The Magic Rocks And The Beggar
A Folk Tale from Brittany
In Brittany near the sea there is a village called Plouhinec. It is surrounded by moors with here and there a grove of fir trees. There is not enough grass in the whole parish to rear an ox for the butcher nor enough bran to fatten a little pig.
But if the folk there have neither corn nor cattle they have more stones than you would need to build a town. For just outside the village there is a big stretch of heather where long ago the Korrigans, a race of elves who lived in ancient Brittany, planted two rows of tall rocks which look for all the world like an avenue, except that they lead nowhere.
Near there on the banks of the river there once lived a man named Marzin. He was rich for the place, that is to say, he could salt down a pig every day, eat as much black bread as he wanted, and buy a pair of wooden shoes every Palm Sunday.
So everyone said he was proud and haughty. He had refused his sister Rozen's hand to several ardent lovers, who earned their daily bread by the sweat of their brows.
Among the suitors for the hand of Rozen was a youth named Bernez. He was a steadfast toiler, upright as the day is long, but unfortunately he possessed nothing in the world save his industry.
Bernez had known Rozen since she was a tiny girl and when she grew up his love had grown up, too. So you can quite understand that Marzin's refusal to consider him as worthy of his sister's hand nearly broke poor Bernez' heart. Rozen, however, was still permitted to welcome Bernez on the farm.
Now one Christmas eve there was a storm and people were unable to get to midnight mass. So Marzin invited all the field-hands and several neighbors to his farm. Bernez was among them. The master of the house, to show his generosity, had planned to treat them all to a supper of pig's pudding, and a whole-meal pudding sweetened with honey. All eyes were fixed on the open fire where the supper was cooking, all, that is, except those of Bernez, who kept gazing at his darling Rozen.
Now just as Bernez was drawing the benches up to the table and Rozen had stuck the wooden spoons in a circle in the huge pasty basin, the door was pushed open and an ugly old man stepped into the room.
He was a beggar, a strange man, who had never put his foot inside a church door, and the God-fearing people were afraid of him. They accused him of placing a curse on the cattle and making the corn blacken in the ear. Some folk even went so far as to say he could turn himself into a werewolf.
However, as he wore a beggar's habit, farmer Marzin let him come near the fire, gave him a three-legged stool to sit upon and the same share of the food as the invited guests.
When the old beggar, whom folks called a wizard, had finished his meal, he asked where he could sleep. Marzin opened the door of the stable where there was only a skinny donkey and a scraggy ox. The beggar went into the stable, lay down between them to get their warmth and put his head on a sack filled with chopped heather.
Now you must remember that it was Christmas eve, and just as the beggar was about to fall asleep, midnight struck, that mysterious hour when animals of the stable are said to talk like men.
The old donkey shook his long ears and turned toward the scraggy ox.
"Well, cousin, how have you been getting on since Christmas a year ago when I last spoke to you?" he asked in a friendly voice.
"It is not worth while for us to have a gift of speech on Christmas eve on account of our ancestors having been present at the birth of the Holy Babe," the ox answered crossly, "if our only hearer is an old-good-for-nothing like this beggar."
"You are very proud, my lord of Lowing Castle," said the donkey, laughing. "But I know how to be satisfied with what I have. Anyhow can you not see that the old beggar is asleep?"
"All his witchcraft doesn't make him any the richer," the ox said, "and then when he dies he will go to a nice warm place without much profit to himself. It is strange that his chum, Old Nick, has not told him of the good luck to be had near here merely for the asking."
"What luck is that?" said the donkey.
"Well," sniffed the ox, "didn't you know that once every hundred years, and the time is drawing near, for it is on this New Year's eve, a strange thing happens? The great rocks just outside the village leave their places and go down to the river to drink. Then it is that the treasures they guard beneath them are laid bare."
"Yes, yes, I remember now," answered the donkey, "but the rocks return so quickly that they catch you and grind you into powder. Folks say that the only way to avoid their fury is to hunt a branch of verbena and bind it with a five-leaved clover. This is magic against all disaster."
"But there is another condition harder to fulfill," said the ox. "The treasures that you find will fall into dust unless in return a human soul be sacrificed. Yes, you must cause a human death if you wish to enjoy the wealth of Plouhinec." When he had said this both the animals became silent.
Now all this time the beggar had been listening to their conversation, hardly daring to breathe.
"Ah, dear beasts," he thought to himself, "you have made me rich. And you can wager your last wisp of hay that this old beggar will not go below for nothing!"
And so the wizard fell asleep. But at crack of dawn, he hastened out into the country, his eyes all eagerness to find verbena and the five-leaved clover. Well-nigh endlessly he looked, up and down, here and there, hunting inland where the air is mild and plants keep green all the year round. At last, on New Year's eve, he came back to the little town of Plouhinec. His hands were clutching as though at treasure. His face bore a striking resemblance to that of a weasel that has found its way into a dove-cote.
As he was walking across the heath to the place where the huge rocks stand, he saw Bernez. Bernez, with a pointed hammer in his hand, was chipping away at one of the largest rocks.
