The Storyteller Presents
Snakes for some, spiders for others. Or the dark: black cold pitch, full of secrets. Or being high up: dizzy, eyes screwed shut against the drop. There are those for whom it is small rooms, no windows, the walls squeezing out the air. For some it is vast open spaces, endless horizons, the heart thumping to find home. The list goes on and on. All of up are frightened of something. Bats, bulls, beards, blood, buttons, slugs, cobwebs, crabs, caterpillers, cellers, fire, water, lightning, thunder-any of these can start up the cold prickly sweat, the heart stop, the shiver, and the shudder. And the only remedy for a bad case of the shudders is to tell yourself the story of the boy who set forth to learn what fear was.
Now he was a rare boy. The second son of the second cousin of my second wife's seond niece, who'd died and left her husband-a Tailor-with two sons, the one good, the other good for nothing. And this latter boy was called Fearnot, and he played the fiddle and folk found him a fine fool of a fellow.
Picture him: A shock of red hair, a fixed grin, a light heart, and checks splattered with freckles. He had no trade and no wish for one. Nothing suited him better than to sit with hos fiddle and scrape out tunes, idling away the afternoons with a song and a smile. Best of all, he liked to find a spot underneath the window of his sweetheart-a Merchant's daughter, a beauty, a darling-and serenade her, coaxing a shy wave from her slender hand, a lovely laugh from her cupid lips. Oh yes, this was best fun, until the father appeared, all flush-cheaked and furious, flinging down flowerpots at the fiddling Fearnot. "Be off!" he'd say. "Good-for-nothing!" And he'd be right on that count, for if Fearnot wasn't valued for his forever smile or his dancing fiddle, why then was he indeed of little worth to the wide world.
One day, soaked through from a rainy spell of sweet reels under his sweetheart's window, a smile as long as tomorrow, Fearnot skipped home to find his father and his brother hard at work, their fingers flying through stitches. The Tailor looked up, all thumb and thimble, his face dark with rage.
"What time do you call this?" he demanded, scowling at his son. Fearnot was confused. "I don't know, Father," he replied, smiling "What time do you call it?" His father sighed a sigh, his eyes rolling heavenward. "God give me patience!" he exclaimed, then thought better of his temper. "Have you got the buttons?" Buttons? Fearnot didn't know what his father was talking about. "The buttons I sent you out for this morning!" exploded the Tailor. Fearnot beamed in recollection. "Do you know, Dad," he said genially, "I complete forget them buttons. I stood and played under my sweetheart's window. She's a lovely."
Exasperation forced his father's eyebrows up to his scalp. He turned to his other son and ordered him to get the buttons. But the elder son, as normal as Fearnot was odd, was frightened of the journey. The walk home would take him through the forest after dark, and he was fearful of shadows. There were trolls there, and dragons. At the mention of the word "dragon," Fearnot piped up. "Let me go," he said. "I don't mind shadows and I never saw a dragon." The tailor nodded wearily, one son fearful, the other fightful. Fearnot grinned and gamboled for the door. "What are you going for?" tested his father. Fearnot couldn't quite remember. "Don't tell me," he said, scratching his head. "To see dragons-?" Father's head went crimson. Fearnot tried again. "No. Uh, ogres-?" Father erupted, his voice volcanic. "BUTTONS!" he bawled. "BUTTONS!"
Fearnot's smile stretched until it seemed it might meet at the back of his head. "Buttons," he repeated, setting off into the night, saying the word over and over in case he forgot again.
"Buttons," memorized Fearnot as he skipped his way through the village and threaded his way through the forst, eyes skinned for a troll or dragon or curiosity, but he saw none, made his way to the town, remembered the buttons, and set off on the journey home, a thousand of them jingling in a big leather purse. As he passed the square, he beamed his twice-round-the-head smile at a gaggle of youths who loafed and lingered on a lookout for mischief. A mischief of youths, you might say. They stared their violent star, laconic eyes following Fearnot as he headed for the forest. One greasy head bent to the next and muttered. The next head gaffawed and bent to the third, passing the jape. The all three smirked and slipped from their posts and into the woods.
