The Four Gifts
A Folk Tale from Brittany
If I had three hundred crowns a year, I should go and live at Quimper, where is the finest church in all Cornouailles and where all the houses have weather-cocks; if I had two hundred crowns a year, I should go and live at Carhaix, for its moorlands and game, but if I had only one hundred crowns, I should settle down at Pont-Aven, for it is there you find an abundance of everything. At Pont-Aven, butter costs but the price of milk at Quimper, a fowl what you pay for a Quimper egg. That is why at Pont-Aven you see fine farms, where you have home-cured bacon three times a week and even shepherd-lads have as much homemade bread as they can eat.
It was in one of such estates that Azenor Bourhis lived; she toiled from dawn till night, keeping her farm as though she had been born a man, and owning fields and produce enough to pay for two sons' schooling. But in place of sons Azenor had one niece who earned more than her keep, so that each day's savings were added to the day's before. Thus the old dame's purse grew fat before her very eyes.
Now, savings too easily earned bring evil in their train. If you store up corn, rats come into the barn, and if you hoard up crowns, miserliness grips the heart. Old Azenor had gotten to the point of caring only about wealth, and of esteeming people only like herself, who had plenty of money in their pockets. So she was angry when she saw Denes, a farm laborer from Plover, having private talks with her niece.
One day when Azenor again had seen the two together she called to Tephany in a rasping tone:
"Are you not ashamed to be chattering with that beggar, when you can find many a rich lad hereabouts who would be glad to buy you a silver ring?"
"Denes is a skillful farmer and as upright as the hills," replied the maiden. "One of these days he will find a farm to let, big enough to bring up little children on it."
"And you would like to be their mother?" burst out Azenor wrathfully. "By my purse strings! I would rather see you at the bottom of our well, than the wife of that good-for-nothing. No! No! No one shall say I have brought up my sister's child only to see her marry a man whose whole possessions could go into his tobacco-pouch!"
"What does money matter when you have health and the good saints know your intentions are of the best?" answered Tephany gently.
"What does money matter!" retorted Azenor, horrorstruck. "Do you then despise the goods that heaven gives us! Since it is so, you impertinent baggage, I forbid you to speak again to Denes, and if I catch him on our lands I shall ask the Rector to blame you publicly on Sunday!"
"Oh! you would not truly do so!" cried Tephany quite terrified.
"As sure as there is a Paradise waiting for us all, I will!" flared back the angry dame. "In the meantime, away to the brook with you and wash the linen and put it to dry on the hawthorn hedge, for ever since you've listened to the wind that blows from Plover town, all your work has been forgotten, and both your arms are worth no more than a one-armed man's five fingers."
With which bitter words Azenor pointed to the scrubbing board and ordered Tephany to her task. The girl obeyed, but her heart was welling with grief and resentment.
"Crabbed age is harder than the stone stoop of our farm," she brooded. "Yes, a hundred times as hard, for the rain, falling drop by drop, wears away the stone but tears cannot soften old folks' stubbornness. Heaven knows my meetings with Denes were my only joy. He never taught me anything but beautiful songs, and talked to me only about what we should do when we were married in our little farm,--he looking after the land, and the mangers. Is it wrong to give each other courage and hope? God would never have created marriage if it were a sin to think of one's own wedding! Ah! cruel, cruel aunt to tear me from my Denes!"
So thinking, Tephany reached the brook. As she was putting down her tub of linen on the flat, white stones that marked the washing-place, she saw a wizened woman, not of that parish, who was leaning on a hawthorn wand. In spite of her trouble, Tephany greeted her, calling her "Aunt," according to the ways of Old Breton courtesy. Young folk had warm hearts in those days of long ago.
"Are you resting under the cool willow tree, Aunt?" she asked.
"You have to rest where best you may, when the sky is your only roof," replied the shrivelled woman in a quavery voice.
"Are you then so forlorn?" inquired Tephany pitifully, "and have you no relations to give you welcome in their home?"
"All have gone to heaven," continued the crone, "and my only home is kind hearts."
The maiden took the piece of homemade bread and the slice of bacon which Azenor had given her, wrapped up in a bit of clean linen, and offered it to the beggar woman. The dame had a hungry look.
"Take this, poor Aunt," said Tephany. "Today at least, with this good bread you will have a Christian dinner. In your prayers, remember my dear parents who have died."
The dame took the bread and peered at Tephany.
"Those who help are worthy to be helped," she remarked. "Your eyes are red because your aunt Azenor has forbidden you to talk to your lad from Plover,--but I shall give you the means of seeing him once a day."
"You will!" cried the girl, dumfounded that this old dame should know so much about her.
"Take this brass pin," resumed the crone. "Each time you prick it into your collar Mother Bourhis will feel compelled to leave the farmhouse and go into the field to count her cabbages. As long as the pin is in its place you will be free and your aunt will come back only when the pin lies once more in its sheath."
Having pronounced these words, the beggar woman rose, waved her hand and disappeared.
Tephany stood thunderstruck. It was certain that the wrinkled dame had been a saint or fairy. The girl went home quite decided to try what the pin could do.
