Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The little redcaps of Kerleau

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume III (1860)
The little redcaps of Kerleau. A Breton tale
2675068Once a Week, Series 1, Volume III — The little redcaps of Kerleau. A Breton tale


In a corner of the courtyard of the old castle of Kerleau may be seen the crumbling stone statue of a peasant, which has stood there for many ages.

In the days when good Christians reached Heaven by faith and good works, Satan was forced to exercise his wits to draw them into his snares; he was therefore much more frequently to be seen among men at that time than he is now, (for in these days he has no need to come to us, as we of our own accord go to him). But whatever forethought he might exercise, and whatever pains the evil spirit might take, his most carefully prepared plots would sometimes fail, even when brought to bear upon the simple ones.

There was, then, at that time, in the commune of Elven, a poor peasant named Laurent; he was a widower, and had no other possession in the world than a beautiful daughter, the pearl of the country, who went by the name of the fair Jeannette; but though the love of money was then less prevalent than it is now, no one envied the good man his treasure, and none of the lads of the parish, though they were alwaysdelighted at an opportunity of dancing with Jeannette, and paid her fine compliments, ever thought of marrying her.

“Ah! if I had but a good farm,” said poor Laurent to himself, “I’d make Jeannette worth being looked after by the best lads in the commune; but with the poor wages of a day-labourer, how can I put anything aside? If the Count of Largoet would only give me some assistance, I would clear some of his land for him, and we should both be gainers by the bargain.”

Hunger, they say, brings the wolf out of the forest, and father Laurent, having laid all his plans, paid a visit to the castle of Largoet, and proposed to the Count to take a part of his land, and get it into order, if he would make him a good advance.

“Very good,” said the Count; “I will give you a hundred crowns, a good herd of cattle, and all the tools you want, but by this time three years you must have cleared, and planted, and hedged in, all the land that is allotted to you.”

Thoroughly delighted with his bargain, Laurent confidently set to work. He built a cottage for himself and his daughter, and stalls for the cattle; for in those days, with a hundred crowns, a great many stones could be put one upon another.

When once they were lodged, the good man engaged labourers, who cut ditches, ploughed the land, and sowed a great field, while they lived the whole year upon what was borrowed. But at the expiration of twelve months, Laurent found himself far poorer than at the beginning, for he was in debt, and he had hardly any corn, as the harvest had been bad, and his labourers, who had been badly fed, and not paid at all, had all left him.

One day, when the unfortunate Laurent was digging a trench alone, and the sweat was running in streams from his brow, and his limbs were aching with fatigue, he lamented his hard lot, and, clutching his hair, cried out:

“Yes, I would, I’d give myself to the Devil for a mere nothing.”

“Here I am, at your service,” said Satan, who was immediately at hand.

“No, no, by no means, thank you,” said Laurent, “I prefer working alone.”

“Well, but I’ll work for you, and without wages.”

“Oh, no! you never give anything for nothing,” said the peasant.

“Come,” said Satan, “don’t go on arguing, but let’s make a bargain. I pity you, for I am a good-hearted fellow, and I’ll work for you for a year and a day for nothing, on the condition that you’ll always supply me with work; but the very first time it fails, I—”

“You’ll carry me off,” said the peasant. “Well, then, I decline.”

“By no means, you old idiot!” said Satan; “it isn’t you I’d have, but your daughter.”

“You’d have my daughter! Go along with you!” said the exasperated Laurent.

“Well, but if you always remain poor, you’ll have no means of getting your daughter married.”

“Well, then, let her be an old maid all her life; I don’t care.”

“Yes, it’s possible you don’t care; but how about her?”

Poor Laurent set himself to think. “There’s a great sight o’ work to be done here, and I shall easily employ him for a year and a day; he’ll be awfully cunning if he contrives to do all I shall give him.”

“Well,” he said, at length, “I—”

“You refuse?” said Satan.

“No, on the contrary, I accept.”

“Well, then, master, what shall I do?”

“Finish this ditch, while I go and rest.”

As long as there were fields to be ploughed and sown, grass to be cut, corn to be threshed, and waggons to be built, all went on well, and they were quite at their ease; but after eight days of hard labour, there was not much left to be done, and the fear of finding nothing for his workman to do began to torment the good man, who looked at his daughter with fear and trembling. Day and night he racked his brain to find some means of occupying the activity of Satan; he lost his appetite, And he daily grew thinner and sadder.

But one morning, when he got up, he had quite lost his gloomy and morose manner, and seemed almost beside himself with joy; and when his workman came to ask for work, Laurent in a careless manner took him by the shoulder, and said:

“I am very well pleased with you, for you work capitally; but I don’t like you to be always toiling so hard, so to-day I’m going to give you something to do that won’t tire you. Just go and fetch a fork out of the stable, and I’ll meet you in the yard.”

So while he was gone to the stable to fetch the fork, Laurent went up into the loft, and emptied down into the yard a great sack of wheat, and then coming to the door when Satan returned, he said:

“Just throw me up this wheat with your fork, and I’ll measure it into the sack.”

So the devil set to work, plunging his fork again and again into the heap of wheat, without picking up a single grain.

“Confound it!” he cried out, with an oath, “what dog’s work have you given me here?” and he leaned upon his fork in despair.

“Well, my fine fellow,” said Laurent, “if you won’t do my work, you can go and get some elsewhere, for I’m not going to feed you for nothing! Do you understand?”

