THE EYE OF WILBUR MOOK
H. B. Hickey
“Wilbur!” his mother called.
“Better get up or you’ll be late for work!”
Slowly but surely Wilbur Mook came
out of his beautiful dream. And what a dream
it was! He had Peter Bellows down and was busily
punching his head. What a dream!
Then his mother’s voice pulled
him away from Pete Bellows and dragged him back to
reality. Wilbur opened one eye and looked at the
clock on his bedside table. Its hand said eight
Wilbur flung off the covers and slid
his bare feet into lamb’s wool bedroom slippers.
If he didn’t hurry, Wilbur thought, he’d
be late to work. At the thought of facing Pete
Bellows’ angry stare Wilbur shuddered.
It was all right to dream, but real life was quite
Quickly, he ran water into the washbowl
and washed his hands and face. No time to shower
or shave. Running his hand over his chin Wilbur
found he didn’t need a shave anyway. By
skipping that operation he could get to the office
He took a moment to survey himself
in the long mirror on the back of the bathroom door.
“Every day in every way I am getting better and
better,” Wilbur muttered. Then he heard
his mother’s footsteps outside in the hall and
he hurried to put on his robe. Just in time he
got his head out of the way as the door swung inward.
“You look nice this morning,”
Mrs. Mook said. “Now hurry before your
breakfast gets cold.”
He did look pretty good, Wilbur admitted
to himself as he looked again into the mirror.
At twenty-five his skin was firm and healthy looking,
his body straight and neither too thin nor too fat.
His reddish-brown hair was free of dandruff, his blue
Only one thing wrong with the picture.
He had the soul of a rabbit. He was a coward.
There was a tinge of desperation in his voice as he
spoke again to his image in the mirror:
“Every day in every way I am getting braver
Unfortunately it was not true and
Wilbur Mook knew it. And the only reason he was
not growing more timid, Wilbur reflected miserably,
was that such a thing lay outside the realm of possibility.
What was even worse was the fact that
everyone else knew it too. It could not have
been more evident had Wilbur carried a sign. The
only thing he could say was that his mother loved
him anyway. Small consolation.
“Read the paper on the streetcar,”
she said as she helped him into his coat. “And
don’t run. You know it upsets your stomach
when you’ve just eaten breakfast.”
His breakfast had consisted, as always,
of orange juice, one poached egg on toast and warm
milk. Anything stronger than warm milk, Mrs. Mook
had discovered, disturbed Wilbur no end.
As he walked to the car Wilbur’s
mind went back over the dream. That was the stuff!
And one of these days he was going to make that dream
come true. Pete Bellows was going to find out
a thing or two.
“Whyncha look where you’re
goin’?” a shrill voice demanded.
Wilbur stopped abruptly. In his
trance-like state he had stepped on the heel of a
twelve-year-old boy bound for school. The boy
was glaring at him fiercely and Wilbur cringed.
“I’m dreadfully sorry,”
he said, knowing that his face was losing color.
“Yah!” the boy snarled.
“Look where you’re goin’ and you
won’t have to be sorry.”
For a moment Wilbur feared the boy
was going to hit him. Then a call came from down
the street as another school-bound lad hove into sight,
and the first one promptly forgot about Wilbur.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Wilbur crossed
gingerly to the safety island and waited for his car.
When it came he found that all the seats were occupied
but he discovered a vacant corner at the front and
Unfolding his paper carefully he scanned
the world news and found it depressing. It always
was, Wilbur thought. He turned to the sport pages
for solace. That too was depressing, for it featured
the doings of those public heroes who battered each
other to a pulp for profit and applause.
Not that Wilbur would have been unwilling
to attend a prize fight. No indeed. He would
have enjoyed it immensely, except that he could not
stand the sight of men beating each other. And
the blood! Even the thought of blood made him
He turned quickly to the want ads.
Those were always safe, sometimes even exciting.
Today there was a man who needed a bodyguard.
Wilbur reflected wistfully that he would have made
a fine bodyguard, if only things were different.
Actually he was a writer of greeting-card
poetry, and as he swung off the car his mind was already
busy on a poem for Mother’s Day. All he
needed was a good last line. So far it went:
“To the Mother so loving
On this day that is yours
Homage I willingly render,
Ta ta-ta tum ta
The last line would come to him, Wilbur
knew. It always did. In the meantime he
nodded shyly to the elevator starter and found himself
a place at the back of the car. It rose swiftly
and his heart pounded.
What if it should stop suddenly between
floors? There was a beautiful girl standing next
to Wilbur and he thought how fear would flood her
face. That was the time when a cool and confident
voice could avert panic. But Wilbur was aware
that there was more chance that the voice would be
the girl’s rather than his.
His mind went back to the last line
of the ditty he had been composing. He almost
had it, then it was gone. He bit down on his tongue
in concentration, unaware that he was staring at the
girl next to him.
“My devotion you’ll always own,”
“On such short acquaintance?” the girl
Wilbur turned pink, then red.
He wanted to tell her he hadn’t meant it that
way, and he found himself wishing he had. She
was the kind of girl he sometimes dreamed about, tall
and not too thin, with golden hair and gray eyes in
which flecks of color danced.
“I meant my mother,” Wilbur managed at
“How sweet. Now would you mind getting
out of my way?”
Wilbur looked down and found that
he had somehow managed to walk from the elevator to
his office without knowing it. He had his hand
on the doorknob.
