Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Tobacco Boy

There was once upon a time a pauper woman who went around with her son, begging; at home she had neither to bite on, nor to burn. First she went from village to village, and then she came to the city. When she had gone from house to house there a while, she came to the mayor. He was both a kind man and a bold man—one of the best in the city, for he was married to the daughter of one of the richest merchants there—and with her he had a small daughter. They had no more children, so she was both their sweet child and their sugar child, and there was nothing that was too good for her. She soon grew to know this pauper boy, too, when he came with his mother, and when the mayor saw that they had so quickly become such good friends, he took in the boy, so that she could have a play brother. Yes they played together and tidied together, read together and went to school together, and were steady friends, and agreed together.

One day, the mayor’s wife stood at the window, looking at the children as they were on their way to school, when she saw there was a rain puddle in the street; first the boy carried the box of school food across the puddle, then he came back and carried the little girl across—and when he put her down, he stole a kiss.

When the mayor’s wife saw this, she grew angry: “Shall such a raggamuffin1 kiss our daughter, we who are the best folk in the city?” she said. Her husband tried to stop her as best he could, and said that no one knew where the children would live, and no one what would happen to them; he was a kind and proper boy, and a great tree often grew from a small sapling, he said. But no, it made no difference what he was or what he would be. “When want comes to glory, it knows not what it will be,” and, “the one who is struck for shillings will never become dollars, no matter that he shine like a gold coin,” said the mayor’s wife; he was not allowed there, and she would see him off. There was nothing for it, so the mayor went him off with a merchant who had arrived with a ship, and there he should be a cabin boy. To his wife, he said he had sold the boy for tobacco.

But before he left, the mayor’s daughter broke her ring in two and gave him half, so they could recognise one another, should they meet again.

Then the ship sailed, and the boy came to a city far beyond the country. Thither had a parson but newly arrived, who was so powerful to preach that everyone had to go to church to hear him, and on Sunday, the ship’s company had to go and listen to the sermon.

The boy remained alone aboard the ship. As he began to make the food, he heard calling from across the sound, close by. The boy took the boat and went over, and saw that it was an old woman who stood there, crying. “Yes, now I have stood here for a hundred years, calling and crying, thinking to cross the sound,” said the woman, “but no one has heard it nor heeded it before you, and you shall have your pay for taking me across the sound,” she said. The boy had to go with her to her sister, who lived in a mountain close by, and there he should ask for the old tablecloth that lay on the shelf of the cupboard. Yes, when he arrived, and the witch2 found out that he had helped her sister across the sound, then he must have what he wanted, she said.

“Oh, I want nothing but the tablecloth that lies on the shelf in the cupboard,” said the boy.

“You did not choose that by yourself,” said the witch.

“Now I shall go back aboard and cook some weekend fare for the churchfolk,” said the boy.

“Pay that no heed,” said the woman. “It shall cook itself while you are away,” she said. “Stay with me, and you shall have more pay; I have stood by the sound and called and cried for a hundred years, but no one has heard it, nor heeded it before you.”

So he should go with her to her second sister. There he should ask to have the gold sword that was such that he could put it in his pocket, so that it became a knife, and if he pulled it out, then it became a longsword; if he hewed with the black edge, then everything would fall dead, and it he hewed with the white one, everything would live again. Well, when they came thither, and the witch heard how he had helped her sister across the sound, then he should have a ferryman’s pay; he could have whatsoever he would.

“Oh, I want nothing but the old sword that lies on the top of the cupboard,” said the boy.

“You did not choose that by yourself,” said the witch.

“Come with me,” said the other. “I have stood by the sound, calling and crying for a hundred years, and no one had heard it nor heeded it before you; you shall have more pay, you; come with me to my third sister.” There he should ask for the old hymn book that was such that whenever someone was sick, and he sang a hymn suited to the sickness, then the sick would be well again.

Well, they arrived, and the third witch heard that he had helped her sister across the sound; he should have a ferryman’s pay there, too; he could have what he would.

“Oh, I want nothing but grandmother’s old hymn book,” said the boy.

“You did not choose that by yourself,” said the witch.

