THERE was once a rich merchant who had an only son. As he lay dying, he said:
"Matti, my boy, my end is approaching and there are two things I want to say to you: The first is that I am leaving you all my wealth. If you are careful you will have enough to suffice you for life. The second thing I have to say is to beg you never to leave this, your native village. At your birth there was a prophecy which declared that if ever you left this village you would have to marry a woman with horns. Now that I have warned you in time it will be your own fault if ever you have to meet this fate."
The merchant died and Matti was left alone. He had never before wanted to travel but now that he knew of the fate which would overtake him if he did, he couldn't bear the thought of remaining forever a prisoner in his native village.
"What is the use of riches," he asked himself, "if one can't travel over the broad world and see wonderful sights? Besides, if it's my fate to marry a horned woman, I don't see why sitting quietly at home is going to save me. No! I'm going to take my chances like a man and come and go as I like!"
So he gathered his riches together, closed the old house where he had been born, and started out into the bright world. He traveled many days, meeting strange peoples and seeing strange sights. At last he settled down in a large city and became a merchant like his father.
One afternoon as he was out walking, he saw a crowd of men dragging the body of a dead man in the gutter. They were kicking and abusing the dead body and calling it evil names.
Matti stopped them.
"What is this you are doing?" he demanded. "Don't you know that disrespect to the dead is disrespect to God? Give over abusing this poor dead body and bury it decently or God will punish you!"
"Let us alone!" the men cried. "He deserves the abuse we are giving him! When he was alive he borrowed money from us all and then he died without repaying us. Are we to have no satisfaction at all?"
With that they resumed their abuse of the dead body.
"Wait!" Matti cried. "Tell me what the dead man owed you and I will pay it!"
"He owed me ten ducats!" said one.
"And me a hundred!" shouted another.
"And me five hundred!"
"And me a thousand!"
"Come all of you to my house," Matti said, "and I will pay you, but only on condition that first you hand over the body to me and help me give it a decent burial."
The men agreed. They helped Matti bury the dead man and then went home with him.
Each told Matti the amount the dead man owed him and, true to his promise, Matti paid them all.
When he had paid the last man he found that he had nothing left for himself but nine silver kopeks. The dead man's debts had exhausted all the wealth his father had left him.
"No matter!" Matti thought to himself. "My riches would have done me no good if I had stood by and allowed a poor dead man to be abused. What if I have nothing left? I'm young and strong and I can go out into the world and make my livelihood somehow. I'll go home and have one last look at my native village and then begin life anew."
So, dressed in shabby old clothes with nothing in his pockets but the nine silver kopeks, Matti left the city where people were beginning to know him as a merchant and started back to his native village. He was soon met by a man who addressed him respectfully and asked to be engaged as his servant.
"My servant!" Matti repeated with a laugh. "My dear fellow, I'm too poor to have a servant! All I have in the world are nine silver kopeks!"
"No matter, master," the man said. "Take me anyhow. I will serve you well and I promise you will not regret our bargain."
So Matti agreed and they walked on together. The sun was hot and by midafternoon Matti was feeling faint with hunger and fatigue.
"Master," the Servant said, "I will run ahead to the next village and order the landlord at the inn to prepare you a fine dinner. Do you come along slowly and by the time you arrive the dinner will be ready."
"But remember," Matti warned him, "I have no money to pay for a fine dinner!"
"Trust me!" the Servant said and off he hurried.
At the next village he hunted out the best inn and ordered the landlord to prepare his finest dinner without delay. He was so particular that everything should be the best that the landlord supposed his master must be some great lord.
When Matti arrived on foot, tired and travel-stained and shabby, the landlord was amazed.
"It's fine lords we have nowadays!" he muttered scornfully, and he wished he had not been in such haste to cook the best food in the house. But it was cooked and ready to serve and so, with an ill grace, he served it.
Matti and his man ate their fill of good cabbage soup and fish and fowl tender and juicy.
It quite enraged the landlord to see poor men with such good appetites.
"They eat as if their pockets were lined with gold!" he muttered angrily. "Well, let them eat while they can for they'll lose their appetites once they see the reckoning!"
When they finished eating, they rested and then called for the reckoning. It was much more than it should have been but neither Matti nor the Servant objected.
"Like a good fellow," the Servant said, "will you please to lend me your half peck measure."
"Like a good fellow, indeed!" the landlord muttered to himself. "Who are you to call me a good fellow I'd like to know!"
