The Scarecrow And His Servant – extract

Chapter One
LIGHTNING

One day old Mr Pandolfo, who hadn’t been feeling at all well, decided that it was time to make a scarecrow. The birds had been very troublesome. Come to that, his rheumatism had been troublesome, and the soldiers had been troublesome, and the weather had been troublesome, and his cousins had been troublesome. It was all getting a bit too much for him. Even his old pet raven had flown away.

He couldn’t do anything about his rheumatism, or the soldiers, or the weather, or his cousins, who were the biggest problem of all. There was a whole family of them, the Buffalonis, and they wanted to get hold of his land and divert all the springs and streams, and drain all the wells, and put up a factory to make weedkiller and rat poison and insecticide.

All those troubles were too big for old Mr Pandolfo to manage, but he thought he could do something about the birds, at least. So he put together a fine-looking scarecrow, with a big solid turnip for a head and a sturdy broomstick for a backbone, and dressed him in an old tweed suit, and stuffed him tightly with straw. Then he tucked a short letter inside him, wrapped in oilskin for safety. ‘There you are,’ he said. ‘Now you remember what your job is, and remember where you belong. Be courteous, and be brave, and be honourable, and be kind. And the best of blooming luck.’

He stuck the scarecrow in the middle of the wheatfield, and went home to lie down, because he wasn’t feeling well at all.

That night another farmer came along and stole the scarecrow, being too lazy to make one himself. And the next night someone else came along and stole him again.

So little by little the scarecrow moved away from the place where he was made, and he got more and more tattered and torn, and finally he didn’t look nearly as smart as he’d done when Mr Pandolfo put him together. He stood in the middle of a muddy field, and he stayed there.

But one night there was a thunderstorm. It was a very violent one, and everyone in the district shivered and trembled and jumped as the thunder went off like cannon-fire and the lightning lashed down like whips. The scarecrow stood there in the wind and the rain, taking no notice.

And so he might have stayed; but then there came one of those million-to-one chances that are like winning the lottery. All his molecules and atoms and elementary particles and whatnot were lined up in exactly the right way to switch on when the lightning struck him, which it did at two in the morning, fizzing its way through his turnip and down his broomstick and into the mud.

The Scarecrow blinked with surprise and looked all around. There wasn’t much to see except a field of mud, and not much light to see it by except the flashes of lightning.

Still, there wasn’t a bird in sight.

‘Excellent,’ said the Scarecrow.

On the same night, a small boy called Jack happened to be sheltering in a barn not far away. The thunder was so loud that it woke him out of his sleep with a jump. At first he thought it was cannon-fire, and he sat up terrified with his eyes wide open. He could think of nothing worse than soldiers and guns; if it weren’t for the soldiers, he’d still have a family and a home and a bed to sleep in.

But as he sat there with his heart thumping, he heard the downpour of the rain on the roof, and realized that the bang had only been thunder and not gunfire. He gave a sigh of relief and lay down again, shivering and sneezing and turning over and over in the hay trying to get warm, until finally he fell asleep.

By the morning the storm had cleared away, and the sky was a bright cold blue. Jack woke up again feeling colder than ever, and hungry too. But he knew how to look for food, and before long he’d gathered up some grains of wheat and a couple of turnip tops and a limp carrot, and he sat in the doorway of the barn in the sunlight to eat them.

‘Could be worse,’ he said to himself.

He ate very slowly to make it last, and then he just sat there, getting warm. Someone would come along soon to chase him away, but for the moment he was safe.

Then he heard a voice calling from across the fields. Jack was curious, so he stood up and shaded his eyes to look. The shouting came from somewhere in the field beyond the road, and since he had nothing else to do, Jack stood up and walked along towards it.

The shouts came from a scarecrow, in the middle of the muddiest field in sight, and he was waving his arms wildly and yelling at the top of his voice and leaning over at a crazy angle.

‘Help!’ he was shouting. ‘Come and help me!’

‘I think I’m going mad,’ said Jack to himself. ‘Still, look at that poor old thing – I’ll go and help him anyway. He looks madder than I feel.’

So he stepped on to the muddy field, and struggled out to the middle, where the Scarecrow was waiting.

To tell the truth, Jack felt a little nervous, because it isn’t every day you find a Scarecrow talking to you.

‘Now, tell me, young man,’ said the Scarecrow, as soon as Jack was close enough to hear, ‘are there any birds around? Any crows, for example? I can’t see behind me. Are they hiding?’

His voice was rich and sonorous. His head was made of a great knobbly turnip, with a broad crack for a mouth and a long thin sprout for a nose and two bright little stones for eyes. He had a tattered straw hat, now badly singed, and a soggy woollen scarf, and an old tweed jacket full of holes, and his rake-handle arms had gloves stuffed with straw on the ends of them, one glove leather and the other wool. He also had a pair of threadbare trousers, but since he only had one leg, the empty trouser leg trailed down beside him. Everything was the colour of mud. Jack scratched his head and looked all around.

‘No,’ he said, ‘no crows anywhere. No birds at all.’

‘That’s a good job done,’ said the Scarecrow. ‘Now I want to move on, but I need another leg. If you go and find me a leg, I shall be very obliged. Just like this one, only the opposite,’ he added, and he lifted his trouser leg daintily to show a stout stick set firmly in the earth.

‘All right,’ said Jack. ‘I can do that.’

So he set off towards the wood at the edge of the field, and clambered through the undergrowth looking for the right sort of stick. He found one before long, and took it back to the Scarecrow.

‘Let me see,’ said the Scarecrow. ‘Hold it up beside me. That’s it. Now slide it up inside the leg of my trousers.’

The end of the stick was broken and splintered and it wasn’t easy to push it up the soggy, muddy trouser leg, but Jack finally got it all the way up, and then he jumped, because he felt it twitch in his hand.

He let go, and the new leg swung itself down beside the other. But as soon as the Scarecrow tried to move, the new foot became stuck just like the first one. The harder he struggled, the deeper he sank.

Finally he stopped, and looked at Jack. It was astonishing how much expression he could manage with his gash-mouth and stone-eyes.

‘Young man,’ he said, ‘I have a proposition to make. Here you are, an honest and willing youth, and here am I, a Scarecrow of enterprise and talent. What would you say if I offered you the position of my personal servant?’

‘What would my duties be?’ said Jack.

‘To accompany me throughout the world, to fetch and carry, to wash, cook, and attend to my needs. In return, I have nothing to offer but excitement and glory. We might sometimes go hungry, but we shall never want for adventure. Well, my boy? What do you say?’

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