The evening was growing dark. Moans, howls and hoots, and the sudden creak of branches lent a sinister music to Fearnot's journey. None of this affected him in the slightest. Quite the reverse. He had his fingers crossed for a surprise. He kept to the shadows, hoping to stumble on a snoozing nasty of one sort or another. That would be a good story for his brother! But he was out of luck, it seemed, as he neared the edge of the forest. Then, suddenly, a huge shaped reared in front of him.
"GGGGGRRRR!" it roared, looming monstrously above him. "Hello!" cried Fearnot, excited. "What are you? A Troll?" The monster bellowed back, swaying ominously. "I am a Wurdle!" it bellowed. "Only twice as bad." "Never mind," Fearnot sympathized. The Wurdle lurched forward. "I want your bag of buttons," it demanded in a new voice. Fearnot apologized and explained they were for his dad. The Wurdle growled. "Give them to me or I'll reduce you!" Fearnot asked the monster to explain. "I'll mutton you!" it threatened in yet another voice. "I'll give you a right flommox!" Fearnot was not familiar with any of these terms, but decided they didn't sound very nice. "That doesn't sound very nice," he said. "Give me the buttons!" the monster stormed, all voices sounding in a terrible chorus. Fearnot frowned and swung the bag of buttons. "Very well," he said, and dealt the Wurdle a resounding blow across the chops, sending it flying. As the monster fell, it seemed to come apart, like a troupe of collasping acrobats, and before Fearnot could say "Fol-de-rol," the mischief of youths from the square had run off bruised and battered into the woods, butt of their own jape.
Fearnot hardly noticed the revelation. He was too busy trying to rescue a button or two from the scattered bag. After an hour he had eleven.
Back went out boy to his dad's house, full of tales of a Wurdle, only twie as bad, and sorry about the buttons, and did you know a Wurdle has three voices, quite remarkable, eh? And his dad, reduced, muttoned, flummoxed by this Wurdle of his own flesh, could stomach it no longer and set his son outside, handed him fifty shillings in a purse, and told him to go off, for pity's sake, and learn something! Fearnot considered this strange mission and nodded. He'd always wanted to learn how to shudder, he told his father. The knack of it had eluded him. Yes, he declared, he would set forth to learn what fear was. Did Dad think that was a good idea? Anything, cried the Tailor, his eyes rolling to the heavens. Anything. Fearnot grinned happily. That's what I'll do, he announced, and straight off he went without a bag or bun or second thought. Father stood and watched him, shaking his head as his son waltzed off, for he was a rare boy and no mistake. Off he went, rolling into the world without nothing to guide him but a bag of shillings, a fiddle, and a fool's errand. Many of us have done the same.
And so the boy set forth to learn was fear was, and he looked for it in many a dark place, under many an upturned stone; oh yes, he walked and walked until at length he came-as at length you must-to a crossroads. And there he met a man. Not an ordinary man, mark you, but a ragtag-and-bobtail of a fellow-a Tinker, to be sure, with a leprechaun's face and an undertaker's coat and belt rattling with the oddest objects, pots, pans, potions, relics, and tools of the most mysterious trades. Seeing Fearnot approaching, this Mr. Jingle Jangle beamed a Celtic beam, dusted down his breaches causing an explostion of dust, and sneezed and achooed! his way toward him.
"Good day, young man!" he announced with a toothless flourish. "Now here's a lucky meeting." Fearnot agreed and said so. One eyebrow on the Tinker's face arched knowingly. "Ah, I can see by the gleam in your eye you have a sweetheart," he obseved with a cackle. "I do, sir," acknowledged our boy, intrigued. "What's her name?" asked the Tinker. Fearnot didn't know, he was sorry. The Tinker shrugged. "Ach, what's a name, I always say. Mine's McKay and I don't mind it. "Mine is Fearnot," said Fearnot. Mr. McKay nodded a sage nod. "And there you are, as my poor mother would say. Do you have a mother?" Fearnot shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't."
