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The Three Sleeping Boys of Warwickshire

ISSUE:  Autumn 1925

In a low-ceiled white-washed room on the uppermost floor of a red-brick building in Pleasant Street, Cheriton, and arranged in rows of neat glazed cases, is a collection of shells, conchs, seaweeds, seabirds—albatross, kitti-wake, cormorant—goggling fishes with glass eyes, sea-horses and dried mermaids. They had been given to the town by an old retired sea-captain, together with a few brass guns, old anchors, and lumps of amber and coral and quartz. And there for years and years—the narrow windows with their carved brick, fruits and flowers and old leaden gutters, showing the day’s light upon their still retreat—there for years and years slumbered on in their wide flat glass case the Three Sleeping Boys of Warwickshire. The tale of them goes a long way back; and here it is:

About the year 1600, when Queen Elizabeth was sixty-seven, and William Shakespeare was writing his play called “Julius Caesar,” there died, twenty-four miles from Strat-ford-on-Avon, a rich miller—John James Nollykins by name. His was the handsomest mill in Warwickshire. But none of his neighbours—or none at least of his poorer neighbours—loved him much. He was a morose, niggardly man. He cheated his customers and was pitiless to the poor creatures he really got in his clutches.

As he grew older he had grown ever more mean and churlish until at last he had even begun to starve his own horses. Though he died rich, then, few of his neighbours mourned him. And as soon as he was gone his money began to go. For his three sons gobbled up what he left behind him like jackals over a lion’s supper-bones. It slipped through their fingers like water through a sieve. Pretty soon they began to lose not only their father’s savings but all his trade. Their customers said there was not only dust but stones in the flour; and tares too. It was fusty; it smelt mousey. What cared they? They hardly knew offal from grain; and if they went rat-hunting, it was for the sake of the sport and not of the meal. Everything about the Mill got shabbier and shabbier—went to rack and ruin. The sails were patched. They clacked in the wind. The rain drove in. There were water-weeds in the mill stream where should have been nothing but a crystal looking-glass; and when the farmers and peasants complained, they were greeted with drunken jeers and mockery.

At length, three years after the death of the miller’s last poor half-starved mare, his sons were ruined. They would have been ruined just the same if as one foul windy night they sat drinking and singing in the Mill-house the youngest of them had not knocked over the lamp on the table, and so burned the Mill to the ground.

The eldest—with what he could pick up—went off to Sea, and to foreign parts, and died of yellow fever in Tobago. The second son was taken in by an uncle who was a goldsmith in London. But he was so stupid and indolent that he frequently put the wrong works in the right watch, or the other way round, and at last, so enraged his master that he turned him off then and there. He went East and set up shop as a fishmonger in Ratcliff Highway, with a shop like a booth, and a long board in front of it. But he neglected his fish too, and at last became a man-of-all-work (or of none) at the Old Globe Theatre in Southwark, where he saw Shakespeare dressed up as the ghost in “Hamlet” and was half killed by accident while taking the part of the Second Murderer in “Macbeth.”

The youngest son, named Jeremy, married the rich widow of a saddler. She was the owner of a fine gabled house in the High Street of the flourishing town of Cheriton—some eight miles from Bishops Hitchingworth. He had all the few good looks of the family, but he was sly and crafty and hard. The first thing he did after he came home from his honeymoon was to paint a long red nose to the portrait of the saddler. The next thing he did was to drown his wife’s cat in the water-butt, because he said it had stolen the cheese. The third thing he did was to burn her best Sunday bonnet, then her wig—to keep it company. How she could bear to go on living with him is a mystery. Nevertheless she did.

This Jeremy had three sons: Job, John, and (another) Jeremy. But he did not flourish. Far from it. The family went down the ladder rung by rung, until it all but reached the bottom. Then it began to climb up again. And Jeremy’s children did best. For his youngest daughter married the Mayor of Bishops Hitchingworth and their only son (yet another) Jeremy—Jeremy the Third—though he ran away from school because he hated water-porridge and suet pudding, set up in business as assistant to the chief sweep in Cheriton. At last, having by his craft and cunning and early rising and hard-working inherited his master’s business, he bought his great uncle’s fine gabled house, and himself became Master-Sweep and “Sweep by Appointment” to the Mayor and Corporation of the town and to the Lords of three neighbouring Manors. And he never married at all. In spite of his hard childhood, in spite of the kindness shown him by his master, in spite of his good fortune with the three Lords of the Manors, he was a skinflint and a pick-halfpenny. He had an enormous rattan brush, something like the head of a Zulu medicine-man, over his door, a fine brass knocker, and—though, considering all things, he had mighty few friends, he was the richest master-sweep in those parts.

