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IN the days of the son of Kalev there reigned a very rich king of Kungla, who gave a great feast to his subjects every seven years at midsummer, which lasted for two or three weeks together.1 The time for the feast came round again, and its commencement had been looked forward to for some months, though with some uncertainty; for twice already, seven years ago and fourteen years ago, the anticipated festival had come to nothing. Both times the king had made full preparations for the feast, but no man had tasted it. This seemed strange and incredible, but there were many people everywhere who could bear witness to the facts. It was said that on both these occasions an unknown stranger had come to the head-cook and asked to be permitted to taste a little of the food and drink, but the moment he had dipped his spoon in the soup-kettle, and put the froth in the beer-can to his p. 188 mouth, the whole contents of the storehouses, pantries, and cellars vanished in a moment, so that not a scrap or drop of anything remained.1 The cooks and kitchen-boys had all seen and sworn to the truth of the matter, but the people were so enraged at the collapse of the feast, that the king was obliged to appease them seven years before, by ordering the head-cook to be hanged for having given the stranger permission to taste the food. In order to prevent any repetition of the trouble, the king proclaimed that he would richly reward any one who would undertake the preparation of the feast; and at length, when no one would undertake the responsibility, the king promised his youngest daughter in marriage to any one who should succeed, but added that failure would be punished with death.
A long way from the capital, and near the borders of the kingdom, lived a rich farmer who had three sons, the youngest of whom showed great intelligence from his youth, because the Meadow-Queen2 had nursed him, and had often secretly given him the breast. The father called p. 189 him Slyboots, and used to say to the brothers, “You two elder ones must earn your living by your bodily strength and by the work of your hands, but as for you, little Slyboots, you will be able to rise higher in the world than your brothers, by your own cleverness.”
Before the father died, he divided all his corn-land and meadows between his two elder sons, but to the youngest he gave enough money to enable him to go forth into the wide world to seek his fortune. But the father’s corpse was scarcely cold when the two elder brothers stripped the youngest of every farthing, and thrust him out of the door, saying mockingly, “Your cleverness alone, Slyboots, is to exalt you over our heads, and therefore you might find the money troublesome to you.”
The youngest brother scorned to notice the ill-treatment of his brothers, and went cheerfully on his way. “Good fortune may come from God,” was the comforting reflection which he took with him from his father’s house, and he whistled away his sad thoughts. Just as he was beginning to feel hungry, he encountered two travelling journeymen. His pleasant countenance and cheerful talk pleased them, and when they rested, they shared p. 190 their provisions with him, so that Slyboots did not fare so badly on the first day. He parted from his companions before evening quite contented, for his present comfort left him without anxiety for the morrow. He could sleep anywhere with the green grass for a couch and the blue sky above, and a stone under his head served as well as a soft pillow. Next morning he set out on his way again, and arrived at a lonely farm, where a young woman was sitting at the door, weeping bitterly. Slyboots asked what was her trouble, and she answered, “I have a bad husband, who beats me every day if I cannot humour his mad freaks. He has ordered me to-day to cook him a fish which is not a fish, and which has eyes, but not in its head. Where in the world shall I find such a creature?” “Don’t cry, young woman,” answered Slyboots “Your husband wants a crab, which is a water-animal to be sure, but is not a fish, and which has eyes, but not in its head.” The woman thanked him for his good advice, and gave him something to eat, and a bag of provisions which would last him for several days. As soon as he received this unexpected assistance, he determined to set out for the royal capital, where cleverness p. 191 was likely to be in most request, and where he hoped to make his fortune.
Wherever he went, he heard every one talking of the king’s midsummer banquet, and when he heard of the reward which was offered to the man who should prepare the feast, he began to reflect whether he might not be able to accomplish the adventure. “If I succeed,” said he to himself, “I shall find myself at a stroke on the highway to fortune; and in the worst case of all, I shall only lose my life, and we must all die sooner or later. If I begin in the right way, why shouldn’t I succeed? Perhaps I may be more fortunate than others. And even if the king should refuse me his daughter, he must at least give me the promised reward in money, which will make me a rich man.”
