Darby of Bristol


When knights wore shining armor and fair damsels waved from castle walls, there lived in the tiny village of Bristol a boy named Darby. His mother tatted lace and his father carved spoons and bowls. Then he went about the countryside selling their wares. To help out, Darby also ran errands from sunrise to sunset.

Other boys grumbled and growled as they cleaned stables or fetched wood, but Darby did not complain. His pay might be a piece of fruit or a crust of bread—but no matter—he took it home and placed it on the table to be shared. His mother would hug him, and his father would smile proudly.

At night, the small family sat before the hearth and sang until sleep called them to their cots. Darby was a plain boy who did nothing great or famous, but he had a kind heart. And a kind heart, as everyone knows, is well worth having. Except sometimes people do not understand, and that is how it was with Darby.

One sunny day as he ran an errand, two knaves were raking outside a stable. As Darby approached, one poked the other in the ribs and murmured, “Watch!” Without a second thought, the cruel knave tripped Darby as he passed. The boys pointed and jeered as Darby sprawled in the dust-covered straw.

Darby’s anger began to rise. But he thought, it is better to see them laughing rather than scowling as they usually do. So he shrugged and brushed the dust from his clothes.

“Oh, look!” cried the other knave. “Darby’s stockings don’t match! One is purple and the other yellow. Darby should be in a circus!”

Darby blushed, for it was true. His only concern was that his feet and legs were covered, whatever the color.

As the day wore on, Darby stood outside the cobbler’s, waiting to run an errand. On the sill a window box of dainty flowers bloomed. He stood on tiptoe to smell their fragrance. As he did, a bucket of water was carelessly thrown from the window above and Darby stood dripping wet. A small crowd gathered to laugh as Darby pressed the water from his shirt and trousers.

“Oh, Darby!” Molly, the flower girl said with a frown. “You are a sight!”

The crowd moved on while Darby sat down to empty the water from his shoes.

“Don’t you care that everyone laughs at you, Darby?” Molly scolded.

Darby shrugged good-naturedly. “I like to see them happy.”

“There’s no use talking to you! Box a few ears!” Molly scolded. “That’ll stop their laughing.”

Darby looked up and smiled. “I am a sight, Molly, and it’s enough to make me laugh too!”

Molly shook her head and left Darby to himself.

The following day a proclamation was posted, and all the villagers gathered to read it. Darby strained his neck with the rest. “What does it say?” he asked.

“The duke is coming for the tournament at the end of the summer.” Thomas the butcher read. “And not only will he judge the jousts, he will also judge the beauty of our village.”

Darby made his way through the crowd and sat down on the green. What can I do to make the village more beautiful? he wondered.

Suddenly he leaped to his feet and ran off to find Molly. “Molly!” he shouted, as he ran to catch up with her. “Have you some flower seeds I can have?”

“I have a lot of seeds in these withered flowers, Darby, if you’d care to pick them out.” Molly smiled and handed him the wilted blooms. “I guess you’ve heard of the judging, but where will you plant the seeds? You’ve no plot of ground.”

“Aye, Molly, I’ve no plot to call my own, but the roadway belongs to everyone. Surely no one will care if I plant flowers there.”

“You’ve gone daft, Darby! The horses and carts will trample them into the dust, and the whole village will have another good laugh at your folly!”

“Better that than have them frown, Molly!” Darby shouted as he ran toward the open road.

Time passed and the village bustled with activity. New straw was laid upon the floors, and pennants were hung from the gables. Water was carefully drained into troughs, yards were tidied, and flowers waved from every window and garden.

Meanwhile Darby planted his seeds, and each day he went to tend them. He watered and weeded, and if a plant were trampled, he planted another in its place. Then when his flowers began to bloom, the knaves came to poke fun at Darby’s efforts. “The duke is going to judge the village, not the open road, Darby!” one of them shouted.

“We’ll pick them to decorate the lists,” another knave laughed and reached for a handful.

“Please don’t!” Darby cried. Then as the rascal knelt to pick the flowers, a tall shadow fell over him. With fearful eyes, the boy looked up. Gleaming in the sunlight, a knight in armor sat upon his horse. In his hand a long shiny lance pointed its sharp “finger” toward the sky. The boys trembled as he spoke.

“Who plants flowers here?” the knight asked.

“Not us! We would not be so foolish!” the boys exclaimed and pointed at Darby. “He planted them! He’s known for his witless behavior.”

“Then why are you knaves here?”

“To teach him a lesson,” one of them replied quickly.

“What lesson would you have him learn?” questioned the knight. “Kindness and compassion? Good cheer and hope?”

“No,” the knaves shook their heads. “We would teach him that no one plants flowers along the open road where they will be trampled.”

“They are not trampled,” the knight challenged, pointing to the nodding blooms.

“But … but, it’s just not done!” the knaves stammered.

The knight nodded. “But he has done it … hasn’t he? I have been sent to judge the beauty of the village, but I need look no further. This display before us is the most beautiful.”

“But you must see the village!” the knaves bleated. “These common flowers cannot compare with what grows there.”

“A whole garden of flowers could not compare with blooms planted in faith—planted where nothing grew before. What dreary spot have you knaves brightened?” the knight asked sharply.

The knaves hung their heads, but Darby looked up in surprise. He had not thought of it like that before. Yet, below the linden trees that lined the open road, flowers now waved in the bright sunlight, splashing the way with color.

There was no prize for Darby’s efforts, but when the tournaments were over and all the nobles were returning to their manors, the knight came to see Darby. “Darby of Bristol,” the knight said. “You are a fine, cheerful lad, but unappreciated here. You must come to court and join the jesters.”

“Are there many?” Darby asked.

“Oh, yes indeed,” the knight replied, nodding his head. “But you would be right at home among them.”

“Then your court has enough laughter already. I am not needed there, but here where my home is,” Darby declared with a smile. “And it would pain me to leave the ones I love.”

The knight understood. He saluted Darby then turned and left.

Darby stayed in Bristol. He planted more flowers and watered them. And the seeds of the flowers blew in the wind until the countryside all about was covered with blooms. Darby continued to run errands, and the villagers continued to laugh, but Darby took no offense. He knew that just as his thirsty flowers needed water, his village needed laughter, and in that way Darby felt very much appreciated.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown