Once on a time there was a man who went into the wood to cut hop-poles, but he could find no trees so long and straight and slender as he wanted till he came high up under a great heap of stones. There he heard groans and moans as though someone were at death's door. So he went up to see who it was that needed help, and then he heard that the noise came from under a great flat stone which lay on the heap. It was so heavy it would have taken many a man to lift it. But the man went down again into the wood and cut down a tree, which he turned into a lever, and with that he tilted up the stone, and lo! Out from under it crawled a dragon, and made at the man to swallow him up. But the man said he had saved the dragon's life, and it was shameful thanklessness in him to want to eat him up.
"Maybe," said the dragon, "but you might very well know I must be starved when I have been here hundreds of years and never tasted meat. Besides, it's the way of the world. That is how it pays its debts."
The man pleaded his cause stoutly, and begged prettily for his life; and at last they agreed to take the first living being they met should decide between them, and if his doom went the other way the man should not lose his life, but if he said the same as the dragon, the dragon should eat the man.
The first one that came was an old hound who ran along the road down below under the hillside. Him they spoke to, and begged him to be judge.
"God knows," said the hound, "I have served my master truly ever since I was a little whelp. I have watched and watched many and many a night through while he lay warm asleep on his ear, and I have saved house and home from fire and thieves more than once; but now I can neither see nor hear any more, and he wants to shoot me. And so I must run away and slink from house to house and beg for my living till I die of hunger. No, it's the way of the world," said the hound; "that is the reward one gets in this world."
"Now I am going to eat you up," said the dragon, and tried to swallow the man again. But the man begged and prayed hard for his life, till they agreed to take the next comer for a judge; and if he said the same as the dragon and the hound, the dragon was to eat him and get a meal of man's meat. But if he did not say so, the man was to get off with his life.
So there came an old horse limping down along the road which ran under the hill. Him they called out to come and settle the dispute. Yes; he was quite ready to do that.
"Now, I have served my master," said the horse, "as long as I could draw or carry. I have slaved and striven for him till the sweat trickled from every hair, and I have worked till I have grown lame and halt and worn out with toil and age; now I am fit for nothing. I am not worth my food, and so I am to have a bullet through me, he says. Nay, nay! It's the way of the world. That is the reward one gets in this world."
"Well, now I'm coming to eat you," said the dragon. He gaped wide and wanted to swallow the man. But the man begged again hard for his life.
But the dragon said he must have a mouthful of man's meat; he was so hungry, he couldn't bear it any longer.
"See, over there comes one who looks as if he was sent to be a judge between us," said the man, as he pointed to Reynard the fox, who came stealing between the stones of the heap.
"All good things are three," said the man; "let me ask him, too, and if he gives doom like the others, eat me up on the spot."
"Very well," said the dragon. He, too, had heard that all good things were three, and so it should be a bargain. So the man talked to the fox as he had talked to the others.
"Yes, yes," said Reynard, "I see how it all is; "but as he said this he took the man a little aside.
"What will you give me if I free you from the dragon?" he whispered into the man's ear.
"You shall be free to come to my house and to be lord and master over my hens and geese every Thursday night," said the man.
"Well, my dear dragon," said Reynard, "this is a very hard nut to crack. I can't get it into my head how you, who are so big and mighty a beast, could find room to lie under that stone over there."
"Can't you?" said the dragon. "Well, I lay under the hill-side and sunned myself, and down came a landslip, and hurled the stone over me."
"All very likely, I dare say," said Reynard; "but still I can't understand it, and what's more I won't believe it till I see it."
So the man said they had better prove it, and the dragon crawled down into his hole again; but in the twinkling of an eye they whipped out the lever, and down the stone crashed again on the dragon.
"Lie now there till doomsday," said the fox. "You would eat the man, would you, who saved your life?"
The dragon groaned and moaned and begged hard to come out; but the two went their way and left him alone.
The very first Thursday night Reynard came to be lord and master over the hen-roost, and hid himself behind a great pile of wood hard by. When the maid went to feed the fowls, in stole Reynard. She neither saw nor heard anything of him; but her back was scarce turned before he had sucked blood enough for a week, and stuffed himself so that he couldn't stir. So when she came again in the morning, there Reynard lay and snored, and slept in the morning sun, with all four legs stretched straight; and he was as sleek and round as a German sausage.