Now, most of his money, and in later years all of his reputation, were due to his three small ’prentices—Tom, Dick, and Harry. In those days, of course, when a sweep went into a house, he did not push up screwed rod after rod through a small black chimney hole until at last the broom at top floated up out of the chimney-pot and grinned at the blue sky. By no means; the hearths and fireplaces were then as large as little rooms or chambers, or at any rate, as large as large cupboards or closets. They had wide comfortable in-glenooks, and the chimney was like a deep well running up to the roof, getting narrower and narrower towards the top; and the chimneys were swept by hand.

These little boys—(like Tom in “The Water Babies”) had to climb from brick to brick with a brush, and sweep till they were as black as blackamoors inside and out. Soot, soot, soot—eyes, mouth, ears and nose. And sometimes the bricks were scorching hot, and their hands got blistered. And sometimes they were all but suffocated in the narrow parts, and sometimes they were nearly wedged there, to dry like mummies in the dark. And sometimes in the midst of the smother a leg would slip, and down they would come tumbling like apples out of a tree or hailstones out of a cloud.

And Jeremy Nollykins, after tying up in fat canvas and leather bags the money they brought him, served them out water-gruel for supper, and water-gruel for breakfast. For dinner on Tuesdays and Thursdays he gave them slabs of suet-pudding with lumps of suet in it like pale amber beads. There was what he called soup on Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays; and a bit of cat’s meat (bought cheap from his second cousin) on Sundays. But then you can’t climb chimneys on no meat.

On Saturdays they had cold pease-pudding and potage: because on Saturdays the Mayor’s man might look in. And yet, in spite of such mean living, in spite of their burns and their bruises and the soot in their eyes and lungs and close lint-coloured hair, these three small boys, Tom, Dick, and Harry managed to keep their spirits up. They even rubbed their cheeks rosy when the week’s soot was washed off under the pump on a Saturday night.

And they always said “Ma’am” to their Customers, and “Miss” to the Maids, and they kept their manners, even when some crabbed old woman said they were owdacious, or imperent, or mischeevious. And sometimes a goodwife would give them a slice of bread pudding, or a mug of milk, or a baked potato, or a few cookies, or a slice of white bread (which did not remain white very long). And now and then, even a sip of elderberry wine. Oh yes, even half-starved sparrows sometimes find tidbits, and it’s not the hungry who—when they drop in for a dainty—want the richest flavours.

When too Tom, Dick, and Harry could manage it, they would scuttle away between their jobs to go paddling in the river, or birds-nesting in the woods, or climbing in an old stone quarry not very far from the town. It is lovely country thereabouts—near ancient Cheriton.

Whether they played truant or not, Jeremy Nollykins the Third—Old Noll, as his neighbours called him—used to beat them morning, noon and night. He believed in the rod. He said it was a fine sauce for the saucy. And Tom, Dick, and Harry hated their master. And that’s a bad thing. On the other hand, they were far too much alive and hearty and happy when they were not being beaten, and they were much too hungry over their water-gruel to brood on how they hated him: which would have been a very much worse.

In sober fact—with their bright glittering eyes and round cheeks and sharp white teeth, and in spite of their skinny ribs and blistered hands, they were a merry trio. As soon as ever those teeth stopped chattering with the cold; and their bodies stopped smarting from Old Noll’s sauce, and their eyes from the soot; they were laughing and talking and whistling and champing like grasshoppers in June or starlings in September. And though they sometimes quarrelled and fought together, bit and scratched too, never having been taught to fight fair, they were fast friends. Now and again too they shinned up a farmer’s fruit-tree to have a taste of his green apples. Now and again they played tricks on old women. But what little chimney-sweeps don’t?

They were just young ragamuffins, as wild as colts, as nimble as kids, though a good deal blacker. And however hard he tried, Old Noll never managed to break them in. Never. At night they slept as calm and deep as cradled babies—all three of them laid in a row up in an attic under the roof on an immense wide palliasse or mattress of straw, with a straw bolster and a couple of pieces of old sacking for blankets each.

Now Old Noll, simply because he was a curmudgeonly old miser, hated to see anybody merry, happy, or fat. There were moments when he would have liked to skin his three ’prentices alive. But then, he wanted to get out of them all the work he could. So he was compelled to give them that much to eat. He had to keep them alive—or the Mayor’s man would ask why. Still, it enraged him that he could not keep their natural spirits down; that however much he beat them they “came up smiling.” It enraged him to know in his heart (or whatever took its place) that though when smarting from his rod and pickle they hated him, they yet had never done him an ill-turn.

Every day his green eyes would gloat on them as they came clattering down to their water-gruel just as Old Giant Despair gloated on Faithful and Christian in the dungeon. And sometimes at night he would creep up to their bedchamber, and the stars would show him the three of them lying there fast asleep, with as like as not the sacking kicked off, and on their faces a far-away smile as if their dreams were as happy as wild swans in the wilderness. It enraged him beyond measure. What could the little urchins be dreaming about? What made the little blackamoors grin in sleep? You can thwack a wake boy, but you can’t thwack a dreamer; not at least while he is still dreaming. So Old Noll was helpless. He could only grind his teeth at the sight of them. Poor Old Noll.

