© Rosalind Winter
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A reviewer of the first version of this story said "This seems to be a bit repetitious ..." For any other reviewers who aren't familiar with the conventions of traditional story-telling for children: it's meant to be repetitious. Try reading it aloud to young children, say four years old and upwards, and you'll see why. Stories with lots of repeats are also good for children who are starting to read for themselves.
THE SCARLET RIBBON
Once upon a time there was a young man called Tom, who lived with his mother and his sister in a little cottage on the edge of Bodmin Moor. Tom's mother and his sister loved him dearly, and worked hard all the day long, spinning and weaving, washing and ironing, gardening and baking, to keep him clothed and fed.
Every once in a while Tom would take a day's work on the farm next door, but he was too idle to stick at any job for long. He found it much more to his liking to dawdle about on Bodmin Moor, where he set snares for rabbits to sell to the farmer. He never took anything home to his mother and his sister, not a single penny of his earnings, not even a rabbit for the pot. Instead he sold all the rabbits and wasted all his money at the village inn. Tom longed to be a rich man, and spend his days idling with his sweetheart at the village inn, but he was far too lazy to grow rich by honest means.
One summer's day, Tom set off for Bodmin Moor to look at his snares. A fair was coming to the village that evening, and he wanted some rabbits to sell so that he would have money to spend there. It was a fine sunny day, and Tom had hardly a care in the world, except for not being rich enough to buy all the cakes and pies he could eat at the fair, for Tom was greedy as well as lazy. You may be sure that he had no thoughts of taking his mother and sister to the fair.
'They will be far too busy at home,' he thought, 'spinning and weaving, washing and ironing, gardening and baking, to keep me clothed and fed.'
Tom dawdled over the moor, smelling the sweet honey scent of the golden gorse bushes that grew all around, as far as the eye could see, and listening to the skylarks pouring out their lovely song as they rose up high in the air above him.
'If only I could catch a lark,' he thought. 'I would put it in a cage and take it to the fair, and folk would pay me money to hear it sing.'
But he knew he could never catch a skylark.
Suddenly Tom heard another sound, much closer at hand. A little voice cried out from under a gorse bush just a short way ahead, where he knew that one of his snares lay hidden.
'Oh help me! Help me! Help me!' cried the little voice. 'I will give ten silver shillings to anyone who will help me!'
Well, that got Tom's attention, you may be very sure. He ran forward and knelt down, and there, caught in his snare, he found a little old man, no more than six inches high, dressed all in red and green. He was crying piteously as he tried to break free from the cruel snare that was caught tight around one of his ankles.
'I have caught something much better than a rabbit to sell to the farmer!' thought Tom. 'Better even than a lark to put in a cage!'
'Oh, sir, kind sir, will you help me get free of this cruel snare?' begged the little old man. 'I will give you ten silver shillings if only you will set me free!'
'You must be one of the Little People!' said Tom. 'I never believed that there really were such folk as you. My sister is always putting out bread and milk for the Little People, and I thought her a silly girl to do such a thing. I was sure it was the village cats that ate it all up, for it is always gone by the morning.'
'Oh good sir, you must surely be the brother of that kind girl at the cottage yonder! Many's the moonlit night I've enjoyed the bread and milk that she leaves for the Little People. I am old, sir, very old, and my magic grows weaker and weaker, and without her kind gifts of bread and milk I should be in a sorry state.' The little old man wiped a tear from his eye. 'And now, good sir, I am sure you will be as kind to me as your sister, and free me from this dreadful snare, and I shall give you ten silver shillings to thank you for your trouble.'
As he said it he pulled out a handful of coins from his pocket, and it was more money than Tom had ever seen in his life before.
'We'll see about that,' said Tom, who was greedy as well as lazy. 'It seems to me that setting you free should be worth much more than a few silver shillings.'
'But that is all I have about me,' said the little man anxiously.
'Then I shall not set you free,' said Tom. 'There is a fair in the village this evening, and I shall take you there instead. I shall put you in a cage, and show you to anyone who will pay me a penny to look at one of the Little People. And I shall keep you in your cage for ever and ever, and take you around to all the fairs in the whole County of Cornwall, and then I shall take you to London Town, and I am sure the King and the Queen in their fine castle will pay me too. I shall be rich and famous, and never have to live in that wretched cottage with my mother and sister again.'
The little old man looked at Tom, and guessed that his mother and sister would never have any share in the riches he meant to make. No, he would keep them all for himself.