Away ran the lassie for the goody, and she came, and all the lasses with her, with sticks and brooms to beat Reynard. To tell the truth, they nearly banged the life out of him; but just as it was almost all over with him and he thought his last hour was come, he found a hole in the floor, and so he crept out and limped and hobbled off to the wood.
"Oh, oh," said Reynard; "how true it is. It is the way of the world; and this is how it pays its debts."
ONCE on a time there was a poor householder who had an only son, but he was so lazy and unhandy, this son, that he would neither mix with folk nor turn his hand to anything in the world. So the father said,
"If I'm not to go on forever feeding this long lazy fellow, I must pack him off a long way, where no one knows him. If he runs away then it won't be so easy for him to come home."
Yes! The man took his son with him, and went about far and wide offering him as a serving-man; but there was no one who would have him.
So last of all they came to a rich man, of whom it was told that he turned a penny over seven times before he let it go. He was to take the lad as a ploughboy, and there he was to serve three years without wages. But when the three years were over the man was to go to the town two mornings, and buy the first thing he met that was for sale, but the third morning the lad was to go to town himself, and buy the first thing he met, and these three things he was to have instead of wages.
Well, the lad served his three years out, and behaved better than anyone would have believed. He was not the best ploughboy in the world, sure enough; but then his master was not of the best sort either, for he let him go the whole time with the same clothes he had when he came, so that at last they were nothing else but patch on patch and mend on mend. Now, when the man was to get off and buy, he was up and away at cockcrow, long before dawn.
"Dear wares must be seen by daylight," he said; "they are not to be found on the road to town so early. Still, they may be dear enough, for after all it's all risk and chance what I find."
Well, the first person he found in the street was an old hag, and she carried a basket with a cover.
"Good day, granny," said the man.
"Good day to you, father," said the old hag.
"What have you got in your basket?" asked the man.
"Do you mean business?" said the old hag.
"Yes, I do, for I was to buy the first thing I met."
"Well, if you want to know you had better buy it," said the old hag.
"But what does it cost?" asked the man.
She must have four pence.
The man thought that no such very high price after all. He couldn't do better, and lifted the lid, and it was a puppy that lay in the basket.
When the man came home from his trip to town, the lad stood out in the yard, and wondered what he should get for his wages for the first year.
"So soon home, master?" said the lad.
Yes, he was.
"What was it you bought?" he asked.
"What I bought," said the man, "was not worth much. I scarcely know if I ought to show it; but I bought the first thing that was to be had, and it was a puppy."
"Now, thank you so much," said the lad. "I have always been so fond of dogs."
Next morning things went no better, up at dawn again, and he had not got well into the town before he saw the old hag with her basket.
"Good day, granny," he said.
"Good day to you, sir," she said.
"What have you got in your basket today?" asked the man.
"If you wish to know you had better buy it," said the old hag.
"What does it cost?" asked the man.
She must have four pence; she never had more than one price, she said.
So the man said he would take it; it would be hard to find anything cheaper. When he lifted the lid this time there lay a kitten in it.
When he got home the lad stood out in the yard, waiting and wondering what he should get for his wages the second year.
"Is that you, master?" he said.
Yes, there he was.
"What did you buy today now?" asked the lad.
"Oh, it was worse, and no better," said the man; "but it was just as we bargained. I bought the first thing I met, and it was nothing else than this kitten."
"You could not have met anything better," said the lad; "I have been as fond of cats all my life as of dogs."
"Well," thought the man, "I did not get so badly out of that after all; but there's another day to come, when he is to go to town himself."
The third morning the lad set off, and just as he got into the town he met the same old hag with her basket on her arm.
"Good morning, granny!" said the lad.
"Good morning to you, my son," said the old hag.
"What have you got in your basket?"
"If you want to know you had better buy it," said the old hag.
"Will you sell it, then?" asked the lad.
Yes, she would; and four pence was her price.
"That was cheap enough," said the lad, and he would have it, for he was to buy the first thing he met.
"Now you may take it, basket and all," said the old hag; "but mind you don't look inside it before you get home. Do you hear what I say?"
