In the little village of Plouvinec there once lived a poor stone-cutter named Bernet.
Bernet was an honest and industrious young man, and yet he never seemed to succeed in the world. Work as he might, he was always poor. This was a great grief to him, for he was in love with the beautiful Madeleine Pornec, and she was the daughter of the richest man in Plouvinec.
Madeleine had many suitors, but she cared for none of them except Bernet. She would gladly have married him in spite of his poverty, but her father was covetous as well as rich. He had no wish for a poor son-in-law, and Madeleine was so beautiful he expected her to marry some rich merchant, or a well-to-do farmer at least. But if Madeleine could not have Bernet for a husband, she was determined that she would have no one.
There came a winter when Bernet found himself poorer than he had ever been before. Scarcely anyone seemed to have any need for a stone-cutter, and even for such work as he did get he was poorly paid. He learned to know what it meant to go without a meal and to be cold as well as hungry.
As Christmas drew near, the landlord of the inn at Plouvinec decided to give a feast for all the good folk of the village, and Bernet was invited along with all the rest.
He was glad enough to go to the feast, for he knew that Madeleine was to be there, and even if he did not have a chance to talk to her, he could at least look at her, and that would be better than nothing.
The feast was a fine one. There was plenty to eat and drink, and all was of the best, and the more the guests feasted, the merrier they grew. If Bernet and Madeleine ate little and spoke less, no one noticed it. People were too busy filling their own stomachs and laughing at the jokes that were cracked. The fun was at its height when the door was pushed open, and a ragged, ill-looking beggar slipped into the room.
At the sight of him the laughter and merriment died away. This beggar was well known to all the people of the village, though none knew whence he came nor where he went when he was away on his wanderings. He was sly and crafty, and he was feared as well as disliked, for it was said that he had the evil eye. Whether he had or not, it was well known that no one had ever offended him without having some misfortune happen soon after.
“I heard there was a great feast here to-night,” said the beggar in a humble voice, “and that all the village had been bidden to it. Perhaps, when all have eaten, there may be some scraps that I might pick up.”
“Scraps there are in plenty,” answered the landlord, “but it is not scraps that I am offering to anyone to-night. Draw up a chair to the table, and eat and drink what you will. There is more than enough for all.” But the landlord looked none too well pleased as he spoke. It was a piece of ill-luck to have the beggar come to his house this night of all nights, to spoil the pleasure of the guests.
The beggar drew up to the table as the landlord bade him, but the fun and merriment were ended. Presently the guests began to leave the table, and after thanking their host, they went away to their own homes.
When the beggar had eaten and drunk to his heart’s content, he pushed back his chair from the table.
“I have eaten well,” said he to the landlord. “Is there not now some corner where I can spend the night?”
“There is the stable,” answered the landlord grudgingly. “Every room in the house is full, but if you choose to sleep there among the clean hay, I am not the one to say you nay.”
Well, the beggar was well content with that. He went out to the stable, and there he snuggled down among the soft hay, and soon he was fast asleep. He had slept for some hours, and it was midnight, when he suddenly awoke with a startled feeling that he was not alone in the stable. In the darkness two strange voices were talking together.
“Well, brother, how goes it since last Christmas?” asked one voice.
“Poorly, brother, but poorly,” answered the other. “Methinks the work has been heavier these last twelve months than ever before.”
The beggar, listening as he lay in the hay, wondered who could be talking there at this hour of the night. Then he discovered that the voices came from the stalls near by; the ox and the donkey were talking together.
The beggar was so surprised that he almost exclaimed aloud, but he restrained himself. He remembered a story he had often heard, but had never before believed, that on every Christmas night it is given to the dumb beasts in the stalls to talk in human tongues for a short time. It was said that those who had been lucky enough to hear them at such times had sometimes learned strange secrets from their talk. Now the beggar lay listening with all his ears, and scarcely daring to breathe lest he should disturb them.
“It has been a hard year for me too,” said the ox, answering what the donkey had just said. “I would our master had some of the treasure that lies hidden under the stones of Plouvinec. Then he could buy more oxen and more donkeys, and the work would be easier for us.”
“The treasure! What treasure is that?” asked the donkey.
The ox seemed very much surprised. “Have you never heard? I thought every one knew of the hidden treasure under the stones.”
“Tell me about it,” said the donkey, “for I dearly love a tale.”
The ox was not loath to do this. At once it began:
“You know the barren heath just outside of Plouvinec, and the great stones that lie there, each so large that it would take more than a team of oxen to drag it from its place?”
Yes, the donkey knew that heath, and the stones too. He had often passed by them on his journeys to the neighbouring town.
“It is said that under those stones lies hidden an enormous treasure of gold,” said the ox. “That is the story; it is well known. But none has seen that treasure; jealously the stones guard it. Once in every hundred years, however, the stones go down to the river to drink. They are only away for a few minutes; then they come rolling back in mad haste to cover their gold again. But if anyone could be there on the heath for those few minutes, it is a wonderful sight that he would see while the stones are away. It is now a hundred years, all but a week, since the stones went down to drink.”
