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VIII. - The House of Eld.
About the time when Jack was ten years old, many strangers began to journey through that country. These he beheld going lightly by on the long roads, and the thing amazed him. “I wonder how it comes,” he asked, “that all these strangers are so quick afoot, and we must drag about our fetter?”
“My dear boy,” said his uncle, the catechist, “do not complain about your fetter, for it is the only thing that makes life worth living. None are happy, none are good, none are respectable, that are not gyved like us. And I must tell you, besides, it is very dangerous talk. If you grumble of your iron, you will have no luck; if ever you take it off, you will be instantly smitten by a thunderbolt.”
“Are there no thunderbolts for these strangers?” asked Jack.
“Jupiter is longsuffering to the benighted,” returned the catechist.
“Upon my word, I could wish I had been less fortunate,” said Jack. “For if I had been born benighted, I might now be going free; and it cannot be denied the iron is inconvenient, and the ulcer hurts.”
“Ah!” cried his uncle, “do not envy the heathen! Theirs is a sad lot! Ah, poor souls, if they but knew the joys of being fettered! Poor souls, my heart yearns for them. But the truth is they are vile, odious, insolent, ill-conditioned, stinking brutes, not truly human — for what is a man without a fetter? — and you cannot be too particular not to touch or speak with them.”
After this talk, the child would never pass one of the unfettered on the road but what he spat at him and called him names, which was the practice of the children in that part.
It chanced one day, when he was fifteen, he went into the woods, and the ulcer pained him. It was a fair day, with a blue sky; all the birds were singing; but Jack nursed his foot. Presently, another song began; it sounded like the singing of a person, only far more gay; at the same time there was a beating on the earth. Jack put aside the leaves; and there was a lad of his own village, leaping, and dancing and singing to himself in a green dell; and on the grass beside him lay the dancer’s iron.
“Oh!” cried Jack, “you have your fetter off!”
“For God’s sake, don’t tell your uncle!” cried the lad.
“If you fear my uncle,” returned Jack “why do you not fear the thunderbolt”?
“That is only an old wives’ tale,” said the other. “It is only told to children. Scores of us come here among the woods and dance for nights together, and are none the worse.”
This put Jack in a thousand new thoughts. He was a grave lad; he had no mind to dance himself; he wore his fetter manfully, and tended his ulcer without complaint. But he loved the less to be deceived or to see others cheated. He began to lie in wait for heathen travellers, at covert parts of the road, and in the dusk of the day, so that he might speak with them unseen; and these were greatly taken with their wayside questioner, and told him things of weight. The wearing of gyves (they said) was no command of Jupiter’s. It was the contrivance of a white-faced thing, a sorcerer, that dwelt in that country in the Wood of Eld. He was one like Glaucus that could change his shape, yet he could be always told; for when he was crossed, he gobbled like a turkey. He had three lives; but the third smiting would make an end of him indeed; and with that his house of sorcery would vanish, the gyves fall, and the villagers take hands and dance like children.
“And in your country?” Jack would ask.
But at this the travellers, with one accord, would put him off; until Jack began to suppose there was no land entirely happy. Or, if there were, it must be one that kept its folk at home; which was natural enough.
But the case of the gyves weighed upon him. The sight of the children limping stuck in his eyes; the groans of such as dressed their ulcers haunted him. And it came at last in his mind that he was born to free them.
There was in that village a sword of heavenly forgery, beaten upon Vulcan’s anvil. It was never used but in the temple, and then the flat of it only; and it hung on a nail by the catechist’s chimney. Early one night, Jack rose, and took the sword, and was gone out of the house and the village in the darkness.
All night he walked at a venture; and when day came, he met strangers going to the fields. Then he asked after the Wood of Eld and the house of sorcery; and one said north, and one south; until Jack saw that they deceived him. So then, when he asked his way of any man, he showed the bright sword naked; and at that the gyve on the man’s ankle rang, and answered in his stead; and the word was still straight on. But the man, when his gyve spoke, spat and struck at Jack, and threw stones at him as he went away; so that his head was broken.
So he came to that wood, and entered in, and he was aware of a house in a low place, where funguses grew, and the trees met, and the steaming of the marsh arose about it like a smoke. It was a fine house, and a very rambling; some parts of it were ancient like the hills, and some but of yesterday, and none finished; and all the ends of it were open, so that you could go in from every side. Yet it was in good repair, and all the chimneys smoked.
Jack went in through the gable; and there was one room after another, all bare, but all furnished in part, so that a man could dwell there; and in each there was a fire burning, where a man could warm himself, and a table spread where he might eat. But Jack saw nowhere any living creature; only the bodies of some stuffed.
