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  1. The Merchant and his Home
  2. The Amazing Old Mower

The Merchant and his Home

There was once a merchant who had managed to sail his ship so profitably that he had become rich. But he had grown old too. The only thing he now cared for in life was his son. He indulged the lad's every whim. Nothing was too beautiful or too expensive for his son, whether gilded sword or golden chain, silken cloak or silky-coated horse.

Now, this son fell in love with a lord's daughter. He knew neither peace nor rest till his father had gone to ask for the girl's hand in marriage. This lord loved luxury, and had spent all his wealth at the court of the king. He let the merchant speak, then for a good while remained silent. "Master Jacques," said he finally, crossing his legs, "if I understand you correctly, you and your son wish to marry into a great and noble house. If so, you must at least do what one does before entering a monastery: one gives the monastery all one's worldly goods. Make me this gift, and then we shall see."

The merchant had said it dozens of times earlier in life, that it's madness to let your worth go before you die, but now all he wanted was what pleased his son. So he agreed.

The request was made on Monday, and on Tuesday the marriage contract was signed.

She was proud, that girl, and she wrinkled up her nose before this father-in-law who, for her, still stank of hard-earned money. The servants and maids of the new masters of the house saw it well enough, and soon they too followed suit and seemed to have lost their respect for their former master. In this house that had once been his, he could barely get himself served some toast in the morning, or, at four o'clock, a glass of his own white wine.

Then he had to learn to ask for nothing at all, to make himself very small, and to step aside. He would go to sun himself in the courtyard, sitting in a corner, his chin on his hands and his hands on the head of his stick.

Year after dreary year went by, and his troubles aged him still more. He had once enjoyed telling his grandson stories about his sea voyages, when he went to buy cargoes of spices or stock up on amber and pink coral. But now the boy was over seven, and they had sent him off to school.

Late one fall, the old man was pondering all that - the grandson he hardly saw any more, the son he never saw at all, this house that was his no longer, and the coffin that awaited him - when suddenly he saw from his courtyard corner his son coming.

"In my wife's opinion you can hardly be feeling at ease here in this house," the son began. "Don't you think you had better go and live elsewhere?"

"But son, surely you are not going to tell me I should leave our home?"

"My wife insists on it, angrily and in tears. When her friends go to see her, they run into you on the steps, looking like a broken-down old beggar, nodding your head, and with a drop dangling from your nose."

"Surely I'm not much in the way, in this corner of the courtyard." The old man began shaking and choking.

"From her room she can hear you coughing and spitting. She just can't stand it any more."

"She won't have to hear me much longer. My death isn't far off."

"Your death? Hardly. Anyway father, you will have to leave this house."

"And where will I go, son? Who in this city will welcome me, if my own son will not have me?"

"We're just wasting time with this talk. We have lodged you here for seven years and more. The time has come for us to part."

"Very well, son. I'll go. For the winter I only ask for a blanket - the blanket from one of your horses. In my own father's day, you always put a bagl in someone's kit to remind him that he who does not save will have to beg. I'll do without the bag, but I do ask for a blanket."

The little boy, just back from school, had stopped a few paces away. He could tell something serious was going on. Stock-still, he stared at them wide-eyed.

"My boy," said his father, "go fetch my horse's blanket, the big two-coloured one's, and bring it right back to your grandfather."

The boy ran to the stable and was soon back with the blanket. He opened it out, folded it in two, nicked its edge with his pocket knife, and tore it in half from top to bottom.

The old man sighed and as he took the half-blanket with a trembling hand he said to the little boy, "Oh, my boy, my boy, I would never have believed you were twice as cruel even as your father."

"What will you do with the other half?" asked the father in a low voice. Too surprised to stop the boy, he was now watching him fold his half of the blanket like a woman folding a sheet to put it away.

"This half is for you. I'll give it to you on the day I send you away."

The father suddenly turned very red. "Father," said he to the old man, "will you forgive me? Now I see what I have done. I went wrong. I'll get my wife and all our maids and servants here to heed this: This house is your house. From this day on, and all your life, you'll have here cthe place that is yours."

[Adapted, from Henri Pourrat]

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The Amazing Old Mower

Once, on the way out of Ambert, there lived a rich farmer who owned a very large field. The main crop around was hay, and this farmer was known far and wide as a mower. No one could keep pace with him, scythe in hand, with him or his three sons.

These men's strength made them proud. They drove the laborers like beasts at haying time, and enjoyed seeing the laborers break down and almost die of exhaustion before their eyes. An old beggar passing on the road nearby had watched that awhile, and remarked, "Some day might come a better mower then they."

Someone told the father what the beggar had said. "I don't care. The boys and I will surely beat him."