"Well, well," mocked the wizard, "are you trying to hollow a house out of this great stone pillar?"
"No," said Bernez quietly, "but as I am out of work just now I thought I would carve a cross on one of these accursed rocks. Perhaps it will be agreeable to Providence, and possibly I shall some day be rewarded."
"You have a request to make then?" asked the old beggar slyly.
"Every Christian wishes the salvation of his soul," answered the lad.
"Have you nothing else to ask for?" whispered the beggar.
"Ah, so you know that too!" exclaimed poor Bernez.
"Well, after all it is no sin. I love the dearest maid of all Brittany and long to go before the priest with her. But alas, her brother wants for her a husband who can count out more silver coins than I have lucky pennies."
"What would you say if I could put you in the way of earning more gold coins than the maiden's brother has silver?" murmured the wizard.
"You!" exclaimed Bernez.
"But what will you want in return?" inquired Bernez.
"Only a prayer when you say yours," answered the wicked wizard.
"Then tell me what to do!" cried Bernez, letting his hammer fall. "I am willing to risk a score of deaths. For I should rather die than not win Rozen."
When the wizard saw Bernez was so eager he explained that the next night at the stroke of twelve the great rocks would go down to the river to drink, leaving their treasures uncovered, But the crafty beggar did not tell Bernez how to avoid being crushed when the stones returned to their places.
The lad suspected nothing. He thought he had but to be brave and swift.
"As there is a Heaven above us I shall do what you say, old man," said he. "And there will always be a pint of my blood at your service for what you have told me. Let me finish the cross that I am cutting on this rock," he continued, picking up his hammer, "and when the appointed hour arrives I shall meet you on the edge of the moor."
Bernez kept his word and was at the meeting place one hour before midnight. The beggar was already there. He had three knapsacks, one in each hand, and another hanging around his neck ready to be filled with treasure.
"Well," said the beggar to the young man, "sit down beside me and tell me what you will do when you have as much silver, gold and precious stones as you can dream of," said he.
Bernez stretched out on the heather. "When I have as much as I like," said he, "I shall give my sweet Rozen everything she wishes, linen and silk, white bread and oranges."
"And what will you do when you have as much gold as you like?" the wizard asked.
"When I have as much gold as I like," the lad answered, "I shall make Rozen's family rich, and all their friends and all their friends, too, to the limits of the parish!"
"And what will you do when you have many precious stones?" went on the wizard, laughing up his sleeve.
"Then," cried Bernez, "I shall make everyone rich and happy, and I shall declare it to be of Rozen's doing!"
While they were talking, an hour slipped by. From the distant village came the stroke of midnight. Scarcely had the last note sounded when there was convulsion on the heath and in the starlight the huge rocks could be seen, leaping from their beds, tumbling headlong towards the river to quench a century's thirst. They rushed down the hillside tearing up the soil and reeling like a throng of drunken giants. They then disappeared into the darkness.
The beggar leapt through the heather, followed by Bernez, to the place where the rocks had been. There, where they stood, two wells were glittering, filled up to their brims with gold, silver and precious stones.
Bernez uttered a cry of delight, but the beggar began to cram his wallets in the wildest haste, all the while listening for the return of the rocks, his ear turned toward the river.
He had just finished stuffing his knapsacks and Bernez had managed to pocket a few gold pieces for himself when a dull rumbling was heard, which swelled rapidly to thunder.
The rocks had finished drinking and were coming to their places. Tumultuously they plunged forward, faster than man can run, crushing everything before them.
When Bernez saw the rocks upon them he could not move: he cried aloud, "We are done for!"
"You are!" sneered the wizard, "but this will save me," and he clasped tightly in his hand the verbena and the clover. "You must die in order for this wealth to be mine!" shouted the wizard. "Give up your dear Rozen and think about your sins!"
While the beggar was shouting the rocks rushed headlong on him but he held up his magic leaves and the huge stones stopped with a violent jerk; then passing to the right and to the left, they rushed upon Bernez.
Bernez saw that all was over. He fell on his knees and closed his eyes. The mightiest rock of all was leading. Suddenly as it reached the kneeling Bernez, a strange thing happened. The huge stone stopped, closing up the way, standing before Bernez like a barrier to protect him.
Bernez opened his eyes. Upon the mighty stone he beheld the cross that he had carved. The stone now could do no harm to a Christian. There it remained motionless before the young man till all the others had resumed their places, and then on it went, tumbling toward its own. It came upon the beggar by this time bent double with his laden bags.
The beggar held up the magic plants but the rock was carved with a cross and in consequence was no longer in the power of evil spells. It hurled itself upon the wizard and crushed him into powder.
As for Bernez, he picked himself up and slung upon his back the wizard's bags of silver, gold and precious stones, and trudged off for home with them.
And so he married pretty Rozen after all. Together they lived as happily as both their hearts. desired, and brought up as many children as has a jenny-wren in a brood.
Sources And Further Reading
Sacred Texts Folk Tales of Brittany by Elsie Masson