NCE upon a time, there lived a woodcutter in a little cottage at the foot of an old gigantic oak tree. He had a wife, but no children, and together they lived humbly, but very contentedly; for in front of his cottage he had a nice little garden in which he grew everything that was necessary for their daily food; fine wheat, with which to bake bread, and rich fruit and vegetables; he also had a cow which gave him abundance of milk, and sheep that yielded him soft wool, which his wife wove into garments for themselves.
One day a pedlar had come wandering past the cottage, with pots and pans and other goods for sale; the wife bought a thing or two from him that she needed, and he again went his way. When he had gone, the woodcutter found an old book of tales lying in the road, which the pedlar had evidently dropped; he took it home to his wife, and, in the evening, when she sat at her spinning, he read some of the stories aloud to her. They were a curious lot of tales, all about fairies and magicians that granted people's wishes and changed woodcutters into kings.
That night the little woodcutter could not sleep a wink, he lay awake thinking of the fairies, and picturing himself having one of those godmothers, whose only duty seemed to consist in waving their wands and fulfilling requests. In the morning he went quite dejectedly to his work, quite different to his usual sprightly, little self. He chopped the wood with a heavy heart for a time, finally he threw down his axe in despair and sat down sullenly on the stump of a tree, wishing at least to see a fairy, and persuade her to take an interest in him. His attention was presently attracted by a bright-eyed rabbit which seemed to have suddenly come from nowhere, and sat opposite to him blinking one eye in a knowing way.
So absorbed was the little woodcutter in the castle he was building in the air, that he never started, even when the rabbit suddenly began talking to him.
"Well, Mr. Woodcutter, and what can I do for you? You have been wishing to have a fairy godmother ever since last night; now, though I am not your godmother, I know a thing or two, for instance, I know where the wishing skin lies, which the little fairies have been weaving for three hundred years, and which is now completed, any one wearing the same can have every wish fulfilled the moment he formulates it. Of course, as the skin is made of wishes, every time one is fulfilled it evaporates, and the skin becomes that much smaller, but then what does that matter? The little fairies have hidden the skin under a lightning-struck willow tree, but I have burrowed a hole and I know exactly how to get at it. I will show it you, if you like."
Thereupon the little rabbit darted off, and presently returned dragging a large bundle after it, which he spread out before the woodcutter's eager eyes.
"And is this skin really made of wishes? Oh! Mr. Rabbit, please let me put it on just for a few minutes, I would like just to make one wish. I promise I will give it you back directly."
The good-natured little rabbit willingly helped the woodcutter to put the magic skits on, which fitted him somewhat tightly, but still it felt pretty comfortable.
"Oh! how I wish this skin were altogether mine," sighed the woodcutter, "and that I never need part with it."
Hardly had he uttered these words when he felt as if the skin fitted him a shade tighter than before.
"Hallo!" said the rabbit, "what have you been wishing for? Certainly you seem to me to have diminished in size. Here, give me the skin, I must put it back where I found it, or the fairies will be after me."
But the woodcutter knew he need not give up his treasure any more, so looking disdainfully at the rabbit he stalked off in the direction of his cottage, his head full of plans for future grandeur. But Mr. Bunny, in a great rage, lopped after him, yelling with all his might, till the woodcutter, losing all patience, turned round and screamed at him, "I wish you'd go to Jericho, and leave me alone." When immediately, the rabbit ran away as hard as he could tear, and he felt the skin again tighten round him. He knew that Mr. Bunny had gone to Jericho, and would trouble him no more.
When he got home, he told his wife his wonderful adventure, but she only thought he had been drinking, and advised him to go to bed and sleep it off, when, to convince her, he said, "I wish there was a fine supper table laid all ready here, with roast fowls, roast ducks, and roast turkeys, pies and puddings, and four flunkeys to wait on my wife and me."
Hardly were the words out of his mouth when a most gorgeous table appeared in the centre of the room, heavily laden with the most delicious dishes, fruits and wines, while four servants in gold and silver livery stood waiting to serve the supper.
The wife could hardly believe her eyes, and they both sat down and ate and drank and made merry, for they felt that their future was now likely to be a glorious one. Certainly, the little man felt himself a good bit smaller—his feet, when he sat, no longer reached the ground—but what of that, he would become so rich and proud that his stature would not be of the slightest consequence, so lifting a glass of wine high over his head, he said:—
"I wish to be a rich lord, with a castle instead of a cottage, and lands and woods all my own; I wish to wear velvet garments, and my wife to go about in nothing but silk dresses, I wish to eat off nothing but gold plates, and use glasses cut of pure diamonds; I wish . . ."
But his wife checked him just in time, for at every new wish he uttered he diminished an inch before her very eyes, and, lo! the humble cottage had disappeared, and they were sitting in a grand hall, with marble pillars and soft carpets. They looked out of the window, and, though it was evening, they could see distinctly a lovely garden planted with graceful trees and flowers, and fountains in crystal basins, while soft music filled the air.
The wood-cutter looked at his wife and she at him. Poor little man, he was only three feet high now, but he was clad in a sumptuous coat and cloak of velvet lined with ermine; his wife was dressed in a lovely silk gown, with diamonds on her arms and neck. They could hardly contain themselves for joy, and the wife, seizing her little lord in her arms, began dancing round the room to the time of the distant music. The entrance of a number of lackeys and maid-servants asking his lordship for orders for the night, reminded them of the duties of their new position, and they marched off to their bedchamber in solemn state.
