The old Foole sat by the fire and tried to warm his aching joints next to the roaring fire of the inn. If he inched any closer to it, he'd probably set his motley on fire. He called out to the tapster for another mulled wine.
"After you earn your keep you old trickster. Tell us a tale to gladden our faces and warm our frostbitten hearts." He bellowed back in return, followed by the murmur of much agreement by my fellow trapped passengers. I had been on my way home from the Christmas Court of the King to my retirement lands granted to me near the coast of Cornwall, and I had made it most of the way home before this sudden winter storm had made any further travel impossible and my carriage mates and myself were now waiting out this storm at this nearby inn in a town in Devon.
"Oh, please" a young girl named Jane begged me, "Tell us a tale of wonder and magic, and of a handsome young squire that gains the hand of a Princess."
Well I knew a few of those sorts of tales, some of them even suitable for the ears of delicate young maidens. From the sour looks of her pimpled older brother sulking in the corner next to her, the only tale about Princesses he would like to hear would involve her later bedchamber activities. Or the forcible carrying off and later ravishment of helpless scantily clad young maidens at the hands of a fierce and brutal warrior, who would bend his helpless (and unclothed) victims to his ever increasing perverted will. Oh yes, and definitely also involving lots of dungeons, chains, manacles and whips.
I knew this type of lad well; he would undoubtedly get along famously with the King's son and heir, the Prince of Wales. These were the type of tales he preferred late at night while in deep in his cups before stumbling off to bed to terrorize his lovely young bride. I was glad I only had to attend his elder Majesty twice a year now.
"Very well, a tale of wonder it shall be, and if mine host will refill my goblet (story telling is such a thirsty work) and bring me another slice of his mistresses most excellent apple tart I shall be most happy to begin."
Both requests were soon granted and after a brief pause for refreshment I began my tale, but was immediately interrupted by little Jane who demanded that I start with "Once upon a time," like every proper story should. And so I did!
Once upon a time and quite a very long ago, back when wizards and the wonders of their magic were more common than they are today, a most worthy successor of Merlin sought to take a long rest from his many and varied labors on behalf of the Kingdom. He came to Cornwall and built for himself a tower near the sea by Land's End, and outside he planted a large orchard with many varieties of fruit trees.
All were considered a wonder by the local townsfolk, but the apples from his orchard were prized mostly highly of all.
The wizard was not a bad old fellow as they go, but he did enjoy his privacy and built a tall sturdy stone wall all around his lands and his prized orchards, but did from time to time give a few baskets of his fruit to the villagers. He had a good appetite but there was no way he could eat them all. Occasionally, some of these prized apples were given to a local goodwife who was an exceptionally talented baker, and her Cornish pocket pies and tarts were most highly regarded as being the best in all of Cornwall.
Her husband was a strong jovial man of exemplary habits and a most highly industrious nature. He worked the local tin mines for his shift every night and always found time each morning to tend to all the needs of his small, but very prosperous farm. They were blessed by the birth of a sturdy son Jack, which showed every sign as he grew of being at least as good of a man and as highly regarded as his sire was.
Good fortune was not to be theirs though, and a mining accident claimed the life of this good man, who stayed to help attempt the rescue of others rather than running away as some others did to save their own lives. Without the income from the mine, the widow and young son had to rely upon the farm solely now for their livelihood, but as they had always been frugal with their money, there was a goodly amount of coins in savings and their needs were not many.
I'm very sorry to say that the wealth of this widow made her a very attractive target for some shameless gentlemen seeking an easy path through life, and at length being lonely and missing the comfort and companionship that her husband had provided her, she gave in to the flattery and blandished praises heaped upon her by another miner, but one of far lower reputation.
His name was Brian and to put the facts quite bluntly, was very unworthy of the love and respect of our widow. He suffered from nearly every vice imaginable, as did his two lazy sons, Edward and Phillip. These defects though in their characters managed to remain hidden until after the bans had been posted on the church doors and they had become man and wife.
Oh what a sad day that was! No sooner had his prize been won, but her new husband began to drink and gamble away her accumulated wealth, which had been so carefully saved. Brian felt no loyalty or debt to the man who had died saving him and others in the mine that tragic day, and saw his new fortune only as a means to an easy life of leisure.
He ill treated his new wife nearly from the very start and she began to rue the weakness that had lead her to remarry this brute of a new husband. He posed no fit step-father for little Jack either, and nearly immediately forced Jack into early labor at the mines, far younger than that of most of the lads there, while he and his sons (who were a bit older and far stronger) remained idlers at home.
The once prosperous farm soon become mostly fallow, except what parts young Jack and his overworked Mother could handle alone. The farming tools that once had been once so well-cared soon became rusted and in ill-repair, making their tasks even harder.
Jack soon felt no love for his step-father, or his older step-brothers that both most cruelly tormented him daily, but resolved to follow the example set by his birth parents, and never voiced a complaint no matter how ill-used he or his mother became, and resolved each day to work ever harder to support his mother and keep food on the table.
In time he grew to be a strong young man of unimpeachable character and habits and was well regarded by everyone in the village, while his older step-brothers were snubbed by all as fat idlers and wastrels.
Now one certain morning in late fall, Jack's step-father got the idea into his head that he wanted some fresh baked apple pies and tarts, and only those superior apples coming from the Wizard's orchard would do. With a firm cuff to his head, Jack was sent forth into that chilly and windy day to "by any means" obtain some of those precious fruit.
