A LONG while ago there lived a poor old couple, who had an only son. The old man and his wife worked very hard to nourish their child well and bring him up properly, hoping that he, in return, would take care of them in their old age.
When, however, the boy had grown up, he said to his parents, 'I am a man now, and I intend to marry, so I wish you to go at once to the king and ask him to give me his daughter for wife.' The astonished parents rebuked him, saying, 'What can you be thinking of? We have only this poor hut to shelter us, and hardly bread enough to eat, and we dare not presume to go into the king's presence, much less can we venture to ask for his daughter to be your wife.'
The son, however, insisted that they should do as he said, threatening that if they did not comply with his wishes he would leave them, and go away into the world. Seeing that he was really in earnest in what he said, the unhappy parents promised him they would go and ask for the king's daughter. Then the old mother made a wedding cake in her son's presence, and, when it was ready, she put it in a bag, took her staff in her hand, and went straight to the palace where the king lived. There the king's servants bade her come in, and led her into the hall where his Majesty was accustomed to receive the poor people who came to ask alms or to present petitions.
The poor old woman stood in the hall, confused and ashamed at her worn-out, shabby clothes, and looking as if she were made of stone, until the king said to her kindly, 'What do you want from me, old mother?'
She dared not, however, tell his Majesty why she had come, so she stammered out in her confusion, 'Nothing, your Majesty.'
Then the king smiled a little and said, 'Perhaps you come to ask alms?'
Then the old woman, much abashed, replied, 'Yes, your Majesty, if you please!'
Thereupon the king called his servants and ordered them to give the old woman ten crowns, which they did. Having received this money, she thanked his Majesty, and returned home, saying to herself, 'I dare say when my son sees all this money he will not think any more of going away from us.'
In this thought, however, she was quite mistaken, for no sooner had she entered the hut than the son came to her and asked impatiently, 'Well, mother, have you done as I asked you?'
At this she exclaimed, 'Do give up, once for all, this silly fancy, my son. How could you expect me to ask the king for his daughter to be your wife? That would be a bold thing for a rich nobleman to do, how then can we think of such a thing? Anyhow, I dared not say one word to the king about it. But only look what a lot of money I have brought back. Now you can look for a wife suitable for you, and then you will forget the king's daughter.'
When the young man heard his mother speak thus, he grew very angry, and said to her, 'What do I want with the king's money? I don't want his money, but I do want his daughter! I see you are only playing with me, so I shall leave you. I will go away somewhere--anywhere--wherever my eyes lead me.'
Then the poor old parents prayed and begged him not to go away from them, and leave them alone in their old age; but they could only quiet him by promising faithfully that the mother should go again next day to the king, and this time really ask him to give his daughter to her son for a wife.
In the morning, therefore, the old woman went again to the palace, and the servants showed her into the same hall she had been in before. The king, seeing her stand there, inquired, 'What want you, my old woman, now?'
She was, however, so ashamed that she could hardly stammer, 'Nothing, please your Majesty.'
The king, supposing that she came again to beg, ordered his servants to give her this time also ten crowns.
With this money the poor woman returned to her hut, where her son met her, asking, 'Well, mother, this time I hope you have done what I asked you?' But she replied, 'Now, my dear son, do leave the king's daughter in peace. How can you really think of such a thing? Even if she would marry you, where is the house to bring her to? So be quiet, and take this money which I have brought you.'
At these words the son was more angry than before, and said sharply, 'As I see you will not let me marry the king's daughter, I will leave you this moment and never come back again;' and, rushing out of the hut, he ran away. His parents hurried after him, and at length prevailed on him to return, by swearing to him that his mother should go again to the king next morning, and really and in truth ask his Majesty this time for his daughter.
So the young man agreed to go back home and wait until the next day.
On the morrow the old woman, with a heavy heart, went to the palace, and was shown as before into the king's presence. Seeing her there for the third time, his Majesty asked her impatiently, 'What do you want this time, old woman?' And she, trembling all over, said, 'Please your Majesty--nothing.' Then the king exclaimed, 'But it cannot be nothing. Something you must want, so tell me the truth at once, if you value your life!' Thereupon the old woman was forced to tell all the story to the king; how her son had a great desire to marry the princess, and so had forced her to come and ask the king to give her to him for wife.
