O NCE on a time there was a man who had three sons, Peter, Paul and Espen. Espen was Boots, of course, because he was the youngest. I can't say the man had anything except these three sons, for he did not possess one penny to rub against another; and so he told his sons over and over again they must go out into the world to seek their fortune, for at home there was nothing to be expected but to starve to death.
Now, a short way from the man's cottage was the King's palace, and you must know, just against the King's windows a great oak had sprung up, which was so stout and big that it took away all the light from the king's palace. The King had said he would give much gold to any man who could fell the oak, but no one was man enough to do it, for as soon as one chip of the oak's trunk flew off, two grew in its stead. The King wished also to have a well dug which was to hold water for the whole year. All his neighbors had wells, but he had none, and he thought that a shame.
So the King said he would give to any one who could dig him such a well as would hold water for the whole year round, both money and goods, but no one could do it, for the King's palace lay high, high up on a hill, and they could dig but a few inches before they would come upon rock.
But as the King had set his heart on having these two things done, he had it given out in all the churches of his kingdom far and wide, that he who could fell the big oak in the King's courtyard, and dig him a well that would hold water the whole year round, should have the Princess and half the kingdom. Well! you may easily know there was many a man who came to try his luck; but all their hacking and hewing, and all their digging and delving were useless. The oak got bigger and stouter at every stroke, and the rock grew no softer either.
One day the three brothers thought they, too, would set off and try it. Their father had not a word to say against it; for even if they did not get the Princess and half the kingdom, it might happen they would get a place somewhere with a good master and that was all he wanted. So when the brothers asked his permission, he consented at once, and Peter, Paul and Espen set forth.
Well, they had not gone far before they came to a fir wood where at one side there rose a steep hill, and as they went along they heard something hewing and hacking away up on the hill among the trees.
"I wonder now what it is that is hewing away up yonder," said Boots.
"You're always so clever with your wondering," laughed Peter and Paul both at once. "What wonder is it, pray, that a wood cutter should stand and hack up on a hillside?"
"Still, I'd like to see what it is, after all," said Boots, and up he went.
"Oh, if you're such a child, 'twill do you good to go and take a lesson," called out his brothers after him.
But Boots didn't care for what they said; he climbed the steep hillside towards the spot whence the noise came, and when he reached the place, what do you think he saw? Why, an axe that stood there hacking and hewing, all of itself, at the trunk of a fir tree.
"Good-day," said Boots. "So you stand here all alone and hew, do you?"
"Yes, here I've stood and hewed and hacked for hundreds of years, waiting for you," said the axe.
"Well, here I am at last," said Boots, as he took the axe, pulled it off its haft, and stuffed both head and haft into his wallet.
When he got down again to his brothers, they began to jeer and laugh at him.
"And now, what strange thing was it you saw up yonder on the hillside?" they asked.
"Oh, it was only an axe we heard," said Boots.
When they had gone on a bit farther, their road passed under a steep spur of rock, where they heard something digging and shovelling.
"I wonder now," said Boots, "what is digging and shovelling up yonder at the top of the rock."
"Ah, you're always so clever with your wondering," laughed Peter and Paul again, "as if you'd never heard a woodpecker hacking and pecking at a hollow tree."
"Well, well," said Boots, "I just think it would be fun to see what it really is."
And so off he set to climb the rock, while the others laughed and made fun of him. But he did not care a bit for that; up he climbed, and when he got near the top, what do you think he saw? Why, a spade that stood there digging and delving.
A spade that stood digging and delving.
"Good-day!" said Boots. "So you stand here all alone, and dig and delve, do you?"
"Yes, that's what I do," said the spade, "and that's what I've done these hundreds of years, waiting for you, Boots."
"Well, here I am," said Boots again, as he took the spade and knocked it off the handle, and put it into his wallet,—and then returned to his brothers.
"Well, what was it, so rare and strange," said Peter and Paul, "that you saw up there at the top of the rock?"
"Oh," said Boots, "nothing more than a spade; that was what we heard."
So they went on again a good bit until they came to a brook. They were thirsty, all three, after their long walk, and so they lay down beside the brook to have a drink.
"I wonder now," said Boots, "where all this water comes from."
"I wonder if you've lost the little sense you had," said Peter and Paul in one breath. "Where the brook comes from indeed! Have you never heard how water rises from a spring in the earth?"
"Yes! but still I've a great fancy to see where this brook comes from," said Boots.
So along beside the brook he went, in spite of all that his brothers cried after him. Nothing could stop him. On he went, up and up, and the brook got smaller and smaller, and at last, a little way farther on, what do you think he saw? Why, a great walnut, and out of that the water trickled.
"Good-day!" said Boots again. "So you lie here, and trickle and run down all alone?"
"Yes, I do," said the walnut, "and here have I trickled and run these hundreds of years, waiting for you, Boots."
"Well, here I am," said Boots, as he took up a lump of moss, and plugged up the hole, that the water might not run out. Then he put the walnut into his wallet, and ran down to his brothers.
"Well, now," said Peter and Paul, "have you found out where the water comes from? A rare sight it must have been!"
"Oh, after all, it was only a hole it ran out of," said Boots; and so the others laughed and made fun of him again, but Boots didn't mind that a bit.
"After all, I had the fun of seeing it," said he.
So when they had gone a bit farther, they came to the King's palace; but as every one in the kingdom had heard how he might win the Princess and half the realm, if he could only fell the big oak and dig the King's well, so many had come to try their luck that the oak was now twice as stout and big as it had been at first; for two chips grew for every one they hewed out with their axes, as I dare say you remember I told you. So the King had now laid down as a punishment, that if any one tried and could not fell the oak, he should be put on a barren island, much like a prison.
The two brothers did not let themselves be scared by that, however, for they were quite sure they could fell the oak, and Peter, as he was the eldest, was to try his hand first. But it went with him as with all the rest who had hewn at the oak. For every chip he had cut out, two grew in its place. So the King's men seized him, bound him hand and foot, and put him out on the island.
Now, Paul was to try his luck, but he fared just the same; when he had hewn two or three strokes, they began to see the oak grow, and so the King's men seized him too, bound him hand and foot, and put him out on the island,
And now Boots was to try.
"You can save yourself the trouble, we'll bind you and send you off after your brothers just as well first as last," laughed the King's men.
"Well, I'd just like to try first," said Boots, and so he got leave. Then he took his axe out of his wallet and fitted it to its haft.
"Hew away!" said he to his axe; and away it hewed, making the chips fly, so that it wasn't long before down came the oak.
When that was done Boots pulled out his spade and fitted it to its handle.
"Dig away!" said he to the spade; and the spade began to dig and delve till the earth and rock flew out in splinters, and he had the well soon dug out, as you may believe.
And when he had got it as big and deep as he chose, Boots took out his walnut and laid it in one corner of the well, and pulled the plug of moss out.
"Trickle and run," said Boots; and so the water trickled and ran, till it gushed out of the hole in a stream, and in a short time the well was brimful.
Then Boots had felled the oak which shaded the King's palace, and dug a well that held water all the year around, and so he got the princess and half the kingdom, as the King had said. And it was lucky for Peter and Paul that they were on the barren island, else they had heard each day and hour how every one said: "Well, after all, Boots did not wonder about things for nothing."