Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Widow’s Son
By Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (1812–1885)
Translation by Benjamin Thorpe in ‘Yule-Tide Stories’ (Bohn’s Library)

THERE was once a very poor woman who had only one son. She toiled for him till he was old enough to be confirmed by the priest, when she told him that she could support him no longer, but that he must go out in the world and gain his own livelihood. So the youth set out, and after wandering about for a day or two he met a stranger. “Whither art thou going?” asked the man. “I am going out in the world to see if I can get employment,” answered the youth.—“Wilt thou serve us?”—“Yes, just as well serve you as anybody else,” answered the youth. “Thou shalt be well cared for with me,” said the man: “thou shalt be my companion, and do little or nothing besides.”  1
  So the youth resided with him, had plenty to eat and drink, and very little or nothing to do; but he never saw a living person in the man’s house.  2
  One day his master said to him:—“I am going to travel, and shall be absent eight days. During that time thou wilt be here alone: but thou must not go into either of these four rooms; if thou dost, I will kill thee when I return.” The youth answered that he would not. When the man had gone away three or four days, the youth could no longer refrain, but went into one of the rooms. He looked around, but saw nothing except a shelf over the door, with a whip made of briar on it. “This was well worth forbidding me so strictly from seeing,” thought the youth. When the eight days had passed the man came home again. “Thou hast not, I hope, been into any of my rooms,” said he. “No, I have not,” answered the youth. “That I shall soon be able to see,” said the man, going into the room the youth had entered. “But thou hast been in,” said he, “and now thou shalt die.” The youth cried and entreated to be forgiven, so that he escaped with his life but had a severe beating; when that was over, they were as good friends as before.  3
  Some time after this, the man took another journey. This time he would be away a fortnight, but first forbade the youth again from going into any of the rooms he had not already been in; but the one he had previously entered he might enter again. This time all took place just as before, the only difference being that the youth abstained for eight days before he entered the forbidden rooms. In one apartment he found only a shelf over the door, on which lay a huge stone and a water-bottle. “This is also something to be in such fear about,” thought the youth again. When the man came home, he asked whether he had been in any of the rooms. “No, he had not,” was the answer. “I shall soon see,” said the man; and when he found that the youth had nevertheless been in, he said, “Now I will no longer spare thee, thou shalt die.” But the youth cried and implored that his life might be spared, and thus again escaped with a beating; but this time got as much as could be laid on him. When he had recovered from the effect of this beating he lived as well as ever, and he and the man were as good friends as before.  4
  Some time after this, the man again made a journey, and now he was to be three weeks absent. He warned the youth anew not to enter the third room; if he did he must at once prepare to die. At the end of a fortnight, the youth had no longer any command over himself, and stole in; but here he saw nothing save a trap-door in the floor. He lifted it up and looked through; there stood a large copper kettle, that boiled and boiled, yet he could see no fire under it. “I should like to know if it is hot,” thought the youth, dipping his finger down into it; but when he drew it up again he found that all his finger was gilt. He scraped and washed it, but the gilding was not to be removed; so he tied a rag over it, and when the man returned and asked him what was the matter with his finger, he answered he had cut it badly. But the man, tearing the rag off, at once saw what ailed the finger. At first he was going to kill the youth, but as he cried and begged again, he merely beat him so that he was obliged to lie in bed for three days. The man then took a pot down from the wall and rubbed him with what it contained, so that the youth was as well as before.  5
  After some time the man made another journey, and said he should not return for a month. He then told the youth that if he went into the fourth room, he must not think for a moment that his life would be spared. One, two, even three weeks the youth refrained from entering the forbidden room; but then, having no longer any command over himself, he stole in. There stood a large black horse in a stall, with a trough of burning embers at its head and a basket of hay at its tail. The youth thought this was cruel, and therefore changed their position, putting the basket of hay by the horse’s head. The horse thereupon said:—  6
  “As you have so kind a disposition that you enable me to get food, I will save you: should the Troll return and find you here, he will kill you. Now you must go up into the chamber above this, and take one of the suits of armor that hang there: but on no account take one that is bright; on the contrary, select the most rusty you can see, and take that; choose also a sword and saddle in like manner.”  7
