Once on a time there was a man who had a meadow, which lay high up on the hill-side, and in the meadow was a barn, which he had built to keep his hay in. Now, I must tell you, there hadn’t been much in the barn for the last year or two, for every St John’s night, when the grass stood greenest and deepest, the meadow was eaten down to the very ground the next morning, just as if a whole drove of sheep had been there feeding on it over night. This happened once, and it happened twice; so at last the man grew weary of losing his crop of hay, and said to his sons—for he had three of them, and the youngest was nicknamed Boots, of course—that now one of them must just go and sleep in the barn in the outlying field when St John’s night came, for it was too good a joke that his grass should be eaten, root and blade, this year, as it had been the last two years. So whichever of them went must keep a sharp look-out; that was what their father said.
Well, the eldest son was ready to go and watch the meadow; trust him for looking after the grass! It shouldn’t be his fault if man or beast, or the fiend himself, got a blade of grass. So, when evening came, he set off to the barn, and lay down to sleep; but a little on in the night came such a clatter, and such an earthquake, that walls and roof shook, and groaned, and creaked; then up jumped the lad, and took to his heels as fast as ever he could; nor dared he once look round till he reached home; and as for the hay, why it was eaten up this year just as it had been twice before.
The next St John’s night, the man said again, it would never do to lose all the grass in the outlying field year after year in this way, so one of his sons must just trudge off to watch it, and watch it well too. Well, the next oldest son was ready to try his luck, so he set off, and lay down to sleep in the barn as his brother had done before him; but as the night wore on, there came on a rumbling and quaking of the earth, worse even than on the last St John’s night, and when the lad heard it, he got frightened, and took to his heels as though he were running a race.
Next year the turn came to Boots; but when he made ready to go, the other two began to laugh and to make game of him, saying,
‘You’re just the man to watch the hay, that you are; you, who have done nothing all your life but sit in the ashes and toast yourself by the fire.’
But Boots did not care a pin for their chattering, and stumped away as evening drew on, up the hill-side to the outlying field. There he went inside the barn and lay down; but in about an hour’s time the barn began to groan and creak, so that it was dreadful to hear.
‘Well’, said Boots to himself, ‘if it isn’t worse than this, I can stand it well enough.’
A little while after came another creak and an earthquake, so that the litter in the barn flew about the lad’s ears.
‘Oh!’ said Boots to himself, ‘if it isn’t worse than this, I daresay
I can stand it out.’
But just then came a third rumbling, and a third earthquake, so that the lad thought walls and roof were coming down on his head; but it passed off, and all was still as death about him.
‘It’ll come again, I’ll be bound’, thought Boots; but no, it didn’t come again; still it was, and still it stayed; but after he had lain a little while, he heard a noise as if a horse were standing just outside the barn-door, and cropping the grass. He stole to the door, and peeped through a chink, and there stood a horse feeding away. So big, and fat, and grand a horse, Boots had never set eyes on; by his side on the grass lay a saddle and bridle, and a full set of armour for a knight, all of brass, so bright that the light gleamed from it.
‘Ho, ho!’ thought the lad; ‘it’s you, is it, that eats up our hay?
I’ll soon put a spoke in your wheel, just see if I don’t.’
So he lost no time, but took the steel out of his tinder-box, and threw it over the horse; then it had no power to stir from the spot, and became so tame that the lad could do what he liked with it. So he got on its back, and rode off with it to a place which no one knew of, and there he put up the horse. When he got home, his brothers laughed and asked how he had fared?
‘You didn’t lie long in the barn, even if you had the heart to go so far as the field.’
‘Well’, said Boots, ‘all I can say is, I lay in the barn till the sun rose, and neither saw nor heard anything; I can’t think what there was in the barn to make you both so afraid.’
‘A pretty story’, said his brothers; ‘but we’ll soon see how you have watched the meadow’; so they set off; but when they reached it, there stood the grass as deep and thick as it had been over night.
