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
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
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
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.