Far away and a long time ago there lived a beautiful maiden. She was lovelier than any other girl in the neighbourhood, but a handsome son of a salesman had taken her fancy some years before. They were to be married, and great rejoicings were made.
The two looked forward to a long life of happiness together, when the very night before the wedding feast a sudden illness seized the girl. Without a word to her friends who were weeping round her, she passed silently away.
The heart of her lover was torn. At last, after many days, a light seemed to come to him out of the darkness. He remembered that old people said there was a path to Salmon River - and that if you sought carefully you could find help there too.
So the next morning he got up early, and took with him some extra food and slung an extra cape over his shoulders. He did not know exactly where to go, for he had also been told. "There are hundreds of salmon rivers, large and small, and a place in the north that is called Salmon River too." But he sped along lightly and swiftly. Now his way led through a wood, and then over cliffs over, and then he came to a river. An old salmon fisher was wading in it. The old fisherman greeted him with these words:
"It is but a short while since the woman you seek passed through there. Rest in my house over there, as she also rested in it. I will also tell you what you ask, and where you should go."
On hearing these words, the young man entered the house. When he arose from his rest, the old man rose too, and stood with him at the door.
"Look at the water and the plains in the land, and bid your dog a goodby - it is for you safely."
Then a strange thing happened. He went on with winged feet till he came to the shores of a great lake. There was an island in the middle of it. On the bank of the lake was a small boatand in the boat were two paddles. He jumped straight into the boat. Seizing the oars he pushed off from the shore. To his joy and wonder he saw the young girl for whose sake he had made this long journey. She was following him in another fine boat that looked exactly like his own.
They reached the shore of the Happy Island and wandered through the flowery fields and by the banks of rushing streams. The sun warmed them, and they were happy together. But it was not long before the young man's thoughts turned not to campaigns and market wars, and to the hunting of new customers. They were glad together anyway, walking the island of their dream.
One day, however the young son of a salesman heard the old man saying to him in the murmur of the wind:
"It is time to return to where you came from, for I have work for you to do. My messenger waits for you by the island shore and will show you what you are to do. Listen very well to him."
And so they did. The son of a salesman rose to become a friend of the king of his country and was held in high esteem. The king too. Everybody thought he wanted just the good of his people, as he got richer and richer.
Once two young men who lived in a small village fell in love with the same girl. During the winter, it was all night except for an hour or so about noon, and then they used to see which of them could tempt her out for a sleigh ride with the Northern Lights flashing above them, or which could persuade her to come to a dance in some neighbouring barn.
When the spring began and the light grew longer, the hearts of the villagers leapt at the sight of the sun, and a day was fixed for the boats to be brought out. On that day great nets were to be spread in the bays of some islands that lay a few miles to the north. Everybody went on this expedition, and the two young men and the girl went with them.
They all sailed merrily across the sea chattering like a flock of magpies, or singing their favourite songs. When they reached the shore, what an unpacking there was! For this was a noted fishing ground, and here they would live in little wooden huts till autumn and bad weather came round again.
The maiden and the two young men happened to share the same hut with some friends, and fished daily from the same boat. And as time went on, one of the youths remarked that the girl took less notice of him than she did of the other. At first he tried to think that he was dreaming, and for a long while he kept his eyes shut very tight to what he didn't want to see, but in spite of his efforts, the truth managed to wriggle through, and then the young man gave up trying to deceive himself, and set about finding some way to get the better of his rival.
The plan that he hit on could not be carried out for some months; but the longer the young man thought of it, the more pleased he was with it. So he made no sign of his feelings, and waited patiently till the moment came, which was the very day that they were all going to leave the islands and sail back to the mainland for the winter.
In the bustle and hurry of departure, the cunning fisherman contrived that their boat should be the last to put off, and when everything was ready and the sails about to be set, he suddenly called out:
"Oh, dear! I have left my best knife behind in the hut. Please run and get it for me while I raise the anchor and loosen the tiller."
