IN OUR time, every boy and girl knows about the nuts and blossoms, the twigs and the hedges, the roots and the leaf of the common hazel bush, and everybody has heard of the witch hazel. In old days they made use of the forked branches of the hazel as a divining rod. With this, they believed that they could divine, or find out the presence of treasures of gold and silver, deep down in the earth, and hidden from human eyes.
And, what boy or girl has never played the game, and sung the ditty, "London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down," even though nobody now living ever saw it fall?
Now, our story is about a hazel rod, a Welshman on London Bridge, treasures in a cave, and what happened because of these.
It was in the days when London Bridge was not, as we see it to-day, a massive structure of stone and iron, able to bear up hundreds of cars, wagons, horses and people, and lighted at night with electric bulbs. No, when this Welshman visited London, the bridge had a line of shops on both sides of the passage way, and reaching from end to end.
Taffy was the name of this fellow from Denbigh, in Wales, and he was a drover. He had brought, all the way from one of the richest of the Welsh provinces, a great drove of Black Welsh cattle, such as were in steady demand by Englishmen, who have always been lovers of roast beef. Escaping all the risks of cattle thieves, rustlers, and highwaymen, he had sold his beeves at a good price; so that his pockets were now fairly bulging out with gold coins, and yet this fellow wanted more. But first, before going home, he would see the sights of the great city, which then contained about a hundred thousand people.
While he was handling some things in a shop, to decide what he should take home to his wife, his three daughters and his two little boys, he noticed a man looking intently, not at him, but at his stick. After a while, the stranger came up to him and asked him where he came from.
Now Taffy was not very refined in his manners, and he thought it none of the fellow's business. He was very surly and made reply in a gruff voice.
"I come from my own country."
The stranger did not get angry, but in a polite tone made answer:
"Don't be offended at my question. Tell me where you cut that hazel stick, and I'll make it to your advantage, if you will take my advice."
Even yet Taffy was gruff and suspicious.
"What business is it of yours, where I cut my hazel stick?" he answered.
"Well it may matter a good deal to you, if you will tell me. For, if you remember the place, and can lead me to it, I'll make you a rich man, for near that spot lies a great treasure."
Taffy was not much of a thinker, apart from matters concerning cattle, and his brain worked slowly! He was sorely puzzled. Here was a wizard, who could make him rich, and he did so love to jingle gold in his pockets. But then he was superstitious. He feared that this sorcerer derived all his uncanny knowledge from demons, and Taffy, being rather much of a sinner, feared these very much. Meanwhile, his new acquaintance kept on persuading him.
Finally Taffy yielded and the two went on together to Wales.
Now in this country, there are many stones placed in position, showing they were not there by accident, but were reared by men, to mark some old battle, or famous event. And for this, rough stone work, no country, unless it be Korea or China, is more famous than Wales.
On reaching one called the Fortress Rock, Taffy pointed to an old hazel root, and said to his companion:
"There! From that stock, I cut my hazel stick. I am sure of it."
The sorcerer looked at Taffy to read his face, and to be certain that he was telling the truth. Then he said:
"Bring shovels and we'll both dig."
These having been brought, the two began to work until the perspiration stood out in drops on their foreheads. First the sod and rooty stuff, and then down around the gravelly mass below, they plied their digging tools. Taffy was not used to such toil, and his muscles were soon weary. But, urged on by visions of gold, he kept bravely at his task.
At last, when ready to drop from fatigue, he heard his companion say:
"We've struck it!"
A few shovelfuls more laid bare a broad flat stone. This they pried up, but it required all their strength to lift and stand it on edge. Just below, they saw a flight of steps. They were slippery with wet and they looked very old, as if worn, ages ago, by many feet passing up and down them.
Taffy shrunk back, as a draught of the close, dead air struck his nostrils.
"Come on, and don't be afraid. I'm going to make you rich," said the sorcerer.
At this, Taffy's eyes glistened, and he followed on down the steps, without saying a word. At the bottom of the descent, they entered a narrow passage, and finally came to a door.
"Now, I'll ask you. Are you brave, and will you come in with me, if I open this door?"
By this time, Taffy was so eager for treasure, that he spoke up at once.
"I'm not afraid. Open the door."
The sorcerer gave a jerk and the door flew open. What a sight!
There, in the faint, red light, Taffy discerned a great cave. Lying on the floor were hundreds of armed men, but motionless and apparently sound asleep. Little spangles of light were reflected from swords, spears, round shields, and burnished helmets. All these seemed of very ancient pattern. But immediately in front of them was a bell. Taffy felt some curiosity to tap it. Would the sleeping host of men then rise up?
Just then, the sorcerer, speaking with a menacing gesture, and in a harsh tone, said:
"Do not touch that bell, or it's all up with us both."