"Still, we all had one once and that's the main thing," the Tinker told Fearnot, and patted him on the back in consolation. Then he bagan to produce all manner of trinkets from his carpet bag. "Tell me," he urged his young friend, "is your sweetheart dark or fair?" "Dark," Fearnot told him. "Like Arabia." Mr. McKay seemed delighted. "Like Arabia!" he exclaimed, hopping from one foot to the other. "Happy day! A happy day for you, young fellow-me-lad. For I have in my bag a scarf and dangled it in front of our boy. "Here," he said, waving the scarf under Fearnot's nose. "Take it, and may you learn a name with it." Fearnot felt its silk softness. "Thank you," he said, over and over. "Thank you!" The Tinker adopted the tone of a generous soul. "Because I can see you're a good fellow," he began, "I'm only going to ask from you what I paid myself. A double persian."
Fearnot had no idea how much even a single Persian might amount to. "How much is that?" he inquired. "How much do you have?" came the instant reply. "Fifty shillings," Fearnot told him, for that was how much he had. Mr. McKay had an attack of the coughing. When he recovered, he seemed quite unimpressed by the figure. "Nothing like that much," he said, waving away his hand. "Oh no, barely half," he muttered. "Less than two-thirds." His eyebrow seemed to twist into a question mark. Fearnot, for his part, was thinking past this transaction. "I'd like the scarf," he told his new friend, "because I have set forth to learn things, and to learn a name is, I suppose, something. But I'll give you all I have if you could but teach me what fear is."
Now both the Tinker's eyebrows quizzed and quivered. One curled into the figure 5, and another to an O. He asked Fearnot if it were really true, he would give fifty shillings for the favor of frightening him? Fearnot nodded earnestly. Mr. McKay seemed deep in thought, chin tucked into his chest. Fearnot waited. Suddenly the Tinker laughed at him, roaring. "Is someting the matter?" asked Fearnot in a concerned voice. Mr. McKay shook his head and thought of another tack.
"Close your eyes," he said, at last. Fearnot obliged, shutting them tight. At this, the Tinker pulled a knife from his bag and set its cold blade against the boy's throat. "What do you think I have at your throat?" he asked in a menacing voice. Fearnot shrugged. "A knife?" "That's right," hissed the Tinker. "A sharp knife. It will split a hair clean in two." Fearnot, eyes closed, seemed impressed. "It can slice a throat without touching the sides," continued the Tinker. "That's a good knife, then," declared Fearnot, patiently waiting for something to happen. "It certainly is," agreed Mr. McKay. "And will slice yours, young man, unless you give me your bag of shillings," and with this he let the knife press into Fearnot's proffered flesh. "I can't do that!" laughed Fearnot, thumping Mr. McKay heartily and sending him flying to the ground, pots and pans and bits and bones scattering. "For I must learn what fear is and I'm not frightened of you, Mr. McKay, you're a friend!"
The Tinker scabbled to his feet, gathering up his possessions. "No, that's right," he said ruefully. "We're friends. I'm sure we are." He rubbed his rump with a grimace. "No," he sighed, "let me take you down the lane and then I think I can arrange a small case of the shudders for you." And, hobbling and clanking, he hurried off, head buzzing, Fearnot following. "Where are we going?" inquired the young man. The Tinker pointed to the horizon. "To a pond by a hedge by a field by a mill by a town. And in that pond is a fearful sight. So fearful," he said gravely, "think what fearful is, and add ten." Fearnot was delighted. "And shall I shudder?" he wanted to know, his voice brimming with excitement. "No question," replied the Tinker and hurried on, adding under his breath, "If you survive..."
So off they set, a most fanciful perigrination, until they came at last to a pond by a hedge by a field by a mill by a town. And as they arrived with day ending, they saw folk rushing from the mill, stilled dusted with flour, and these souls would not stop to swap words, shouting instead as they hurried off, "Be clear before dark falls!" "Beware the pond!" And other such unwelcomes. Fearnot was somewhat bewildered by these exhortations until Mr. McKay pointed out that they were encouraging signs of the shuddering to come. It was the pond, he explained, with its terrible secret that would do the trick for Fearnot, and that was why the squimish had fled. Mr. McKay himself seemed anxious not to loiter, looking fretful at the sky as the sun dropped, bringing with it the pink and gray cloths of evening. "Plunge into the pond," he told the boy in a curiously contradictory gait, one foot moving toward the bank, the other restless to depart. "Fear will swim up to greet you." "Spendid," declared his charge, busy removing his boots.