Not thinking any harm, the youth jumped back on shore and made his way up the steep hank. At the door of the hut he stopped and looked back, then started and gazed in horror. The head of the boat stood out to sea, and he was left alone on the island.
There was no doubt of it – he was alone. He had nothing to help him except the knife which had been dropped on the ledge of the window. For some minutes he was too stunned by the treachery of his friend to think about anything at all, but after a while he shook himself awake and determined that he would manage to keep alive somehow to revenge himself.
So he put the knife in his pocket and went off to a part of the island which was not so bare as the rest, and had a small grove of trees. From one of these he cut himself a bow which he strung with a piece of cord that had been left lying about the huts.
When this was ready the young man ran down to the shore and shot one or two sea-birds, which he plucked and cooked for supper.
In this way the months slipped by, and winter came round again. The evening before Christmas the youth went down to the rocks and into the thicket, collecting all the drift wood the sea had washed up or the gale had blown down, and he piled it up in a great stack outside the door, so that he might not have to fetch any all the next day. As soon as his task was done, he paused and looked out towards the mainland, thinking of Christmas Eve last year, and the merry dance they had had.
The night was still and cold. By the help of the Northern Lights he could almost see across to the opposite coast, when suddenly he noticed a boat. It seemed to be steering straight for his island. At first he could hardly stand for joy, the chance of speaking to another man was so delightful.
But as the boat drew near there was something, he could not tell what, that was different from the boats which he had been used to all his life, and when it touched the shore he saw that the people that filled it were beings of another world. Then he hastily stepped behind the wood stack and waited for what might happen next.
The strange folk one by one jumped on to the rocks, each bearing a load of something that they wanted. Among the women he remarked two young girls that were more beautiful and better dressed than any of the rest. The girls carried between them two great baskets full of provisions. The young man peeped out cautiously to see what all this crowd could be doing inside the tiny hut, but in a moment he drew back again, for the girls returned and looked about as if they wanted to find out what sort of a place the island was.
They soon discovered him crouching behind the bundles of sticks. At first they felt a little frightened and started as if they would run away. But the youth remained so still that they took courage and laughed gaily to each other,
"What a strange creature, let's try what he is made of," said one, and she stooped down and gave him a pinch.
Now the young man had a pin sticking in the sleeve of his jacket, and the moment the girl's hand touched him she pricked it so sharply that the blood came. The girl screamed so loudly that the people all ran out of their huts to see what was the matter. But directly they caught sight of the man they turned and fled in the other direction, and picking up the goods they had brought with them scampered as fast as they could down to the shore. In an instant, boat, people, and goods had vanished completely.
But in their hurry they had forgotten two things: a bundle of keys on the table and the girl that the pin had pricked. Now she stood pale and helpless beside the wood stack.
"You'll have to make me your wife," she said at last, "for you have drawn my blood, and I belong to you."
"Why not? I'm quite willing," answered he. "But how do you suppose we can manage to live till summer comes round again?"
"Don't be anxious about that," said the girl; "if you'll only marry me all will be well. I'm very rich, and all my family are rich also."
Then the young man gave her his promise to make her his wife, and the girl fulfilled her part of the bargain. Thus they had plenty of food on the island all through the long winter months, but he never knew how it got there.
And by-and-by it was spring once more and time for the fisher-folk to sail from the mainland.
"Where are we to go now?" asked the girl one day, when the sun seemed brighter and the wind softer than usual.
"Well, I don't know," answered the young man; "what do you think?"
She answered that she would like to go somewhere at the other end of the island and build a house far away from the huts of the fishing-folk. He said yes to that, and on the same day they set off in search of a sheltered spot on the banks of a stream, so that it would be easy to get water.
In a tiny bay on the opposite side of the island they found what they had been looking for. Tired with their long walk they laid themselves down on a bank of moss among some birches and prepared to have a good night's rest in order to be fresh for work next day. But before she went to sleep the girl turned to her husband, and said:
"If in your dreams you fancy that you hear strange noises, be sure you don't stir or get up to see what it is."
"Its not likely we shall hear any noises in such a quiet place," answered he, and fell sound asleep.