Moving carefully, so as not to trip, or to stumble over the sleeping soldiers, they went on, and Taffy, stopping and looking up beheld before him a great round table. Many warriors were sitting at it. Their splendid gold inlaid armor, glittering helmets and noble faces showed that they were no common men. Yet Taffy could see only a few of the faces, for all had their heads more or less bent down, as if sound asleep, though sword and spear were near at hand, ready to be grasped in a moment.
Outshining all, was a golden throne at the farther end of the table and on it sat a king. He was of imposing stature, and august presence. Upon his head was a crown, on which were inlaid or set precious stones. These shone by their own light, sending out rays so brilliant that they dazzled Taffy, who had never seen anything like them. The king held in his right hand a mighty sword. It had a history and the name of it was Excalibur. In Arthur's hand, it was almost part of his own soul. Its hilt and handle were of finely chased gold, richly studded with gems. Yet his head, too, was bent in deep sleep, as if only thunder could wake him.
"Are they all, everyone, asleep?" asked Taffy.
"Each and all," was the answer.
"When did they fall asleep?" asked the drover.
"Over a thousand years ago," answered the sorcerer.
"Tell me who they are, and why here," asked Taffy.
"They are King Arthur's trusty warriors. They are waiting for the hour to come, when they shall rise up and destroy the enemies of the Cymry, and once again possess the whole island of Britain, as in the early ages, before the Saxons came."
"And who are those sitting around the table?" asked Taffy.
The sorcerer seemed tired of answering questions, but he replied, giving the name of each knight, and also that of his father, as if he were a Welshman himself; but at this, Taffy grew impatient, feeling as if a book of genealogy had been hurled at him.
Most impolitely, he interrupted his companion and cried out:
"And who is that on the throne?"
The sorcerer looked as if he was vexed, and felt insulted, but he answered:
"It's King Arthur himself, with Excalibur, his famous sword, in his hand."
This was snapped out, as if the sorcerer was disgusted at the interruption of his genealogy, and he shut his mouth tight as if he would answer no more questions, for such an impolite fellow.
Seizing Taffy by the hand, he led him into what was the storehouse of the cave. There lay heaps upon heaps of yellow gold. Both men stuffed their pockets, belt bags, and the inside of their clothes, with all they could load in.
"Now we had better get out, for it is time to go," said the sorcerer and he led the way towards the cave door.
But as Taffy passed back, and along the hall, where the host of warriors were sleeping, his curiosity got the better of him.
He said to himself, "I must see this host awake. I'll touch that bell, and find out whether the sorcerer spoke the truth."
So, when he came to it, he struck the bell. In the twinkling of an eye, thousands of warriors sprang up, seized their armor, girded their swords, or seized their spears. All seemed eagerly awaiting the command to rush against the foe.
The ground quaked with their tramping, and shook with their tread, until Taffy thought the cave roof would fall in and bury them all. The air resounded with the rattle of arms, as the men, when in ranks, marked time, ready for motion forward and out of the cave.
But from the midst of the host, a deep sounding voice, as earnest as if in hot temper, but as deliberate as if in caution against a false alarm, spoke. He inquired:
"Who rang that bell? Has the day come?"
The sorcerer, thoroughly frightened and trembling, answered:
"No, the day has not come. Sleep on."
Taffy, though dazzled by the increasing brilliancy of the light, had heard another deep voice, more commanding in its tones than even a king's, call out, "Arthur, awake, the bell has rung. The day is breaking. Awake, great King Arthur!"
But even against such a voice, that of the sorcerer, now scared beyond measure, lest the king and his host should discover the cheat, and with his sword, Excalibur, chop the heads off both Taffy and himself, answered:
"No, it is still night. Sleep on, Arthur the Great."
Erect over all, his head aloft and crowned with jewels, as with stars, the King himself now spoke:
"No, my warriors, the day has not yet come, when the Black Eagle and the Golden Eagle will meet in war. Sleep on, loyal souls. The morning of Wales has not yet dawned."
Then, like the gentle soughing of the evening breeze among forest trees, all sound died away, and in the snap of a finger, all were asleep again. Seizing the hand of Taffy, the sorcerer hurried him out of the cave, moved the stone back in its place and motioning to Taffy to do the same, he quickly shoveled and kicked the loose dirt in the hole and stamped it down: When Taffy turned to look for him, he was gone, without even taking the trouble to call his dupe a fool.
Wearied with his unwonted labors and excitements, Taffy walked home, got his supper, pondered on what he had seen, slept, and awoke in the morning refreshed. After breakfast, he sallied out again with pick and shovel.
For months, Taffy dug over every square foot of the hill. Neglecting his business as cattle man, he spent all the money he had made in London, but he never found that entrance to the cave. He died a poor man and all his children had to work hard to get their bread.