Danish Fairy and Folk Tales/A Fearless Boy

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Danish Fairy and Folk Tales
by Jens Christian Bay, Svend Hersleb Grundtvig and others, translated by Jens Christian Bay
A Fearless Boy


THERE were once a man and his wife who had an only son named Hans. It happened, as it has often happened with an only child, that he was petted and spoiled, and was not taught to obey. He was a reckless boy when small, and as he grew up he became more and more so. There was no tree and no house-top so high that he did not climb them.

Hans did not care to go to school and learn something useful, like other children, but he was so clever that he at once understood all that he heard or saw. There was no end to his pranks and jokes, and his best amusement was to frighten people, while he himself could not be frightened by anything in the world, man or beast.

As Hans grew up his parents thought that the time had come to teach him some manners, and have him kept in check, if possible. Although his mother doted upon him, his father brought him to the deacon, asking that worthy man to polish his manners the best he could. Were the deacon only able to frighten him in some manner, the father thought he would at length improve, but if he went into the world without respect or regard for any one, or anything, he would never fare well. The deacon promised to do his best, and the boy soon was initiated into his new duties.

One evening, at a rather late hour, the deacon said to him: "You must ring the bell to-night; the ringer is drunk, and if you will do it I will give you eight pennies." "All right," answered the boy, whereupon he trudged across the church-yard and ascended the stairway in the dark steeple, and as he thought it great fun to ring the bells, he pulled the rope so vigorously that the sound was heard throughout the seven adjoining townships.

When the ringing was over, Hans descended the steps, but was stopped by a tall, white ghost which stood before him. "If you are alive, speak! If you are dead, begone!" shouted Hans. The ghost made no reply, but lifted its arm in a threatening manner. Hans now jumped forward, pushing the figure down the whole flight of steps. It rolled from one landing to another, and remained lying in the cellar at the bottom of the staircase. The boy paid no further attention to it, but went back to the deacon's house.

"Did you see any one?" asked his mistress. "Yes," replied Hans, "a tall, white ghost came and threatened me, but I ran against it and pushed it down the whole flight of steps." "Dear me!" cried the deacon's wife; "I hope it was not hurt." "I don't care," returned the boy, "whether it was or not." She asked him, however, to follow her to the steeple, and, although Hans thought she was too tenderhearted, he complied. When they reached the cellar, there lay the deacon at the bottom of the staircase with one leg broken, and there they found the white sheet which he had wrapped around himself when he wanted to appear as a ghost and frighten the boy. They carried him home and put him to bed, but ever since that day the deacon carried a lame leg. He did not wish to have anything more to do with this reckless boy, but sent him home to his parents, who were very angry because their son had behaved so badly. His father now asked the minister to take him into his service. "Yes; let him come," was the answer. "I shall manage to knock the foolishness out of his head, depend upon that." Thus Hans came to serve the minister.

One Saturday evening, towards midnight, Hans was called out of bed by his master, who said to him: "My son, I forgot my Bible at the altar in the church last Sunday. Will you kindly go and bring it back with you, as I must use it to-morrow morning? I will give you twelve pennies for your trouble."

Hans arose, seized the key which was handed him by the minister, and went into the church. When he reached the altar he noticed the Bible which lay upon it; but a tall, dark figure of a man was bending over it, reading. It was an easy matter to this man to read in the dark, for his eyes gleamed like red fireballs. "Excuse me," said Hans, snatching the book out of his hands. Upon this he walked back to the door, locked it, and returned to the minister with the Bible and the key.

"Did you see anything remarkable?" asked his master. "No," answered the boy. "Oh yes; there was a tall, dark man reading in the book, but I merely said, 'Excuse me,' and seized it." "Were you not frightened?" pursued his master. "No," replied Hans; "why should I be frightened?" "You had better return home," said the minister; "I can teach you nothing."

Hans returned home and told what had happened. His father became furious, and said that when he feared neither the living nor the dead he did not wish to keep him at home. The next morning, consequently, Hans was obliged to go away, in spite of the pleading and the tears of his mother, who was afraid that he might not be able to fight his way in the great world of which he knew nothing. She followed him to the gate, kissed him, and said, with many tears, "God keep you, my poor boy!"

All the long day Hans pursued, his way, and when it grew dark he walked into a church-yard, where weeping-willows could shield him until next morning. He lay down, but towards midnight he awoke and found an old man with a long beard bending over him. He carried a sickle in his right hand, and in his left an hour-glass. "Are you not afraid,"
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asked Death for he it was—"to lie here alone?" "No," returned the boy, "what should I be afraid of?" "You seem to be a brave boy," observed Death. "Would you like to visit me?" "Yes; where do you live?" answered Hans. "Directly east of the church," explained his old friend; "where you see a light shine from the ground, you will find a hole. Descend through that, and come to-morrow night at this hour." Hans promised, and Death parted from him.

