Once upon a time there was a poor widow who had only one son, and he was so dear to her that no one could have been dearer. All the same she was obliged to send him out into the world to seek his fortune, for they were so very poor that as long as he stayed at home they were like to starve.
The lad kissed her good-by, and she gave him her blessing, and then off he set, always putting one foot before the other.
He journeyed on a short way and a long way, and then he came to a dark and gloomy wood. He had not gone far into it when he met a tall man as dark and gloomy as the wood itself. The man stopped the lad and said to him, “Are you seeking work or shunning work?”
“I am seeking work,” answered the widow’s son.
“Then come with me, and I will give you enough to do but not too much,” said the man, “and the wages will be according.”
That suited the lad. He was quite willing to work for the tall stranger. They set out and traveled along, and after a while they came to a great dark house set all alone in the midst of the wood. The man showed him in and told him what to do. The lad set to work, and everything the man told him to do he did so well and willingly that his master was much pleased with him. After he had done all the tasks set, his master gave him a good bite of supper and a comfortable bed to sleep in.
The next day it was the same thing over. The master told the lad what to do, and the lad did it willingly and well. So it went on for three days. At the end of that time the man said, “Now I am obliged to go away on a journey. Until I return you may do as you please and be your own master. But there is one part of the house you have never seen, and those are the four cellars down below. Into these you must not go under any consideration. If you so much as open one of the doors, you will suffer for it.”
“Why should I want to go into the cellars?” asked the lad. “The house and the yard are good enough for me.”
“That is well,” answered the master, and then he mounted a great black steed and rode away.
The lad stayed at home and cleaned and polished and ate and drank. “I wonder what can be in those cellars that my master does not want me to see!” thought the lad. “Not that I mean to look, but it does no harm to wonder about it.”
Every hour the lad stayed there in the house alone he grew more curious about the cellars. At last he could bear it no longer. “I’ll just take a wee peep into one of them,” he said. “That can surely do no harm to any one.”
So he opened the cellar door and went down a flight of stone steps into the first cellar. He looked all about him, and there was nothing at all there but a switch made of brier lying on a shelf behind the door. “That is not much for the Master to have made such a fuss about,” said the lad. “I could see as much as that any day without coming into a cellar for it;” and he went upstairs again and shut the door behind him.
The next day the master came home, and the first thing he asked was, “Have you looked into any of the cellars?”
“Why should I do that?” asked the lad. “I have plenty to do upstairs without poking my nose in where it is not wanted.”
“I will just see for myself whether or not you have looked,” said the master.
He opened one of the doors and went down into the first cellar. When he came back his face was as black as thunder.
“You have disobeyed me and have gone into one of the cellars,” said he. “Now you shall suffer for it!” He took up a cudgel and beat the lad until he was black and blue. “It’s lucky for you you went only into the first cellar,” said he. “Otherwise you would not have come off so lightly.”
Then he sat down to supper.
As for the lad he sat and nursed his bruises and wished he had never heard tell of such a thing as a cellar.
Not long after the master said he was going on another journey. “I will be gone two weeks,” said he, “and whatever you do, do not dare to look into any of the other cellars, or you will suffer for it.”
“I have learned my lesson,” said the lad. “You’ll not find me doing such a thing again.”
After that the master mounted his horse and rode away.
After he had gone the lad cleaned and polished and ate and drank, and then he began to wonder what was in the second cellar. “There must be something more than a stick to see,” said he, “or my master would not be so particular about it.” In the end he determined to look at what was in the second cellar, whatever it cost him. He opened the door and went down the stone steps that led to it and looked about, but all he saw was a shelf behind the door, and on it a stone and a water bottle.
“They are not much to see, and I wish I had not come,” said the lad to himself. “I hope my master will not know about it;” and then he went upstairs and shut the door behind him.
Not long afterward his master came home. The first thing he asked was, “Have you been down in any of the cellars again?”
“How can you think such a thing!” cried the lad. “I have no wish for another beating.”