Buoyed up with such thoughts, he pursued his journey, singing and whistling like a lark, sometimes resting under the shadow of a bush during the heat of the day, and sleeping at night under a tree or in the open fields. One morning he finished the last remains of his provisions, and in the evening he arrived safe and sound at the city.
Next day he craved audience of the king. The king saw that he had to deal with an intelligent and p. 192 enterprising man, and it was easy for them to come to terms. “What is your name?” asked the king. The man of brains replied, “My baptismal name is Nicodemus, but I was always called Slyboots at home, to show that I did not fall on my head.” “I will leave you your name,” returned the king, “but your head must answer for all mischief if the affair should go wrong.”
Slyboots asked the king to give him seven hundred workmen, and set about his preparations without delay. He ordered twenty large sheds to be constructed, and arranged in a square like a series of large cowhouses, so that a great open space was left in the middle, to which led one single large gate. He ordered great cooking-pots and caldrons to be built in the rooms which were to be heated, and the ovens were furnished with iron spits, where meat and sausages could be roasted. Other sheds were furnished with great boilers and vats for brewing beer, so that the boilers were above and the vats below. Other houses without fireplaces were fitted up as storehouses for cold provisions, such as black bread, barm bracks, white bread, &c. All needful stores, such as flour, groats, meat, salt, lard, butter, &c., were brought into the p. 193 open space, and fifty soldiers were stationed before the door, so that nothing should be touched by the finger of any thief. The king came every day to view the preparations, and praised the skill and forethought of Slyboots. Besides all this, several dozen bakehouses were built in the open air, and a special guard of soldiers was stationed before each. They slaughtered for the feast a thousand oxen, two hundred calves, five hundred swine, ten thousand sheep, and many more small animals, which were driven together in flocks from all quarters. Stores of provisions were constantly brought by river in boats and barges, and by land in waggons, and this went on without intermission for several weeks. Seven thousand hogsheads were brewed of beer alone. Although the seven hundred assistants toiled late and early, and many additional labourers were engaged, yet most of the toil and trouble fell upon Slyboots, who was obliged to look sharply after the others at every point. He had warned the cooks, the bakers, and the brewers, in the most stringent manner, not to allow any strange mouth to taste the food or drink, and any one who broke this command was threatened with the gallows. If such a greedy stranger should make his appearance p. 194 anywhere, he was to be brought immediately to the superintendent of the preparations.
On the morning of the first day of the feast, word was brought to Slyboots that an unknown old man had come into one of the kitchens, and asked the cook to allow him to taste a little from the soup-kettle with a spoon, which the cook could not permit him to do on his own responsibility. Slyboots ordered the stranger to be brought before him, and presently he beheld a little old man with grey hair, who humbly begged to be allowed to taste the food and drink prepared for the banquet. Slyboots told him to come into one of the kitchens, when he would gratify his wish if it were possible. As they went, he scanned the old man sharply, to see whether he could not detect something strange about him. Presently he observed a shining gold ring on the ring-finger of the old man’s left hand. When they reached the kitchen, Slyboots asked, “What security can you give me that no harm shall come of it if I let you taste the food?” “My lord,” answered the stranger, “I have nothing to offer you as a pledge.” Slyboots pointed to the fine gold ring and demanded that as a pledge. The old fellow resisted with all his might, p. 195 protesting that the ring was a token of remembrance from his dead wife, and he had vowed never to take it from his hand, lest some misfortune should happen. “Then it is quite impossible for me to grant your request,” said Slyboots, “for I cannot permit any one to taste either the food or drink without a pledge.” The old man was so anxious about it that at last he gave his ring as a pledge.
Just as he was about to dip his spoon in the pot, Slyboots struck him so heavy a blow on the head with the flat of an axe, that it might have felled the strongest ox; but the old fellow did not fall, but only staggered a little. Then Slyboots seized him by the beard with both hands, and ordered strong ropes to be brought, with which he bound the old man hand and foot, and hung him up by the legs to a beam. Then Slyboots said to him mockingly, “You may wait there till the feast is over, and then we will resume our conversation. Meantime, I’ll keep your ring, on which your power depends, as a token.” The old man was obliged to submit, whether he liked it or not, for he was bound so firmly that he could not move hand or foot. Then the great feast began, to which the people p. 196 flocked in thousands from all quarters. Although the feasting lasted for three whole weeks, there was no want of either food or drink, for there was plenty and to spare.