"Nay, nay, never fear, he wouldn't look inside it; was it likely?" But for all that he walked and wondered what there could be inside the basket, and whether he would or no he could not help just lifting the lid and peeping in. In the twinkling of an eye out popped a little lizard, and ran away so fast along the street that the air whistled after it. There was nothing else in the basket.
"Nay, nay!" cried the lad, "stop a bit, and don't run off so. You know I have bought you."
"Stick me in the tail, stick me in the tail!" bawled the lizard.
Well, the lad was not slow in running after it and sticking his knife into its tail just as it was crawling into a hole in the wall, and that very minute it was turned into a young man as fine and handsome as the grandest prince, and a prince he was indeed.
"Now you have saved me," said the prince, "for that old hag with whom you and your master have dealt is a witch, and me she has changed into a lizard, and my brother and sister into a puppy and kitten."
"A pretty story!" said the lad.
"Yes," said the prince; "and now she was on her way to cast us into the fjord and kill us; but if anyone came and wanted to buy us she must sell us for four pence each; that was settled, and that was all my father could do. Now you must come home to him and get the reward for what you have done."
"I dare say," said the lad, "it's a long way off?"
"Oh," said the prince, "not so far at all. There it is over there," he said, as he pointed to a great hill in the distance.
So they set off as fast as they could, but it was farther off than it looked, and so they did not reach the hill till far on in the night.
Then the prince began to knock and knock.
"WHO IS THAT," said someone inside the hill, that knocks at my door and spoils my rest?" and that someone was so loud of speech that the earth quaked.
"Oh, open the door, father, there's a dear," said the prince. "It is your son who has come home again."
Yes, he opened the door fast and well.
"I almost thought you lay at the bottom of the sea," said the greybeard. "But you are not alone, I see," he said.
"This is the lad who saved me," said the prince. "I have asked him here that you may give him his reward."
Yes, he would see to that, said the old fellow.
"But now you must step in," he said; "I am sure you have need of rest."
Yes, they went in and sat down, and the old man threw on the fire an armful of dry fuel and one or two logs, so that the fire blazed up and shone as clear as the day in every corner, and whichever way they looked it was grander than grand. Anything like it the lad had never seen before, and such meat and drink as the greybeard set before them he had never tasted either; and all the plates, and cups, and stoops, and tankards were all of pure silver or real gold.
It was not easy to stop the lads. They ate and drank and were merry, and afterwards they slept till far on next morning. But the lad was scarcely awake before the greybeard came with a morning draught in a tumbler of gold.
So when he had huddled on his clothes and broken his fast, the old man took him round with him and showed him everything, so that he might choose something that he would like to have as his reward for saving his son. There was much to see and to choose from, you may fancy.
"Now what will you have?" said the king; "you see there is plenty of choice; you can have what you please."
But the lad said he would think it over and ask the prince. Yes, the king was willing he should do that.
"Well," said the prince, "you have seen many grand things."
"Yes, I have, as was likely," said the lad; "but tell me, what shall I choose of all the wealth? Do tell me, for your father says I may choose what I please."
"Do not take anything of all you have seen," said the prince; "but he has a little ring on his finger. Ask for that."
He did so, and begged for the little ring which he had on his finger.
"Why, it is the dearest thing I have," said the king; "but, after all, my son is just as dear, and so you shall have it all the same. Do you know what it is good for?"
No, he knew nothing about it.
"When you have this ring on your finger," said the king, "you can have anything you wish for."
So the lad thanked the king, and the king and the prince bade him God speed home, and told him to be sure and take care of the ring.
So he had not gone far on his way before he thought he would prove what the ring was worth, and so he wished himself a new suit of clothes, and he had scarce wished for them before he had them on him. And now he was as grand and bright as a new-struck penny. So he thought it would be fine fun to play his father a trick.
"He was not so very nice all the time I was at home; "and so he wished he was standing before his father's door, just as ragged as he was of old, and in a second he stood at the door.
"Good day, father, and thank you for our last meal," said the lad.
But when the father saw that he had come back still more ragged and tattered than when he set out, he began to bellow and to bemoan himself.
"There's no helping you," he said. "You have not so much as earned clothes to your back all the time you have been away."
