ONCE upon a time there was a woman who had a son, and he was so lazy and slow that there was not a single blessed useful thing he would do. But he liked to sing and to dance, and that is what he did all day long, and far into the night as well. The longer this went on, the worse off his mother was. The youth was growing, and he wanted so much to eat that it was barely possible to find it, and more and more went for his clothes the older he grew, since his clothes did not last long, as you may imagine, because the youth skipped and dance about without stopping, through forest and field.
At length it was too much for his mother, so one day she told the young fellow that he ought at last to get to work, and really do something, or both of them would have to starve to death. But the youth had no mind to do so, he said, and would rather try to win the daughter of the mother in the corner, for if he got her, then he would live happily ever after, and could sing and dance, and would not have to plague himself with work.
When the mother heard that she thought it might not be such a bad idea after all, and she dressed up the youth as well as she could, so that he would make a good showing when he came to the mother in the corner, and then he set forth.
When he stepped out the sun was shining bright and warm; but it had rained during the night, and the ground was soft and full of water puddles. The youth took the shortest path to the mother in the corner, and sang and danced, as he always did. But suddenly, as he was hopping and skipping along, he came to a swamp, and there were only some logs laid down to cross it; and from the one log he had to jump over a puddle to a clump of grass, unless he wanted to dirty his shoes. And then he went kerflop! The very moment he set foot on the clump of grass, he went down and down until he was standing in a dark, ugly hole. At first he could see nothing at all, but when he had been there a little while, he saw that there was a rat, who was wiggling and waggling around, and had a bunch of keys hanging from her tail.
"Have you come, my boy?" said the rat. "I must thank you for coming to visit me: I have been expecting you for a long time. I am sure you have come to win me, and I can well imagine that you are in a great hurry. But you must have a little patience. I am to receive a large dower, and am not yet ready for the wedding; but I will do my best to see that we are married soon."
When she had said this, she produced a couple of egg-shells, with all sorts of eatables such as rats eat, and set them down before the youth, and said: "Now you must sit down and help yourself, for I am sure you are tired and hungry."
The youth had no great appetite for this food. "If I were only away and up above again," thought he, but he said nothing.
"Now I think you must surely want to get home again," said the rat. "I am well aware that you are waiting impatiently for the wedding, and I will hurry all I can. Take this linen thread along, and when you get up above, you must not turn around, but must go straight home, and as you go you must keep repeating: 'Short before and long behind!'" and with that she laid a linen thread in his hand.
"Heaven be praised!" said the youth when he was up above once more. "I'll not go down there again in a hurry." But he held the thread in his hand, and danced and sang as usual. And although he no longer had the rat-hole in mind, he began to hum:
"Short before and long behind!
Short before and long behind!"
When he stood before the door at home, he turned around; and there lay many, many hundred yards of the finest linen, finer than the most skillful weaver could have spun.
"Mother, come out, come out!" called and cried the youth. His mother came darting out, and asked what was the matter. And when she saw the linen, stretching as far as she could see, and then a bit, she could not believe her eyes, until the youth told her how it all happened. But when she had heard that, and had tested the linen between her fingers, she was so pleased that she, too, began to sing and dance.
Then she took the linen, cut it, and sewed shirts from it for her son and herself, and the remainder she took to town and sold for a good price. Then for a time they lived in all joy and comfort. But when that was over the woman had not a bite to eat in the house, and so she told her son that it was the highest time for him to take service, and really do something, or else both of them would have to starve to death.
But the youth preferred to go to the mother in the corner, and try to win her daughter. His mother did not think this such a bad idea, for now the youth was handsomely dressed, and made a good showing.
So she brushed him, and furbished him up as well as she could, and he himself took a pair of new shoes, and polished them till they shone like a mirror, and when he had done so, off he went. Everything happened as before. When he stepped out, the sun was shining bright and warm; but it had rained during the night, and the road was soft and muddy, and every puddle was full of water. The youth took the shortest way to the mother in the corner, and sang and danced and danced and sang, as he always did. He followed another road, not the one he had taken before; but as he was hopping and skipping along, he suddenly came to the log across the swamp, and from the log he had to jump over a puddle to a clump of grass, unless he wanted to dirty his shoes. And then he went kerflop. And he sank down and could not stop, until he reached a horrible, dark, ugly hole. At first he could see nothing; but after he had stood there a while, he discovered a rat with a bunch of keys at the end of her tail, which she was wiggling and waggling in front of him.
