’lud,’ he said, ‘it is simply this: the prisoner here has a pipe, and, when he plays upon it, all who hear must dance themselves to death, whether they like it or not.’
‘Ah!’ said the Judge, ‘I should like to hear this Dance of Death. You have heard it, good father, and you still live. Maybe, when I have heard it, I shall be charmed, like the serpent, and come out to be killed at once. Let him play his music.’
And, with this remark, the Judge sat back, while Jack took up his pipe to play.
‘Stop! stop!’ cried the Friar in dismay. But Jack heeded not. At the nod of the Judge he started up a merry tune, and immediately the whole Court began to imagine itself a ballroom. Set to partners--cross--ladies’ chain--chassé! It was a regular whirl as the boy piped faster and faster. The Judge himself leapt down from the bench and joined in, holding up his robes and footing it merrily. But, when he bruised his shins severely against the clerk’s desk, he yelled for the boy to cease piping.
‘Yes, I will,’ cried Jack, and as he paused with his pipe raised to his lips they all waited on his words: ‘I will, if they will all promise to treat me properly from this time forward.’
‘I think,’ said the Judge, ‘if you will put your pipe away, they will consent to an amicable arrangement.’
Then he climbed back to the bench and sat himself down, and put on his considering cap to pass sentence.
There was silence in court for some minutes. Then came in solemn tones:
‘Judgment for the defendant--with costs!’
And so, all parties being satisfied, the Court adjourned, and every one went home to supper quite happy.