"Don't be in such a way, father," said the lad, "you ought never to judge a man by his clothes; and now you shall be my spokesman, and go up to the castle and woo the king's daughter for me." That was what the lad said.
"Oh, fie, fie," said the father, "this is only gibing and jeering."
But the lad said it was the right down earnest, and so he took a birch cudgel and drove his father up to the gate of the castle, and there he came hobbling right up to the king with his eyes full of tears.
"Now, now!" said the king, what's the matter, my man? If you have suffered wrong, I will see you righted."
No, it wasn't that, he said, but he had a son who had brought him great sorrow, for he could never make a man of him, and now he must say he had gone clean out of the little wit he had before; and then he went on,
"For now he has hunted me up to the castle gate with a big birch cudgel, and forced me to ask for the king's daughter to wife."
"Hold your tongue, my man," said the king; "and as for this son of yours, go and ask him to come here indoors to me, and then we will see what to make of him."
So the lad ran in before the king till his rags fluttered behind him.
"Am I to have your daughter?"
"That was just what we were to talk about," said the king; "perhaps she may not suit you, and perhaps you may not suit her either."
"That was very likely!" said the lad.
Now you must know there had just come a big ship from over the sea, and she could be seen from the castle windows.
"All the same!" said the king. "If you are good to make a ship in an hour or two like that lying over there in the fjord and looking so brave, you may perhaps have her." That was what the king said.
"Nothing worse than that!" said the lad.
So he went down to the strand and sat down on a sand hill, and when he had sat there long enough, he wished that a ship might be out on the fjord fully furnished with masts and sails and rigging, the very match of that which lay there already. And as he wished for it there it lay, and when the king saw there were two ships for one, he came down to the strand to see the rights of it, and there he saw the lad standing out in a boat with a brush in his hand as though he were painting out spots and making blisters in the paint good. But as soon as he saw the king down on the shore he threw away the brush and said,
"Now the ship is ready, may I have your daughter?"
"This is all very well," said the king, "but you try your hand at another masterpiece first. If you can build a castle, a match to my castle, in one or two hours, we will see about it." That was what the king said.
"Nothing worse than that!" bawled out the lad and strode off. So when he had sauntered about so long that the time was nearly up, he wished that a castle might stand there, the very match of that which stood there already. It was not long before it stood there, and it was not long either before the king came, both with queen and princess, to look about him in the new castle. There stood the lad again with his broom and swept.
"Here's the castle right and ready," he called out; "may I have her now?"
"Very well, very well," said the king, "you may come in and we will talk it over," for he saw clearly the lad could do more than eat his meat, and so he walked up and down, and thought and thought how he might be rid of him. There they walked, the king first and foremost, and after him the queen, and then the princess next before the lad. So as they walked along, all at once the lad wished that he might become the handsomest man in the entire world, and so he was in a trice. When the princess saw how handsome he had grown in no time, she gave the queen a nudge, and the queen passed it on to the king, and when they had all stared their full, they saw still more plainly the lad was more than he seemed to be when he first came in all tattered and torn. So they settled it among them that the princess should go daintily to work till she had found out all about him. And the princess made herself as sweet and as soft as a whole firkin of butter, and coaxed and hoaxed the lad, telling him she could not bear him out of her eyes day or night. So when the first evening was coming to an end, she said,
"As we are to have one another, you and I, you must keep nothing back from me, dearest, and so you will tell me, I am sure, how you came to make all these grand things."
"Aye, aye," then said the lad, "all that you'll come to know in good time. Only let us be man and wife; there's no good talking about it till then." That was what he said.
The next evening the princess was rather put out. "She could see with half an eye," she said, "that he couldn't care very much for his sweetheart when he wouldn't tell her what she asked him. So it would be with all the rest of his love-making, when he wouldn't meet her wishes in such a little thing."
Now the lad was quite cut to the heart, and that they might be friends again he told her the whole story from beginning to end. She was not slow in telling it to the king and queen, and so they put their heads together how they might get the ring from the lad, and when they had done that they thought it would be no such hard thing to be rid of him.
