ZOVANIN SENZA PAURA ; OR, THE BOY WHO WENT OUT TO DISCOVER WHAT FEAR MEANT.
ZOVANIN was a bold boy, and never seemed to be afraid of any thing. When other children were afraid lest Orco  should play them some of his malicious tricks, when people cried out to him, "Take care, and don't walk in those footprints, they may be those of Orco!" he would only laugh, and say, "Let Orco come; I should like to see him!" When he was sent out upon the mountains with the herds, and had to be alone with them through the dark nights, and his mother bid him not be afraid, he used to stare at her with his great round eyes as if he wondered what she meant. If a lamb or a goat strayed over a difficult precipice, and the neighbours cried out to him, "Let be; it is not safe to go after it down that steep place," he would seem to think they were making game of him, and would swing himself over the steep as firmly and as steadily as if he were merely bestriding a hedge. He saw people shun passing through the churchyards by dark, and so he used to make it his habit to sleep every night on the graves; and as they said they were afraid of being struck blind if they slept in the moonlight, he would always choose to lie where the moonbeams fell. Nor thunder, nor avalanche, nor fire, nor flood, nor storm seemed to have any terror for him; so that at last people set him to do every kind of thing they were afraid to do themselves, and he got so much wondered at, that he said, "I will go abroad over the world, and see if I can find any where this same Fear that I hear people talk of."
So he went out, and walked along by the most desolate paths and through frightful stony wildernesses, till he came to a village where there was a fair going on. Zovanin was too tired to care much for the dance, so instead of joining it he asked for a bed.
"A bed!" said the host; "that's what I can give you least of all. My beds are for regular customers, and not for strollers who drop down from the skies;" for, being full of business at the moment, he was uppish and haughty, as if his day's prosperity was to last for ever.
While Zovanin was urging that his money was as good as another's, and the host growing more and more insolent while repeating that he could not receive him, a terrific shouting of men, and screeching of women made itself heard, and pell-mell the whole tribe of peasants, pedlars, and showmen came rushing towards the inn, flying helter-skelter before a furious and gigantic maniac brandishing a formidable club. Every one ran for dear life, seeking what shelter they could find. The inn was filled to overflowing in a trice, and those who could not find entrance there hid themselves in the stables and pig-styes and cellars. But no one was in so great a hurry to hide himself as mine host, who had been so loud with his blustering to a defenceless stranger anon. Only, when he saw the baffled madman breaking in his doors and windows with his massive oaken staff, he put his head dolefully out of the topmost window, and piteously entreated some one to put a stop to the havoc.
Zovanin was not quick-witted: all this noisy scene had been transacted and it had not yet occurred to him to move from the spot where he originally stood; in fact, he had hardly apprehended what it was that was taking place, only at last the host's vehement gesticulations suggested to him that he wanted the madman arrested.
"Oh, that's it, is it?" said Zovanin. "All right, I'm your man!" and walking up coolly to the cause of all this disturbance, he said, in the tone of one who meant to be obeyed, "Give me your club."
The poor imbecile was usually harmless enough; he lived in an out-of-the-way hut with his family, where he seldom saw a stranger. They had incautiously brought him up to the fête, where he had first become excited by the sight of the unwonted number of people; then some thoughtless youths had further provoked him by mocking and laughing at him; and when the people ran away in fear of his retaliation, he had only yielded to a natural impulse in running after them. But when Zovanin stood before him, fearless and collected, and said, in his blunt, quiet way, "Give me your club," his habitual obedience prevailed over the momentary ebullition, and he yielded himself up peaceably to the guidance of the young giant. Zovanin first secured the club, and then desired the madman to bestow himself in an empty shed, of which he closed and made fast the door. When the landlord and people saw the coast clear they all came out again, the latter losing no time in going back to their games, the former to resume his preparations for the entertainment of his guests.
"Well," said Zovanin, "I suppose now you'll make no difficulty in providing me a bed? I think that's the least you can do for me, after my befriending you as I have. I have earned it, if any one has."
"What! you think that such a great feat, do you?" said the landlord, who, deeming the madman well secured, felt no compunction in disowning Johnny's service. "Do you suppose any other couldn't have said, 'Give me your club,' just as well as you?"
"Perhaps you would like to try," replied our hero; and he went to unbar the shed-door.
