THE OUPHE OF THE WOOD
"An Ouphe!" perhaps you exclaim, "and pray what might that be?"
An Ouphe, fair questioner,—though you may never have heard of him,—was a creature well known (by hearsay, at least) to your great-great-grandmother. It was currently reported that every forest had one within its precincts, who ruled over the woodmen, and exacted tribute from them in the shape of little blocks of wood ready hewn for the fire of his underground palace,—such blocks as are bought at shops in these degenerate days, and called in London "kindling."
It was said that he had a silver axe, with which he marked those trees that he did not object to have cut down; moreover, he was supposed to possess great riches, and to appear but seldom above ground, and when he did to look like an old man in all respects but one, which was that he always carried some green ash-keys about with him which he could not conceal, and by which he might be known.
Do I hear you say that you don't believe he ever existed? It matters not at all to my story whether you do or not. He certainly does not exist now. The Commissioners of Woods and Forests have much to answer for, if it was they who put an end to his reign; but I do not think they did; it is more likely that the spelling-book used in woodland districts disagreed with his constitution.
After this short preface please to listen while I tell you that once in a little black-timbered cottage, at the skirts of a wood, a young woman sat before the fire rocking her baby, and, as she did so, building a castle in the air: "What a good thing it would be," she thought to herself, "if we were rich!"
It had been a bright day, but the evening was chilly; and, as she watched the glowing logs that were blazing on her hearth, she wished that all the lighted part of them would turn to gold.
She was very much in the habit—this little wife—of building castles in the air, particularly when she had nothing else to do, or her husband was late in coming home to his supper. Just as she was thinking how late he was there was a tap at the door, and an old man walked in, who said:
"Mistress, will you give a poor man a warm at your fire?"
"And welcome," said the young woman, setting him a chair.
So he sat down as close to the fire as he could, and spread out his hands to the flames.
"SO HE SAT DOWN AS CLOSE TO THE FIRE AS HE COULD, AND SPREAD OUT HIS HANDS TO THE FLAMES."
He had a little knapsack on his back, and the young woman did not doubt that he was an old soldier.
"Maybe you are used to the hot countries," she said.
"All countries are much the same to me," replied the stranger. "I see nothing to find fault with in this one. You have fine hawthorn-trees hereabouts; just now they are as white as snow; and then you have a noble wood behind you."
"Ah, you may well say that," said the young woman. "It is a noble wood to us; it gets us bread. My husband works in it."
"And a fine sheet of water there is in it," continued the old man. "As I sat by it to-day it was pretty to see those cranes, with red legs, stepping from leaf to leaf of the water-lilies so lightly."
As he spoke he looked rather wistfully at a little saucepan which stood upon the hearth....