“I beg your pardon,” he
mumbled, and flung the door open in what he hoped
was a gallant gesture.
There was a crash as the door swung
inward for a few feet and stopped. The crash
was immediately followed by a howl of pain. A
moment later Pete Bellows’ flushed and furious
face came around the side of the door. He was
rubbing his head.
“Mook, you idiot!” Bellows
roared. “I ought to punch your nose for
“He didn’t know your head was in the way,”
the girl said.
“Huh?” Bellows grunted.
He took a good look at the girl and the anger drained
from his face. Without thinking he straightened
his tie and slicked back his oily black hair.
“You must be Miss Burnett, the
girl the agency said they were sending,” Bellows
murmured in his most dulcet tones. “Well,
well, Wilbur, this is my new secretary.”
“But how do you know I’ll
do?” Miss Burnett said, startled.
“Oh, you’ll do. I
just know you will,” Bellows told her. “You
and I are going to get along just dandy.”
“My shorthand is a little rusty,” the
“What’s a little thing
like that?” Bellows laughed, ignoring the fact
that he had fired his last secretary because she had
misspelled an eight-syllable word.
But the last secretary had worn thick
glasses, Wilbur recalled. That would make a difference
to Pete Bellows. He was suddenly aware that Bellows
was frowning at him.
“Get to work, Mook,” Bellows
said cheerfully. “Mother’s Day is
coming, you know.”
With what he pretended was a gentle
pat on the back Bellows flung Wilbur toward the tiny
cubicle he occupied at the rear of the large office.
Once Bellows had played tackle on a football team and
although he was beefier now he was still very strong.
Wilbur almost went through the thin partition.
He bounced off and recovered his balance,
then went into his cubicle through the door.
It was a windowless hole, lit by a single small bulb.
Wilbur worked at an old table which was neatly stacked
with sheets of blank paper. He furnished his
There was a small window in Wilbur’s
door, but contrary to what a visitor might have expected,
it had not been placed there for Wilbur’s convenience.
The window was the means by which Bellows could watch
his poet and be certain that he was working every
minute of the time.
Today Wilbur found himself at a loss
for rhymes. By mid-morning he had completed only
fifteen poems in praise of Mother. He still had
some fifty to go. But instead of writing he too
often caught himself listening to what was going on
in the outer office.
“Mr. Bellows ” the new girl
started to say.
“Call me Pete,” Wilbur
heard Bellows tell her. “I’ll call
you Jean. Just one happy family, you know, you
and I and Wilbur.”
“Does Mr. Mook write all the
poetry?” Miss Burnett wanted to know. She
sounded quite impressed and Wilbur glowed with a new
“Just a knack. Doesn’t
take any brains,” Bellows deprecated. “Any
fool could do it.”
I’d like to see you try, Wilbur
thought. You’re one fool who couldn’t.
He thought that was pretty good repartee, even if it
was only mental. Wilbur wished he had the nerve
to say the words to Bellows’ face. But he
His newspaper, still folded to the
classified ads, reposed in Wilbur’s wastebasket
and his eyes chanced to fall upon it. Something
stirred in Wilbur. There had been one advertisement
in particular. Just below the request for a bodyguard.
He wondered if he had read it right.
Keeping one eye on the window to make
sure Bellows did not observe him, Wilbur retrieved
his newspaper. Quickly his eye sped down the column.
There it was:
Are you timid?
Do you lack confidence? I can help you. A.
136 W. Erie St.
Wilbur shook his head and dropped
the newspaper into the wastebasket. He was rather
inclined to think A. J. Merlin was overestimating his
powers. Probably a fake, anyway. Most of
those fellows were.
Looking out of his window, Wilbur
saw Bellows patting Jean on the shoulder as he explained
something to her. He was a fast worker, was Pete
Bellows. By the time Wilbur got the next line
of poetry written Bellows was asking Jean if he could
take her to lunch.
Before answering she turned her head
toward Wilbur and he could see that she was none too
happy about the offer. She seemed to be trying
to think of a good reason for not accepting.
“Well?” Pete asked. Jean looked back
“I I guess so,”
Wilbur heard her say. Bellows patted her on the
I wonder, Wilbur thought, what she
would say if I asked her sometime? That looked
like a question which would never find an answer.
It would take more nerve than he had to ask.
But the very thought of him inviting a girl like Jean
to lunch sent a pleasant tingle down Wilbur’s
back. He even allowed himself to think that she
might prefer a smoother type of man than Pete Bellows.
Smoother, Wilbur reminded himself miserably, not mushier.
Just before noon Pete Bellows came
in to get the copy Wilbur had turned out through the
morning. At the sight of the tiny stack which
had accumulated Bellows’ mouth turned down.
“Loafing!” he accused.
“Just because I’ve been too busy to keep
my eyes on you!”
It occurred to Wilbur that the only
thing he’d seen Pete do that morning was pat
Jean’s shoulder, and that hardly seemed like
hard work. But he didn’t say anything.
“Probably reading the paper
while my back was turned,” Pete went on.
He reached down and got the paper and put it in his
pocket. “Now, listen to me, Mook.
You’d better have some work done when Jean and
I get back from lunch!”
Wilbur nodded without looking up at
him. He was always afraid to look at Bellows
when the burly man was angry. Pete could get a
vicious glint in his eye. After Pete had left
the cubicle Wilbur sneaked a look after him.
He saw that Jean had heard the whole thing. And
at sight of the distaste on her face he flushed.
