Now I’m going to tell you a story that I read to the heir apparent only very recently and that I like better and better the more I think about it. For it’s the same with stories as with many people ; the older they grow, the nicer they grow, albeit for different reasons : the former because they’ve stood the test of time and have emerged as a respectable signal from the noise of contemporaneity, and the latter because they’ve ever less virility with which to fight the good fight.
Now, to the story… you’ve traveled to countryside, right ? There, you must’ve seen an old farmhouse with a thatched roof, where moss and weeds had drifted in on the breeze and planted themselves ; a stork’s nest adorning the chimney (there always have to be adornments) ; the walls pitched under the weight of time ; the windows low and small (in fact, only one of them was operable) ; the cast-iron oven sticking out like a potbelly pig’s proverbial ; and an elderbush leaning over the gate, behind which you can see a tiny pond with a duck and its ducklings swimming in the shade of the overhanging willow tree. And yes, there’s even a watchdog by the edge of the house who makes it his duty to alert all comers and goers to his stalwart vigilance.
Well, there was a farmhouse just like this in the Alberta countryside, and in it there lived an elderly couple, a farmer and his wife. They had few possessions between them, the land not being as profitable for a small family as it once was, but there was one item in particular whose best days were behind it and that the couple wanted to part with, and that was their horse, which grazed along the ditch outside their home. The old farmer occasionally used the horse to ride to town, and, even more occasionally still, lent it to his neighbours, receiving some small services from them in return, but still the old couple knew that it would be much more profitable to sell the horse, or at least exchange the horse for something that would be of greater utility to them.
But what should they do ? Sell or trade?
“You’ll know what’s best, my good husband,” said the wife. “Since today’s market day, you can ride the horse to town and get some money for it or make a good trade for it. Whatever you do is always right ; so be off with you ! And take the horse with you !”
So she tied his handsomest scarf ’round his neck – for that was something she understood much better than he, tying it with a perfect double bow – and in doing so she made her husband instantly look 15 years more youthful. She brushed his hat with the palm of her hand and she kissed him on the mouth before sending him off, riding the horse that was to be either sold or bartered ; the wife trusting with every fibre of her being that the old man would know the right thing to do when the time came.
On this particular day, as the old man rode towards town, the sun was particularly scorching, with nary a cloud in the sky. The road was dusty and crowded with other people also on their way to market ; some in wagons, some on horseback, and some on their own two feet. Yes, the sun was fierce that day, and there was no shade along the road from which to steal a moment’s relief.
Now along the road was another man driving a cow, as pretty a cow as you could wish to see. “I’m sure she must give grand milk,” thought the old man to himself. “It would be a pretty good bargain if I got her.” So he yelled over to the man driving the cow, “Hey, you, with the cow !” he said. “Let’s have a little talk. Look here, I believe a horse costs more than a cow, but it doesn’t matter to me since I have more use for a cow. Shall we make a swap ?”
“You’ve got yourself a deal !” said the man with the cow ; and so they shook hands and swapped animals.
Now the farmer might just as well have turned home at that point, having just completed the business he’d set out to conduct, but it had been a few weeks since he’d been to the market, and he’d already come this far, so he decided to continue along the road towards town, if only to bask the energy of the agora. With his new cow in tow, he moseyed along, soon overtaking a man leading a sheep in the same direction ; it was a fine-looking sheep, in excellent condition and well clothed with wool.
“I’d certainly like to have that sheep,” thought the old man to himself. “It would find plenty of grazing beside our ditch, and in the winter, we could keep it in our own room. It would be so much more sensible for us to keep a sheep instead of this big cow.” So he inquired of the man leading the sheep, “Shall we trade?”
Yes, the sheep’s owner was quite willing, so the exchange was made. And once again, instead of turning around towards home and presenting his waiting wife with the new sheep, the old farmer continued towards town, still intent to take in the sights and smells of the market. But as fate would have it, while passing a gate along the road, he met a man with a big healthy goose tucked under his arm.
