THERE was once a peasant who had three sons, Karl, Stefan, and Josef; but, as he was very poor, they often had scarcely enough to eat, and were always complaining. So one day he told them that they should go out, one at a time, into the world, and see whether they could do better for themselves than he could do for them; and, having drawn lots which should go first, it fell upon the youngest.
Josef was not altogether sorry to see a little of what the world was made of, and started with break of day next morning on his travels. He went begging about the country, but for a long time could find nothing to make a living by. At last he came to a splendid mansion on the borders of a large forest. When he asked his usual question, whether there was any place vacant for him, the servants took him into the big house; and, after conducting him through a number of apartments, each more beautiful than the other, he was ushered into a vast hall, all panelled round with carved wood, with windows of painted glass, and filled with handsome furniture. Reclining in an easy-chair, sat an aged nobleman, the owner of the mansion, who, when he heard Josef's request, took compassion on him, and told him he would take him into his service, beginning with giving him a very easy employment, and if he proved himself faithful in that, he would promote him to something higher. At first, then, he would only have to keep his geese; but there was one condition he would bid him observe.
Josef was so delighted with the prospect that he hastily interposed a promise of obeying it, before it was even uttered.
And that condition was, that if at any time he should hear any music or singing in the forest, he should never listen to it, however much he might be inclined, for that if he did, he would inevitably lose his place.
Josef repeated his promise, and swore that he would never listen to the music. He was then led down to the place where the other servants were gathered for supper, and as there was a whole crowd of them, and plenty of good food and drink, Josef began to think that he had fallen on to his feet indeed!
After supper, Josef was shown into a tidy little room as big as his father's whole cottage, where was a nice little white bed, and a suit of clothes ready to put on when he got up. Though Josef liked good food and a good bed, he was by no means an idle boy, but rose very early in the morning for his new employment; and, having received from the cook his breakfast, and his wallet of provisions for the midday meal, turned out the geese, and drove them before him to the meadow skirting the forest.
Josef had never seen so many geese together before, and all the morning long he was never tired of looking at them, and counting them, observing their ways, fancying he discerned various peculiarities in each, by which to know one from another henceforth; and he began to give them all different names. When one showed an inclination to stray, what fun it was to drive her back, and see her flap her great, soft, white, awkward wings, and stretch out her great yellow bill, as with awkward gait she shambled back to the flock! So the morning went by; and it was long past the hour of dinner before Josef found any need of it, but when he did, he was astonished at the abundant supply which had been provided for him. "Truly, I did well to come out into the world," he thought, as he lounged upon the greensward, eating the good food. "What a contrast between having this splendid mansion to live in, and my father's poor cabin; between the dry crusts we had to eat there, and the princely food allowed to us here; between the toil and slavery there, and this easy kind of work, which might more properly be called a pastime! My father thought to punish me for grumbling, he would be astonished if he could see what a fine exchange I have made!" and he laughed aloud, though all alone. But presently the effects of the full meal, the heat of the afternoon, and the excitement of his new position brought on sensations of lassitude and somnolence--and soon you might have seen him stretched upon the grass at full length, and snoring to his heart's content.
It is uncertain how long he had slept, but erewhile his slumber was disturbed by the sound of the most enchanting strains of music. Josef raised himself on his elbow, and listened; he had never imagined any thing so beautiful! and when he had listened a little while, he grew so rapt that he could not forbear going a little way into the forest to hear it better, and then a little farther, and farther, till, by the time it ceased, he was a long way from his charge. Then, as he perceived this, for the first time he remembered the condition his master had laid upon him, and his own positive promise to observe it! In shame and confusion he hasted back; but in place of his splendid flock of geese, there were but half a dozen, and those the worst favoured, to be seen! It was vain he called after them, and tore his hair, and ran hither and thither--no geese appeared! and as it began to get dark, he found his best plan was to hurry home with the few that remained.
When he arrived a servant was waiting to conduct him to the master. He no longer wore the benevolent smile with which he had first instructed Josef in the terms of his service. He looked so black and angry that the boy was frightened to approach him--too frightened to find a word in his defence.
"I had pity on you," said the master, "because you entreated me to try you: you have broken your word, and I can trust you no more. I told you the penalty; now you have chosen to incur it, you must go."
Josef could do nothing at first but cry, as he contemplated this sudden extinction of his dreams of ease and plenty, but he took courage to throw himself on his knees, and entreat one more trial. The master was inexorable--only, as he was rich and generous, he would not let him go away empty-handed, and he took out of a casket before him a gold pin, as a memorial of his good intention, and dismissed the boy with a gesture which admitted of no further parleying.
Josef was allowed to sleep in the mansion that night, but the next morning, instead of carrying on his agreeable occupation of geeseherd, he had to leave the place ignominiously, his rags being returned to him in place of the smart livery of the castle. Uncertain whither next to bend his steps, he determined to go home in the first instance and show his gold pin, and then take a fresh start in search of another chance.
As he toiled up a steep Joch , feeling so thirsty that his eyes went searching every where for a cottage where he might beg a sup of milk, a hay-maker turned off the Hoch Alp  on to the road just in front of him, with a cartload of hay he was hastening to take home before rain fell. But, for all his urging, the oxen could not turn the cart, and there it stuck in the edge of the road. Seeing our stout youth coming along, the man called to him to help him lift the wheel, promising him a bowl of milk in return. Josef was a good-natured lad, and, as we have said, by no means indisposed for exertion, so he set to work with a will, and the team was very soon put in motion. He travelled on by the side of the cart, and when they reached the Hof for which it was destined, Josef received a bowl of milk, which refreshed him for the rest of the journey.