"For heaven's sake, no!" screamed the cowardly landlord, preparing to run away. "Don't let him loose on any account; I'll do any thing for you sooner than that!"
"Well, you know what I want; it's not much, and reasonable enough," replied Fearless Johnny, relaxing his hold of the door.
"But that's just the one thing I can't do," lamented the host. "My beds are bespoken to customers who come every year to the fair, and if I disappoint any of them I'm a ruined man."
"Very well then, here goes!" and Zovanin once more prepared to open the shed-door.
"Oh, no; stop!" roared the landlord. "Perhaps there is a way, after all."
"Ah!" ejaculated Johnny; "I thought as much."
"There is a room, in fact a whole suite of rooms, and a magnificent suite of rooms, I daren't give to any one else, but I think they will do for you, as you are such a stout-hearted chap."
"Where are they?" said Johnny.
"Do you see that castle on the tip of the high rock yonder, that looks like an eagle perched for a moment and ready to take flight?"
"I should rather think I did, seeing it's one of the most remarkable sights I have met with in all my travels."
"Well, that castle was built by a bad giant who lived here in former times; and he balanced it like that on the tip of the rock, and only he had the secret of walking into it. If any one else steps into it, they are pretty sure of stepping on the wrong place, and down will go the whole castle overbalanced into the abyss. When he was once inside it, he had an iron chain by which he made it fast to the rock; and when he went out he used to set it swinging as you see, so that no one might dare to venture in and take back possession of the booty which he seized right and left from all the country round. If you don't mind trying your luck at taking possession of the castle, you can lodge there like a prince, for there are twelve ghosts, who come there every night, who will supply you with every thing you can ask for. So there is all you desire to have, and more, provided only the idea does not strike you with fear."
"Fear, say you?" said Zovanin, opening his great round eyes; "do you say I shall find 'Fear' in yonder castle?"
"Most assuredly. Every body finds it in merely listening to the story."
"Then that's what I came out to seek; so show me the way, and there I will lodge."
The host stared at his crack-brained guest, but, glad to be rid of his importunity for a night's lodging in the inn, made no delay in pointing out the path which led to the giant's castle.
Zovanin trudged along it without hesitation, nor was he long in reaching the precariously balanced edifice. Once before the entrance, he had little difficulty in seeing what was required in order to take possession. Just in the centre of the building a large stone stood up prominently, and though at a great distance from the threshold, was probably not more than a stride for the giant of old--as a further token, it was worn away at the edge, evidently where he had stepped on to it. Zovanin saw it could be reached by a bold spring, and, having no fear of making a false step, he was able to calculate his distance without disturbance from nervousness. Having balanced himself successfully on the stone, he next set himself to fix the chain which attached his airy castle to the rock, and then made his way through its various apartments. Every thing was very clean and in good order, for the twelve ghosts came every night and put all to rights. Zovanin had hardly finished making his round when in they came, all dressed in white.
"Bring me a bottle of wine, and some bread and meat, candles and cards," said Fearless Johnny, just as if he had been giving an order to the waiter of an inn; for he remembered that the landlord had said they would supply him, and he felt no fear which should make him shrink from them.
"I wonder where this same Fear can be?" he said, as the ghosts were preparing his supper; "I have been pretty well all over the castle already, and can see nothing of him. Oh, yes! I will just go down and explore the cellars, perhaps I shall find him down there."
"Yes; go down and choose your wine to your own taste, and you will find him there, sure enough," said the twelve ghosts.
"Shall I, though?" said John, delighted; and down he went.
The bottles were all in order, labelled with the names of various choice vintages in such tempting variety that he was puzzled which to choose. At last, however, he stretched his hand out to reach down a bottle from a high shelf, when lo and behold a grinning skull showed itself in the place where the bottle had stood, and asked him how he dared meddle with the wine! Without being in the least disconcerted at its horrid appearance, Fearless Johnny passed the bottle into his left hand, and with his right taking up the skull, flung it over his shoulder to the farthermost corner of the cellar. He had no sooner done so, however, than a long bony arm was stretched out from the same place, and made a grab at the bottle. But Fearless John caught the arm and flung it after the skull. Immediately another arm appeared, and was treated in the same way; then came a long, lanky leg, and tried to kick him on the nose, but Johnny dealt with it as with the others; then came another leg, which he sent flying into the corner too; and then the ribs and spine, till all the bones of a skeleton had severally appeared before him, and had all been cast by him on to the same shapeless heap.
