ONCE upon a time there was a poor man, who had only one son; but one who was so lazy and clumsy that he did not want to do a stroke of work. "If I am not to feed this bean-pole for the rest of my life, I'll have to send him far away, where not a soul knows him," thought the father. "Once he is knocking about in the world, he will not be so likely to come home again." So he took his son and led him about in the world, far and wide, and tried to get him taken on as a serving man; but no one would have him. Finally, after wandering a long time, they came to a rich man, of whom it was said that he turned every shilling around seven times before he could make up his mind to part with it. He was willing to take the youth for a servant, and he was to work three years without pay. But at the end of the three years, his master was to go into town, two days in succession, and buy the first thing he saw, and on the third morning the youth himself was to go to town and also buy the first thing he met. And all this he was to receive in lieu of his wage.
So the youth served out his three years, and did better than they had expected him to do. He was by no means a model serving-man; but then his master was none of the best, either, for he let him go all that time in the same clothes he had worn when he entered his service, until, finally, one patch elbowed the other.
Now when his master was to go to do his buying, he set out as early as possible in the morning. "Costly wares are only to be seen by day," said he, "they are not drifting about the street so early. It will probably cost me enough as it is, for what I find is a matter of purest chance." The first thing he saw on the street was an old woman, who was carrying a covered basket. "Good-day, granny," said the man. "And good-day to you, daddy," said the old woman.
"What have you in your basket?" asked the man. "Would you like to know?" said the woman. "Yes," said the man, "for I have to buy the first thing that comes my way." "Well, if you want to know, buy it!" said the old woman. "What does it cost?" asked the man. She must have four shillings for it, declared the woman. This did not seem such a tremendous price to him, he would let it go at that, said he, and raised the cover. And there lay a pup in the basket. When the man got home from his journey to town, there stood the youth full of impatience and curiosity, wondering what his wage for the first year might be. "Are you back already, master?" asked the youth. "Yes, indeed," said his master. "And what have you bought?" asked the youth. "What I have bought is nothing so very rare," said the man. "I don't even know whether I ought to show it to you; but I bought the first thing to be had, and that was a pup," said he. "And I thank you most kindly for it," said the youth. "I have always been fond of dogs."
The following morning it was no better. The man set out as early as possible, and had not as yet reached town before he met the old woman with the basket. "Good-day, granny," said the man. "And good-day to you, daddy," said the old woman. "What have you in your basket to-day?" asked the man. "If you want to know, then buy it!" was again the answer. "What does it cost?" asked the man. She wanted four shillings for it, she had only the one price. The man said he would buy it, for he thought that this time he would make a better purchase. He raised the cover, and this time a kitten lay in the basket. When he reached home, there stood the youth, waiting to see what he was to get in lieu of his second year's wages. "Are you back again, master!" said he. "Yes, indeed," said the master. "What did you buy to-day?" asked the youth. "Alas, nothing better than I did yesterday," said the man, "but I did as we agreed, and bought the first thing I came across, and that was this kitten." "You could not have hit on anything better," said the youth, "for all my life long I have been fond of cats as well as of dogs." "I do not fare so badly this way," thought the man, "but when he sets out for himself, then the matter will probably turn out differently."
So the third morning the youth set out for himself, and when he entered town, he came across the same old woman with her basket on her arm. "Good morning, granny," said he. "And good morning to you, my boy," said the old woman. "What have you in your basket?" asked the youth. "If you want to know, then buy it!" answered the old woman. "Do you want to sell it?" asked the youth. Yes, indeed, and it would cost four shillings, said the old woman. That is a bargain, thought the youth, and wanted to take it, for he had to buy the first thing that came his way. "Well, you can take the whole blessed lot," said the old woman, "the basket and all that's in it. But do not look into it before you get home, do you hear!" No, indeed, he would be sure not to look in the basket, said he. But on the way, he kept wondering as to what might be in the basket, and willy-nilly--he could not keep from raising the cover a little, and looking through the crack. But that very minute a little lizard popped out of the crack, and ran across the road so quickly that it fairly hummed--and aside from the lizard there was nothing in the basket. "Stop, wait a minute, and don't run away! I just bought you," said the youth. "Stab me in the neck! Stab me in the neck!" cried the lizard. The youth did not have to be told twice. He ran after the lizard and stabbed it in the neck just as it was slipping into a hole in a wall. And that very moment it turned into a man, as handsome and splendid as the handsomest prince, and a prince he was, if truth be told.