“Then a week from to-night the treasure will be uncovered again?” asked the donkey.
“Yes, exactly a week from now, at midnight.”
“Ah, if only our master knew this,” and the donkey sighed heavily. “If only we could tell him! Then he might go to the heath and not only see the treasure, but gather a sack full of it for himself.”
“Yes, but even if he did, he would never return with it alive. As I told you, the stones are very jealous of their treasure, and are away for only a few minutes. By the time he had gathered up the gold and was ready to escape, the stones would return and would crush him to powder.”
The beggar, who had become very much excited at the story, felt a cold shiver creep over him at these words.
“No one could ever bring away any of it then?” asked the donkey.
“I did not say that. The stones are enchanted. If anyone could find a five-leaved clover, and carry it with him to the heath, the stones could not harm him, for the five-leaved clover is a magic plant that has power over all enchanted things, and those stones are enchanted.”
“Then all he would need would be to have a five-leaved clover.”
“If he carried that with him, the stones could not harm him. He might escape safely with the treasure, but it would do him little good. With the first rays of the sun the treasure would crumble away unless the life of a human being had been sacrificed to the stones there on the heath before sunrise.”
“And who would sacrifice a human life for a treasure!” cried the donkey. “Not our master, I am sure.”
The ox made no answer, and now the donkey too was silent. The hour had passed in which they could speak in human voices. For another year they would again be only dumb brutes.
As for the beggar, he lay among the hay, shaking all over with excitement. Visions of untold wealth shone before his eyes. The treasure of Plouvinec! Why, if he could only get it, he would be the richest man in the village. In the village? No, in the country—in the whole world! Only to see it and handle it for a few hours would be something. But before even that were possible and safe it would be necessary to find a five-leaved clover.
With the earliest peep of dawn the beggar rolled from the hay, and, wrapping his rags about him, stole out of the stable and away into the country. There he began looking about for bunches of clover. These were not hard to find; they were everywhere, though the most of them were withered now. He found and examined clump after clump. Here and there he found a stem that bore four leaves, but none had five. Night came on, and the darkness made him give up the search; but the next day he began anew. Again he was unsuccessful. So day after day passed by, and still he had not found the thing he sought so eagerly.
The beggar was in a fever of rage and disappointment. Six days slipped by. By the time the seventh dawned he was so discouraged that he hunted for only a few hours. Then, though it was still daylight, he determined to give up the search. With drooping head he turned back toward the village. As he was passing a heap of rocks he noticed a clump of clover growing in a crevice. Idly, and with no hope of success, he stooped and began to examine it leaf by leaf.
Suddenly he gave a cry of joy. His legs trembled under him so that he was obliged to sink to his knees. The last stem of all bore five leaves. He had found his five-leaved clover!
With the magic plant safely hidden away in his bosom the beggar hurried back toward the village. He would rest in the inn until night. Then he would go to the heath, and if the story the ox had told were true, he would see a sight such as no one living had ever seen before.
His way led him past the heath. Dusk was falling as he approached it. Suddenly the beggar paused and listened. From among the stones sounded a strange tap-tapping. Cautiously he drew nearer, peering about among the stones. Then he saw what seemed to him a curious sight for such a place and such a time. Before the largest stone of all stood Bernet, busily at work with hammer and chisel. He was cutting a cross upon the face of the rock.
The beggar drew near to him so quietly that Bernet did not notice him. He started as a voice suddenly spoke close to his ear.
“That is a strange thing for you to be doing,” said the beggar. “Why should you waste your time in cutting a cross in such a lonely place as this?”
“The sign of the cross never comes amiss, wherever it may be,” answered Bernet. “And as for wasting my time, no one seems to have any use for it at present. It is better for me to spend it in this way than to idle it away over nothing.”
Suddenly a strange idea flashed into the beggar’s mind—a thought so strange and terrible that it made him turn pale. He drew nearer to the stone-cutter and laid his hand upon his arm.
“Listen, Bernet,” said he; “you are a clever workman and an honest one as well, and yet all your work scarcely brings you in enough to live on. Suppose I were to tell you that in one night you might become rich—richer than the richest man in the village—so that there would be no desire that you could not satisfy; what would you think of that?”
“I would think nothing of it, for I would know it was not true,” answered Bernet carelessly.
“But it is true; it is true, I tell you,” cried the beggar. “Listen, and I will tell you.”
He drew still nearer to Bernet, so that his mouth almost touched the stone-cutter’s ear, and in a whisper he repeated to him the story he had heard the ox telling the donkey—the story of the treasure that was buried under the stones of Plouvinec. But it was only a part of the story that he told after all, for he did not tell Bernet that anyone who was rash enough to seek the treasure would be crushed by the stones unless he carried a five-leaved clover; nor did he tell him that if the treasure were carried away from the heath it would turn to ashes unless a human life had been sacrificed to the stones. As Bernet listened to the story he became very grave. His eyes shone through the fading light as he stared at the beggar’s face.
