In a country lane there was a very old farmhouse with a stork's nest on the ridge of the gable. Beneath the branches of an elder-tree is a pool of water, in which a few ducks were swimming around. There was a farm dog too. He used to bark at all newcomers.
In this house lived an old couple. They owned a horse they said could not do without. The old farmer rode on it into town, and his neighbours often borrowed it of him, and paid for the loan by rendering some service to the old couple. But after some time they thought it would be as well to sell the horse, or barter it for something which might be more useful to them.
"You will know best, old man," said the wife. "Ride to the fair in town and get rid of the horse for money or something else."
She fastened his neckerchief for him; for she could do that better than he could. She also smoothed his hat round and round with the palm of her hand, and gave him a kiss. The old man rode off. The sun shone with great heat, and not a cloud was to be seen in the sky. The road was dusty, for many were driving, riding, or walking it to the fair that was held that day. There was no shelter anywhere. Then a man came trudging along, driving a cow to the fair. "She gives good milk, I am certain," said the farmer to himself. "That would be a very good exchange: the cow for the horse. "If you like, we will exchange," he said.
"Surely," said the man with the cow, and then they bartered.
The farmer could have turned back now, for he had done what he rode off from home to do. But since he had made up his mind to go to the fair, he went on along the dusty road with his cow. He strode on and overtook a man who was driving a sheep. It was a good fat sheep, with a fine fleece on its back.
"I should like to have that fellow," said the farmer to himself. Perhaps it would be more profitable to have a sheep than a cow."
The man with the sheep was quite ready to exchange; the bargain was quickly made. The farmer went on with his newly bartered sheep. Soon he overtook another man who was carrying a large goose under his arm.
"What a heavy creature you have there!" said the farmer; "it has plenty of feathers and plenty of fat, and would look well tied to a string, or paddling in the water at our place. How often my old woman has said, 'If only had a goose!' Now here is an opportunity!"
The other had not the least objection, and then the old farmer walked on with his goose till he came near the town. There was quite a rush of men and cattle. To escape the stress, the old farmer walked into the toll-keeper's potato-field. There a fowl that was strutting about with a string tied to its leg to keep it at home. The tail-feathers of the fowl were very short, and it winked with both its eyes as it said "Cluck, cluck." As soon as our good man saw it, he thought, "That's the finest fowl I ever saw in my life. I think it would be a good exchange if I could get it for my goose."
"Shall we exchange?" he asked the toll-keeper, who agreed to it. Then the toll-keeper kept the goose and the farmer carried off the fowl.
Now he had really done a great deal of business, and he was hot and tired, so he went to an inn. He was just about to enter when a man carrying a sack of rotten apples came out. "Rotten apples would be something to take home to my old woman," he thought. "Last year the old apple-tree by the grass-plot only bore one apple, and we kept it in the cupboard till it was quite withered and rotten. It was always property, my old woman said; and here she would see a great deal of property, a whole sackful of it."
"What will you give me for the sackful?" asked the other.
"I will give you my fowl in exchange."
So he gave up the fowl and got the apples, which he carried into the inn parlour. He leaned the sack carefully against the stove, and then went to the table. But the stove was hot, and he had not thought of that. Many guests were there. Among them were two Englishmen. They were so rich that their pockets bulged; and they were fond of betting too, like so many others. So when the apples began to roast with a hissing sound by the hot stove, they asked one another what it was.
The farmer told them the whole story of his bartering adventures that day, from the horse and right down to the apples.
"Your old woman will give it you well when you get home," said one of the Englishmen.
"What! Give me what?" said the farmer. "She will kiss me and say, 'what the old man does is always right.'"
"Let us lay a wager on it," said the Englishmen. "We'll wager you a ton of coined gold."
"No; a bushel will be enough," replied the farmer. "I can only set a bushel of apples against it, and I'll throw myself and my old woman into the bargain; that will pile up the measure."
"Done! taken!" So the bet was made.
The landlord's coach came to the door, and the two Englishmen and the farmer got in and drow off. They soon came to the farmer's hut. "Good evening, old woman." "Good evening, old man." "I've made the exchange."
"Ah, well, you understand what you're about," said the woman. Then she embraced him, and paid no attention to the strangers, nor did she notice the sack.
"I got a cow in exchange for the horse."