“All the same, I will see for myself,” said the master, and he went down into the second cellar. Then the lad was frightened, you may well believe.
When the Master came back his face was as red as fire. “You have disobeyed me again,” cried he. Then he seized a cudgel and beat the lad till he could hardly stand.
“This should teach you to obey,” said he, “but I fear as long as you live you will not learn.”
Not long after the Master was going away on a third journey, and this time he was to be away for three weeks. “And if you look in the third cellar,” said he, “your life shall pay the forfeit.” After that he rode away into the forest and out of sight.
Well, for two weeks the lad would not look into the third cellar, but at last his curiosity got the better of him. He opened the third door and went down into the third cellar. There in the middle of it was a brazen caldron set deep in the floor and full of something that seethed and bubbled. “I wonder what that is in the caldron,” said the lad to himself, and he stuck his finger in. When he drew it out it was covered all over with gold. The lad scrubbed and scrubbed, but he could not get the gold off. Then he was terribly frightened. He took a rag and wound it about his finger and hoped his master would not notice it. He shut the door into the cellar and tried to forget about it.
The first thing the Master asked when he came home was, “Have you been down in the third cellar?”
“How can you think it?” asked the lad. “Two drubbings are enough for any one.”
“What is the matter with your finger?” asked the Master.
“Oh, I cut it with the bread-knife.”
The Master snatched the rag off, and there the lad’s finger shone as though it were all of solid gold.
“You have been down in the third cellar,” cried the Master, “and now you must die,”—and his face was as pale as death. He took down a sword from the wall, but the lad fell on his knees and begged and pleaded so piteously for his life that at last the man had to spare him. All the same he gave him such a beating that the lad could not rise from the floor. There he lay and groaned. Then the Master took a flask of ointment from the wall and bathed him all over, and after that the lad was just as well as ever.
Now the Master stayed at home for a long while, but at last he had to go away on still another journey, and now he was to be gone a whole month. “And if you dare to look in the fourth cellar while I am away, then you shall surely die,” said he. “Do not hope that I will spare you again, for I will not.”
After he had gone the lad resisted his curiosity for three whole weeks. He was dying to look in the fourth cellar and see what was there, but he dared not, for dear life’s sake. But at the end of the third week he was so curious that he could resist no longer. He opened the fourth door and went down the steps into the cellar, and there was a magnificent coal-black horse chained to a manger, and the manger was filled with red-hot coals. At the horse’s tail was a basket of hay.
“That is a cruel thing to do to an animal,” cried the lad, and he loosed the horse from the manger and turned him so he could eat.
Then the black steed spoke to him in a human tone. “You have done a Christian act,” said the horse, “and you shall not suffer for it. If the Troll Master finds you here when he returns he will surely take your life, and that must not be. Look over in yonder corner, and you will find a suit of armor and a sword. Put on the armor and take up the sword in your hand.”
The lad went over to the corner, and there lay the armor and the sword, but when he would have taken them up they were too heavy for him. He could scarce stir them. “Well, there is no help for it,” said the horse. “You will have to bathe in the caldron that is in the third cellar. Only so can you take up the armor and wear it.”
This the lad did not want to do, for he was afraid. “If you do not,” said the horse, “we will both of us lose our lives.”
Then the lad went back to the third cellar and shut his eyes and stepped down into the caldron, and though the waters in it bubbled and seethed they were as cold as ice and as bitter as death. He thought he would have died of cold, but presently he grew quite warm again. He stepped out from the caldron, and he had become the handsomest lad in the world; his skin was red and white, and his eyes shone like stars. He went back to where the horse was, and now he lifted the armor with ease, he had become so strong. He put it on and buckled the sword about him.
“Now we must be off,” cried the horse. “Take the briar whip and the stone and the jug of water and the flask of ointment. Then mount my back and ride. If the Troll Master finds us here when he returns, it will be short shrift for both of us.”