  The youth did so, but he found the whole very heavy for him to carry. When he came back, the horse said that now he should strip and wash himself well in the kettle, which stood boiling in the next apartment. “I feel afraid,” thought the youth, but nevertheless did so. When he had washed himself, he became comely and plump, and as red and white as milk and blood, and much stronger than before. “Are you sensible of any change?” asked the horse. “Yes,” answered the youth. “Try to lift me,” said the horse. Aye, that he could, and brandished the sword with ease. “Now lay the saddle on me,” said the horse, “put on the armor and take the whip of thorn, the stone and the water-flask, and the pot with ointment, and then we will set out.”  8
  When the youth had mounted the horse, it started off at a rapid rate. After riding some time, the horse said, “I think I hear a noise. Look round: can you see anything?” “A great many men are coming after us,—certainly a score at least,” answered the youth. “Ah! that is the Troll,” said the horse, “he is coming with all his companions.”  9
  They traveled for a time, until their pursuers were gaining on them. “Throw now the thorn whip over your shoulder,” said the horse, “but throw it far away from me.”  10
  The youth did so, and at the same moment there sprang up a large thick wood of briars. The youth now rode on a long way, while the Troll was obliged to go home for something wherewith to hew a road through the wood. After some time the horse again said, “Look back: can you see anything now?” “Yes, a whole multitude of people,” said the youth, “like a church congregation.”—“That is the Troll; now he has got more with him; throw out now the large stone, but throw it far from me.”  11
  When the youth had done what the horse desired, there arose a large stone mountain behind them. So the Troll was obliged to go home after something with which to bore through the mountain; and while he was thus employed, the youth rode on a considerable way. But now the horse again bade him look back: he then saw a multitude like a whole army; they were so bright that they glittered in the sun. “Well, that is the Troll with all his friends,” said the horse. “Now throw the water bottle behind you, but take good care to spill nothing on me!” The youth did so, but notwithstanding his caution he happened to spill a drop on the horse’s loins. Immediately there rose a vast lake, and the spilling of the few drops caused the horse to stand far out in the water; nevertheless, he at last swam to the shore.  12
  When the Trolls came to the water they lay down to drink it all up, and they gulped and gulped till they burst. “Now we are quit of them,” said the horse.  13
  When they had traveled on a very long way they came to a green plain in a wood. “Take off your armor now,” said the horse, “and put on your rags only; lift my saddle off and hang everything up in that large hollow linden; make yourself then a wig of pine-moss, go to the royal palace which lies close by, and there ask for employment. When you desire to see me, come to this spot, shake the bridle, and I will instantly be with you.”  14
  The youth did as the horse told him; and when he put on the moss wig he became so pale and miserable to look at that no one would have recognized him. On reaching the palace, he only asked if he might serve in the kitchen to carry wood and water to the cook; but the cook-maid asked him why he wore such an ugly wig? “Take it off,” said she: “I will not have anybody here so frightful.” “That I cannot,” answered the youth, “for I am not very clean in the head.” “Dost thou think then that I will have thee in the kitchen, if such be the case?” said she; “go to the master of the horse: thou art fittest to carry muck from the stables.” When the master of the horse told him to take off his wig, he got the same answer, so he refused to have him. “Thou canst go to the gardener,” said he, “thou art only fit to go and dig the ground.” The gardener allowed him to remain, but none of the servants would sleep with him, so he was obliged to sleep alone under the stairs of the summer-house, which stood upon pillars and had a high staircase, under which he laid a quantity of moss for a bed, and there lay as well as he could.  15
  When he had been some time in the royal palace, it happened one morning, just at sunrise, that the youth had taken off his moss wig and was standing washing himself, and appeared so handsome it was a pleasure to look on him. The princess saw from her window this comely gardener, and thought she had never before seen any one so handsome.  16
  She then asked the gardener why he lay out there under the stairs. “Because none of the other servants will lie with him,” answered the gardener. “Let him come this evening and lie by the door in my room,” said the princess: “they cannot refuse after that to let him sleep in the house.”  17
  The gardener told this to the youth. “Dost thou think I will do so?” said he. “If I do so, all will say there is something between me and the princess.” “Thou hast reason, forsooth, to fear such a suspicion,” replied the gardener, “such a fine, comely lad as thou art.” “Well, if she has commanded it, I suppose I must comply,” said the youth. In going up-stairs that evening he stamped and made such a noise that they were obliged to beg of him to go more gently, lest it might come to the king’s knowledge. When within the chamber, he lay down and began immediately to snore. The princess then said to her waiting-maid, “Go gently and pull off his moss wig.” Creeping softly toward him, she was about to snatch it, but he held it fast with both hands, and said she should not have it. He then lay down again and began to snore. The princess made a sign to the maid, and this time she snatched his wig off. There he lay so beautifully red and white, just as the princess had seen him in the morning sun. After this the youth slept every night in the princess’s chamber.  18
