Danish Fairy and Folk Tales/The Merchant

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ONCE upon a time there was a wealthy merchant. He lived in a beautiful, spacious stone building, in a large square, directly opposite a cathedral. The front was adorned with monuments of great value. A high staircase, which led from the street to the entrance, was furnished with a magnificent iron railing of excellent workmanship, with gilded balls and ornaments. The owner of this exquisite mansion was immensely rich. He imported in his own ships, from countries far away, choice fruit and wine, ivory, and fragrant spices. The floor in his large hall consisted of gold coin placed on edge, and when he invited his friends to pass an evening at his home, all the dishes were served on gold plates. Every cup and plate, every knife and fork in his house was made of pure gold. There seemed to be no end to his wealth.

At length the merchant died, leaving his whole property to his only son, the handsomest young man in the whole town, of excellent character, and always contented and glad. He had a smile and a pleasant word for every one, so in his short life he had found more friends than the old merchant had ever had, in spite of his seventy years. When the young man succeeded his father as master of the magnificent house, a great many of his friends took up their abode with him. They ate at his table, drank of his wine, and stayed with him days and nights, praising his great kindness and generosity, his open hand, and his open heart. Whenever they were in need of money and mentioned it to him, he pointed to an old chest in a corner, saying, "Take what you need, and return it when you can." At length his friends made themselves so much at home that they found their way into the chest without asking permission, so in a little while the old book-keeper, who had served the house for nearly forty years, told his young master that all the money was gone.

"Well, the chest must be filled again," said the young man, carelessly. "There is the floor in the great hall! Break it up, and fill the chest. We can have a marble floor laid in its place."

His orders were obeyed, and there seemed to be money enough to fill the chest for all time to come. Every one thought that the marble floor looked much handsomer than the golden one; besides, it was not as expensive, and the friends did not know how to praise enough the wisdom and foresight of their friend. A great many poor persons who heard of his generosity came and asked to be helped from time to time, and their wishes were at once granted.

The young merchant was to be married to a very beautiful young lady, the daughter of a wise counsellor. When the time came for their wedding the groom wished to give his bride a golden carriage and six milk-white horses; but the old book-keeper shook his head, and said that they could already see the bottom of the chest, and there were no more floors from which it could be again filled. On hearing this the young man called his friends together, and said to them that as he was in need of money he was obliged to ask them help him. Now the time had come when he needed some of the money which they had borrowed from him at different times. None of them was willing to comply, however: had he loaned them money, he had also told them that they might pay him whenever they could spare it. He had lived like a fool; he had been very reckless; he never cut his coat according to his cloth. To give money to the poor was the same as robbing one's friends! Their friendship was at an end, and they would be ashamed even to be seen with him in the streets hereafter.

Disappointed and angry with these men for whom he had done so much, the young merchant went to the home of his betrothed, thinking that she might at least give him some consolation. His friends had already been there, however, and talked to the girl's parents in such a manner that the young man was
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not allowed even to see her. She was locked up in a room, where she sat moping and nearly crying her eyes out. It went no better with the young man at other places: all those to whom he turned for help shook their heads or abused him like a pick-pocket, but no one raised a finger to help him.

At length he returned home, utterly depressed and despondent; but the old book-keeper told him to pick up courage. Some of their customers abroad owed them large sums of money. "I have saved a little from time to time," said he; "this will enable me to keep up the business until we can be helped. Here is a list of those whom we may expect to pay their debts. I advise you to go and see them. There is money enough here to pay your fare."

The merchant embraced the true old man, and thanked him for-his great faithfulness and devotion. Having received much good advice from his old friend, he set out on his journey.

It seemed, however, that misfortune had determined to follow him, for all who could pay their debts refused to do so, while the rest were willing enough, but had no money. At length the young man had nothing to do but return home.

One day, towards evening, he reached an inn. A storm had overtaken him, and an icy-cold drizzle made him shiver from head to foot. He had been obliged to sell his horse and discharge his servant, and a few pennies were all that he had left in his purse, although home was still far away. Tired and famished, he knocked at the door, and his voice was neither cheerful nor courageous when he asked for food and shelter.

The stout host with his shining face looked at the young traveller's well-worn dress and his faded hat, whereupon he said, gruffly and unkindly: "All the rooms are occupied, and all that we can give you is a place at the supper-table if you can pay for it. Beggars and landlopers we have no use for here."

The young merchant asked if he could not be allowed to sleep in the hay-loft. It was a stormy evening, and he was tired out.

"No," replied his host; "people who have no money are not my people. I don't care what becomes of them."

"Why can't you," said one of the guests, who was sitting in a corner with several others before a steaming bowl of punch, "let this young man sleep in the old ruin across the way?"

"In the ruin!" repeated the host, grinning slyly. "Why not? That will be a splendid place to rest," continued he, turning to the young man, "if you are not afraid of ghosts."

The merchant's pride awoke. "I am afraid of no person, living or dead," said he, looking straight at the landlord's cunning features.

"Come along, then," exclaimed the man, "and I will show you the place." He led the way out of the inn and up an avenue of old chestnut-trees into a dejected ruin, where time had left only a few rooms free from destruction. Into one of these they went. It was a large, gloomy room, with a few pieces of furniture: an old bed, with stiff, faded curtains, a solid oak table, two easy-chairs, and an old iron-clad chest.