He ground his teeth more than ever when he first heard the music in the night. And he might never have heard it at all if hunger hadn’t made him a mighty bad sleeper himself. Two or three hours was the most he got, even in winter. And if Tom, Dick, and Harry had ever peeped in on Mm as he lay in his four-post bed, they would have seen no smile on his sunken face with its long nose and chin and straggling hair—but only a sort of horrifying darkness. They might even have pitied him, lying there with nightmare twisting and darkening his features, and his bony fingers twitching.

Because, then, Old Noll could not sleep of nights, he sometimes let himself out of his silent house, to walk in the streets. And while so walking, he would look up at his neighbours’ windows, all dark beneath the night-sky, and he would curse them for being more comfortable than he. It seemed that instead of marrow, he had malice in his bones, and there’s no fattening in that.

Now one night, for the first time in his life, except when he broke his leg at eighteen, Old Noll was unable to sleep at all. It was towards the end of October, and the first gold sickle of the hunter’s moon was up aloft, and the stars shone bright. There was a balmy air in Cheriton that midnight, borne in from the meadows that then stretched in within less than a mile of the town; and so silent was the hour you could almost hear the rippling of the river among its osiers that far away.

And as Old Nollykins was sitting like a gaunt shadow all by himself on the first milestone that comes into the town— and he was too niggardly even to smoke a pipe of tobacco—a faint, thin wind came drifting along the street. And then on the wind a yet fainter music—a music which at first hardly seemed to be a music at all. None the less it continued on, and at last so rilled and trembled in the air that even Old Nollykins, who was now pretty hard of hearing, caught the strains and recognized the melody. It came on, that sound—a twangling as if of harps or citherns, and a breath ing as if of shawms and horns waxing and waning in the quick mild night October air:

Girls and boys come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day;
Leave your supper, and leave your sleep,
And come with your playfellows into the street. . .

Boys and Girls come out to play. . . On and on and on; now faint, now shrill, and now in a sudden rallying burst of melody as if it came from out of the skies. Not that the moon just then was shining “as bright as day;” it was but barely in its first quarter. It resembled a bent bit of intensely golden wire up there among the stars; or a gold basin, of which only the mere edge showed, resting atilt.

But full moon or no, the shapes that were now hastening along the street, running and hopping and skipping and skirring and dancing, had heard the summons, and obeyed the call! From by-lane and alley, court, porch and house-door the children of Cheriton had come pouring out like water-streams in April. Running, skipping, hopping, dancing, they kept time to the tune. Old Noll fairly gasped with astonishment as he watched them. What a tale to tell!—and all the comfortable and respectable folk of Cheriton fast asleep in their beds. To think such innocents could be such arch deceivers. To think that gluttonous and grubby errand and shop and boot-and-shoe and pot boys could look so clean and nimble and happy and free. He shivered part with the night air and part with rage.

But real enough though these young skip-by-nights appeared to be, there were three queer things about them. First there was not the faintest sound of doors opening or shutting, or casement windows being thrust open with a squeal of the iron rod. Next there was not the least faint rumour of footsteps even, though at least half the children of Cheriton were now bounding along the street, like leaves

borne on a great wind, and all with their faces towards the East and the water-meadows. And last, though he could see their very eyes in their faces in the faint luminousness of starshine and little moon, not a single one of that mad young company turned head to look at him, or seemed in the least particular to be aware that he was there. Clockwork images of wood or wax could not have ignored him more completely.

Old Noll, after feeling at first startled, flabbergasted, a little frightened even, was now in a fury. His few old teeth began to grind together as lustily as had the millstones of Jeremy the First. Nor was his rage diminished when lo and behold, even as he turned his head, out of his own narrow porch with its three rounded steps and fluted shell of wood above it, came leaping along who but his own three half-starved ’prentices, Tom, Dick, and Harry—now seemingly nine-year-olds as plump and comely to see as if they had been fed on the fat of the land, as if they had never in the whole of their lives so much as tasted rod-sauce. Their mouths were opening and shutting, too, as if they were whooping calls one to the other and to their other street-mates, though no sound came from them. They flung their fingers in the air. They came cavorting and skirling in their naked feet along to the strains of the music as if their scotched skins and cramped muscles and iron-bound clogs had never once pestered their young souls. Yet not a sound, not a whisper, not a footfall could the deaf old man hear— nought but that sweet shrill terrifying infuriating music.

In a few minutes, the streets were empty, a thin fleece of cloud had drawn across the moon and only one small straggler was still in sight, the smallest son of the Mayor. He was last merely because he was least, and had no young sister to take care of him. And old Noll, having watched this last night-truant too go by, staring at him with eyes like saucers beneath his bony brows, hobbled back across the street to his house, and after pausing awhile at the doorpost to gnaw his beard and think what next was to be done, climbed his three flights of shallow oak stairs until he came to the uppermost landing under the roof.

