A POOR widow and her little son found themselves alone in the world and forced to earn their living. The boy was too small to be useful to any one but his mother; he could pick up the bits of thread from the floor when she was sewing and find her scissors and blow the fire when the wood burned low, but he could neither read nor write and his mother dearly wished him to have a fine education like the other boys who lived nearby.
So one day she packed up her needle and thimble and all they had in the world—which was little enough—and took him by the hand and trudged away from their little cottage along the mountain road until they reached the town.
The town nestled snugly by the side of a fjord and the water ran up from the sea, deep and blue. Great ships sailed to the quay and anchored there until a forest of masts seemed to rise from the water. The widow told her little lad that these ships went all over the sea to far countries, where crimson and purple birds flew in the rigging and sweet spices and fruits grew by the shore and fine people dressed in gold and silver welcomed the sailors and brought their goods aboard in exchange for the timber of Norway.
The little lad had never seen such a wonderful sight and longed to go out on those white decks and pull at the ropes and see the white sails flapping over his head as the wind got into them and blew the ship along to strange far places. But his mother said he first must have education and they trudged through the streets while she looked for work. At last they came to the Lord Mayor's house. He was a kind man and when she told her story he said his wife was looking for some one to embroider the house linen and mend the children's clothes. So he sent for the Lady Mayoress to see what she had to say.
Directly that good woman came into the room and saw the little lad, with his fair, shining face, as clean as a white cherry, and his little frock with the scarlet cross-stitch and his knitted socks and birch-bark shoes, she said she would be only too glad if his good mother would stay with them and help to keep the Lady Mayoress' children as neat and good-looking as her own.
"The little lad shall play with my own children and go to school with them," said the Lady Mayoress. There was the lad's education provided for, because his mother had done her best with her clever fingers and kept him a credit to her and himself.
So the widow and the little lad, whose name was Olaf, settled down in the Lord Mayor's house and lived off the fat of the land. They worked hard, the widow at her sewing and the little lad at his schooling, for both looked forward to the time when they would have a home of their own again and knew nothing but honest work would earn it for them.
Time went on, and one day the schoolmaster came to the widow and said it was time Olaf was put to a trade. He had studied so well that he was at the top of the class. Then the Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress and the widow and the schoolmaster put their heads together. One said Olaf must be a parson and another said Olaf must be a lawyer, and another said he must have a stool in the Lord Mayor's countinghouse and his own mother cried out he must be a farmer up on the mountain where their own little home used to be. Suddenly, in walked Olaf and stood in the middle of them and said he was going to be a sailor and go to sea in one of those bright big ships as cabin boy.
Well, they talked this way and that way and told him of the storms and how cruel it would be for him to be parted from his mother, but Olaf would hear nothing of it. At last his own mother saw the boy's heart was set on it and he must have his way; and so Olaf was taken to one of the ships and set aboard. He waved good-bye to his mother and off he went, never to see the town again for many and many a long day.
The ship sailed round Norway first of all, and one day when it was in one of the fjords that run far inland, with great mountains rising up on either side, news came that a great preacher had come to the town on the shore and all the crew went off to hear him the next Sunday morning. Olaf was left alone on board to clean the ship and cook the dinner against the time when the captain and the crew would be back again.
Olaf was cheerful enough, for it was the first time he had been left to take care of the big ship. Being a little lad, he liked to feel important. So he swished the decks until they were as shining as the sea, and swabbed the boatsides until, amid all his swishing and swabbing, he heard some one calling. At first he thought it was some seabird, but presently he found it was coming from an island and he could just see somebody standing and waving as if in distress. Well, the ship was clean and he had set the pot aboil in the galley, so he thought he might as well take the ship's boat that was left and row over to lend a hand to a fellow-creature.
When he got to the island, whom should he see but an old lady, with a face as bright as an apple and hair as white as cherry blossoms! She was hopping up and down in her joy when she saw Olaf bringing his little boat across the water to her, and when he ran into shore and grounded on the firm, white sand, she ran down, saying: "Here have I been standing bawling and calling for years and no one has ever heard or heeded me but you. Row me to the other side of the fjord where my sister's house stands on yon mountain and I will repay you with my good wishes and my sister will give you something, too."
