ONCE upon a time there was a poor woman, who lived in a wretched hut far away from the village. She had but little to bite and less to burn, so she sent her little boy to the forest to gather wood. He skipped and leaped, and leaped and skipped, in order to keep warm, for it was a cold, gray autumn day, and whenever he had gathered a root or a branch to add to his bundle, he had to slap his arms against his shoulders, for the cold made his hands as red as the whortleberry bushes over which he walked. When he had filled his barrow, and was wandering homeward, he crossed a field of stubble. There he saw lying a jagged white stone. "O, you poor old stone, how white and pale you are! You must be freezing terribly!" said the boy; took off his jacket, and laid it over the stone. And when he came back home with his wood, his mother asked him how it was that he was going around in the autumn cold in his shirt-sleeves. He told her that he had seen a jagged old stone, quite white and pale with the frost, and that he had given it his jacket. "You fool," said the woman, "do you think a stone can freeze? And even if it had chattered with frost, still, charity begins at home. Your clothes cost enough as it is, even when you don't hang them on the stones out in the field!"--and with that she drove the boy out again to fetch his jacket. When he came to the stone, the stone had turned around, and had raised itself from the ground on one side. "Yes, and I'm sure it is because you have the jacket, poor fellow!" said the boy. But when he looked more closely, there was a chest full of bright silver coins under the stone. "That must be stolen money," thought the boy, "for no one lays money honestly earned under stones in the wood." And he took the chest, and carried it down to the pond nearby, and threw in the whole pile of money. But a four-shilling piece was left swimming on the top of the water. "Well, this one is honest, for whatever is honest will float," said the boy. And he took the four-shilling piece and the jacket home with him. He told his mother what had happened to him, that the stone had turned around, and that he had found a chest full of silver coins, and had thrown it into the pond because it was stolen money. "But a four-shilling piece floated, and that I took along, because it was honest," said the boy. "You are a fool," said the woman--for she was as angry as could be--"if nothing were honest save what floats on the water, there would be but little honesty left in the world. And if the money had been stolen ten times over, still you had found it, and charity begins at home. If you had kept the money, we might have passed the rest of our lives in peace and comfort. But you are a dunderhead and will stay a dunderhead, and I won't be tormented and burdened with you any longer. Now you must get out and earn your own living."
So the boy had to go out into the wide world, and wandered about far and near looking for service. But wherever he went people found him too small or too weak, and said that they could make no use of him. At last he came to a merchant. There they kept him to work in the kitchen, and he had to fetch wood and water for the cook. When he had been there for some time, the merchant decided to journey to far countries, and asked all his servants what he should buy and bring back home for them. After all had told him what they wanted, came the turn of the little fellow who carried wood and water for the kitchen. He handed him his four-shilling piece. "Well, and what am I to buy for it?" asked the merchant. "It will not be a large purchase." "Buy whatever it will bring, it is honest money, that I know," said the boy. His master promised to do so, and sailed away.
Now when the merchant had discharged his cargo in foreign parts and had reloaded, and had bought what his servants had desired, he went back to his ship, and was about to shove off. Not until then did he remember that the scullion had given him a four-shilling piece, with which to buy him something. "Must I go up to the city again because of this four-shilling piece? One only has one's troubles when one bothers with such truck," thought the merchant. Then along came a woman with a bag on her back. "What have you in your bag, granny?" asked the merchant. "O, it is only a cat! I can feed her no longer, and so I want to throw her into the sea in order to get rid of her," said the old woman. "The boy told me to buy whatever I could get for the four-shilling piece," said the merchant to himself, and asked the woman whether he could have her cat for four shillings. The woman agreed without delay, and the bargain was closed.
Now when the merchant had sailed on for a while, a terrible storm broke loose, a thunderstorm without an equal, and he drifted and drifted, and did not know where or whither. At last he came to a land where he had never yet been, and went up into the city.
In the tavern which he entered the table was set, and at every place lay a switch, one for each guest. This seemed strange to the merchant, for he could not understand what was to be done with all the switches. Yet he sat down and thought: "I will watch carefully, and see just what the rest do with them, and then I can imitate them." Yes, and when the food came on the table, then he knew why the switches were there: the place was alive with thousands of mice, and all who were sitting at the table had to work and fight and beat about them with their switches, and nothing could be heard but the slapping of the switches, one worse than the other. Sometimes people hit each other in the face, and then they had to take time to say, "Excuse me!"
"Eating is hard work in this country," said the merchant. "How is it the folk here have no cats?" "Cats?" said the people: they did not know what they were. Then the merchant had the cat that he had bought for the scullion brought, and when the cat went over the table, the mice had to hurry into their holes, and not in the memory of man had the people been able to eat in such comfort. Then they begged and implored the merchant to sell them his cat. At last he said he would let them have her; but he wanted a hundred dollars for her, and this they paid, and thanked him kindly into the bargain.
Then the merchant sailed on, but no sooner had he reached the high seas than he saw the cat sitting at the top of the main-mast. And immediately after another storm and tempest arose, far worse than the first one, and he drifted and drifted, till he came to a land where he had never yet been. Again the merchant went to a tavern, and here, too, the table was covered with switches; but they were much larger and longer than at the place where he had first been. And they were much needed; for there were a good many more mice, and they were twice the size of those he had first seen.
Here he again sold his cat, and this time he received two hundred dollars for her, and that without any haggling. But when he had sailed off and was out at sea a way, there sat the cat up in the mast. And the storm at once began again, and finally he was again driven to a land in which he had never been. Again he turned in at a tavern, and there the table was also covered with switches; but every switch was a yard and a half long, and as thick as a small broom, and the people told him that they knew of nothing more disagreeable than to sit down to eat, for there were great, ugly rats by the thousand. Only with toil and trouble could one manage to shove a bite of something into one's mouth once in a while, so hard was it to defend oneself against the rats. Then the cat was again brought from the ship, and now the people could eat in peace. They begged and pleaded that the merchant sell them his cat; and for a long time he refused; but at last he promised that they should have her for three hundred dollars. And they paid him, and thanked him, and blessed him into the bargain.
Now when the merchant was out at sea again, he considered how much the boy had gained with the four-shilling piece he had given him. "Well, he shall have some of the money," said the merchant to himself, "but not all of it. For he has to thank me for the cat, which I bought for him, and charity begins at home."
But while the merchant was thinking these thoughts, such a storm and tempest arose that all thought the ship would sink. Then the merchant realized that there was nothing left for him to do but to promise that the boy should have all the money. No sooner had he made his vow, than the weather turned fair, and he had a favoring wind for his journey home. And when he landed, he gave the youth the six hundred dollars and his daughter to boot. For now the scullion was as rich as the merchant himself and richer, and thereafter he lived in splendor and happiness. And he took in his mother and treated her kindly. "For I do not believe that charity begins at home," said the youth.