There at last with infinite caution he lifted the pin of the door of the attic and looked in on what he supposed would be an empty bed. Empty? Indeed it was not! For lying there, in the dim starlight of the dusty dormer window, he could see as plain as could be, the motionless shapes of his three ’prentices, breathing on so calmly in midnight’s deep-most sleep that he even ventured to fetch in a tallow candle in a tin stick in order that he might examine them more closely. With its smoky beams to aid him, he searched the three young faces utterly unconscious that the old skinflint was stooping as close over them as a bird-snarer over his nets.

There were traces of soot on their chubby cheeks, but in spite of the fact that their heads were regularly shaved by the barber, the hair still continued to grow on it in tight short ringlets like lamb’s wool. And all three were smiling away, gently and distantly as if they were sitting in their dreams in some wondrous orchard supping up strawberries and cream, as if the spirits within them were untellably happy though the bodies of them were as fast asleep as peg-tops, or pigs in the July sun. Moreover their expressions showed no change at all. Like this had these faces been left a few moments ago; and like this they would remain until the midnight tryst was over.

Stair by stair Old Nollykins crept down again, blew out his candle, and sat on his great bed to think. He was a cunning old miser, which is as far away from being generous and wise as full moonlight is from a farthing-dip. His fingers had itched to wake his three sleeping chimney-boys with a smart taste of his rod, just to “learn them a lesson.” He hated to think of that quiet, happy smile resting upon their faces while the shadow-shapes or ghosts of them were out and away, pranking and gallivanting in the green water-meadows beyond the town. How was he to know that his dimming eyes had not deluded him?

Supposing he went off to the Mayor himself in the morning and told his midnight tale, who would believe it? High and low, his neighbours all hated him, and as like as not they would shut him up in the town dungeon for a madman, or burn his house about his ears, supposing him to be a wizard. “No, no!” he muttered to himself, “we must watch and wait, friend Jeremy, and see what we shall see.”

Next morning his three ’prentices, Tom, Dick, and Harry, were up and about as sprightly as ever, a full hour before daybreak. You might have supposed from their shining eyes and apple cheeks that they had just come back from a long holiday in the Islands of the Blest. Away they tumbled as merry as frogs to their work, with their brushes and bags, still munching away at their gritty oatcakes— three parts bran to one of meal.

So intent had Old Noll been on watching from his chimney-corner what he could see in their faces at breakfast, and in trying to overhear what they were whispering to each other, that he forgot to give them their usual morning dose of stick. But not a word had been uttered about the music or the dancing or the company at the water-meadows. They just talked scatter-brained nonsense to one another, except when they saw that the old creature was watching them; and he was speedily convinced that whatever adventures their dream-shapes may have had in the night-hours, they had left no impression on their waking minds.

Miserable Old Noll! An echo of that music and the sight he had seen kept him awake for many a night after, and his body was already shrunken up by age and his miserly habits to nothing much more substantial than a bag of animated bones. And yet his watching was in vain. So weary and hungry for sleep did he become, that when at last the hunter’s moon shone at its brightest and roundest over the roofs of Cheriton, the old man nodded off in his chair.

He was roused a few hours afterwards by a faint glow in his room that was certainly not moonlight, for it came from out the black, dusty staircase passage. Instantly he was wide awake—but too late. For, as he peeped through the crack of the door ajar, there were his three ’prentices—just the ghosts or the spirits or the dream-shapes of them—coming merrily home. They passed him softer than a breeze through a willow tree and were out of sight up the staircase before he could stir.

The morning after the morning after that, when Tom, Dick, and Harry woke up at dawn on their mattress, there was a wonderful rare smell in the air. They sniffed it greedily as they looked at one another in the creeping light of daybreak. And sure enough, as soon as they were in their ragged jackets and hud got down to their breakfast, the old woman who came to the house every morning to do an hour or two’s charing for Old Nollykins, came waddling in out of the kitchen with a frying-pan of bacon frizzling in its fat.

“There, my boys,” said Old Noll, rubbing his hands together with a cringing smile, “there’s a bit of bacon for ye all, and sop in the pan to keep the cold out, after that long night run in the moonlight.”

He creaked up his eyes at them, finger on nose, but all three, perched up there on their wooden stools on the other side of the table, only paused an instant in the first polishing up of their plates with a crust of bread to stare at him with such an innocent astonishment on their young faces that he was perfectly sure they had no notion of what he meant.

“Aha,” says he, “do ye never dream, my boys, tucked up snug under the roof in that comfortable bed of yours? Do ye never dream?—never hear a bit of a tune calling, or maybe see what’s called a nightmare? Lordee, when I was young there never went a night but had summat of a dream to it.”

“Dream!” said they, and looked at one another with their

mouths half open. “Why, if you ax me, Master,” says Tom at last, “I dreamed last night it was all bright moonshine, and me sitting at supper with the gentry.”

“And I, Master” says Dick, “I dreamed I was dancing under trees and bushes all covered over with flowers. And I could hear ’em playing on harps and whistles.”

