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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

François Rabelais (c. 1490–1553)

The Lost Hatchet

From “Gargantua and Pantagruel”

THERE once lived a poor honest country fellow of Gravot, Tom Wellhung by name, a wood-cleaver by trade, who in that low drudgery made shift so to pick up a sorry livelihood. It happened that he lost his hatchet. Now tell me who ever had more cause to be vexed than poor Tom? Alas, his whole estate and life depended on his hatchet; by his hatchet he earned many a fair penny of the best wood-mongers or log-merchants, among whom he went a-jobbing; for want of his hatchet he was like to starve; and had Death but met him six days after without a hatchet, the grim fiend would have mowed him down in the twinkling of a bed-staff. In this sad case he began to be in a heavy taking, and called upon Jupiter with most eloquent prayers (for, you know, necessity was the mother of eloquence), with the whites of his eyes turned up toward heaven, down on his marrow-bones, his arms reared high, his fingers stretched wide, and his head bare, the poor wretch without ceasing was roaring out by way of Litany at every repetition of his supplications, “My hatchet, Lord Jupiter, my hatchet, my hatchet, only my hatchet, oh, Jupiter, or money to buy another, and nothing else; alas, my poor hatchet!”

Jupiter happened then to be holding a grand council about certain urgent affairs, and old Gammer Cybele was just giving her opinion, or, if you had rather have it so, it was young Phœbus the Beau; but, in short, Tom’s outcry and lamentations were so loud that they were heard with no small amazement at the council-board by the whole consistory of the gods. “What a devil have we below,” quoth Jupiter, “that howls so horridly? By the mud of Styx, haven’t we had all along, and haven’t we here still, enough to do to set to rights a world of puzzling businesses of consequence? Let us, however, despatch this howling fellow below; you, Mercury, go see who it is, and discover what he wants.” Mercury looked out at heaven’s trap-door, through which, as I am told, they hear what’s said here below. By the way, one might well enough mistake it for the scuttle of a ship; though Icaromenippus said it was like the mouth of a well. The light-heeled deity saw that it was honest Tom, who asked for his lost hatchet; and, accordingly, he made his report to the Synod. “Marry,” said Jupiter, “we are finely holped up, as if we had now nothing else to do here but to restore lost hatchets. Well, he must have it for all that, for so ’tis written in the Book of Fate, as well as if it was worth the whole Duchy of Milan. The truth is, the fellow’s hatchet is as much to him as a kingdom to a king. Come, come, let no more words be scattered about it; let him have his hatchet again. Run down immediately, and cast at the poor fellow’s feet three hatchets! his own, another of gold, and a third of massy silver, all of one size; then, having left it to his will to take his choice, if he take his own, and be satisfied with it, give him t’other two. If he take another, chop his head off with his own; and henceforth serve me all those losers of hatchets after that manner.”

Having said this, Jupiter, with an awkward turn of his head, like a jackanapes swallowing pills, made so dreadful a phiz that all the vast Olympus quaked again. Heaven’s foot-messenger, thanks to his low-crowned, narrow-brimmed hat, and plume of feathers, heel-pieces, and running-stick with pigeon-wings, flings himself out at heaven’s wicket, through the empty deserts of the air, and in a trice nimbly alights on the earth, and throws at friend Tom’s feet the three hatchets, saying to him: “Thou hast bawled long enough to be a-dry; thy prayers and requests are granted by Jupiter; see which of these three is thy hatchet, and take it away with thee.”

Wellhung lifts up the golden hatchet, peeps upon it, and finds it very heavy; then staring on Mercury cries, “Gadzooks, this is none of mine; I won’t ha’t.” The same he did with the silver one, and said, “’Tis not this either; you may e’en take them again.” At last, he takes up his own hatchet, examines the end of the helve, and finds his mark there; then, ravished with joy, like a fox that meets some straggling poultry, and sneering from the tip of the nose, he cries, “By the Mass, this is my hatchet; Master God, if you will leave it me, I will sacrifice to you a very good and huge pot of milk, brim full, covered with fine strawberries, next Ides, i.e., the 15th of May.”

“Honest fellow,” said Mercury, “I leave it thee; take it; and because thou hast wished and chosen moderately, in point of hatchet, by Jupiter’s command I give thee these two others; thou hast now wherewith to make thyself rich: be honest.”

Honest Tom gave Mercury a whole cart-load of thanks, and paid reverence to the most great Jupiter. His old hatchet he fastened close to his leathern girdle, and girds it about his breech like Martin of Cambray; the two others, being more heavy, he lays on his shoulder. Thus he plods on, trudging over the fields, keeping a good countenance among his neighbors and fellow-parishioners, with one merry saying or other, after Patelin’s way.

The next day, having put on a clean white jacket, he takes on his back the two precious hatchets, and comes to Chinon, the famous city, noble city, ancient city, yea, the first city in the world, according to the judgment and assertion of the most learned Massoreths. In Chinon he turned his silver hatchet into fine testons, crown-pieces, and other white cash; his golden hatchet into fine angels, curious ducats, substantial ridders, spankers, and rose nobles. Then with them purchases a good number of farms, barns, houses, outhouses, thatch-houses, stables, meadows, orchards, fields, vineyards, woods, arable lands, pastures, ponds, mills, gardens, nurseries, oxen, cows, sheep, goats, swine, hogs, asses, horses, hens, cocks, capons, chickens, geese, ganders, ducks, drakes, and a world of all other necessaries, and in a short time became the richest man in all the country. His brother bumpkins, and the yeomen and other country-puts thereabout, perceiving his good fortune, were not a little amazed, insomuch that their former pity of poor Tom was soon changed into an envy of his so great and unexpected rise; and, as they could not for their souls devise how this came about, they made it their business to pry up and down, and lay their heads together, to inquire, seek, and inform themselves by what means, in what place, on what day, what hour, how, why, and wherefore, he had come by this great treasure.

At last, hearing it was by losing his hatchet, “Ha, ha!” said they, “was there no more to do, but to lose a hatchet, to make us rich?” With this they all fairly lost their hatchets out of hand. The devil a one that had a hatchet left; he was not his mother’s son, that did not lose his hatchet. No more was wood felled or cleared in that country through want of hatchets. Nay, the Æsopian apologue even saith, that certain petty country gents, of the lower class, who had sold Wellhung their little mill and little field, to have wherewithal to make a figure at the next muster, having been told that this treasure was come to him by that means only, sold the only badge of their gentility, their swords, to purchase hatchets to go to lose them, as the silly clodpates did, in hopes to gain store of coin by that loss.

You would have truly sworn they had been a parcel of your petty spiritual usurers, Rome-bound, selling their all, and borrowing of others to buy store of mandates, a pennyworth of a new-made pope.

Now they cried out and brayed, and prayed and bawled, and lamented and invoked Jupiter, “My hatchet! My hatchet! Jupiter, my hatchet!” On this side, “My hatchet!” On that side, “My hatchet! Ho, ho, ho, ho, Jupiter, my hatchet!” The air round about rung again with the cries and howlings of these rascally losers of hatchets.

Mercury was nimble in bringing them hatchets; to each offering that which he had lost, as also another of gold, and a third of silver.

Everywhere he still was for that of gold, giving thanks in abundance to the great giver Jupiter; but in the very nick of time, that they bowed and stooped to take it from the ground, whip in a trice, Mercury lopped off their heads, as Jupiter had commanded. And of heads thus cut off, the number was just equal to that of the lost hatchets.