“Yes, yes, I understand,” growled Satan, furious at being thus outwitted. “I will leave you, but I’ll have my revenge some day.” And he disappeared.

A short time after this, a foreigner having bought this land, which the devil had put into such good condition, built upon it the castle of Kerleau, the ruins of which are still standing, and Laurent, now become a rich man, having no longer any difficulty in marrying his daughter Jeannette, was making preparations for her nuptials with a rich young farmer. He was anxious to have a magnificent wedding, and determined that everything should be in the best style: so he bought the finest cloth that could be found, and selected the most renowned tailor in the country to make the clothes. This tailor’s name was Nicholas, and he did his work in a manner that no one could understand. He was seen to cut out the cloth, but no one ever saw him sewing: however, the clothes which were entrusted to him were always well made, were strongly sewed, and were always finished by the day on which he had promised them. As soon as he had taken the measure, he cut out the cloth, put the pieces into a box, and then went out to smoke and drink at a tavern. Some said that Nicholas was a wizard, but a great many said that he had sold himself to the Devil, and they were not far from the mark; for when Satan knew that Nicholas had been sent for to Kerleau to make the wedding clothes, he came to him, and said:

“I have got to have my revenge upon that fellow Laurent, and I reckon upon your doing me a good turn: now you must give me his daughter, or it will be the worse for you! Do you understand me, you tippler?”

“All right,” said the tailor. “But how and when shall I deliver Jeannette to you?”

“Oh, I leave you the choice of the means; but as you are going to Kerleau to-morrow, to-morrow I must have Jeannette. Now I warn you not to fail.”

So the next day Nicholas was at Kerleau, and began to cut out the cloth early in the morning, when suddenly he said to Jeannette, who was watching him;

“Good gracious! what a bother! I’m pulled up short for want of my tools. I’ve left my box behind me, and I can’t get on for want of it.”

“Oh, never mind,” said the girl, “I’ll go and fetch it for you.”

“You’re no end of a good girl, Jeannette,” said the tailor; “here’s my key, you’ll find the box on the board just beneath the window. But mind you don’t open it, or you’ll meet with a misfortune.”

“No, no, ease your mind on that score, said Jeannette, “I won’t open it.” And she ran off.

When she had got the box, she put it under her arm, and carried it carefully without venturing even to look at it. Presently she thought she heard something inside it—yes, there it was again; a regular whispering—a tittering, and what a queer clatter—what an odd noise it is “I wonder whether I could see through the keyhole;” so she took the key out: “Bother! I can’t see anything—the box must be double. If I were to open it—only a little bit? No, that won’t do, Nicholas told me that there would be some accident if I did. However, it was only to frighten me that he said so! He’s a cunning fellow, and does not want his secret to get wind. It’s all nonsense; what could happen if Tdid just look into it? If there is an animal inside, it can’t eat me, for it’s not as big as I am.”

Reasoning thus, Jeannette, who was then in the middle of a wide common, gently opened the lid of the box about an inch, but no sooner had she done this, than a whole host of little dwarfs—not so large as your thimble, each with a little red cap upon his head—leapt to the ground, and dancing around her, shrieked at the top of their voices:

“Some work, mistress; some work!”

Jeannette stood quite stupefied, with her mouth open, and looking at the little men as they gambolled about her. But at this demand for work, she thought she was lost unless she could satisfy them; so she cried out:

“Come, little red caps, pull up all the brush wood on the common.”

So they immediately began to pull up the tufts of broom, and in an instant the whole common was cleared.

“Some work, mistress, some work!” they cried again.

“Make a great pile of the tufts you have pulled up,” said Jeannette. And they made a heap as high as an oak.

“Some work, mistress, some work!” said they again.

“Now, my little men,” said Jeannette, climb up to the top of this pile and jump down into the box. Whereupon they clambered up to the top and leapt lightly down. As soon as the last was in the box, Jeannette double-locked it, and ran with it as hard as she could to the tailor.

So Nicholas took all the pieces of cloth which he had cut, and stuck needles and thread into them, and then opened his box to give them to his dwarfs to sew; but at the sight of the little men who stretched out their hands thoroughly stained green. He cried out:

“What have you been doing, Jeannette, with my little men, that they have made their hands so dirty?”

“Oh!” she replied, “lam sorry to say that, in running back as fast as I could, I let the box slip, and all the poor little men fell upon the grass, and when I picked them up I forgot to wipe their hands.”

“Ah! Jeannette,” said the tailor, “you are very fortunate to have fared no worse.”

“Well, never mind,” she answered, “and as your little men are hard at work, come and taste our cyder.”

So Nicholas drank hard all day to drown his vexation, and at night he could scarcely get up to his room. However, when he was there, he opened his box, and the dwarfs all jumped out and cried:

“Some work, master; some work!”

“Carry me down into the yard,” said Nicholas, “I want some fresh air, and my legs won’t carry me.” So they took him down and placed him on the ground, saying, again:

“Some work, master; some work!”

“Always that same accursed song!” said Nicholas. “Well, pick up all the chips that the stone-masons have been making.”

So the little redcaps filled every corner of the yard, and soon made a heap of all the chips; then they ran back to Nicholas again, singing:

“Some work, master; some work!”

But Nicholas was snoring, and when they had half awoke him, all that he could say was: “Go to the devil.”

At these words the little demons carried off the unhappy tailor, placed him on the heap of grit and chips which they had collected, rolled him again and again in it, and rubbed it into him till it reached his very marrow, and he became stone. And then they placed him under that turret, where he stands to this day.