“And I,” says Harry, “I dreamed I was by a river, and a leddy came out by a green place near the water and took hold of my hand. I suppose, Master, it must have been my mammie, though I never seed her as I knows on.”

At all this, the cringing smile on Old Nollykins’ face set like grease in a dish, because of the rage in his mind underneath. And he leaped up from where he sat beside the skinny little fire in the immense kitchen hearth. ” ‘Gentry’! ‘Harps’! ‘Mother’!” he shouted, “you brazen, ungrateful, greedy little deevils. Be off with ye, or we shall have such a taste of the stick as will put ye to sleep for good and all.”

And almost before they had time to snatch up their bags and their besoms, he had chased them out of the house. So there in the little alley beside its walls—sheltering as close to them as they could from the cold rain that was falling —they must needs stand chattering together like drenched starlings, waiting for the angry old man to come out and to send them about the business of the day.

But Old Nollykins’ dish of baconfat had not been altogether wasted. He knew now that the young rapscallions only dreamed their nocturnal adventures and were not in the least aware that they themselves in real downright shadow-shape went off by night to the trysting place of all Cheriton’s children to dance and feast and find delight.

None the less, he continued to keep watch, and would again and again peer in at his three ’prentices laid together asleep on their mattress on the attic floor, in the hope of catching them in the act of stealing out.

But though at times he discerned that same quiet smile upon their faces, shining none the less serenely for the white guttermarks of tears on their sooty cheeks, for weeks on end he failed to catch any repetition of the strains of that strange music or the faintest rumour of their dream-shapes coming and going on the wooden stairs.

And the more he brooded on what he had seen, the more he hated the three urchins, and the more bitterly he resented their merry ways. The one thing he could not decide in his mind was whether when next, if ever, he caught them at their midnight tricks, he should at once set about their slumbering bodies with his stick or should wait until their dream-wraiths were safely away and so try to prevent them from coming back. Then indeed they would be at his mercy.

Now there was an old crone in Cheriton who was reputed to be a witch. She lived in a stone hovel at the far end of the crooked alley that ran beside the very walls of Old Nollykins’ fine gabled house. And Old Nollykins, almost worn to a shadow himself by his gnawing thoughts and night watching, determined to ask her counsel. Although she was only ninety-five, her nose and chin nearly met over her toothless gums. She might have been the old man’s grandmother as she sat there, hunched up in her corner like a bundle of rags, listening to his questions and leering at Old Nollykins over an iron pot smoking on the fire. And miser that he was, he consented to give her only silver for her pains when she asked for gold. Whereupon the old woman warned him that if you waken a sleeper before his dream-shape can get back into his mortal frame, it’s as like as not to be sudden death. But if you just keep the dream-shape out without rousing his sleeping body, then he will forever-more be your slave and will never grow any older. And what keeps a human’s dream-shape out—or animal’s either, for that matter—she said, is a love-knot twist of steel or a horseshoe upside down, or a wreath of elder and ash fastened up with an iron nail over the keyhole—and every window shut. Brick walls and stone and wood are nothing to such wanderers. But they can’t abide iron. And what she said was partly true and partly false; and it was in part false because the foolish old man had refused to pay her price.

Now Old Nollykins knew well that there was only a wooden latch to his door, because the old skinflint had refused to pay for one of the new iron locks to be screwed on. He had no fear of thieves, because he had so hidden his money that no thief on earth would be able to find it, not if he searched for a week. So he asked the old woman again, to make assurance doubly sure, how long a man would live and work if his dream-shape never got back. “Why, that” she mumbled, leering at him out of her wizened up old face, “that depends how young they be; what’s the blood, and what’s the heart. Take ‘em in their first bloom,” she said, “and so they keeps;” for she had long since seen what the old man was after, and had no more love for him than for his three noisy whooping chimney-sweeps.

So Old Nollykins put his crown piece into her skinny palm, and went back to his house, not knowing that the old woman, to revenge herself on him, had told him only half the story. That evening the three ’prentices had a rare game of hide-and-seek together in the many-roomed old rat-holed house; for their master had gone out. The moment they heard his shuffling footsteps on the porch steps, they scampered off to bed, and were to all appearance fast asleep before he could look in on them.

And Old Nollykins had brought back with him some switches of elder and ash, a tenpenny nail and an old key, and a cracked horseshoe. And, strange to say, the iron key which he had bought from a dealer in broken metal, had once been the key of the Mill of his great-great-grandfather at Stratford-on-Avon. He had pondered all day on what the old woman had said, and “surely” thought he to himself, “their blood’s fresh enough. My old crab-stick keeps them out of mischief, and what is better for a green young body than a long day’s work with not too much to eat and an airy lodging for the night?”

