There was once a young shepherd, an honest industrious fellow, who passed most of his time in the hills looking after his master’s flocks. One afternoon he happened upon a bush which some gipsies had set a-fire. As he stopped to watch it he heard a strange hissing, whistling sound. He went as close as he could and in the center of the bush which the flames had not yet reached he saw a snake. It was writhing and trembling in fear.
“Help me, brother!” the snake said. “Help me and I will reward you richly! I swear I will!”
The shepherd put the end of his crook over the flames and the snake crawled up the crook, up the shepherd’s arm, and wound itself about his neck.
It was now the shepherd’s turn to be frightened.
“What! Will you kill me as a reward for my kindness?”
“Nay,” the snake said. “Do not be afraid. I will not injure you. Do as I tell you and you will have nothing to regret. My father is the Tsar of the Snakes. Take me to him and he will reward you for rescuing me.”
“But I can’t leave my flocks,” the shepherd said.
“Have no fear about your flocks. Nothing will happen to them in your absence.”
“But I don’t know where your father, the Tsar of the Snakes, lives,” the shepherd protested.
“I’ll show you,” the snake said. “I’ll point out the direction with my tail.”
So in spite of his misgivings the shepherd at last agreed to the snake’s suggestion and, leaving his sheep in God’s care, started up the mountainside in the direction which the snake pointed out with his tail.
They reached finally a sort of pocket in the hills which was sandy and rocky and exposed to the full force of the sun. The snake directed the shepherd to the entrance of a cave which had a huge door composed entirely of living snakes closely wound together. The shepherd’s snake said something in his breathy whistling voice and the door pulled itself apart and allowed the shepherd to enter the cave.
“Now,” whispered the snake, “when my father asks you what you want, tell him you want the gift of understanding the language of the animals. He will try to give you something else but don’t you accept anything else.”
The Tsar of the Snakes was a huge creature clothed in a gorgeous skin of red and yellow and black. They found him reclining on a golden table with a crown of precious jewels on his head.
“My son!” he cried, when he saw the snake that was still wound about the shepherd’s neck, “where have you been? We have been grieving for you thinking you had met some misfortune.”
“But for this shepherd, my father,” the snake said, “I should have been burned to death. He rescued me.”
Then he told the Tsar of the Snakes the whole story. The Tsar of the Snakes listened carefully and when the Snake Prince was finished he turned to the shepherd and said:
“Sir, I am deeply indebted to you for saving my son’s life. Ask of me anything I can grant and it is yours.”
“Give me then,” the shepherd said, “the gift of understanding the language of the animals.”
“Not that!” the Tsar of the Snakes cried. “It is too dangerous a gift! If ever you confessed to some other human being that you had this gift and repeated what some animal said you would die that instant. Ask something else—anything else!”
“No,” the shepherd insisted. “Give me that or nothing!”
When the Tsar of the Snakes saw that the shepherd was not to be dissuaded, he said:
“Very well, then. What must be, must be. Come now very close to me and put your mouth against my mouth. Do you breathe three times into my mouth and I shall breathe three times into your mouth. Then you will understand the language of the animals.”
So the shepherd put his mouth close to the mouth of the Tsar of the Snakes and breathed into it three times. Then the Tsar of the Snakes breathed into the shepherd’s mouth three times.
“Now you will understand the language of all animals,” the Tsar of the Snakes said. “It is a dangerous gift but if you remember my warning it may bring you great prosperity. Farewell.”
So the shepherd went back to his flocks and lay down under a fir tree to rest. Presently he wondered whether he hadn’t been asleep and dreamed about the burning bush and the snake and the Tsar of the Snakes.
“It can’t be real!” he said to himself. “How can I or any man understand the language of the animals!”
Just then two ravens alighted on the tree above his head.
“Caw! Caw!” said one of them. “Wouldn’t that shepherd be surprised if he knew he was lying on some buried treasure!”
“Caw! Caw!” laughed the other. “He’ll never know for he’s only one of those poor stupid human beings who can’t understand a word we say!”
The ravens flew off and the shepherd sat up and rubbed his eyes to make sure he was awake.
“Am I dreaming again?” he asked himself, “or did I really understand them? Well, I’ll soon find out. To-morrow I’ll bring a spade and then if there’s any treasure buried under this tree I won’t be long in digging it up.”
He marked the spot where he had been lying when the ravens spoke and the next day came back and dug. Three feet below the surface his spade hit something that proved to be a big iron pot chock-full of golden ducats.
He carried the treasure to his master and his master was so pleased at his honesty that he gave him half of it.
So now the shepherd was able to set up in life for himself. He bought a farm and married and “settled down” as the saying is. The years went by and he grew prosperous and rich.
