Once upon a time St. Nicholas came down into the world to take a peep at the old place and see how things looked in the spring-time. On he stepped along the road to the town where he used to live, for he had a notion to find out whether things were going on nowadays as they one time did. By-and-by he came to a cross-road, and who should he see sitting there but Ill-Luck himself. Ill-Luck's face was as gray as ashes, and his hair as white as snow--for he is as old as Grandfather Adam--and two great wings grew out of his shoulders--for he flies fast and comes quickly to those whom he visits, does Ill-Luck.|
Now, St. Nicholas had a pocketful of hazel-nuts, which he kept cracking and eating as he trudged along the road, and just then he came upon one with a worm-hole in it. When he saw Ill-Luck it came into his head to do a good turn to poor sorrowful man.
"Good-morning, Ill-Luck," says he.
"Good-morning, St. Nicholas," says Ill-Luck.
"You look as hale and strong as ever," says St. Nicholas.
"Ah, yes," says Ill-Luck, "I find plenty to do in this world of woe."
"They tell me," says St. Nicholas, "that you can go wherever you choose, even if it be through a key-hole; now, is that so?"
"Yes," says Ill-Luck, "it is."
"Well, look now, friend," says St. Nicholas, "could you go into this hazel-nut if you chose to?"
"Yes," says Ill-Luck, "I could indeed."
"I should like to see you," says St. Nicholas; "for then I should be of a mind to believe what people say of you."
"Well," says Ill-Luck, "I have not much time to be pottering and playing upon Jack's fiddle; but to oblige an old friend"--thereupon he made himself small and smaller, and--phst! he was in the nut before you could wink.
Then what do you think St. Nicholas did? In his hand he held a little plug of wood, and no sooner had Ill-Luck entered the nut than he stuck the plug in the hole, and there was man's enemy as tight as fly in a bottle.
"So!" says St. Nicholas, "that's a piece of work well done." Then he tossed the hazel-nut under the roots of an oak-tree near by, and went his way.
And that is how this story begins.
Well, the hazel-nut lay and lay and lay, and all the time that it lay there nobody met with ill-luck; but, one day, who should come travelling that way but a rogue of a Fiddler, with his fiddle under his arm. The day was warm, and he was tired; so down he sat under the shade of the oak-tree to rest his legs. By-and-by he heard a little shrill voice piping and crying, "Let me out! let me out! let me out!"
The Fiddler looked up and down, but he could see nobody. "Who are you?" says he.
"I am Ill-Luck! Let me out! let me out!"
"Let you out?" says the Fiddler. "Not I; if you are bottled up here it is the better for all of us;" and, so saying, he tucked his fiddle under his arm and off he marched.
But before he had gone six steps he stopped. He was one of your peering, prying sort, and liked more than a little to know all that was to be known about this or that or the other thing that he chanced to see or hear. "I wonder where Ill-Luck can be, to be in such a tight place as he seems to be caught in," says he to himself; and back he came again. "Where are you, Ill-Luck?" says he.
"Here I am," says Ill-Luck--"here in this hazel-nut, under the roots of the oak-tree."
Thereupon the Fiddler laid aside his fiddle and bow, and fell to poking and prying under the roots until he found the nut. Then he began twisting and turning it in his fingers, looking first on one side and then on the other, and all the while Ill-Luck kept crying, "Let me out! let me out!"
It was not long before the Fiddler found the little wooden plug, and then nothing would do but he must take a peep inside the nut to see if Ill-Luck was really there. So he picked and pulled at the wooden plug, until at last out it came; and--phst! pop! out came Ill-Luck along with it.
Plague take the Fiddler! say I.
"Listen," says Ill-Luck. "It has been many a long day that I have been in that hazel-nut, and you are the man that has let me out; for once in a way I will do a good turn to a poor human body." Therewith, and without giving the Fiddler time to speak a word, Ill-Luck caught him up by the belt, and--whiz! away he flew like a bullet, over hill and over valley; over moor and over mountain, so fast that not enough wind was left in the Fiddler's stomach to say "Bo!"
By-and-by he came to a garden, and there he let the Fiddler drop on the soft grass below. Then away he flew to attend to other matters of greater need.
When the Fiddler had gathered his wits together, and himself to his feet, he saw that he lay in a beautiful garden of flowers and fruit-trees and marble walks and what not, and that at the end of it stood a great, splendid house, all built of white marble, with a fountain in front, and peacocks strutting about on the lawn.
Well, the Fiddler smoothed down his hair and brushed his clothes a bit, and off he went to see what was to be seen at the grand house at the end of the garden.