Why couldn’t he have told Pete
off? Wilbur started to dream about what he should
have said. Then he stopped. It was all right
to daydream but Pete had sounded sore when he had
said he wanted to see some work done. Wilbur
put his head down and started writing.
Within the hour he had completed six
odes to Mother. One of them, Wilbur knew, he
could sell to a magazine for twenty times what Bellows
would pay. For a moment he was tempted, even
going so far as to pick up the sheet of paper preparatory
to putting it in his pocket. Then he thought
of what Pete Bellows might do if he found out.
Wilbur set the paper back on the pile.
He was just in time. There were
footsteps out in the hall and then the door swung
open. Bellows and Jean came in. The girl
was laughing now, and as Pete helped her off with
her coat he was practically breathing down her neck.
It looked as though he had made some progress.
“Is it all right if I go to
lunch now?” Wilbur asked timidly. He had
to wait until Pete had checked over his work.
Then he got permission to go.
Until he was outside Wilbur felt hungry.
For an hour his stomach had been reminding him that
it was time to eat. But suddenly the pangs of
hunger were gone. The thought of food was even
Maybe a short walk would give him
fresh appetite, Wilbur thought. The day was pleasant
and sunny. If he spent a half hour walking he
would still have twenty minutes in which to gulp a
sandwich. Pete Bellows had decreed that fifty
minutes constituted a lunch hour for Wilbur.
It was with no conscious motive that
Wilbur headed south. He found himself walking
at a gait much faster than his usual one, but attributed
that to the fine weather which he assured himself was
exhilarating. Before he realized how fast he
was going he had covered a dozen blocks.
The neighborhood had changed.
Behind him lay the business district with its skyscrapers.
All about him were the sagging and unsightly houses
of a once fine residential neighborhood which had
deteriorated into a slum area. The only places
which seemed at all cared for were the rooming houses.
A poem of protest rose in Wilbur’s
breast, and was stilled as he became aware that he
was on Erie street. The street had some meaning
for him but it took several minutes before he realized
why. Then he gasped. Only two doors from
where he stood was 136 West Erie Street!
For a long time Wilbur stood looking
at the house. It was an old red brick structure
three stories high. The upper two floors appeared
untenanted. If they were not, the occupants must
have liked fresh air for there were no windows.
Wilbur directed his attention to the
first floor. The windows there were too dusty
to see through, but at least there were windows.
A fat grey cat sunned itself on the window ledge and
regarded Wilbur with unblinking eyes. He shuddered
and had to summon all his courage to climb the stairs
and look at the card nailed to the front door.
A. J. Merlin, the card said, in an unusual script
that Wilbur had trouble deciphering.
He raised his hand to knock, then
changed his mind. But as he was turning away
he heard the door open.
“Looking for me, bub?”
a creaking voice said. Wilbur turned around.
He found himself face to face with
an old gentleman wrapped in what appeared to be a
blue dressing gown with white stars all over it.
The old man had a wisp of a beard and white eyebrows
that slanted way up at the outside corners. He
was wearing on his head a blue dunce cap which also
had white stars on it.
“Are you-uh-Mr. A. J. Merlin?”
Wilbur stammered. “I mean the Mr. Merlin
who gives people confidence?”
“I might be,” the old man said cagily.
He stared down at Wilbur, and for
the first time Wilbur noticed the old man had eyes
as black and mysterious as a pool on a dark night.
Those eyes regarded Wilbur, noting his size, weight
and general construction.
“Bah,” the old man snorted.
“You won’t do. Not timid enough.”
“Yes, sir,” Wilbur chattered.
He started backward down the stairs and almost fell.
“Wait a minute,” the creaky voice ordered.
Wilbur halted in mid-step. The
black eyes regarded him. A hand tipped by long,
curving fingernails stroked the wisp of a beard.
“On the other hand,” the
old man said, “you might be more timid than you
look. Come on in.”
Wilbur trailed after him down a long
dark hallway that was musty with age. At the
end of the hall was an equally musty room, sparsely
furnished with sagging and broken odds and ends.
It was not the furniture which engaged Wilbur’s
attention, but the other features of the place.
On an ancient stand a sun-dial reposed,
and next to it a large and milk-white glass ball.
Near the stand a tripod stood over a sheet of metal
on which a small fire blazed, and from the tripod a
kettle was suspended. Something bubbled in the
kettle, something that gave off a strange and noxious
Around the room jugs were scattered,
and as Wilbur caught sight of the labels a chill ran
up his back. There were such unusual items as
Essence of Dried Toad, Basilisk Oil,
“Sit down,” A. J. Merlin
said suddenly. Wilbur sat down with such abruptness
that he almost went through an ancient sofa to the
floor. Merlin’s eyes lit up.
“You really are timid,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” Wilbur agreed hastily.
“Do you think you can help me?”
“Depends. It isn’t
my regular line. I came here looking for a special
kind of person. If you’re that person you
can help me. In return I’ll do the same
for you. All depends on how cowardly you are.”
“I’ve never been brave
about anything in my life,” Wilbur said truthfully.
He went on in detail. In a short
history of his life he made it clear that he was a
complete and abject coward. He was afraid of anything
that walked or swam or flew, no matter how small.
He was afraid of dark rooms. A dirty look made
“Perfect,” Merlin breathed.
He rubbed his taloned hands together. “Not
a shred of courage in you.”
“Is that good?” Wilbur gasped.
Merlin smiled, and with his smile
his eyebrows slanted more than ever. His ears
were suddenly elongated.
