There was once a wise man named Roger Bacon. In his day the wise men were almost always members of some religious order, and Roger Bacon was of the order of Friars, and so came to be known as Friar Bacon.
It was a time when learned men were trying to do all manner of vain things. They thought to discover some wonderful draught which would make men live forever. They tried to find some means by which they could turn lead or iron into gold, and they fancied there was a kind of powder which would do this; this powder they called the Philosopher's Stone.
So they mixed all kinds of powders and liquids; they were forever at work over their charcoal fires, and as each one wished to be the great discoverer, they all worked in secret chambers and behind closed doors.
Thus they came to be thought of as workers in magic, and people looked curiously at them, and were rather afraid of them. These wise men needed servants to fetch and carry for them, and they sometimes chose servants who were dull, for they did not wish any one who was near to them to know just what they did.
Friar Bacon worked much in his cell, and he had a friend, Friar Bungey, whom he trusted. He had also a merry fellow for a servant, named Miles. Friar Bungey knew what Friar Bacon was doing, but Miles never bothered his head about his master's work.
Now Friar Bacon had a great love of England, his country. And as he read in old histories, he saw that more than once people had come across the waters and conquered England. He bethought himself how he could defend the country, and thought if he could only build a great brass wall about England he could defend it.
As he thought longer, this did not seem very possible; and then he thought if he could station a brass man here and there, here and there, at points where soldiers would land; and if he could make the brass man speak, he might defend it in this way, for anybody would be afraid who came near the coast and saw a brass man, and heard the brass man shout.
So he and Friar Bungey set to work and made a Brazen Head. They fashioned jaws, and tongue, and teeth, and all other parts of the inside of a head, and set them carefully within the Brazen Head. But though there was everything with which to speak, the Brazen Head said never a word.
They were sore perplexed; they read and they studied, but could find out nothing. So then they did what the wise men of those days did when everything else failed. They went by night into a wood, and there all by themselves they called on the Evil Spirit to come out of the darkness and tell them what they were to do.
I do not know why they should call on the Evil Spirit, and not on the Good Spirit, but that is the way the story runs. So after they had coaxed and threatened the spirit, they got this answer. They were to take six herbs, or simples as they were called, and make a hot fire and steam these simples till there was a strong fume, and this fume they were to let rise into the Brazen Head.
This they were to do, and to watch the fume steadily. Some time or other, perhaps in a month or less, the fume would work and the Brazen Head would speak, and then they would know how it was done.
So back to their cell went the two friars. They got the precious simples and steamed them, and watched the hot fumes night and day, night and day. But after about three weeks of this, they grew terribly sleepy, and though they tried to keep each other awake, it was plain that they might both be asleep when the Brazen Head should speak. That would never do; so Friar Bacon called his servant Miles.
"Miles," said he, "sit you here and watch. This Brazen Head is about to speak, but Friar Bungey and I have watched so long that we must needs sleep. We look to you to take our place. Have no fear, but the moment you hear the Head speak, on that instant come quickly and wake us."
Miles was a faithful fellow, and he promised Friar Bacon he would do as he was bid. So the two friars lay down, and in a twinkling were fast asleep. Miles now was left to himself, and to keep awake he played on a fiddle he had and began singing a song, which he made up as he went along.
So he kept awake, and by and by there was a great rumble and quaking sound, and the Brazen Head opened its mouth and spoke just two words,
"Well, well," quoth Miles to himself, "that's no news. I'll not wake master for that." "Go to, old Brazen Head!" said he aloud. "Hath the great Friar Bacon worked at thee all these months, and this is all that comes of it? Time is? I'll warrant thee, old Boy:—
'Time is for some to eat,
Time is for some to sleep,
Time is for some to laugh,
Time is for some to weep.' "
So honest Miles sang to the tune of his fiddle, and made up verse upon verse, wagging his head, and laughing at that great Brazen Head. A half an hour more, and the mouth opened again, and there came forth the words,
"Sure enough," said Miles scornfully; "and d'ye think I would wake my master to tell him that great piece of news? Time was, indeed! Away with ye!
'Time was when thou a kettle
Wert filled with better matter:
But Friar Bacon did thee spoil
When he thy sides did batter.' "
And so did merry Miles sing to another jolly tune.
Another half hour passed. Then there came a deep rumbling and grumbling sound, and the Brazen Head opened its mouth once more and clanged out,
Time is past,
and thereat it fell over on its face and brake all to bits. And there was a terrible noise, and there were great flashes of fire, so that poor Miles was half dead with fear. He dropped his fiddle and fell on his knees, and the room was full of smoke.
Now the noise and the smoke were so horrible that Friar Bacon and Friar Bungey suddenly waked. They rushed into the cell, and there they saw Miles beating his breast and crying out, and on the floor lay the Brazen Head all in bits.
"What is this! what is this!" cried Friar Bacon. "What hast thou done?"
"Sure, it fell down all of itself!" shouted Miles.
"And did he not speak? Did he say nothing?"
"Nothing at all, at all," quoth Miles, "but just some senseless words. A parrot could say more."
"Out upon you!" said Friar Bacon, lifting his hand to strike the wretch. "If you had called us when it spake, we should all have been great men, for we should have done that which would have saved England from all her foes. What did the Brazen Head say?"
"It just said, 'Time is,' the first time," quoth Miles.
"Ah," said Friar Bacon, "you have undone us. Had you called us then, we should have been in time. Did it speak again?"
"Ay, sir, that it did, half an hour afterward, and it just said, 'Time was.' "
"Woe, woe! if thou hadst but called us then," said Friar Bungey, shaking his head.
"Sure, sir," said Miles, "I thought it would be telling some long tale, and then I would have waked ye, but it kept quiet for half an hour, and then it blabbed out, 'Time is past,' and fell down head first, and there was such a clatter that I had no need to wake ye. The old beast would have waked the dead."
Then Friar Bacon was wroth, and would have let his hand fall heavy upon poor Miles, but Friar Bungey told him it was a shame to strike such an ignorant man. So Friar Bacon withheld his hand, but he made Miles dumb for the space of a month, in punishment, though to be sure there was not much that Miles had to say.
So nothing came of the Brazen Head, and England had to content herself with live men to guard her gates.