"Thank Heaven," said she. "Now we shall have plenty of milk, butter, and cheese on the table."
"Yes, but I changed the cow for a sheep."
"Ah, better still!" cried the wife. "You always think of everything. Ewe's milk and cheese, woollen jackets and stockings! The cow could not give all these!"
"Then I changed away the sheep for a goose."
"Then we shall have roast goose to eat this year. You dear old man, you are always thinking of something to please me."
"Then I gave away the goose for a fowl."
"A fowl! Well, that was a good exchange," replied the woman. "The fowl will lay eggs and hatch them, and we shall have chickens. This is just what I was wishing for."
"Then I exchanged the fowl for a sack of shrivelled apples."
"What!" exclaimed the wife. "Now I'll tell you something: Almost as soon as you left me this morning, I began to think of what I could give you nice for supper this evening, but I wanted herbs - and here you are with apples. I'm very glad for it, it makes me laugh to think about it." And then she gave him a hearty kiss.
"Well, always going downhill and yet merry; it was well worth the money to see it," said both the Englishmen and paid a hundred-weight of gold to the farmer, who was not scolded but kissed, whatever he did. [Retold]
❋ Some stories and some people get better as they grow older.
Out in the woods stood a nice little fir tree. The place he had was a very good one: the sun shone on him, there was enough of fresh air, and around him grew many large-sized comrades, pines and firs. Still he felt something was lacking somehow.
"Oh! Were I but a high tree as the others are," he sighed. "Then the birds would build nests among my branches! To grow and get older and be tall," thought the tree, "that is after all the most delightful thing."
Every autumn the wood-cutters always came and felled some of the largest trees. The fir thought, "Where do they go to? What will become of them?"
In spring the fir asked the storks and swallows that came from afar, "Don't you know where the big trees have been taken?"
The stork nodded and said, "Yes, on the ships are sturdy masts. They smelt of fir and stood there most majestically!"
But the fir did not understand it all.
When Christmas came, quite young trees were cut down. These young trees, and they were always the finest looking. They were laid on carts and the horses drew them out of the wood.
"Where are they going to?" asked the fir. "Where are they taken?"
"We know!" chirped the sparrows. "We peeped through the windows and saw them standing in the middle of warm rooms and ornamented with gilded apples, with toys, and many tiny lights! Oh, it was so beautiful."
The tree rejoiced, for he still did not understand. "That is even better than to cross the Red Sea!"
"Listen. Rejoice in us!" said the air and the sunlight. "Rejoice in your own fresh youth!"
But the tree did not understand. He grew and grew, and people started to say, "What a fine tree!" Then one day towards Christmas he was cut down.
The tree only came to himself when he was unloaded in a court-yard and heard a man say, "That one is splendid!." Two servants came in rich livery and the tree quivered! What would happen? The servants and the young ladies decorated it with sugarplums and gilded apples and walnuts, and little blue and white tapers were placed among the pines.
"Tonight!" the folks said. "How well it will look tonight!"
The tree grew impatient and thought. "If my tapers were but lighted!"
And later the candles were lighted, but set fire to the foliage. It blazed up.
"Help! Help!" cried the young ladies, and put out the fire.
But the trouble was only for a moment; then they shouted, sang and danced around the tree. Finally the children had permission to plunder the tree. They fell upon it so violently that many of its branches cracked.
The children danced about, and no one looked at the tree. But the fir though, "Tomorrow I will enjoy my splendour!"
In the morning the servant and the housemaid came in. "Now then the splendor will begin again," thought the fir. But they dragged him up the stairs into a dark corner where no daylight could enter, and left him.
"What?" thought the tree. "What?"
There stood the tree and felt completely forgotten. "Now it is winter and really cold and dry and lonely for me here! And in the wood the sun shines and birds sing." It wept till it was dried out.
One morning some people came and set to work in the loft. The tree felt the fresh air, the first sunbeam - and now he was out in the courtyard.
"Maybe now I shall begin to enjoy life at last," said he and wanted to spread out his branches; but they were withered. Unthinking children came running and dancing and trampled on his branches till they cracked where he lay in a dusty corner.
"Had I but rejoiced when I had reason to do so!" he saw at last, when all was over. [Retold]
❋ Many think twice too late in life.