There was once a poor woodcutter, very miserable, though prudent and industrious; he had a wife and three grown-up sons, yet their united labours scarcely sufficed for bread. No hope appeared of improving his lot, when he was one day fortunate enough to save the life of his master when attacked by robbers in the forest.
This master was not ungrateful; he desired the woodcutter to repair to him on the following day in order to receive a reward. The poor man did not fail, hoping to gain two or three crowns; for it appeared so natural to defend an unarmed man that he attached little value to his services, considering his own danger not worth a thought. He put on his best array, shaved, and made many reverences to the porter and the numerous lackeys previous to an introduction to the master, who was much more polite than the valets.
“Well, Thomas,” said he, “how can I recompense what you have done for me? Without your assistance I should have perished; and as my life is a very happy one, I value it accordingly.”
Poor Thomas was at a loss how to reply; he stammered out, “My Lord–your Grace,” but could get no further.
The master, in order to relieve the poor man, interrupted him thus: “I understand better than yourself, perhaps, what would suit you; I would not wish to draw you from your native condition, for I believe that none is more truly happy; but I present to you and your children’s children, in perpetuity, the cottage which you inhabit in the forest. You and they shall have the power of cutting as much wood every year as you can use; you shall work for yourself; and if your sons like to hunt, all the game which they kill shall be for their own use. I only exact that you sell nothing, and that while possessing every comfort, you seek not to quit your peaceful obscurity.”
Thomas was so astonished that he could find no words to express his gratitude. He came home to his wife, who heartily shared his joy. The sons immediately set off for a large supply of faggots, and made a great fire; but when they had been thoroughly warmed, Mother Thomas began to say what a pity it was they could make no use of all the wood which was not burned.
“An idea has just struck me,” replied the husband; “our master gives us all we can use; these are his own words,–very well; I shall be able to use enough to bring us in a pretty little income!”
“How?” said his wife.
“When I was a boy,” rejoined the woodcutter, “my father taught me to make wooden shoes and I made them so light and so neat, that they were everywhere sought for. What need now prevent me from exercising this trade? James shall cut wood in the forest, Peter shall kill game for dinner, and Paul, who has not the least brains of the three, shall go to sell my merchandise at the neighbouring town. This will be a public benefit, by enabling the poor about us to dress with more decency and comfort, and it will also serve to furnish our own cottage, of which we shall make a little palace.”
The boys, who were present, highly relished this idea. Mother Thomas, who was rather inclined to gluttony, made the most of the game which Peter provided. A little labour, good cheer, a blazing fire, and perfect family concord, rendered this family the happiest in the world. The master came to the cottage, and seeing them so united and industrious, encouraged the trade of the wooden shoes, which increased their comforts without exposing them to the vices attendant on avarice and luxury.
But happiness such as this seldom remains permanent. A flock of furious wolves appeared in the forest; every day they devoured either helpless children or travellers; they tore up the roots of the trees, attacking even each other, while their wild howlings were heard night and day in the cottage of the woodcutter.