It was Whitsuntide; the forest and the fields were happy with flowers and sweet singing birds. All the beasts were stirring, for this was the day when the great meeting of animals was to take place. King Lion had bidden all his subjects to come to his court. None must be absent. So along every way they came: the wolf, the wild cat, the dog, the panther, the badger, Bruin the Bear, and a host of others. One alone was not there, and that was Reynard the Fox.
Why he was absent was soon seen. There was hardly one of the beasts who had not some complaint to make about him. The angriest one of all was the wolf.
"Your Majesty," he said, "will you please punish that rascal Reynard? Not a day passes when he does not do some mischief to me. It would take many a week to tell you of all the evil he has done. Three of my little children are now sitting at home crying because Reynard has blinded them with dust."
"You are not the only one he has harmed," said the dog. "One winter, great king, Reynard stole my last meal, a piece of sausage which I had hidden in a bush."
"You have little to grumble about," said the wild cat. "The sausage was mine, Your Majesty! I took it from a shelf in the mill while the miller's wife was asleep. The dog stole it from me."
"Look what Reynard did to the hare!" said the panther, pointing to a wound in the hare's neck. "This poor fellow met the fox last week. 'Let me teach you how to say your prayers in Latin,' said Reynard, 'and then you will be able to take a good post in the church.' The hare agreed, and Reynard made him get down on his knees, but before he had said half a dozen words Reynard seized him by the throat, and if I had not come along just then he certainly would have killed him."
"These tales would not be told if my uncle were present," cried Reynard's nephew, the badger, angrily. "The wolf has treated my uncle in a very evil manner more than once. Some time ago the wolf and Reynard agreed to work together and share whatever food they got. One day as they were walking behind the hedge that borders the road they saw a man come along with a cartload of fish. Their mouths watered, for they were both hungry, and Reynard soon thought of a plan to get some of the fish.
"You stay behind the cart and keep a good watch," he said to the wolf. Then he ran along by the hedge, and came out into the road a long way in front of the carter. Here he lay down in a rut, and when the cart drew near, shut his eyes, held his breath and stiffened his body.
"Ah!" said the man when he saw Reynard. "Here's a dead fox. His skin ought to fetch a good sum of money in the next town." With that he picked up the fox and threw him on the back of the cart. No sooner was the man's back turned than Reynard came to life again. Fish after fish he kicked into the roadway, while the wolf followed and picked them up.
When the fox had thrown down enough, he jumped to the wolf for a share of the plunder.
Here is your share,' said the wolf as he pointed to a heap of fish bones. "I hope you'll enjoy the feast." And off he went.
"Well!" said the king, "is there anything more?"
"There is," said the badger. "Another time the wolf and the fox heard that a peasant had killed a fat pig and hung it up on a wooden peg in his larder. They both felt very hungry for this pig, so they went to the peasant's house. After a great deal of trouble my uncle was able to get through a window into the larder. With a struggle he managed to throw the pig, peg as well, out of the window. The wolf ran off with the prize, leaving Reynard to get out as best he could. When the fox did get out of the house he was set upon by the peasant's dogs. They gave him a sorry time, but after a long run he escaped from them and made his way back.
"When he came up to the wolf, who looked fat and happy, he could see no sign of the pig. "Haven't you saved any for me?" he asked angrily.
"Why, of course," answered the wolf. "Nobody can say I am greedy. Here's a tasty titbit for you." And he flung the fox the wooden peg on which the pig had been hung."
Just as the badger ended his tale there was a commotion outside, and the next minute there marched into the court a very strange procession.
In front was Henning the Cock; behind him were two young cocks, bearing a bier on which lay the headless body of Henning's daughter, Scratchfoot. On either side walked a brother of the dead hen carrying a white candle; and after the brothers came many relations of the deceased, all crying most miserably.
"What does all this mean?" asked the king.
"Alas! sire!" said Henning, pointing to the bier, "this is Reynard's work. I had ten sons and fifteen daughters and we all lived happily in a farmyard belonging to rich monks. Round the yard was a strong wall, and six large dogs were inside to protect us. Many a time has Reynard tried to get into the yard, but the dogs at last gave him such a bad time that he left us alone.
"One day we heard a knocking at the gate, and looking over, I saw the fox dressed as a hermit.