  But it was not long before the king heard that the garden lad slept every night in the princess’s chamber, at which he became so angry that he almost resolved on putting him to death. This, however, he did not do, but cast him into prison, and his daughter he confined to her room, not allowing her to go out, either by day or night. Her tears and prayers for herself and the youth were unheeded by the king, who only became the more incensed against her.  19
  Some time after this, there arose a war and disturbance in the country, and the king was obliged to take arms and defend himself against another king, who threatened to deprive him of his throne. When the youth heard this he begged the jailer would go to the king for him, and propose to let him have armor and a sword, and allow him to follow to the war. All the courtiers laughed when the jailer made known his errand to the king. They begged he might have some old trumpery for armor, that they might enjoy the sport of seeing the poor creature in the war. He got the armor and also an old jade of a horse, which limped on three legs, dragging the fourth after it.  20
  Thus they all marched forth against the enemy, but they had not gone far from the royal palace before the youth stuck fast with his old jade in a swamp. Here he sat beating and calling to the jade, “Hie! wilt thou go? hie! wilt thou go?” This amused all the others, who laughed and jeered as they passed. But no sooner were they all gone than, running to the linden, he put on his own armor and shook the bridle, and immediately the horse appeared, and said, “Do thou do thy best and I will do mine.”  21
  When the youth arrived on the field the battle had already begun, and the king was hard pressed; but just at that moment the youth put the enemy to flight. The king and his attendants wondered who it could be that came to their help; but no one had been near enough to speak to him, and when the battle was over he was away. When they returned, the youth was still sitting fast in the swamp, beating and calling to his three-legged jade. They laughed as they passed, and said, “Only look, yonder sits the fool yet.”  22
  The next day when they marched out the youth was still sitting there, and they again laughed and jeered at him; but no sooner had they all passed by than he ran again to the linden, and everything took place as on the previous day. Every one wondered who the stranger warrior was who had fought for them; but no one approached him so near that he could speak to him: of course no one ever imagined that it was the youth.  23
  When they returned in the evening and saw him and his old jade still sticking fast in the swamp, they again made a jest of him; one shot an arrow at him and wounded him in the leg, and he began to cry and moan so that it was sad to hear, whereupon the king threw him his handkerchief that he might bind it about his leg. When they marched forth the third morning there sat the youth calling to his horse, “Hie! wilt thou go? hie! wilt thou go?” “No, no! he will stay there till he starves,” said the king’s men as they passed by, and laughed so heartily at him that they nearly fell from their horses. When they had all passed, he again ran to the linden, and came to the battle just at the right moment. That day he killed the enemy’s king, and thus the war was at an end.  24
  When the fighting was over, the king observed his handkerchief tied round the leg of the strange warrior, and by this he easily knew him. They received him with great joy, and carried him with them up to the royal palace, and the princess, who saw them from her window, was so delighted no one could tell. “There comes my beloved also,” said she. He then took the pot of ointment and rubbed his leg, and afterward all the wounded, so that they were all well again in a moment.  25
  After this the king gave him the princess to wife. On the day of his marriage he went down into the stable to see the horse, and found him dull, hanging his ears and refusing to eat. When the young king—for he was now king, having obtained the half of the realm—spoke to him and asked him what he wanted, the horse said, “I have now helped thee forward in the world, and I will live no longer: thou must take thy sword, and cut my head off.” “No, that I will not do,” said the young king: “thou shalt have whatever thou wilt, and always live without working.” “If thou wilt not do as I say,” answered the horse, “I shall find a way of killing thee.”  26
  The king was then obliged to slay him; but when he raised the sword to give the stroke he was so distressed that he turned his face away; but no sooner had he struck his head off than there stood before him a handsome prince in the place of the horse.  27
  “Whence in the name of Heaven didst thou come?” asked the king. “It was I who was the horse,” answered the prince. “Formerly I was king of the country whose sovereign you slew yesterday; it was he who cast over me a horse’s semblance, and sold me to the Troll. As he is killed, I shall recover my kingdom, and you and I shall be neighboring kings; but we will never go to war with each other.”  28
  Neither did they; they were friends as long as they lived, and the one came often to visit the other.  29

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