'It is a long, weary way around all the fairs of the County of Cornwall,' said the little old man. 'And it is a long, weary way to London Town, to the King and the Queen in their fine castle. If you will set me free, I shall show you where you may find a great pot of gold on this very moor. You can have it all for yourself, as much gold as you could ever want, without all the trouble of taking me round to fairs and the like.'
Tom thought about this, and he liked the sound of it, for, as I told you, he was a very lazy young man.
'Where is this pot of gold?' he asked.
'Loosen the snare from around my foot, and I shall lead you to it,' said the little old man. 'But first you must give me your word that as soon as I have shown you the place, you will let me go free.'
'Very well,' said Tom. The little old man looked up at him, his head cocked to one side.
'I must warn you,' he said, 'that we Little People are folk of our word, and we expect others to deal honestly with us. Will you solemnly swear to let me go free when I have shown you where to find the pot of gold?'
'I will,' said Tom. 'Now show me where to find it.' And with that he loosed the snare from around the foot of the little old man, and picked him up, keeping a firm hold on his coat, for Tom was afraid that he would try to escape.
'This is the path we must take,' said the little old man, and pointed the way along a narrow sheep track, and into the very heart of the moor. Tom walked for a long, long time, and it seemed to him that they must surely be going around in circles, for he had never thought that Bodmin Moor could be so big. Then, at long last, when the sun was beginning to sink in the sky, the little old man told Tom to stop.
'There,' he said, and pointed to a golden bush of gorse. 'Buried beneath that bush is a great pot of fine gold. You must promise to share it with your mother and your dear, kind sister.'
'That was no part of our bargain,' said Tom. 'Why should I promise to share?'
'It would be better for you if you did,' said the little old man. 'But if you will not, then at least give them the ten silver shillings that I gave you for setting me free.'
'I don't mind giving them that,' said Tom, in a scornful voice. 'For I shall have no more use for silver when I have got all that gold. But I have no spade to dig. How can I dig up the gold if I have no spade?'
'You must go home and fetch one,' said the little old man. Tom thought about this, and there was no help for it: he must go and fetch a spade. But, first of all, he took from his pocket a length of pretty scarlet ribbon, which he had promised to his sweetheart. His sister had no ribbons, nor anything pretty to wear, but Tom would never have thought of giving it to her. Now he had a better use for it than to give it away to his sweetheart. He tied it carefully around the gorse bush, so that when he came back he would know that bush again from all the others that grew on Bodmin Moor.
'Now set me free,' said the little old man. 'Set me free as you promised.'
Tom thought about this, and to tell you the truth he dearly wished to cheat the little old man, and keep him still a prisoner, but somehow he did not quite dare to break his word to one of the Little People. Besides, soon he would have all the gold he could wish for.
'If I set you free,' said Tom, 'how do I know you will not dig up the pot of gold while I am gone, and hide it somewhere else?'
'I am no cheat,' said the little old man. 'I give you my word that I shall not dig up the pot of gold and hide it somewhere else while you are gone. When you come back it will still be here, buried under that gorse bush.'
'If I set you free,' said Tom, 'how do I know you will not untie the ribbon from around the gorse bush, so that I cannot find it again?'
'I am no cheat,' said the little old man. 'I give you my word that I shall not touch your ribbon. When you come back it will still be here, tied around that gorse bush.'
'Very well,' said Tom, and he put the little old man upon the ground and let him go, then he made his way home as fast as he could.
It was a long weary way to walk, and it was nearly dark by the time Tom got home, so he could not go back again that night to find his treasure. He knew he must wait until morning, and very cross it made him.
As he had promised the little old man, he gave the ten silver shillings to his mother and his sister, and very happy they were to think that they had such a kind son and brother. They went to the fair, and Tom's mother bought a pretty dress for his sister, and Tom's sister bought a pretty bonnet for her mother, and they both ate cakes and pies a-plenty, and had the happiest time they had known for many a long year.
Tom lay awake all that night, longing to go and fetch his treasure. At last the morning came, and he seized a spade and ran up to the moors to find the golden gorse bush tied about with scarlet ribbon. He knew that the little old man would have kept his word, and that the pot of gold would still be there beneath the bush, and that the scarlet ribbon would still be there where he had tied it. And he was right.
But he never found his gold.
Tom stood on Bodmin Moor and stared all about him in dismay. For everywhere he looked, the moorland stretched for miles and miles, all covered with bushes of golden gorse. And on every single one of them was tied a piece of scarlet ribbon.