Four Gifts

The Four Gifts

If I had an income of three hundred crowns, I would go and dwell at Quimper; the finest church in Cornouaille is to be found there, and all the houses have weather-vanes upon their roofs. If I had two hundred crowns a year, I would live at Carhaix, for the sake of its heath-fed sheep and its game. But if I had only one hundred, I would set up housekeeping at Pontaven, for there is the greatest abundance of every thing. At Pontaven they sell butter at the price of milk, chickens for that of eggs, and linen at the same rate as you can buy green flax. So that there are plenty of good farms there, where they dish up salt pork at least three times a week, and where the very shepherds eat as much rye-bread as they desire.

In such a farm lived Barbaik Bourhis, a spirited woman, who had maintained her household like a man, and who had fields and stacks enough to have kept two sons at college.

But Barbaik had only a niece, whose earnings far outweighed her keep, so that every day she laid by as much as she could save.

But savings too easily acquired have always their bad side. If you hoard up wheat, you attract rats into your barns; and if you lay by crowns, you will engender avarice in your heart.

Old Mother Bourhis had come at last to care for nothing but the increase of her hoards, and think nothing of any one who did not happen to pay heavy sums each month to the tax-gatherers. So she was angry when she saw Dénès, the labourer of Plover, chatting with her niece behind the gable. One morning, after thus surprising them, she cried to Tephany in step-mother tones,

“Are not you ashamed to be always chattering thus with a young man who has nothing, when there are so many others who would gladly buy for you the silver ring?”

“Dénès is a good workman and a thorough Christian,” replied the damsel. “Some day he will be able to rent a farm where he may rear a family.”

“And so you would like to marry him?” interrupted the old woman. “God save us! I would sooner see you drowned in the well than married to that vagabond. No, no, it shall never be said that I brought up my own sister's child to be the wife of a man who can carry his whole fortune in his tobacco-pouch.”

“What matters fortune when we have good health, and can ask the Blessed Virgin to look down on our intentions?” replied Tephany gently.

“What matters fortune!” replied the fermière, scandalised. “What! have you come to such a length as to despise the wealth that God has given us? May all the saints take pity on us! Since this is the case, you bold-faced thing, I forbid you ever to speak again to Dénès; and if I catch him at this farm again, it will be the worse for you both; and meanwhile go you down to the washing-place, and wash the linen, and spread it out to dry upon the hawthorn; for since you've had one ear turned towards the wind from Plover, every thing stands still at home, and your two arms are worth no more than the five fingers of a one-armed man.”

Tephany would have answered, but in vain. Mother Bourhis imperiously pointed out to her the bucket, the soap, and the beetle, and ordered her to set off that very instant.

The girl obeyed, but her heart swelled with grief and resentment.

“Old age is harder than the farm-door steps,” thought she to herself; “yes, one hundred times harder, for the rain by frequent falling wears away the stones; but tears have no power to soften the will of old people. God knows that talking with Dénès was the only pleasure I had. If I am to see him no more, I might as well leave the world at once; and our good angel was always with us. Dénès has done nothing but teach me pretty songs, and talk about what we shall do when we are married, in a farm, he looking after the fields, and I managing the cattle.”

Thus talking to herself, Tephany had reached the douez. Whilst setting down her tub of linen upon one of the white lavatory stones, she became aware of an old woman, a stranger, sitting there, leaning her head upon a little scorched thorn-stick. Notwithstanding her vexation, Tephany saluted her.

“Is my aunt 1  taking the air under the alders?” said she, moving her load farther off.

“One must rest where one can, when one has the roof of heaven for a shelter,” answered the old woman, in a trembling voice.

“Are you, then, so desolate?” asked Tephany compassionately; “is there no relation left who can offer you a refuge at his fireside?”

“Every one is long since dead,” replied the stranger; “and I have no other family than all kind hearts.”

The maiden took the piece of rye-bread rubbed with dripping which Barbaik had given her in a bit of linen with her beetle.

“Take this, poor aunt,” said she, offering it to the beggar. “To-day, at least, you shall dine like a Christian on our good God's bread; only remember in your prayers my parents, who are dead.”

The old woman took the bread, then looked at Tephany.

“Those who help others deserve help themselves,” said she. “Your eyes are red, because Barbaik has forbidden you to speak to the lad from Plover; but he is a worthy youth, whose intentions are good, and I will give you the means of seeing him once every day.”