“Why do you tell me this?” he asked. “And why are you willing to share the treasure that might be all your own? If you make me rich, what do you expect me to do for you in return?”
“Do you not see?” answered the beggar. “You are much stronger than I. I, as you know, am a weak man and slow of movement. While the stones are away we two together could gather more than twice as much as I could gather myself. In return for telling you this secret, all I ask is that if we go there and gather all we can, and bring it away with us, you will make an even division with me—that you will give me half of all we get.”
“That seems only just,” said Bernet slowly. “It would be strange if this story of the hidden treasure proved to be true. At any rate, I will come with you to the heath to-night. We will bring with us some large bags, and if we manage to secure even a small part of the gold you talk of I shall never cease to be grateful to you.”
The beggar could not answer. His teeth were chattering, half with fear and half with excitement. The honest stone-cutter little guessed that the beggar was planning to sacrifice him to the stones in order that he himself might become a rich man.
It was well on toward midnight when Bernet and the beggar returned to the heath with the bags. The moon shone clear and bright, and by its light they could see the stones towering up above them, solid and motionless. It seemed impossible to believe that they had ever stirred from their places, or ever would again. In the moonlight Bernet could clearly see the cross that he had carved upon the largest stone.
He and the beggar lay hidden behind a clump of bushes. All was still except for the faint sound of the river some short distance away. Suddenly a breath seemed to pass over the heath. Far off, in the village of Plouvinec, sounded the first stroke of twelve.
At that stroke the two men saw a strange and wonderful thing happen. The motionless stones rocked and stirred in their places. With a rending sound they tore themselves from the places where they had stood for so long. Then down the slope toward the river they rolled, bounding faster and faster, while there on the heath an immense treasure glittered in the moonlight.
“Quick! quick!” cried the beggar in a shrill voice. “They will return! We have not a moment to waste.”
Greedily he threw himself upon the treasure. Gathering it up by handfuls he thrust it hurriedly into a sack. Bernet was not slow to follow his example. They worked with such frenzy that soon the two largest sacks were almost full. In their haste everything but the gold was forgotten.
Some sound, a rumbling and crashing, made Bernet look up. At once he sprang to his feet with a cry of fear.
“Look! look!” he cried. “The stones are returning. They are almost on us. We shall be crushed.”
“You, perhaps; but not I,” answered the beggar. “You should have provided yourself with a five-leaved clover. It is a magic herb, and the stones have no power to touch him who holds it.”
Even as the beggar spoke the stones were almost upon them. Trembling, but secure, he held up the five-leaved clover before them. As he did so the ranks of stones divided, passing around him a rank on either side; then, closing together, they rolled on toward Bernet.
The poor stone-cutter felt that he was lost. He tried to murmur a prayer, but his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth with fear.
Suddenly the largest stone of all, the one upon which he had cut the cross, separated itself from the others. Rolling in front of them, it placed itself before him as a shield. Grey and immovable it towered above him. A moment the others paused as if irresolute, while Bernet cowered close against the protecting stone. Then they rolled by without touching him and settled sullenly into their places.
The beggar was already gathering up the sacks. He believed himself safe, but he wished to leave the heath as quickly as possible. He glanced fearfully over his shoulder. Then he gave a shriek, and, turning, he held up the five-leaved clover. The largest stone was rolling toward him. It was almost upon him.
But the magic herb had no power over a stone marked with a cross. On it rolled, over the miserable man, and into the place where it must rest again for still another hundred years.
It was morning, and the sun was high in the heavens when Bernet staggered into the inn at Plouvinec. A heavy, bulging sack was thrown over one shoulder; a second sack he dragged behind him. They were full of gold—the treasure from under the stones of Plouvinec.
From that time Bernet was the richest man in Plouvinec. Madeleine’s father was glad enough to call him son-in-law and to welcome him into his family. He and Madeleine were married, and lived in the greatest comfort and happiness all their days. But for as long as he lived Bernet could never be induced to go near the heath nor to look upon the stones that had so nearly caused his death.
Short Story for Children by Katharine Pyle
Header Illustration by Orensila (Adobe Stock).
LET’S CHAT ABOUT THE STORIES ~ IDEAS FOR TALKING WITH KIDS
1. The beggar told Bernet about the riches because he planned to sacrifice him to the stones. But the beggar did not tell Bernet about this condition to getting the gold. Why?
2. Do you think the beggar in this story got what he deserved? Why or why not?
3. Both the beggar and Bernet were very poor. The beggar was willing to hurt someone to get out of his poverty. How do you think you would feel if you were poor and hungry? Where would you draw the line in behaving towards others, even if it meant you would be better off?