He passed the following day in picking nuts about the church-yard and in the adjoining woods. When midnight came he entered the church-yard, and east of the church he found what seemed to be an open grave, through which a red glare was seen. As there was no rope or ladder, Hans resolutely jumped into the opening. He fell a long distance, but landed safely on a soft meadow. A few steps away from him a door opened into a large building from which the same ruddy glare issued, and in the doorway his old friend Death was standing, bidding him welcome.

When they came into the house Hans noticed that great numbers of lighted candles stood everywhere. There was a huge hall filled with them. Some were as tall as church-candles, others were of ordinary size, and there were some as small as those which are used for Christmas-trees. Some burned brightly, others feebly, and there were some which seemed ready to go out. "Why do you burn all these candles?" inquired Hans. "That is a part of my duty," replied the old man; "these are flames of the lives of all living beings. Whenever one goes out I must be on duty. You notice there are all sizes among them. Some are long yet, and some are short; some will soon have burned up, and they are the life-flames of those who must soon die. There is not one light but will some day burn out."

"Where is my candle?" inquired Hans again. Death showed him a tall and stately candle, which pleased the boy exceedingly. But when they came to look at his parents' candles, he found that of his father long and vigorous, while there was but little left of his mother's. He asked Death to be allowed to exchange them, and the request was granted. At length they arrived at an empty candlestick. The light was nearly extinguished; only a small spot of wax was left. "This was once a large candle," said Death, "but now it is nearly burned up. Because it has burned in God's service, there is great power in this bit of wax." He then told Hans how a king of a land far away had been paralyzed many years ago, and how he had promised his daughter's hand in marriage to the man who could cure him. The successful person was to receive one-half of the kingdom at once, and ascend the throne when he died. "Go there at once," concluded Death; "take service at the palace. You will be told never to name the king, for he has issued an edict that he who does so must either cure him or be hanged.
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When you see the king call his name aloud, and when you are told to cure him rub him with this wax. Be careful and keep it well. And now good-bye." Upon this Death conducted Hans to a door, which was opened and then closed behind him. He found himself in the church-yard at the very moment when the sun arose.

Hans now set out to find the land where the invalid king was living. All whom he asked told him that it was very far away. He walked on day and night, however, begging a bite of bread at the houses which he happened to pass.

When at length he had reached the palace, he walked in and offered his services. He was given a place among the grooms, and from the superintendent of the stables he received the warning never to name the king; if he did, he risked his life.

The sick king found pleasure in watching the watering of his horses; every day his easy-chair was rolled to one of the windows, from which he had a view of the court-yard, and where he could sit and watch all his beautiful animals. One day, when Hans drove them to the fountain in the middle of the yard, he glanced towards the window, exclaiming: "Look, there is the king!" The other grooms bid him be silent, but the king having heard his words sent for the superintendent, whom he scolded for not giving his servants better instructions. "However," concluded he, "the law must be enforced. Bring the boy before me!"

When Hans was brought into the room the king said to him: "You know the law, and as you have dared, nevertheless, to utter my name, you must cure me, or lose your life. I suppose that death will be your fate, for you do not look wise enough to fulfil the other condition." Hans said that he wished to do his best, at any rate. Producing his wax he commenced rubbing the fingers of the king's right hand, which had been lame for many years. The king at once was able to move his fingers, whereupon the whole arm was rubbed with good effect. The king bid Hans rub away the lameness from the remainder of his body; but the boy replied that this could not be done until they had agreed upon his reward for curing the king entirely. He desired to have it in writing, with the king's own signature attached. The king, of course, must comply with his wishes, and as he felt quite generous he agreed, in writing, to give him the princess and one-half of the kingdom at once, neither more nor less. The remainder of the kingdom Hans was to inherit after the king's death. When the agreement had been signed the boy rubbed with the wax all over his body, and thus the king became healthy and well again.

By virtue of the agreement Hans was now a prince, and could, of course, wear nothing but a prince's dress. As soon as he had put on his new clothes he was conducted to the princess, who liked him so well that she had—as Hans had been expecting all the time—no objection to marrying him. Their wedding was then celebrated in a truly Royal manner. Hans at once received one-half of the land, and began to rule it. When he was well-established in his new position he returned in a stately manner, with his beautiful bride, to his old home. He found his mother, who was by that time a widow, alive, and she was both pleased with and proud of her great son. When Hans had presented one of their poor relatives with the farm, he returned, with his wife and mother, to his new home. The old lady lived happily with her children. She witnessed both how Hans became king of the entire land when the old king had died, and how a number of sweet small princes and princesses learned, one after another, to love their "dear grandma."