Well, the next St John’s eve it was the same story over again; neither of the elder brothers dared to go out to the outlying field to watch the crop; but Boots, he had the heart to go, and everything happened just as it had happened the year before. First a clatter and an earthquake, then a greater clatter and another earthquake, and so on a third time; only this year the earthquakes were far worse than the year before. Then all at once everything was as still as death, and the lad heard how something was cropping the grass outside the barn-door, so he stole to the door, and peeped through a chink; and what do you think he saw? why, another horse standing right up against the wall, and chewing and champing with might and main. It was far finer and fatter than that which came the year before, and it had a saddle on its back, and a bridle on its neck, and a full suit of mail for a knight lay by its side, all of silver, and as grand as you would wish to see.
‘Ho ho!’ said Boots to himself; ‘it’s you that gobbles up our hay, is it? I’ll soon put a spoke in your wheel’; and with that he took the steel out of his tinder-box, and threw it over the horse’s crest, which stood as still as a lamb. Well, the lad rode this horse, too, to the hiding-place where he kept the other one, and after that he went home.
‘I suppose you’ll tell us’, said one of his brothers, ‘there’s a fine crop this year too, up in the hayfield.’
‘Well, so there is’, said Boots; and off ran the others to see, and there stood the grass thick and deep, as it was the year before; but they didn’t give Boots softer words for all that.
Now, when the third St John’s eve came, the two elder still hadn’t the heart to lie out in the barn and watch the grass, for they had got so scared at heart the night they lay there before, that they couldn’t get over the fright; but Boots, he dared to go; and, to make a long story short, the very same thing happened this time as had happened twice before. Three earthquakes came, one after the other, each worse than the one which went before, and when the last came, the lad danced about with the shock from one barn wall to the other; and after that, all at once, it was still as death. Now when he had lain a little while, he heard something tugging away at the grass outside the barn, so he stole again to the door-chink, and peeped out, and there stood a horse close outside—far, far bigger and fatter than the two he had taken before.
‘Ho, ho!’ said the lad to himself, ‘it’s you, is it, that comes here eating up our hay? I’ll soon stop that—I’ll soon put a spoke in your wheel.’ So he caught up his steel and threw it over the horse’s neck, and in a trice it stood as if it were nailed to the ground, and Boots could do as he pleased with it. Then he rode off with it to the hiding-place where he kept the other two, and then went home. When he got home, his two brothers made game of him as they had done before, saying, they could see he had watched the grass well, for he looked for all the world as if he were walking in his sleep, and many other spiteful things they said, but Boots gave no heed to them, only asking them to go and see for themselves; and when they went, there stood the grass as fine and deep this time as it had been twice before.
Now, you must know that the king of the country where Boots lived had a daughter, whom he would only give to the man who could ride up over the hill of glass, for there was a high, high hill, all of glass, as smooth and slippery as ice, close by the king’s palace. Upon the tip top of the hill the king’s daughter was to sit, with three golden apples in her lap, and the man who could ride up and carry off the three golden apples, was to have half the kingdom, and the Princess to wife. This the king had stuck up on all the church-doors in his realm, and had given it out in many other kingdoms besides. Now, this Princess was so lovely, that all who set eyes on her, fell over head and ears in love with her whether they would or no. So I needn’t tell you how all the princes and knights who heard of her were eager to win her to wife, and half the kingdom beside; and how they came riding from all parts of the world on high prancing horses, and clad in the grandest clothes, for there wasn’t one of them who hadn’t made up his mind that he, and he alone, was to win the Princess.
So when the day of trial came, which the king had fixed, there was such a crowd of princes and knights under the glass hill, that it made one’s head whirl to look at them; and every one in the country who could even crawl along was off to the hill, for they all were eager to see the man who was to win the Princess. So the two elder brothers set off with the rest; but as for Boots, they said outright he shouldn’t go with them, for if they were seen with such a dirty, changeling, all begrimed with smut from cleaning their shoes and sifting cinders in the dust-hole, they said folk would make game of them.