As he got near his father's cottage he went to take out the gold pin with glee, to have it ready to display. Great was his vexation, therefore, at discovering he had it no longer--nor could his searching bring it back any more than the geese! Josef burst into tears, and joined the family meal at home, which was just prepared as he arrived, with his head low bowed, as if he sought to hide himself for very shame.
When his father saw him in such melancholy plight, his compassion warmed to him, and he asked him kindly what had befallen. Josef told all his adventures, crying afresh as he came to the narration of how he had lost on the way the gold pin, to display which he had come home before starting in search of another chance of employment.
"Such chances don't grow as thick as black-berries," said Stefan, the second son: "instead of your going in search of another, I'll go to the same grand house; and I won't lose such a fine situation for the sake of 'tweedle-dum,' I can tell you! And whatever I get for wages, you may depend, I won't stick it in my belt where it is sure to be brushed away, but on the brim of my hat, to be sure!"
Josef, who had had enough of trying to provide for himself, and was not sorry to be at home again, even with its scanty means, made no objection, and their father, thinking it well Stefan should have his experience of life too, approved the plan.
Stefan set out next morning, therefore; and by following Josef's directions soon discovered the stately palace for which he was bound. The noble owner received him as kindly as Josef, and sent him out to the same employment, first binding him to observe the same condition. Stefan readily promised to keep it, and was formally installed into his office of geeseherd.
All went well enough at first, as with Josef; but it was at an even earlier period of the day than with him that his curiosity was roused by the fairy-like music. Then he, too, followed it through the forest; and when it ceased at sound of the church bells ringing the Ave, he found not more than three or four geese left of all his flock!
On his return the master was full of anger at his breach of trust, and inexorably resolved to turn him away; but not to let him go empty-handed, he gave him a little lamb to take home.
Stefan was pleased enough with his prize, but was somewhat embarrassed as to the manner of carrying it safely home. He had declared that whatever he got he would bring home on his hat, and though he had never thought of so embarrassing a present falling to him, at the time he spoke, he resolved to keep his word, and so used his best endeavours to fix the little creature round the brim.
He carried it thus great part of the way in safety, but having to cross a somewhat rapid stream, a projecting bough of a tree lifted his hat from his head--and both hat and lamb fell in, and were carried fast away by the torrent!
Stefan came back even more crestfallen than Josef; and, having told his story, Karl, the eldest, with great indignation at the carelessness of his brothers, declared that he would make the trial next. He would not stick his prize in his belt or his hat, not he! he would carry it by a string, and then it couldn't get loose; and as for the music, he had no fear of being led away by that. Josef, indeed, had had some excuse, as the strains took him by surprise, but to be so foolish as Stefan, after the warning example of another, was perfectly contemptible. He couldn't be so silly as that, not he!
He started on his way betimes, and toiled along not without some misgivings lest he should find so good a post already occupied by another. But it was not so: the owner of the mansion gave him the same reception, the same charge, and the same warning as the other two; and, full of confidence in his superiority, he went forth to his work.
The weather was cool, and he had no need to seek the shade of the forest trees; and for more than a week he brought the full tale of geese home day by day. "What idiots those were to throw away their place for the sake of a little music!" he thought to himself one day later. "I told them I should not be so foolish--not I! I told them I shouldn't be led away by it, and I haven't been."
But it was hotter that day, and in the afternoon, when the sun's power was greatest--forgetting the warning of his brothers' example, or rather setting it at defiance, with the assurance that though he sought the shade he need not listen to the music--he crept within the border of the cool forest, and lay down.
He had hardly done so when his senses were rapt by the delicious but deceitful strains. "The woods must be full of fairies!" he cried; "this can be no earthly music--I must follow it up and see what manner of instruments they are, for never on earth was heard the like!" But as he went on, the music always seemed farther off, and farther again, till at last the church bells rang the Ave, and the music ceased.
Then Karl woke to a sense of his weakness and folly; and though he ran every step of the way back to his geese, only two were there! Though he had now found the same fate befall himself as his brothers, in all particulars, yet he could not forbear searching for the lost geese; but of course it was in vain, and he had to return to the castle with but two. Nothing could look more miserable, or more ludicrous, than this diminished procession--Karl at the head of his two geese, who had gone out in the morning with such a goodly flock.
He would have gladly slunk away without exchanging a word with any one, but he could not escape being taken before the master, who scolded him in the same words in which he had chided his brothers, but gave him a fine rich cake to take home.
The cake was round, and it was very inconvenient to attempt to secure it by means of a string, but Karl had declared he would bring home his reward that way, and so it was a point of honour with him to do it. But passing by a Hof, on his way home, where was a large and powerful watch-dog on guard, he set off running to escape its grip. This was the very way to attract the beast's notice, however; and off it set in pursuit, much faster than Karl's legs could carry him away--and then, having jumped upon him and knocked him down, seized his cake, and devoured it before his eyes!
Karl had now to go home as empty-handed as his brothers, and as full of tears; but his father comforted him, and checked the rising gibe of his youngers by reminding them that all had failed equally; so they all joined in a good-humoured laugh in which there was nothing of bitterness.
The father then asked them if any of them wished to go out into the world and seek fortune again; but they all agreed that there was nothing to be gained by the move, and that though there were positions which at first sight seemed more brilliant and more delectable than their own, yet that each had its compensatory trials, and that they were best where God had placed them.
Henceforth, however, they were ashamed of renewing their grumblings, but, each making the best of his lot, they became noted as the most contented and, therefore, happiest family of the whole valley.