By now, Mr. McKay was extremely nervous. "Good, good," he muttered uncomfortably. "I'll retire and find us beds for the night. You must sleep after a good fright." With that, he slipped the purse of shillings from Fearnot's possession, then hurried off, sending puffs of encouragement over his shoulder as he scampered away. All alone, Fearnot paddled, his feet stirring the green waters, waiting for something frightful happen....
Now this pretty pond was not all welcome-cool and water lilies. Deep in its green was a monster, a Terrible Thing, and the Terrible Thing was disturbed by splashes. It peered up through the green and saw a pair of feet. And had Fearnot been down in the depths, he would have heard the sound of stirrings and an indignant rumbling. But he wasn't, so he didn't. Instead, he sat dangling his feet in the pond, waiting to shudder, wondering how, when all of a sudden and who would believe it, the water began to gather and froth and swirl-as if lifting up a lacy petticoat-and blow me if a ring of sad beauties didn't appear, set a-dancing, eyes closed and melancholy.
These were the Sisters of the Deep, lost daughters in the service of the monster, water in their eyes, water in their veins, their dance a welcome drowning. Come in, come in, they seemded to say...come in and sip our bitter beer. And Fearnot looked on, enchanted by their loveliness as they swam in intricate patterns an inch below the surface, beguiling, entrancing, all grace and invitation. But instead of joining them, he did what he always did when the mood took him. He pulled out his fiddle and began to play. A sweet old reel. A ragadoon. And, hearing his music, the beauties opened their liquid eyes and moved to its coaxing lilt. So it went on, Fearnot fiddling, dancers dancing, until suddenly the pool churned and agitated and from the gushing green the monster emerged, a thing of slime and seaweed, half-man, half-lobster, all tendrills and tenacles, eyes rolling on waving stalks.
Now why did the village folk avoid this pretty scene? Why did men tremble at nightfall as the moon gleamed its silver on the pool? Because this green creature in its coat of slime puncturing the surface, this Terrible Thing swimming toward Fearnot and his music, had but two sports: to drown men and to drown women. He reared up at Fearnot, dripping and dreadful. "Do you know who I am?" he demanded in a voice choked with tiny fish. Fearnot shrugged. "I don't think so," he said politely. "You're not a Wurdle." He thought a bit. "Some sort of Terrible Thing?" The monster's eyes rotated on their stalks. "Exactly," he spuddered. "These are my pretties. They tempt young men like you and I drown them." Before Fearnot could ask why, the monster continued, hypnotized by the fiddle and its sweet song.
"Sell me your bird," he said dreamily. Fearnot tried to explain that it wasn't a bird, that it was a box with strings, that he made the song with his bow, but the monster would not believe him. He splashed out of the water, a thing of stem and stalk, huge and ugly. Others would have fled for their lives; Fearnot merely looked, eyes wide with curiosity, enjoying this adventure. The Terrible Thing approached him, flailing, but it was not the boy he wanted but the magic bird. His webbed hand scraped the fiddle, and the strings screeched and jangled. "Horrible!" mourned the monster, disappointed. "You must learn to play it," said Fearnot sympathetically, and demonstrated the fiddle's true voice.
Tears leaked from the monster's eyes. "Your bird!" he cried. "Where does its song come from?" "Faraway," Fearnot told him. "Ireland." The monster's eyes swiveled the possible directions. "Which way is Ireland?" he asked. Fearnot looked to the west, to where the hills stretched out in a long procession. "Over there," he said, pointing to the hills. "Many lefts. Many rights." The monster looked to the west with a look of yearning. "Then I'll go there," he spuddered. "Ireland." And of he dripped, the green tears raining from him, leaving his daughters and his pool and his endless drowning, slithering away in search of Ireland and the bird that sings. For all I know, he lives there now.
Next morning, the mischievous McKay had a rude shock. There he was, fifty golden shillings in his pocket and doing a fine trade in relics and rosaries-for this was a village of many funerals-when along came Fearnot in a fine rage, indignant to the theft of his shillings and if not disgruntled, certainly not gruntled. Oh no, not gruntled in any way at all. He stormed throught the eager croud of customers, and set about the miserable Tinker, berating and bewailing him, and would have made tomato of his nose and cauliflower of his ear had he not revealed the sum of his exploits and the fate of the Terrible Thing. Throught his rant and rail, the crowd caught on, and next minute hoisted our boy up and carried him aloft through the streets, circled ten times around the pond, then back for a carnival that did not stop for a week.