The lad did as the horse bade him; he took the briar whip and the stone, the jug of water and the flask of ointment, and mounted the black steed’s back; and the steed carried him up the steps and out of the house and fast, fast away through the forest and over the plains beyond.
After a while the black horse said, “I hear a noise behind us. Look and see whether any one is coming.”
The lad turned and looked. “Yes, yes; it is the Master,” said he, “and with him is a whole crowd of people.”
“They are his friends he has brought out against us,” said the steed. “If they catch us it will go ill with us. Throw the thorn whip behind us, but be sure you throw it clear and do not let it touch even the tip of my tail.”
The lad threw the whip behind him, and at once a great forest of thorns grew up where it fell. No one could have forced a way through it. The Master and his friends were obliged to go home and get hatchets and axes and cut a path through.
Meanwhile the black horse had gone a long way. Then he said, “Look behind you, for I hear a noise; is any one coming?”
The youth looked over his shoulder. “Yes, it is the Master,” said he, “and with him are a multitude of people—like a church congregation.”
“Still more of his friends have come to help him catch us,” said the horse. “Throw the stone behind us, but be very sure it does not touch me.”
The lad threw the stone behind him, and at once a great stone mountain rose up where it fell. The Master and his friends could by no means cross over it. They were obliged to go home and get something to bore a way through, and this they did.
But by this time the horse had gone a long, long way. Then he said to the lad, “Look back and see whether you see any one, for I hear a noise behind us.”
The lad looked back. “I see the Master coming,” said he, “and a great multitude with him, so that they are like an army for numbers.”
“Yes, yes,” said the horse. “He has all of his friends with him now. Woe betide us if they catch us. Pour the water from the jug behind us, but be careful that none of it touches me.”
The lad stretched back his arm and poured the water out from the jug, but his haste was such that three drops fell upon the horse’s flanks. Immediately a great lake rose about them, and because of the three drops that had fallen on the horse, the lake was not only behind them but about them, too; the steed had to swim for it.
The Trolls came to the edge of the lake, and as there was no way to cross over they threw themselves down on their stomachs and began to drink it up. They drank and they drank and they drank, until at last they all burst.
But the steed came out from the water and up on dry land. Then he went on until he came to a wood, and here he stopped. “Light down now,” said he to the lad, “and take off your armor and my saddle and bridle and hide them in yon hollow oak tree. Over there, a little beyond, is a castle, and you must go and take service there. But first make yourself a wig of hanging gray mosses and put it on.”
The lad did as the horse told him. He took off the saddle and bridle and the armor and hid them in the tree, and made for himself a moss wig; when he put it upon his head all the beauty went out of his face, and he looked so pale and miserable that no one would have wanted him around.
“If you ever need me,” said the horse, “come here to the wood and take out the bridle and shake it, and at once I will be with you.” Then he galloped away into the wood.
The lad in his moss wig went on until he came to the castle. He went to the kitchen door and knocked, and asked if he might take service there.
The kitchen wench looked at him and made a face as though she had a sour taste in her mouth. “Take off that wig and let me see how you look,” said she. “With that on your head you are so ugly that no one would want you around.”
“I cannot take off my wig,” said the lad, “for that I have been told not to do.”
“Then you may seek service elsewhere, for I cannot bear the look of you,” said the kitchen wench, and she shut the door in his face.
Next the lad went to the gardener and asked if he could help him in the gardens, digging and planting.
The gardener looked and stared. “You are not a beauty,” said he, “but out here in the garden no one will be apt to see you, and I need a helper, so you may stay.”
So the lad became the gardener’s helper and dug and hoed in the garden all day.
Now the King and Queen of that country had one fair daughter, and she was as pretty and as fresh as a rose.
One day the gardener set the lad to spading under the Princess’s window. She looked out, and there she saw him. “Br-r-r! But he is an ugly one,” said she. Nevertheless she couldn’t keep her eyes off him.
