"Once upon a time there lived in the north country a certain
poor man and his wife, who had two corn-fields, three cows,
five sheep, and thirteen children. Twelve of these children
were called by names common in the north country—Hardhead,
Stiffneck, Tightfingers, and the like; but when the
thirteenth came to be named, either the poor man and his
wife could remember no other name, or something in the
child's look made them think it proper, for they called him
Merrymind, which the neighbours thought a strange name, and
very much above their station; however, as they showed no
other signs of pride, the neighbours let that pass. Their
thirteen children grew taller and stronger every year, and
they had hard work to keep them in bread; but when the
 old enough to look after his father's sheep,
there happened the great fair, to which everybody in the
north country went, because it came only once in seven
years, and was held on midsummer-day,—not in any town or
village, but on a green plain, lying between a broad river
and a high hill, where it was said the fairies used to dance
in old and merry times.
"Merchants and dealers of all sorts crowded to that fair
from far and near. There was nothing known in the north
country that could not be bought or sold in it, and neither
old nor young were willing to go home without a fairing. The
poor man who owned this large family could afford them
little to spend in such ways; but as the fair happened only
once in seven years, he would not show a poor spirit.
Therefore, calling them about him, he opened the leathern
bag in which his savings were stored, and gave every one of
the thirteen a silver penny.
"The boys and girls had never before owned so much
pocket-money; and, wondering what they should buy, they
dressed themselves in their
holi-  day clothes, and set out
with their father and mother to the fair. When they came
near the ground that midsummer morning, the stalls, heaped
up with all manner of merchandise, from ginger-bread
upwards, the tents for fun and feasting, the puppet-shows,
the rope-dancers, and the crowd of neighbours and strangers,
all in their best attire, made those simple people think
their north country fair the finest sight in the world. The
day wore away in seeing wonders, and in chatting with old
friends. It was surprising how far silver pennies went in
those days; but before evening twelve of the thirteen had
got fairly rid of their money. One bought a pair of brass
buckles, another a crimson riband, a third green garters;
the father bought a tobacco-pipe, the mother a horn
snuffbox—in short, all had provided themselves with fairings
"The cause of the silver penny remaining in his pocket was
that he had set his heart upon a fiddle; and fiddles enough
there were in the fair—small and large, plain and painted;
he looked at and priced the most of them, but there was not
 that came within the compass of a silver penny. His
father and mother warned him to make haste with his
purchase, for they must all go home at sunset, because the
way was long.
"The sun was getting low and red upon the hill; the fair was
growing thin, for many dealers had packed up their stalls
and departed; but there was a mossy hollow in the great
hill-side, to which the outskirts of the fair had reached,
and Merrymind thought he would see what might be there. The
first thing was a stall of fiddles, kept by a young merchant
from a far country, who had many customers, his goods being
fine and new; but hard by sat a little grey-haired man, at
whom everybody had laughed that day, because he had nothing
on his stall but one old dingy fiddle, and all its strings
were broken. Nevertheless, the little man sat as stately,
and cried, 'Fiddles to sell!' as if he had the best stall in
" 'Buy a fiddle my young master?' he said, as Merrymind came
forward. 'You shall have it cheap; I ask but a silver penny
for it; and if the
 strings were mended, its like would not
be in the north country.'
"Merrymind thought this a great bargain. He was a handy boy,
and could mend the strings while watching his father's
sheep. So down went the silver penny on the little man's
stall, and up went the fiddle under Merrymind's arm.
" 'Now, my young master,' said the little man, 'you see that
we merchants have a deal to look after, and if you help me
to bundle up my stall, I will tell you a wonderful piece of
news about that fiddle.'
"Merrymind was good-natured and fond of news, so he helped
him to tie up the loose boards and sticks that composed his
stall with an old rope, and when they were hoisted on his
back like a fagot, the little man said:
" 'About that fiddle, my young master: it is certain the
strings can never be mended, nor made new, except by threads
from the night-spinners, which, if you get, it will be a
good penny-worth'; and up the hill he ran like a greyhound.
