A poor wood-cutter lived with his wife and three daughters in a little hut on the edge of a lonely forest. One morning as he was about to go to his work, he said to his wife, "Let my dinner be brought into the forest to me by my eldest daughter, or I shall never get my work done, and in order that she may not miss her way," he added, "I will take a bag of millet with me and strew the seeds on the path."
When, therefore, the sun was just above the center of the forest, the girl set out on her way with a bowl of soup, but the field-sparrows, and wood-sparrows, larks and finches, blackbirds and siskins had picked up the millet long before, and the girl could not find the track. Then trusting to chance, she went on and on, till the sun sank and night began to fall. The trees rustled in the darkness, the owls hooted, and she began to be afraid. Then in the distance she perceived a light which glimmered between the trees.
"There ought to be some people living there, who can take me in for the night," thought she, and went up to the light. It was not long before she came to a house the windows of which were all lighted up. She knocked, and a rough voice from inside cried, "Come in."
The girl stepped into the dark entrance, and knocked at the door of the room.
"Just come in," cried the voice, and when she opened the door, an old gray-haired man was sitting at the table, supporting his face with both hands, and his white beard fell down over the table almost as far as the ground. By the stove lay three animals, a hen, a cock, and a brindled cow. The girl told her story to the old man, and begged for shelter for the night. The man said,
"Pretty little hen,
"Duks," answered the animals, and that must have meant, "We are willing," for the old man said, "Here you shall have shelter and food, go to the fire, and cook us our supper."
The girl found in the kitchen abundance of everything, and cooked a good supper, but had no thought of the animals. She carried the full dishes to the table, seated herself by the gray-haired man, ate and satisfied her hunger. When she had had enough, she said, "But now I am tired, where is there a bed in which I can lie down, and sleep?" The animals replied,
"You have eaten with him,
Then said the old man, "Just go upstairs, and you will find a room with two beds, shake them up, and put white linen on them, and then I, too, will come and lie down to sleep."
The girl went up, and when she had shaken the beds and put clean sheets on, she lay down in one of them without waiting any longer for the old man. After some time, however, the gray-haired man came, took his candle, looked at the girl and shook his head. When he saw that she had fallen into a sound sleep, he opened a trap-door, and let her down into the cellar.
Late at night the wood-cutter came home, and reproached his wife for leaving him to hunger all day.
"It is not my fault," she replied, "the girl went out with your dinner, and must have lost herself, but she is sure to come back tomorrow."
The wood-cutter, however, arose before dawn to go into the forest, and requested that the second daughter should take him his dinner that day.
"I will take a bag with lentils," said he; "the seeds are larger than millet, the girl will see them better, and can't lose her way."
At dinner-time, therefore, the girl took out the food, but the lentils had disappeared. The birds of the forest had picked them up as they had done the day before, and had left none. The girl wandered about in the forest till night, and then she too reached the house of the old man, was told to go in, and begged for food and a bed. The man with the white beard again asked the animals,
"Pretty little hen,
The animals again replied "Duks," and everything happened just as it had happened the day before. The girl cooked a good meal, ate and drank with the old man, and did not concern herself about the animals, and when she inquired about her bed they answered,
"You have eaten with him, You have drunk with him,
When she was asleep the old man came, looked at her, shook his head, and let her down into the cellar.
On the third morning the wood-cutter said to his wife, "Send our youngest child out with my dinner today, she has always been good and obedient, and will stay in the right path, and not run about after every wild humble-bee, as her sisters did."
The mother did not want to do it, and said, "Am I to lose my dearest child, as well?"
"Have no fear,' he replied, "the girl will not go astray; she is too prudent and sensible; besides I will take some peas with me, and strew them about. They are still larger than lentils, and will show her the way."
But when the girl went out with her basket on her arm, the wood-pigeons had already got all the peas in their crops, and she did not know which way she was to turn. She was full of sorrow and never ceased to think how hungry her father would be, and how her good mother would grieve, if she did not go home. At length when it grew dark, she saw the light and came to the house in the forest. She begged quite prettily to be allowed to spend the night there, and the man with the white beard once more asked his animals,
"Pretty little hen,
"Duks," said they. Then the girl went to the stove where the animals were lying, and petted the cock and hen, and stroked their smooth feathers with her hand, and caressed the brindled cow between her horns, and when, in obedience to the old man's orders, she had made ready some good soup, and the bowl was placed on the table, she said, "Am I to eat as much as I want, and the good animals to have nothing? Outside is food in plenty, I will look after them first."
So she went and brought some barley and stewed it for the cock and hen, and a whole armful of sweet-smelling hay for the cow.
"I hope you will like it, dear animals," said she, "and you shall have a refreshing draught in case you are thirsty."
Then she fetched in a bucketful of water, and the cock and hen jumped on to the edge of it and dipped their beaks in, and then held up their heads as the birds do when they drink, and the brindled cow also took a hearty draught. When the animals were fed, the girl seated herself at the table by the old man, and ate what he had left. It was not long before the cock and the hen began to thrust their heads beneath their wings, and the eyes of the cow likewise began to blink. Then said the girl, "Ought we not to go to bed?"
"Pretty little hen,
The animals answered "Duks,"
"You have eaten with us,
Then the maiden went upstairs, shook the feather-beds, and laid clean sheets on them, and when she had done it the old man came and lay down on one of the beds, and his white beard reached down to his feet. The girl lay down on the other, said her prayers, and fell asleep.