The people were much pleased, and had nothing but praise for the king and the manager of the feast. When the king was about to pay Slyboots the promised reward, he answered, “I have still a little business to transact with the stranger before I receive my reward.” Then he took seven strong men with him, armed with heavy cudgels, and took them to the place where the old man had been hanging for the last three weeks. “Now, then,” said Slyboots, “grasp your cudgels firmly, and belabour the old man so that he shall never forget his hospitable reception for the rest of his life.” The seven men began to whack the old man all at once, and would soon have made an end of his life, if the rope had not given way under their blows. The little man fell down, and vanished underground in an instant, leaving a wide opening behind him. Then said Slyboots, “I have his pledge, with which I must follow him. Bring the king a thousand greetings from me, and tell him to divide my reward among the poor, if I should not return.”
He then crept downwards through the hole in which the old man had disappeared. At first he found the pathway very narrow, but it widened considerably at the depth of a few fathoms, so that he was able to advance easily. Steps were hewn in the rock, so that he did not slip, notwithstanding the darkness. Slyboots went on for some distance, till he came to a door. He looked through a crack, and saw three young girls1 sitting with the old man, whose head was resting on the lap of one of them. The girl was saying, “If I only rub the bruise a few times more with the bell,2 the pain and swelling will disappear.” Slyboots thought, “That is certainly the place where I struck the old man with the back of the axe three weeks ago.” He decided to wait behind the door till the master of the house had lain down to sleep and the fire was extinguished. Presently the old man said, “Help me into my room, that I may go to bed, for my body is quite out of joint, and I can’t move hand or foot.” Then p. 198 they brought him to his room. When it grew dark, and the girls had left the room, Slyboots crept gently in, and hid himself behind the beer-barrel.1
Presently the girls came back, and spoke gently, so as not to rouse the old man. “The bruise on the head is of no consequence,” said one, “and the sprained body will also soon be cured, but the loss of the ring of strength is irreparable, and this troubles the old man more than his bodily sufferings.” Soon afterwards they heard the old man snoring, and Slyboots came out of his hiding-place and made friends with the maidens. At first they were rather frightened, but the clever youth soon contrived to dispel their alarm, and they allowed him to stay there for the night. The maidens told him that the old man possessed two great treasures, a magic sword and a rod of rowan-wood, and he resolved to possess himself of both. The rod would form a bridge over the sea for its possessor, and he who bore the sword could destroy the most numerous army.2 On the following evening p. 199 Slyboots contrived to seize upon the wand and the sword, and escaped before daybreak with the help of the youngest girl. But the passage had disappeared from before the door, and in its place he found a large enclosure, beyond which was a broad sea.
As soon as Slyboots was gone the girls began to quarrel, and their loud talking woke up the old man. He learned from what they said that a stranger had been there, and he rose up in a passion, and found the wand and sword gone. “My best treasures are stolen!” he roared, and, forgetting his bruises, he rushed out. Slyboots was still sitting on the beach, thinking whether he should try the power of the wand, or seek for a dry path. Suddenly he heard a rushing sound behind him like a gust of wind. When he looked round, he saw the old man charging upon him like a madman. He sprang up, and had just time to strike the waves with the rod, and to cry out, “Bridge before, water behind!” He had scarcely spoken, when he found himself standing on a bridge p. 200 over the sea, already at some distance from the shore.1
The old man came to the beach panting and puffing, but stopped short when he saw the thief on the bridge over the sea. He called out, snuffling, “Nicodemus, my son, where are you going?” “Home, papa,” was the reply. “Nicodemus, my son, you struck me on the head with an axe, and hung me up to a beam by the legs.” “Yes, papa.” “Nicodemus, my son, did you call seven men to beat me, and steal my gold ring from me?” “Yes, papa.” “Nicodemus, my son, have you bamboozled my daughters?” “Yes, papa.” “Nicodemus, my son, have you stolen my sword and wand?” “Yes, papa.” “Nicodemus, my son, will you come back?” “Yes, papa,” answered Slyboots again. Meantime he had advanced so far on the bridge, that he could no longer hear the old man speak. When he had crossed the sea, he inquired the nearest way to the royal city, and hastened thither to claim his reward.