"Have you come, my boy?" said the rat. "You are welcome among us! It was kind of you to come and visit me again so soon; no doubt you are very impatient, I can well imagine it. But you must really be patient a little while longer; for my trousseau is not quite complete, but by the time you come again all shall be ready." When she had said this she offered him egg-shells containing all sorts of food such as rats like. But it looked to the youth like food that had been eaten, and he said that he had no appetite. "If I were only safely away, and up above again," thought he, but he said nothing. After a time the rat said: "Now I think you must surely want to get up above again. I will hurry on the wedding as quickly as I can. And now take this woolen thread along, and when you get up above, you must not turn around, but go straight home, and underway you must keep on repeating: 'Short before and long behind!'" and with that she laid the woolen thread in his hand.
"Thank heaven, I have escaped!" said the youth to himself. "I am sure I'll never go there again," and then he sang and danced again as usual. He thought no more of the rat-hole, but fell to humming, and sang without stopping:
"Short before and long behind!
Short before and long behind!"
When he stood at the door of the house, he happened to look around; and there lay the finest woolen goods, many hundred yards of it, stretching for half a mile, and so fine that no city counselor wore a coat of finer cloth.
"Mother, mother, come out, come out!" cried the youth. His mother came to the door, clasped her hands together over her head, and nearly fainted with joy when she saw all the fine goods. And then the youth had to tell her how it had come to him, and all that had taken place, from beginning to end. This brought them a small fortune, as you may imagine. The youth had new clothes, and his mother went to town and sold the goods, yard by yard, and was handsomely paid for them. And then she decorated her room, and she herself, in her old days, went about in such style that she might have been taken for some lady of distinction. So they lived splendidly and happily, but finally this money, too, came to an end; and one day the woman had not a bite to eat left in the house, and told her son that now he had better look for work, and really do something, or both of them would starve to death.
But the youth thought it would be much better to go to the mother in the corner and try to win her daughter. This time his mother again agreed with him, and did not contradict the youth; for now he had fine new clothes, and looked so distinguished that it seemed out of the question to her that such a good-looking fellow would be refused. So she furbished him up and tricked him out in the handsomest way, and he himself took out his new shoes and polished them so brightly that you could see yourself in them, and when he had done so he set forth.
This time he did not choose the shortest road; but took a roundabout way, the longest he could find, for he did not want to go down to the rat again because he was sick of her eternal wiggling and waggling, and the talk about marriage. The weather and the road were exactly the same as when he had gone before. The sun shone, the swamp and the puddles gleamed, and the youth sang and danced as usual. And in the midst of his skipping and jumping, before he knew it, there he stood at the same crossing which led across the swamp. There he had to jump over a puddle to a clump of grass, unless he wanted to dirty his brightly polished shoes. "Kerflop!" and down he went, and did not stop until he stood once more in the same dark, ugly, dirty hole. At first he was pleased because he could see nothing. But after he had stood there a while, he once more discovered the ugly rat who was so repulsive to him, with the bunch of keys hanging from her tail.
"Good-day, my boy," said the rat. "You are welcome! I see that you can no longer live without me, and I thank you. And now everything is in readiness for our wedding, and we will go straight to church." Nothing will come of that, thought the youth, but he did not say a word. Then the rat whistled, and at once every corner was alive with swarms of mice and small rats, and six large rats came dragging along a frying-pan. Two mice sat up behind as grooms, and two sprang up in front to drive the coach. Several seated themselves within, and the rat with the bunch of keys took her place in their midst. To the youth she said: "The road is a little narrow here, so you will have to walk beside the coach, sweetheart, until the road is broader. And then you may sit beside me in the coach."
"How fine that will be!" thought the youth. "If I were only safely up above once more, I would run away from the whole pack of them," thought he, but he said nothing. He went along with the procession as well as he could; at times he had to crawl, at others he had to stoop, for the way was very narrow. But when it grew better, he walked in advance, and looked about to see how he might most easily steal away and make off. And then he suddenly heard a clear, beautiful voice behind him say: "Now the road is good! Come, sweetheart, and get into the coach!"
The youth turned around quickly, and was so astonished that his nose and ears nearly fell off. There stood a magnificent coach with six white horses, and in the coach sat a maiden as fair and beautiful as the sun, and about her were sitting others, as bright and kindly as the stars. It was a princess and her playmates, who had all been enchanted together. But now they were delivered, because he had come down to them, and had never contradicted.
"Come along now!" said the princess. Then the youth got into the coach, and drove to church with her. And when they drove away from the church, the princess said: "Now we will first drive to my home, and then we will send for your mother."
"That's all very fine," thought the youth--he said nothing, but he thought it would be better, after all, to drive to his home, instead of down into the hideous rat-hole. But suddenly they came to a beautiful castle, and there they turned in, for there it was they were to live. And at once a fine coach with six horses was sent for the youth's mother, and when she came the wedding festivities began. They celebrated for fourteen days, and perhaps they are celebrating yet. We must hurry, and perhaps we may still get there in time, and can drink the groom's health and dance with the bride!