There was once a man who had three sons. Johnny, the youngest, was always looked on as the simpleton of the family.
One day the eldest son was going out into the wood to cut fuel. Before he started, his mother gave him a slice of rich plum-cake and a flask of wine so that he might not suffer from hunger or thirst. Just as he reached the wood, he met a queer old man, dressed in grey. The old man wished him "Good day," and begged for a piece of the young man's cake and a drink of wine.
But the youth answered: "If I were to give you cake and wine, I should not have enough left for myself. So be off with you, and leave me in peace."
Then he went his way.
He soon came to a likely-looking tree, and began to hew it down, but he made a false stroke: instead of striking the tree he buried his axe in his own arm, and had to hurry home as fast as he could to have the wound dressed.
Next day the second son set out to the wood, and his mother treated him just as she had done her eldest son – gave him a slice of cake and a flask of wine, in case he should feel hungry.
The little grey man met him at the edge of the wood and begged for a share of his food. But the young man answered: "The more I give to you, the less I have for myself. Be off with you."
He went on his way, leaving the little grey man standing in the road. But it was not long before he, too wounded himself. The first stroke he aimed at a tree glanced off and wounded his leg, so that he had to be carried home.
Then said Johny: "Father, let me go to the wood for once. I will bring you home plenty of fuel."
"No," answered the father. "Both your brothers have got into trouble, and it is not likely that I am going to trust you."
But Johnny would not give up the idea and worried his father till at last he said: "Very well, son, have your own way. You shall learn by experience that I know better than you."
There was no rich cake for Johnny. His mother just gave him a little loaf of dough and a bottle of sour beer.
No sooner did he reach the wood than the little grey man appeared. "Give me a piece of your cake and a drink of your wine, please," he said.
The young man told him he had only a dough loaf and a bottle of sour beer. "Still," said he, "you are welcome to a share of the food, such as it is."
So the two sat down together. But when Johnny took his humble, packed lunch from his pocket, it changed into delicious cake and wine. Then the young man and his guest made a hearty meal. When it was ended the little grey man said: "Because you have a kind heart, and have willingly shared your food with me, I am going to reward you. Over there stands an old tree: hew it down, and deep in the heart of the roots you will find something."
The old man then nodded kindly and disappeared in a moment. Johnny at once did as he had been told. As soon as the tree fell he saw, a goose in the middle of the roots. It had feathers of gold. Johny lifted it carefully out and carried it with him to the inn where he meant to spend the night.
The landlord had three daughters, and no sooner did they see the goose than they wanted to know what curious kind of bird it might be, for they had never before seen a fowl of any kind with feathers of gold. The eldest made up her mind to wait for a good opportunity and then pluck a feather for herself. As soon as Johnny went out of the room she put out her hand and seized the wing of the goose, but found that she could not unclasp her fingers again, nor even move her hand from the golden goose.
Very soon the second sister came creeping into the room, meaning also to steal a feather, she too. But no sooner did she touch her sister than she, too, was unable to draw her hand away.
Lastly came the third, anxious to secure a feather before the goose's owner returned. "Go away! go away!" screamed her two sisters, but she could not understand why she should not help herself as well as the others. So she came toward them and stretched out her hand to the goose. In doing so she touched her second sister, and then she too, was held fast. They pulled and tugged with might and main, but it was all of no use; they could not get away, and there they had to remain the whole night.
The next morning Johnny tucked the goose under his arm, and went on his way, never troubling himself about the three girls hanging on behind. He led them over hedges and ditches, highways and byways. Wherever he led they were bound to follow.
Halfway across a sunny meadow they met the parson. He was terribly shocked to see the three girls running after a young man. "For shame!" he cried angrily, and seized the youngest by the hand to drag her away. But as soon as he touched her the parson was made fast too, and had to run behind the girls, whether he would or no.
After half a dozen paces more they met the sexton. He stared astonished at master running at the heels of the three girls. "Hi! Stop, your reverence," he cried. "You will be late for the christening." He seized the parson's sleeve as he ran past him, and thus the sexton had to join the group too.
So now there were five of them. Just as they turned a corner the parson saw two peasants. He called to them to set him and his sexton free. The peasants threw down their spades at once and tried to do so, but they too stuck fast. Thus, Johnny had a string of seven folk hanging on to the wing of his golden goose.
On and on they ran, till at length they came into the country of a powerful king. This king had an only daughter who all her life had been so sad that no one had ever been able to make her laugh. Therefore the king had made a decree that the man who could bring a smile to his daughter's face should have her for his bride.
When Johnny heard what the king had promised, he at once made his way to the princess. When she saw the goose with the seven companions hanging on behind, she burst into such a hearty fit of laughter that it was thought she would never be able to stop again.
Johnny claimed her as his bride, but the king did not fancy him for a son-in-law, so he made all sorts of excuses. "You shall have her," said he, "if you can first bring me a man who can drink up a whole cellarful of wine."
Johnny at once remembered the little grey man. Feeling sure that the little one would help him, he set out for the wood where he had first met him. When he reached the stump of the old tree which he had himself hewn down, he noticed a man sitting beside it. He had a face as gloomy as a rainy day. Johnny asked politely what ailed him, and the man answered: "I suffer from a thirst I cannot quench. Cold water disagrees with me, and though I have emptied a barrel of wine, it was no more to me than a single drop of water on a hot stone."
"You are the man for me!" said Johnny, and at once took him to the king's cellar. There the thirsty man seated himself before the huge barrels and drank and drank till not a drop of wine was left at the end of the day. Then Johnny claimed his bride, but the king made fresh excuses: he said that he would not give her up till the young man had found someone who could eat up a mountain of bread in a single day.
The young man had no choice but to set out once more for the wood. And again he found a man sitting beside the stump of the tree Johny had cut down. The man looked very sad and hungry, and sat tightening the belt round his waist. "I have eaten a whole ovenful of bread," he said sadly, "but when one is as hungry as I am, such a meal only serves to make one more hungry still. I am so empty that if I did not tighten my belt I should die of hunger."
"You are the man for me!" said Johnny. "Follow me, and I will give you a good meal." He led the man into the courtyard of the king's palace. There all the meal in the kingdom had been collected together and mixed into an enormous mountain of bread. The man from the wood placed himself in front of it and began to eat. Before the day was over the mountain of bread had vanished.
A third time Johnny demanded his bride, but again the king found an excuse. "First bring me a ship that can sail both on land and sea, and then you shall wed the princess," he said.
Johnny went straightway to the wood. There he met the little grey man he had once shared his food with. "Good day," he said, nodding his wise little head. "So you've come to visit me again? It was I, you know, who drank the wine and ate the bread for you. Now I will finish by giving you the wonderful ship which is to sail on either land or sea. All this I do for you because you were kind and good to me."
Then he gave Johny the ship. When the king saw it, he could find no further excuse. So he gave the young man his daughter, and the pair were married that very day. When the old king died, Johnny became king in his stead, and he and his wife lived happily ever after.
(Retold from Mabie et al. 1927, 51-56)