When the king had heard everything, he said, 'Well, after all, I shall say nothing against it if my daughter will consent to it.' He then told his servants to lead the princess into his presence. When she came he told her all about the affair, and asked her, 'Are you willing to marry the son of this old woman?'
The princess answered, 'Why not? If only he learns first the trade that no one knows!' Thereupon the king bade his attendants give money to the poor woman, who now went back to her hut with a light heart.
The moment she entered, her son asked her, 'Have you engaged her?' And she returned, 'Do let me get my breath a little! Well, now I have really asked the king; but it is of no use, for the princess declares she will not marry you until you have learnt the trade that no one knows!'
'Oh, that matters nothing!' exclaimed the son. 'Now I only know the condition, it's all right!' The next morning the young man set out on his travels through the world in search of a man who could teach him the trade that no one knows. He wandered about a long time without being able to find out where he could learn such a trade. At length one day, being quite tired out with walking and very sad, he sat down on a fallen log by the wayside. After he had sat thus a little while, an old woman came up to him, and asked, 'Why art thou so sad, my son?' And he answered, 'What is the use of your asking, when you cannot help me?' But she continued, 'Only tell me what is the matter, and perhaps I can help you.' Then he said, 'Well, if you must know, the matter is this: I have been travelling about the world a long time to find a master who can teach me the trade which no one knows.' 'Oh, if it is only that,' cried the old woman, 'just listen to me! Don't be afraid, but go straight into the forest which lies before you, and there you will find what you want.'
The young man was very glad to hear this, and got up at once and went to the forest. When he had gone pretty far in the wood, he saw a large castle, and, whilst he stood looking at it and wondering what it was, four giants came out of it and ran up to him, shouting, 'Do you wish to learn the trade that no one knows?' He said, 'Yes; that is just the reason why I come here.' Whereupon they took him into the castle.
Next morning the giants prepared to go out hunting, and, before leaving, they said to him, 'You must on no account go into the first room by the dining-hall.' Hardly, however, were the giants well out of sight before the young man began to reason thus with himself: 'I see very well that I have come into a place from which I shall never go out alive with my head, so I may as well see what is in the room, come what may afterwards.' So he went and opened the door a little and peeped in. There stood a golden ass, bound to a golden manger. He looked at it a little, and was just going to shut the door when the ass said, 'Come and take the halter from my head, and keep it hidden about you. It will serve you well if you only understand how to use it.' So he took the halter, and, after fastening the room door, quickly concealed it under his clothes. He had not sat very long before the giants came home. They asked him at once if he had been in the first room, and he, much frightened, replied, 'No, I have not been in.' 'But we know that you have been!' said the giants in great anger, and seizing some large sticks, they beat him so severely that he could hardly stand on his feet. It was very lucky for him that he had the halter wound round his body under his clothes, or else he would certainly have been killed.
The next day the giants again prepared to go out hunting, but before leaving him they ordered him on no account to enter the second room.
Almost as soon as the giants had gone away he became so very curious to see what might be in the second room, that he could not resist going to the door. He stood there a little, thinking within himself, 'Well, I am already more dead than alive, much worse cannot happen to me!' and so he opened the door and looked in. There he was surprised to see a very beautiful girl, dressed all in gold and silver, who sat combing her hair, and setting in every tress a large diamond. He stood admiring her a little while, and was just going to shut the door again, when she spoke, 'Wait a minute, young man. Come and take this key, and mind you keep it safely. It will serve you some time, if you only know how to use it.' So he went in and took the key from the girl, and then, going out, fastened the door and went and sat down in the same place he had sat before.
He had not remained there very long before the giants came home from hunting. The moment they entered the house they took up their large sticks to beat him, asking, at the same time, whether he had been in the second room.
Shaking all over with fear, he answered them, 'No, I have not!'
'But we know that you have been,' shouted the giants in great anger, and they then beat him worse than on the first day.