“Ordinarily not,” he said.
Wilbur had a hunch that this time there would be nothing
extraordinary to alter the case.
“I’ve tried everything,”
he told Merlin. “I’ve gone to psychologists,
read books, even tried Yoga. Nothing helps.”
“Naturally,” Merlin said.
“I’ll tell you why: Everyone is a
mixture of traits handed down from his ancestors.
Somewhere in every man’s ancestry is a brave
person. Even if that bravery is hidden, it’s
still there, and it can be brought out.”
“What happened to me?” Wilbur wanted to
“You got cheated,” Merlin
said as though he were immensely pleased. “You
got only half the traits, and they were the cowardly
ones. That’s why you couldn’t be
cured. There was no bravery in you to be brought
“Oh,” Wilbur gulped.
“I guess I’d better be going.”
He started to rise.
“Sit down,” Merlin said.
Wilbur plunked back into the sofa. He watched
Merlin walk to the stand and lift the glass ball.
The old man peered into the ball and its color changed
to rose, then purple. Something was going on
inside it but Wilbur couldn’t see what.
“Who’s this fellow Pete Bellows?”
Merlin wanted to know.
Wilbur was astonished. He hadn’t
mentioned Pete’s name. When he told the
old man who Pete was Merlin chuckled.
“Thinks he’s quite a man
with the ladies, doesn’t he? I’ll
Merlin made a pass over the glass
ball and muttered a few words which Wilbur didn’t
catch. There was a sudden thump, clearly audible
to Wilbur, and Merlin chuckled gleefully.
“What happened?” Wilbur asked.
“The door opened just as he
was going by and he walked into the edge of it.
He’s got a black eye.”
“Good-bye,” Wilbur said.
The hair on the back of his neck was standing on end
as he moved toward the door of the room.
“Come back here,” Merlin
commanded. “You want me to make you brave,
Wilbur’s mind whirled.
He had fallen into the hands of this old madman and
now he didn’t know how to get away. Who
knew what might happen to him? He had to think
“What do you charge?”
he asked. No matter what Merlin said Wilbur was
prepared to say he didn’t have that much.
In no way was he prepared for Merlin’s words.
“Your right eye.”
A cold sweat formed on Wilbur Mook’s
brow. His teeth chattered. Down at his little
toe a tremor started and worked its way up along his
spine. The roof of his mouth turned dry as dust
and his throat was parched.
“I haven’t got it,”
he choked. Because he had been ready to say that
he had said it automatically. Too late he realized
it was the wrong answer.
“Don’t be a fool,”
Merlin told him sternly. “Wouldn’t
you rather be a one-eyed hero than a two-eyed coward?”
“No,” Wilbur said.
Merlin glared at him balefully and
Wilbur quailed and cringed. What sort of nightmare
had he wandered into? He would gladly have given
everything he owned to be back in the office.
Even Pete Bellows was better than this maniac!
“Could I please go, Mr. Merlin?”
Wilbur begged. “I’ll be late if I
don’t. Pete will be sore.”
“Tell you what I’ll do,”
Merlin said, in a manner of one offering an added
incentive. “You let me have your right eye
and I’ll see to it that Bellows falls down the
stairs and breaks his neck.”
He picked up the glass ball again
and Wilbur felt himself grow faint. Now he was
certain that this old man was not only a maniac but
a homicidal maniac!
“Wouldn’t anything but
my right eye do?” he asked plaintively.
“I don’t think so, but
I’ll look it up,” Merlin said. Out
of the folds of his white-starred gown he drew a book.
Wetting his index finger, Merlin turned pages until
he came to the one he wanted.
“Elixir of Caution,”
Merlin read aloud. “One part Fawn’s
Breath, one part Dove’s Heart-Dried,
one part Tears of Despair, and Right Eye
of Complete Coward. Simmer for one hour with
“But I’m cautious enough
already!” Wilbur protested. He got to his
feet hopefully. “Well, I guess this has
been a mistake. I’d better be running along.”
Merlin regarded him with a steady
eye and Wilbur wished he could divine what was going
on behind those black and glittering orbs. Maybe
Merlin was going to let him go. From the way
Merlin was nodding his head it seemed that way.
“Very well,” the old man
said. “But we must have a drink together.”
“Oh, I never drink,” Wilbur
assured him virtuously. Merlin waved aside the
“Nothing stronger than tea,” he said.
He went to a far corner of the room
and lifted a small vial which was made of some material
that shimmered irridescently. Wilbur watched
fascinated as Merlin poured a small amount of a smoky
liquid from the vial into a pair of tiny cups.
“Are you sure this isn’t
strong?” Wilbur asked as Merlin handed him one
of the cups. Inside the cup the strange liquid
bubbled, and from its surface a fine vapor rose.
“No.” That was all.
Then Merlin went to the sun-dial on the stand and
turned it around several times. When he had adjusted
it to his satisfaction he turned back to Wilbur and
lifted his cup.
“Here’s how,” Merlin said.
Wilbur lifted his cup to his lips
and drank. Merlin was right. The liquid
seemed no stronger than tea. In fact it tasted
much like tea, except that it had a smoky flavor,
not at all unpleasant.
“Thank you,” he said politely,
and started for the door. But he had no more
than started than he turned back and sat down again.
It was a strange feeling which assailed
Wilbur Mook. His legs seemed weak, yet through
the rest of him a strength flowed which was like liquid
fire. Then there came a giddiness. His head
was feather light.
