The Cobbler and the Ghosts by Juliana Horatia Ewing
Long ago there lived a cobbler who had very poor wits, but by strict industry he could earn enough to keep himself and his widowed mother in comfort.
In this manner he had lived for many years in peace and prosperity, when a distant relative died who left him a certain sum of money. This so elated the cobbler that he could think of nothing else, and his only talk was of the best way of spending the legacy.
His mother advised him to lay it by against a rainy day.
"For," said she, "we have lived long in much comfort as we are, and have need of nothing; but when you grow old, or if it should please Heaven that you become disabled, you will then be glad of your savings."
But to this the cobbler would not listen. "No," said he, "if we save the money it may be stolen, but if we spend it well, we shall have the use of what we buy, and may sell it again if we are so minded."
He then proposed one purchase after another, and each was more foolish than the rest. When this had gone on for some time, one morning he exclaimed: "I have it at last! We will buy the house. It cannot be stolen or lost, and when it is ours we shall have no rent to pay, and I shall not have to work so hard."
"He will never hit on a wiser plan than that," thought the widow; "it is not to be expected." So she fully consented to this arrangement, which was duly carried out; and the bargain left the cobbler with a few shillings, which he tied up in a bag and put in his pocket, having first changed them into pence, that they might make more noise when he jingled the bag as he walked down the street.
Presently he said; "It is not fit that a man who lives in his own house, and has ready money in his pocket too, should spend the whole day in labouring with his hands. Since by good luck I can read, it would be well that I should borrow a book from the professor, for study is an occupation suitable to my present position."
Accordingly, he went to the professor, whom he found seated in his library, and preferred his request.
"What book do you want?" asked the professor.
The cobbler stood and scratched his head thoughtfully. The professor thought that he was trying to recall the name of the work; but in reality he was saying to himself: "How much additional knowledge one requires if he has risen ever so little in life! Now, if I did but know where it is proper to begin in a case full of books like this! Should one take the first on the top shelf, or the bottom shelf, to the left, or to the right?"
At last he resolved to choose the book nearest to him; so drawing it out from the rest, he answered&emdash;
"This one, if it please you, learned sir." The professor lent it to him, and he took it home and began to read.
It was, as it happened, a book about ghosts and apparitions; and the cobbler's mind was soon so full of these marvels that he could talk of nothing else, and hardly did a stroke of work for reading and pondering over what he read. He could find none of his neighbours who had seen a ghost, though most had heard of such things, and many believed in them.
"Live and learn," thought the cobbler; "here is fame as well as wealth. If I could but see a ghost there would be no more to desire." And with this intent he sallied forth late one night to the churchyard.
Meanwhile a thief (who had heard the jingle of his money-bag) resolved to profit by the cobbler's whim; so wrapping himself in a sheet, he laid wait for him in a field that he must cross to reach the church.
When the cobbler saw the white figure, he made sure, that he had now seen a ghost, and already felt proud of his own acquaintance, as a remarkable character. Meanwhile, the thief stood quite still, and the cobbler walked boldly up to him, expecting that the phantom would either vanish or prove so impalpable that he could pass through it as through a mist, of which he had read many notable instances in the professor's book. He soon found out his mistake, however, for the supposed ghost grappled him, and without loss of time relieved him of his money-bag. The cobbler (who was not wanting in courage) fastened as tightly on to the sheet, which he still held with desperate firmness when the thief had slipped through his fingers; and after waiting in vain for further marvels, he carried the sheet home to his mother, and narrated his encounter with the ghost.
"Alack-a-day! that I should have a son with so little wit!" cried the old woman; "it was no ghost, but a thief, who is now making merry with all the money we possessed."
"We have his sheet," replied her son; "and that is due solely to my determination. How could I have acted better?"
"You should have grasped the man, not the sheet," said the widow, "and pummelled him till he cried out and dropped the money-bag."
"Live and learn," said the cobbler. The next night he went out as before, and this time reached the churchyard unmolested. He was just climbing the stile, when he again saw what seemed to be a white figure standing near the church. As before, it proved solid, and this time he pummelled it till his fingers bled, and for very weariness he was obliged to go home and relate his exploits. The ghost had not cried out, however, nor even so much as moved, for it was neither more nor less than a tall tombstone shining white in the moonlight.
"Alack-a-day!" cried the old woman, "that I should have a son with so little wit as to beat a gravestone till his knuckles are sore! Now if he had covered it with something black that it might not alarm timid women or children, that would at least have been an act of charity."
"Live and learn," said the cobbler. The following night he again set forth, but this time in another direction. As he was crossing a field behind his house he saw some long pieces of linen which his mother had put out to bleach in the dew.
"More ghosts!" cried the shoemaker, "and they know who is behind them. They have fallen flat at the sound of my footsteps. But one must think of others as well as oneself, and it is not every heart that is as stout as mine." Saying which he returned to the house for something black to throw over the prostrate ghosts. Now the kitchen chimney had been swept that morning, and by the back door stood a sack of soot.
"What is blacker than soot?" said the cobbler; and taking the sack, he shook it out over the pieces of linen till not a thread of white was to be seen. After which he went home, and boasted of his good deeds.
The widow now saw that she must be more careful as to what she said; so, after weighing the matter for some time, she suggested to the cobbler that the next night he should watch for ghosts at home; "for they are to be seen," said she, "as well when one is in bed as in the fields."
"There you are right," said the cobbler, "for I have this day read of a ghost that appeared to a man in his own house. The candles burnt blue, and when he had called thrice upon the apparition, he became senseless."
"That was his mistake," said the old woman. "He should have turned a deaf ear, and even pretended to slumber; but it is not every one who has courage for this. If one could really fall asleep in the face of the apparition, there would be true bravery."
"Leave that to me," said the cobbler. And the widow went off chuckling, to herself, "If he comes to any mischance by holding his tongue and going to sleep, ill-luck has got him by the leg, and counsel is wasted on him."
As soon as his mother was in bed, the cobbler prepared for his watch. First he got together all the candles in the house, and stuck them here and there about the kitchen, and sat down to watch till they should burn blue. After waiting some time, during which the candles only guttered with the draughts, the cobbler decided to go to rest for a while. "It is too early yet," he thought; "I shall see nothing till midnight."
Very soon, however, he fell asleep; but towards morning he awoke, and in the dim light perceived a figure in white at his bedside. It was a blacksmith who lived near, and he had run in in his night-shirt without so much as slippers on his feet.
"The ghost at last!" thought the cobbler, and, remembering his mother's advice, he turned over and shut his eyes.
"Neighbour! neighbour!" cried the blacksmith, "your house is on fire!"
"An old bird is not to be caught with chaff," chuckled the cobbler to himself; and he pulled the bed-clothes over his head.
"Neighbour!" roared the blacksmith, snatching at the quilt to drag it off, "are you mad? The house is burning over your head. Get up for your life!"
"I have the courage of a general, and more," thought the cobbler; and holding tightly on to the clothes he pretended to snore.
"If you will burn, bum!" cried the blacksmith angrily, "but I mean to save my bones"&emdash;with which he ran off.
And burnt the cobbler undoubtedly would have been, had not his mother's cries at last convinced him that the candles had set fire to his house, which was wrapped in flames. With some difficulty he escaped with his life, but of all he possessed nothing remained to him but his tools and a few articles of furniture that the widow had saved.
As he was now again reduced to poverty, he was obliged to work as diligently as in former years, and passed the rest of his days in the same peace and prosperity which he had before enjoyed.