AT THE foot of some high mountains there was, once upon a time, a small village, and a little way off two roads met, one of them going to the east and the other to the west. The villagers were quiet, hard-working folk, who toiled in the fields all day, and in the evening set out for home when the bell began to ring in the little church. In the summer mornings they led out their flocks to pasture, and were happy and contented from sunrise to sunset.
One summer night, when a round full moon shone down upon the white road, a great wolf came trotting round the corner.
‘I positively must get a good meal before I go back to my den,’ he said to himself; ‘it is nearly a week since I have tasted anything but scraps, though perhaps no one would think it to look at my figure! Of course there are plenty of rabbits and hares in the mountains; but indeed one needs to be a greyhound to catch them, and I am not so young as I was! If I could only dine off that fox I saw a fortnight ago, curled up into a delicious hairy ball, I should ask nothing better; I would have eaten her then, but unluckily her husband was lying beside her, and one knows that foxes, great and small, run like the wind. Really it seems as if there was not a living creature left for me to prey upon but a wolf, and, as the proverb says: “One wolf does not bite another.” However, let us see what this village can produce. I am as hungry as a schoolmaster.’
Now, while these thoughts were running through the mind of the wolf, the very fox he had been thinking of was galloping along the other road.
‘The whole of this day I have listened to those village hens clucking till I could bear it no longer,’ murmured she as she bounded along, hardly seeming to touch the ground. ‘When you are fond of fowls and eggs it is the sweetest of all music. As sure as there is a sun in heaven I will have some of them this night, for I have grown so thin that my very bones rattle, and my poor babies are crying for food.’ And as she spoke she reached a little plot of grass, where the two roads joined, and flung herself under a tree to take a little rest, and to settle her plans. At this moment the wolf came up.
At the sight of the fox lying within his grasp his mouth began to water, but his joy was somewhat checked when he noticed how thin she was. The fox’s quick ears heard the sound of his paws, though they were soft as velvet, and turning her head she said politely:
‘Is that you, neighbour? What a strange place to meet in! I hope you are quite well?’
‘Quite well as regards my health,’ answered the wolf, whose eye glistened greedily, ‘at least, as well as one can be when one is very hungry. But what is the matter with you? A fortnight ago you were as plump as heart could wish!’
‘I have been ill--very ill,’ replied the fox, ‘and what you say is quite true. A worm is fat in comparison with me.’
‘He is. Still, you are good enough for me; for “to the hungry no bread is hard.”’
‘Oh, you are always joking! I’m sure you are not half as hungry as I!’
‘That we shall soon see,’ cried the wolf, opening his huge mouth and crouching for a spring.
‘What are you doing?’ exclaimed the fox, stepping backwards.
‘What am I doing? What I am going to do is to make my supper off you, in less time than a cock takes to crow.’
‘Well, I suppose you must have your joke,’ answered the fox lightly, but never removing her eye from the wolf, who replied with a snarl which showed all his teeth:
‘I don’t want to joke, but to eat!’
‘But surely a person of your talents must perceive that you might eat me to the very last morsel and never know that you had swallowed anything at all!’
‘In this world the cleverest people are always the hungriest,’ replied the wolf.
‘Ah! how true that is; but--’
‘I can’t stop to listen to your “buts” and “yets,”’ broke in the wolf rudely; ‘let us get to the point, and the point is that I want to eat you and not talk to you.’
‘Have you no pity for a poor mother?’ asked the fox, putting her tail to her eyes, but peeping slily out of them all the same.
‘I am dying of hunger,’ answered the wolf, doggedly; ‘and you know,’ he added with a grin, ‘that charity begins at home.’
‘Quite so,’ replied the fox; ‘it would be unreasonable of me to object to your satisfying your appetite at my expense. But if the fox resigns herself to the sacrifice, the mother offers you one last request.’
‘Then be quick and don’t waste my time, for I can’t wait much longer. What is it you want?’
‘You must know,’ said the fox, ‘that in this village there is a rich man who makes in the summer enough cheeses to last him for the whole year, and keeps them in an old well, now dry, in his courtyard. By the well hang two buckets on a pole that were used, in former days, to draw up water. For many nights I have crept down to the palace, and have lowered myself in the bucket, bringing home with me enough cheese to feed the children. All I beg of you is to come with me, and, instead of hunting chickens and such things, I will make a good meal off cheese before I die.’
‘But the cheeses may be all finished by now?’
‘If you were only to see the quantities of them!’ laughed the fox. ‘And even if they were finished, there would always be ME to eat.’
