In the middle of a great forest there lived a long time ago a charcoal-burner and his wife. They were both young and handsome and strong when they got married, and thought work would never fail them. But bad times came, so they had to go hungry to bed more and more often.
Now one evening the king of that country was hunting near the charcoal-burner's hut. As he passed the door, he heard sobs and stopped, thinking that perhaps he might be able to give some help.
"Were there ever two people so unhappy!' said a woman's voice. "Here we are, ready to work the whole day long, and can get no work. It is all because Eve got too curious back in Eden. If she had not wanted to taste a forbidden fruit there, we would all be as happy as kings today, with plenty to eat, warm clothes to wear, and -"
At this point a loud knock interrupted her. "It is the king. Let me in."
Full of surprise the woman jumped up and pulled the bar away from the door. There was no chairs to sit in the room, so the king did not make his visit long, but only said, "Tell me, are you very unhappy?"
"My husband and I have no work, and we have eaten nothing for two days!" she answered. "In the end we are going to die of hunger."
"No, no," cried the king, "Come with me to my castle, both of you. In return I only ask that you shall obey my orders exactly."
The charcoal-burner and his wife both stared at him, and then and exclaimed together: "Oh, yes, and we will do everything you tell."
The king smiled, and his eyes twinkled. "Well, let us start at once," said he. "Lock your door, and put the key in your pocket."
The woman looked as if she thought they would never come back. But she did as the king told her.
After walking through the forest for a couple of miles, they all three reached the palace. By the king's orders servants led the charcoal-burner and his wife into rooms filled with beautiful things. First they bathed in green marble baths, and then they put on silk clothes that felt soft and pleasant. When they were ready, one of the king's special servants took them into a small hall, where dinner was laid. They were just about to sit down to the table when the king walked in.
"I hope you will enjoy your dinner. My steward will take care you have all you want, and I wish you to do just as you please. There is one thing, though! You notice that soup-tureen in the middle of the table? Be careful on no account to lift the lid. If you take off the cover, your good fortune will end."
"We won't end our good fortune," answered the wife. But she could not help wondering what was inside that tureen.
For many days life went on like a beautiful dream. One day when the king came to see them, he smiled as he glanced at the man, who was getting rosier and plumper each day. But when his eyes rested on the woman, he stopped smiling, and looked thoughtful. She had grown silent.
"Why are you so silent?" her husband asked her some time later "A little while ago you used to be chattering all the day long, and now I have almost forgotten the sound of your voice."
"Oh, I don't feel much for talking these days," she said, adding, "Don't you wonder what is in that soup-tureen?'
"No," answered the husband. "It is no affair of ours."
As time went on, the woman spoke even less, and seemed so wretched that her husband grew quite alarmed. As to her food, she refused one thing after another.
"Dear wife," said the man at last, "you really must eat something. What is the matter with you? If you go on like this you will die."
"I would rather die than not know what is in that tureen," she burst forth so violently that the husband was quite startled.
"Is that it?" he cried. "Are you making yourself miserable because of that? Why, you know we should be turned out of the palace if we do, and sent away to starve."
"Oh no, the king is too good-natured. And there is no need to lift the lid off altogether. Just raise one corner so that I may peep. We are quite alone: nobody will ever know."
The man hesitated: it did seem to be a "little thing," and if it could make his wife happy and satisfied it was perhaps worth the risk. So he took hold of the handle of the cover and raised it very slowly and carefully, while the woman stooped down to peep. Suddenly she startled back with a scream, for a small mouse had sprung from the inside of the tureen, and had nearly hit her in the face. Round and round the room it ran, round and round they both ran after it, trying to catch it and put it back in the tureen. In the middle of all the noise the door opened, and there was the king. "Hear what I have to say," he said.
"I know what it is," answered the charcoal-burner, hanging his head. "The mouse has escaped."
"A guard of soldiers will take you back to your hut," said the king. "Your wife has got the key."
"Weren't they silly?" cried the grandchildren of the charcoal-burners when they heard the story. "How we wish that we had had the chance! We should never have wanted to know what was in the soup-tureen!"
[Retold from "Litterature Orale de l'Auvergne," by Paul Sébillot.]
Long ago there lived two young, handsome and rich noblemen in Brittany. Their names were Mylie and Tonyk. Mylie, the elder, was sixteen. Tonyk was fourteen. Both were well educated, and Tonyk was inclined to be pious as well. Mylie, on the other hand, did not like to give to people more than what was strictly due them. And if anyone offended him he never failed to take his vengeance if he could.