“You!” cried the girl, astonished that the beggar was so well informed.

“Take this long copper-pin,” replied the crone; “and every time you stick it in your dress, Mother Bourhis will be forced to leave the farm, and go to count her cabbages. All the time this pin remains where you stick it, you will be at liberty; and your aunt will not return until the pin is put back into this étui.”

With these words the beggar rose, nodded a farewell, and disappeared.

Tephany was lost in astonishment. Evidently the old woman was no beggar, but a saint, or a singer of truth.2

At any rate, the young girl treasured the pin carefully, well determined to try its power thenext day. Towards the time, then, at which Dénès was accustomed to make his appearance, she set it in her collar. Barbaik instantly put on her wooden shoes, and walked off into the garden, where she set herself to count her cabbages; from the garden she went to the orchard, and from the orchard to the field, so that Tephany could talk with Dénès at her ease.

It was the same the next day, and the next, through many weeks. As soon as the pin made its appearance from the étui, the good woman was off amongst her cabbages, always beginning to count once more how many little or big, embossed or curly cabbages 3  she had.

Dénès at first appeared enchanted at this freedom, but by degrees he grew less eager to avail himself of it. He had taught Tephany all his songs; he had told her all his plans; now he was forced to consider what he could talk to her about, and make it up beforehand, like a preacher preparing his sermon. And more than that, he came later, and went earlier away; sometimes even, pretending cartage, weeding, or errands to the town detained him, he came not to the farm at all; and Tephany had to console herself with her pin.

She understood that the love of her betrothed was cooling, and became more sorrowful than before.

One day, after vainly waiting for the youth, she took her pitcher, and went all solitary to the fountain, her heart swelling with displeasure.

When she reached it, she perceived the same old woman who had given her the magic pin. There she sat, near the spring; and watching Tephany as she advanced, she began with a little chuckling laugh,

“Ah, ah! then the pretty girl is no longer satisfied to chatter with her humble servant any hour of the day.”

“Alas, to chat, I must be with him,” replied Tephany mournfully; “and custom has made my company less agreeable to him. Oh, aunt, since you have given me the means of seeing him every day, you might give me at the same time wit enough to keep my hold upon him.”

“Is that what my daughter wants?” said the old woman. “In that case, here is a feather; let her but put it in her hair, and no one can resist her, for she will be as clever and as cunning as Master John 4  himself.”

Tephany, reddening with delight, carried off the feather; and just before Dénès' visit on thefollowing day, she stuck it under her blue rozarès.5  That very instant it appeared to her as if the sun rose in her mind; she found herself acquainted with what students spend ten years in learning, and much that even the very wisest know nothing of; for with the science of a man, she still preserved the malice of a woman. Dénès was of course astonished at her words; she talked in rhyme like the bazvalanes 6  of Cornouaille, she knew more songs than the mendicants from Scaër, and could tell all the stories current at the forges and the mills throughout the country.

The young man came day after day, and Tephany found always something new to tell him. Dénès had never met man or woman with so much wit; but after enjoying it for a time, he began to be scared by it. Tephany had not been able to resist putting in her feather for others than him; her songs, her sayings, were repeated every where, and people said,

“She is a mischievous creature; he who marries her is sure to be led like a bridled horse.”

The Plover lad repeated in his own mind the same predictions; and as he had always thought that he would rather hold than wear the bridle, he began to laugh with more constraint at Tephany's jests.

One day, when he wanted to be off to a dance in a new threshing-floor, the maiden used her utmost efforts to retain him; but Dénès, who did not choose to be led, would not listen to her reasons, and repulsed her entreaties.

“Ah, I see why you are so anxious to go to the new barn,” said Tephany, with irritation; “you are going to see Aziliçz of Penenru there.”

Aziliçz was the handsomest girl in the whole canton; and, if her good friends told truth, she was the greatest flirt.

“To tell the truth, Aziliçz will be there,” said Dénès, who delighted in piquing the jealousy of his dearly-beloved; “and to see her any one would go a long round.”

“Go, then, where your heart draws you,” said the wounded damsel.

And she returned to the farm without hearing a word more he had to say.