After a while the lad grew hot with his work. He looked about him, and he saw nobody, so he whipped off his wig to wipe his forehead, and then he was as handsome a lad as ever was seen, so that the Princess’s heart turned right over at the sight of him. Then he put on his wig and became ugly again, and went on spading, but now the Princess knew what he was really like.
The next day there was the lad at work under her window again, but as he had his wig on he was just as ugly as before. Then the Princess said to her maid, “Go down there where the gardener’s lad is working and creep up behind him and twitch his wig off.”
The maid went down to the garden and crept up back of the lad and gave the wig a twitch, but he was too clever for her. He heard her coming, and he held the wig tight down over his ears. All the same the Princess had once seen what he was like without it, and she made up her mind that if she could not have the gardener’s lad for a husband she would never marry any one.
Now after this there was a great war and disturbance in the land. The King’s enemies had risen up against him and had come to take away his land from him. But the King with his courtiers and his armed men rode out to meet them and turn them back. The lad would have liked to ride with them and strike a blow for the King, but the gardener would not hear of it. Nevertheless the day the King and his army were ready to set out the lad stole away to the stables and begged the stablemen to give him a mount.
It seemed to the men that that would be a merry thing to do. He was such a scarecrow they gave him a scarecrow horse. It was old and blind of one eye and limped on three legs, dragging the fourth behind it. The lad mounted and rode forth with all the rest, and when the courtiers saw him they laughed and laughed until their sides ached.
They had not gone far before they had to cross a swamp, and midway through it the nag stuck fast. There sat the lad, beating it and shouting, “Hie! Hie! Now will you go? Hie! Hie! Now will you go?” Every one went riding by, and as they passed him they pointed and laughed and jeered.
After they had all gone the lad slipped from the nag’s back and ran off to the wood. He snatched off his wig and took his armor from the hollow tree and shook the bridle. At once the black steed came galloping up. The lad mounted him and rode off after the others. His armor shone in the sun, and so handsome was he, and so noble his air that any one would have taken him for a prince at least.
When he reached the battle ground he found the King sore pressed, but he rode so fiercely against the enemy that they were obliged to fall back, and the King’s own forces won the day. Then the lad rode away so quickly that no one knew what had become of him. The King was sorry, for he wished to thank the brave hero who had fought for him.
But the lad rode back to the wood and hid his armor in a tree and turned the black steed loose. Then he put on his wig and ran back and mounted the sorry nag that was still stuck in the swamp where he had left it.
When the King and his courtiers came riding back there sat the lad in rags and a gray moss wig, and he was beating his horse and shouting, “Hie! Hie! Now will you go?”
Then the courtiers laughed more than ever, and one of them threw a clod at him.
The next day the King again rode forth to war with all his train. There was the lad still seated on the nag in the swamp. “What a fool he is,” they cried. “He must have been sitting there all night.” Then they rode on and left him.
But the lad ran with haste to the wood and took his armor from the tree and put it on. He shook the bridle, and the black steed came galloping up to him. The lad mounted and rode away to the battle field. The King’s forces were falling back, but the lad attacked the enemy so fiercely that they were put to rout. Every one wondered who the hero could be, but as soon as the battle was won he rode away so swiftly that no one had a chance to question him and no one knew what had become of him. “If I could but find him,” said the King, “I would honor him as I have never honored any one, for such a hero never was seen before.”
But the lad hastened back to the wood; he laid aside his armor and turned the black steed loose. Then he put on his wig again and ran back to the swamp and mounted the sorry nag.
When the King’s forces came riding home, there sat the gardener’s ugly lad, whipping his sorry nag and crying “Hie! Hie! Now will you go?”
The courtiers looked upon him with scorn. “Why does he not go home and get to work?” they cried. “Such a scarecrow is an insult to all who see him.” One of the courtiers, more ill-natured than the rest, shot an arrow at him, and it pierced his leg so the blood flowed. The lad cried out so that it was pitiful to hear him. The King felt sorry for him, ugly though he was, and drew out his own royal handkerchief and threw it to him.
“There, Sirrah! Take that and bind up thy wound!” he cried.
