Canonbie Dick And Thomas Of Ercildoune

: The Scottish Fairy Book

It chanced, long years ago, that a certain horse-dealer lived in the

South of Scotland, near the Border, not very far from Longtown. He was

known as Canonbie Dick; and as he went up and down the country, he

almost always had a long string of horses behind him, which he bought at

one fair and sold at another, generally managing to turn a good big

penny by the transaction.

He was a very fearless man, not ea
ily daunted; and the people who knew

him used to say that if Canonbie Dick dare not attempt a thing, no one

else need be asked to do it.

One evening, as he was returning from a fair at some distance from his

home with a pair of horses which he had not succeeded in selling, he was

riding over Bowden Moor, which lies to the west of the Eildon Hills.

These hills are, as all men know, the scene of some of the most famous

of Thomas the Rhymer's prophecies; and also, so men say, they are the

sleeping-place of King Arthur and his Knights, who rest under the three

high peaks, waiting for the mystic call that shall awake them.

But little recked the horse-dealer of Arthur and his Knights, nor yet of

Thomas the Rhymer. He was riding along at a snail's pace, thinking over

the bargains which he had made at the fair that day, and wondering when

he was likely to dispose of his two remaining horses.

All at once he was startled by the approach of a venerable man, with

white hair and an old-world dress, who seemed almost to start out of the

ground, so suddenly did he make his appearance.

When they met, the stranger stopped, and, to Canonbie Dick's great

amazement, asked him for how much he would be willing to part with his


The wily horse-dealer thought that he saw a chance of driving a good

bargain, for the stranger looked a man of some consequence; so he named

a good round sum.

The old man tried to bargain with him; but when he found that he had not

much chance of succeeding--for no one ever did succeed in inducing

Canonbie Dick to sell a horse for a less sum than he named for it at

first--he agreed to buy the animals, and, pulling a bag of gold from the

pocket of his queerly cut breeches, he began to count out the price.

As he did so, Canonbie Dick got another shock of surprise, for the

gold that the stranger gave him was not the gold that was in use at the

time, but was fashioned into Unicorns, and Bonnet-pieces, and other

ancient coins, which would be of no use to the horse-dealer in his

everyday transactions. But it was good, pure gold; and he took it

gladly, for he knew that he was selling his horses at about half as much

again as they were worth. "So," thought he to himself, "surely I cannot

be the loser in the long run."

Then the two parted, but not before the old man had commissioned Dick to

get him other good horses at the same price, the only stipulation he

made being that Dick should always bring them to the same spot, after

dark, and that he should always come alone.

And, as time went on, the horse-dealer found that he had indeed met a

good customer.

For, whenever he came across a suitable horse, he had only to lead it

over Bowden Moor after dark, and he was sure to meet the mysterious,

white-headed stranger, who always paid him for the animal in

old-fashioned golden pieces.

And he might have been selling horses to him yet, for aught I know, had

it not been for his one failing.

Canonbie Dick was apt to get very thirsty, and his ordinary customers,

knowing this, took care always to provide him with something to drink.

The old man never did so; he paid down his money and led away his

horses, and there was an end of the matter.

But one night, Dick, being even more thirsty than usual, and feeling

sure that his mysterious friend must live somewhere in the

neighbourhood, seeing that he was always wandering about the hillside

when everyone else was asleep, hinted that he would be very glad to go

home with him and have a little refreshment.

"He would need to be a brave man who asks to go home with me," returned

the stranger; "but, if thou wilt, thou canst follow me. Only, remember

this--if thy courage fail thee at that which thou wilt behold, thou wilt

rue it all thy life."

Canonbie Dick laughed long and loud. "My courage hath never failed me

yet," he cried. "Beshrew me if I will let it fail now. So lead on, old

man, and I will follow."

Without a word the stranger turned and began to ascend a narrow path

which led to a curious hillock, which from its shape, was called by the

country-folk the "Lucken Hare."

It was supposed to be a great haunt of Witches; and, as a rule, nobody

passed that way after dark, if they could possibly help it.

Canonbie Dick was not afraid of Witches, however, so he followed his

guide with a bold step up the hillside; but it must be confessed that he

felt a little startled when he saw him turn down what seemed to be an

entrance to a cavern, especially as he never remembered having seen any

opening in the hillside there before.

He paused for a moment, looking round him in perplexity, wondering where

he was being taken; and his conductor glanced at him scornfully.

"You can go back if you will," he said. "I warned thee thou wert going

on a journey that would try thy courage to the uttermost." There was a

jeering note in his voice that touched Dick's pride.