‘Well, I will come. Lead the way, but I warn you that if you try to escape or play any tricks you are reckoning without your host-- that is to say, without my legs, which are as long as yours!’
All was silent in the village, and not a light was to be seen but that of the moon, which shone bright and clear in the sky. The wolf and the fox crept softly along, when suddenly they stopped and looked at each other; a savoury smell of frying bacon reached their noses, and reached the noses of the sleeping dogs, who began to bark greedily.
‘Is it safe to go on, think you?’ asked the wolf in a whisper. And the fox shook her head.
‘Not while the dogs are barking,’ said she; ‘someone might come out to see if anything was the matter.’ And she signed to the wolf to curl himself up in the shadow beside her.
In about half an hour the dogs grew tired of barking, or perhaps the bacon was eaten up and there was no smell to excite them. Then the wolf and the fox jumped up, and hastened to the foot of the wall.
‘I am lighter than he is,’ thought the fox to herself, ‘and perhaps if I make haste I can get a start, and jump over the wall on the other side before he manages to spring over this one.’ And she quickened her pace. But if the wolf could not run he could jump, and with one bound he was beside his companion.
‘What were you going to do, comrade?’
‘Oh, nothing,’ replied the fox, much vexed at the failure of her plan.
‘I think if I were to take a bit out of your haunch you would jump better,’ said the wolf, giving a snap at her as he spoke. The fox drew back uneasily.
‘Be careful, or I shall scream,’ she snarled. And the wolf, understanding all that might happen if the fox carried out her threat, gave a signal to his companion to leap on the wall, where he immediately followed her.
Once on the top they crouched down and looked about them. Not a creature was to be seen in the courtyard, and in the furthest corner from the house stood the well, with its two buckets suspended from a pole, just as the fox had described it. The two thieves dragged themselves noiselessly along the wall till they were opposite the well, and by stretching out her neck as far as it would go the fox was able to make out that there was only very little water in the bottom, but just enough to reflect the moon, big, and round and yellow.
‘How lucky!’ cried she to the wolf. ‘There is a huge cheese about the size of a mill wheel. Look! look! did you ever see anything so beautiful!’
‘Never!’ answered the wolf, peering over in his turn, his eyes glistening greedily, for he imagined that the moon’s reflection in the water was really a cheese.
‘And now, unbeliever, what have you to say?’ and the fox laughed gently.
‘That you are a woman--I mean a fox--of your word,’ replied the wolf.
‘Well, then, go down in that bucket and eat your fill,’ said the fox.
‘Oh, is that your game?’ asked the wolf, with a grin. ‘No! no! The person who goes down in the bucket will be you! And if you don’t go down your head will go without you!’
‘Of course I will go down, with the greatest pleasure,’ answered the fox, who had expected the wolf’s reply.
‘And be sure you don’t eat all the cheese, or it will be the worse for you,’ continued the wolf. But the fox looked up at him with tears in her eyes.
‘Farewell, suspicious one!’ she said sadly. And climbed into the bucket.
In an instant she had reached the bottom of the well, and found that the water was not deep enough to cover her legs.
‘Why, it is larger and richer than I thought,’ cried she, turning towards the wolf, who was leaning over the wall of the well.
‘Then be quick and bring it up,’ commanded the wolf.
‘How can I, when it weighs more than I do?’ asked the fox.
‘If it is so heavy bring it in two bits, of course,’ said he.
‘But I have no knife,’ answered the fox. ‘You will have to come down yourself, and we will carry it up between us.’
‘And how am I to come down?’ inquired the wolf.
‘Oh, you are really very stupid! Get into the other bucket that is nearly over your head.’
The wolf looked up, and saw the bucket hanging there, and with some difficulty he climbed into it. As he weighed at least four times as much as the fox the bucket went down with a jerk, and the other bucket, in which the fox was seated, came to the surface.
As soon as he understood what was happening, the wolf began to speak like an angry wolf, but was a little comforted when he remembered that the cheese still remained to him.
‘But where is the cheese?’ he asked of the fox, who in her turn was leaning over the parapet watching his proceedings with a smile.
‘The cheese?’ answered the fox; ‘why I am taking it home to my babies, who are too young to get food for themselves.’
‘Ah, traitor!’ cried the wolf, howling with rage. But the fox was not there to hear this insult, for she had gone off to a neighbouring fowl-house, where she had noticed some fat young chickens the day before.
‘Perhaps I did treat him rather badly,’ she said to herself. ‘But it seems getting cloudy, and if there should be heavy rain the other bucket will fill and sink to the bottom, and his will go up--at least it may!’