"Merrymind thought that was queer news,
 but being given to
hope the best, he believed the little man was only jesting,
and made haste to join the rest of the family, who were soon
on their way home. When they got there every one showed his
bargain, and Merrymind showed his fiddle; but his brothers
and sisters laughed at him for buying such a thing when he
had never learned to play. His sisters asked him what music
he could bring out of broken strings; and his father said:
" 'Thou hast shown little prudence in laying out thy first
penny, from which token I fear thou wilt never have many to
"In short, everybody threw scorn on Merrymind's bargain
except his mother. She, good woman, said if he laid out one
penny ill, he might lay out the next better; and who knew
but his fiddle would be of use some day? To make her words
good, Merrymind fell to repairing the strings—he spent all
his time, both night and day, upon them; but, true to the
little man's parting words, no mending would stand, and no
string would hold on that fiddle. Merrymind tried
 everything, and wearied himself to no purpose. At last he
thought of inquiring after people who spun at night; and
this seemed such a good joke to the north country people,
that they wanted no other till the next fair.
"In the meantime Merrymind lost credit at home and abroad.
Everybody believed in his father's prophecy; his brothers
and sisters valued him no more than a herd-boy; the
neighbours thought he must turn out a scapegrace. Still the
boy would not part with his fiddle. It was his silver
pennyworth, and he had a strong hope of mending the strings
for all that had come and gone; but since nobody at home
cared for him except his mother, and as she had twelve other
children, he resolved to leave the scorn behind him, and go
to seek his fortune.
"The family were not very sorry to hear of that intention,
being in a manner ashamed of him; besides, they could spare
one out of thirteen. His father gave him a barley cake, and
his mother her blessing. All his brothers and sisters wished
him well. Most of the neighbours hoped that no
 harm would
happen to him; and Merrymind set out one summer morning with
the broken-stringed fiddle under his arm.
"There were no highways then in the north country—people
took whatever path pleased them best; so Merrymind went over
the fair ground and up the hill, hoping to meet the little
man, and learn something of the night-spinners. The hill was
covered with heather to the top, and he went up without
meeting any one. On the other side it was steep and rocky,
and after a hard scramble down, he came to a narrow glen all
overgrown with wild furze and brambles. Merrymind had never
met with briars so sharp, but he was not the boy to turn
back readily, and pressed on in spite of torn clothes and
scratched hands, till he came to the end of the glen, where
two paths met; one of them wound through a pine-wood, he
knew not how far, but it seemed green and pleasant. The
other was a rough, stony way leading to a wide valley
surrounded by high hills, and overhung by a dull, thick
mist, though it was yet early in the summer evening.
 "Merrymind was weary with his long journey, and stood
thinking of what path to choose, when, by the way of the
valley, there came an old man as tall and large as any three
men of the north country. His white hair and beard hung like
tangled flax about him; his clothes were made of sackcloth;
and on his back he carried a heavy burden of dust heaped
high in a great pannier.
MERRYMIND AND HIS BURDEN.
" 'Listen to me, you lazy vagabond!' he said, coming near to
Merrymind: 'If you take the way through the wood I know not
what will happen to you; but if you choose this path you
must help me with my pannier, and I can tell you it's no
" 'Well, father,' said Merrymind, 'you seem tired, and I am
younger than you, though not quite so tall; so, if you
please, I will choose this way, and help you along with the
"Scarce had he spoken when the huge man caught hold of him,
firmly bound one side of the pannier to his shoulders with
the same strong rope that fastened it on his own back, and
never ceased scolding and calling him names as they marched
 over the stony ground together. It was a rough way and a
heavy burden, and Merrymind wished himself a thousand times
out of the old man's company, but there was no getting off;
and at length, in hopes of beguiling the way, and putting
him in better humour, he began to sing an old rhyme which his
mother had taught him. By this time they had entered the
valley, and the night had fallen very dark and cold. The old
man ceased scolding, and by a feeble glimmer of the
moonlight, which now began to shine, Merrymind saw that they
were close by a deserted cottage, for its door stood open to
the night winds. Here the old man paused, and loosed the
rope from his own and Merrymind's shoulders.
" 'For seven times seven years,' he said, 'have I carried
this pannier, and no one ever sang while helping me before.