The cunning old creature supposed indeed, from what the old crone had told him, that if once he could keep the wandering dream-shapes from their bodies for good and all, his three young ’prentices would never age, never weary, would stay as they were, fresh, sturdy, lusty and nimble, perhaps for a century. Ay, he would use them as long as he wanted them, and sell them before he died. He’d teach them to play truant at night, when honest folk were snoring in their beds. For the first time for weeks Old Noll’s mangy supper off a crust and a hambone and a mug of water tasted like manna.

The very next day chanced to be Martinmas Day. And those were the times of old English Winters. Already a fine pattering of snow was on the ground, like minute white lumps of sago, and the rivers and ponds were frozen hard as iron. Moreover, there was three parts of a fine moon that night, and the puddles in Cheriton High Street shone like Chinese crystal in the beams slanting down on them from between the eaves of the houses.

For five long hours of dark, after his seven o’clock supper, Old Nollykins managed to keep himself awake. Then, a little before midnight, having assured himself that his three ’prentices were sound asleep in their bed, he groped downstairs again, gently lifted the latch and looked out. There never was such a shine of moonlight before. The snow on the roofs and gables and carved stone-work of the { houses gleamed white as powdered alabaster. There was not a living soul, not even a cat to be seen in the long stretch of the lampless street. And the stars in the grey-blue sky gleamed like dewdrops on a thorn.

Sure enough, as soon as ever the last stroke of midnight had sounded out from St. Andrew’s tower, there came faintly wreathing its way out of the distance the same shrill piercing strains of the ancient tune. And if Old Nollykins had had but one sole drop of the blood of his youth left in his veins, he could not have resisted dancing his old bones out of his body down his steps and into the cruddied High Street at the sound of it.

Girls and boys come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day;
Leave your supper, and leave your sleep,
And come with your playfellows into the street.

Instead, he shuffled like a rat hastily back into the house again; pushed himself in close under the staircase; and’ waited, leaving the door ajar.

Ho, ho, what’s that? Faint flitting lights were showing in the street, and a sound as of little un-human cries, and in a minute or two the music loudened so that an old glass case on a table nearby containing the model of a brig which had belonged to old Nollykins’ great-great-grandfather who had died in Tobago, fairly rang to the marvellous stirrings on the air. And down helter-skelter from their bed, just as they had slipped in under its sacking—in their breeches and rags of day-shirts and barefoot—came whiffling from stair to stair the ghosts of his three small ’prentices. Old Nollykins hardly had time enough to see the wonderful smile on them, to catch the gleam of the grinning white teeth shining beneath their parted lips, before they were out and away.

Shivering all over, as if with a palsy, he then hastened up the staircase and in a minute or two the vacant house resounded with the strokes of his hammer as he drove in his tenpenny nail into the keyhole above the attic door, and hung up key and horseshoe by their strings. This done, he lowered his hammer and listened. Not the faintest whisper, not a sigh, not a squeak came from within. And in dread of what he might see he dared not open the door. Instead, curiosity overcame him. Wrapping a cloak round his skinny shoulders, he hurried out into the street. Sure enough, here, there, everywhere in the fine snow were traces of footprints—traces distinct enough for his envious eyes though hardly more than those of the skirring of a hungry bird’s wing on the surface of the snow. And fondly supposing in his simplicity that he had now safely cheated his ’prentices, that for-ever-more their poor young empty bodies would be at his beck and call, Old Noll determined to follow up out of the town and into the water-meadows the dream-shapes of the children, now all of them out of sight.

On and on he went till his breath was whistling in his throat and he could scarcely drag one foot after another, or groan Hallelujah. And he came at last to where, in a loop of the Itchin, its waters glittering like glass in the moon, there was a circle of pollard and stunted willows. And there, in the lush and frosty grasses was a wonderful company assembled, and unearthly music ascending, it seemed, from out of the very bowels of a mound nearby, called Caesar’s Camp. And he heard a multitude of voices and singing from within.

And all about the meadow wandered in joy the sleep-shapes not only of the children from Cheriton, but from the farms and cottages and gipsy camps for miles around. Sheep were there too, their yellow eyes gleaming in the moon as he trod past them. But none paid any heed to the children or to the strangers who had called them out of their dreams.

Strange indeed were these strangers: of middle height, with garments like a spider-web, their straight hair the colour of straw, falling gently on either side their narrow cheeks, so that it looked at first glimpse as if they were greybeards. And as they trod on their narrow feet, the frozen grasses scarcely stirring beneath them, they turned their faces from side to side, looking at the children. And then a fairness that knows no change showed in their features, and their eyes were of a faint flame like that of sea-water on nights of thunder when the tide gently lays its incoming wavelets on the wide flat sandy strand.

And at sight of them Old Nollykins began to be mortally afraid. Not a sign was there of Tom, Dick, or Harry. They must have gone into the sonorous mound—maybe were feasting there—if dream-shapes feast. The twangling and trumpeting and incessant music made his head spin round. He squirmed about for a hiding-place, and at length made his way to one of the gnarled willows beside the icy stream. He dragged himself up a little way into the lower branches of the tree, and there he might have remained safe and sound till morning, if the powdery frost had not risen into his nostrils and made him sneeze. There indeed he might have remained safe and sound if he had merely sneezed, for man’s sneeze is not so very much unlike a sheep’s wheezy winter cough. But such was the poor old man’s alarm and terror at the company he had stumbled into that he cried “God bless us!” after his sneeze—just as his mother had taught him to do.