Merlin receded, not walking but floating
back and back. And as his figure drifted away
from Wilbur it grew strangely taller. The eyebrows
were more slanted than ever and the ears were longer
and more pointed. And as Merlin’s figure
grew larger it began to dissolve.
Now Wilbur’s entire body seemed
as light as air to him. It felt as though he
too could float if he tried. He saw, as through
a haze and at a great distance, Merlin bending over
the kettle which hung from the tripod.
From inside his flowing gown Merlin
produced a wand and a packet. Out of the packet
drifted a fine white powder into the kettle. There
was a wave of the wand, and out of the kettle poured
a thick black smoke which filled the room until there
was nothing but blackness.
Wilbur’s ears were filled with
a roaring. He felt himself lifted and whirled.
Around and around he whirled, and faster and faster.
He was being sucked into a vortex, pulled down into
a black tunnel that was endless.
Somewhere nearby there was a crowd
of people. Wilbur knew that because he could
hear the murmur of many voices. But when he opened
his eyes he found himself in a forest glade.
The sun was bright overhead and on a limb above him
a bird sang.
He shook himself and looked around.
He was not alone. Only a few feet away stood
Merlin, still wearing his blue robe and his conical
hat. He nodded when he saw that Wilbur was awake.
“How do you feel?” the old man asked.
“Fine, thank you,” Wilbur answered without
It was when he looked down at his
body that he sucked in his breath. Not only was
he no longer in that musty room, but he no longer wore
his own clothes! His body was encased in a gown
of brown monk’s cloth!
“Your clothes would have been
out of place here,” Merlin told him, guessing
what Wilbur thought.
“But where am I?”
“Near Camelot,” Merlin said. “Better
get up now. We haven’t much time.”
Wilbur got to his feet slowly, his
eyes darting about. If he saw a chance he would
make a run for it. But Merlin’s hand was
like a claw on the sleeve of Wilbur’s robe.
“You try to run and I’ll
put a curse on you that will fix you permanently,”
the old man whispered hoarsely.
Wilbur followed him like a lamb to
the slaughter. They took a path that led out
of the glade and to a road only a few yards away.
Ten yards or so down the road they came on the crowd
whose voices Wilbur had heard. His hair stood
They were before the doors of an ancient
church. And in the cleared space before those
doors milled a strange throng. Men on foot wore
robes of the plain monk’s cloth and carried
wooden staves. Towering above them were mounted
men, men dressed in hauberks and doublets of chain
mail. All of them had their eyes fixed on something
in the center of the crowd.
Then someone caught sight of Merlin
and his name was whispered. As by magic the people
parted to let him and Wilbur through. For the
first time Wilbur saw what they had been staring at.
It was a rough block of stone, and buried to the hilt
in the stone was a sword!
“Merlin,” a voice said,
a voice that was heavy and assured.
Wilbur looked up and shrank away from
the armored giant on horseback who towered over him
and the old man. The giant raised the visor of
his helmet and Wilbur beheld a face that was as cruel
as a hawk’s. Dark eyes gleamed from beneath
black and bristling brows.
“What mummery is this?” the dark man asked.
“No mummery, but the good bishop’s
prayer answered,” Merlin said calmly. “Is
not the stone inscribed, Sir Kay?”
“Inscribed,” Sir Kay echoed.
“And its message is that he who withdraws the
sword shall be king of England.”
His scowl made Wilbur’s knees
weaken, but Merlin remained unaffected. In fact
the old man seemed quite cheerful.
“Excalibur it is called,”
Merlin said. “He who wrenches it free shall
“Hear me,” Sir Kay grated.
“If this be one of your tricks, know this:
none but a son of Uther Pendragon will reign.”
For a moment Wilbur forgot the two.
He had caught sight of the inscription of the stone
and was reading it. Apparently it was meant to
be a poem but it did not rhyme. On the spot Wilbur
produced what he thought was a better one. He
tried it out, not realizing he spoke aloud.
“Who from this stone
Shall be England’s king
and make her laws.”
Sir Kay frowned blackly and his hand
hovered near a dagger at his side.
“What have you to do with this, varlet?”
“He is but a troubadour,”
Merlin interjected quickly. “A bard who
will sing your praises after the tourney.”
“I had forgotten the tourney,”
Sir Kay grunted. “But see you forget not
He reined away, knocking people aside
like tenpins. Behind him the other knights followed,
and after them went the common people. In a few
minutes Wilbur and Merlin found themselves alone.
In the distance, and in the direction the crowd had
vanished, Wilbur saw the towers of a medieval castle.
“Camelot,” Merlin told him.
“I don’t like this,”
Wilbur said. “That fellow looked as though
he wanted to slit my throat.”
“Yours wouldn’t be the
first one he’s slit,” Merlin said.
“But you stay close to me and you’ll be
safe enough. Although I must admit that Kay has
become quite a problem since his father died.”
“Is he a son of Uther Pendragon?”
“Why do you think he insists
that none but Uther’s sons may rule?”
Merlin snarled. “But with a king like him
we’d have nothing but corpses around. That’s
why I needed you.”
Wilbur was bewildered, but not completely
baffled. It had become painfully clear to him
that Merlin had found him, not vice versa. The
advertisement in the paper had been a trick to lure
a timid man. But there was still a little clearing
up to be done.
“Would you please explain what
I have to do with all this?” Wilbur asked plaintively.
Merlin clawed gently at his beard and shrugged.
