Danish Fairy and Folk Tales/The Cunning Man in Hilltown

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ONCE upon a time there were two villages lying a few miles from each other, in a certain part of the country. Their names were Plaintown and Hilltown.

In our day the people of Plaintown are considered about as clever as the rest of their countrymen, but in olden times they were different. Their fertile soil and abundance of crops, their fragrant hop-gardens and extensive farms, filled their chests and drawers with gold and silver. Of hills and woods they had no idea, and any one knows that he who has never needed to climb a hill or remove the trees which stand in his way is liable to become idle and lazy, and to be less efficient than others who learn to face and overthrow the difficulties which are in their way.

Hilltown had hills and woods. The soil was not very rich, and produced only moderate crops, so those who cultivated it were forced to work hard for the necessities of life. But they learned more by working so hard than their friends in Plaintown who lived at ease.

In Hilltown there was a man called Eric. One day he had the good fortune to catch a fox which had long disturbed the peace in his poultry-yard. He determined not to kill the animal, but tied a rope around Reynard's neck and determined to sell him to any one who might buy him. As he went along a by-road, a man from Plaintown came driving along in great state. His name was Christopher. When he caught sight of the fox he stopped his horses, shouting: "What sort of creature is that, hey? I never saw its like before."

Eric from Hilltown stopped and looked at the stranger and his two beautiful mares. As soon as he found out that the man could have come from no other place than Plaintown, he replied: "It is a sheep-painter."

"A sheep-painter!" shouted the Plaintowner. "What use do you make of him?"

"He paints my sheep red," returned Eric.

"Is it possible, indeed?" said Christopher.

"The greatest truth you ever heard," asserted the other. "If you let him paint the wool, you never need to have it dyed afterwards."

"A great deal of money might be saved in that manner," observed Christopher again.

"Depend upon it, my friend!" said Eric. "He is expensive. Yes, yes, he is very expensive, but you save the cost of dyeing, you know, in the future. This expense comes only once."

"Of course—of course!" rejoined Christopher.
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"That is true. How—how much will you take for him?"

"I did not think of selling him," said Eric, "but I will do you a favor if I can, so I will let him go for seventy dollars."

"That is a great deal," remarked the man from Plaintown. "Three fine cows might be bought for that money."

"I know," answered Eric; "and you have a right to choose what will be most useful to you, of course." So he turned around and began to walk on.

"Wait—wait a moment!" shouted the rich man. "Why can't we talk about it? I will give you fifty."

"Take him, then," answered Eric, turning back, "and you are welcome to him."

The bargain was closed, and Reynard changed owner. "Just let me tell you," explained Eric, "how to treat him. When you want him to paint some of your sheep, put him into the fold and keep the door well closed for two weeks. He finds his own food, so you need not disturb him at all until he tells you that the work is done."

When Christopher returned home with his sheep-painter, it was determined to put him to work at once. He was led into the fold, and the door was carefully closed in order to prevent any one from disturbing him.

In a week Christopher's wife became curious to see how far the work had progressed. She peeped through the door and said that she could see a great many red spots. So they concluded that the painter was at work, and determined to leave him alone another week, that he might finish his task.

When the two weeks had passed, the Plainfielder and his wife opened the door of the sheepfold and walked in. Both sheep-painter and sheep were gone. A few bloody hides and bones alone remained. A hole in the wall showed the way in which the painter had escaped.

"I have been cheated—shamefully deceived!" cried Christopher, while his wife began to cry and lament over the sheep. "But I will take revenge. Such a long, shrivelled rascal! I shall paint him, indeed, until he is both red and blue!" He made his horses and carriage ready, selected his best whip, and set out to cool his rage upon the cunning man in Hilltown who had treated him so shamefully.

Eric at once guessed his errand when he saw Christopher approaching, and running into the kitchen, he seized a pot with boiling soup and placed it on a stone in the yard. As the boiling did not cease at once, the first thing which Christopher caught sight of when he drove into the yard was this pot, which seemed to boil without fire or spark, standing on the cold stone. He at once forgot the sheep-painter and his own thoughts of revenge. Such a pot must be a great marvel. Before he drove out of the yard again he had bought it for fifty dollars. This time he felt sure the cunning Hilltown man could not deceive him, for
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he had seen himself how the pot boiled with all its might, without fire, on the cold stone.

As soon as he was home again he determined to try the pot. It was filled with water and placed on a stone in the yard, and the whole family stood around it, watching to see it boil, and gazing with all their might at this wonderful article.

"You had better tell it to start," said the woman to her husband, after a while.

"You had better begin to boil," said Christopher to the pot.

They waited one hour, and another, but not even the faintest smoke could be seen.

"It is time to start!" shouted Christopher to the pot, but it did not heed him at all, and at length they were convinced that they had again been hoodwinked by the deceitful man in Hilltown.

Christopher swore that this time his man should not escape him. With six other Plainfielders he set out to work a fearful revenge upon the sly man in Hilltown, who did not seem to possess as much honor even as the sheep-painter.

The seven men arrived at Hilltown, and every one saw that they were fearfully excited. When they arrived at Eric's farm, all alighted and entered the dwelling-house.

"How do you do?" said Christopher to the culprit's wife, who was alone in the room. "Where is your rascal of a husband?"

"Eric is in the woods," returned the woman. "The aldermen are holding a meeting, and you may go and see him there."

"How do we find him?" inquired one of the men.

"When you reach the gate which opens from the road into the forest, you will see a large elm to the right," replied she. "All that you need do is to knock a dozen times on the tree with your large clubs, then Eric will come out and talk with you. Be sure of that!"

The seven Plainfielders followed her directions to the letter. When they reached the large elm they stopped and listened. Quite right; there was a buzzing within the tree like at an alderman's meeting, where the wise fathers speak all at once. "Now he shall have what he has deserved," said the seven men to one another, fetching the tree some hard blows with their clubs. But the wasps within the old and rotten trunk took this action much amiss. They at once fell upon the seven intruders with such good will and such effect that all took to their heels, having tried in vain to make front against the enemy.

They returned to the carriage as rapidly as their legs would carry them, and drove out of Hilltown with swelled noses and pains in all their limbs. To render their rout complete, Eric had seated himself in a tall tree near a bridge built across a small creek, which the men must pass. As soon as the defeated Plainfielders arrived there, he began to sound an old trumpet with all his might. The horses immediately fell into a mad career, throwing the seven stout men out of the carriage in the middle of the bridge. They rolled over the edge and fell into the water, which cooled both their swollen faces and their rage. They returned home richer in experience, but determined never to approach Hilltown again in all their lives, but to devise better plans for a revenge than those which had been so shamefully frustrated by their cunning enemy. I do not know how well their plans were carried out.