I am going to tell you a story that was told to me when I was a little one, and which I like better and better the oftener I think of it. For it is with stories as with some men and women, the older they grow the pleasanter they grow, and that is delightful!
Of course you have been into the country? Well, then, you must have seen a regularly poor old cottage. Moss and weeds spring up amid the thatch of the roof, a stork's nest decorates the chimney (the stork can never be dispensed with), the walls are aslant, the windows low (in fact, only one of them can be shut), the baking-oven projects forward, and an elder-bush leans over the gate, where you will see a tiny pond with a duck and ducklings in it, close under a knotted old willow-tree. Yes, and then there is a watch-dog that barks at every passer-by.
Just such a poor little cottage as this was the one in my story, and in it dwelt a husband and wife. Few as their possessions were, one of them they could do without, and that was a horse, that used to graze in the ditch beside the high-road. The good-man rode on it to town, he lent it to his neighbors, and received slight services from them in return, but still it would be more profitable to sell the horse, or else exchange it for something they could make of more frequent use. But which should they do? sell or exchange?
"Why, you will find out what is best, good-man," said the wife. "Isn't this market-day?" Come, ride off to the town—get money, or what you can for the horse—whatever you do is sure to be right. Make haste for the market!"
So she tied on his neckerchief—for that was a matter she understood better than he—she tied it with a double knot, and made him look quite spruce; she dusted his hat with the palm of her hand; and she kissed him and sent him off, riding the horse that was to be either sold or bartered. Of course, he would know what to do.
The sun was hot, and not a cloud in the sky. The road was dusty, and such a crowd of folk passed on their way to market. Some in wagons, some on horseback, some on their own legs. A fierce sun and no shade all the way.
A man came driving a cow—as pretty a cow as could be. "That creature must give beautiful milk," thought the peasant; "it would not be a bad bargain if I to that. I say, you fellow with the cow!" he began aloud; "let's have some talk together. Look you, a horse, I believe, costs more than a cow, but it is all the same to me, as I have more use for a cow—shall we make an exchange?"
"To be sure!" was the answer, and the bargain was made.
The good-man might just as well now turn back homeward—he had finished his business. But he had made up his mind to go to market, so to market he must go, if only to look on, so, with his cow, he continued on his way. He trudged fast, so did the cow, and soon they overtook a man who was leading a sheep—a sheep in good condition, well clothed with wool.
"I should very much like to have that!" thought the peasant. "It would find pasture enough by our road-side, and in winter we might take it into our own room. And really it would be more reasonable for us to be keeping a sheep than a cow. Shall we exchange?"
Yes, the man who owned the sheep was quite willing; so the exchange was made, and the good-man now went on with his sheep. Presently there passed him a man with a big goose under his arm.
"Well, you have got a heavy fellow there!" quoth the peasant. "Feathers and fat in plenty! How nicely we could tie her up near our little pond, and it would be something for the good-wife to gather up the scraps for. She has often said: 'If we had but a goose!' Now she can have one—and she shall, too!" will you exchange? I will give you my sheep for your goose, and say 'thank you' besides."
The other had no objection, so the peasant had his will and his goose. He was now close to the town; he was wearied with the heat and the crowd, folk and cattle pushing past him, thronging on the road, in the ditch, and close up to the turnpike-man's cabbage-garden, where his one hen was tied up, lest in her fright she should lose her way and be carried off. It was a short-backed hen: she winked with one eye, crying, "Cluck, cluck!" What she was thinking of I can't say, but what the peasant thought on seeing her, was this: "That is the prettiest hen I have ever seen—much prettier than any of our parson's chickens.
I should very much like to have her. A hen can always pick up a grain here and there—can provide for herself. I almost think it would be a good plan to take her instead of the goose. Shall we exchange?" he asked. "Exchange?" repeated the owner; "not a bad idea!" so it was done; the turnpike-man got the goose, the peasant the hen.
He had transacted a deal of business since first starting on his way to the town; hot was he, and wearied too; he must have a dram and a bit of bread. He was on the point of entering an inn, when the innkeeper met him in the door swinging a sack chock-full of something.
"What have you there?" asked the peasant.
"Mellow apples,' was the answer, "a whole sackful for swine."
"What a quantity! Wouldn't my wife like to see so many! Why, the last year we had only one single apple on the whole tree at home. Ah! I wish my wife could see them!"
"Well, what will you give me for them?"
"Give for them? why, I will give you my hen." So he gave the hen, took the apples, and entered the inn, and going straight up to the bar, set his sack upright against the stove without considering that there was a fire lighted inside. A good many strangers were present, among them two Englishmen, both with their pockets full of gold and fond of laying wagers, as Englishmen in stories are wont to do.
Presently there came a sound from the stove, "Suss—suss—suss!" the apples were roasting. "What is that?" folk asked, and soon heard the whole history of the horse that had been exchanged, first for a cow, and lastly for a sack of rotten apples.
"Well! Won't you get a good sound cuff from your wife, when you go home?" said one of the Englishmen. "Something heavy enough to fell an ox, I warn you!"
"I shall get kisses, not cuffs," replied the peasant. "My wife will say, 'Whatever the good-man does is right.'"
"A wager!" cried the Englishmen, "for a hundred pounds?"
"Say rather a bushelful," quoth the peasant, and I can only lay my bushel of apples with myself and the good-wife, but that will be more than full measure, I trow."
"Done!" cried they. And the innkeeper's cart was brought out forthwith, the Englishmen got into it, the peasant got into it, the rotten apples got into it, and away they sped to the peasant's cottage.
"Good evening, wife."
"Same to you, good-man."
"Well, I have exchanged the horse, not sold it."
"Of course," said the wife, taking his hand, and in her eagerness to listen noticing neither the sack nor the strangers.
"I exchanged the horse for a cow."
"Oh! how delightful! Now we can have milk, butter, and cheese on our table. What a capital idea!"
"Yes, but I exchanged the cow for a sheep."
"Better and better! Cried the wife. "You are always so thoughtful; we have only just grass enough for a sheep. But now we shall have ewe's milk, and ewe's cheese, and woolen stockings, nay, woolen jackets too; and a cow would not give us that; she loses all her hairs. But you are always such a clever fellow."
"But the ewe I exchanged again for a goose."
"What! shall we really keep Michaelmas this year, good-man? You are always thinking of what will please me, and that was a beautiful thought. The goose can be tethered to the willow-tree and grow fat for Michaelmas Day."
"But I gave the goose away for a hen," said the peasant.
"A hen? Well, that was a good exchange," said his wife. "A hen will lay eggs, sit upon them, and we shall have chickens. Fancy! A hen-yard! That is just the thing I have always wished for most."
"Ah, but I exchanged the hen for a sack of mellow apples."
"Then I must give thee a kiss," cried the wife.
"Thanks, my own husband. And now I have something to tell. When you were gone I thought how I could get a right good dinner ready for you: omelets with parsley. Now I had the eggs, but not the parsley. So I went over to the schoolmaster's ; they have parsley, I know, but the woman is so crabbed, she wanted something for it. Now what could I give her? Nothing grows in our garden, not even a rotten apple, not even that had I for her; but now I can give her ten, nay, a whole sackful. That is famous, good-man!" and she kissed him again.
"Well done!" cried the Englishmen. "Always down hill, and always happy! Such a sight is worth the money!" And so quite contentedly they paid the bushelful of gold pieces to the peasant, who had got kisses, not cuffs, by his bargains.
Certainly virtue is her own reward, when the wife is sure that her husband is the wisest man in the world, and that whatever he does is right. So now you have heard this old story that was once told to me, and I hope have learnt the moral.