"Now you have delivered me," said he, "for the old woman, with whom you and your master have been dealing, is a witch, and she turned me into a lizard, and my brother and sister into a dog and cat." The youth thought this a remarkable tale. "Yes, indeed," said the prince. "She was actually on the way to throw us into the sea and drown us; but if any one were to appear and want to buy us, she had to sell us for four shillings apiece, that had been agreed upon. And now you shall go home with me to my father, and be rewarded for your good deed." "Your home must be a good way off," said the youth. "O, it is not so far," declared the prince, "there it is!" And he pointed to a high hill in the distance.
They marched along as fast as they could, but still it was farther away than it seemed. So it was late at night before they reached their goal. The prince knocked. "Who is knocking at my door, and disturbing my sleep?" came a voice within the hill. And the voice was so powerful that the earth trembled. "Open, father, your son has come home!" cried the prince. Then the father was glad to open the door quickly. "I thought you were already lying at the bottom of the sea," said the old man. "But you are not alone?" "This is the chap who delivered me," said the prince, "and I asked him to come with me so that you could reward him." That he would attend to, said the old man. "Now you must come right in," said he, "for here you may rest in safety." They went in and sat down, and the old man laid an armful of wood and a couple of big logs on the fire, until every corner was as bright as day, and wherever they looked everything was indescribably splendid. The youth had never seen anything like it, and such fine things to eat and drink as the old man served up to him, he had never yet tasted. And the bowls and dishes, and goblets and plates, were all of pure silver and shining gold.
There was no need to urge the young folk. They ate and drank and enjoyed themselves, and then slept far into the next day. The youth was still asleep when the old man came and offered him a morning draft in a golden goblet. And when he had put on his rags and breakfasted, he was allowed to pick out what he wanted, as a reward for delivering the prince. There was much to see and still more to take, as you may believe. "Well, what do you want?" asked the king. "You may take what you will; for as you see there is enough from which to choose." The youth said he would have to think it over a bit, and speak to the prince. And that he was allowed to do. "Well, I suppose you have seen all sorts of beautiful things?" asked the prince. "That is a fact," said the youth. "But tell me, what ought I to choose among all these magnificent things? Your father said I might pick out whatever I wished." "You must choose none among all the things you have seen," answered the prince, "but my father wears a ring on his little finger, and you must ask him for that." This the youth did, and begged the king for the ring on his finger. "It is dearer to me than anything else I have," said the king, "but my son is just as dear to me, and therefore I will give you the ring. Do you know what powers it has?" No, that the youth did not know. "While you wear it on your finger, you can get everything that you want to have," said the king. The youth thanked him most kindly, and the king and the prince wished him all manner of luck on his journey, and charged him to take the best care of the ring.
He had not been long underway before it occurred to him to test what the ring could do. So he wished to be dressed in new clothes from head to toe, and no more had he uttered the wish than there he was in them. And he looked as handsome and bright as a new nickel. Then he thought to himself it would be pleasant to play a trick on his father. "He was none too friendly to me while I was still at home." And so the youth wished he were standing before his father's door, just as ragged as he had been before. And that very minute there he stood.
"Good-day, father, and many thanks for the last time!" said the youth. But when his father saw he had come home far more tattered and torn than when he had gone away, he grew angry and began to scold: "There is nothing to be made of you, if during all the long years of your service you have not even been able to earn a suit of clothes to your back."