"You need not be afraid of me any more," he said. "I have taken a vow never again to eat flesh. I am going to read holy books and pray for the rest of my life. My only food will be berries and barley bread. Goodbye, dear Henning, for it is now time for me to go and say my prayers."
I called all my children together and told them the good news; that they need no longer go in mortal fear of the fox. Away out of the gate they ran. But that sly Reynard was hiding in a bush, and in a moment he sprang upon my children and killed fifteen of them. Poor Scratchfoot's body was the only one he did not eat, for the dogs came along just in time to stop him."
When the king heard Henning's sad story he was very angry with Reynard and his nephew, the badger.
He ordered that Scratchfoot should be given a grand funeral, and caused a marble slab to be placed over her grave; and on the slab these words were written:
"Here lies Scratchfoot,
As for Reynard, a messenger was to be sent to order him to appear at the court at once. Bruin the Bear was chosen as messenger.
"Be careful," said the king, before Bruin started. "Reynard is full of sly ways, and he will play a trick on you if you are not watchful."
"I know all his tricks," said the bear proudly. "He won't get the better of me."
Bruin started off at once on his journey to find the fox and give him the king's order.
Now Reynard was rich enough to own several houses. The strongest of them all was the Castle of Malpertuis, built high among the rocks. Here the fox was able to hide himself, even if his enemies got over the strong walls. Underneath the house ran thousands of passages, all twisted and dark, and nobody knew his way along these passages except Reynard and his wife. So Bruin set out to find Reynard, and after visiting all his houses in turn came at last to the Castle of Malpertuis.
The gates were locked, and everything was quiet when the bear arrived. Bang! Bang! knocked Bruin on the door.
Not a sound was heard.
"Reynard! Reynard!" he cried loudly. "Open the door. I am Bruin the Bear, and I come from King Lion to bid you appear before him at once."
Still not a sound was heard; for although the fox heard every word, he was not going to open the gate till he knew that the bear was alone.
When he was certain that only the bear was outside he ran inside and put on his hermit's gown. Then, holding a book in his hand, he opened the gate.
"I am very sorry I have kept you waiting. I was just in the middle of my prayers. You cannot know how pleased I am to see you. Come inside and rest yourself. I am not feeling well enough to start for the court today. You know I've given up eating flesh, and honey is the only food that is plentiful about here. I am afraid I feel ill through the eating of too much of the nasty stuff."
"Nasty stuff!" said Bruin. To him, honey was the nicest thing on earth. "If you can show me where to get my fill I will do my best for you at the court."
"Do you say so?" answered Reynard. "Why, I know a place where there is so much honey that you could not drink it dry in seven years. If you will be a friend to me at court I will show you the place."
"Let us go at once," said Bruin, whose mouth was watering. "I will do all I can for you
So the two set off for the farmyard of a woodcutter who lived in the valley. In the yard lay a huge oak tree which the woodcutter had felled the day before. To split this he had driven in two big wedges which made a great crack right along the trunk. No one was in the yard, for the woodcutter had gone into the house for a nap.
"Here is the well," said Reynard, pointing to the crack in the tree. "Put your mouth down as far as you can and eat as much honey as you like."
It was not long before Bruin had his head and forefeet in the crack, and as soon as Reynard saw that the bear was busy he gave a hard tug at the wedges. Out they came, the trunk closed up, and Bruin was caught in a trap.
Such a roaring and struggling as the bear set up! You never heard such a noise. The fox grinned, and told himself it was time to be off.
"How do you like the taste of the honey?" said Reynard. "Do not eat too much, for the woodcutter will bring you something else to eat in a moment. Good day!" and off he went.
Meanwhile, the woodcutter, hearing the noise, came out to see what was the matter. When he saw what had happened he shouted: "Neighbours! Here's a bear caught in my yard. Come and have some sport!"
Everybody in the village left his work to come. Some carried sticks, some spades, some axes, and others hammers. All had some weapon to beat poor Bruin. So great a hail of blows rained on his back that with a furious tug he pulled himself free from the tree, leaving behind him his ears and claws. Away he went down the road, and away after him went the crowd. Sticks were thrown at him, and at every corner someone would spring out and give him a blow. Blinded with pain he neither saw nor cared where he went, and suddenly he ran into a crowd of women who were standing by the river watching the fun.
