The Peasant and the Wolf French folktale

A long time ago the plain of Bessans was covered by a wide forest. A poor peasant was one day coming home through the forest. He was bringing with him two round rings of black bread, and had one slung over each arm. He was whistling merrily to himself as he was striding along, when all of a sudden a huge grey wolf stepped out on to the path before him. The wolf growled at the peasant, showing him the largest teeth that he had ever seen. The unfortunate man stopped in fear. He also knew that so large a wolf would catch him easily if he tried to run away.

There he stood, staring, while the wolf came slowly nearer. Right then the man got an idea and said with chattering teeth: "Here, wolf, you seem hungry. Try some of this good bread." He broke a piece off one of the loaves and threw it to the wolf, who ate it at once.

While the beast was eating, the peasant slipped by and hurried on his way, congratulating himself on his quick wits. But he had not gone far when he heard a sound. He looked round - it was the wolf that was loping after him.

"Heaven help me," the man thought. He broke off another piece of bread and threw it on the path behind him. "Here is more for you to eat, wolf." Then he took to his heels and ran as fast as he could. But his fastest was not fast enough, and soon, once again, he heard the wolf coming after him. He looked back over his shoulder in terror and saw how it was rapidly catching him up. He stopped and broke off another piece from the loaf and threw it on the path, then once more he ran on.

And so it went all through the forest, with the peasant running along in front and the wolf running after him and only failing to catch him because it stopped to eat the bread he threw down for it.

At last the peasant reached the edge of the forest, quite exhausted, and saw his cottage and his wife standing at the door, watching for him. He gave a great sigh of relief, for his legs were almost failing him, and besides he had no more than one piece of bread left. He stumbled up to the cottage door and leant panting against the door-post.

"Why, husband, whatever is the matter?" asked his wife. "And where is the bread you went to buy?"

He had no breath left to answer her, and only gestured towards the trees, where the wolf was appearing, bounding in the direction of the cottage with its red tongue hanging out, considerably plumper than when the peasant had first met it.

"A wolf!" she cried. "The wicked creature! Small wonder you ran like a madman. What a mercy it did not catch you."

"I gave it the bread to eat," gasped the peasant, and although he was exhausted he could not keep from grinning at how clever he had been.

"Good bread wasted on a wicked wolf!" exclaimed his wife. "I never heard such a thing in my life." Now, she was really very fond of her husband, and she was very glad to see him come safely home after his adventure, but she was also very hungry, and had been looking forward all day to a slice or two of fresh black bread to eat with her broth of carrots and cabbage.

She looked at the wolf and snapped to her husband: "You had best come indoors or that brute will finish its supper with a mouthful of you." She stamped into the cottage and the peasant went after her, but before he closed the door he looked at the piece of bread in his hands, all that was left of two large loaves. He grinned and shrugged his shoulders. "You may as well finish it, wolf," he said and threw the last of the bread to the beast and closed and bolted the door.

The wolf ate the bread and waited a while outside the cottage, and all the time the voice of the peasant's wife could be heard through the shut door. She kept railing at her husband and wishing an ill fate on the wolf as they sat down to eat their broth without any bread. When at last she ceased and all was quiet again in the cottage, the wolf returned to the forest like a grey shadow.

One morning many months later, after the peasant and his wife had worked hard and managed to save enough to buy themselves a cow, the man set off through the forest to the fair at Bourg Saint Maurice. He hoped to find an old cow going cheaply there, for he had not enough money to buy anything better. In the town he walked about looking at the cattle offered for sale, hoping to make a bargain. All of a sudden a tall, thin stranger, well dressed in grey, with a long face and a pointed chin and close-set eyes, stood before him. "You wish to buy a cow?" he asked.

"Indeed," answered the peasant. "But I have little to spend."

"In my byre I have many cows," said the stranger. "Perhaps you would like one of them."

They went together to a fine house, and in the byre behind it there were many cows, as the stranger had said. "Choose the best of them all," invited the stranger, "and I will give her to you as a gift."

The peasant was astonished, but quickly chose that cow which seemed to him to be the best. The stranger smiled, showing large white teeth. "You have chosen wisely." He tied a rope about the cow's neck and handed the rope to the peasant. "She is yours," he said, "and may she give you plentiful milk for many years." He put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a little box. "This," he said, "is a gift for your wife." The peasant, wondering, took the box, and the stranger led him to the street.

"But why," asked the bewildered peasant, "are you doing such a kindness to me?"

The stranger smiled again. "Do you remember how you once showed kindness to a wolf and fed him with two loaves? Well, I always return measure for measure. And now good-bye."

Amazed and delighted, the peasant set off through the forest for home, leading his cow and carrying the little box. Soon he began to wonder what could be in the box, and with every step he took his curiosity grew greater, until at last he stopped, turnedthe box this way and that, shaking it and sniffing at it, trying to guess what was in it. "A good wife should have no secrets from her husband, so there may be no harm in my having a peep inside first," he said to himself.

He sat down beneath a young larch-tree while the cow grazed a little way off, and carefully opened the box. Out of the box leapt a tall flame which set fire to a branch of the larch-tree. The peasant dropped the box and sprang frightened to his feet. "Had it been my wife who opened it," he thought at once, "her hair and her cap would have caught fire, our house would perhaps have burnt down and she would perhaps have been burnt to death."

The larch-tree was burning fiercely, and since the peasant had no idea how to put out a fire in a tree, he hurried off home with his cow, very thankful that he had been curoius enough to open the box before he was i,ndoors.

From the larch-tree the fire spread to the whole forest of Bessans, and the greater part of it was burnt to ashes. But the peasant and his wife lived on happily in their cottage with the cow, which was by far the best in the whole district.