But seating herself, overwhelmed with sadness, on the broad hearth-stone, she gave herself up to earnest thought; and then flinging the wondrous feather from her, she exclaimed,

“Of what use is wit and cleverness for maidens, since men rush towards beauty as the flies to sunshine! Ah, what I want, old aunt, is not to be the wisest, but the fairest on the earth.”

“Be thou also, then, the fairest,” uttered an unexpected voice.

Tephany turned round astonished, and saw at the door the old woman with her thorn-stick, who thus spoke:

“Take this necklace, and so long as you shall wear it round your neck, you shall appear amongst all other women as the queen of the meadow amidst wild flowers.”

Tephany could not repress a cry of joy. She hastened to put on the necklace, rushed to her little mirror, and there stood dumb with admiration. Never had any girl been at once so fair and so rosy, so lovely to look upon.

Anxious to judge instantly of the effect which her appearance would produce on Dénès, she decked herself out in her finest dress, her worsted stockings, and her buckled shoes, and took her way towards the new barn.

But just as she reached the cross-road, she met a young lord in his coach, who, the instant he caught sight of her, desired the coachman to stop.

“By my life,” cried he, in admiration, “I had no idea there was such a beautiful creature as this in the country; and if it were to cost me my life, she must bear my name.”

But Tephany replied, “Go on, good sir, go on your way; I am but a poor peasant-girl, accustomed to winnow, milk, and mow.”

“But I will make a noble lady of you,” cried the young lord; and taking her hand, he tried to lead her to his coach.

The maiden drew back.

“I will only be the bride of Dénès, the Plover labourer,” said she, with resolution.

The lord still insisted; but when he found that she went towards the ditch to fly away across the meadows, he desired his footmen to seize her, and put her by force into the coach, which then set off at full gallop.

In about an hour's time they reached the castle, which was built of carved stone, and was covered with slate, like all noble mansions. The young lord ordered them to go and fetch a priest to perform the marriage ceremony; and as meanwhile Tephany would not hear a word he had to say, and kept trying to run away, he made them shut her up in a great hall closed by three doors well bolted, and desired his servants to guard her well. But by means of her pin Tephany sent them all into the garden to count cabbages; by her feather she discovered a fourth door concealed in the panneling, whereby she escaped; and then fervently committing herself to Providence, she scampered away through the woods like a hare who hears the dogs behind her.

As long as she had any strength left, on she went, until the night began to close around her.Then, perceiving the turret of a convent, she went up to the little grated door, and ringing the bell, begged for a night's shelter; but on seeing her the portress shook her head.

“Go away, go away,” said she; “there is no place here for young girls so beautiful as you, who wander all alone at this hour of night along the roads.”

And closing the wicket, she went away without listening to another word.

Forced to go further on, Tephany stopped at a farm-door, where there were several young men and women talking together, and made the same request as at the convent.

The mistress of the house hesitated what answer to make; but all the young men, dazzled by Tephany's beauty, cried out each one that he would take her to his father's house, and every one endeavoured to outbid his neighbour in their offers. One said that he would take her in a wagon and three horses, lest she should be tired; another promised her the best bed; and a third declared that she should sit down at table with the family. At last, from promises they came to quarrelling, and from quarrelling to blows; until the women, frightened, began to abuse Tephany, telling her it was an infamous shame to come with her charms to put dissensions amongst men in that way. The poor girl, quite beside herself,tried to run away; but all the young men set off after her. Just then she all at once remembered her necklace, and taking it from her neck slipped it round that of a sow who was cropping the buttercups. In an instant the charm that drew the youths towards her died away, and they began to pursue the beast instead, which fled away in terror.

Tephany still went on in spite of her fatigue, and came at last to her aunt's farm, worn out with weariness, but still more with grief. Her wishes had brought her so little satisfaction, that she passed many days without making another. However, Dénès' visits grew more and more uncertain; he had undertaken to clear a warren, and there he toiled from morning until night.

When the young girl regretted seeing so little of him, he had always to reply that his labour was their sole resource; and that if people want to spend their time in talking together, they must needs have legacies or dowries.

Then Tephany began to complain and to desire.

“God pardon me,” said she, in a low voice; “but what I ought to ask for is not liberty to see Dénès every day, for he soon gets tired of it; nor wit, for it scares him; nor beauty, for it brings upon me trouble and mistrust; but rather wealth, for then one can be master of oneself and others. Ah, if I dared to make yet one petition more of the old aunt, I would be wiser than I was before.”