Over went the priest's cook into the water. "Two silver crowns to the man who gets her out," shouted the Priest. Every one left the bear to save the cook. Bruin took the chance of escape, and jumped into the river and swam away.
A mile or two down the river he climbed on the bank, and for a long time lay as if dead. Then he arose and turned towards home.
For four days he crawled along, covered with bruises and blood. Hardly able to put one foot before the other he reached the court. No one would have seen in the miserable creature that returned the lordly bear who had gone out a few days before.
"Surely this is not Bruin," said the king. "Whatever has happened?"
When the bear had told his story the king's anger was terrible to see, and he uttered threats of vengeance.
Where strength has failed cunning may succeed," said he. "I will send the cat to fetch Reynard to court. He is not very big, but he has all his wits about him."
The cat did not care very much for the work he had to do; but he started off, making up his mind not to be tricked as Bruin had been. It was evening when he reached Malpertius and found Reynard sitting in his front garden.
"Good evening!" said the cat. "The king orders you to return with me without delay." "I hope you are in good health," answered the fox. "I will certainly come with you in the morning. In the meantime, will you not step inside and have something to eat? I would have returned with Bruin, only he was such an ill-mannered fellow."
"I think we had better go at once," said the cat. "It is a fine night; the moon is shining and the roads are dry." "But, my dear Cat," said Reynard, "it is so much more pleasant in the daytime, and all sorts of rascals are about at night."
"Well, if I stay, what can you give me to eat?" asked the cat.
"I am very poor and live plainly," said Reynard, "but I think I can find you a good meal of honey."
"No!" said the cat, remembering in what a sad state poor Bruin had come back. "I am not fond of honey. Now, if you had a mouse, I could manage with that."
"Mouse!" said the fox, "why, I know a barn not far from here where there are wagon-loads of mice. The priest who lives there is always grumbling about the mischief they do."
"I should very much like to go and see the place that you speak of," said the cat.
"Come on, then," said Reynard, and away down the road the two went together.
A day or two before this the fox had found out that the priest kept his chickens in the barn. So he made a big hole under the wall and stole the finest bird he could find. The priest's little son, Martin, had made up his mind to catch the fox if he came that way again, so getting a piece of string he had tied one end to a nail, and at the other end he had made a slip-knot, which he placed over the hole. But Reynard was too clever to be caught easily. It did not take him long to find out about the trap that had been set for him, and he had taken good care not to venture inside that barn again.
Here's the place," said Reynard, when they reached the barn. "Can't you hear the mice squeaking? The hole at the bottom of the wall leads right inside. I'll keep watch outside while you go in; but don't be long, for we must be up early in the morning to make ready for our journey."
In went the cat, and before he knew what had happened the slip-knot was round his neck. He tugged and tugged, but the more he pulled the tighter the string became, and the poor thing felt that he would very soon choke.
"Are the mice tasty and fat?" shouted Reynard through the hole. "Don't make so much noise or you'll frighten them all away. It's a pity you have to eat them cold, but Martin will bring you something warm in a minute," and, calling on his way at another farmyard to get a chicken for supper, the fox trotted home.
The noise made by the cat awoke Martin, whose bedroom was close by. "Father, get up!" he shouted. "The fox is caught in my trap!"
Up jumped the priest, and putting on a cloak, he ran downstairs with Martin to the barn. The servants all rushed out of their bedrooms when they heard the clatter, thinking that the house must be on fire. Away went all of them pell-mell to the barn to repay the fox for his theft. It was too dark to see that it was no Fox that was caught in the trap, so the poor cat got a terrible beating, besides being blinded in one eye. Mad with pain, he sprang at the nearest person to him, who happened to be the priest. The priest's legs were so covered with bites and scratches that he had to be carried into the house and the cat was left alone.
Though he nearly felt dead he knew that now was his only chance of getting free, for if his enemies returned there would be little left of him. So he gnawed as hard as he could at the string, and was just able to get loose as some of the servants returned.
Next morning, into the court of King Lion there walked the most miserable cat that anyone ever saw. Blind in one eye, covered with bruises, and with patches of fur missing, he looked the most unhappy of cats. When the king heard his tale he was angrier than ever.