He entered the door, and nobody said no to him. Then he passed through one room after another, and each was finer than the one he left behind. Many servants stood around; but they only bowed, and never asked whence he came. At last he came to a room where a little old man sat at a table. The table was spread with a feast that smelled so good that it brought tears to the Fiddler's eyes and water to his mouth, and all the plates were of pure gold. The little old man sat alone, but another place was spread, as though he were expecting some one. As the Fiddler came in the little old man nodded and smiled. "Welcome!" he cried; "and have you come at last?"
"Yes," said the Fiddler, "I have. It was Ill-Luck that brought me."
"Nay," said the little old man, "do not say that. Sit down to the table and eat; and when I have told you all, you will say it was not Ill-Luck, but Good-Luck, that brought you."
The Fiddler had his own mind about that; but, all the same, down he sat at the table, and fell to with knife and fork at the good things, as though he had not had a bite to eat for a week of Sundays.
"I am the richest man in the world," says the little old man, after a while.
"I am glad to hear it," says the Fiddler.
"You may well be," said the old man, "for I am all alone in the world, and without wife or child. And this morning I said to myself that the first body that came to my house I would take for a son--or a daughter, as the case might be. You are the first, and so you shall live with me as long as I live, and after I am gone everything that I have shall be yours."
The Fiddler did nothing but stare with open eyes and mouth, as though he would never shut either again.
Well, the Fiddler lived with the old man for maybe three or four days as snug and happy a life as ever a mouse passed in a green cheese. As for the gold and silver and jewels--why, they were as plentiful in that house as dust in a mill! Everything the Fiddler wanted came to his hand. He lived high, and slept soft and warm, and never knew what it was to want either more or less, or great or small. In all of those three or four days he did nothing but enjoy himself with might and main.
But by-and-by he began to wonder where all the good things came from. Then, before long, he fell to pestering the old man with questions about the matter.
At first the old man put him off with short answers, but the Fiddler was a master-hand at finding out anything he wanted to know. He dinned and drummed and worried until flesh and blood could stand it no longer. So at last the old man said that he would show him the treasure-house where all his wealth came from, and at that the Fiddler was tickled beyond measure.
The old man took a key from behind the door and led him out into the garden. There in a corner by the wall was a great trap-door of iron. The old man fitted the key to the lock and turned it. He lifted the door, and then went down a steep flight of stone steps, and the Fiddler followed close at his heels. Down below it was as light as day, for in the centre of the room hung a great lamp that shone with a bright light and lit up all the place as bright as day. In the floor were set three great basins of marble: one was nearly full of silver, one of gold, and one of gems of all sorts.
"All this is mine," said the old man, "and after I am gone it shall be yours. It was left to me as I will leave it to you, and in the meantime you may come and go as you choose and fill your pockets whenever you wish to. But there is one thing you must not do: you must never open that door yonder at the back of the room. Should you do so, Ill-Luck will be sure to overtake you."
Oh no! The Fiddler would never think of doing such a thing as opening the door. The silver and gold and jewels were enough for him. But since the old man had given him leave, he would just help himself to a few of the fine things. So he stuffed his pockets full, and then he followed the old man up the steps and out into the sunlight again.
It took him maybe an hour to count all the money and jewels he had brought up with him. After he had done that, he began to wonder what was inside of the little door at the back of the room. First he wondered; then he began to grow curious; then he began to itch and tingle and burn as though fifty thousand I-want-to-know nettles were sticking into him from top to toe. At last he could stand it no longer. "I'll just go down yonder," says he, "and peep through the key-hole; perhaps I can see what is there without opening the door."
So down he took the key, and off he marched to the garden. He opened the trap-door, and went down the steep steps to the room below. There was the door at the end of the room, but when he came to look there was no key-hole to it. "Pshaw!" said he, "here is a pretty state of affairs. Tut! tut! tut! Well, since I have come so far, it would be a pity to turn back without seeing more." So he opened the door and peeped in.
"Pooh!" said the Fiddler, "There's nothing there, after all," and he opened the door wide.
Before him was a great long passageway, and at the far end of it he could see a spark of light as though the sun were shining there. He listened, and after a while he heard a sound like the waves beating on the shore. "Well," says he, "this is the most curious thing I have seen for a long time. Since I have come so far, I may as well see the end of it." So he entered the passageway, and closed the door behind him. He went on and on, and the spark of light kept growing larger and larger, and by-and-by--pop! out he came at the other end of the passage.
Sure enough, there he stood on the sea-shore, with the waves beating and dashing on the rocks. He stood looking and wondering to find himself in such a place, when all of a sudden something came with a whiz and a rush and caught him by the belt, and away he flew like a bullet.