"Now do not be so angry, father," said the youth. "You need not take for granted that a fellow is a vagabond because he goes about in rags. Now I want you to go to the king as my proxy, and ask his daughter's hand for me." "Come, come, why, that is utter folly and nonsense!" cried his father. But the youth insisted that it was gospel truth, and took a birch bough, and drove his father to the king's castle-gate. And the latter came stumbling right in to the king, and wept so that the tears just tumbled out.
"Well, what has happened to you, my dear fellow?" asked the king. "If a wrong has been done you, I will see that you get your rights." No, no wrong had been done him, said the man, but he had a son who gave him a great deal of trouble: it was impossible to make a man of him, and now he had evidently lost what few senses he did possess. "Because he has just chased me to the castle-gate with a birch bough, and threatened me, if I do not get him the king's daughter for a bride," said the man. "Set your mind at rest, my good fellow," said the king, "and send your son to me. Then we will see whether we can come to an understanding."
The youth came rushing in to the king, so that his rags fairly fluttered. "Do I get your daughter?" he cried. "Well, that is just what we are going to discuss," said the king, "perhaps she would not answer for you, and perhaps you would not answer for her," said he. That might be the case, said the youth.
Now a great ship from abroad had shortly before come into port, and one could see it from the castle window. "Now we'll see," said the king. "If you can build a ship that is the exact counterpart of the one outside, and just as handsome, in the space of an hour or two, then, perhaps, you may get my daughter," said the king.
"If it be no more than that ..." said the youth. Then he went down to the shore and sat on a sand-pile, and when he had sat there long enough, he wished that a ship might lie out in the fjord, completely equipped with masts and sails and all that goes with them, and that it might resemble the ship already lying there in every particular. And that very minute there lay the ship, and when the king saw that there were two ships at anchor instead of one, he came down to the shore himself to look more closely into the matter. And then he saw the youth. He was standing in a boat, with a broom in one hand, as though he meant to give the ship a final cleaning; but when he saw the king coming, he threw away the broom and cried: "Now the ship is finished. Do I get your daughter now?"
"That is all very fine," said the king, "but you must stand yet another test. If you can build a castle that is just like mine in every particular within an hour or so, then we will go further into the matter."
"No more than that?" cried the youth. After he had strolled around for a long while, and the time set was nearly over, he wished that a castle might stand there that resembled the king's castle in every particular. And before long there it stood, as you may believe. And it did not take long, either, before the king, together with the queen and the princess, came to look at the new castle. The youth stood there with his broom again, and swept and cleaned. "Now the castle is in apple-pie order. Do I get her now?" he cried.
"That's all very fine," declared the king, "just come in and we'll talk it over," said he, for he had noticed that the youth knew a thing or two, and he was thinking over how he might get rid of him. The king went on ahead, and after him the queen, and then went the princess, just in advance of the youth. Then he at once wished to be the handsomest man in the world, and so he was, that very minute. When the princess saw what a splendid figure he suddenly cut, she nudged the queen, who in turn nudged the king, and after they had stared at him long enough, they at last realized that the youth was more than he had at first appeared to be, in his rags. So they decided that the princess was to treat him nicely, in order to find out how matters really stood, and the princess was as sweet and amiable as sugar-bread, and flattered the youth, and said that she could not do without him, night or day. And when it came toward the end of the first evening, she said: "Since you and I are to be married in any case, I am sure you will have no secrets from me, and you will not want to hide from me how you managed to do all these fine things."
"O, yes," said the youth. "You shall know about it, but first of all let us be married; before that nothing counts!"
The following evening the princess pretended to be quite unhappy. She was well aware, said she, that he did not attach much importance to her love, when he would not even tell her what she wanted so much to know. If he could not even oblige her in such a small matter, his love could not amount to a great deal. Then the youth fell into despair, and to make up with her again, he told her everything. She lost no time, and let the king and queen know all about it. Thereupon they agreed as to how they would go about getting the youth's ring away from him, and then, thought they, it would not really be hard to get rid of him.