"I will punish Reynard without a trial," he said. "He has had too many chances. Call all of my soldiers together; we will burn him out of Malpertius and give him no mercy."
"Great King!" said the badger. "Reynard may have done much wrong, but he has the right to be called to court three times. If he does not come the next time, then let him be found guilty. Please allow him to be sent for once more."
Well! as you are so anxious for Reynard," said the lion, you shall fetch him yourself. Mind you do not return without him, or you will be sorry for it."
Off then went Grimbert the Badger, and it was not long before he was knocking at the door of Castle Malpertius. Reynard himself came and let him in, and then led the way to an inner room, where his wife lay with a litter of cubs around her.
"Good morning, dear Uncle and Aunt," said Grimbert. "I am glad to see you and the children so well."
"Good morning," said Reynard, "and what brings you all this way?"
"Well, to tell the truth," said Grimbert, "the king sent me to bring you to court, and if you take my advice, you will come quietly, for he is very angry with you. If you do not come, he swears that he will lay siege to your castle, or burn you out of it, if necessary!"
Will the king try to punish me?" asked Reynard.
"Yes, he will," said the badger; "but what need you care about that? Have you not still your nimble wit and cunning? They will not fail you, I am sure. Many a time have you run much greater risks."
Reynard thought for a little. "Very well, nephew," he said at last, "I will return with you. Let us set out at once. And you, wife," he added, turning to the mother fox, "take care of the little ones while I am away, and especially Reynkin. I love him the best of all, for every day he grows more like myself, and should make a fox of renown in time!"
Then, after taking a tender farewell of his wife and the children, the two set out, and before long arrived at the court of King Lion.
All the beasts were gathered together in the judgement place, for the news of Reynard's coming had spread far and wide. There sat King Lion on his throne with the queen beside him. On one side the tiger held the royal flag, and on the other was the leopard. Bruin the Bear had a front place, and sat rubbing his sore nose. And there, too, was Tybert the Cat, with the rope that had nearly choked him still hanging round his neck.
Reynard did not show any sign of fear. Marching boldly up to the throne, he bowed low and said: "Hail, king! Reynard, your sometimes faithful servant comes at your command. They tell me that beasts have spoken evil of me. Let them speak my face, and I will answer them!"
"Peace vile traitor!" cried the king. Not again shall your cunning words deceive me. Answer me that: Have you kept the peace I proclaimed throughout my realm?"
At this the cock, who had been listening eagerly, could no longer keep silence, and called out:
"Aye, the peace! Did he keep the peace when he killed my children?"
"Hold your tongue,"' said the king. "Justice shall be done." Then to the fox he said: ' Robber and murderer, answer for what you did to my good friends Bruin the Bear and Tybert the Cat."
"Answer, indeed," grumbled the fox. "Is it my fault if Bruin has a sore nose? He stole the farmer's honey and got a good beating for his pains. Am I to blame? As for Tybert the Cat, I did all I could to stop him from going to the priest's house, but he took no notice. He loved mice better than good deeds. Am I to blame for that?"
At this the Ram started forward. "There is no truth in what this villain says, King!" he cried. "He has deserved death. Let him die!"
And then all the other beasts cried out for Reynard to be given up to them.
And loudest of all cried Bruin the Bear, and Isegrim the wolf, and Tybert the Cat, and Chanticleer the Cock. Even the timid hare, though he was trembling with fright, raised his voice, and the goose came and quacked her loudest.
So loud grew the din that it was a long time before the king could make himself heard. Then, "Let him be arrested," he cried, "and cast into prison. We will decide what his punishment shall be."
It did not take the court very long to decide that Reynard was guilty of all the crimes with which he had been charged. He had not a single friend among the animals, except Grimbert the Badger, and although Grimbert did his best to save him, it was all in vain. Reynard was brought from prison to hear his doom.
"Reynard," said King Lion, "you have been judged fairly, and found guilty of murder, theft, and many other crimes. The sentence of the court is that you shall be hanged. Have you anything to say?"
The wily fox at once began a long and flattering speech, for he thought that even at the last minute he might get off. The king listened gravely, but in silence, and at the end signed for the fox to be taken away to the place of execution.