Soon a fire was made in the half-crumbled fireplace, whereupon the landlord bid the young man good-night, promising to send him some supper. In a little while two servant-girls appeared with lighted candles, which were placed on the table, and a basket, from which they produced a piece of ham, bread-and-butter, and a chicken. Upon this the girls returned to the inn, while the young man hung up his wet mantle near the fireplace and sat down to satisfy his hunger. As soon as he had eaten, he went to bed and slept soundly.

In a few hours he awoke. Everything was quiet; the fire burned slowly, and no sound was heard. Glancing towards the window to see if it was night or morning, the merchant caught sight of the tall, stout figure of a man standing in front of the table. He wore a black suit, pointed shoes, and over his shoulders was hanging a red mantle, held together in front by an old-fashioned silver buckle.

The young man felt his blood run cold, and his hair began to stand on end; but in the next minute he was possessed by some of his old courage, which had been strengthened by the warm room and the good supper. He sat up in bed, glancing at the stern features of his unknown visitor, until the latter approached one of the old-fashioned, high-backed easy-chairs, and pointed to its seat with an imperious gesture. As the occupant of the bed made no effort to move, the ghost again pointed to the chair, while his features became threatening. The merchant, who had now entirely governed his fears, threw the pillows aside and jumped into the room, where he walked up to the chair and seated himself.

The ghost immediately opened his mantle and produced a glass filled with white foam, which he placed on the table, laying a shining razor beside it. The young man in the chair now began to shiver all over his body, and thought that his last moments had come. He closed his eyes and remained sitting immovable, when suddenly he felt something moist and cold on his face and head. He now realized that the ghost was not intending to kill him, but only to shave his head and chin. So it was; in a little while his head was as even and shining as an ivory ball. The man laid down his razor on the table, looked imploringly at the merchant, and passed his fingers across his own head and chin. Our friend thought this quite amusing. No doubt the ghost wished to be shaved also, and a few minutes later the operation was performed. Then the ghost opened his mouth for the first time, and said: "Thanks, my young friend! You have saved me, and now I can sleep peacefully."

"To say the truth," replied the merchant, "I have the same desire. You awoke me at an untimely hour! But why could you not rest peacefully before?"

"I lived a foolish, heedless life," replied the ghost. "I had enough of gold and silver, all that I wished for, and even more, but I squandered my wealth on those whom I called my friends, and they helped me faithfully to spend it, until one day I suddenly died. When I arrived at the gate of heaven, Saint Peter told me that I was doomed to walk about at night until I found some one who would permit me to shave him, and who would do me the same service."

"When you are wealthy," observed the young man, "you can always count on a great number of friends. I had many until I lost my wealth."

"Yes," replied the ghost, "I know them all."

"You know them?" cried the merchant, startled by this intelligence.

"Yes; but ask no questions. Put on your clothes and follow me!"

The young man complied, whereupon the ghost seized one of the candlesticks and conducted him into the cellar, where they stopped before a very old iron chest. "This," said the owner of the red mantle, "is yours. Until I was dead I did not know that it existed, but if I had found it before, no doubt its contents would have vanished with the rest of my wealth. This chest is filled with gold coin. When you leave this dismal ruin, which was once a beautiful mansion, take it away with you, and use the money with care and caution."

When they returned to the room above, the merchant said: "I do not understand why you were doomed to such work as shaving people."

"Do you not understand," replied the ghost, "that I had been shaved by all my friends, and that I was now obliged to do the same? That was my penalty for living a life without aim and goal; but now I am free."

The young man mused for a moment, and said: "But was the money not all your own? Did you not have a right to use it as you pleased?"

The ghost answered, gravely: "No, it was not. I held it in trust, as every wealthy man does. The day will come when we shall account for all that we have said and done, and for the manner in which we spent the money which God intrusted to our care!"

Every word fell heavily upon the mind of the young man. He plunged into a deep revery, from which he did not awake until the daylight had found its way through the green, narrow windows. Lifting his head, he noticed that the landlord stood in the open door, gazing at him with a wicked expression of joy in his small, deep set eyes.

"I see that the man with the red mantle has paid you a visit," said he, blinking maliciously at his guest.

"Yes," replied the merchant, "and he proved to be an excellent man. We talked a great deal of people whom we both know, and of you, too."

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"Of me?" cried the landlord.

"Yes. The ghost promised to visit you in a few days and shave your head and chin. He said that he had kept his eye on you for a great length of time."

"Gracious!" shouted he. "How can I escape him? I would die of fear if I ever awoke and found him in my room."

"I shall tell him to-night," answered the young man, "that you would prefer not to be shaved as I was. But in return you must keep me here for a month, and when I am ready to return home I wish to borrow your horses and carriage."

The landlord promised this, and implored him to do all that was in his power to prevent his being shaved by the terrible ghost, of which he had heard so many fearful tales.

In the course of the next four weeks the young merchant's hair had again grown into its usual length, so he left the ruin in the landlord's carriage, and returned home with the chest, which was found to contain an immense sum of money. The old book-keeper initiated him into the duties of the business, which grew rapidly, and brought him back his old wealth in the course of a short time.

As soon as it was known that the merchant had returned home with immense riches, his friends again presented themselves at his door. The young man hired, however, a couple of stout stone-cutters, and as soon as the friends appeared they were thrown into the street more rapidly than they could realize, and never dared to call a second time.

But the young man hastened to the house of his sweetheart, and told her parents all that had happened. The girl had remained faithful to him, and there was now no objection to their marriage. There was no golden carriage; but they were contented with less.

This is the story of the merchant who learned to be faithful to his trust.