But lo! he found everything very different from what he had expected. Both his brothers had p. 201 entered the service of the king, one as a coach man and the other as a chamberlain. Both were living in grand style and were rich people. When Slyboots applied to the king for his reward, the latter answered, “I waited for you for a whole year, and I neither saw nor heard anything of you. I supposed you were dead, and was about to divide your reward among the poor, as you desired. But one day your elder brothers arrived to inherit your fortune. I left the matter to the court, who assigned the money to them, because it was supposed that you were dead. Since then your brothers have entered my service, and both still remain in it.” When Slyboots heard what the king said, he thought he must be dreaming, for he imagined that he had been only two nights in the old man’s subterranean dwelling, and had then taken a few days to return home; but now it appeared that each night had been as long as a year. He would not go to law with his brothers, but abandoned the money to them, thanked God that he had escaped with his life, and looked out for some fresh employment. The king’s cook engaged him as kitchen-boy, and he now had to turn the joints on the spit every day. His brothers p. 202 despised him for his mean employment, and did not like to have anything to do with him, although he still loved them. One evening he told them much of what he had seen in the under-world, where the geese and ducks had gold and silver plumage. The brothers related this to the king, and begged him to send their youngest brother to fetch these curious birds. The king sent for the kitchen-boy, and ordered him to start next morning in search of the birds with the costly feathers.
Slyboots set out next day with a heavy heart, but he took with him the ring, the wand, and the sword, which he had carefully preserved. Some days afterwards he reached the sea, and saw an old man1 with a long grey beard sitting on a stone at the place where he had reached land after his flight. When Slyboots came nearer, the old man asked, “Why are you so sad, my friend?” Slyboots told him how badly he had fared, and the old man bid him be of good cheer, and not vex himself, adding, “No harm can happen to you, as long as you wear the ring of strength.” He then gave Slyboots a mussel-shell,2 and advised him to p. 203 build the bridge with the magic wand to the middle of the sea, and then to step on the shell with his left foot, when he would immediately find himself in the under-world, while every one there was asleep. He also advised him to make himself a bag of spun yarn in which to put the water-birds with gold and silver plumage, and then he could return unmolested. Everything fell out as the old man predicted, but Slyboots had hardly reached the sea-shore with his booty when he heard his former acquaintance behind him; and when he was on the bridge he heard him calling out, “Nicodemus, my son,” and repeating the same questions as before. At last he asked if he had stolen the birds? Slyboots answered “Yes” to every question, and hastened on.
Slyboots arrived at the royal city in the evening, as his friend with the grey beard had foretold, and the yarn bag held the birds so well that none had escaped. The king made him a present, and told him to go back next day, for he had heard from the two elder brothers that the lord of the under-world had many gold and silver utensils, which the king desired for his own use. Slyboots did not venture to refuse, p. 204 but he went very unwillingly, because he did not know how to manage the affair. However, when he reached the sea-shore, he met his friend with the grey beard, who asked the reason of his sadness. The old man gave Slyboots another mussel-shell, and a handful of small stones, with the following advice. “If you go there in the afternoon, you will find the father in bed taking his siesta, the daughters spinning in the sitting-room, and the grandmother in the kitchen scouring the gold and silver vessels bright. Climb nimbly on the chimney, throw down the stones tied up in a bag on the old woman’s neck, come down yourself as quick as possible, put the costly vessels in the yarn bag, and then run off as fast as your legs will carry you.”