Tybert the Cat, Isegrim the Wolf, and Bruin the Bear had been chosen as executioners, and they at once seized upon poor Reynard and dragged him off to a high tree that stood close by.
"Here is a gallows ready-made for us," said Isegrim. "Let us make haste and hang the villain, for he is so cunning that if we delay he may escape us again!"
"Yes, make haste," said the fox. I wish nothing better than to be put out of my misery. See, Tybert has a cord. It hangs round his neck. It is the same one that nearly choked him to death when he went to steal the priest's mice. He is good at climbing. Let him hurry and fix the rope."
"That's the first wise thing I've heard you say today," grumbled Bruin the Bear. "Up with you, Tybert. We'll hold him fast while you go."
So Tybert ran quickly up the tree and tied the rope on to a stout branch. Then a ladder was brought, and everything was ready.
"Now," said Bruin, "say your prayers, villain, for you have only two minutes more!"
"Before I die," said Reynard, At first the Bear flatly refused, but Reynard told him what he had to say was very important, and at last he agreed. So the king and queen came up to the gallows tree.
"What is it you want?" asked King Lion.
"I wish to beg one boon, O King," said Reynard. "Before I die let me confess my sins to you and plead for your forgiveness."
"I have led a very wicked life, O King," said Reynard. "I freely confess it, and I am sorry for it. But yet there is a good deal to be said for me. It is true I killed Chanticleer's children, the little chickens, but then it is my nature to kill, and my mother taught me so to get my food. It is true also that by cunning tricks I got the better of Tybert the Cat and Bruin the Bear, but then it is my nature to be cunning, and this my mother taught me also. Sly Reynard am I called with truth, but if I had not been sly I should long ago have died of starvation!" "And a good riddance!" said Bruin.
Reynard did not even look at him. "A hard life was mine from my babyhood, your Majesty," he went on. "Many a day have I gone hungry, and many a time have I been nearly beaten to death by men when I went to rob their hen roosts. Only one stroke of fortune have I ever had in all my life, and that was when I discovered a cave full of silver and gold."
The king pricked up his ears at this.
"A cave full of gold, you say?" he asked.
"Yes, your Majesty," sighed Reynard. "A cave full of treasures so rich that nobody could count them all - silver and gold and precious stones past all belief. Little good will those riches do me now when I am so soon to die."
"But, Reynard, my dear friend," said the king, "you will surely not die before you have told me where I can find these wonderful treasures!"
"Alas!" answered Reynard, "I would gladly tell Your Majesty if you alone were concerned, but how can I speak in front of all these creatures who hate me, and who, even now, when I am so near to death, think that I am merely telling you a lying tale to save my skin?"
It was true. Bruin the Bear was already opening his mouth to speak, and Tybert the Cat was pulling at the rope, for they both saw their enemy about to escape from their hands.
The king, too, had doubts, but his greed overcame his prudence, and he bade all the animals stand back.
"Now, Reynard," said he," we are alone and nobody can hear. Tell me where this cave of treasures lies."
Then Reynard looked at the king and hid a smile, for he knew that his life was safe.
"And what reward will Your Majesty give me," he asked boldly, "if I make you richer than any of the kings on the earth?"
"Why, what reward do you wish?" asked the king.
"My life!" said Reynard, "my life to serve you well from now on, and to be at your command."
The king was silent a moment. Then, "I grant it," he said. "Now, tell me quickly."
"Will Your Majesty not first of all tell all the creatures that you have shown me mercy?" asked the cunning Reynard. He knew that once King Lion had declared his will to his subjects he would not for very pride depart from it.
So then King Lion stepped back from the tree, and bending down, picked up a straw from the grass. Then, turning to his people, he gravely broke the straw in two and said:.
"Even as this straw is broken, so I declare the law broken that condemned my friend Reynard to death. He has proved to me his goodwill. Cast off his bonds and set him free!"
There was an angry cry from all the beasts, but it was kept under, for none dared to rebel against the king's command. Grimbert the Badger ran eagerly forward and hastened to undo the rope from his uncle's neck.
"Clever Reynard!" he whispered. "Did I not tell you that your wit was more than a match for these dullards! Look how Tybert the Cat is swelling his tail! He can hardly see for anger!"