Nevertheless he went out and got the measure.
"Now, master," the Servant said, "give me three of your nine silver kopeks."
The Servant threw the three silver kopeks into the measure, shook the measure three times and lo! it was filled to the brim with silver kopeks! The Servant counted out the amount of the reckoning and handed the rest of the money to his master. Then he and Matti went on their way leaving the landlord gaping after them with open mouth.
Day after day the Servant paid the reckoning in the same way at the various inns where they stopped until they reached at last Matti's native village and the old house that still belonged to him.
They settled themselves there and one day the Servant said to Matti:
"Now, master, you know your fate: for having left your native village you know you are destined to marry a horned woman. You might as well do it at once for you'll have to do it sooner or later."
"That is true," Matti said, "and if I knew the whereabouts of the horned woman who is my fate I should marry her at once."
"In that case we'll lose no more time," the Servant said. "The King has three daughters all of whom are horned. This isn't generally known but it is true. Let us go to the palace and present your suit. The King will give friendly ear for there are not many suitors for daughters with horns. He will try to make you take the oldest who has big horns and a hoarse voice. When she sees you, she'll whisper: 'Take me! Take me!' But do you shake your head and answer: 'No! Not this one!' Then the King will send for his second daughter. Her horns are not so big nor is her voice so hoarse. She, too, will whisper you: 'Take me! Take me!' But do you again shake your head and answer: 'No! Not this one!' Be firm and the King will finally have to send for his youngest daughter. Her horns are just soft little baby horns and her voice is just a little husky. Take her and soon all will be well."
So Matti and the Servant went to the palace and got audience with the King.
"My master, Matti," the Servant said, addressing the King, "is desirous of marrying a wife with horns."
The King was interested at once.
"As it happens I have a daughter with horns," he said. "I'll have her come in."
He sent for his oldest daughter and presently she appeared. Her horns were long and thick.
"Take me! Take me!" she whispered hoarsely as she passed Matti.
"See what a fine girl she is!" the King said, "and what well grown horns she has!"
But Matti shook his head.
"No, Your Majesty, I don't think I want to marry this one."
"Of course you must follow the dictates of your heart," the King said drily. "However, come to think of it, my second daughter also has horns. Maybe you'd like to consider her."
So the second daughter was called in. Her horns were not so large as her sister's nor was her voice so hoarse. But Matti, remembering the Servant's warning, refused her, too. The King seemed surprised and even annoyed that Matti should refuse his daughters so glibly, but when he found that Matti was firm he said:
"I have got another daughter, my youngest, but, if it's horns you're looking for, I don't believe you'll be interested in her at all since her horns are so small and soft that they are hardly noticeable at all. However, as you're here, you might as well see her."
So the youngest princess was sent for and at once Matti knew that she was the one he wanted to marry. She wasn't as beautiful as a princess should be but she was gentle and modest and when she passed Matti her cheeks flushed and she wasn't able to whisper anything. But Matti felt very sure that if she had whispered her voice would have been scarcely husky.
"This, O King," he said, "is my choice! Let me marry your youngest daughter and I promise to be a faithful husband to her."
The King would have preferred to marry off the older princesses first for their horns were getting to be very troublesome, but as they all had horns he was afraid to refuse Matti's offer.
So after a little talk he gave Matti the youngest and in a short time they were married.
After the wedding feast the King led the young couple to the bridal chamber and closed the door.
Matti's Servant meantime had gone out to the woods and cut some stout switches of birch. When the palace was quiet and all were asleep, he crept softly into the bridal chamber and, dragging the bride out of bed, he beat her unmercifully.
"Oh! Oh!" she cried in pain.
Her screams woke Matti and in fright he jumped out of bed and tried to stop the Servant.
"Wait!" the Servant said. "She is under an evil enchantment and I am delivering her!"
So he kept on beating her until he had drawn blood. Then instantly the horns fell from her head and there she stood a beautiful young girl released from the evil enchantment that had disfigured her.
The Servant handed her over to her husband who fell in love with her on sight and has loved her ever since.
"Now farewell, Matti," the Servant said. "My work is done and you will need me no longer. You have married a beautiful princess and the King will soon make you his heir."
With these words the Servant disappeared and Matti was left alone with his lovely bride.
And that was Matti's reward for having respected the dead. God Himself in the form of the Servant had come down and taken care of him.