Later, after not one feast but twenty, seventy-eight gifts, four offers of marriage, and much playing of the fiddle, the whole village collapsed into bed and slept soundly, freed from the terror of the Terrible Thing. By then, Mr. McKay, self-appointed manager of heroes, and historian of Fearnot's exploits, had noted details of trolls and terrors adn dragons and untold unsolved mysteries. Thus commisssioned, the two companions set off, cheers still ringing in their ears, and it wasn't until late the following day, heads still muddled with cider, that Fearnot remembered to clap the Tinker's ears, retrieve his fifty shillings, and ask him where they were heading next.
Mr. McKay, possessed of a map of many colors, turned it round and round in study. His lip, pendulous at the best of times, positively drooped after Fearnot's thrashing. "Well," he said sulkily, "I have hear the route to a fine terror, but I must have reward." Fearnot reminded him of the promise of the shillings once he was properly frightened. Mr. McKay looked peevish. "You promise me so much, but give me only your fist, which I like not!" On he went, muttering and mumbling, bemoaning his lot. "I try, I try," he muttered, "then one little misunderstanding and I am thrashed for my pains." And do they proceeded, Fearnot pulling their donkey loaded up with the seventy-eight gifts, Mr. McKay ahead, nose in the map, cussing and cursing, his belt of pots, pans, and paraphernalia jingling and jangling with each step he took. "Compare us," he continued. "You are blessed with a great courage. I am cursed with a little cunning. I cheat for trifles, you can move mountains! Is that fair, I ask you?"
Now Fearnot felt pity for the Tinker and held out the bag of shillings. But the Tinker would not take it. "No, no," he insisted moodily. "I'll struggle on for nothing, I'll guide you," and, pointing to the horizon, he picked out a spiky silhouette perched on a peak. "We go to a castle where none could survive a night. That sounds an impossible task and will therefore suit you." Fearnot put a hand to his brow and squinted at the castle. "So I will learn to shudder at last?" he asked hopefully. The Tinker shrugged. "We can but hope," he said.
Now the castle they approached was a graveyard of hopes. There it stood on the horizon, a place brooding. Enchanted, the King driven out, the rooms abandoned, only fools sought shelter there. For they has reached a troubled land where bad held sway. But fools there were, as always, tempted by the fabled store of fabulous treasure.
Suddenly, the ground crunched underfoot and, looking down, Mr. McKay let sry a fearful shriek, for at his boot was a skull, and next to it another, and next to that another, and so on, stretching out before them, a path of grim bones, all that were left of their predecessors. Mr. McKay was terrified. "Bones," he whispered. Fearnot pressed on and looked down into the wide mouth of the moat. Dark liquid filled it. Fearnot investigated. "Blood," he announced. Before the Tinker had time to suggest they might try a smaller shudder but a few miles distant, an ungodly moan issued from the castle, and the drawbridge swung open with a mighty crash. Fearnot was delighted. "Wait here," he told his partner, and rummaged through the gifts. "I should take something with me." Mr. McKay was paralyzed with fear. "Take a sword," he suggested. "Take two." But Fearnot ignored his advice, and decided, instead, on a small grinding wheel. "This will be enough," he declared. "Or not, as the case may be. And it leaves you seventy-seven of my gifts, should I never return."
The Tinker was down in the mouth. "Do not leave them here," he pleaded. "You know how it is with me. I will be forced to steal them and desert you." Fearnot smiled a nice smile, and took his friend's arm. "Have a little courage, Mr. McKay," he said, and with that he turned and hurried into the dark bowels of the castle. A second hideous cry greeted his entranced. Mr. McKay was besides himself with dread. "A little courage Mr. McKay," he reminded himself, and stood shivering by the drawbridge.