Now the orchard was behind a tall sturdy wall, and Jack soon realized that none of the apple trees were anywhere near where he could get to them. He certainly would not climb the wall and steal those apples as a thief would! After walking around the wall without seeing a door or gate he could knock upon to announce himself, he settled instead for climbing an outside oak tree that had a sturdy branch that came near the wall so maybe he could at least look upon the orchard that he could not reach.
Climbing that tree he found he could easily see over into the orchard and to his surprise saw a young lady raking some leaves under an apple tree very close to him. He called out to her and bid her a very good day, and she looking up at him and returned his pleasant greeting.
She was quite the prettiest girl Jack had ever seen, of that he was absolutely certain! She seemed to be about his own age, and showed every sign of ripening into an exceptionally beautiful woman. Her hair was golden and sparkled with a little touch of redness in the late morning sunlight, and her skin appeared most fair and delicate, and her hard work with the rake was undoubtedly giving her fingers discomfort and blisters.
Being the gentleman he was, Jack promptly offered to assist this most fair young maiden with her labors and she laughingly accepted his offer of help and opened for him a nearby gate in the wall that he had earlier somehow overlooked.
Although he yearned to make more polite conversation with this lovely young lass that had so besotted him, he fell to his duties at once and by the end of the day he had raked most of the fallen leaves in this part of the orchard, and had helped his pretty workmate to gather several big baskets of fallen and ripe lovely apples.
The fair young damsel at last offered her name, Clarisa, to our love struck lad, and she gave him a kiss on each of his blushing cheeks and offered him one of the baskets of apples as his "due and just well earned reward". Jack at first refused, but after she took his hand and once again offered her thanks, he at last accepted the smallest basket and thanked her many times before leaving.
On the way home, he noticed that Clarisa had left a dainty linen handkerchief underneath a few of the top apples in the basket, just barely in sight. He ran back at once to return it to her, but could no longer find the gate that he had used earlier and his cries to her over the wall were not returned. He placed her handkerchief, which had a most pleasant and delightful scent to it, into his pocket and returned home just after sunset with the apples.
He received more cuffs and many harsh words for his late return and had to rush and change into his mine clothes to attend to his nightly shift, but not before he hid his precious token of her under his pillow, so that he could dream of her in his slumber tomorrow morning.
His Mother prepared these fine apples into a great many pies and tarts that were enjoyed over the next month. In fact, everyone who tasted them remarked that these were by the far the finest Cornish pies and tarts that had ever been tasted!
Alas, when the last of these were gone this had only whetted their appetites for more, and Jack was preparing to return again to the Wizard's orchard to try and obtain more (and hopefully see Clarisa again) when a great misfortune stuck.
Edward, while prying about in Jacks tiny bedroom (undoubtedly looking for coins that he could spend on ale at the local tavern) had found his precious handkerchief, and soon both of his step-brothers and his step-father were demanding to know where and how he had obtained it. Jack being always a truthful lad, even when it was very much to his benefit to lie, recited a full and complete account of how he had met Clarisa, did her chores for her and how he had been rewarded.
Phillip the younger of the two brothers snatched the handkerchief away from Edward and announced that he would be the one who would return it, and would undoubtedly also receive a suitable reward. And off he went, wearing his finest Sunday clothes (not that he ever attended church of course).
Phillip had gotten quite a late start on the day however, having drunk his fill at the local tavern until late the night before as was his habit, and didn't even arrive at the walled orchard until fairly late in the afternoon, as it gets dark quite early in the winter. He walked around the walls briefly, and seeing no gate immediately climbed up over the wall and into the orchard quite uninvited.
A few moments later in the orchard he also met a young lady, but she didn't seem as pretty as Jack had described her, in fact she appeared quite plain with numerous freckles and not much of any bosom at all to be admired. Phillip was quite an admirer of bosoms when he could afford them at the local bawdyhouse. Nevertheless, he offered her back the handkerchief but lied shameless when asked where he had gotten it from, claiming that he found it discarded on the ground nearby.
She accepted back the item, but appeared to have no particular regard for its returner, and she resumed her raking duties at once and quite ignored him.
Phillip at length, seeing no immediate reward was forthcoming, resigned himself to the fact that a little work might unfortunately be necessary, and grudgingly offered to assist her. But in his laziness he continued to let her do the harder work of raking while he did the easier tasks of gathering the leaf piles to be later burned and sorting the apples into baskets. Naturally he chose the ripest and best looking ones for "his basket".
I must take the time to say now that Phillip wasn't really "bad" at heart, but he was extremely lazy and quite greedy by nature, and he had received a very poor upbringing by his father and older brother.
All too soon the shadows in the orchard continued to grow and it soon became dusk, and Clarisa determined that it was time to stop for the day. Phillip grabbed his chosen basket and announced that he was taking this as "payment for his labors". Clarisa didn't seem very pleased by this but nevertheless shrugged her acceptance and went to open the gate to let him out.
At the last moment Phillip saw an especially large and succulent apple still hanging on a tree and resolved that he wanted it to place at the top of his basket as a crowning touch.
Disregarding Clarisa's shrill warning not harm the tree in any way, Phillip took out his belt knife and reached up to cut the apple away.
The knife would not cut the slender twig that held the apple to the branch!
Tugging harder with both hands, he realized now also that his left hand was stuck quite fast to the apple and thus to the tree, and try as he might he could not either break or cut the apple free or remove his left hand from it. He called to Clarisa for help, but she was gone, nowhere to be seen, the gate for his departure still left open for him.