A Capful of Moonshine

by Laurence Housman

On the top of Drundle Head, away to the right side, where the track crossed, it was known that the fairies still came and danced by night. But though Toonie went that way every evening on his road home from work, never once had he been able to spy them.

So one day he said to the old faggot-maker, "How is it that one gets to see a fairy?" The old man answered, "There are some to whom it comes by nature; but for others three things are needed—a handful of courage, a mouthful of silence, and a capful of moonshine. But if you would be trying it, take care that you don't go wrong more than twice; for with the third time you will fall into the hands of the fairies and be their bondsman. But if you manage to see the fairies, you may ask whatever you like of them."

Toonie believed in himself so much that the very next night he took his courage in both hands, filled his cap with moon-shine, shut his mouth, and set out. Just after he had started he passed, as he thought, a priest riding by on a mule. "Good evening to you, Toonie," called the priest.

"Good evening, your reverence," cried Toonie, and flourished off his cap, so that out fell his capful of moonshine. And though he went on all the way up over the top of Drundle Head, never a fairy did he spy; for he forgot that, in passing what he supposed to be the priest, he had let go both his mouthful of silence and his capful of moonshine.

The next night, when he was coming to the ascent of the hill, he saw a little elderly man wandering uncertainly over the ground ahead of him; and he too seemed to have his hands full of courage and his cap full of moonshine. As Toonie drew near, the other turned about and said to him, "Can you tell me, neighbour, if this be the way to the fairies?"

"Why, you fool," cried Toonie, "a moment ago it was! But now you have gone and let go your mouthful of silence!"

"To be sure, to be sure—so I have!" answered the old man sadly; and turning about, he disappeared among the bushes.

As for Toonie, he went on right over the top of Drundle Head, keeping his eyes well to the right; but never a fairy did he see. For he too had on the way let go his mouthful of silence.

Toonie, when his second failure came home to him, was quite vexed with himself for his folly and mismanagement. So that it should not happen again, he got his wife to tie on his cap of moonshine so firmly that it could not come off, and to gag up his mouth so that no word could come out of it. And once more taking his courage in both hands, he set out.

For a long way he went and nothing happened, so he was in good hopes of getting the desire of his eyes before the night was over; and, clenching his fists tight upon his courage, he pressed on.

He had nearly reached to the top of Drundle Head, when up from the ground sprang the same little elderly man of the evening before, and began beating him across the face with a hazel wand. And at that Toonie threw up both hands and let go his courage, and turned and tried to run down the hill.

When her husband did not return, Toonie's wife became a kind of a widow. People were very kind to her, and told her that Toonie was not dead—that he had only fallen into the hands of the good-folk; but all day long she sat and cried, "I fastened on his cap of moonshine, and I tied up his tongue; and for all that he has gone away and left me!" And so she cried until her child was born and named Little Toonie in memory of his lost father.

After a while people, looking at him, began to shake their heads; for as he grew older it became apparent that his tongue was tied, seeing that he remained quite dumb in spite of all that was done to teach him; and his head was full of moonshine, so that he could understand nothing clearly by day—only as night came on his wits gathered, and he seemed to find a meaning for things. And some said it was his mother's fault, and some that it was his father's, and some that he was a changeling sent by the fairies, and that the real child had been taken to share his father's bondage. But which of these things was true Little Toonie himself had no idea.

After a time Little Toonie began to grow big, as is the way with children, and at last he became bigger than ever old Toonie had been. But folk still called him Little Toonie, because his head was so full of moonshine; and his mother, finding he was no good to her, sold him to the farmer, by whom, since he had no wits for anything better, he was set to pull at waggon and plough just as if he were a cart-horse; and, indeed, he was almost as strong as one. To make him work, carter and ploughman used to crack their whips over his back; and Little Toonie took it as the most natural thing in the world, because his brain was full of moonshine, so that he understood nothing clearly by day.

But at night he would lie in his stable among the horses, and wonder about the moonlight that stretched wide over all the world and lay free on the bare tops of the hills; and he thought—would it not be good to be there all alone, with the moonbeams laying their white hands down on his head? And so it came that one night, finding the door of his stable unlocked, he ran out into the open world a free man.

A soft wind breathed at large, and swung slowly in the black-silver treetops. Over them Little Toonie could see the quiet slopes of Drundle Head, asleep in the moonlight.

Before long, following the lead of his eyes, he had come to the bottom of the ascent. There before him went walking a little shrivelled elderly man, looking to right and left as if uncertain of the road.

As Little Toonie drew near, the other one turned and spoke. "Can you tell me," said he, "if this be the way to the fairies?"