‘Very well’, said Boots, ‘it’s all one to me. I can go alone, and stand or fall by myself.’
Now when the two brothers came to the hill of glass, the knights and princes were all hard at it, riding their horses till they were all in a foam; but it was no good, by my troth; for as soon as ever the horses set foot on the hill, down they slipped, and there wasn’t one who could get a yard or two up; and no wonder, for the hill was as smooth as a sheet of glass, and as steep as a house-wall. But all were eager to have the Princess and half the kingdom. So they rode and slipped, and slipped and rode, and still it was the same story over again. At last all their horses were so weary that they could scarce lift a leg, and in such a sweat that the lather dripped from them, and so the knights had to give up trying any more. So the king was just thinking that he would proclaim a new trial for the next day, to see if they would have better luck, when all at once a knight came riding up on so brave a steed, that no one had ever seen the like of it in his born days, and the knight had mail of brass, and the horse a brass bit in his mouth, so bright that the sunbeams shone from it. Then all the others called out to him he might just as well spare himself the trouble of riding at the hill, for it would lead to no good; but he gave no heed to them, and put his horse at the hill, and went up it like nothing for a good way, about a third of the height; and when he had got so far, he turned his horse round and rode down again. So lovely a knight the Princess thought she had never yet seen; and while he was riding, she sat and thought to herself: ‘Would to heaven he might only come up and down the other side.’
And when she saw him turning back, she threw down one of the golden apples after him, and it rolled down into his shoe. But when he got to the bottom of the hill he rode off so fast that no one could tell what had become of him. That evening all the knights and princes were to go before the king, that he who had ridden so far up the hill might show the apple which the princess had thrown, but there was no one who had anything to show. One after the other they all came, but not a man of them could show the apple.
At even the brothers of Boots came home too, and had such a long story to tell about the riding up the hill.
‘First of all’, they said, ‘there was not one of the whole lot who could get so much as a stride up; but at last came one who had a suit of brass mail, and a brass bridle and saddle, all so bright that the sun shone from them a mile off. He was a chap to ride, just! He rode a third of the way up the hill of glass, and he could easily have ridden the whole way up, if he chose; but he turned round and rode down, thinking, maybe, that was enough for once.’
‘Oh! I should so like to have seen him, that I should’, said Boots, who sat by the fireside, and stuck his feet into the cinders, as was his wont.
‘Oh!’ said his brothers, ‘you would, would you? You; look fit to keep company with such high lords, nasty beast that you are, sitting there amongst the ashes.’
Next day the brothers were all for setting off again, and Boots begged them this time, too, to let him go with them and see the riding; but no, they wouldn’t have him at any price, he was too ugly and nasty, they said.
‘Well, well!’ said Boots;’ if I go at all, I must go by myself. I’m not afraid.’
So when the brothers got to the hill of glass, all the princes and knights began to ride again, and you may fancy they had taken care to shoe their horses sharp; but it was no good—they rode and slipped, and slipped and rode, just as they had done the day before, and there was not one who could get so far as a yard up the hill. And when they had worn out their horses, so that they could not stir a leg, they were all forced to give it up as a bad job. So the king thought he might as well proclaim that the riding should take place the day after for the last time, just to give them one chance more; but all at once it came across his mind that he might as well wait a little longer, to see if the knight in brass mail would come this day too. Well! they saw nothing of him; but all at once came one riding on a steed, far, far, braver and finer than that on which the knight in brass had ridden, and he had silver mail, and a silver saddle and bridle, all so bright that the sun-beams gleamed and glanced from them far away. Then the others shouted out to him again, saying, he might as well hold hard, and not try to ride up the hill, for all his trouble would be thrown away; but the knight paid no heed to them, and rode straight at the hill, and right up it, till he had gone two- thirds of the way, and then he wheeled his horse round and rode down again. To tell the truth, the Princess liked him still better than the knight in brass, and she sat and wished he might only be able to come right up to the top, and down the other side; but when she saw him turning back, she threw the second apple after him, and it rolled down and fell into his shoe. But, as soon as ever he had come down from the hill of glass, he rode off so fast that no one could see what became of him.