At night the princess came with some sleeping drops, and said now she would pour out a little love potion for her own true love, for she was sure he did not care enough for her; that was what she said. He thought no harm could come of it, and so he drained off all the drink, and in a trice he fell so soundly asleep that they might have pulled the house down over his head without waking him. The princess took the ring off his finger and put it on her own, and wished the lad might lie on the dung heap outside in the street, just as tattered and beggarly as he was when he came in, and in his place she wished for the handsomest prince in the world. In the twinkling of an eye it all happened. As the night wore on the lad woke up on the dunghill, and at first he thought it was only a dream, but when he found the ring was gone he knew how it had all happened, and then he got so bewildered that he set off and was just going to jump into the lake and drown himself.
But just then he met the cat which his master had bought for him.
"Where away?" asked the cat.
"To the lake to drown myself," said the lad.
"Don't think of it," said the cat; "you shall get your ring back again, never fear."
"Oh, shall I, shall I?" said the lad.
By this time the cat was already off, and as she started she met a rat.
"Now I'll take and gobble you up," said the cat.
"Oh, pray don't," said the rat, "and I'll get you the ring again."
"If so, be quick about it," said the cat, "or -"
So after they had taken up their abode in the castle, the rat ran about poking his nose into everything, trying to get into the prince and princess's bedroom. At last he found a little hole and crept through it. Then he heard how they lay awake talking, and the rat could tell that the prince had the ring on his finger, for the princess said, "Mind you take great care of my ring, dear." That was what she said; but what the prince said was,
"Pooh! No one will come in here after the ring through stone and mortar; but, for all that, if you think it isn't safe on my finger, I can just as well put it into my mouth."
In a little while the prince turned over on his back, and tried to go to sleep, and as he did so the ring was just slipping down into his throat, and then he coughed it up, so that it shot out of his mouth and rolled away over the floor. Pop! Up the rat snapped it and crept off with it to the cat who sat outside watching at the rat-hole.
All this while the king had laid hands on the lad and put him into a strong tower and doomed him to lose his life for having made jeers and gibes at him and his daughter, and there he was to stay till the day of his death. Now, as the cat was hard at work prowling about trying to steal into the tower with the ring to the lad, a great eagle came flying and pounced down on her and caught her up in his claws and flew away with her over the sea. But just in the nick of time came a falcon and struck at the eagle, so that he let the cat fall into the sea. But when the cat felt the cold water, she got so frightened she dropped the ring and swam to shore. She had not shaken the water off her, and smoothed her coat, before she met the dog which his master had bought for the lad.
"Nay, nay!" said the cat, and purred and was in a sad way, "what's to be done now? The ring is gone and they will take the lad's life."
"I'm sure I don't know," said the dog; "all I know is that something is riving and rending my inside. It couldn't be worse if I were going to turn inside out."
"Now you see what comes of over-eating yourself," said the cat.
"I never eat more than I can carry," said the dog; "and this time I have eaten nothing but a dead fish which lay floating up and down on the ebb."
"May be that fish had swallowed the ring," said the cat. "And now I dare say you are going to pay for it too, for you know you can't digest gold."
"It may well be," said the dog. "It's much the same whether one loses life first or last. Perhaps the lad's life might then be saved."
"Oh!" said the rat, for he was there too, "don't say that. I don't want much of a hole to creep into, and if the ring is there, may I never tell the truth if I don't poke it out."
So the rat crept down the dog's throat, and it was not long before he came out again with the ring. Then the cat set off to the tower and clambered up about it till she found a hole into which she could put her paw, and so she gave back his ring to the lad.
The lad no sooner got it on his finger than he wished the tower might rend asunder, and at the same moment he stood in the doorway and scolded both the king and queen and the princess as a pack of rogues. The king was not slow in calling out his warriors, and bade them throw a ring round the tower and seize the lad and settle him, whether they took him dead or alive. But the lad only wished that all the soldiers might stand up to the armpits in the big moss up in the mountain, and then they had more than enough to get out again, all that were not left sticking there. After that he began again where he left off with the king and his folk, and when he had got his mouth to say all the bad of them that he knew and willed, he wished they might be shut up all their days in the tower into which they had thrown him. And when they were safe shut up there, he took the land and realm as his own. Then the dog became a prince and the cat a princess again; her he took and married, and the last I heard of them was, that they kept it up at the bridal both well and long.