But suddenly he was awakened by a great clatter about his ears, as if all the workmen in the world were sawing and hammering and building close to him. He was just going to spring up and go to see what it meant when he luckily remembered his wife's words and lay still. But the time till morning seemed very long.
With the first ray of sun they both rose and pushed aside the branches of the birch trees. There, in the very place they had chosen, stood a beautiful house – doors and windows, and everything all complete!
"Now you must fix on a spot for your cow-stalls," said the girl, when they had breakfasted off wild cherries; "and take care it is the proper size, neither too large nor too small." And the husband did as he was bid, though he wondered what use a cow-house could be, as they had no cows to put in it. But he asked no questions.
This night too he was woken up by sounds. And in the morning they found, near the stream, the most beautiful cow-house that ever was seen. It had stalls and milk-pails and stools all complete - all that a cow-house could want, except the cows.
Then the girl bade him measure out the ground for a storehouse, and it might be as large as he pleased. When the storehouse was ready she proposed that they should set off to pay her parents a visit.
The old people welcomed them heartily and summoned their neighbours for many miles round to a great feast in their honour. For several weeks there was no work done on the farm at all. At last the young man and his wife grew tired of so much play and said they had to return to their own home. But before they started on the journey, the wife whispered to her husband:
"Take care to jump over the threshold as quick as you can, or it will be the worse for you."
The young man listened to her words and sprang over the threshold like an arrow from a bow. And it was well he did, for no sooner was he on the other side of it than his father-in-law threw a great hammer at him; it could have broken both his legs if it had only touched them.
When they had gone some distance on the road home, the girl turned to her husband and said:
"Till you step inside the house, be sure you don't look back, whatever you may hear or see."
He promised. For a while all was still, and he thought no more about the matter till he noticed at last that the nearer he drew to the house the louder grew the noise of the trampling of feet behind him.
As he laid his hand on the door he thought he was safe, and turned to look. There he saw a vast herd of cattle which had been sent after him by his father-in-law when he found that his daughter had been cleverer than he. Half of the herd were already through the fence and cropping the grass on the banks of the stream, but half still remained outside and faded into nothing, even as he watched them.
However, enough cattle were left to make the young man rich, and he and his wife lived happily together, except that every now and then the girl disappeared from his sight and never told him where she had been.
For a long time he kept silent about it. But one day, when he had been complaining of her absence, she said to him:
"Dear husband, I'm bound to go, even against my will. There is only one way to stop it: Drive a nail into the threshold, and then I can never pass in or out."
And so he did.
Once in a land far away there lived two kings whose countries bordered on each other; but, as they were rivals in wealth and power, and one was called king and the other badshah, they were not good friends. But to escape continual quarrels, the king and the badshah had drawn up an agreement, stamped and signed, declaring that if any of their subjects crossed the border between the two kingdoms, he might be seized and punished badly.
One morning the badshah and his chief minister were just about to begin their morning's work over the affairs of the kingdom, and the badshah had taken up a pen and was cutting it to his liking with a sharp knife, when the knife slipped and cut off the tip of his finger.
"Oh-he, minister!" cried the king, "I've cut off the tip of my finger!"
"I say! That's good to hear!" answered the minister.
"What?" exclaimed the king. "Do you take pleasure in the misfortunes of others, and in mine too? Take him away, my guards, and put him in the court prison till I have time to punish him as he deserves!"
At once the officers in attendance seized on the minister and dragged him out toward a narrow doorway that unhappy criminals used to be led through to prison or execution.
As the door opened, the minister muttered something into his great white beard which the soldiers could not hear.
"What did he say?" shouted the king.
"He says he thanks your majesty," replied one of the gaolers. And at his words, the king stared at the closing door, angry and amazed.
"He must be mad," he cried, "for he is grateful, not only for the misfortunes of others, but for his own. Well, maybe something has turned his head!"
The king was really very fond of his old minister, and although the court physician came and bound up his injured finger with cool and healing ointment and soothed the pain, he could not soothe the soreness of the king's heart. Nor could any of all his ministers and courtiers, who found him to be very cross all day long.
