The Apple Tree of Old Man Misery
IT was at Moriocourt, a tiny village, that the story happened. Moriocourt in former times had been illustrious. The owners of its proud castle were for six hundred years the descendants of pious Saint Hubert, and the hamlet always retained his protection and that of his relative, Saint Evron.
Well, at the time we speak of, in the oldest, smallest, and most decrepit of the miserable huts that constituted Moriocourt lived a poor old beggar by the name of Misery. He was so bent, so wrinkled, so skeleton-like, that one could have believed him a contemporary of Adam. For company he had only a dog named Baloufe, as old and thin as he. He did not own much more than his stick and a hundred-times-mended alms pouch. But at the back of his hut he had a garden, a bit of a garden, with one, and only one, tree — an apple tree, if you must know; but what an apple tree! It covered the garden and the hut with its shade when it was in leaf, and it was so beautiful that nowhere could be seen the like, except, possibly, in Paradise.
Misery was as fond of his apples as he was of his dog — which is to say a great deal. But the urchins of all the surrounding hamlets were as fond of them as he was, and even before they were ripe those naughty boys would rush to steal them in the absence of the owner. So that when he went out on his begging trips he would tie Baloufe at the foot of the tree to frighten away the robbers.
One year the winter was so terrible that ice did not melt for two months. Water was frozen in the pails near the fireplaces; food was frozen in the larders; bread was frozen in the pantries. One night, when snow was deeper and wind harsher than usual, someone knocked at Misery’s door. Amazingly, Baloufe did not bark, but wagged his tail with a show of gayety.
‘For the love of God, open to me!’ called a voice. ‘I am so cold I cannot go further. Open or I die,’
Misery opened at once, saying, ‘I certainly shall not leave you outside, poor fellow. Whoever you are, come on in and sit near my poor fire.’
The newcomer was also an old man, older even than Misery, and more bent, and his clothes were still more ragged.
‘Old fellow,’ Misery went on, ‘you have tough luck; I have very little wood left, just these few sticks. However, I’ll throw them into the flame. Warm yourself as much as you can; then you may share my bed, if you will. First I shall get you a small piece of good bread, which the charitable lord of our castle gave me this afternoon.’
Meanwhile Baloufe was licking the feet and the hands of the guest, which surprised his old master greatly. The following morning early, after a more or less comforting sleep, Misery on waking saw the other man up and ready to go.
‘Do you have to leave me so soon?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ came the answer. ‘I go now; my task is done. For I am not the beggar you think, but Saint Evron, ancestor of your lords, and pleased to know that my greatgreat-great-grandnephew is charitable. God sent me around to test the goodness of people, and it was most discouraging. I knocked at the doors of rich and poor; no one would receive me. You alone, Misery, the most beggarly of all, had great pity on me. You shall be rewarded. What wish would you have come true?’
Misery, fallen on his knees, was at first spellbound, then he cried; ‘That is why Baloufe licked you, holy Saint! Forgive me for not receiving you better. I did what I could.’
‘I know it well, my son. Now tell me what you would like.’
’I did not receive you for any recompense,’ Misery said proudly, ‘and indeed I need nothing.’
‘Nothing!’ the Saint exclaimed. ‘What about never wanting wood? . . . White bread? . . . Foaming cider? ... Or lots of money? . . . No?’ Misery was shaking his head. ‘What about a farm with meadows and fields? . . . Would you become a count? A duke? Or a prince? Answer, Misery, or I’ll accuse your pride.’
‘Since you ask it, great Saint Evron,’ Misery said at last, ‘here’s my wish: May anyone who climbs on my apple tree stay stuck there until I allow him to be free.’
‘All right,’ said the Saint, ‘as you said. But you should rather, my son, have asked for your salvation.’ Upon which he disappeared.
As you may expect, the blessing of Heaven’s messenger brought luck to Misery. He got his alms pouch well filled every time he went begging, and in due season his apple tree was covered with the most splendid apples. Misery did not leave Baloufe home this time. The urchins came at once, and all got caught in the branches.
‘I’ll allow you to get down now,’ Misery declared to them, when he came back, ‘but you will know first what my dog’s teeth mean.’ The lesson worked. No apple robbers came again.
However, one autumn morning Misery heard his name called thrice in a most lugubrious tone. Baloufe at once howled, and his old master, much afraid, did not feel like answering. Yet he finally half-opened his door. Who was there if not Death himself!
‘What are you here for, Master?’
‘Upon my word, to get you!’
‘Already! Should you not thank me, who spared you for so long — you so old, so bent, and so poor?’
‘Not so poor, Master, not so poor. And not so old, either; I was only ninety-nine at my last birthday, I think. And not so bent as you.’
‘Anyway, come along. You will be better, where I shall take you, than here.’
‘Maybe so. I’ll get ready . . . but would you mind very much, meanwhile, picking from my apple tree the last three of my apples? I’d gladly eat them on the way.’
Death acquiesced, climbed up the tree, picked the apples, smiling, and then wished to come down.
‘Is this apple tree bewitched?’ he howled. ‘Misery, come and help me!’
‘You look very well there. You can stay,’ Misery laughed. ‘I’m in no hurry to go to Heaven yet.’ And he resumed his quiet life.
Nobody died that month in Moriocourt, nor in Riocourt and Helicourt, in surrounding towns or elsewhere. Nobody died the next month, the whole year and the following ones. Nobody died for ten years, for fifty. People were not the happier for it; they grew far too many. There was a shortage of wheat; hunger did not kill people, but it tortured them. There were desperate fights; the most horrible wounds were no longer mortal. The world was more and more filled with old men, all deaf, blind, crippled, or bedridden.
At last someone espied Death in the apple tree. Those who tried to free him were similarly caught. Then they called on old Misery: ‘Give us back Death. One lives too long; it is not bearable. We want Death.’
The old fellow understood all the harm he had wrought. ‘I shall let you free,’ he said to Death, ‘but not before you have promised me that you will not call me or Baloufe before I myself have called you three times.’
‘I do swear it,’ Death answered, ‘and shall fix that matter with the great Saint Evron.’ He jumped quickly down, and at once sent to Heaven — or to Hell — all the old men of Moriocourt, Riocourt, Helicourt, neighboring and faraway towns.
As for Misery and his dog, you have certainly met them. Satisfied with his life, the centenarian beggar has not yet once called Death. . . . And that is why, if you did not know it, MISERY is eternal.
- Translated by E. Chavanon from a traditional legend of Northern France.↩