On the Sunday before the haying next year, the rich farmer went out into the square. There were laborers on Lazybones Bridge, they had come there, looking to be hired. But they all knew what to expect at his place, so the minute they saw him, they left. The farmer hailed two or three. One shouted back that he'd already been hired, while another pretended he hadn't heard.

Still, he needed a laborer. And one stepped up: a tall man with a grey beard. "Do you think I'll do?" he asked. "Do you know how to mow - really mow? And where are you from, anyway? From up in the hills somewhere? You're not dressed like people around here."

"That's right, I'm from up there."

"From Viverrols or Sauvessanges?"

"Maybe a bit higher."

"Chamboite or Chambonie, then?"

"No, no, higher than that. I'm sure you don't know the place."

"Well, as long as you know how to hold your scythe. Is its handle solid? You understand me, I'm sure. I mean, do you have strong arms?"

"I think so. You'll see."

They agreed on the wage. The man wasn't one to bargain it up. The master told him where to find the field. "Follow the road till you get to three poplars on the right, just past the houses. I'll see you there tomorrow, then, at cockcrow."

Next morning at the first touch of dawn, the master and his three sons set off for their field. Mowing feels fine when the grass is all damp and tender from the night, and still bent with dew.

"Let's have a good look at the job!"

They started mowing. Though they seemed in no hurry, the scythes flew and the green hay fell; while they pushed the swath ever forward, but the worker the farmer had hired, did not show up. When it was almost midday, the boys teased their father about the labourer who wasn't coming. Just then the greybeard turned up.

"I was expecting you earlier," said the master with a dark look. "'Earlier? Why, it isn't late. We can get through plenty of work by nightfall."

"We'll see what you get through. But the grass will toughen when the sun has burned off the dew. Go hack away at it, then!"

"Oh yes. But where am I going to get me a scythe?"

"What? You came without your scythe? A laborer here brings his own. That's our way."

"Oh, wait, I saw one in the cherry tree. It will do fine."

Into the cherry tree he climbed. Up there in the branches was a scarecrow made of rags, holding a scythe. But the scythe handle was rotten, and broke in three when the man touched it. And the blade had severe cuts in it and was much eaten away by rust,

"Well, if you can make yourself a scythe out of that junk . . . !" "Oh, a scythe's a scythe. The main thing is to give it a good handle."

The greybeard went to a woodpile nearby, pulled out a branch, and fitted it to the blade. Then he picked up the first stone he came across, and started honing the edge.

The boys watched as they would have watched a comic on stage and laughed a lot. Then they glanced at their father and teased him some more

He gripped his scythe, frowning: "Get on with it," said he. "Hurry! The job's waiting!" Off he went, and his sons followed. Behind them, the man, too, got to work.

At the field's end, the master turned around for a look at the greybeard's swath. The swath was as wide as his and the boys' put together.

He spat and set off once more. At the end of the next swath he turned around as before for a look and said, "It's all very well, but you still lost a two good hours earlier today. You're that many swaths behind!"

The other halted for a while, saying, "If that's all that's bothering you, I'll just make them up." He mowed on. What sweeps of the arms! His swath, as wide as three ordinary ones, moved forward like a mountain torrent, or flood waters tumbling down a hillside.

The master and his sons lost no time getting back to work, but the man was already right behind them, and moving two or three times as fast. Here he came, they could feel him, here he came . . .

He caught them up, leaned on his scythe, considered them patiently, let them get a good head start, then went back to mowing. In no time they heard him at their heels. Now he was up with them.

"Say, friends, you don't seem to be keeping up much of a pace. Why not let me by? I'll just go on ahead!"

Breathless and dripping with sweat, the master and his sons were shamed and bewildered, and felt hurt from not being the best.

One of the sons spotted a chunk of rock by the road. He picked it up and set it down in the grass, so that the greybeard's scythe should hit it and get damages. But the man saw the rock, and without even slowing down kicked it aside with his clog.

So the second son took their little anvil and left it in the grass, well hidden. On and on the greybeard mowed, full tilt, but without force or effort. He pushed the swath before him like a river in flood. And when he got to where anvil stood hidden in the grass, he swept his scythe with such speed and power that it cut the anvil in half, along with the grass.

"Why, master, you've still got old stumps in your field!"

He didn't even stop to hone his blade.

Father and sons, now whiter than their shirts, were beginning to panic. One of the boys said to his father, "Still you could try to outdo him."

But the father could not. People were pouring in from everywhere to see what happened and laugh at the proud, hard-hearted farmer. He and his sons hardly knew how to handle it. From that day on, they say, the four of them never again had their hearts so hardened with pride.

The greybeard mowed on and on, and was a wonderful sightsccc. He mowed the farmer's field, big as it was, and three neighbouring fields as well. He moved so fast. Some thought he was Saint Martin, and others Saint Peter. No one ever knew for sure.

Then he disappeared into the bushes, and people never saw him again.

[Retold, from Henri Pourrat]

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