The next day they spent in visiting their extensive domains, the stables, coach-houses, farms, and dairies, they found that they were indeed considered enormously wealthy, everybody bowed down to them, and listened deferentially to all they had to say. The only thing that was very annoying was that the little lord felt that his three feet of stature were evidently a source of intense amusement to all his retainers and servants.
In the afternoon, they ordered their gilded coach and six white horses to take them to pay calls on their neighbours, whom they hoped to dazzle with their great splendour. They set off in most gorgeous style, with an army of outriders and flunkeys following the carriage; but to their intense astonishment the various neighbouring lords had just as fine houses and gardens as their own, and wore just as fine dresses and magnificent jewels as they did themselves, so they returned home in disgust, Joan especially was intensely annoyed. One lady on whom she called, wore three more bracelets than she did, another had seven more servants, and a third wore a dress embroidered with real pearls, while her own was only embroidered in silver; and one and all had sneered at her diminutive lord, and pointed to their own handsome husbands. She wished she could be richer and grander than they were, so that they should be obliged to bow down before her, even at the cost of another foot off her husband's stature.
So after supper she talked to her lord about her grievances, and pointed out to him, that while he was merely the equal of his neighbours, they would always laugh at him, but once their superiors, say a royal duke or a prince, they would never dare to do so again. At first Jack refused to wish for anything else just yet, he felt himself quite small enough, and did not think that any additional grandeur could compensate him for the loss of another twelve inches. However, at last, his wife prevailed upon him, and just before going to bed he wished to become a royal duke, second only to the king, and equal to any prince in the land; and the next morning Jack and Joan woke to find themselves in a royal palace, with all the servants in royal liveries calling them their Royal Highnesses; and all the lords and ladies in the land came to pay their respects to them. Joan was proud indeed; not one lady wore such fine jewels, or had such a number of servants and palaces as she had, and though her husband was now only two feet high, all the lords stood round him, loudly laughing at his jokes, and the ladies vied with each other as to who should lift him up into his chair. That very day the king was himself coming, with the queen and all his retinue, to pay a visit to the royal duke and duchess, and grand preparations were made for His Majesty's reception.
When the King and Queen arrived, Jack and Joan received them in the grand hall of their palace. Poor little Jack! he felt very nervous when he had to kiss the Queen's hand, Joan had to lift him into a chair, which amused their majesties very much, and caused a titter among the other royal dukes, princes and princesses. During the banquet, the diminutive royal duke had to sit on a very tall stool, and had to have his food placed on his plate for him, as he could not reach the dishes; the King was quite convulsed with laughter, and hardly could eat anything; no one else dared to smile, but the Queen made sneering remarks to the duchess about her funny little husband.
That night Joan and Jack had a frightful difference of opinion: she wished to rule supreme over everybody so that even the King and the Queen, who had laughed at them, should have to come and do homage to her and her husband, whatever be his size. In fact she wished to become the greatest empress in the world; whereas Jack felt that another foot off his height would be a trial he could never undergo. However his wife goaded him on till she had gained her point, and before the sun rose next morning, the woodcutter and his wife became the most powerful emperor and empress in the world. There was not a King or a Queen in the world that did not come to do homage before their Imperial Majesties, no war was declared between any nations or treaty signed without their consent, they exacted tribute from all duchies, principalities, and even kingdoms around; but alas! for the poor little Emperor he was only six inches high, and had to be carried in state on a cushion to all the great functions, and to stand on a gold table when he received the ambassadors from foreign courts. At banquets and state dinners he had to sit on a little golden chair placed on the table, and be fed with a salt spoon out of the Empress's plate.
Very soon he got tired of all this, more especially as, after a little while, Joan, now having reached the height of her ambition, took very little notice of him, she wouldn't allow him to have any voice in any of the affairs of state, and grew tired of seeing her husband carried before her on a cushion. Finally she had a tiny doll's house built in the garden, into which she relegated her lord and master, and only took him out to play with occasionally. Poor little Jack! He thought sorrowfully of the days when he was a fine grown man and cut wood in the forest and was master of his own little home by the old oak tree. He cursed the rabbit, the fairies, the pedlar, and chiefly his own blind stupidity in wishing to change his own contented happy lot, for all this gilded misery.
At last one day, looking out of one of the tiny windows of his doll's house, he saw a woodcutter going along merrily with his bundle of faggots, whistling a lively tune. The poor little Emperor took his jewelled crown, which he always wore, off his head, and throwing it violently on the ground, so that the gems were scattered in all directions, he said—"Oh, how I wish I were a full-grown man, a wood-cutter again, with my wife in my own little cottage, not dreaming even of such things as kings and emperors."
When he had spoken, in one moment, the magnificent palace, the exquisite gardens had vanished, and he sat in his big armchair opposite his wife who was knitting, his feet touched the ground, and his arm reached to where Joan was sitting. They fell into each other's arms. Was it all a dream, little readers? I cannot tell you, but all I know is that henceforth Jack and Joan lived humbly in their little cottage contented and happy ever after.