“I suppose it would be only
fair, after abducting you from the twentieth century
and dragging you back here. The point is this:
after Uther died there was a squabble over who should
be king. We couldn’t stand a civil war
so the bishop of this church prayed for a sign, and
the next day this stone and sword were found here.
So far nobody has been able to pull it out.”
“You didn’t have anything
to do with that, did you?” Wilbur asked naively.
“I’m not saying.
Anyway, Sir Kay is the logical man for the job, except
that he’s too quick with his blade. That
left only one other, and he’s got his fault
Wilbur was thinking about his right
eye. A little flattery might go a long way.
“I should think you would make a good king,
“My father was an incubus,”
Merlin said, as though that explained everything.
He peered down the road as the sound of hoofs reached
Wilbur followed Merlin’s gaze
and saw a young man on horseback coming toward them
from the direction of Camelot. The young fellow
wore a shirt of mail but no helmet, and his horse
was not armored. Merlin held up his hand and
the mounted man drew rein. Wilbur got a good look
He was almost as big as Sir Kay, but
with a fair complexion and light hair. He could
not have been much over fifteen, despite his size.
His manner was easy, giving the suggestion of enormous
strength in reserve, yet with a hint of gentleness.
But it was his eyes which were his outstanding feature.
They were a clear brown, wide, and with an expression
of complete fearlessness.
“Where to, Arthur?” Merlin asked.
“My brother Kay has broken his sword. I
must get him another.”
“Tarry a moment,” Merlin
said. “I have a question which troubles
me. The enemies of our land march against us,
and they outnumber us five to one. Were you king,
what would you do?”
Arthur laughed, a clear ringing laugh
that showed rows of white teeth. His brown eyes
glowed with an inward fire.
“Do? I would take the field
against them, of course! Even though they outnumber
us fifty to one.”
Wilbur thrilled to the words.
But Merlin shuddered slightly and Wilbur heard a faint
groan of distress come from his lips.
“Got here in the nick of time,”
the old man muttered. He looked up at Arthur
and said aloud: “You may have your chance.
But first you must make me a promise. You must
come to my castle this very night and drink the draught
I shall prepare for you.”
“I promise,” Arthur said
unthinkingly. “And now I’ll be getting
that sword for Kay.”
“This looks like a good one,”
Merlin said. He pointed to the sword in the stone.
“It does indeed,” Arthur
agreed. Without a second look he bent and seized
the hilt and wrenched it free. He raised the sword
in a salute to Merlin and Wilbur, laughed his ringing
carefree laugh, and was gone in a cloud of dust.
Merlin’s castle was not overly
large, and as far as Wilbur could see after he got
inside, most of it was under ground. He and the
old man were in a great damp chamber, the walls of
which were solid rock. The room was filled with
Merlin’s jugs, with tripods from which boiling
kettles hung, and with great black cats which prowled
everywhere. The door was of solid oak and immovable.
Wilbur knew; he had tried it once when Merlin had
At the moment Merlin and he were sitting
facing each other on a pair of stone couches.
They had been sitting so for some hours and the silence
was wearing Wilbur down.
“So Arthur is going to be king,”
he said at last, in an effort to start a conversation.
“He looks like a fine boy.”
“He is,” Merlin agreed.
“Chivalrous and all that. It was foreordained.
That’s why I had to get back. I knew he
was going to be along that road today, and I knew
he was going to pull out that sword.”
“I thought you said he had a fault.”
“What a fault,” Merlin
sighed. “He’s got your trouble, but
in reverse. He was born without fear. It’s
a bad thing for a king to be like that. He’d
lead his people into sure death. You heard what
he said this afternoon. Even odds of fifty to
one mean nothing to him.”
For the first time Wilbur saw the
whole thing. Until now he had entertained a faint
hope that Merlin might not really want his eye.
But this was the clincher. The Elixir of Caution!
Desperately he cast about for a means of escape.
There was none. And Merlin was watching him with
an eagle eye.
“Maybe,” Wilbur offered
weakly, “a few drops of my blood would do the
trick. You don’t want Arthur to get too
“Nice of you to think of it,”
Merlin said. “But I really couldn’t
fool with that recipe.”
Wilbur wished with all his heart that
he had the courage to put up some kind of fight.
Merlin was an old and feeble man. But he knew
his genetics. Wilbur had been born without a
gene of courage. Wilbur rubbed his right eye,
the one he would soon be without, and felt tears well
up. His last glimmer of hope was borne on a sigh.
“Maybe he won’t come.”
“He’ll come all right.
Arthur never breaks a promise. That’s one
of his best points. What I’m trying to
do is see to it that he isn’t so rash about
making them in the first place.”
It seemed that Merlin was right, for
just then there came to their ears the sound of iron
shod hoofs in the courtyard above their heads.
The ceiling trembled slightly and a drop of water
fell on Wilbur’s head. Then footsteps clattered
down a long flight of stairs and the door swung open.
It was Arthur, and from his appearance it was plain
he had been in a fight.
From a cut alongside his temple blood
dripped. His shirt of mail had been pierced at
the left shoulder and blood glistened redly there.
Some had trickled down and lay in beads like rubies
on the gleaming mail. His face was streaked with
sweat and dirt and his hair lay in wet clumps, and
he was breathing hard.
“What happened?” Merlin
asked quickly. Arthur let out a laugh and his
eyes glowed fierce.