Night releases all men, so I release you. Where will you
sleep—by my kitchen fire, or in that cold cottage?'
"Merrymind thought he had got quite enough of the old man's
society, and therefore answered:
" 'The cottage, good father, if you please.'
 " 'A sound sleep to you, then!' said the old man, and he went
off with his pannier.
"Merrymind stepped into the deserted cottage. The moon was
shining through door and window, for the mist was gone, and
the night looked clear as day; but in all the valley he
could hear no sound, nor was there any trace of inhabitants
in the cottage. The hearth looked as if there had not been a
fire there for years. A single article of furniture was not
to be seen; but Merrymind was sore weary, and, laying
himself down in a corner, with his fiddle close by, he fell
"The floor was hard, and his clothes were thin, but all
through his sleep there came a sweet sound of singing voices
and spinning-wheels, and Merrymind thought he must have been
dreaming when he opened his eyes next morning on the bare
and solitary house. The beautiful night was gone, and the
heavy mist had come back. There was no blue sky, no bright
sun to be seen. The light was cold and grey, like that of
mid-winter; but Merrymind ate the half of his barley cake,
drank from a stream hard by, and went out to see the valley.
 "It was full of inhabitants, and they were all busy in
houses, in fields, in mills, and in forges. The men hammered
and delved; the women scrubbed and scoured; the very
children were hard at work; but Merrymind could hear neither
talk nor laughter among them. Every face looked careworn and
cheerless, and every word was something about work or gain.
"Merrymind thought this unreasonable, for everybody there
appeared rich. The women scrubbed in silk, the men delved in
scarlet. Crimson curtains, marbled floors, and shelves of
silver tankards were to be seen in every house; but their
owners took neither ease nor pleasure in them, and everyone
laboured as it were for life.
"The birds of that valley did not sing—they were too busy
pecking and building. The cats did not lie by the fire—they
were all on the watch for mice. The dogs went out after
hares on their own account. The cattle and sheep grazed as
if they were never to get another mouthful; and the herdsmen
were all splitting wood or making baskets.
 "In the midst of the valley there stood a stately castle,
but instead of park and gardens, brew-houses and washing-greens
lay round it. The gates stood open, and Merrymind
ventured in. The courtyard was full of coopers. They were
churning in the banquet hall. They were making cheese on the
dais, and spinning and weaving in all its principal
chambers. In the highest tower of that busy castle, at a
window from which she could see the whole valley, there sat
a noble lady. Her dress was rich, but of a dingy drab colour.
Her hair was iron-grey; her look was sour and gloomy. Round
her sat twelve maidens of the same aspect, spinning on
ancient distaffs, and the lady spun as hard as they, but all
the yarn they made was jet black.
"No one in or out of the castle would reply to Merrymind's
salutations, nor answer him any questions. The rich men
pulled out their purses, saying, 'Come and work for wages!'
The poor men said, 'We have no time to talk!' A cripple by
the wayside wouldn't answer him, he was so busy begging; and
a child by a cottage door said
 it must go to work. All day
Merrymind wandered about with his broken-stringed fiddle,
and all day he saw the great old man marching round and
round the valley with his heavy burden of dust.
" 'It is the dreariest valley that ever I beheld!' he said to
himself. 'And no place to mend my fiddle in; but one would
not like to go away without knowing what has come over the
people, or if they have always worked so hard and heavily.'
"By this time the night again came on; he knew it by the
clearing mist and the rising moon. The people began to hurry
home in all directions. Silence came over house and field;
and near the deserted cottage Merrymind met the old man.
" 'Good father,' he said, 'I pray you tell me what sport or
pastime have the people of this valley?'
" 'Sport and pastime!' cried the old man, in great wrath.
'Where did you hear of the like? We work by day and sleep by
night. There is no sport in Dame Dreary's land!' and, with a
hearty scolding for his idleness and levity, he left
Merrymind to sleep once more in the cottage.
 "That night the boy did not sleep so sound; though too
drowsy to open his eyes, he was sure there had been singing
and spinning near him all night; and, resolving to find out
what this meant before he left the valley, Merrymind ate the
other half of his barley cake, drank again from the stream,
and went out to see the country.