The lad took the handkerchief and bound it about his leg, and so the bleeding was stopped.
The next day, when the courtiers rode by, there sat the lad still upon his broken-down nag, shouting to it as if to urge it forward, and his leg was tied up with the bloody kerchief, and the King’s own initials were on the kerchief in letters of gold.
The courtiers did not dare to jeer at him this time, because the King had been kind to him, but they turned their faces aside so as not to see him.
As soon as they had gone the lad sprang down and ran to the wood and put on his armor and shook the bridle for the black steed, but he was in such haste, that he forgot the kerchief that he had used to bind up his wound, and so, when he rode out upon the battle field, he had it still tied about his leg.
That day the lad fought more fiercely than ever before, and it was well he did, for otherwise the King’s forces would certainly have been defeated. Already they were in retreat when the lad rode forth upon the field. But at sight of him they took heart again, and he led them on and did not stop or stay till he came to where the enemy’s leader was, and with one blow of his sword cut off his head.
Then all the enemy’s forces fled back, and the King’s men pursued after them and cut many of them to pieces, and the rest were glad to get safely back into their own country.
After that the lad would have ridden away as before, but this the King would not allow. He called to him and rode up to where he was, and when he saw the bloody kerchief tied about the stranger’s leg he knew he must be the very one he had left sitting on the old nag in the swamp awhile back.
This the lad could not deny, and when the King questioned him he told him everything.
Then the King said, “Though you are only a gardener’s lad still you are a mighty hero, and the hand of the Princess shall be yours. You shall marry her, and after I die you shall rule over the kingdom in my stead.”
You may guess the lad did not say no to that, for he had seen the Princess sitting at her window, and just from looking at her there he loved her with all his heart.
So the King and the courtiers rode home with the lad in their midst, and when the Princess heard she was to marry him she was filled with joy, for she recognized him at once as the gardener’s boy who had worked beneath her window.
Then all was joy and happiness. A great feast was prepared, and the lad and the Princess were married with the greatest magnificence. But first the lad rubbed his leg with the ointment and then it became quite well again; for it would never have done for him to go limping to his own wedding.
Now as soon as he was married he went out to the stable to tell it to the black steed. He found the horse sad and sorrowful. It stood drooping and would not raise its head or speak when he entered the stall.
The lad was troubled at this. “What ails you, my steed, that you stand there so sorrowful when all around rejoice?” asked he.
“I am sick at heart,” answered the steed, “and you alone can cure me of my sickness.”
“How is that?” asked the lad.
“Promise to do whatsoever I ask of you, and I will tell you.”
“I promise,” replied the lad, “for there is nothing I would not do for you.”
“Then take your sword and cut off my head,” said the steed.
When the lad heard this he was horrified. “What is this you ask of me?” he cried. “All that I have I owe to you, and shall I in return do you such an injury?”
But the black horse reminded him that he had promised. “If you do not do as I ask you,” said he, “then I shall know that you are a coward who dares not keep his word.”
The youth could not refuse after that. He was obliged to do as the horse bade him, but the tears dimmed his eyes so that he could scarcely see. He drew his sword and cut off the horse’s head. At once, instead of a coal-black steed, a handsome young Prince stood before him. The lad could scarce believe his eyes. He stared about him, wondering what had become of the horse.
“There is no need to look for the black steed,” said the princely stranger, “for I am he.” He then told the lad that he was the son of the King of a neighboring country. An enemy had risen up and slain the King and had given the Prince to the black master who had turned him into a horse and taken him away to his castle. “You have rescued me from the enchantment, and now I am free to claim my land again,” said the Prince. He then told the lad that the enemy King whom he had lately slain in battle was the very one who had taken his kingdom from him.
Then the Prince went back with the lad to the palace, and was introduced to the King and the Princess and all the court.
After that the lad and his bride and the Prince rode forth with a great retinue into the Prince’s own country, and his people received him with joy, and he and the lad lived in the greatest love and friendship forever after.