The hall of the castle was vast and dark. Fearnot found gnarled candles whose wax had long since wept onto the floor, chairs lonely with dust, a long table heavy with secrets, and everywhere a silence with eyes that watched his every move, with ears that heard his every step. The only sounds were tiny creaks, furtive scurries, and the wind keening through the shattered windows. Oh yes, in the cold hearth of the fireplace, fear sat, invisible, and waited....Even brave men could not stay in this place, but Fearnot wandered about with a hop and a skip, dipping into dust, eager-beaver for some action. And it came. For suddenly, without warning, a gust billowed from the chimney and after it, with a bellow, appeared a man-or, more precisely, half a man, for there was nothing at all below his waist.
No one seemed more surprised at this than the man himself. "Hello," he said, astonished. "There's only half of me here." And, ignoring Fearnot, he levered himself on his hands to peer anxously up from whence he had come. "Where's the rest of me?" he demanded in a voice booming with anger. Fearnot had never seen a more ugly sight than this Half-Man with his severed legs. His head seemed to have nothing to do with his neck, his arms less to do with his body. For all the world, he looked as if he had been hastily thrown together from bits of other people. And indeed he had.
While Fearnot looked on, astonished, the Half-Man dragged his miserable trunk around the floor, roaring with rage, until once more the chimney belched and this time it issued forth a pair of legs, jerking and twitching. The Half-Man let out a satisfied growl, scraped his way back to the hearth, and in a second had hauled himself up onto these limbs. Thus attached and apparently satisfied, he took a few cautious steps, legs leading, body catching up in a quadrille of discord. The Half-Man shook his head and muttered, thumping at his new legs in disgust. "These aren't my legs!" he announced accusingly to the bewildered Fearnot. "These are definitaly not my legs!"
Fearnot shrugged, feeling unable to comment on what belonged to this man and what didn't. Instead, he offered his best smile and introduced himself. "The Half-Man eyed him curiously. "How about a game?" he asked, licking his lips at the prospect. "Why not?" replied Fearnot. "I have all night." This response brought such a guffaw from the man it threatened to detach his heaving belly from his bottom half. "He has all night!" he roared, most amused. Then he stomped over to a chest and yanked it open to reveal a collection of bones.
"Skittles!" he explained gleefully, and set about arranging them in a clump at the end of the hall, thrusting the great table aside with a single flick of his wrist. "Good!" he declared, eyes gleaming. "Now what size legs are those?" he demanded, pointing a ferocious finger at Fearnot's lower half. Fearnot didn't know, and said so. Half-Man frowned and stumped closer for a thorough investigation. "No gout?" he queried. Fearnot shook his head. "Corns? Blisters? Foot rot?" continued his interrogator. "No," said Fearnot, wondering where this line of questioning might lead. "Good, good," mumbled the Half-Man. "I could do with those legs, these are too short by half."
And with that he dipped back into the chest and produced a skull, then staggered to the opposite end of the hall where he took aim at the skittles. "You'd better win, precious!" he cried, announcing the stakes. "Else you'll find yourself half the man you were!" At this, he hurled the skull at the bones, sending eight of them flying into the air. "Eight!" he cried, triumphantly punching the air. "Eight! Not bad on borrowed legs." Folding at the waist, he reset the skittles, delivering the skull with such force to Fearnot that he was knocked sideways, collapsing into a heap. "Careful," warned the Half-Man. "Don't want them pegs damaged!"
Fearnot picked himself up and carried the skull over to the grinding wheel. "You won't mind, sir," he said, "but your ball is not round enough for me," and so saying he brought bone to blade in an excruciating grind. In a few seconds the skull was perfectly round, and Fearnot, full of intent, aimed at the skittles. His throw was powerful and true, the ball hurtling toward the bones with a smooth and deadly florish. Up jumped the bones, every one of them, dancing in the air scattering across the hall. "Aaargh!" howled the Half-Man. "You cheated!" "No sir," replied Fearnot. "I swapped a little courage for a little cunning!" But the Half-Man was inconsolable, for even as Fearnot spoke, the legs pulled away from the body and lurched of toward the fireplace. The Half-Man himself, legs abandoning him, crashed to the floor and disappeared before Fearnot's eyes.
Outside, Mr. McKay, temptation nibbling at his resolve, picked throught the lucky dip of presents. He found a beautiful goblet studded with jewels and held it up for the moon's approval. Then a silver plate and a diamond ring. "Lovely," he murmured, greed goading. "All lovely." The wind howled around him, blood gushed into the moat, screams curled from the castle. He shivered. Run, said the little demon in his head, run, run, run.