“A band of varlets tried
to ambush me on my way here. Had I not been in
so great a hurry to keep my appointment with you I’d
have brought you some heads on Excalibur’s point.”
He held up the great sword and Wilbur
turned faint at the sight of the gore along its blade.
He put his hand over his mouth and his eyes rolled
“Wipe that blade before this
one perishes of fright,” Merlin said quickly.
Then he became solicitous. “Are you sore
“There were only ten,”
Arthur laughed. “They were too busy defending
their lives to do me much harm. Now, where is
that drink you invited me here for?”
“It will take a while to prepare,”
Merlin said. He busied himself with a kettle
and some jugs and powders.
Wilbur was turning a pale green from
fright. He had to think of something. Suddenly
he turned to Arthur.
“You won’t like this drink,”
he whispered urgently. “It may even poison
Arthur stared down at him. “Even
so I needs must drink it. I have given my word.
A promise may not be broken.”
Merlin was coming toward them now
and Wilbur saw that the old man held in his hand an
instrument which looked like a surgeon’s scalpel.
He let out a shriek of terror and would have run had
his legs not been paralyzed.
“What is this womanly fright?”
Arthur asked, wrinkling his nose.
“I need his right eye to make
the Elixir of Caution,” Merlin explained.
He laid a claw on Wilbur’s shoulder and it was
like the hand of doom.
“Yeeow!” Wilbur howled.
He began to babble. “You lied to me!
You said you’d make me brave! False pretenses!”
He stopped abruptly. Merlin’s
hand had fallen from his shoulder. There was
a sudden silence that grew thick and ominous.
Looking up fearfully, Wilbur saw that Arthur had fixed
Merlin with a hostile glare.
“Did you so promise?”
Arthur demanded. He stood straight and regal.
“Answer me, and forget not I am your king.”
Merlin’s hands made feeble and apologetic gestures.
“What could I do?” he
pleaded. “One like him is born seldom.
I had searched the centuries, and there was no more
He turned to Wilbur and his face betrayed
an apprehension that made Wilbur’s hopes rise.
Arthur did not act like he would stand for any promise-breaking
among his subjects.
“Tell you what I could do,”
Merlin said. “I could put your eye back
when I’m through with it. In fact, that’s
“Will that make him brave?” Arthur demanded.
hesitated. Arthur’s finger slid suggestively
along the blade of his sword.
“I’ll look it up,” the old man finished
His hand dipped beneath his robe and
came out with the ancient book. A long nailed
finger ran through the pages. There was a pause,
and then Merlin began to mumble.
“Elixir of Fortitude:
One part Eagle’s Heart-Dried, one part
Lion’s Breath-Distilled, one part Essence
of Steel, hm-m-m.” His voice trailed
off in a hum, then picked up again. “Simmer
for one hour. Caution: MUST BE FINISHED
“Well?” Arthur said.
“I’ve got everything except
the last ingredient,” Merlin said unhappily.
Suddenly his face lit up. “We’d better
hurry. There is only an hour and a half left.”
He scurried to a bottle which hung
on the wall and brought it back to Wilbur. “Drink
some quickly. You will feel no pain.”
When Wilbur had gulped some down Merlin took the bottle
and handed it to Arthur. “You too.”
Above their heads there was a rumbling
and the pounding of hoofs in the courtyard. Quickly
Merlin ran to the oak door and slammed it shut.
He seemed to be expecting trouble. It turned
out he was right again.
More than one pair of feet was on
the stone stairway. Loud voices shouted, “Open
up!” Wilbur recognized one of the voices and
he groaned. Then bodies were hurled against the
It held against the first assault,
and against the second. The third time there
was a splintering of wood. Wilbur held his breath.
A hinge had torn loose. Once more there was the
crash of armored bodies against the oak and the door
flew inward. Sir Kay was inside in a flash, and
behind him came five more. The dark man’s
eyes lit on Wilbur.
“So, varlet!” Kay bellowed
hoarsely. “My suspicion was right.
You are in the plot against me!”
Without waiting for a denial he flung
himself at Wilbur and his sword swished through the
air. How he managed it Wilbur never knew, but
he ducked in time. The flat of Kay’s sword
caught him a glancing blow on the head and knocked
him off the stone bench.
Then the great room was filled with
the clash of steel as Arthur went into action.
Out of eyes that were glassy Wilbur saw him decapitate
two men with a single stroke. Another fell dead
before he could raise his shield. The other two
fled with Kay’s curses following them. Only
Arthur’s brother was left.
“Yield,” Arthur warned
grimly. Kay’s reply turned Wilbur’s
ears red. The two went at it. For a few
minutes it was an even battle, and then suddenly both
swords came together with a force that drew sparks.
Kay was left with only a hilt in his hand.
What happened next Wilbur hardly knew.
There was a clang as something bounced on the stone
floor, and a great round object that looked like a
helmet rolled past him.
“Quickly now,” Wilbur
heard Merlin say. “There is barely the hour
left to us.”
Wilbur could hear but he could see
nothing. There was a black veil over his eyes.
Powerful arms lifted him and laid him on the stone
bench. Then there was the sound of bottles being
emptied into kettles. Wilbur heard feet approach
him but he was too sleepy to care. Something touched
his eye but he felt no pain.
In his dazed state time passed quickly
for him. There was always the scuffling of Merlin’s
feet, and now and again the old man’s creaky
voice rose in weird incantations. Then something
hot was pressed against Wilbur’s lips.
“Drink,” Merlin said.