When he returned to the ship, the folk were still at church. So he tried the tablecloth, and unfolded just a small corner, for he wanted to see what good it was first, before he laid it on the table and used it. Well there came both fine food and lots of food, and drink, too, that was certain enough. He took just a taste, he did, and then he gave the dog as much as he could manage to eat.

When the church folk came aboard, the skipper said, “Where did you get all the food for the dog? He is as full as a sausage, and as lazy as a sow.”

“Oh, I gave him a bone,” said the boy.

“There’s a good boy to remember the dog, too!” said the skipper.

Then he unfolded the tablecloth, and straightway it was so full of food and drink that they had never lived so well before.

Whe the boy was alone with the dog again, he wanted to try the sword, too. He hacked at him with the black edge, so that he fell dead to the deck; but when he turned it, and hacked at it with the white, he quickened to, and wagged his tail at his playmate. But the book he could not try.

Then they sailed both well and long, until a storm came upon them, which lasted many days; they lay drifting until they did not know where they were. Finally it quietened, and they came to a country far away, with which none of them was familiar; but they understood that there was great sorrow there, and that there was, too, for the king’s daughter was a leper. The king came down to the ship and asked if any save her and make her whole again. No, there was no one aboard who could, said those on deck. “Are there no others aboard this ship, then?” said the king.

“Yes, a little ragged boy,” they said.

“Let him come, too,” said the king. The boy said he could certainly make her well again. The skipper grew so wild and afraid when he heard this that he ran in circles, like a dung beetle in a cup of pitch; he thought the boy was getting into something he would not come well from, and he said that it was not worth listening to such children’s talk. But the king said that sense came with growth, and the boy had the makings of a man; had he said he was good to do it, then he should try; there were many who had tried and failed before. He took him to his daughter, and the boy sang the hymn once. Then the king’s daughter could move an arm; he sang it once more, and she could sit up in bed; and when he had sung it a third time, the king’s daughter was well.

The king was so glad that he wanted to give him half his country and kingdom, and his daughter, too. Yes, country and kingdom could be good to have even half of—he thanked him many times over for it—but he had betrothed another, he said; the king’s daughter he could not take. So he stayed in the country, and got half the kingdom. And after some time there was war; the boy had to join in, and he spared not the black edge, you can imagine. The enemy’s soldiers fell like flies, and the king won. But then he used the white edge; then they all quickened to again, and subjected themselves to the king because they were allowed to enjoy life. But now that there were so many, there was a shortage of food, yet the king would give them full measures of both food and drink. So the boy had to come forth with his tablecloth, and thus there was a shortage of nothing, neither wet nor dry.

When he had been a time more with the king, he began to miss the mayor’s daughter. He equipped four warships and travelled with them, and when he lay off the city where the mayor was, he shot and saluted so that half the panes of glass in the city shattered. Aboard these ships, it was as stately as at the king’s, and he had gold to the seams himself, so fine he was. It was not long before the mayor came down and asked if the fine stranger would be so good as to come and dine with him. Yes, he would; he came up to the mayor’s, and there he sat between the daughter and the mayor’s wife. As they sat there and had a fine time talking, and eating and drinking, and living well, he managed to slip the half-ring into the daughter’s glass. She was not slow to understand its meaning, made an excuse to leave the table, and set it together with the other half.

Her mother noticed something was going on, and slipped out after her as soon as she could. “Do you know who is in there, mother?” said the daughter.

“No,” said the mayor’s wife.

“It is he whom father sold for tobacco,” she said. Immediately the madam fainted, and fell to the ground.

Then the mayor came out, and when he heard how things stood, it did not go much better with him, either.

“It is something of a shock,” said the tobacco boy; “ I have only come to fetch the little girl I kissed on the way to school,” he said. And to the mayor’s wife, he said: “You should never speak ill of a pauper’s child; there is no one who knows what might become of him, for a child has the makings of a man, and sense comes with growth.”


  1. Raggamuffin: Norwegian, skarveunge (cormorant chick). 

  2. The Norwegian, trollkjerring denotes both “witch” and “troll woman” (i.e. a female troll) in English. Its usage in this tale is one of the cases where the correct translation could be either. Or both. 

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