In the evening the princess came with a sleeping potion, and said she wanted to give her lover a drink that would increase his love for her, since it was plain he did not love her enough. The youth suspected nothing, and drank, and at once fell so fast asleep that they could have pulled down the house over his head. Then the princess drew the ring from his finger, put it on herself, and wished the youth might be lying on the garbage-pile in the street, just as tattered and torn as he had come to them, and in his place she wanted the handsomest prince in the world. And that very minute everything happened just as she wished. After a time the youth woke up, out on the garbage-pile, and at first thought he was dreaming: but when he saw the ring was gone, he understood how it all had happened, and fell into such despair that he got up and wanted to jump right into the sea.
But then he met the cat his master had bought for him. "Where are you going?" she asked. "To throw myself into the sea and drown," was the youth's reply.
"Do not do so on any account," said the cat. "You will get your ring again."
"Yes, if that were so, then ..." said the youth.
The cat ran away. Suddenly a rat crossed her path. "Now I will pounce on you!" said the cat. "O do not do that," said the rat, "you shall have the ring again!"
"Well, if that is so, then ..." said the cat.
When the folk at the castle had gone to bed, the rat crept around, and sniffed and spied out the room of the prince and princess; and at last he found a little hole through which he crawled. Then he heard the prince and princess talking to each other, and saw that the prince was wearing the ring on his finger. Before she went, the princess said: "Good night. And see that you take good care of the ring, my dearest!"
"Pooh! no one will come in through the walls for the sake of a ring," said the prince, "but if you think it is not safe enough on my hand, why, I can put it in my mouth."
After a time he lay down on his back, and prepared to go to sleep. But just then the ring slipped down his throat, and he had to cough, so that the ring flew out and rolled along the ground. Swish!--the rat had caught it, and crept out with it to the cat, who was waiting at the rat-hole. But in the meantime the king had caught the youth, and had had him put in a great tower and condemned to death, because he had made a mock of his daughter--so the king said. And the youth was to sit in the tower until he was beheaded. But the cat kept prowling around the tower all the time, trying to sneak in with the ring. And then an eagle came along, caught her up in his claws and flew across the sea with her. And suddenly a hawk appeared, and flung himself on the eagle, and the eagle let the cat fall into the sea. When she felt the water, she grew afraid, let the ring fall, and swam to land. No sooner had she shaken the water from her fur than she met the dog whom the youth's master had bought for him.
"Well, what am I to do now?" said the cat, and wept and lamented. "The ring is gone, and they want to murder the youth." "That I do not know," said the dog, "but what I do know is that I have the very worst kind of an ache in my stomach," said he.
"There you have it. You have surely over-eaten," said the cat.
"I never eat more than I need," said the dog, "and just now I have eaten nothing at all, save a dead fish that was left here by the ebb-tide."
"Could the fish have swallowed the ring?" asked the cat. "And must you, also, lose your life, because you cannot digest gold?"
"That may well be the case," said the dog. "But then it would be best if I died at once, for then the youth might still be saved."
"O, that is not necessary!" said the rat--who was there, too--"I do not need a very large opening through which to crawl, and if the ring is really there, I am sure I can find it." So the rat slipped down into the dog, and before very long he came out again with the ring. And then the cat made her way to the tower, and clawed her way up till she found a hole through which she could thrust her paw, and thus brought back the ring to the youth.
No sooner was it on his finger than he wished that the tower might break down, and that very moment he was standing just before the tower-gate, and reviling the king and the queen and the king's daughter as though they were the lowest of the low. The king hastily called together his army, and told it to surround the tower, and take the youth prisoner, dead or alive. But the youth only wished the whole army might be sticking up to their necks in the big swamp in the hills, and there they had trouble enough getting out--those among them who did not stick fast. Then he went right on reviling where he had stopped, and finally, when he had told them all just what he thought of them, he wished that the king, the queen and the king's daughter might sit for the rest of their lives in the tower into which they had thrust him. And when they were sitting there, he took possession of the king's land and country on his own account. Then the dog changed into a prince, and the cat into a princess, and he made the latter his wife, and they were married and celebrated their wedding long and profusely.