This is a tale my mother told me as a very young child. It is one of the series of stories about a soldier returning from the war. Others include The Magic Tinder Box and Stone Soup, which is my favourite.
Who was the soldier and which war was he trudging home from? He never has a name and his age varies from young enough to marry a princess after making his fortune from the Magic Tinder Box or show his cunning in Walter De La Mere’s Twelve Dancing Princesses or old enough to be weary of all the fighting as in Stone Soup and this story. Which war had he been fighting? Again, we never know, but the story has a feel of Middle European and perhaps Napoleonic when soldiers were press ganged into taking the King’s shilling and many folk songs tell the stories of the time such as Sweet Polly Oliver, By the Banks of the Sweet Dundee, The Blue (or white) Cockade.
It might also be helpful to consider the difference between an inn and a public house. The latter is merely a building within a village where ale/beer and other alcoholic beverages can be bought and consumed. An inn is different with much older origins.
An inn is a building set beside a road expressly for meeting the needs of travellers. Rooms were always available for hire and food was offered. Often spare horses would be stabled there for use of the public coaches which came past, but stabling and provisions for private carriages or single riders would also be available.
Ordinary people mostly travelled on foot and would not have been able to afford the luxury of a bed in which to sleep. Indeed most people, unless they plied a trade which involved travelling such as tinkers, tailors, weavers and drovers would never have set foot outside their own village or small market town. Travellers were seen as outsiders and feared.
A soldier was returning from the war. He had been walking a long way through the forest and he was tired. His clothes were covered in dust. It was the end of summer, when all the moisture had been drawn from the soil but the winter rains had not yet arrived.
The soldier’s throat was dry. His water skin, filled from the last stream he passed within the forest, was nearly empty. Before him came the light of a clearing and within the clearing stood an inn.
The soldier’s mood lightened. He felt in his pocket for the few remaining coins. There was enough for a drink and maybe he could trade his strength – what there was left of it after months of fighting and walking – for a hot meal if his luck held. He stamped his feet and brushed the worst of the dust from his clothes with his hat before clasping the iron latch on the heavy wooden door and walking in.
The main room of the inn was dark after the brightness of the sun outside. The soldier looked around, but saw no other travellers beside himself. The large, burly innkeeper was wiping a row of pewter mugs laid out on the bar before hanging them up on hooks on a low beam.
“Be welcome!” The innkeeper’s voice boomed through the still room.
The soldier nodded, finding himself a table on which to place his hat and sword in full view of his host.
“A pint of your best ale, landlord, if you will.” The soldier laid the small group of coins on the bar and the innkeeper nodded
“Take the weight off your feet, soldier. No doubt you’ve come a long way.”
The solder looked at his dusty boots.
“Yes and many more miles to go before I reach my home.”
He took a seat just as the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter came into the room. Her hair was the colour of golden straw. Her face shone with the brightness of her smile and her body flowed with the promise of youth. The soldier drank in her presence with his eyes as she took up her father’s cloth and began to wash and dry more tankards.
The innkeeper dried his hands on his apron.
“I won’t be but a minute. The barrel of ale is finished and I must go down to the cellar and fetch a new one.” He opened a door beside him and disappeared from view.
The soldier wanted his drink, but he was used to waiting. Fighting the enemy taught you many things, most of all patience. Besides, the innkeeper’s absence gave him an opportunity to talk to the daughter.
He asked her simple questions about herself, her life and her family. She answered him well enough, her fair cheek blushing at his compliments, but she never left her side of the bar, no matter he offered to show her the trinkets he had picked up during his travels.
Time passed, but the innkeeper did not return. His wife came out of the kitchen, the aroma of boiled cabbages lingering on her apron.
“Where’s your father?” she asked the girl. “He was supposed to bring me turnips from the garden an hour ago.”
“He went to fetch a new barrel of ale,” the young girl told her. “I don’t know what is keeping him.”
“I’ll go and see,” the old woman grumbled, opening the cellar door. They heard the sound of her boot nails clanking on the stone steps gradually fade and then stop.
“Get a lot of trade, do you?” asked the soldier. “Your father has a large cellar?”
“We do enough,” the girl replied, but her face was worried. The long case clock on the wall ticked and tocked, but still her parents did not return. “I’d better go and look for them,” she said at last. “They might need my help.”
The soldier nodded and smiled, but his throat was dry and the smell of ale from the slops behind the bar was making his thirst increase. He buckled on his sword and went to investigate the cellar.
He counted five steps until the staircase turned a corner. The sound of weeping filled the air. The soldier drew his sword, wondering what massacre would greet his eyes when he came into the light below.
There, sitting on the bottom steps were the innkeeper, his wife and his daughter; all of them crying as if their hearts would break.
“Whatever is the matter?” The soldier asked, scanning the darkness with wary eyes for hidden danger.
“Look,” sobbed the innkeeper’s daughter, “look at the axe!”
There above the iron sconce holding the torch was a large axe.
“What about the axe?”
The innkeeper’s wife spoke first.
“Oh Sir, when I came down the cellar steps, I found my husband sitting here, crying as if his heart would break. When I asked him what was the matter, he told me he was walking down the cellar steps when he noticed the axe as if for the first time. He thought what a terrible thing it would have been if he had asked our daughter to fetch the cask of ale and the axe had come loose from the wall and fallen on her head and killed her. Our beautiful daughter, killed by the axe.
“When I heard his tale, I felt tears come to my own eyes, for what if the axe had killed not our beautiful daughter, but my husband instead? How could I continue living here as a widow with all the hard work entailed in looking after the inn. My daughter and I would be forced to leave, to become beggars until the wild dogs attacked and killed us in the forest.”
“Oh Sir, it’s true,” the innkeeper’s daughter sobbed. “When I came down here to see what had happened, I found both my parents weeping and wailing. They told me about the axe and I thought how terrible it would be if the axe fell down on their heads and killed them leaving me an orphan, with no-one in the world to love me and care for me. So I sat down beside them and joined them in their sorrow.”
The soldier, by this time, was losing patience. He took his sword and cut through the fastenings holding the axe to the wall so it clattered safely down into the cellar.
“There!” he cried, pointing to the fallen axe. “There is your axe. It is quite safe on the floor. It can never fall and kill any of you. Now, please can I have my ale?”
There are two endings to this tale and you may choose the one which pleases you the most. There are some who say the soldier was so enraged by the stupidity of the innkeeper and his family that he slew them all with the axe and took over the inn thereby ensuring his future prosperity.
There are others who say he returned to the inn’s main room and waited for his ale. He was rewarded for his actions with the offer of a job and a place to stay and in time, he grew close to the innkeeper’s daughter and married her. When her parents became too old to do the heavy work around the inn, they took over. They were lucky, too, for the King adopted the road through the forest and it became a safe route to travel so trade was brisk and the inn prospered.
And the axe, you ask me? What happened to the axe? Well it’s over there in a glass case above the fireplace for everyone to see.