By-and-by he managed to screw his head around and look up, and there it was Ill-Luck that had him. "I thought so," said the Fiddler; and then he gave over kicking.
Well; on and on they flew, over hill and valley, over moor and mountain, until they came to another garden, and there Ill-Luck let the Fiddler drop.
Swash! Down he fell into the top of an apple-tree, and there he hung in the branches.
It was the garden of a royal castle, and all had been weeping and woe (though they were beginning now to pick up their smiles again), and this was the reason why:
The king of that country had died, and no one was left behind him but the queen. But she was a prize, for not only was the kingdom hers, but she was as young as a spring apple and as pretty as a picture; so that there was no end of those who would have liked to have had her, each man for his own. Even that day there were three princes at the castle, each one wanting the queen to marry him; and the wrangling and bickering and squabbling that was going on was enough to deafen a body. The poor young queen was tired to death with it all, and so she had come out into the garden for a bit of rest; and there she sat under the shade of an apple-tree, fanning herself and crying, when--
Swash! Down fell the Fiddler into the apple-tree and down fell a dozen apples, popping and tumbling about the queen's ears.
The queen looked up and screamed, and the Fiddler climbed down.
"Where did you come from?" said she.
"Oh, Ill-Luck brought me," said the Fiddler.
"Nay," said the queen, "do not say so. You fell from heaven, for I saw it with my eyes and heard it with my ears. I see how it is now. You were sent hither from heaven to be my husband, and my husband you shall be. You shall be king of this country, half-and-half with me as queen, and shall sit on a throne beside me."
You can guess whether or not that was music to the Fiddler's ears.
So the princes were sent packing, and the Fiddler was married to the queen, and reigned in that country.
Well, three or four days passed, and all was as sweet and happy as a spring day. But at the end of that time the Fiddler began to wonder what was to be seen in the castle. The queen was very fond of him, and was glad enough to show him all the fine things that were to be seen; so hand in hand they went verywhere, from garret to cellar.
But you should have seen how splendid it all was! The Fiddler felt more certain than ever that it was better to be a king than to be the richest man in the world, and he was as glad as glad could be that Ill-Luck had brought him from the rich little old man over yonder to this.
So he saw everything in the castle but one thing. "What is behind that door?" said he.
"Ah! that," said the queen, "you must not ask or wish to know. Should you open that door Ill-Luck will be sure to overtake you."
"Pooh!" said the Fiddler, "I don't care to know, anyhow," and off they went, hand in hand.
Yes, that was a very fine thing to say; but before an hour had gone by the Fiddler's head began to hum and buzz like a beehive. "I don't believe," said he, "there would be a grain of harm in my peeping inside that door; all the same, I will not do it. I will just go down and peep through the key-hole." So off he went to do as he said; but there was no key-hole to that door, either. "Why, look!" says he, "it is just like the door at the rich man's house over yonder; I wonder if it is the same inside as outside," and he opened the door and peeped in. Yes; there was the long passage and the spark of light at the far end, as though the sun were shining. He cocked his head to one side and listened. "Yes," said he, "I think I hear the water rushing, but I am not sure; I will just go a little further in and listen," and so he entered and closed the door behind him. Well, he went on and on until--pop! there he was out at the farther end, and before he knew what he was about he had stepped out upon the sea-shore, just as he had done before.
Whiz! whirr! Away flew the Fiddler like a bullet, and there was Ill-Luck carrying him by the belt again. Away they sped, over hill and valley, over moor and mountain, until the Fiddler's head grew so dizzy that he had to shut his eyes. Suddenly Ill-Luck let him drop, and down he fell--thump! bump!--on the hard ground. Then he opened his eyes and sat up, and, lo and behold! there he was, under the oak-tree whence he had started in the first place. There lay his fiddle, just as he had left it. He picked it up and ran his fingers over the trings--trum, twang! Then he got to his feet and brushed the dirt and grass from his knees. He tucked his fiddle under his arm, and off he stepped upon the way he had been going at first.
"Just to think!" said he, "I would either have been the richest man in the world, or else I would have been a king, if it had not been for Ill-Luck."
And that is the way we all of us talk.
Additional Howard Pyle stories on Eldrbarry's Storytelling Page
This story is from Twilight Land by Howard Pyle - first published in 1894. The stories in it and the illustrations had first been published serial fashion in Harper's Young People magazine in the latter 1880's. My thanks to Batsy Bybell for her part in this - our joint project - putting these hard to find stories of Howard Pyle online.
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