Inside, Fearnot-for want of a fight-settled down for the night. He found a bed piled thick wiht velvet eiderdowns, and slipped underneath them. His legs nudged something cold. Pulling back the plump covers, he met with a dreadful sight. Lying there, eyes closed, no pulse, no breath, was his friend and companion, Mr. McKay. "Oh mister," cried Fearnot, sad in his heart, "is it all up with you?" The Tinker did not move. Tenderly, Fearnot touched his forehead. "So cold," he sorrowed. "You were my first and only friend." Grief and dismay welled up in Fearnot as he carried the Tinker into the dark hall and built up a fire in the grate. As the meager flames dipped and danced, he held the limp body over them, wrapped in the velvet cover, and tried to warm him back to life.
Just as sorrow was teasing a tear from the corners of his eyes, Fearnot felt the slightest tremble from deep inside the velvet. He unwrapped the covers, excitement mounting, and pulled back the cloth. Staring at him with an evil leer was the face of the Half-Man! With a mightly roar the creature was upon him, thick fingers squeezing at his throat, a foul breath choking him. They fough, rolling over and over on the damp stone of the hall, growl and grimace, might and marrow. Now it was Fearnot forcing back his opponent, not it was the Half-Man cruel and crushing, threatening to tear the boy limb from limb. So it went on for an hour, this fearful wrestle, until at last, exhausted, with a final fling, Fearnot got the better of his adversary and dashed his head on the stone. There was a terrible crack as the Half-Man fell back and broke into a thousand pieces, dust and fragments flying into the air. One mement he was there, huge and murderous, the next he had disappeared in a swirl of sulphurous gas, back to the depths from which he had come. Fearnot lay on the flagstones, heart pounding, strength spent. The fire had long died and the hall was pitched into backness.
"Fearnot?" came a small voice from the dark, and again, "Fearnot?" The giddy, swaying light of a torch flickered into the hall, casting a long shadow over Fearnot. Standing before him, trembling, was Mr. McKay, his tiny, anxious voice echoing against the stone. "Fearnot!" it pleaded, desperate.
Fearnot sprang up, no longer deceived by this hall of horror and its mischief. "Come nearer, demon," he cried, "and I will cut off your head, and then there will be three parts to marry!" "What?" came the timid reply. Fearnot was not fooled. "I know it is not you," he said, ready for the fray. "It is me!" insisted the man before him, blue eyes blinking. "Dead again, are you?" said Fearnot, tensing. Mr. McKay looked very offended. "No!" he said, and took a step toward our boy. Fearnot pulled out his knife, gleaming in the torche's flare, and swung it threateningly across the Tinker's path. The little man leapt back aghast. "Please!" he cried. "I'm terrified! I came with my little courage and it's quite used up."
Fearnot faltered. "How many gifts did I leave with you?" he quizzed. The Tinker frowned guiltily. "Well, I could only count seventy-seven to begin with and I ate two...well, two and half...but there's still plenty." But Fearnot was not convinced. "What's the name of my true love?" he asked, ready to lunge. Now the man looked very vexed. "How can I know if you don't?" he complained. And Fearnot knew it really was the Tinker and was overjoyed. "Then it is you!" "Of course it's me!" said Mr. McKay, most aggrieved. Delight danced on Fearnot's face. "And you came in to find me?" "And small thanks I get," the Tinker moaned. "It's my lot. I try to break the mold and be decent and I get a knife thrust at me." His friend was undeterred. "Come here," said Fearnot, "and hug me," "No," sulked the Tinker, then hugged him just the same.
Oh yes, hug him he did, and there the two friends stayed until morning while Fearnot told his tale and the Tinker told his, and pleased as punch they both were with themselves. Then they searched the castle from top to toe, and behind the farthest door of the highest floor they found a room, and in that room was gold, such goldness they might have thrown it out the window for a week and still be swamped. And they shared it half and half and a bit for luck, and never have two men danced more merrier. And from a distance you would have seen the castle shake off its gray drab and sunbathe.
