THERE was once a man who had three sons. Johnny, the youngest, was always looked upon as the simpleton of the family, and had very little consideration or kindness shown him.
It happened one day that the eldest son was going out into the wood to cut fuel; and before he started, his mother gave him a slice of rich plum-cake and a flask of wine, so that he might not suffer from hunger or thirst.
Just as he reached the wood, he met a queer old man, dressed in gray, who wished him “Good day,” and begged for a piece of the young man’s cake and a drink of wine.
But the greedy youth replied: “If I were to give you cake and wine, I should not have enough left for myself; so be off with you, and leave me in peace.”
Then he pushed the little man rudely on one side and went his way. He soon came to a likely-looking tree, and began to hew it down, but he made a false stroke, and instead of striking the tree he buried his axe in his own arm, and was obliged to hurry home as fast as he could to have the wound dressed.
And this was what came of offending the little gray man!
The following day the second son set out to the wood, and his mother treated him just as she had done her eldest son—gave him a slice of cake and a flask of wine, in case he should feel hungry. The little gray man met him at the entrance to the wood, and begged for a share of his food, but the young man answered:
“The more I give to you, the less I have for myself. Be off with you.”
Then he left the little gray man standing in the road, and went on his way. But it was not long before he, too, was punished; for the first stroke he aimed at a tree glanced aside and wounded his leg, so that he was obliged to be carried home.
Then said the Simpleton: “Father, let me go to the wood for once. I will bring you home plenty of fuel.”
“Nonsense,” answered the father. “Both your brothers have got into trouble, and it is not likely that I am going to trust you.”
But Johnny would not give up the idea, and worried his father, till at last he said:
“Very well, my son, have your own way. You shall learn by experience that I know better than you.”
There was no rich cake for the simpleton of the family. His mother just gave him a little loaf of dough and a bottle of sour beer.
No sooner did he reach the wood than the little gray man appeared.
“Give me a piece of your cake and a drink of your wine?” said he.
But the young man told him he had only a dough loaf and a bottle of sour beer.
“Still,” said he, “you are welcome to a share of the food, such as it is.”
So the two sat down together; but when Johnny took his humble fare from his pocket, what was his surprise to find it changed into the most delicious cake and wine. Then the young man and his guest made a hearty meal, and when it was ended the little gray man said:
“Because you have such a kind heart, and have willingly shared your food with me, I am going to reward you. Yonder stands an old tree: hew it down, and deep in the heart of the roots you will find something.”
The old man then nodded kindly, and disappeared in a moment.
Johnny at once did as he had been told, and as soon as the tree fell he saw, sitting in the midst of the roots, a goose with feathers of purest gold. He lifted it carefully out, and carried it with him to the inn, where he meant to spend the night.
Now, the landlord had three daughters, and no sooner did they see the goose than they wanted to know what curious kind of bird it might be, for never before had they seen a fowl of any kind with feathers of pure gold. The eldest made up her mind to wait for a good opportunity and then pluck a feather for herself. So as soon as Johnny went out of the room she put out her hand and seized the wing of the goose, but what was her horror to find that she could not unclasp her fingers again, nor even move her hand from the golden goose!
Very soon the second sister came creeping into the room, meaning also to steal a feather; but no sooner did she touch her sister than she, too, was unable to draw her hand away.
Lastly came the third, anxious to secure a feather before the goose’s master returned.
“Go away! go away!” screamed her two sisters, but she could not understand why she should not help herself as well as the others.
So she paid no heed to their cries, but came toward them and stretched out her hand to the goose.
In doing so she touched her second sister, and then, alas! she too, was held fast.
They pulled and tugged with might and main, but it was all of no use; they could not get away, and there they had to remain the whole night.
The next morning Johnny tucked the goose under his arm, and went on his way, never troubling himself about the three girls hanging on behind.
Then what a dance he led them: over hedges and ditches, highways and byways! Wherever he led they were bound to follow. Half way across a sunny meadow, they met the parson, who was terribly shocked to see the three girls running after a young man.
“For shame!” he cried angrily, and seized the youngest by the hand to drag her away.
But no sooner did he touch her than the poor parson was made fast too, and had to run behind the girls, whether he would or no.
They had scarcely gone half a dozen paces before they met the sexton, who stared with astonishment to see his master running at the heels of the three girls.
“Hi! stop, your reverence,” he cried. “You will be late for the christening.”
He seized the parson’s sleeve as he ran past him, but the poor sexton had to join the procession too.
So now there were five of them, and just as they turned a corner the parson saw two peasants, and called to them to set him and his sexton free.
They threw down their spades at once and tried to do so, but they too, stuck fast, and so Johnny had a fine string of seven folk hanging on to the wing of his golden goose.
On and on they ran, until at length they came into the country of a powerful King.
This King had an only daughter, who all her life had been so sad that no one had ever been able to make her laugh. So the King made a decree that the man who could bring a smile to his daughter’s face should have her for his bride.
When Johnny heard what the King had promised, he at once made his way into the Princess’s presence, and when she saw the goose, with the seven queer-looking companions hanging on behind, she burst into such a hearty fit of laughter that it was thought she would never be able to stop again.
Of course, the Simpleton claimed her as his bride, but the King did not fancy him for a son-in-law, so he made all sorts of excuses.
“You shall have her,” said he, “if you can first bring me a man who can drink up a whole cellarful of wine.”
Johnny at once remembered the little gray man, and, feeling sure that he would help him, he set out for the wood where he had first met him.
When he reached the stump of the old tree which he had himself hewn down, he noticed a man sitting beside it, with a face as gloomy as a rainy day.
Johnny asked politely what ailed him, and the man answered:
“I suffer from a thirst I cannot quench. Cold water disagrees with me, and though I have, it is true, emptied a barrel of wine, it was no more to me than a single drop of water upon a hot stone.”
You can think how pleased Johnny was to hear these words. He took the man to the King’s cellar, where he seated himself before the huge barrels, and drank and drank till, at the end of the day, not a drop of wine was left.
Then Johnny claimed his bride, but the King could not make up his mind to give his daughter to “a ne’er-do-weel” who went by such a name as “Simpleton.”
So he made fresh excuses, and said that he would not give her up until the young man had found someone who could eat up a mountain of bread in a single day.
So the young man had no choice but to set out once more for the wood.
And again he found a man sitting beside the stump of the tree. He was very sad and hungry-looking, and sat tightening the belt round his waist.
“I have eaten a whole ovenful of bread,” he said sadly, “but when one is as hungry as I am, such a meal only serves to make one more hungry still. I am so empty that if I did not tighten my belt I should die of hunger.”
“You are the man for me!” said Johnny. “Follow me, and I will give you a meal that will satisfy even your hunger.”
He led the man into the courtyard of the King’s palace, where all the meal in the kingdom had been collected together and mixed into an enormous mountain of bread.
The man from the wood placed himself in front of it and began to eat, and before the day was over the mountain of bread had vanished.
A third time the Simpleton demanded his bride, but again the King found an excuse.
“First bring me a ship that can sail both on land and sea, and then you shall wed the Princess,” he said.
Johnny went straightway to the wood, where he met the little gray man with whom he had once shared his food.
“Good day,” he said, nodding his wise little head. “So you’ve come to visit me again, eh? It was I, you know, who drank the wine and ate the bread for you, and now I will finish by giving you the wonderful ship which is to sail on either land or sea. All this I do for you because you were kind and good to me.”
Then he gave him the ship, and when the King saw it he could find no further excuse.
So he gave the young man his daughter, and the pair were married that very day.
When the old King died, the Simpleton became King in his stead, and he and his wife lived happily ever after.