The next morning, as the giants went out as usual to hunt, they said to him, 'Do not go into the third room, for anything in the world; for if you do go in we shall not forgive you as we did yesterday, and the day before! We shall kill you outright!' No sooner, however, had the giants gone out of sight, than the young man began to say to himself, 'Most likely they will kill me, whether I go into the room or not. Besides, if they do not kill me, they have beaten me so badly already that I am sure I cannot live long, so, anyhow, I will go and see what is in the third room.' Then he got up and went and opened the door.
He was quite shocked, however, when he saw that the room was full of human heads! These heads belonged to young men who had come, like himself, to learn the trade that no one knows, and who, having obeyed faithfully and strictly the orders of the giants, had been killed by them.
The young man was turning quickly to go away, when one of the heads called out, 'Don't be afraid, but come in!' Thereupon he went into the room. Then the head gave him an iron chain, and said, 'Take care of this chain, for it will serve you some time if you know how to use it!' So he took the chain, and going out fastened the door.
He went and sat down in the usual place to wait for the coming home of the giants, and, as he waited, he grew quite frightened, for he fully expected that they would really kill him this time.
The instant the giants came home they took up their thick sticks and began to beat him without stopping to ask anything. They beat him so terribly that he was all but dead; then they threw him out of the house, saying to him, 'Go away now, since you have learnt the trade that no one knows!' When he had lain a long time on the ground where they had thrown him, feeling very sore and miserable, at length he tried to move away, saying to himself, 'Well, if they really have taught me the trade that no one knows, for the sake of the king's daughter I can suffer gladly all this pain, if I can only win her!'
After travelling for a long time, the young man came at last to the palace of the king whose daughter he wished to marry. When he saw the palace, he was exceedingly sad, and remembered the words of the princess; for, after all his wanderings and sufferings, he had learnt no trade, and had never been able to find what trade it was 'that no one knows.' Whilst considering what he had better do, he suddenly recollected the halter, the key, and the iron chain, which he had carried concealed about him ever since he left the castle of the four giants. He then said to himself, 'Let me see what these things can do!' So he took the halter and struck the earth with it, and immediately a handsome horse, beautifully caparisoned, stood before him. Then he struck the ground with the iron chain, and instantly a hare and a greyhound appeared, and the hare began to run quickly and the greyhound to follow her. In a moment the young man hardly knew himself, for he found himself in a fine hunting-dress, riding on the horse after the hare, which took a path that passed immediately under the windows of the king's palace. Now, it happened that the king stood at a window looking out, and noticed at once the beautiful greyhound which was chasing the hare, and the very handsome horse which a huntsman in a splendid dress was mounted on. The king was so pleased with the appearance of the horse and the greyhound, that he called instantly some of his servants, and, sending them after the strange rider, bade them invite him to come to the palace. The young man, however, hearing some people coming behind him calling and shouting, rode quickly behind a thick bush, and shook a little the halter and the iron chain. In a moment the horse, the greyhound, and the hare had vanished, and he found himself sitting on the ground under the trees dressed in his old shabby clothes. By this time the king's servants had come up, and, seeing him sit there, they asked him whether he had seen a fine huntsman on a beautiful horse pass that way. But he answered them rudely, 'No! I have not seen anyone pass, neither do I care to look to see who passes!'
Then the king's servants went on and searched the forest, calling and shouting as loudly as they could, but it was all in vain; they could neither see nor hear anything of the hunter. At length they went back to the king, and told him that the horse the huntsman rode was so exceedingly quick that they could not hear anything of him in the forest.
The young man now resolved to go to the hut where his old parents lived; and they were glad to see that he had come back to them once more.