That was the end of wicked old Nollykins; that was the first step on his long road of repentance. For the next thing he remembered was opening his eyes in the first glimpse of stealing dawn and finding himself perched up in the boughs of a leafless willow-tree, a thin mist swathing the low-lying water-meadows, the sheep gently browsing in the grasses, leaving green marks in the white grass as they munched onwards. And such an ache and ague was in Old Noll’s bones as he had never since he was swaddled felt before. It was as if every frosty switch of every un-polled willow in that gaunt fairy circle by the Itchin had been belabouring him of its own free will the whole night through. His heart and courage were gone. He lowered himself with groans into the meadow, and by the help of a fallen branch for staff, made his way at long last back into the town.

It was early yet even for the milkman, though cocks were crowing from their frosty perches, and the red of the coming sun inflamed the eastern skies. He groped into his house and shut the door. With many rests on the way from stair to stair he hoisted himself up, though every movement seemed to wrench him joint from joint, until at last he reached the attic door. He pressed his long ear against the panel and listened a moment. Not a sound. Then stealthily pushing it open inch by inch, he thrust forward his shuddering head and looked in.

The ruddy light in the East was steadily increasing, and had even pierced through the grimy panes of the casement window as though to light up the faces of his small chimney sweeps. It was a Sunday morning, and the three faces and lamb’s-wool heads showed no sign of the week’s soot. But while at other times on spying in at them it looked to Old Nollykins as if their faces were made of wax, now they might be of marble. For each one of the three—Tom, Dick, and Harry—was lying on his back, their chapped, soot-roughened hands with their torn and broken nails resting on either side of their bodies. No smile now touched their features, but only a solemn quietude as of images eternally at rest. And such was the aspect of the three children that even Old Nollykins dared not attempt to waken them because he knew in his heart that no earthly rod would ever now bestir them out of this sound slumber. Not at least until their spirits had won home again. And the sour old crone was not likely to aid him in that.

He cursed the old woman, battering on her crazy door, but she paid him no heed. And at last, when the Cheriton Church bells began ringing the people to morning service, there was nothing for it, if there was any hope of saving his neck, but to go off to the Mayor’s man, dragging himself along the street on a couple of sticks, to tell him that his ’prentices were dead.

Dead they were not, however. The Mayor’s man fetched a doctor, and the doctor, after putting a sort of wooden trumpet to their chests, asseverated that there was a stirring under the cage of their ribs. They were fallen into a trance, he said. What is called a catalepsy. And though the old midwife the doctor called in heated up salt for salt-bags, and hour by hour put a hot brick fresh from the fire to each ’prentice’s stone-cold feet, by not a flutter of eyelid nor the faintest of sighs did any one of the three prove that he was alive or could heed.

There they lay, on their straw mattress, quiet as mummies, unchanging, lovely as any mother might wish, with their solemn Sunday-morning soap-polished cheeks and noses and foreheads and chins, and as motionless as statues in stone.

And the Mayor of the Town, after listening to all old Nollykins could say, fined him Five Bags of Guineas for allowing his three ’prentices to fall into a catalepsy for want of decent food and nourishment. And what with the pain of his joints and the anguish of having strangers trampling all over his house, and of pleading with the Mayor, and of seeing his money fetched out from its hiding-places and counted out on the table, the foolish old man was so much dazed and confused that he never thought to take down the wreath of ash and elder and the horseshoe and the key. That is why—when a few weeks had gone by and no sign had shown how long this trance would continue— the Mayor and Councillors decided that as Tom, Dick, and Harry could be of no further use to the Town as chimneysweeps, they might perhaps earn an honest penny for it as The Three Sleeping Boys of Warwickshire.

So the undertaker with a flowing white muslin band round his black hat, and his two mutes—carrying bouquets of lilies in their hands—came with his hand-cart and fetched the three bodies away. A roomy glass case had been made for them of solid Warwickshire oak, with a handsome lock and key. And by the time that the Waits had begun to sing their carols in the snow, the three children had been installed in their case on the upper floor of the Cheriton Museum and lay slumbering on and on, quiet as Snowwhite in the dwarfs’ coffin; the gentle daylight falling fairly on their quiet faces—though (so much they resembled wax) a dark blind was customarily drawn over the glass whenever the sun shone too fiercely at the window.

