The Seven Sheepfolds
It was not till the dogs had leapt from the hearth, that the shepherd woke up to the fact that some one was knocking at his door. Then you may be sure he was quick to open it.
Who should stand there, or rather, who should be blown inside directly the door was flung open, but a stranger wrapped in a dark mantle. The shepherd was quick to help him off with it, for it was wet and heavy; and then he saw a handsome, sad-looking man, whose face was oddly familiar to him, though where Bebeck had seen him, he could not think.
However, the stranger was in need of food and shelter, and it was not the time to ask questions. He soon had a chair drawn up to the fire, a flagon of cordial crushed from the mountain-berries, warming in the embers, and good fresh bread, salted butter, goat cheese, and milk on the table.
Then the stranger drew up his chair and ate heartily, admiring the painted wooden platter, with its garland of blue berries, and the coarse linen cloth fringed and stitched in bright colours. Even the cup he drank from was carved and painted, so that every bite or sup was a pleasure to the eye as well as to the stomach.
They chatted of the storm, and then the talk turned to a pleasanter subject, the beautiful things in the cottage; and pleased and surprised the stranger was to learn the shepherd had made everything from the wood that grew in the forest and the flax that grew on the soil, and the wool that grew on the sheep, and that even the gay colours came from the bark of the trees or herbs in the grass.
“Your face is as bright as your hut,” said the stranger. “‘Tis indeed good to find such a welcome on this lonely mountain,” and the stranger sighed as if his heart were very sad.
“You speak like a man who has travelled much,” said the simple shepherd, noticing the fine, smooth hands of his guest, and his great signet ring.
“Very far,” said the stranger, “from end to end of my kingdom, and everywhere there is nothing but ruin and desolation.”
Then the shepherd knew the stranger was no other than the King of Hungary and dropped on his knees, faltering, “Your Majesty,” for he had been chatting to him as one friend might to another. But the King said that was just how he liked to be talked to, and told Bebeck to get up again and be sensible.
“You are a clever fellow,” said the King, “and ’tis good to find contentment in a mountain hut. But I cannot help remembering my poor people in the cities; the Mongols have burnt the houses to the ground, and there is no money anywhere with which to build them. We need bricks and stones and timbers from afar, and the whole of my fortune will not suffice to purchase what is required. I have travelled through the land and this is the first bright spot I have found. But you have only yourself to think of; I cannot feast or rejoice while my people are homeless.”
At this Bebeck’s heart grew full, for all his subjects knew the goodness of King Bela, and loved to serve him.
The King finished his supper, and turned again to the painted chest and marvelled at the beauty of the many flowers painted on it. Talking of them, his face grew less miserable, and a look of peace came into his eyes and presently he said he felt he should sleep to-night. So Bebeck hastened to put clean sheets on his rough bed, and made it ready. A great plan was coming into Bebeck’s head, and when he had finished, he said to the King, “Now, Your Majesty, I must leave you; two of my dogs will be on guard, so have no fear of any disturbance. I must go out now on an important errand, and if I succeed, it may be that to-morrow morning will find you with sufficient fortune to rebuild the ruined cities of Hungary.”
At this King Bela smiled, for it seemed a foolish boast for a poor shepherd to make, but Bebeck continued, “And if I do not return, I beg Your Majesty to take that big cheese and cut it open, for quite a large fortune is in that.”
With these words, Bebeck took out from the chest his entire store of sheepskins and tied them together into a great sack; then putting them and a coil of rope round his shoulders, he bade the King good-night, and calling his dogs to him, stepped out into the storm. The King smiled more than ever as he looked up at the great cheese, but suddenly an idea struck him that the simple shepherd might be giving him a true message, and that in the cheeses which peasants made, there was treasure indeed for a country.
“I must first see that the people have goats and cattle,” thought the King, and fell asleep planning for his people’s prosperity and happiness. That there was actual treasure of precious gems inside the cheese, he never thought for one moment.
Meanwhile Bebeck had put two of his dogs on guard, and left one at the sheepfold; with the others he went forward up the mountain. He had determined to go again to the treasure cave and risk his life for the King’s sake, and the starving people in the plains below.
From Wonder Tales of the World, Constance Armfield, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920.