Among the mountain pastures and valleys that lie in the centre of France there dwelt a mischievous kind of spirit, whose delight it was to play tricks on everybody, and particularly on the shepherds and the cowboys. They never knew when they were safe from him, as he could change himself into a man, woman or child, a stick, a goat, a ploughshare. Indeed, there was only one thing whose shape he could not take, and that was a needle. At least, he could transform himself into a needle, but try as he might he never was able to imitate the hole, so every woman would have found him out at once, and this he knew.
Now the hour oftenest chosen by this naughty sprite (whom we will call Puck) for performing his pranks was about midnight, just when the shepherds and cowherds, tired out with their long day’s work, were sound asleep. Then he would go into the cowsheds and unfasten the chains that fixed each beast in its own stall, and let them fall with a heavy clang to the ground. The noise was so loud that it was certain to awaken the cowboys, however fatigued they might be, and they dragged themselves wearily to the stable to put back the chains. But no sooner had they returned to their beds than the same thing happened again, and so on till the morning. Or perhaps Puck would spend his night in plaiting together the manes and tails of two of the horses, so that it would take the grooms hours of labour to get them right in the morning, while Puck, hidden among the hay in the loft, would peep out to watch them, enjoying himself amazingly all the time.
One evening more than eighty years ago a man named William was passing along the bank of a stream when he noticed a sheep who was bleating loudly. William thought it must have strayed from the flock, and that he had better take it home with him till he could discover its owner. So he went up to where it was standing, and as it seemed so tired that it could hardly walk, he hoisted it on his shoulders and continued on his way. The sheep was pretty heavy, but the good man was merciful and staggered along as best he could under his load.
‘It is not much further,’ he thought to himself as he reached an avenue of walnut trees, when suddenly a voice spoke out from over his head, and made him jump.
‘Where are you?’ said the voice, and the sheep answered:
‘Here on the shoulders of a donkey.’
In another moment the sheep was standing on the ground and William was running towards home as fast as his legs would carry him. But as he went, a laugh, which yet was something of a bleat, rang in his ears, and though he tried not to hear, the words reached him, ‘Oh, dear! What fun I have had, to be sure!’
Puck was careful not always to play his tricks in the same place, but visited one village after another, so that everyone trembled lest he should be the next victim. After a bit he grew tired of cowboys and shepherds, and wondered if there was no one else to give him some sport. At length he was told of a young couple who were going to the nearest town to buy all that they needed for setting up house. Quite certain that they would forget something which they could not do without, Puck waited patiently till they were jogging along in their cart on their return journey, and changed himself into a fly in order to overhear their conversation.
For a long time it was very dull–all about their wedding day next month, and who were to be invited. This led the bride to her wedding dress, and she gave a little scream.
‘Just think! Oh! how could I be so stupid! I have forgotten to buy the different coloured reels of cotton to match my clothes!’
‘Dear, dear!’ exclaimed the young man. ‘That is unlucky; and didn’t you tell me that the dressmaker was coming in to-morrow?’
‘Yes, I did,’ and then suddenly she gave another little scream, which had quite a different sound from the first. ‘Look! Look!’
The bridegroom looked, and on one side of the road he saw a large ball of thread of all colours–of all the colours, that is, of the dresses that were tied on to the back of the cart.
‘Well, that is a wonderful piece of good fortune,’ cried he, as he sprang out to get it. ‘One would think a fairy had put it there on purpose.’
‘Perhaps she has,’ laughed the girl, and as she spoke she seemed to hear an echo of her laughter coming from the horse, but of course that was nonsense.
The dressmaker was delighted with the thread that was given her. It matched the stuffs so perfectly, and never tied itself in knots, or broke perpetually, as most thread did. She finished her work much quicker than she expected and the bride said she was to be sure to come to the church and see her in her wedding dress.
There was a great crowd assembled to witness the ceremony, for the young people were immense favourites in the neighbourhood, and their parents were very rich. The doors were open, and the bride could be seen from afar, walking under the chestnut avenue.
‘What a beautiful girl!’ exclaimed the men. ‘What a lovely dress!’ whispered the women. But just as she entered the church and took the hand of the bridegroom, who was waiting for her, a loud noise was heard.
‘Crick! crack! Crick! crack!’ and the wedding garments fell to the ground, to the great confusion of the wearer.
Not that the ceremony was put off for a little thing like that! Cloaks in profusion were instantly offered to the young bride, but she was so upset that she could hardly keep from tears. One of the guests, more curious than the rest, stayed behind to examine the dress, determined, if she could, to find out the cause of the disaster.
‘The thread must have been rotten,’ she said to herself. ‘I will see if I can break it.’ But search as she would she could find none.
The thread had vanished!