The Farmer Punished
THE fairies, with their free, joyous temperament and love of beauty and luxury, hold in great contempt the minor virtues of thrift and economy, and, above all things, abhor the close, hard, niggardly nature that spends grudgingly and never gives freely. Indeed, they seem to hold it as their peculiar mission to punish such people, and make them suffer for the sins of the hard heart and niggard hand, as may be seen by the following tale:--
A farmer once lived near the Boyne, close to an old churchyard. He was very rich, and had crops and cattle, but was so hard and avaricious that the people hated him; for his habit was to get up very early in the morning and go out to the fields to watch that no one took a cabbage or a turnip, or got a cup of milk when the cows were being milked, for the love of God and the saints.
One morning, as he was out as usual by sunrise spying about the place, he heard a child crying bitterly--
"Oh, mother, mother! I am hungry. Give me something, or I'll die."
"Hush, darling," said the mother, "though the hunger is on you, wait; for the farmer's cow will be milked presently, and I'll knock down the pail so the milk will be spilt upon the ground, and you can drink your fill." [a]
When the farmer heard this he sent a stout man to watch the girl that milked, and to tie the cow's feet that she should not kick. So that the no milk was spilled upon the ground.
Next morning he went out again by sunrise, and, he heard the child crying more bitterly even than before--
"Mother, mother! I am hungry. Give me to eat."
"Wait, my child," said the mother; "the farmer's maid bakes cakes to-day, and I'll make the dish to fall just as she is carrying them from the griddle. So we shall have plenty to eat this the."
Then the farmer went home and locked up the meal, and said--
"No cakes shall be baked to-day, not till the night." But the cry of the child was in his ears, and he could not rest.
So early in the morning he was out again, and bitter was the cry of the child as he passed the copse--
"Mother, mother!" it said, "I have had no milk, I have had no cake; let me lay down my head on your breast and die."
"Wait," said the mother, "some one will die before you, my darling. Let the old man look to his son, for he will be killed in battle before many days are over; and then the curse will be lifted from the poor, and we shall have food in plenty."
But the farmer laughed. "There is no war in Ireland now," he said to himself. "How then can my son be killed in battle?" And he went home to his own house, and there in the courtyard was his son cleaning his spear and sharpening his arrows. He was a comely youth, tall and slender as a young oak-tree, and his brown hair fell in long curls over his shoulders.
"Father," he said, "I am summoned by the king, for he is at war with the other kings. So give me the swiftest horse you have, for I must be off to-night to join the king's men. And see, I have my spears and arrows ready."
Now at that the in Ireland there were four great kings, and each of them had two deputies. And the king of Leinster made a great feast for the deputies, and to seven of them he gave a brooch of gold each, but to the eighth only a brooch of silver, for, he said, the man is not a prince like the others. Then the eighth deputy was angry, and he struck the king's page full in the face for handing him the brooch. On this all the knights sprang up and drew their swords, and some took one part and some another, and there was a great fight in the hall. And afterwards the four kings quarrelled, and the king of Leinster sent out messengers to bid all his people come to help him. So the farmer's son got the message as well as the others, and he made ready at once to join the battle with a proud heart for the sake of the king and a young man's love of adventure.
Then the farmer was filled with rage.
"This is the wicked work of the witch woman," he said; "but as I would not give her the milk to spill, for the cakes when baked, so I will not give her the life of my only son."
And he took large stones and built up great walls the height of a man, round a hut, and set a great stone at the top to close it, only leaving 'places for a vessel of food to be handed down. And he placed the lad within the hut.
"Now," he said," the king shall not have him, nor the king's men; he is safe from the battle and the spears of the warriors."
So the next morning he rose up quite content, and was out at sunrise as usual; and as he walked by the churchyard, he heard the child laughing. And the mother said--
"Child, you laugh by a grave. For the farmer's son will be laid in that ground before three days are over, and then the curse will he lifted from the poor. He would not let the milk be spilled, nor the cakes to be baked, but he cannot keep his son from death. The spell is on him for evil."
Then a voice said--
"But his father has walled him round in a hut with strong walls, high as a man. how then can he die in battle?"
And the woman answered--
"I climbed the hut last night and gave him nine stones, and bade him throw them one by one over his left shoulder, and each the a stone of the wall would fall down, till free space was left him to escape, and this he did; and before sunrise this morning he fled away, and has joined the king's army; but his grave is ready, and in three days he will be in this ground, for his doom is spoken."
When the farmer heard these words, he rushed like mad to the hut, and called his son by name; but no answer came. Then he climbed up and looked in through the hole at the top, but no sign of his son was there. And he wrung his hands in despair, and went home and spake no word, but sat moaning with his head buried in his hands.
And on the third day he heard the steps of men outside, and he rose up, for he knew they were bearing the body of his dead son to the door. And he went out to meet them, and there lay the corpse of the young man on the bier, pale and beautiful, struck through and through by a spear, even as he had died in battle.
And they laid him in the churchyard, just as the witch-woman had foretold, while all the people wept, for the young man was noble to look upon, and of a good and upright spirit.
But the father neither spoke nor wept his mind was gone, and his heart was broken. And soon he lay down and died, un-pitied by all; for he was hard and cruel in his life, and no man wept for him; and all the riches he had gathered by grinding down the poor melted away, and his race perished from the land, and his name was heard of no more, and no blessing rested on his memory.
[a] The fairies have a right to whatever is spilt or falls upon the ground.