Now he turned to go, but as he did so a great rattling was heard in the corner where he had thrown the bones. It was all the bones joining themselves together and forming themselves into a perfect skeleton, which came clatter-patter after him up the stairs.
Zovanin neither turned to look at it nor hurried his pace, but walked straight back, bottle in hand, into the room where the supper was laid ready, and the pack of cards by the side, as he had ordered. All the while that he was supping, the skeleton kept up a wild dance round him, trying to excite him by menacing gestures, but Fearless Johnny munched his bread and meat and drank his wine, and took no more notice than of the insects buzzing round the sconces.
When he had done he called to the ghosts in the coolest way imaginable to clear away the things, and then dealt out the cards, with one hand for a "dummy" and one for himself. He had no sooner done this than the skeleton sat down, with a horrid grimace of triumph, and took up the "dummy's" hand!
"You needn't grin like that," said Johnny; "you may depend on it I shouldn't have let you take the cards if it hadn't pleased me. If you know how to play, play on--it is much better fun than playing both hands oneself. Only, if you don't know how to play, you leave them alone--and you had better not give me reason to turn you out."
The skeleton, however, understood the game very well, and with alternate fortune they played and passed away the hours till it was time to go to bed. Johnny then rose and called the twelve ghosts to light him up to bed, which they did in gravest order. He had no sooner laid himself to sleep than, with a great clatter, the skeleton came in and pulled the bedclothes off him. In a great passion Fearless Johnny jumped up, and brandishing a chair over his head, threatened to break every one of his bones if he didn't immediately lay the clothes straight again. The skeleton had no defence for his bones, and so could not choose but obey; and Johnny went quietly to bed again.
"It was a pity I didn't ask the poor fellow what ailed him, though," said Johnny, when he was once more alone. "Perhaps he too is tormented by this 'Fear' that every one thinks so much of, and wanted me to help him. Ah, well, if he comes again I will ask him;" and with that he rolled himself up in the quilt, and went to sleep again. An hour had hardly passed before the skeleton came in again, and this time he shook the bedpost so violently that he woke Johnny with a start.
"Ah! there he is again!" cried Johnny; "now I'll ask him what he wants;" so he jumped out of bed once more, and addressed the skeleton solemnly in these words:--
Stammi lontana tre passi,
E raccontami la tua pena !"
Then the skeleton made a sign to him to follow it, and led him down to the foundations of the castle, where there was a big block of porphyry.
"Heave up that block," said the skeleton.
"Not I!" replied Johnny; "I didn't set it there, and so I'm not going to take it up."
So the skeleton took up the block itself, and under it lay shining two immense jars full of gold.
"Take them, and count them out," said the skeleton.
"Not I!" said Johnny; "I didn't heap them up, and so I'm not going to count them out."
So the skeleton counted them out itself, and they contained ten thousand gold pieces each.
When it had done, it said, "I am the giant who built this castle. I have waited here these hundreds of years till one came fearless enough to do what you have done to-night, and now I am free, because to you I may give over the castle; so take it, for it is yours, and with it one of these jars of gold, which is enough to make you rich, but take the other jar of gold and build a church, and let them pray for me, and learn to be better men than I."
With that he disappeared, and Fearless Johnny slept quietly for the rest of the night.
In the morning, when the sun was up, and the birds began to sing cheerily on the branches, the landlord began to feel some compunction for having abandoned such a fine young Bursch to a night by himself among the unquiet spirits; so he summoned all his courage, and all his servants, and all his neighbours, and, thus prepared, he led the way up to the haunted castle. Finding that it was firmly fixed by the chain, they all entered in a body, for none durst be the first; and the entrance, having been made for the giant, was big enough for all.
Zovanin having had such a disturbed night was still fast asleep, but their footsteps and anxious whisperings woke him. In answer to all their questionings he gave an account of what had happened to him, but still complained that, after all, he had not been able to find Fear!
Zovanin was now a rich man, and had a mighty castle to live in where he might have ended his days in peace, but he was always possessed by the desire of finding out what Fear was, and this desire was too strong to let him rest.
