T HERE was once upon a time a lad who made up his mind to go to the town next to Wraye where he had lived all the days of his life.
Next Town, he had heard, was a very large place with almost as many people as there were in London; or at least many more than in the town of Wraye. There were great shops in Next Town where grand things might be bought for little or nothing, and a church, the tower of which was higher by far than the tower of Wraye, and, besides all the other sights to be seen, the mayor of Next Town rode out in a coach drawn by three white horses abreast; or so it was told. But the lad determined to find out the truth of everything for himself.
"And while you are there, Jamie," said his mother, "you must buy me a needle with a gold eye. It would be nothing but pleasure to sew with a gold-eyed needle, and that there are such things I am sure, for your own aunt knows a woman who got one, either from Next Town or a peddler, I forget which."
His mother was not the only one who wished something bought in Next Town, for no sooner had the news of his going spread than the innkeeper's wife came hurrying in, with a shilling in her hand, to ask Jamie to bring her a pint of pickled plums.
"Never in the world have I eaten a pickled plum," said she, "and if they can be bought anywhere, it must be in Next Town."
A very small child followed the innkeeper's wife. He had heard that there were no end of toys in Next Town, and, as he had a halfpenny to spend, nothing would do but that Jamie must bring him a pony made of lead.
Then came the beadle, who was a most important man in Wraye. He wanted a necktie to wear on Sundays, and his wife wanted a bonnet.
"I've little skill in choosing bonnets," said Jamie, but the beadle would not listen to that. In Next Town there were such beautiful bonnets that Jamie could not choose amiss.
It seemed as if everybody in Wraye needed something that must be bought in Next Town. Somebody wanted a poker and tongs, and somebody else a pepper-pot. The parson came to bless the lad and asked him to fetch him a goose-quill pen, and a ploughboy who liked to sing brought a penny for songs. And there were others who wanted this, that, and what not, till Jamie began to fear that he could never remember all that he was told. That is, he was afraid until he thought of asking the town clerk, who was skilful with words, to put everything into a rhyme for him.
"Then they can jingle through my head and never get lost," said he.
The town clerk was more than half a day at his task, and, when he had finished, he had to teach Jamie the rhyme, for, though the lad was clever enough about some things, he could neither read nor write. It was a fine rhyme that the clerk had made, and easy to learn. Before Jamie started from home he knew every word of it:
All the way to Next Town Jamie was saying the rhyme, and when he got there he was so eager to do his errands, and get rid of other folk's money, that, before he had looked at anything, he hurried into a shop.
The shopkeeper was glad enough to see him for, to tell the truth, Jamie was the first customer that day.
"What do you lack, young sir?" he asked; and all at once the words that Jamie thought he knew so well began to jingle through his head at such a rate that it was hard for him to speak at all.
"If you please," he said at last, "I want—I want:
"Did you say a pickled pen?" asked the shopkeeper, whose eyes were by this time as round as saucers with astonishment.
"If I did I was mistaken," said poor Jamie. "It was a pickled parson that I meant."
But that only made a bad matter worse. The shopkeeper and all his prentices began to shake their heads. The things that Jamie wished were not to be bought in their shop, nor in any other shop; no, not even in the great city of London.
Jamie went out and stood in the street to think.
Something was wrong, that was plain to see, but what? The words had all rhymed, wife with knife, and pin with in, and tongs with songs; and if he had left a word out he did not know it. Something had been pickled. He tried first one thing and then another, but the more he tried to remember, the more puzzled he grew. He would not give up, though, and, by and by, he felt so certain that he had learned his rhyme again that he went into the shop once more.
The shopkeeper came to meet him as if he had never laid eyes on him before. "What do you lack?" said he, and Jamie began:
"No, no," cried poor Jamie. "The lassie does not need a knife, and there is nothing else left for her to have. I must begin all over."
But the shopkeeper and his prentices were pushing him out of the shop by this time, and they shut the door behind him as if they meant to see no more of him.
He stood in the road not knowing where to go, nor what to do, and he might be standing there yet if he had not thought of the town clerk who had made the rhyme.
"He can get it straight if anybody can," said Jamie, and even though the mayor of Next Town was going by, not with a coach and three horses, but in a fine new gig and driving a spotted pony, the lad would not stop to look at him.
He did not stop till he was safe in the town of Wraye and, what is more, he was so glad to get home that he gave back their pennies, and halfpennies, and shillings to his neighbors and never went to Next Town again; or so it is told.