In the days when were no books, or writing, and folk tales were the only ones told, there was an old woman, who had a bad reputation.
She pretended to be very poor, so as not to attract or tempt robbers. Yet those who knew her best, knew also, as a subject of common talk, that she was always counting out her coins.
Besides this, she lived in a nice house, and it was believed that she made a living by stealing babies out of their cradles to sell to the bad fairies.
It was matter of rumor that she would, for an extra large sum, take a wicked fairy’s ugly brat, and put it in place of a mother’s darling.
In addition to these horrid charges against her, it was rumored that she laid a spell, or charm, on the cattle of people whom she did not like, in order to take revenge on them.
The old woman denied all this, and declared it was only silly gossip of envious people who wanted her money. She lived so comfortably, she averred, because her son, who was a stone mason, who made much money by building chimneys, which had then first come into fashion. When he brought to her the profits of his jobs, she counted the coins, and because of this, some people were jealous, and told bad stories about her. She declared she was thrifty, but neither a miser, nor a kidnaper, nor a witch.
One day, this old woman wanted more feathers to stuff into her bed, to make it softer and feel pleasanter for her old bones to rest upon, for what she slept on was nearly worn through. So she went to a farm, where they were plucking geese, and asked for a few handfuls of feathers.
But the rich farmer’s people refused and ordered her out of the farm yard.
Shortly after this event, the cows of this farmer, who was opposed to chimneys, and did not like her or her son, suffered dreadfully from the disease called the black quarter. As they had no horse doctors or professors of animal economy, or veterinaries in those days, many of the cows died. The rich farmer lost much money, for he had now no milk or beef to sell. At once, he suspected that his cattle were bewitched, and that the old woman had cast a spell on them. In those days, it was very easy to think so.
So the angry man went one day to the old crone, when she was alone, and her stout son was away on a distant job. He told her to remove the charm, which she had laid on his beasts, or he would tie her arms and legs together, and pitch her into the river.
The old woman denied vehemently that she possessed any such powers, or had ever practiced such black arts.
To make sure of it, the farmer made her say out loud, “The Blessing of God be upon your cattle!” To clinch the matter, he compelled her to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, which she was able to do, without missing one syllable. She used the form of words which are not found in the prayer book, but are in the Bible, and was very earnest, when she prayed “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
But after all that trouble, and the rough way which the rich farmer took to save his cattle, his efforts were in vain. In spite of that kind of religion which he professed—which was shown by bullying a poor old woman—his cattle were still sick, with no sign of improvement. He was at his wits’ end to know what to do next.
Now, as we have said, this was about the time that chimneys came into fashion. In very old days, the Cymric house was a round hut, with a thatched roof, without glass windows, and the smoke got out through the door and holes in the walls, in the best way it could. The only tapestry in the hut was in the shape of long festoons of soot, that hung from the roof or rafters. These, when the wind blew, or the fire was lively, would swing or dance or whirl, and often fall on the heads, or into the food, while the folks were eating. When the children cried, or made wry faces at the black stuff, their daddy only laughed, and said it was healthy, or was for good luck.
But by and by, the carpenters and masons made much improvement, especially when, instead of flint hatchets, they had iron axes and tools. Then they hewed down trees, that had thick cross branches and set up columns in the center, and made timber walls and rafters. Then the house was square or oblong. In other words, the Cymric folks squared the circle.
Now they began to have lattices, and, much later, even glass windows. They removed the fireplace from the middle of the floor and set it at the end of the house, opposite the door, and built chimneys.
Then they set the beds at the side, and made sleeping rooms. This was done by stretching curtains between partitions. They had also a loft, in which to keep odds and ends. They hung up the bacon and hams, and strings of onions, and made a mantle piece over the fireplace. They even began to decorate the walls with pictures and to set pewter dishes, china cats, and Dresden shepherds in rows on the shelves for ornaments.
Now people wore shoes and the floor, instead of being muddy, or dusty, with pools and puddles of water in the time of rainy weather and with the pigs and chickens running in and out, was of clay, beaten down flat and hard, and neatly whitewashed at the edges. Outside, in front, were laid nice flat flagstones, that made a pleasant path to the front door. Flowers, inside and out, added to the beauty of the home and made perfume for those who loved them.
The rich farmer had just left his old round hut and now lived in one of the new and better kind of houses. He was very proud of his chimney, which he had built higher than any of his neighbors, but he could not be happy, while so many of his cows were sick or dying. Besides, he was envious of other people’s prosperity and cared nothing, when they, too, suffered.
One night, while he was standing in front of his fine house and wondering why he must be vexed with so many troubles, he talked to himself and, speaking out loud, said:
“Why don’t my cows get well?”
“I’ll tell you,” said a voice behind him. It seemed half way between a squeak and a growl.
He turned round and there he saw a little, angry man. He was dressed in red, and stood hardly as high as the farmer’s knee. The little old man glared at the big fellow and cried out in a high tone of voice:
“You must change your habits of disposing of your garbage, for other people have chimneys besides you.”
“What has that to do with sickness among my cows?”
“Much indeed. Your family is the cause of your troubles, for they throw all their slops down my chimney and put out my fire.”
The farmer was puzzled beyond the telling, for he owned all the land within a mile, and knew of no house in sight.
“Put your foot on mine, and then you will have the power of vision, to see clearly.”
The farmer’s big boot was at once placed on the little man’s slipper, and when he looked down he almost laughed at the contrast in size. What was his real surprise, when he saw that the slops thrown out of his house, did actually fall down; and, besides, the contents of the full bucket, when emptied, kept on dripping into the chimney of a house which stood far below, but which he had never seen before.
But as soon as he took his foot off that of the tiny little man, he saw nothing. Everything like a building vanished as in a dream.
“I see that my family have done wrong and injured yours. Pray forgive me. I’ll do what I can to make amends for it.”
“It’s no matter now, if you only do as I ask you. Shut up your front door, build a wall in its place, and then my family will not suffer from yours.”
The rich farmer thought all this was very funny, and he had a hearty laugh over it all.
Yet he did exactly as the little man in the red cloak had so politely asked him. He walled up the old door at the front, and built another at the back of the house, which opened out into the garden. Then he made the path, on which to go in from the roadway to the threshold, around the corners and over a longer line of flagstones. Then he removed the fireplace and chimney to what had been the front side of the house, but was now the back. For the next thing, he had a copper doorsill nailed down, which his housemaid polished, until it shone as bright as gold.
Yet long before this, his cows had got well, and they now gave more and richer milk than ever. He became the wealthiest man in the district. His children all grew up to be fine looking men and women. His grandsons were famous engineers and introduced paving and drainage in the towns so that to-day, for both man and beast, Wales is one of the healthiest of countries.
Welsh Fairy Tales
By WILLIAM ELLIOT GRIFFIS