Their father had passed away when they were still wearing petticoats. It was their mother who had brought them up. But now that they were older she thought it was time to send them to their uncle. He lived in one of Brittany's farthest corners. Their father's brother would give them good advice and all his property later on when he died too.
One fine morning their mother gave each of the brothers fine cloths to wear and a purse full of money, and told it was now time to set out for their uncle's castle.
The two boys began their journey, delighted to be able to see more of the world. Their horses travelled quickly. In a few days they were in another dukedom, in a country where there grew trees and corn of different sorts than those at home.
Now it happened one morning as they were riding along the road that they saw a poor woman seated near a wayside cross. Her face was hidden in her apron.
Tonyk reined in his horse at once and asked, "Why do you grieve, good woman?"
The beggar woman sobbed and said, "I have lost my son who was all I had in the world, and now I am left on the charity."
The boy's heart was touched, but Mylie suspected her of sitting there just to coax money out of people's purses.
"Brother, be quiet!" exclaimed Tonyk. "Unkind words are making her weep more than ever. She is about the age of our own mother." Then bending over the beggar Tonyk gave her his purse, saying, "I can give you only this now. But I shall pray that you will comforted."
The tattered beggar accepted the purse and said, "Since you wish to help the poor you will not refuse to accept this little gift in return: a walnut with a wasp inside. The sting of that wasp is made from a diamond."
Tonyk took the walnut, thanked the old woman, and went on his way with Mylie. The two brothers soon reached the outskirts of a forest. There they saw a little child dressed only in thin rags. He was rummaging in a hollow tree and singing a mournful song to himself. He stopped every now and then to rub his ice-cold hands, chanting, "I am cold! I am cold!" and then again, "The wind is cold!"
Tears came to Tonyk's eyes, and he said to his brother, "Mylie, see how that little child is suffering from the cold wind."
"Oh, he is just the chilly sort, I suppose," answered Mylie, "I don't think the wind is cold."
"That is because you have on a velvet doublet, a cloth coat, and on top of all that your violet cloak, while this little child's clothes are so few and thin."
"You are right," laughed Mylie, "but he is only a peasant."
"Alas, brother," said Tonyk, "when I think that you might have been born in his place, my heart bleeds. I cannot bear to see him suffer." So saying, he alighted from his horse and, calling the lad to him, asked what he was doing.
"I am looking for winged needles," said the child. "They are sleeping in the hollow trees."
"And what are you going to do with your winged needles?" inquired Tonyk.
"When I have a great many I shall sell them in the town, and then I shall buy such warm clothes that it will always feel like that the sun is shining."
"Have you found many?" asked the young lord.
"Only one," replied the child, showing Tonyk a tiny reed cage that he had put a small blue dragon fly into.
"I'll buy it," said Tonyk, throwing his own violet cloak around the child. "Wrap yourself in that. And when you say your prayers, pray for my brother Mylie and for our mother."
The two brothers journeyed on again. At first Tonyk suffered from the wind and sadly missed his cloak. But after they had passed through the forest a softer breeze began to blow and the sun shone warmly. At length they came to a meadow where there was a spring. Near the spring was seated a bent and aged man with a beggar's knapsack on his shoulder. As soon as he saw the two riders he called to them entreatingly.
Tonyk went to him. "What do you want, father?" he asked, taking off his hat out of respect for the beggar's snowy locks.
"Alas," answered the beggar, "see my hair, how white it is! How wrinkled my cheeks! I am old and weak and my feet can hardly carry me any longer. I shall die here if one of you won't sell me his horse."
"Sell you one of our horses, old beggar!" cried Mylie with disdain. "How can you pay for it?"
"Do you see this?" asked the beggar, holding up a hollow acorn for the brothers to behold. "It contains a spider that can weave a web that is stronger than steel chains. Give me one of your horses and in exchange I'll give you the spider in the acorn."
The elder brother burst out laughing. "Did you ever hear anything like it, Tonyk?" he asked, turning to his brother.
"The poor can offer only what they have," answered the younger brother gently. He dismounted from his horse nd said to the beggar, "Here is my horse, old man. Tak it as if he were your own."
The old man mounted the horse with some help from the lad and disappeared across the meadow.
Mylie did not like that his younger brother was so generous.
"You fool!" he burst out angrily. "I guess you thought that when you gave everything away I would let you have half of my money, half of my cloak, and ride on my horse. But I wish you to learn how extravagance in giving is repaid."
Tonyk answered gently. "And I shall take the lesson to heart, brother. But I have never thought of sharing your money, or your horse, or your cloak. Go your way without me to hinder you."
