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Want to spend some time in the hazy, dreamy space between the real world and fantasy? Dig into Howard Pyle’s Twilight Land, an enchanting collection of fairy tales that are cleverly woven together into a book-long narrative. You won’t want to break the spell that these delightful stories cast.
Once upon a time there came a soldier marching along the road, kicking up a little cloud of dust at each step–as strapping and merry and bright-eyed a fellow as you would wish to see in a summer day. Tramp! tramp! tramp! he marched, whistling as he jogged along, though he carried a heavy musket over his shoulder and though the sun shone hot and strong and there was never a tree in sight to give him a bit of shelter.
At last he came in sight of the King’s Town and to a great field of stocks and stones, and there sat a little old man as withered and brown as a dead leaf, and clad all in scarlet from head to foot.
“Ho! soldier,” said he, “are you a good shot?”
“Aye,” said the soldier, “that is my trade.”
“Would you like to earn a dollar by shooting off your musket for me?”
“Aye,” said the soldier, “that is my trade also.”
“Very well, then,” said the little man in red, “here is a silver button to drop into your gun instead of a bullet. Wait you here, and about sunset there will come a great black bird flying. In one claw it carries a feather cap and in the other a round stone. Shoot me the silver button at that bird, and if your aim is good it will drop the feather cap and the pebble. Bring them to me to the great town-gate and I will pay you a dollar for your trouble.”
“Very well,” said the soldier, “shooting my gun is a job that fits me like an old coat.” So, down he sat and the old man went his way.
Well, there he sat and sat and sat and sat until the sun touched the rim of the ground, and then, just as the old man said, there came flying a great black bird as silent as night. The soldier did not tarry to look or to think. As the bird flew by up came the gun to his shoulder, squint went his eye along the barrel–Puff! bang–!
I vow and declare that if the shot he fired had cracked the sky he could not have been more frightened. The great black bird gave a yell so terrible that it curdled the very blood in his veins and made his hair stand upon end. Away it flew like a flash–a bird no longer, but a great, black demon, smoking and smelling most horribly of brimstone, and when the soldier gathered his wits, there lay the feather cap and a little, round, black stone upon the ground.
“Well,” said the soldier, “it is little wonder that the old man had no liking to shoot at such game as that.” And thereupon he popped the feather cap into one pocket and the round stone into another, and shouldering his musket marched away until he reached the town-gate, and there was the old man waiting for him.
“Did you shoot the bird?” said he.
“I did,” said the soldier.
“And did you get the cap and the round stone?”
“Then here is your dollar.”
“Wait a bit,” said the soldier, “I shot greater game that time than I bargained for, and so it’s ten dollars and not one you shall pay me before you lay finger upon the feather cap and the little stone.”
“Very well,” said the old man, “here are ten dollars.”
“Ho! ho!” thought the soldier, “is that the way the wind blows?”–“Did I say ten dollars?” said he; “twas a hundred dollars I meant.”
At that the old man frowned until his eyes shone green. “Very well,” said he, “if it is a hundred dollars you want, you will have to come home with me, for I have not so much with me.” Thereupon he entered the town with the soldier at his heels.
Up one street he went and down another, until at last he came to a great, black, ancient ramshackle house; and that was where he lived. In he walked without so much as a rap at the door, and so led the way to a great room with furnaces and books and bottles and jars and dust and cobwebs, and three grinning skulls upon the mantelpiece, each with a candle stuck atop of it, and there he left the soldier while he went to get the hundred dollars.
The soldier sat him down upon a three-legged stool in the corner and began staring about him; and he liked the looks of the place as little as any he had seen in all of his life, for it smelled musty and dusty, it did: the three skulls grinned at him, and he began to think that the little old man was no better than he should be. “I wish,” says he, at last, “that instead of being here I might be well out of my scrape and in a safe place.”
Now the little old man in scarlet was a great magician, and there was little or nothing in that house that had not some magic about it, and of all things the three-legged stool had been conjured the most.