The next day at about the time that Denes usually arrived Tephany placed the brass pin in her collar. Immediately Azenor took her wooden shoes and went out into the garden, where she fell to counting the cabbages. From the garden, she went to the orchard, from the orchard, to the other fields, so that the lassie had plenty of time to talk with the lad from Plover.
It was the same the next day, and every day for week following week. As soon as the pin came from its sheath, Tephany's aunt would trot off to her cabbages and begin to calculate again and yet again the number of the big ones, the little ones, the smooth ones or the curly. Who would not have a pin like this!
At first Denes was delighted, but as week followed week he became less eager for his talks with Tephany. He had taught her all the songs he knew. He had gone over his plans again and again and now he was obliged to wonder what he was going to say to her, and to get it ready beforehand, as a preacher prepares his sermon. So he came later and went away earlier. At length days arrived when he did not come at all, and the waiting Tephany twiddled her pin in vain.
Alas, poor Tephany!
She felt her lover's heart becoming cold and she was sadder now than in the days before she had the magic pin.
There came an evening when Tephany, having waited uselessly for her beloved, took her pitcher and went alone to the spring, her heart heavy with sorrow. As she drew near, she beheld again the wizened woman, who had given her the pin. When the crone saw Tephany she began to laugh and addressed her in a squeaky voice:
"Ah! Ah! my fine lady does not care about being able to talk to her beloved Denes at any time in the day?"
"Alas," sighed Tephany, "I had to see him to keep his heart in love with me, but now habit has made my society less pleasant. Ah! Aunt! since you gave me the means of seeing him every day, you ought to have given me the wit to hold him."
"Is that then what my lassie wants?" asked the aged woman. "So be it. Here is a feather. It comes from the wing of the oldest of the eagles, and no one knows how old he is. When my fair lady hides it in her hair, she will be as knowing as the will-o-the-wisp himself."
Tephany, blushing with pleasure, took the feather and the next day, before Denes' visit, she slipped it under the blue ribbon of her coif. It seemed instantly as if the sun had risen in her mind. She found knowledge that men take all of a lifetime to acquire was hers. A wealth, too, of other matters filled her brain which learned men know not at all. For to man's wisdom was added woman's wit. So Denes was astonished at her flow of knowledge; she invented poetry and knew more songs than all the singers of Scaur, and repeated all the gossip of the neighborhood that on baking-days was going round from house to house.
The young man came back the next day and the days that followed, and Tephany had always something fresh to tell him. Denes had never met a man nor woman half so witty,
but it was not long before he felt himself a bit uneasy in his mind. Tephany could not help wearing her feather for other folk as well as Denes and all over the countryside tongues began to wag about her songs and clever speeches.
"She's a bad lot," folk said of her. "The man who marries her will be led along for all the world like a bridled horse."
The lad from Plover began repeating the same prediction to himself, and as he had always thought it better to hold the bridle than to wear it, Tephany's jokes no longer made him laugh so heartily.
One day when he was going to a dance on a new threshing floor, the girl did her brightest to prevent him, but Denes, who did not intend to be directed by her, would not listen to her reasons and laughed at her request.
"Ah! I see why you are so anxious to go to the, new threshing floor," explained Tephany in a temper. "Azilicz will be there."
Azilicz was the prettiest girl in all the countryside and, as even all her best friends said, the vainest.
"It is certain Azilicz will be there," said Denes, who was pleased to make his best-beloved jealous, "and a man would go a wearier way than that to see a maid so winsome."
"Then go where your heart bids you," cried Tephany, and she flounced into the farmhouse without listening to another word.
She sat down upon the hearthstone, overwhelmed with grief, and, tearing from her hair her magic feather, sobbed aloud with bitterness.
"Of what use is wit since men turn toward beauty as flies turn toward the sun! Ah! old fairy Aunt, what I needed was not to be the most learned, but the most beautiful of damsels."
"Then be the most beautiful," replied a voice close to her ear.
Tephany turned breathless, and behold! beside her stood the wrinkled crone with the hawthorn wand. The dame went on: "Take this necklace, and while you have it round your neck you will be to other women as the queen of flowers is to the wild blossoms of the meadows." Truly here was a necklace indeed!
Tephany uttered a cry of joy. She quickly donned the necklace, hastened to her looking-glass and gasped delighted. Never had been seen in all the land of Brittany a maid so flowerlike as she.
She determined to test immediately her beauty upon Denes so, putting on her richest costume, her woollen stockings and buckled shoes, she set out for the threshing floor. When she reached the cross-roads, she met a young lord in a coach.
"By our Lady," he cried, leaping out beside her, "I did not know there was such a lovely creature in all the four corners of the land, and if I lose my soul for it, you shall bear my name."
But Tephany replied:
"Go your way, my lord, go your way; I am only a poor peasant girl, used to winnowing, milking and harvesting."
"And I will make a lady of you!" exclaimed the lord, seizing her hand and drawing her toward his coach.
The girl drew back.