She slept quietly till midnight, and then there was such a noise in the house that she awoke. There was a sound of cracking and splitting in every corner, and the doors sprang open, and beat against the walls. The beams groaned as if they were being torn out of their joints, it seemed as if the staircase were falling down, and at length there was a crash as if the entire roof had fallen in. As, however, all grew quiet once more, and the girl was not hurt, she stayed quietly lying where she was, and fell asleep again. But when she woke up in the morning with the brilliancy of the sunshine, what did her eyes behold? She was lying in a vast hall, and everything around her shone with royal splendor; on the walls, golden flowers grew up on a ground of green silk, the bed was of ivory, and the canopy of red velvet, and on a chair close by, was a pair of shoes embroidered with pearls. The girl believed that she was in a dream, but three richly clad attendants came in, and asked what orders she would like to give? "If you will go," she replied, "I will get up at once and make ready some soup for the old man, and then I will feed the pretty little hen, and the cock, and the beautiful brindled cow."
She thought the old man was up already, and looked round at his bed; he, however, was not lying in it, but a stranger. And while she was looking at him, and becoming aware that he was young and handsome, he awoke, sat up in bed, and said, "I am a king's son, and was bewitched by a wicked witch, and made to live in this forest, as an old gray-haired man; no one was allowed to be with me but my three attendants in the form of a cock, a hen, and a brindled cow. The spell was not to be broken till a girl came to us whose heart was so good that she showed herself full of love, not only towards mankind, but towards animals - and that you have done, and by you at midnight we were set free, and the old hut in the forest was changed back again into my royal palace."
And when they had arisen, the king's son ordered the three attendants to set out and fetch the father and mother of the girl to the marriage feast.
"But where are my two sisters?" asked the maiden.
"I have locked them in the cellar, Tomorrow they shall be led into the forest, and shall live as servants to a charcoal-burner until they have grown kinder and do not leave poor animals to suffer hunger."
A sparrow had four young ones in a swallow's nest. When they were fledged, some naughty boys pulled out the nest, but fortunately all the birds got safely away in the high wind. Then the old bird was grieved that as his sons had all gone out into the world, he had not first warned them of every kind of danger, and given them good instruction how to deal with each. In the autumn a great many sparrows assembled together in a wheatfield, and there the old bird met his four children again, and full of joy took them home with him.
"Ah, my dear sons, what pain I have been in about you all through the summer, because you got away in the wind without my teaching; listen to my words, obey your father, and be well on your guard. Little birds have to encounter great dangers!" And then he asked the eldest where he had spent the summer, and how he had supported himself? "I stayed in the gardens, and looked for caterpillars and small worms, till the cherries got ripe."
"Ah, my son," said the father, "tit-bits are not bad, but there is great risk about them; on that account take great care of yourself henceforth, and particularly when people are going about the gardens who carry long green poles which are hollow inside and have a little hole at the top."
"Yes, father, but what if a little green leaf is stuck over the hole with wax?" said the son.
"Where have you seen that?"
"In a merchant's garden," said the youngster.
"Oh, my son, merchant folks are quick folks," said the father. "If you have been among the children of the world, you have learned worldly shiftiness enough, only see that you use it well, and do not be too confident."
After this he asked the next, "Where have you passed your time?"
"At court," said the son.
"Sparrows and silly little birds are of no use in that place – there one finds much gold, velvet, silk, armour, harnesses, sparrow-hawks, screech-owls and hen-harriers; keep to the horses' stable where they winnow oats, or thresh, and then fortune may give you your daily grain of corn in peace."
"Yes, father," said the son, "but when the stable-boys make traps and fix their gins and snares in the straw, many a one is caught fast."
Where have you seen that?" said the old bird.
"At court, among the stable-boys."
"Oh, my son, court boys are bad boys! If you have been to court and among the lords, and have left no feathers there, you have learnt a fair amount, and will know very well how to go about the world, but look around you and above you, for the wolves devour the wisest dogs."
The father examined the third also: "Where did you seek your safety?"
"I have broken up tubs and ropes on the cart-roads and highways, and sometimes met with a grain of corn or barley."
"That is indeed dainty fare," said the father, "but take care what you are about and look carefully around, especially when you see anyone stooping and about to pick up a stone, there is not much time to stay then."
"That is true," said the son, "but what if anyone should carry a bit of rock, or ore, ready beforehand in his breast or pocket?"
"Where have you seen that?"
"Among the mountaineers, dear father; when they go out, they generally take little bits of ore with them."
"Mountain folks are working folks, and clever folks. If you have been among mountain lads, you have seen and learnt something, but when you go there beware, for many a sparrow has been brought to a bad end by a mountain boy."
At last the father came to the youngest son: "You, my dear chirping nestling, were always the silliest and weakest. Stay with me, for the world has many rough, wicked birds which have crooked beaks and long claws and lie in wait for poor little birds and swallow them. Keep with those of your own kind, and pick up little spiders and caterpillars from the trees, or the house, and then you will live long in peace."
"My dear father, he who feeds himself without injury to other folks fares well."
"Where have you learnt this?"
The son answered, "When the great blast of wind tore me away from you I came to a university, and there during the summer I picked up the flies and spiders from the windows, and heard this taught."
"Yes, dear son, if you take refuge where there is higher learning and help to clear away spiders and buzzing flies and commend yourself to a solid education, it is good. And 'He who keeps his conscience pure, needs no accuser.'"