News of this wonder spread fast, and by the following Spring visitors from all over the world had come flocking into Warwickshire—even from parts so remote as Guanojuato and Seringapatam—merely to gaze awhile at the Three Sleeping Chimney-Sweeps, at 6d. a time. After which a fair proportion of them went in to Stratford to view the church where lie William Shakespeare’s honoured bones. Indeed Mrs. Giles, the old woman who set up an apple and ginger-bread stall beside the Museum, in a few years made so much money out of her wares that she was able to bring up her nine orphaned grand-children in comfort, and to retire at last at the age of sixty to a four-roomed cottage not a hundred yards from that of Anne Hathaway’s herself.

In course of time the Lord-Lieutenant and the Sheriffs and the Justices of the Peace and the Bishop and the Mayors of the neighbouring towns, jealous no doubt of this fame and miracle in their midst, did their utmost to persuade and compel the Mayor and Corporation of Cheriton to remove the Boys to the county-town—the Earl himself promising to house them in an old Inn not a stone’s-throw distant from the lovely shrine of his ancestors, Beauchamp Chapel. But all in vain. The people of Cheriton held tight to their rights: and the Lord Chief Justice, after soberly hearing both sides at full length, wagged his wigged head in their favour.

For fifty-three years the Sleeping Boys slept on. During this period the Town Council had received One Hundred and Twenty-three Thousand, Five Hundred and Fifty-five sixpences in fees alone (i. e. £3088.17.6), and nearly every penny of this vast sum w as almost clear profit. They spent it wisely too—planted lime-trees in the High Street and iish and willow beside the river, built a fountain and a large stone dove-cot, and opened a small shady Warwickshire Zoo with every comfort and freedom wild creatures can hope to have bestowed on them by their taskmaster, man.

Then, one fine day, the curator—the caretaker—of the Museum, who for forty years had never once missed dusting the ’prentices glass case first thing in the morning—fell ill and took to his bed. And his niece, a fair young thing with straight yellow hair, came as his deputy for awhile, looked after the Museum, sold the tickets, and kept an eye on the visitors in his stead. She was but twenty-three, and was the first person who had ever been heard to sing in the Museum—though of course it was only singing with her lips all but closed, and never during show-hours.

And it was Summer-time, or rather, the very first of May. And as each morning she opened the great door of the Museum and ascended the wide carved staircase and drew up the blinds of the tall windows on the upper floor, and then turned—as she always turned—to gaze at the Three Sleepers (and not even a brass farthing to pay) she would utter a deep sigh that was almost a groan.

“You lovely things!” she would whisper to herself. “You lovely, lovely things!” for she had a motherly heart; and the fair wisps of her hair were as transparent as the E-string of a fiddle in the morning light. And the glance of her blue eyes rested on the glass case with such compassion and tenderness that if mere looking could have awakened the children, they would have been dancing an Irish jig with her every blessed morning.

Being young too, she was inclined to be careless and had even at times broken off a tiny horn of coral, or a half-hidden scale from the mermaid’s tail for a souvenir of Cheriton to any young stranger that particularly took her fancy. Moreover she had never been told anything about the mag-icry of keys or horseshoes or iron or ash or elder, having been brought up at a School where wizardry and witchcraft were never so much as mentioned during school hours. How could she realise then that the little key of the glass case and the great key of the Museum door could keep anybody or anything out, or in, even when the doors were wide open?

And one morning there was such a pomp of sunshine in the sky and the thrushes were singing so shrilly in the new-leafed lime trees as she came along to her work that she could resist her pity and yearning no longer. Having drawn up the blinds on the upper floor, in all that silence she took out the little key from its secure repository, turned it softly in the wards, and opened the case. And one by one—after first listening at their lips as stealthily and intently as if in hope of hearing an evening primrose unfold, she kissed the slumbering creatures on their stone-cold mouths. And as she kissed Harry she thought she heard a step on the stair.

In her haste and apprehension she dropped the key of the case—the great iron key of the Museum door itself being already in the pocket of her alpaca apron. And she ran out to see who was there. No one. Then, as she stood on the wide staircase listening, her fair face tilted and intent, on a sudden there came a waft up as of spiced breezes from the open spaces of the street. Not a sound but just a breath, faint and yet almost unendurably sweet, of Spring—straight across from the bird-haunted, sheep-grazed meadows skirting the winding river—the perfume of a whisper. It was as if a distant memory had taken presence and swept in delight across her eyes. Then stillness again, broken by the sounding as of a voice smaller than the horn of a gnat. And then a terrible sharp crash of glass. And out pell-mell came rushing our three young friends, the chimney-sweeps, their dream-shapes home at last.

Now Old Nollykins by this time had long been laid in his grave. So even if he had been able to catch them, Tom, Dick, and Harry would have swept no more chimneys for him. Not even could the New Mayor manage to catch them; nor even the complete Town-Council, nor Town Crier, though he cried twice a day to the end of the year: “O-yèss! O-yèss!! O-yèss!!! Lost, stolen or strayed: The Three All-Famous and Notorious Sleeping Boys of Warwickshire.” Nor even the Lord-Lieutenant, nor the mighty Earl.

As for the mound by the pollard willows—well, what bright Wide-awake was to know about that?


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