Next day, the boon companions, weighed down with treasure, set off on their way and found themselves not far from Fearnot's village. A thousand thoughts haunted our hero as he walked. Why hadn't he learned to shudder? What could he tell his father? Where else could he look? Such conundrums consumed him as they rounded the ridge that led down to his long-left home, and how could it not be so, for is it not the point of adventures that you learn much but not the things you thought of?
At last they reached the gate, footsore and found. Fearnot pulled back the latch and beckoned his friend, but Mr. McKay shook his head. "we say good-bye, then," he said sadly. "But you must meet my family," protested Fearnot. "No, no," the Tinker told him. "Families never like me," and with that he reached inside his raggedy tunic and pulled out the leather purse of shillings. "What's this for?" asked Fearnot. "You must return it to your dad," explained Mr. McKay, "for you have not learned what fear is." And Fearnot took the purse and smiled and pulled the little man to him and gave hima huge hug, and from one side you might have seen a tear in his eye, and from the other a tear in the Tinker's. Then he was off, Mr. McKay, his donkey loaded with half the bounty of their exploits. Fearnot watched him go, a jingle and a jangle, a jumble of mischief and twinkle, watched him struggle up the path and then turn on the horizon and wave, a wave that ran all the way back down the path to touch Fearnot's heart. "Goodbye, my friend," he whispered, and walked inside.
There he found things much as before, father and brother busy at the needle, thread flying back and forth. And you can imagine the look he got, for when last seen what an empty head he'd been, the boy could not remember buttons. But how the sour turned sweet when he showed them both the gold, how the weary turned to wonder. And while son scooped sovereign after sovereign from the bulging sack, while dad dug into the deeps of diamonds, Fearnot told them of his journey. The way is long, he said, and the paths are strange. And still I have not learned to shudder. But they could not hear for glitter, they did not care for coins. No, Fearnot was a hero and that was that. They took him up and whirled him round and delight danced with them.
It wasn't until sometime later, feasting finished and all forgiven, that Fearnot remembered his sweetheart. He ran to her house, his scarf from the shores of Arabi tucked into his shirt, his heart singing. Outside her window, he did as he had always done, and took out his fiddle. The sweet bird from Ireland flew up to the heavens and the shudders flew open. But no darling at the window. Instead, her father with a grim expression. "Come quick!" he called down. "Hurry!"
So bidden, Fearnot rushed up the stairs. The Merchant waited for him. "Where've you been?" he cried, his voice heavy with sorrow. "She swooned when she heard you'd gone, and nothing will revive her." Even as he said these things, he ushered Fearnot into his sweetheart's room. There she lay on a bed of lace, her gentle face pale, her breathing deep and distant. Fearnot's heart sank. He lay the silk scarf across her neck while love skipped one beat and then another. He spoke, but the words came out in a tiny whisper. "I don't know her name," he said in a voice of despair, stroking and stroking her lovely hair. "Lydia," said her father mournfully. "Lydia." Fearnot mouthed the name over and over, "Lydia, Lydia," held her sweet hand in his. He trembled with the fear she might never open her eyes, might never smile that darling smile. But even as the little shudder shook him, her eyelids fluttered, came open, closed, open, closed, open. And she looked at her sweetheart, home at last, and smiled, and Fearnot forgot himself and her father and kissed her cupid lips and shivered all over.
"Oh! Will you look at that!" said Lydia's father as she sat up in her bed. But Fearnot could look at nothing, for don't you see? Don't you follow? Fearnot had shivered! Fearnot had shuddered! "Lydia, Lydia! You've done it!" he cried, and kissed her again and kissed her dad and kissed the walls and kissed the door and jumped and jumped for joy. "Done what?" asked his sweetheart dreamily. "You've taught me!" he said, brimming over with happiness. "I've been so far, so long, and all it needed was the thought of losing you to teach me what fear was." And, going to the window, he flung back the shutters, bathing the room in sunlight, and told the whole world of his triumph. "I SHUDDERED!" he told the sky. "I SHUDDERED!" he told the earth. And so the boy who set forth to learn what fear was learned it at home. And he married his sweetheart, with her name and all, and never left. And I think, though far off, Mr. McKay must have heard Fearnot's shout, for he told me all this, from start to finish, a long time ago when I was very young and didn't know the half of it.
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