"Who said that I was afraid?" he retorted. "I was just taking note of

where this passage stands on the hillside, so as to know it another


The stranger shrugged his shoulders. "Time enough to look for it when

thou wouldst visit it again," he said. And then he pursued his way, with

Dick following closely at his heels.

After the first yard or two they were enveloped in thick darkness, and

the horse-dealer would have been sore put to it to keep near his guide

had not the latter held out his hand for him to grasp. But after a

little space a faint glimmering of light began to appear, which grew

clearer and clearer, until at last they found themselves in an enormous

cavern lit by flaming torches, which were stuck here and there in

sconces in the rocky walls, and which, although they served to give

light enough to see by, yet threw such ghostly shadows on the floor that

they only seemed to intensify the gloom that hung over the vast


And the curious thing about this mysterious cave was that, along one

side of it, ran a long row of horse stalls, just like what one would

find in a stable, and in each stall stood a coal-black charger, saddled

and bridled, as if ready for the fray; and on the straw, by every

horse's side, lay the gallant figure of a knight, clad from head to foot

in coal-black armour, with a drawn sword in his mailed hand.

But not a horse moved, not a chain rattled. Knights and steeds alike

were silent and motionless, looking exactly as if some strange

enchantment had been thrown over them, and they had been suddenly turned

into black marble.

There was something so awesome in the still, cold figures and in the

unearthly silence that brooded over everything that Canonbie Dick,

reckless and daring though he was, felt his courage waning and his knees

beginning to shake under him.

In spite of these feelings, however, he followed the old man up the hall

to the far end of it, where there was a table of ancient workmanship, on

which was placed a glittering sword and a curiously wrought


When they reached this table the stranger turned to him, and said, with

great dignity, "Thou hast heard, good man, of Thomas of

Ercildoune--Thomas the Rhymer, as men call him--he who went to dwell for

a time with the Queen of Fairy-land, and from her received the Gifts of

Truth and Prophecy?"

Canonbie Dick nodded; for as the wonderful Soothsayer's name fell on his

ears, his heart sank within him and his tongue seemed to cleave to the

roof of his mouth. If he had been brought there to parley with Thomas

the Rhymer, then had he laid himself open to all the eldrich Powers of


"I that speak to thee am he," went on the white-haired stranger. "And I

have permitted thee thus to have thy desire and follow me hither in

order that I may try of what stuff thou art made. Before thee lies a

Horn and a Sword. He that will sound the one, or draw the other, shall,

if his courage fail not, be King over the whole of Britain. I, Thomas

the Rhymer, have spoken it, and, as thou knowest, my tongue cannot lie.

But list ye, the outcome of it all depends on thy bravery; and it will

be a light task, or a heavy, according as thou layest hand on Sword or

Horn first."

Now Dick was more versed in giving blows than in making music, and his

first impulse was to seize the Sword, then, come what might, he had

something in his hand to defend himself with. But just as he was about

to lift it the thought struck him that, if the place were full of

spirits, as he felt sure that it must be, this action of him might be

taken to mean defiance, and might cause them to band themselves together

against him.

So, changing his mind, he picked up the Horn with a trembling hand, and

blew a blast upon it, which, however, was so weak and feeble that it

could scarce be heard at the other end of the hall.

The result that followed was enough to appal the stoutest heart. Thunder

rolled in crashing peals through the immense hall. The charmed Knights

and their horses woke in an instant from their enchanted sleep. The

Knights sprang to their feet and seized their swords, brandishing them

round their heads, while their great black chargers stamped, and

snorted, and ground their bits, as if eager to escape from their stalls.

And where a moment before all had been stillness and silence, there was

now a scene of wild din and excitement.

Now was the time for Canonbie Dick to play the man. If he had done so

all the rest of his life might have been different.

But his courage failed him, and he lost his chance. Terrified at seeing

so many threatening faces turned towards him, he dropped the Horn and

made one weak, undecided effort to pick up the Sword.

But, ere he could do so, a mysterious voice sounded from somewhere in

the hall, and these were the words that it uttered:

"Woe to the coward, that ever he was born,

Who did not draw the Sword before he blew the Horn."

And, before Dick knew what he was about, a perfect whirlwind of cold,

raw air tore through the cavern, carrying the luckless horse-dealer

along with it; and, hurrying him along the narrow passage through which

he had entered, dashed him down outside on a bank of loose stones and

shale. He fell right to the bottom, and was found, with little life left

in him, next morning, by some shepherds, to whom he had just strength

enough left to whisper the story of his weird and fearful adventure.