"The same heavy mist shut out sun and sky; the same hard
work went forward wherever he turned his eyes; and the great
old man with the dust-pannier strode on his accustomed
round. Merrymind could find no one to answer a single
question; rich and poor wanted him to work still more
earnestly than the day before; and fearing that some of them
might press him into service, he wandered away to the
farthest end of the valley.
"There, there was no work, for the land lay bare and lonely,
and was bounded by grey crags, as high and steep as any
castle-wall. There was no passage or outlet, but through a
great iron gate secured with a heavy padlock: close by it
stood a white tent, and in the door a tall soldier, with one
arm, stood smoking a long pipe. He was the first
 idle man
Merrymind had seen in the valley, and his face looked to him
like that of a friend; so coming up with his best bow, the
" 'Honourable master soldier, please to tell me what country
is this, and why do the people work so hard?'
" 'Are you a stranger in this place, that you ask such
questions?' answered the soldier.
" 'Yes,' said Merrymind; 'I came but the evening before
" 'Then I am sorry for you, for here you must remain. My
orders are to let everybody in and nobody out; and the giant
with the dust-pannier guards the other entrance night and
day,' said the soldier.
" 'That is bad news,' said Merrymind; 'but since I am here,
please to tell me why were such laws made, and what is the
story of this valley?'
" 'Hold my pipe, and I will tell you,' said the soldier, 'for
nobody else will take the time. This valley belongs to the
lady of yonder castle, whom, for seven times seven years,
men have called Dame Dreary. She had another name in her
youth—  they called her Lady Littlecare; and then the valley
was the fairest spot in all the north country. The sun shone
brightest there; the summers lingered longest. Fairies
danced on the hill-tops; singing-birds sat on all the trees.
Strongarm, the last of the giants, kept the pine-forest, and
hewed yule logs out of it, when he was not sleeping in the
sun. Two fair maidens, clothed in white, with silver wheels
on their shoulders, came by night, and spun golden threads
by the hearth of every cottage. The people wore homespun,
and drank out of horn; but they had merry times. There were
May-games, harvest-homes and Christmas cheer among them.
Shepherds piped on the hill-sides, reapers sang in the
fields, and laughter came with the red firelight out of
every house in the evening. All that was changed, nobody
knows how, for the old folks who remembered it are dead.
Some say it was because of a magic ring which fell from the
lady's finger; some because of a spring in the castle-court
which went dry. However it was, the lady turned Dame Dreary.
Hard work and hard times overspread
 the valley. The mist
came down; the fairies departed; the giant Strongarm grew
old, and took up a burden of dust; and the night-spinners
were seen no more in any man's dwelling. They say it will be
so till Dame Dreary lays down her distaff, and dances; but
all the fiddlers of the north country have tried their
merriest tunes to no purpose. The king is a wise prince and
a great warrior. He has filled two treasure-houses, and
conquered all his enemies; but he cannot change the order of
Dame Dreary's land. I cannot tell you what great rewards he
offered to any who could do it; but when no good came of his
offers, the king feared that similar fashions might spread
among his people, and therefore made a law that whosoever
entered should not leave it. His majesty took me captive in
war, and placed me here to keep the gate, and save his
subjects trouble. If I had not brought my pipe with me, I
should have been working as hard as any of them by this
time, with my one arm. Young master, if you take my advice
you will learn to smoke.'
" 'If my fiddle were mended it would be better,'
Merrymind; and he sat talking with the soldier till the mist
began to clear and the moon to rise, and then went home to
sleep in the deserted cottage.
"It was late when he came near it, and the moonlight night
looked lovely beside the misty day. Merrymind thought it was
a good time for trying to get out of the valley. There was
no foot abroad, and no appearance of the giant; but as
Merrymind drew near to where the two paths met, there was he
fast asleep beside a fire of pine cones, with his pannier at
his head, and a heap of stones close by him. 'Is that your
kitchen-fire?' thought the boy to himself, and he tried to
steal past; but Strongarm started up, and pursued him with
stones, calling him bad names, half-way back to the cottage.
"Merrymind was glad to run the whole way for fear of him.