The neighbours, however, told him he might find Fear out hunting; and many were the hunting-parties he established, and wherever the wild game was shyest, there he sought it out. Once, as he sprang over a chasm his horse made a false start, and was plunged into the abyss, but Fearless Johnny caught at the bough of a birch-tree that waved over the mountain-side. The branch cracked, and it seemed as if nothing could save him, but Fearless Johnny only swung himself on to another on the ledge below, and climbed back by its means to the path. Another time, as he was pursuing a chamois up a precipitous track, a great mass of loose rock, detached from the height above, came thundering down upon him. An ordinary hunter, scared at the sight, would have given himself up for lost, but Fearless Johnny stood quite still and let it bound over his head, and he came to no harm.
So he still was unable to find Fear. After some years, therefore, he once more went abroad to seek it. This time, however, he provided himself with a fine suit of armour and a prancing charger, and a noble figure he cut as he ambled forth.
After a long journey, with many adventures, he came one hot day, as he was very thirsty, to a fountain of water in the outskirts of a town, and as he dismounted to drink he observed that the whole place looked sad and deserted; the road was grass-grown, and the houses seemed neglected and empty. As he went up to the fountain to drink, a faint voice called to him from the wayside, "Beware, and do it not! Think you that we all should be lying here dying of thirst if you could drink at that fountain?"
Then he looked round, and saw that, as far as eye could reach, the banks of the wayside were covered with dying people heaped up one on the other, and all gazing towards the fountain!
"Know you not," continued the weary voice, "that a terrible dragon has taken possession of all the fountains; and that the moment one goes to drink of them he appears, as though he would eat you up, so that you are bound to run away for very fear?"
"'Fear!'" cried Zovanin; "is Fear here at last?" and he joyfully ran to the side of the well.
All the weary, dying people raised themselves as well as they could, to see what should befall him who was not afraid of the terrible dragon.
But Fearless Johnny went up to the fountain's brim to dip his hand into the cooling flood. Before he could do so, however, the terrible dragon put his head up through the midst, with a frightful howl, and spueing fire out of his nostrils. Zovanin, instead of drawing back, instantly took out his sword and, with one blow, severed the monster's head from the trunk! Then all the people rushed to the fountain, hailing him as their deliverer. But ere they had slaked their thirst, the dragon, which had sunk back into the depth of the water, reappeared with a new head, already full grown, and more terrible than the last, for it not only spued out fire from its nostrils, but darted living sparks from its eyes.
When the people saw this they all ran away screaming, and Zovanin was left alone; but, as usual, he did not lose heart, and with another well-aimed blow sent the second head of the monster rolling by the side of the first!
The people came back, and began to drink again when they saw the huge trunk disappear beneath the surface; but it was not many minutes before another head cropped up, more terrible than either of the preceding, for it not only spued fire from its nostrils and darted living sparks from its eyes, but it had hair and mane of flames, which waved and rolled abroad, threatening all within reach. All the people fled at the sight, and Zovanin was once more left alone with the monster. Once more he severed the terrible head; and after this the dragon was seen no more.
"That must be very wonderful blood out of which three heads can spring," thought Fearless Johnny; and he filled a vial with the dragon's blood, and journeyed farther.
After a time he came to the outskirts of another town. It was not deserted like the last. The streets were full of people making merry--in fact, every one was so very merry that they seemed a whole community of madmen. Another might have been afraid to encounter them at all; but not so Fearless Johnny, he spurred his horse and rode right through their midst. But for all his seeming so fearless and self-possessed, the people got round him, and seized his horse's bridle, and dragged him from the saddle.
"What do you want with me, good people?" cried Zovanin; "let me hear, before you pull me to pieces."
When they found him so cool, spite of the wild way in which they had handled him, they began to respect him, and loosed their hold.
"If you want to know," answered one, "it is soon told. We are all in this town wholly given up to amusement. We have done with work and toil, and do nothing but dance, and drink, and sing, and divert ourselves from morning to night. But after enjoying all this a long time, we begin to find it rather wearisome, and we are almost as tired of our pastime as we used to be of our labour. So the king has decreed that every stranger who comes by this way shall be caught, and required to find us a quite new diversion, and if he cannot do that, we will make him dance on red-hot stones, and flog him round the town, and get some fun out of him that way, at all events; as you don't look very likely to find us a new pastime, we may as well begin with putting you on your death-dance."
"Don't make too sure of that!" said Fearless Johnny, not at all disconcerted; "take me to your king, and I'll show you a diversion you never heard of before."
When he came to the king, the king laughed, and would hardly listen to him, because he looked so broad and heavy, and not at all like one who could invent a merry game.