At even, when all were to go in before the king and the Princess, that he who had the golden apple might show it, in they went, one after the other, but there was no one who had any apple to show, and the two brothers, as they had done on the former day, went home and told how things had gone, and how all had ridden at the hill, and none got up.
‘But, last of all’, they said, ‘came one in a silver suit, and his horse had a silver saddle and a silver bridle. He was just a chap to ride; and he got two-thirds up the hill, and then turned back. He was a fine fellow, and no mistake; and the Princess threw the second gold apple to him.’
‘Oh!’ said Boots, ‘I should so like to have seen him too, that I should.’
‘A pretty story’, they said. ‘Perhaps you think his coat of mail was as bright as the ashes you are always poking about, and sifting, you nasty dirty beast.’
The third day everything happened as it had happened the two days before. Boots begged to go and see the sight, but the two wouldn’t hear of his going with them. When they got to the hill there was no one who could get so much as a yard up it; and now all waited for the knight in silver mail, but they neither saw nor heard of him. At last came one riding on a steed, so brave that no one had ever seen his match; and the knight had a suit of golden mail, and a golden saddle and bridle, so wondrous bright that the sunbeams gleamed from them a mile off. The other knights and princes could not find time to call out to him not to try his luck, for they were amazed to see how grand he was. So he rode right at the hill, and tore up it like nothing, so that the Princess hadn’t even time to wish that he might get up the whole way. As soon as ever he reached the top, he took the third golden apple from the Princess’ lap, and then turned his horse and rode down again. As soon as he got down, he rode off at full speed, and was out of sight in no time.
Now, when the brothers got home at even, you may fancy what long stories they told, how the riding had gone off that day; and amongst other things, they had a deal to say about the knight in golden mail.
‘He just was a chap to ride!’ they said; ‘so grand a knight isn’t to be found in the wide world.’
‘Oh!’ said Boots, ‘I should so like to have seen him, that I should.’
‘Ah! ‘said his brothers, ‘his mail shone a deal brighter than the glowing coals which you are always poking and digging at; nasty dirty beast that you are.’
Next day all the knights and princes were to pass before the king and the Princess—it was too late to do so the night before, I suppose— hat he who had the gold apple might bring it forth; but one came after another, first the princes, and then the knights, and still no one could show the gold apple.
‘Well’, said the king, ‘some one must have it, for it was something that we all saw with our own eyes, how a man came and rode up and bore it off.’
So he commanded that every one who was in the kingdom should come up to the palace and see if they could show the apple. Well, they all came one after another, but no one had the golden apple, and after a long time the two brothers of Boots came. They were the last of all, so the king asked them if there was no one else in the kingdom who hadn’t come.
‘Oh, yes’, said they; ‘we have a brother, but he never carried off the golden apple. He hasn’t stirred out of the dusthole on any of the three days.’
‘Never mind that’, said the king; ‘he may as well come up to the palace like the rest.’
So Boots had to go up to the palace.
‘How, now’, said the king; ‘have you got the golden apple? Speak out!’
‘Yes, I have’, said Boots; ‘here is the first, and here is the second, and here is the third too’; and with that he pulled all three golden apples out of his pocket, and at the same time threw off his sooty rags, and stood before them in his gleaming golden mail.
‘Yes!’ said the king; ‘you shall have my daughter, and half my kingdom, for you well deserve both her and it.’
So they got ready for the wedding, and Boots got the Princess to wife, and there was great merry-making at the bridal-feast, you may fancy, for they could all be merry though they couldn’t ride up the hill of glass; and all I can say is, if they haven’t left off their merry-making yet, why, they’re still at it.
Enjoy more stories by Sir George Webbe Dasent