Early next morning the king ordered his horse and declared that he would go hunting. At once all was bustle and preparation in stable and hail. By the time he was ready, a score of ministers and huntsmen stood ready to mount and accompany him. But to their astonishment the king would have none of them. Instead he glared at them so fiercely that they were glad to leave him. So away and away he wandered, over field and through forest, so moody and thoughtful that many a fat buck and gaudy pheasant escaped without notice. So careless was he where he was going that he strayed without noticing it over into the king's territory. He only discovered the fact when men suddenly stepped from all sides out of a thicket, and there was nothing to do but surrender.
Then the badshah was seized and bound and taken to the king's prison, thinking most of the time of his minister who was suffering a similar fate. The badshah wished that he could feel that there was something to give thanks for, like the minister.
That night the king held a special council to consider what should be done to his rival who had thus given himself into his hands. All the high priests were sent for – fat priests who understood all about everything, and what days were lucky and what unlucky – and, while all the rest of the king's councellors were offering him different advice till he was nearly crazy with anger and indecision, the chief priest was squatting in a corner. He kept figuring out sums and signs to himself with an admiring group of lesser priests around him. At last he arose, and advanced toward the throne.
"Well," said the king anxiously, "what do you advise?"
"A very unlucky day!" exclaimed the chief priest. "Oh, a very unlucky day! The god Gussara is full of wrath, and commands that tomorrow you must chop off this badshah's head and offer it in sacrifice."
"Well," said the king, "let it be done. I leave it to you." And he bowed politely to the others and left the room.
Before dawn great preparations were being made for a grand festival in honour of the great idol Gussara. Hundreds of banners waved, hundreds of drummers drummed, hundreds of singers chanted chants, hundreds of priests, well washed and anointed, performed their sacred rites. And the king was sitting nervous and ill at ease among hundreds of courtiers and servants, wishing it were all well over.
At last the time came for the sacrifice, and the poor badshah was led out bound to have his head chopped off.
The chief priest came along with a smile on his face and a big sword in his hand, Then he suddenly noticed that the badshah's finger was tied up in a bit of rag. At once he dropped the sword, and with his eyes starting out of his head with excitement, pounced on the rag and tore it off. There he saw that the tip of the badshah's finger was missing. At this he got very red and angry, and he led the badshah up to where the king sat wondering.
"Look, king," he said, "this sacrifice is useless. The tip of his finger is gone! A sacrifice is no sacrifice unless it is complete." He began to weep.
But instead of wailing likewise, the king sighed with relief and answered:
"Well, that settles the matter. If it had been anyone else I should not have minded; but, well, it doesn't seem quite right to sacrifice a king."
And with that he jumped up and cut the badshah's cords with his jewelled dagger, and marched with him out of the temple back to the palace.
After having bathed and refreshed his guest, the king loaded him with gifts, and himself accompanied him with a large escort as far as the frontier between their kingdoms. There they toe up the old agreement among salutes and great rejoicings and drew up another where each king promised welcome and safe conduct to any of the other's people who came over the border on any errand. At last they embraced, and each went his own way.
When the badshah got home that evening he sent for his imprisoned minister.
"Well, minister!" he said, when the old man had been brought before him, "what do you think has happened to me?"
"How can a man in jail know what is happening outside it?" answered the minister.
Then the badshah told him all his adventures. And when he had reached the end he added:
"I have made up my mind, to pardon you freely as a token of gratitude for my escape, if you will tell me why you gave thanks when I cut off the tip of my finger."
"Well," replied the old minister, "am I not right in thinking that it was a very lucky thing for you that you cut off the tip of your finger? Otherwise you would have lost your head. And to lose a scrap of one's finger was the least of the two evils."
"How true," said the king, touching his head as he spoke, as if to make certain that it was still there, "but yet why did you give thanks when I put you in prison?"
"I gave thanks," said the minister, "because it is good always to give thanks. And had I known that being in prison would prevent the god Gussara claiming me as a perfect offering instead of your majesty, then I should have given greater thanks still."