But Johnny protested that if they would let him cut off any one's head, he would stick it on just as before, and the man should be never the worse.
The king was greatly delighted with the idea, and most anxious to see the performance, promising that he would not only let him go free if he succeeded, but would load him with honours and presents into the bargain. Zovanin professed himself quite ready to prove his skill, but no one could be found who was willing to let the experiment be tried on him.
This angered the king greatly; and at last he called forward his jester, and ordered Zovanin to make the trial on him.
The jester, however, objected as much as any one else, only, as he belonged entirely to the king, he could not disobey him. "But think, your majesty," said the poor hunchback, "what will your majesty do without his jester, if this quack does not succeed in his promises?"
"But I shall succeed!" thundered Fearless Johnny; and he spoke with such assurance, that the king and all the people were more desirous than ever to see the feat, and cried to him to commence. When the jester found that all hope of wriggling out of the cruel decree was vain, he threw himself on his knees, and begged so earnestly that the king would grant him two favours, that he could not resist. The two favours were, that he should have the satisfaction of repeating the trick on Johnny, if he allowed him to try his skill on him, and also that he should first give proof of what he could do on the ape, with whose pranks he was wont to amuse the king.
The king and Zovanin both agreed to the two requests, and the poor ape was brought forward, and delivered over to make the first essay.
Zovanin did not keep the breathless multitude long in suspense; with one blow he severed its head, threw it up high in the air, that all might see it was well cut off, and then placed it on again, smearing in some drops of the dragon's blood by way of cement. The head and trunk were scarcely placed together again, with the dragon's blood between, than the ape bounded up as well as before, and just as if nothing had been done to him; but, on the contrary, finding himself the object of great attention, and excited by the shouts of the people, he sprang and gambolled about from side to side with even greater alacrity than his wont.
"Now, Sir Hunchback!" cried Zovanin, "it is your turn. You see it's not very bad; so come along, and no more excuses."
"Go it, hunchback!" said the king; and all the people shouted, "The hunchback's head! the hunchback's head!" with such vehemence that it was evident there was no means of getting out of the trial. It was true, Zovanin had proved he could put a head on again; but the jester shrank from the cold steel nevertheless, and it was only with a look which concentrated all his venom that he yielded himself up. Fearless Johnny struck off his head in a trice, then threw it up high in the air, as he had done the ape's, and then cemented it on again with the dragon's blood as well as ever.
"Now for you!" screamed the hunchback, when he found his head back in its right place once more.
Zovanin had no fear, but sat down on the ground instantly, so that the hunchback might reach him more conveniently. "This is all you have to do," he said: "take my sword in your two hands, and swing it round across my throat. Then pour the contents of this vial over the stump of the throat, and clap the head down on it again."
"Yes, yes! I think I ought to know how it's done, as well as you," answered the dwarf, hastily; and he swung the sword round with a will, sending Johnny's head rolling at the king's feet. The people caught it up and handed it round; and it might soon have got lost in the crowd, but that the king shouted to them to bring it back, because he wanted to see it stuck on again. So they gave it back to the jester, and he smeared the rest of the dragon's blood over the stump of the throat--but in putting the head on, took care to turn it the wrong way, which, as he managed to bend over Johnny's recumbent body, no one observed till he rose to his feet. Then all the people screeched, and yelled, and shouted, so that John could not make out what was the matter, but, getting angry, demanded his horse, that he might ride away from them all.
The king ordered his horse to be brought, and Johnny sprang into the saddle, and the cries of the people made the beast start away faster even than Johnny himself wished; only Johnny could not make out why he seemed to him, for all his urging, always to go backwards.
At last, he got quite away from the shouts of the people, into a calm, quiet place, where there was a lake shut in by high hills, which, with the mulberry-trees, and vines, and grassy slopes, were all pictured in the lake's smooth face.
Zovanin was hot with his ride, and so was his mount; so he walked him into the shallow water, while he himself dismounted, and bent down to drink.
At the sight that met his gaze in the water, a shout burst from his lips more terrible than the shouts of all the people. He gazed again, and couldn't think what had befallen him; but, so horrified was he at the sight of his own back where he was wont to see his breast, that he fell down and died of fear on the spot! And thus Fear visited him at last--in a way which would certainly never have occurred, if the jester had put his head on again in the way nature designed for it.