Wilbur opened his mouth and felt a hot liquid gush
down his throat.
“I want my eye,” Wilbur mumbled.
“Don’t worry,” Merlin told him.
“I’m getting it.”
He was taking his time about it, Wilbur
thought. He could hear a great stirring going
on. There were muffled curses and he heard something
bouncing on the floor.
“Darn stuff is so thick I can’t tell them
apart,” Merlin was muttering.
“Hurry!” Arthur called. “The
cock crows midnight!”
“I’m doing my best,” Merlin said.
He was breathing hard as he bent over
Wilbur. There was a quick pressure against Wilbur’s
eye socket and
Merlin grunted triumphantly.
“There!” the old man said.
“I’ve kept my promise. Now I’m
going to send you back where I found you, and good
riddance. You’ve been nothing but trouble.”
Again something hot was poured down
Wilbur’s throat. It had a familiar taste,
a sort of smoky flavor. Liquid fire coursed through
his veins, he felt his body grow light and buoyant,
he was floating. Then he was being sucked down
into a black vortex and through a Stygian passage.
The passage seemed endless but it was not, and at
the end was a tiny hole of light which grew steadily
Wilbur found himself on a sagging
porch, before a door that leaned on sprung hinges.
His head ached, and raising his hand he ran it along
his scalp until he found a large bump. He rolled
his eyes upward as though to see where he had been
hurt. All he saw was a jagged hole in the porch
roof. At his feet was a chunk of plaster.
It took a minute for the realization
to filter through that he was standing on the porch
of 136 W. Erie Street. Wilbur recalled walking
up the stairs. After that everything was a blur.
He scrutinized the door. There was no card bearing
the name of A. J. Merlin. In fact, there was no
card at all!
“Hey, mister,” a boy’s
voice called. Wilbur turned around and saw a
tattered urchin regarding him gravely. “Ain’t
nobody lived in that house for years,” the boy
said. “It’s haunted.”
Wilbur shuddered and at the same instant
became aware of a peculiar phenomenon. He seemed
to be seeing the boy through only one eye. The
other was strangely blurred. Wilbur pulled out
his handkershief and wiped his right eye. His
vision improved but as he moved toward the head of
the stairs he swayed slightly.
“You get hurt or something?”
the boy asked as Wilbur came toward him. Wilbur
rubbed his head.
“I’m all right,”
Wilbur told him. He said it partly to reassure
He looked at his wrist watch and found
he had only twenty minutes to get back to work.
That was puzzling. There was a lapse of time.
Being a man of imagination, Wilbur reflected that
if he had actually been in the past he would not have
used up any time in the present.
On the other hand, it was more probable
that he had been hit on the head by falling plaster
and had incurred a slight lapse of consciousness,
memory, or both. He was inclined to accept that
At any rate he was going to be late
if he didn’t hurry, and Pete Bellows would be
mad as a hornet. Wilbur speeded up his pace.
Then he slowed down again. If anyone should be
angry it was himself. He had missed his lunch.
Riding up in the elevator Wilbur checked
his watch again and found he was only five minutes
late. In his working life that represented two
lines of doggerel. It didn’t seem like much
to get excited about. But Pete Bellows didn’t
see it that way.
“Mook!” he roared, as
Wilbur came through the door. “You’re
If he had expected Wilbur to fall
into his usual fit of trembling he was disappointed.
Wilbur was staring at him.
“Your eye!” Wilbur gasped.
Pete’s left eye was swollen half shut and had
a blue ring around it.
“He walked into the door,” Miss Burnett
Wilbur smiled at her. She was
a very pretty girl. Too pretty to be working
for a wolf like Pete Bellows. Wilbur had a notion
to tell her so.
“I said you’re late, Mook,” Pete
told him ominously.
“So what?” Wilbur asked
quietly. “If you don’t like it you
can fire me. In fact, considering that you find
so much fault with my work I’m surprised you
haven’t discharged me long ago. But I’ll
save you the trouble. I quit.”
Pete was staring at him as though
Wilbur had gone mad. Maybe he had, Wilbur thought.
Maybe Pete was going to get sore and punch him in the
nose. It didn’t seem to matter.
“Not only that,” Wilbur
added. “I’m going into business for
myself. How would you like to work for me, Miss
“I think I’d like that
just fine,” she said. She took her purse
out of a drawer in her desk and got her coat and put
Pete Bellows was a stricken man.
For once he had nothing to say. His mouth dropped
open and he leaned against his desk. “W-wait
a minute, Wilbur, old pal,” he managed to gasp
“Goodbye,” was all Wilbur
had to say. He held the door open carefully for
Miss Burnett, then shut it behind them as carefully.
Wilbur knew that he was outwardly
calm. Inside, he was filled with amazement at
himself. Never had he thought to see the day when
he would stand up to Pete Bellows. Now he had
not only done it, he had got away with it! He
took Miss Burnett’s elbow. She was looking
at him rather queerly, he thought.
“What’s the matter?”
“I just noticed the strangest
thing about you,” she said. “You’re
the first person I’ve ever seen who had different
Wilbur gasped. His knees felt
weak, and out of the past he heard a creaky voice
say, “... I can’t tell them apart.”
Now he understood that Arthur’s right
eye had been the last ingredient in the Elixir of
Wilbur smiled. There was nothing
to be angry about. He certainly hadn’t
got the worst of the bargain! His shoulders were
squared as he helped Miss Burnett into the elevator
“Let’s go, Jean,” Wilbur said.