Slyboots thanked his friend, and followed his advice exactly. But when he dropped the bag of pebbles, it expanded into a six hundred weight sack of paving stones, which dashed the old woman to the ground. In a moment Slyboots swept all the gold and silver vessels into his bag and took to flight. When the Old Boy heard the noise, he thought the chimney had fallen down, and did not venture to get up directly. But when he p. 205 had called the grandmother for a long time without receiving any answer, he was obliged to go himself. When he discovered the misfortune that had happened, he hastened in pursuit of the thief, who could not be gone far. Slyboots was already on the sea, when his pursuer reached the shore panting and puffing. As before, the Old Boy cried out, “Nicodemus, my son,” and repeated the former questions. At last he asked, “Nicodemus, my son, have you stolen my gold and silver utensils?” “Certainly, my father,” answered Slyboots. “Nicodemus, my son, do you promise to come again?” “No, my father,” answered Slyboots, hurrying along the bridge. Although the old man cursed and scolded after the thief, he could not catch him, and he had now been despoiled of all his magic treasures.
Slyboots found his friend with the grey beard waiting for him on the other side of the sea, and he threw down the bag of heavy gold and silverware, which the ring of strength had enabled him to bring away, and sat down to rest his weary limbs.
The old man now told him much that shocked him. “Your brothers hate you, and will do all p. 206 they can to destroy you, if you do not oppose their wicked attempts. They will urge the king on to set you tasks in which you are very likely to perish. When you bring your rich load to the king this evening, you will find him friendly disposed towards you; and then ask, as your only reward, that his daughter should be hidden behind the door in the evening, to hear what your brothers talk about together.”
When Slyboots came before the king with his rich booty, which was enough to make at least ten horse-loads, he found him extremely kind and friendly, and he took the opportunity to make the request which his old friend had advised. The king was glad that the treasure-bringer asked for no greater reward, and ordered his daughter to hide herself behind the door in the evening, to overhear what the coachman and the chamberlain were talking about.
The brothers had grown haughty with prosperity, and boasted of their good luck, and what was worse, they both boasted to each other of the favours of the princess in her own hearing! She ran to her father, flushed with shame and anger, and told him weepmg what shameful lies she had p. 207 heard with her own ears, and begged him to punish the wretches. The king immediately ordered them both to be thrown into prison, and when they had confessed their guilt before the court next day, they were executed, while Slyboots was promoted to the rank of king’s councillor.
Some time afterwards the country was invaded by a foreign king, and Slyboots was sent against the enemy in the field. Then he drew the sword which he had brought from the under-world for the first time, and began to slaughter the hostile army, and soon none were left alive on the bloody field. The king was so pleased at the victory that he made Slyboots his son-in-law.
Jannsen gives an inferior variant of this story under the title of the House-Spirit. Here a little man who creeps from under the stove is permitted by the cook to taste the soup three times running, and every time the pot is emptied. His master tells him to quit his service next morning, and orders the steward to make soup; and the steward knocks down the dwarf with the spoon. Next morning, as the cook is leaving, the dwarf invites him to his house under the stove, and gives him a little box, on which he has only to tap, and ask for whatever he wants. The steward meets the cook, hears the story, puts on soup, and invites the dwarf to partake. In return he receives a box, which he takes to his master, but out of the box jumps a dwarf with p. 208 an iron club, who belabours them both till they are nearly dead, and then disappears with the box. The kitchen dwarf was never seen again.
1 These great public periodical feasts are Eastern rather than Western. Compare the story of Ali Shar and Zumurrud (Thousand and One Nights).
1 A similar feat is performed by Sarvik in the Kalevipoeg, Canto 17.
2 See page 13.
1 As in the Kalevipoeg, Canto 13; and the story of the Gold-Spinners, &c.
2 Compare p. 121 (anteà). The bell is not mentioned elsewhere in this story.
1 A beer-barrel with a tap, for general use, often stands in the houses of the Esthonian peasantry.
2 “And as to the sword, if it be drawn against an army, and its bearer shake it, he will rout the army; and if he say to it at the p. 199 time of his shaking it, ‘Slay this army,’ there will proceed from that sword a lightning which will slay the whole army.”—Story of Joodar (Thousand and One Nights).
1 Compare the scene between the Kalevide and Tühi, in Canto 15 of the poem.
1 This old man may have been the consort of the Meadow Queen. Cf. pp. 188, 259.
2 We shall find mussel-shells used as boats in other tales.