But what virtue have we? what power? or what jewel here in the dust with us, that any living man should covet or receive it? for we are less than nothing. But we tell you one thing, speaking with many voices like bees, that the way is plain before all like the grooves of launching: So forth into life and fear not, for so did we all in the ancient ages." And their voices passed away like an eddy in a river.
"Now," said the Poor Thing, "they have told you a lesson, but make them give you a gift. Stoop your hand among the bones without drawback, and you shall find their treasure."
So the man stooped his hand, and the dead laid hold upon it many and faint like ants; but he shook them off, and behold, what he brought up in his hand was the shoe of a horse, and it was rusty.
"It is a thing of no price," quoth the man, "for it is rusty."
"We shall see that," said the Poor Thing; "for in my thought it is a good thing to do what our fathers did, and to keep what they kept without question. And in my thought one thing is as good as another in this world; and a shoe of a horse will do."
Now they got into their boat with the horseshoe, and when the dawn was come they were aware of the smoke of the Earl's town and the bells of the Kirk that beat. So they set foot to shore; and the man went up to the market among the fishers over against the palace and the Kirk; and he was bitter poor and bitter ugly, and he had never a fish to sell, but only a shoe of a horse in his creel, and it rusty.
"Now," said the Poor Thing, "do so and so, and you shall find a wife and I a mother."
It befell that the Earl's daughter came forth to go into the Kirk upon her prayers; and when she saw the poor man stand in the market with only the shoe of a horse, and it rusty, it came in her mind it should be a thing of price.
"What is that?" quoth she.
"It is a shoe of a horse," said the man.
"And what is the use of it?" quoth the Earl's daughter.
"It is for no use," said the man.
"I may not believe that," said she; "else why should you carry it?"
"I do so," said he, "because it was so my fathers did in the ancient ages; and I have neither a better reason nor a worse."
Now the Earl's daughter could not find it in her mind to believe him. "Come," quoth she, "sell me this, for I am sure it is a thing of price."
"Nay," said the man, "the thing is not for sale."
"What!" cried the Earl's daughter. "Then what make you here in the town's market, with the thing in your creel and nought beside?"
"I sit here," says the man, "to get me a wife."
"There is no sense in any of these answers," thought the Earl's daughter; "and I could find it in my heart to weep."
By came the Earl upon that; and she called him and told him all. And when he had heard, he was of his daughter's mind that this should be a thing of virtue; and charged the man to set a price upon the thing, or else be hanged upon the gallows; and that was near at hand, so that the man could see it.
"The way of life is straight like the grooves of launching," quoth the man. "And if I am to be hanged let me be hanged."
"Why!" cried the Earl, "will you set your neck against a shoe of a horse, and it rusty?"
"In my thought," said the man, "one thing is as good as another in this world and a shoe of a horse will do."
"This can never be," thought the Earl; and he stood and looked upon the man, and bit his beard.
And the man looked up at him and smiled. "It was so my fathers did in the ancient ages," quoth he to the Earl, "and I have neither a better reason nor a worse."
"There is no sense in any of this," thought the Earl, "and I must be growing old." So he had his daughter on one side, and says he: "Many suitors have you denied, my child. But here is a very strange matter that a man should cling so to a shoe of a horse, and it rusty; and that he should offer it like a thing on sale, and yet not sell it; and that he should sit there seeking a wife. If I come not to the bottom of this thing, I shall have no more pleasure in bread; and I can see no way, but either I should hang or you should marry him."
"By my troth, but he is bitter ugly," said the Earl's daughter. "How if the gallows be so near at hand?"
"It was not so," said the Earl, "that my fathers did in the ancient ages.