“Well, you’ve got a fine heavy fellow there !” said the farmer to the man with the goose. “With plenty of feathers and such fine folds of fat ! How nice it would be to have it tied up near our little pond – it would look ever so lovely there – and it would give my dear wife something to save table scraps for. Now that I think about it, she’s often said, ‘If we only had a goose.’ Well, perhaps now she can have one ! I say, my good man, will you swap my sheep for your goose ? It would bring a smile to my wife’s face, and mine !”
Agreeing, and with neither objection nor delay, the two men shook hands and swapped animals, with the farmer taking the goose. By now, he was getting ever closer and closer to town but he was still unwilling to concede Zeno’s paradox ; the road was getting more and more crowded now, with people and cattle pushing past the old farmer ; clogging up the road, the ditch, and right up to the edge of the tollkeeper’s potato patch, where the tollkeeper’s solitary hen was leashed to a post, lest the bird lose its head in all the commotion and run off. Now this particular hen was of the bobtailed variety and this particular specimen had a charming manner of winking, yes, winking at passerbys, affirming his good condition and affable disposition.
“Cluck, cluck,” said the winking hen ; but what it meant by that, we can’t be sure ; but what the old farmer thought when he saw it was this, “She’s the prettiest hen I’ve ever seen – much prettier than any of our preacher’s brood hens. I would certainly like to have her. A hen like that needs very little feeding, they’re really quite independent animals. And they lay eggs ! I almost think it would be a good idea to take her instead of the goose.” So he asked the tollkeeper, “Shall we trade ?”
“Trade ?” said the tollkeeper. “Well, yes ! Let’s do a deal !” And so they traded. The tollkeeper got the goose, and the farmer got the hen.
Now, the farmer had completed a good deal of business since he started for town, four deals in fact, and the fierceness of the hot sun was beginning to wear on him and he was getting tired, so he began looking for a rest stop where he could find a drink and a bite to eat.
He reached an inn and the old farmer was about to enter when he came across the innkeeper’s helper in the doorway. The helper carrying a sackful of something, but the old man couldn’t quite tell what. Curious, he stopped the young man for a question. “What have you got there ?” asked the farmer.
“Rotten apples,” came the reply. “A whole sackful. But they’re for the pigs. Nothing you’d be interested in.”
“Nothing I’d be interested in ?! What a lot ! My wife would love to see so many apples ! Why, just last year, when we had but a lonely apple on the old tree by the shed, we didn’t even eat it ! We just kept it on the credenza until it burst. ‘Now there’s a sign of prosperity,’ my wife had said to me. Now with this sackful of apples, she could see prosperity galore… I only wish she could have it !”
“Well, she could have them, but what’ll you give me in return ?” asked the innkeeper’s helper.
“Give you in return ? Why, I’ll give you my hen !” A bit shocked at this highly favourable offer, the innkeeper’s helper grabbed the hen and handed over the apples before the old farmer changed his mind. The old man, however, quite contented with himself, continued into the inn and straight up to the bar.
There, he grabbed a seat and set his sackful of apples right against the stove without noticing that it was lit. Now the bar was bustling with all manner of strangers : there were horse dealers, cattle dealers, and even, somewhat oddly, two Englishmen so rich that you could see their pockets bursting with gold coins clear across the room. The two Englishmen were of the typical sort in the sense that they’d gamble on two cockroaches running across the floor, so fond were they of making bets.
Suddenly, “Hiss ! Hiss ! Hiss !” came a noise from over by the stove, audible throughout the bar. Oh no ! It was the old man’s apples beginning to roast !
“What’s that ?” everybody wondered, and they soon found out. A bit dismayed at having accidentally roasted his day’s proceeds, but ultimately unflummoxed, the old farmer began to recount his story to the crowd in the bar, mesmerising those assembled with his plan to go to market to trade/sell his horse, and how he’d first traded it for a cow and then a sheep and then a goose and then a hen and finally for a sack of rotten apples, which were now more than a little bit roasted.