Next morning, the son said to his father, 'Now, father, I will show you what I have learned. I will change myself into a beautiful horse, and you must lead me into the city and sell me, but be very careful not to give away the halter, or else I shall remain always a horse!' Accordingly, in a moment he changed himself into a horse of extraordinary beauty, and the father took him to the market-place to sell him. Very soon a great number of people gathered round the horse, wondering at his unusual beauty, and very high prices were offered for him; the old man, however, raised the price higher and higher at every offer. The news spread quickly about the city that a wonderfully handsome horse was for sale in the market-place, and at length the king himself heard of it, and sent some servants to bring the horse, that he might see it. The old man led the horse at once before the palace, and the king, after looking at it for some time with great admiration, could not help exclaiming, 'By my word, though I am a king, I never yet saw, much less rode, so handsome a horse!' Then he asked the old man if he would sell it him. 'I will sell it to your Majesty, very willingly,' said the old man; 'but I will sell only the horse, and not the halter.' Thereupon the king laughed, saying, 'What should I want with your dirty halter? For such a horse I will have a halter of gold made!' So the horse was sold to the king for a very high price, and the old man returned home with the money.
Next morning, however, there was a great stir and much consternation in the royal stables, for the beautiful horse had vanished somehow during the night. And at the time when the horse disappeared, the young man returned to his parents' hut.
A day or two afterwards the young man said to his father, 'Now I will turn myself into a fine church not far from the king's palace, and if the king wishes to buy it you may sell it him, only be sure not to part with the key or else I must remain always a church!'
When the king got up that morning, and went to his window to look out, he saw a beautiful church which he had never noticed before. Then he sent his servants out to see what it was, and soon after they came back saying, that 'the church belonged to an old pilgrim, who told them that he was willing to sell it if the king wished to buy it.' Then the king sent to ask what price he would sell it for, and the pilgrim replied, 'It is worth a great deal of money.'
Whilst the servants were bargaining with the father an old woman came up. Now this was the same old woman who had sent the young man to the castle of the four giants, and she herself had been there and had learnt the trade that no one knew. As she understood at once all about the church, and had no mind to have a rival in the trade, she resolved to put an end to the young man. For this purpose she began to outbid the king, and offered, at last, so very large a sum of ready money, that the old man was quite astonished and confused at seeing the money which she showed him. He accordingly accepted her offer, but whilst he was counting the money, quite forgot about the key. Before long, however, he recollected what his son had said, and then, fearing some mischief, he ran after the old woman and demanded the key back. But the old woman could not be persuaded to give back the key, and said it belonged to the church which she had bought and paid for. Seeing she would not give up the key, the old man grew more and more alarmed, lest some ill should befall his son, so he took hold of the old woman by the neck and forced her to drop the key. She struggled very hard to get it back again, and, whilst the old man and she wrestled together, the key changed itself suddenly into a dove and flew away high in the air over the palace gardens.
When the old woman saw this, she changed herself into a hawk and chased the dove. Just, however, as the hawk was about to pounce upon it, the dove turned itself into a beautiful bouquet, and dropped down into the hand of the king's daughter who happened to be walking in the garden. Then the hawk changed again into the old woman, who went to the gate of the palace and begged very hard that the princess would give her that bouquet, or, at least, one single flower from it.
But the princess said, 'No! not for anything in the world! These flowers fell to me from heaven!' The old woman, however, was determined to get one flower from the bouquet, so, seeing the princess would not hear her, she went straight to the king, and begged piteously that he would order his daughter to give her one of the flowers from her bouquet. The king, thinking the old woman wanted one of the flowers to cure some disease, called his daughter to him, and told her to give one to the beggar.
But just as the king said this, the bouquet changed itself into a heap of millet-seed and scattered itself all over the ground. Then the old woman quickly changed herself into a hen and chickens, and began greedily to pick up the seeds. Suddenly, however, the millet vanished, and in its place appeared a fox, which sprang on the hen and killed her.
Then the fox changed into the young man, who explained to the astonished king and princess that he it was who had demanded the hand of the princess, and that, in order to obtain it, he had wandered all over the world in search of some one who could teach him 'the trade that no one knows.'
When the king and his daughter heard this, they gladly fulfilled their part of the bargain, seeing how well the young man had fulfilled his.
Then, shortly afterwards, the king's daughter married the son of the poor old couple; and the king built for the princess and her husband a palace close to his own. There they lived long and had plenty of children, and people say that some of their descendants are living at present, and that these go constantly to pray in the church, which is always open because the key of it turned itself into a young man who married the king's daughter, after he had shown to her that he had done as she wished, and learnt, for her sake, 'the trade that no one knows.'