ONCE upon a time there were three brothers who had lost their parents, and since the latter had left their sons nothing upon which to live, they had to wander out into the world, and seek their fortune. The two older brothers prepared for the journey as well as they were able; but the youngest, whom they called "Mike by the Stove," because he was always sitting behind the stove whittling, they did not want to take with them. So they set out at early dawn; yet for all their hurrying Mike by the Stove reached the king's court as soon as they did. When they got there, they asked to be taken into the king's service. Well, said the king, he really had no work for them to do; but since they were so poor, he would see that they were kept busy; there was always something or other to do in such a big establishment: they could drive nails into the wall, and when they were through, they could pull them out again. And when that was done, they could carry wood and water into the kitchen. Mike by the Stove was quickest at driving his nails into the wall, and pulling them out again, and he had been quick, too, about carrying his wood and water. Therefore his brothers grew jealous, and said he had declared he could obtain the most beautiful princess in twelve kingdoms for the king--for the king's wife had died and he was a widower. When the king heard this, he told Mike by the Stove he had better do as he had said, else he would have him brought to the block, and his head chopped off.
Mike by the Stove replied that he had neither said nor thought anything of the kind; but that seeing the king was so severe, he would try it. So he took a knapsack full of food and set out. But he had only pushed a little way into the wood before he grew hungry, and thought he would sample the provisions they had given him at the king's castle. When he had sat down in all peace and comfort under a pine-tree by the side of the road, an old woman came limping along, and asked him what he had in his knapsack. "Meat and bacon, granny," said the youth. "If you are hungry, come and share with me!" She thanked him, satisfied her hunger, and then telling him she would do him a favor in turn, limped off into the wood. When Mike by the Stove had eaten his fill, he slung his knapsack across his shoulder once more, and went his way; but he had only gone a short distance before he found a whistle. That would be fine, thought he, to have a whistle, and be able to whistle himself a tune while he traveled, and before long he really succeeded in making it sound. That very moment the wood was alive with dwarfs, all of them asking with one voice: "What are my lord's commands? What are my lord's commands?" Mike by the Stove said he did not know he was their lord; but if he had any command to give, he would ask them to bring him the fairest princess in twelve kingdoms. That would be easy enough, said the dwarfs; they knew exactly who she was, and they could show him the way; then he himself could go and fetch her, since the dwarfs were powerless to touch her. They showed him the way, and he reached his goal quickly and without trouble, for no one interfered with him. It was a troll's castle, and in it were three beautiful princesses; but when Mike by the Stove stepped in, they acted as though they had lost their wits, ran around like frightened lambs, and finally turned into three lemons that lay on the window-ledge. Mike by the Stove was in despair, and very unhappy because he did not know what to do. But after he had reflected a while, he took the three lemons, and put them in his pocket; because, thought he, he might be glad he had done so should he grow thirsty during his journey, for he had heard that lemons were sour.
After he had traveled a way, he grew very warm and thirsty. There was no water to be found, and he did not know how he was to refresh himself. Then the lemons occurred to him, and he took one and bit into it. But in it sat a princess, visible up to her arms, and cried: "Water, water!" If she could not have some water, said she, she must die. The youth ran about everywhere like mad, looking for water; but there was no water there, and none to be found, and when he returned she was dead.
After he had gone on again a while, he grew still more thirsty, and since he found nothing with which to refresh himself, he took another lemon and bit into it. And another princess looked out, up to her shoulders, and she was even more beautiful than the first. She cried for water, and said that if she could not have some water she must die on the spot. Mike by the Stove ran about and looked under stones and moss; but he found no water, so this princess also died.
Mike by the Stove thought that things were going from bad to worse, and this was the truth, since the further he went the warmer it grew. The part of the country in which he was traveling was so parched and dried that not a drop of water was to be found, and he was half-dead with thirst. For a long time he hesitated before biting into the last lemon; but at last there was nothing else left to do. When he had bitten into it, a princess looked out: she was the most beautiful in twelve kingdoms, and she cried that if she could have no water, she must die on the spot. Mike by the Stove ran about and looked for water, and this time he met the king's miller, who showed him the way to the mill-pond. When he had come with her to the mill-pond, and had given her water, she came completely out of the lemon. But she had nothing to wear, and Mike by the Stove had to give her his smock. She put it on, and hid in a tree; while he was to go to the castle and bring her clothes, and tell the king he had found her, and how it had all happened.
Meanwhile the cook had come down to the pond to fetch water. When she saw the lovely face that was reflected in the pond, she thought it was her own, and was so pleased that she began to dance and jump around, because she had grown so beautiful.
"Let the devil fetch the water, I'm far too handsome to bother with it!" said she, and threw away the water-pail. And then she suddenly noticed that the face in the water was that of the princess who sat in the tree. This made her so angry that she pulled her down from the tree, and threw her into the pond. Then she herself put on Mike by the Stove's smock, and climbed into the tree. When the king arrived, and saw the swart, homely kitchen-maid, he grew red and white in turn; but when he heard the people say she was the greatest beauty in twelve kingdoms, he had to believe, willy-nilly, that there was something in it, and he did not want to be unjust to Mike by the Stove, who had taken so much trouble to find her. She might grow more beautiful in time, thought he, if she were adorned with jewels, and dressed in fine clothes, and so he took her home with him. Then they sent for wig-makers and seamstresses, and she was adorned and dressed like a princess; but for all their washing and bedizening, she remained swart and homely. After a while, when the kitchen-maid had to go to the pond to fetch water, she caught a great silver fish in her pail. She carried it up and showed it to the king, who thought it was a beauty; but the homely princess declared it to be the work of witches, and that they were to burn it, for she had noticed at once what it was. So the following morning the fish was burned, and they found a lump of silver in the ashes. Then the cook went up and told the king, and he thought it very strange; but the princess said it was witchcraft pure and simple, and that they were to bury the silver under the manure-pile. The king did not want to, but she gave him no peace until he consented, and finally said they were to do so. But on the following day a beautiful linden-tree stood where they had buried the lump of silver, and the leaves of the linden-tree glistened like silver, too. When they told the king he thought it remarkable; but the princess said it was no more nor less than witchcraft, and that the linden-tree must be cut down. This the king did not wish done at all; but the princess tormented him so that finally he yielded in this as well. When the maids went out and brought wood for the fire from the linden-tree, it was pure silver. "We need not tell the king and the princess anything about it," said one of them, "for they would only burn it up and melt it down. Let us keep it in the wardrobe instead. It might be very useful to us some day, if some one comes along, and we want to marry." They were all of the same mind, but when they had carried the wood a while, it grew terribly heavy. And when they looked to see why this was, the sticks of wood had turned into a little child, and before long she had become the most beautiful princess imaginable. The maids saw that there was some hocus-pocus about it, gave her clothes, ran off to fetch the youth who had been sent to find the most beautiful princess in twelve kingdoms, and told him their story. And when Mike by the Stove arrived, the princess explained to him how everything had happened, that the cook had thrown her into the pond, and that she had been the silver fish, the lump of silver, and the linden-tree, and the sticks of wood, and that she was the true princess. It was hard to get at the king, for the swart, homely cook was with him early and late; but at last they decided to tell him that a declaration of war had come from a neighboring monarch, and so they got him out. When he saw the beautiful princess, he fell so deeply in love with her that he wanted to marry her out of hand, and when he heard how badly the swart, homely cook had treated her, the latter was promptly punished. Then they held a wedding that was heard of and talked about in twelve kingdoms.