Little Toonie had no tongue to give an answer; so, looking at his questioner, he wagged his head and went on.

Quickening his pace, the old man came alongside and began peering; then he smiled to himself, and after a bit spoke out. "So you have lost your cap, neighbour? Then you will never be able to find the fairies." For he did not know that Little Toonie, who wore no cap on his head, carried his capful of moonshine safe underneath his skull, where it had been since the hour of his birth.

The little elderly man slipped from his side, disappearing suddenly among the bushes, and Toonie went on alone. So presently he was more than halfway up the ascent, and could see along the foot-track of the thicket the silver moonlight lying out over the open ahead.

He had nearly reached to the top of the hill, when up from the ground sprang the little elderly man, and began beating him across the face with a hazel wand. Toonie thought surely this must be some carter or ploughman beating him to make him go faster; so he made haste to get on and be rid of the blows.

Then, all of a sudden, the little elderly man threw away his hazel stick, and fell down, clutching at Little Toonie's ankles, whining and praying him not to go on.

"Now that I have failed to keep you from coming," he cried, "my masters will put me to death for it! I am a dead man, I tell you, if you go another step!"

Toonie could not understand what the old fellow meant, and he could not speak to him. But the poor creature clung to his feet, holding them to prevent him from taking another step; so Toonie just stooped down, and (for he was so little and light) picked him up by the scruff, and carried him by his waistband, so that his arms and legs trailed together along the ground.

In the open moonlight ahead little people were all agog; bright dewdrops were shivering down like rain, where flying feet alighted—shot from bent grass-blades like arrows from a drawn bow. Tight, panting little bodies, of which one could count the ribs, and faces flushed with fiery green blood, sprang everywhere. But at Toonie's coming one cried up shriller than a bat; and at once rippling burrows went this way and that in the long grass, and stillness followed after.

The poor, dangling old man, whom Toonie was still carrying, wriggled and whined miserably, crying, "Come back, masters, for it is no use—this one sees you! He has got past me and all my poor skill to stop him. Set me free, for you see I am too old to keep the door for you any longer!"

Out buzzed the fairies, hot and angry as a swarm of bees. They came and fastened upon the unhappy old man, and began pulling him. "To the ant-hills!" they cried; "off with him to the ant-hills!" But when they found that Toonie still held him, quickly they all let go.

One fairy, standing out from the rest, pulled off his cap and bowed low. "What is your will, master mortal?" he inquired; "for until you have taken your wish and gone, we are all slaves at your bidding."

They all cringed round him, the cruel little people; but he answered nothing. The moonbeams came thick, laying their slender white palms graciously upon Toonie's head; and he, looking up, opened his mouth for a laugh that gave no sound.

"Ah, so! That is why—he is a mute!" cried the fairies.

Quickly one dipped his cap along the grass and brought it filled with dew. He sprang up, and poured it upon Toonie's tongue; and as the fairy dew touched it, "Now speak!" they all cried in chorus, and fawned and cringed, waiting for him to give them the word.

Cudgelling his brain for what it all meant, he said, "Tell me first what wish I may have."

"Whatever you like to ask," said they, "for you have become one of our free men. Tell us your name?"

"I am called Little Toonie," said he, "the son of old Toonie that was lost."

"Why, as I live and remember," cried the little elderly man, "old Toonie was me!" Then he threw himself grovelling at his son's feet, and began crying: "Oh, be quick and take me away! Make them give me up to you: ask to have me! I am your poor, loving old father whom you never saw; all these years have I been looking and longing for you! Now take me away, for they are a proud, cruel people, as spiteful as they are small; and my back has been broken twenty years in their bondage."

The fairies began to look blue, for they hate nothing so much as to give up one whom they have once held captive. "We can give you gold," said they, "or precious stones, or the root of long living, or the waters of happiness, or the sap of youth, or the seed of plenty, or the blossom of beauty. Choose any of these, and we can give it you."

The old man again caught hold of his son's feet. "Don't choose these," he whimpered, "choose me!"

So because he had a capful of moonshine in his head, and because the moonbeams were laying their white hands on his hair, he chose the weak, shrivelled old man, who crouched and clung to him, imploring not to be let go.

The fairies, for spite and anger, bestowed every one a parting pinch on their tumble-down old bondsman; then they handed him to his son, and swung back with careless light hearts to their revels.

As father and son went down the hill together, the old man whistled and piped like a bird. "Why, why!" he said, "you are a lad of strength and inches: with you to work and look after me, I can keep on to a merry old age! Ay, ay, I have had long to wait for it; but wisdom is justified in her children."