"I want only to be betrothed to Denes, the ploughman of Plover," she cried, alarmed. But the young lord laughed. He ordered his servants to lay hands on Tephany and to lift her into his coach, which done they drove away as quickly as the horses could gallop. Amidst clouds of dust and a clattering of hoofs they reached the young lord's castle, which was of rock, roofed with slate, as are all the great nobles' houses. Her captor imprisoned Tephany in a vast and vaulted room, closed it with three bolted doors and placed guards to keep watch upon her. But scarcely had the young lord withdrawn than Tephany with sudden inspiration drew forth her pin of brass. At once her watchers hastened to the garden to count the cabbages. She then placed the feather in her hair and with her wits discovered, hidden in the panelling, a fourth door through which she fled. Soon she gained the brushwood through which she plunged as a wild creature that hears the hounds hot in pursuit.
She panted on until night began to fall, then she found herself beside a convent at whose grated door she knocked and asked for shelter. The doorkeeper, when she beheld Tephany, shook her head.
"Nay, nay," she growled out surlily, "this is no place for smartly dressed girls who go about alone at night." And she clapped the door shut and dropped the clanging bolts into place.
Tephany stumbled on and on and came at length to a farm where lights were twinkling. Here again she stopped to ask for succor. At the door a boisterous group of farm-lads greeted her. They all cried out at Tephany's dazzling beauty, each one demanding that he have her for his wife. This quickly led to quarrelling, and the quarrelling in turn to fighting, so that frightened Tephany turned to flee. But all the lads ran after her. Suddenly remembering her necklace, she snatched it from her neck and threw it on a sow. At once the spell was broken that drew the lads to her. Her pursuers now pursued the pig, which grunted off in terror, and all vanished in the dark.
Tephany stumbled on her way and at last footsore, and sad at heart, she reached her aunt Azenor's farm.
So fraught with danger and with hardship had been the gift of beauty that Tephany found herself once more forming wishes. "Heaven forgive me!" she whispered to herself, "what I ought to have asked for, was neither the liberty of seeing Denes every day, for he wearies of it, nor a sharp wit, for it frightens him away, nor beauty, for it brings troubles and distrust; I ought to have asked for wealth, which makes you master of yourself and all the world beside. Ah! if I dared ask the fairy for one thing more, I should be wiser than I was before!"
"Take your heart's wish," said the beggar woman's voice at Tephany's ear. "If you feel in your right-hand pocket, you will find a silver box. Rub your eyes with the pomade and you will have a treasure in yourself."
The girl felt quickly in her pocket, found the box, opened it and had just begun to rub her eyes, when Azenor Bourhis suddenly appeared.
For some time past, Azenor had lost long days in counting cabbages, and as she saw all work behindhand in the farm, she was on the watch for someone on whom to vent her temper. When she beheld her niece sitting idle, she exploded in a burst of wrath:
"Aha, and that's the way you work, while I am slaving in the fields! Behold why ruin is in the house! Naught do you with shiftless fingers but steal the bread of your own relation!"
Azenor's anger was like milk that boils upon the fire, as soon as it boils it overflows the pot. From reproaches Azenor went to threats and then from threats to blows. Tephany, at the irate woman's onslaught burst into sobs and you can guess what was her amazement, when she beheld each tear become a round and shining pearl.
Old Mother Bourhis, uttering a cry of admiration, began to snatch them up.
Denes too, arriving, stared with eyes like saucers.
"Pearls! pearls!" he cried out in excitement.
"It's a fortune for us," babbled Azenor who continued to sweep them up in handfuls. "No one else must know about this, Denes. Weep on, Tephany, weep on!"
She held out her apron and Denes his hat. He was thinking only about the pearls, and had forgotten they were his sweetheart's tears. Thus can mere sight of wealth befuddle wits of men!
"Alack, alack the tears are stopping!" Azenor now explained. "By all the saints, Tephany if I had luck like yours I would out-weep the very rains from Heaven! Shall we beat her, Denes, and bring her sobs again?"
"No, no," broke in Denes, "we mustn't wear her out the first time. As for me I shall start for town at once and find out what each pearl is worth."
"And I shall go with you!" cried Azenor, and the two hastily left the house.
Tephany, alone at last, clasped her hands upon her heart. In anguish she raised her eyes to Heaven, then dropped them to the dark chimney corner where suddenly she saw again the wrinkled beggar woman. The crone's regard was bent upon her with a strange and mocking smile. The girl started, then with a gesture of despair, held out toward the fairy the pin, the feather and the box of ointment.
"Take them back!" Tephany cried. "Woe to people who are not content with gifts that God has granted. Give other girls wit, beauty, wealth; I wish to be again the simple-hearted girl I was."
The smile broadened on the old crone's face, "That is right, Tephany," said she, "you have learned much through your ordeal. I was sent to give you this lesson, and now you will live happily for ever after."
At these words, the beggar woman was changed into a sparkling fairy. Light flooded the cottage and she disappeared in a cloud, sweetly scented with violets and rose.
Tephany forgave Denes for having wished to sell her tears, and as they were both no longer hard to please, they were as happy as it is possible to be upon this earth. She married the lad from Plover and he was always the devoted husband that her heart had longed to have.
Sources And Further Reading
Sacred Texts Folk Tales of Brittany by Elsie Masson