The door was still open, and the moon was shining in; but by
the fireless hearth there sat two fair maidens, all in
white spinning on silver wheels, and singing together a
blithe and pleasant tune like the larks on May-morning.
 Merrymind could have listened all night, but suddenly he
bethought him that these must be the night-spinners, whose
threads would mend his fiddle; so, stepping with reverence
and good courage, he said:
" 'Honourable ladies, I pray you give a poor boy a thread to
mend his fiddle-strings.'
" 'For seven times seven years,' said the fair maidens, 'have
we spun by night in this deserted cottage, and no mortal has
seen or spoken to us. Go and gather sticks through all the
valley to make a fire for us on this cold hearth, and each
of us will give you a thread for your pains.'
"Merrymind took his broken fiddle with him, and went through
all the valley gathering sticks by the moonlight; but so
careful were the people of Dame Dreary's land, that scarce a
stick could be found, and the moon was gone, and the misty
day had come before he was able to come back with a small
fagot. The cottage door was still open; the fair maidens and
their silver wheels were gone; but on the floor where they
sat lay two long threads of gold.
 "Merrymind first heaped up his fagot on the hearth, to be
ready against their coming at night, and next took up the
golden threads to mend his fiddle. Then he learned the truth
of the little man's saying at the fair, for no sooner were
the strings fastened with those golden threads than they
became firm. The old dingy fiddle too began to shine and
glisten, and at length it was golden also. This sight made
Merrymind so joyful, that, unlearned as he was in music, the
boy tried to play. Scarce had his bow touched the strings
when they began to play of themselves the same blithe and
pleasant tune which the night-spinners sang together.
" 'Some of the workers will stop for the sake of this tune,'
said Merrymind, and he went out along the valley with his
fiddle. The music filled the air; the busy people heard it;
and never was such a day seen in Dame Dreary's land. The men
paused in their delving; the women stopped their scrubbing;
the little children dropped their work; and every one stood
still in their places while Merrymind and his fiddle passed
on. When he
 came to the castle, the coopers cast down their
tools in the court; the churning and cheese-making ceased in
the banquet hall; the looms and spinning-wheels stopped in
the principal chambers; and Dame Dreary's distaff stood
still in her hand.
"Merrymind played through the halls and up the tower-stairs.
As he came near, the dame cast down her distaff, and danced
with all her might. All her maidens did the like; and as
they danced she grew young again—the sourness passed from
her looks, and the greyness from her hair. They brought her
the dress of white and cherry-colour she used to wear in her
youth, and she was no longer Dame Dreary, but the Lady
Littlecare, with golden hair, and laughing eyes, and cheeks
like summer roses.
"Then a sound of merrymaking came up from the whole valley.
The heavy mist rolled away over the hills; the sun shone
out; the blue sky was seen; a clear spring gushed up in the
castle-court; a white falcon came from the east with a
golden ring, and put it on the lady's finger. After that
Strongarm broke the rope, tossed the pannier of
 dust from
his shoulder, and lay down to sleep in the sun. That night
the fairies danced on the hill-tops; and the night-spinners,
with their silver wheels, were seen by every hearth, and no
more in the deserted cottage. Everybody praised Merrymind
and his fiddle; and when news of his wonderful playing came
to the king's ears, he commanded the iron gate to be taken
away; he made the captive soldier a free man; and promoted
Merrymind to be his first fiddler, which under that wise
monarch was the highest post in his kingdom.
"As soon as Merrymind's family and neighbours heard of the
high preferment his fiddle had gained for him, they thought
music must be a good thing, and man, woman, and child took
to fiddling. It is said that none of them ever learned to
play a single tune except Merrymind's mother, on whom her
son bestowed great presents."
Here the voice ceased, and one clothed in green and
russet-coloured velvet rose up with a golden fiddle in his
hand, and said:
"That's my story."
 "Excepting yesterday's tale, and the five that went before
said King Winwealth, "I have not heard such a story as
that since my brother Wisewit went from me, and was lost in
the forest. Fairfortune, the first of my pages, go and bring
this maiden a golden girdle. And since her grandmother's
chair can tell such stories, she shall go no more into low
company, but feast with us in our chief banquet hall, and
sleep in one of the best chambers of the palace!"