“Be satisfied,” said the voice of the old beggar, though Tephany perceived her not. “Feel in your right pocket, and you will find a little box; rub your eyes with the ointment it contains, and you will have a treasure in yourself.”

The young girl hastily felt in her pocket, found the box, opened it, and began to rub her eyes as she had been desired, when Barbaik Bourhis entered.

She who, in spite of herself, had now for some time past consumed whole days in cabbage-counting, and who saw all the farm-work fallen into arrears, was only waiting an occasion for visiting her wrath upon somebody. Seeing her niece sitting down doing nothing, she clasped her hands and cried,

“That's the way, then, that the work goes on whilst I am in the fields. Ah, I am surprised no longer that we are all going to ruin. Are you not ashamed, you wretch, to plunder food in this way from your kith and kin?”

Tephany would have excused herself; but Barbaik's rage was like milk heating on a turf-fire—let but the first bubble rise, and all mounts upwards and boils over; from reproaches she came to threats, and from threats to a box on the ear.

Tephany, who had borne every thing patiently till then, could no longer restrain her tears; but guess her astonishment when she perceived that every tear was a beautiful and shining fair round pearl.

Mother Bourhis, who made the same discovery, uttered loud cries of admiration, and set herself to pick them up.

Dénès, who came in at that instant, was no less surprised.

“Pearls! real pearls!” he exclaimed, catching them.

“It will make our fortune,” said Barbaik, continuing to pick them up. “Ah, what fairy has bestowed this gift upon her? We must take good care lest it gets noised abroad, Dénès; I will give you a share, but only you. Go on, my girl, go on; you also shall be benefited by this opportunity.”

She held her apron, and Dénès his hat; the pearls were all he thought of, forgetful they were tears.

Tephany, choking with emotion, would have escaped; but the old woman stopped her, reproaching her with wishing to defraud them, and saying all she could to make her cry the more. The young girl compelled herself with violent effort to control her sorrow, and to wipe her eyes.

“It's all over already,” cried Barbaik. “Ah, Blessed Virgin, can one be so weak-minded! IfI had such a gift as that, I would no more think of stopping than the great fountain on the Green Road. Hadn't we better beat her a little, and try again?”

“No,” interrupted Dénès, “for fear we should exhaust her the first time. I will set forth this moment for the town, and there find out how much each pearl is worth.”

Barbaik and he went out together, reckoning the value as nearly as they could, and deciding beforehand how they should divide it, forgetting Tephany completely in the matter.

As for her, she clasped her two hands upon her heart, and raised her eyes towards heaven; but her look was intercepted by the aged beggar, who, leaning on her staff in the duskiest corner of the hearth, was watching her with mocking eye. The maiden trembled; and seizing the pin, the feather, and the box of ointment given her by the crone,

“Take back, take back,” she cried, “your fatal gifts. Woe to all those who cannot be content with what they have received from God! He had gifted me according to His own wise appointment, and I madly was dissatisfied with my portion. Give others liberty, wit, beauty, and wealth. For me, I neither am, nor will be, other than the simple girl of former days, loving and serving her neighbours to the utmost of her power.”

“Well said, Tephany,” cried the old woman. “Thou hast come out from the trial; but let it do thee good. The Almighty has sent me to bestow this lesson on thee; I am thy guardian angel. Now that thou hast learned this truth, thou wilt live more happily; for God has promised peace to hearts of good will.”

With these words the beggar changed into an angel glittering with light; and shedding through the farm a scent of violets and of incense, vanished like a flash of lightning.

Tephany forgave Dénès his willingness to make merchandise of her tears. Become now more reasonable, she accepted happiness as we find it on this earth; and she was married to the lad of Plover, who proved through all his life a good husband and a first-rate workman.

1 Young Breton girls thus address old women from a motive of respect.

2 Chanteuse de vérité (Dion ganérez ), literally qui chante droit, a name given in Brittany to fairies who foretell the future.

3 These are different kinds of cabbages cultivated in Brittany.

4 A name given by the Bretons to the tricksy sprite Maistr Yan.

5 The ribbon covered with lace worn by Breton peasant-girls in their hair.

6 Negotiators for a wedding, who improvise disputations in verse, like Virgil's shepherds.