Mylie said nothing in answer but rode off as quickly as his horse could trot while the younger brother continued his journey on foot. Riding thus, and followed by his brother trudging in the dust, Mylie came to a gorge between two tall mountain sides. A wicked ogre lived in the gorge, and he was always on the alert for travellers who chanced to pass. He could not see, but his hearing was sharp. He had trained two eagles to serve him, for he was a powerful magician. When he heard travellers approaching he would send the eagles to capture them. That is why people, when travelling through the gorge, carried their shoes in their hands, scarcely daring to breathe.
But Mylie knew nothing of the ogre. Into the gorge he clattered, as bold as brass. At the ring of the horse's hoofs the giant awoke.
"Come here, come here, my eagles," he cried, and the red eagle and the white eagle flapped quickly into the cave.
"My supper is riding by!" exclaimed the ogre. "Fetch it!
The two eagles darted off and plunged into the depths of the ravine. They seized Mylie by his velvet cloak and carried him off to the ogre's dwelling.
At that moment Tonyk reached the opening of the gorge, just in time to see his brother carried off by the two great birds. He pursued them, shouting, but the eagles and Mylie soared into the clouds that covered the highest peak.
The lad stood overcome with grief, and soon fell on his knees and prayed: "Good Lord, save my brother Mylie!"
At once he heard three shrill voices near him, "Let us help you! Let us help you!"
Tonyk turned around surprised. "Who spoke to me?" he asked.
"We are in your jacket pocket," the voices answered.
Tonyk put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the acorn, the walnut, and the reed cage with the dragon fly in it.
"Can you save Mylie?" he asked astonished.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" piped the tiny voices, each in a different key.
"But how will you manage that, as small as you are?" asked Tonyk.
"Open our prisons and you will see," they answered.
The boy did as they wished. The spider came out of the acorn and fell to weaving a web as shining and as strong as steel. Then the spider climbed on the back of the dragon fly, who had just come out of his little cage, and together they rose gently in the air. And as they rose the spider continued to weave his web. The threads were so spun that they formed a ladder. When they came down again and said they had fastened it well, Tonyk at once began to climb, following the spider and the dragon fly, until he reached the top of the mountain. Then the wasp who had been shut up in the walnut shell flew before them. They came to the ogre's cave.
In the middle sat the blind ogre. He was swaying to and fro and cutting slices of bacon. Poor Mylie lay at the ogre's feet with legs and arms tied like a chicken ready for the boiling.
The ogre was singing wildly and was so busy slicing the bacon that he did not hear Tonyk and his three little servants enter. But the red eagle noticed the boy, flew at him, and was about to catch him up in his claws when the wasp darted at the eagle and blinded it with its diamond sting. The white eagle came to help the red eagle, but he too was blinded by the wasp.
Now it was the ogre's turn. He had stopped his song when he heard the eagles shrieking. The wasp flew at him and began to sting him mercilessly. The ogre bellowed like a bull and threw his arms about like a windmill, but he could not catch the wasp.
At last he fell with his face to earth to escape the fiery stings. Then the spider drew near. He wove a web over the fallen giant who now lay imprisoned and motionless.
In vain the ogre called to his eagles. They flew at the steel net and began to tear at it, but the ogre was inside it! Each peck of a beak carried away a piece of his flesh. The birds stopped only when they had gotten to the ogre's bones. Then he died on the spot, and the birds flew out of the cave, only to hit the mountainside in flight, break their wings to slowly die.
Meanwhile Tonyk had undone his brother's bonds, and after having kissed him with tears of joy he led him out of the ogre's cave to the edge of the great rock. The winged needle and the wasp appeared once more. They were harnessed to the little reed cage, but it was now turned into a coach. They invited the two brothers to take a seat within it, and when the boys had entered the spider closed the door and climbed up behind, for he was now the groom. Then the team set off as swift as the wind.
Tonyk was entranced at riding thus, high above the meadows. Over the mountains, streams and villages they flew until at last they reached their uncle's castle.
The coach rolled on to the drawbridge where the brothers saw their two horses waiting for them. On the holster of the saddle of Tonyk's horse were hanging his purse and cloak. But the purse was larger than it had been before, and the cloak was spangled with diamonds.
Tonyk in great surprise turned to ask what all this meant, but the coach had vanished, and standing there, instead of the wasp, the winged needle, and the spider were three white lights.
The two brothers fell on their knees in awe. Then out of one of the bright lights came a voice. It said to Tonyk: "Kind heart, now you have reached your journey's goal."
The lights then soared up and away, leaving Tonyk and Mylie to stare after them with wonder.
[Retold. From Elsie Masson]