“Well, my good fellow, you’re sure to get a proper lashing from your old woman when you get home,” said the Englishmen. “You’re in for a rough time !”
“Not from my wife,” said the farmer proudly, “I’ll get kisses, not cuffs. When I return home, my wife will say ‘Whatever the old man does is right.’ “
“Ha !” exclaimed the Englishmen, “Is that so ? Well, shall we bet on it then ? We have gold by the barrel ! A hundred pounds sterling to a hundred-pound weight ?”
“Let’s say a bushelful,” replied the old farmer. “I can only bet my bushel of apples, and throw in myself and the old woman, but I think that’ll be more than full measure.”
“That’s a bet !” the Englishmen cried, and the two shook on the deal. The innkeeper’s cart was rolled around front and the Englishmen, the old farmer, and the rotten roasted apples all hopped aboard and trundled back down the road towards the old man’s cottage.
Returning home with the Englishmen, the old man called in through the front door, “Good evening, wife !”
“Same to you, husband !” came the happy response from within, as the old man’s wife rushed to the door to greet the old man and his new friends.
“Well, I’ve made the bargain,” the old man told his wife.
“Yes well, you do know how to do business,” said the wife, as she wrapped both arms around him, quite forgetting both the sack and the strangers.
“I traded the horse for a cow !” said the husband excitedly.
“Thank God for the milk !” said the wife. “Now we can have milk, butter, and cheese on our table ! What a splendid swap ! My dear husband, you are so wonderful at matters of business. You always do what’s right.”
“Yes, well, except I swapped the cow for a sheep, you see.”
“My goodness, that’s still better !” cried the wife. “You’re always so thoughtful. We have plenty of grass for a sheep. But now we’ll have sheep’s milk, and sheep’s cheese, and woolen stockings, yes, even a woolen nightgown too. A cow couldn’t have given us that ; she loses all her hairs. You’re always such a thoughtful husband !”
“Except, my dear, then I exchanged the sheep for a goose.”
“Oh my ! Will we really have goose for Christmas this year, dear husband ? You always think of what would please me, and what a beautiful thought ! We can tie up the goose by the side of the shed and it’ll grow even fatter for Christmas Day. How wonderful !”
“Ah, but you see, then I traded the goose for a hen,” continued the farmer.
“A hen ? What a fine trade !” replied his wife. “A hen will lay eggs and sit on them and give us chickens. Imagine, a chicken yard ! Just the thing I’ve always wanted !”
“Yes, my dear, except I traded the hen for a sack of rotten apples, which I then went about roasting on the stove at the inn.”
“Then I must certainly give you a kiss !” said the wife. “Thank you, my dearest husband. It’s as if you read my mind ! For while you were out at the market, I decided to prepare a special dinner for you – an omelette with chives. Now I had the eggs all right, but not the chives. So I went over to the schoolmaster’s house because I know they have chives, but that sweet old woman was so stingy that she wouldn’t part with them without something in return. And what could I give her ? Nothing grows in our garden, not even a rotten apple ; I didn’t even have that for her. But now I can give her ten or even a whole sackful ! Isn’t it funny how these things all work out, husband ?” she said, and kissed him right on the mouth.
“By George I like that !” cried the Englishmen. “Always downhill, but always happy ! That alone is worth the money !” Impressed and astonished in equal measure, the Englishmen happily paid the bushelful of gold to the farmer who’d somehow managed to get kisses instead of cuffs.
Yes, the moral of the story is that it always pays when the wife both believes and admits that her husband is the wisest man in the world and that whatever he does is right.
Well, that’s the story. I heard it only recently, but now you’ve heard it too, so now you know that what the old man does is always right.
Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “Hvad Fatter gjør, det er altid det Rigtige.”