One Christmas Eve he said to his wife:
“I’m thinking, wife, of my youth when I was a shepherd and how lonely it was at times like this when other folk were at home seated about the fire and making merry. Let us give our shepherds out on the hills a surprise to-night. We can take them meats and wine and other food and then I’ll go out and guard the sheep while you serve them a fine Christmas supper.”
His wife agreed and they mounted their horses and rode out to the hills taking with them great hampers of food and wine. The wife entertained the shepherds in their hut with a big jolly supper and the master stayed outside all night with the dogs guarding the sheep.
At midnight some wolves came prowling around the flocks.
“See here,” they said to the dogs, “if you let us in we’ll kill the sheep and then we’ll divide the carcasses with you.”
The dogs for the most part were young and thoughtless and ready enough to fall in with the wolves’ suggestion. But there was one old sheepdog that nothing could tempt.
“I’ve only a few teeth left!” he growled, “but those few are still sound and let any wolf come a step nearer and I’ll tear him to pieces!”
All night long that one old sheepdog stood on guard faithful to duty.
In the morning the master ordered the shepherds to kill the young dogs and train in new ones.
The shepherds were surprised.
“The master’s a clever one!” they told each other. “Just one night and he found out how worthless those young dogs were!”
As the farmer and his wife were riding home, the farmer’s horse ran on ahead.
“Not so fast!” begged the mare that the wife was riding. “Have pity on me and go more slowly. You have only the master to carry while I’m all laden down with hampers and empty jugs and I don’t know what and with a mistress that’s twice as big as she was a few months ago!”
The farmer when he heard the mare’s complaint burst out laughing.
“What are you laughing at?” his wife asked sharply.
“Nothing,” the farmer said.
“You’re laughing at me!” the wife declared, “I know you are, just because I’m so big that I’m awkward in the saddle!”
“No, my dear, I’m not laughing at you, truly I’m not.”
“You are! I know you are and I don’t think it’s kind of you, either!” And the wife burst into tears.
“Now, my dear,” the husband said, soothingly, “be sensible and believe me when I tell you I was not laughing at you.”
“Then what were you laughing at?”
“I can’t tell you because if I did tell you then I should die the next moment.”
“Die the next moment!” the wife said. “Stuff and nonsense! It must be a strange thing indeed if a man can’t tell his own wife for fear he’ll die the next moment!”
The more she thought about it the more enraged she became and also the more curious.
“If you really loved me, you’d tell me!” she wept.
All the way home she kept on worrying her husband and nagging at him until at last in utter exhaustion he said:
“Peace, woman, peace, and I’ll tell you! But first let me have my coffin made for as I’ve warned you I shall die the moment I’ve spoken.”
So he had the village carpenter build him a coffin and when it was ready he stood it up on end against the house and got inside of it.
The news of what was about to happen spread among the animals and the faithful old sheepdog hurried down from the hills to be with his master at the end. He lay down at the foot of the coffin and howled.
“I’ve one faithful friend!” the farmer said. “Wife, give the poor dog some bread before I tell you my secret and die.”
The woman threw the old dog a hunk of bread but the dog refused it and kept on howling.
The rooster from the barnyard came running up and began gobbling down the bread with great gusto.
“You shameless animal!” the dog said sternly. “Here’s the poor master about to die on account of that foolish inquisitive wife of his and yet you have so little feeling that you’re delighted at the chance to gorge yourself with food!”
The rooster clucked scornfully.
“See here, old dog, I can’t waste any sympathy on that master of ours! Any man who allows his wife to bully him deserves whatever he gets! Look at me!” The rooster puffed out his chest and gave a loud: “Cock-a-doodle-do! I’ve got fifty wives but do they bully me? They do not! Whenever I find a nice fat worm or a grain of corn I set up an awful noise and gather them all around me. Then I eat it while they stand there and admire me! No, no, old dog, I have no patience with the master! He has only one wife and he doesn’t know how to rule her!”
“The rooster’s right!” thought the farmer.
With that he jumped out of the coffin, picked up a stick, and gave his wife a sound beating.
“So you’d kill your husband just to satisfy your curiosity, would you?” he shouted angrily. “Very well, then! Take this and this and this! And if your curiosity is still unsatisfied I’ll give you some more!”
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” cried the wife. “Do you want to injure me!”
But the farmer did not stop until he had given her such a whipping that she never forgot it. When it was over she begged his pardon humbly and promised never again to ask him anything that he didn’t want to tell her.
“You just mustn’t let me be so foolish again!” she said.
“I won’t!” the farmer declared.
Then he puffed out his chest and strutted about until you’d have laughed to see him—he looked so much like the rooster!