“This is a hospitable house,” said Jack; “but the ground must be quaggy underneath, for at every step the building quakes.”
He had gone some time in the house, when he began to be hungry. Then he looked at the food, and at first he was afraid; but he bared the sword, and by the shining of the sword, it seemed the food was honest. So he took the courage to sit down and eat, and he was refreshed in mind and body.
“This is strange,” thought he, “that in the house of sorcery there should be food so wholesome.”
As he was yet eating, there came into that room the appearance of his uncle, and Jack was afraid because he had taken the sword. But his uncle was never more kind, and sat down to meat with him, and praised him because he had taken the sword. Never had these two been more pleasantly together, and Jack was full of love to the man.
“It was very well done,” said his uncle, “to take the sword and come yourself into the House of Eld; a good thought and a brave deed. But now you are satisfied; and we may go home to dinner arm in arm.”
“Oh, dear, no!” said Jack. “I am not satisfied yet.”
“How!” cried his uncle. “Are you not warmed by the fire? Does not this food sustain you?”
“I see the food to be wholesome,” said Jack; “and still it is no proof that a man should wear a gyve on his right leg.”
Now at this the appearance of his uncle gobbled like a turkey.
“Jupiter!” cried Jack, “is this the sorcerer?”
His hand held back and his heart failed him for the love he bore his uncle; but he heaved up the sword and smote the appearance on the head; and it cried out aloud with the voice of his uncle; and fell to the ground; and a little bloodless white thing fled from the room.
The cry rang in Jack’s ears, and his knees smote together, and conscience cried upon him; and yet he was strengthened, and there woke in his bones the lust of that enchanter’s blood. “If the gyves are to fall,” said he, “I must go through with this, and when I get home I shall find my uncle dancing.”
So he went on after the bloodless thing. In the way, he met the appearance of his father; and his father was incensed, and railed upon him, and called to him upon his duty, and bade him be home, while there was yet time. “For you can still,” said he, “be home by sunset; and then all will be forgiven.”
“God knows,” said Jack, “I fear your anger; but yet your anger does not prove that a man should wear a gyve on his right leg.”
And at that the appearance of his father gobbled like a turkey.
“Ah, heaven,” cried Jack, “the sorcerer again!”
The blood ran backward in his body and his joints rebelled against him for the love he bore his father; but he heaved up the sword, and plunged it in the heart of the appearance; and the appearance cried out aloud with the voice of his father; and fell to the ground; and a little bloodless white thing fled from the room.
The cry rang in Jack’s ears, and his soul was darkened; but now rage came to him. “I have done what I dare not think upon,” said he. “I will go to an end with it, or perish. And when I get home, I pray God this may be a dream, and I may find my father dancing.”
So he went on after the bloodless thing that had escaped; and in the way he met the appearance of his mother, and she wept. “What have you done?” she cried. “What is this that you have done? Oh, come home (where you may be by bedtime) ere you do more ill to me and mine; for it is enough to smite my brother and your father.”
“Dear mother, it is not these that I have smitten,” said Jack; “it was but the enchanter in their shape. And even if I had, it would not prove that a man should wear a gyve on his right leg.”
And at this the appearance gobbled like a turkey.
He never knew how he did that; but he swung the sword on the one side, and clove the appearance through the midst; and it cried out aloud with the voice of his mother; and fell to the ground; and with the fall of it, the house was gone from over Jack’s head, and he stood alone in the woods, and the gyve was loosened from his leg.
“Well,” said he, “the enchanter is now dead, and the fetter gone.” But the cries rang in his soul, and the day was like night to him. “This has been a sore business,” said he. “Let me get forth out of the wood, and see the good that I have done to others.”
He thought to leave the fetter where it lay, but when he turned to go, his mind was otherwise. So he stooped and put the gyve in his bosom; and the rough iron galled him as he went, and his bosom bled.
Now when he was forth of the wood upon the highway, he met folk returning from the field; and those he met had no fetter on the right leg, but, behold! they had one upon the left. Jack asked them what it signified; and they said, “that was the new wear, for the old was found to be a superstition”. Then he looked at them nearly; and there was a new ulcer on the left ankle, and the old one on the right was not yet healed.
“Now, may God forgive me!” cried Jack. “I would I were well home.”
And when he was home, there lay his uncle smitten on the head, and his father pierced through the heart, and his mother cloven through the midst. And he sat in the lone house and wept beside the bodies.
Old is the tree and the fruit good,
Very old and thick the wood.
Woodman, is your courage stout?
Beware! the root is wrapped about
Your mother’s heart, your father’s bones;
And like the mandrake comes with groans.