"Why, I have the dinner to get," said Olaf, "but if 'tis only to the mountain yonder, I can take you across while the pot is boiling."
The old lady was jumping into the boat before he had time to get his words out. Before he had ended, he found the boat spinning over the little dancing waves as though a breeze was wafting it.
As they went across, the old lady said: "Now, my sister will tell you you may have anything you choose to ask for, but ask for the old tablecloth from the dresser."
"Why, that will be payment enough," said Olaf. "It will be fine to have a cloth to put on the table in the cabin and make it look like home."
The old woman said nothing, but smiled in a funny way and when they reached land, she hopped ashore and called to Olaf to run up with her. Her sister's house stood by the water's edge, so they were soon there, and out came another old woman with a face as rosy as a pear and her hair as white as hawthorn snow. She led Olaf into the kitchen, where were all manner of cakes, comfits, sausages, and nuts and apples, but he shook his head when she offered the dainties in a great basket, much as they tempted his stomach, and said, No, he would not rob her of them; he would just take the old tablecloth from the dresser.
"Food tastes all the better when a cloth is on the table," said Little Olaf, "and when the crew comes back from church, it will be good to sit down to my stew with that nice red cloth beneath our porringers."
"Well," said the second old woman, "you never thought of asking for that by yourself, but you are a good lad, so here it is." And she gave him the cloth with her blessing. Off he ran down to his boat, but who should follow but the first old woman, and now she wanted to be taken to her second sister who lived on another little island.
"But I have to think of my dinner," said Olaf.
"No harm will come to that," said the old woman. "The parson is still preaching, for you can look across and see the church door is still closed. Row me across and I will give you my good wishes and my sister will give you anything you ask for; only mind you ask for the old sword that hangs over the chest. It shuts up like a knife and you can put it in your pocket."
Well, it was plain the people were not out of church yet and the crew would not be back, so Olaf rowed her over to the island. This was covered with spruce fir, growing down to the water, and a tiny hut with a roof thatched with turf stood here. Out of it came an old lady with a face as pink as a cranberry and hair like pear-blossoms. She led Olaf into her hut, which was full of sweetmeats and conserves in pretty glass bottles, but he would have none of the fine basketful she offered him, but said politely he would not rob her, he would but ask for the rusty old sword that hung above the chest.
"That will be of more use to me than to you," said he, "for when we go in foreign parts, I may find occasion for it."
"Well," said the second old woman, "you never thought to ask for that by yourself," but she gave it to him, and Olaf went off to his boat. Just as he was getting in, however, who should leap into it but the first old woman! And now she wanted Olaf to row her to her third sister who lived across the water the other side of the fjord, where the rocks towered up to the sky. Well, Olaf had done a good deal of rowing, but he was not a bit tired, and as there was still no sign of the captain or the crew, Olaf agreed to take her this last trip, for the old woman promised this should really be the last.
Off they went, therefore, to where the great rocks overhung the water dark and solemn, and there, out came her third sister with a face like a peach and hair like silver, from a hut upon the shore, and begged Olaf to come in and choose whatever he liked best for payment. But as they stepped ashore the first old woman whispered: "Choose Granny's old hymn-book."
Now, when they got to the hut, Olaf did feel tempted to ask for a drink, for the hot sun had made him thirsty and the most delicious-looking cordials and homemade wines stood there. The third old woman was filling him a basket with the pretty-coloured flasks, but he said he would prefer Granny's old hymn-book. The third old woman nodded her head as if she were very pleased and said he had chosen the best gift she possessed. Then he went down to the boat and with him went the first old woman to say good-bye and tell him that the old tablecloth had but to be spread on an honest table or good earth, and it would furnish any food he needed; and the sword, if he used the black edge, would make anything topple down, and if he used the white edge would make anything stand up; and the hymns in the hymn-book, if sung by pure lips, would make any sick person well.
Then Olaf rowed back and got to the ship to find the pot boiling merrily and the little dog frisking about and no sign yet of the captain or crew. So he just spread a bit of the tablecloth on the deck, and behold, it was covered instantly with food, and Olaf and the little dog ate every scrap and then Olaf gave the dog a gentle tap with the black edge of the sword and the dog toppled down, and he touched him with the white edge and immediately the dog jumped up. But as there was no one sick aboard he could not try the hymn-book.
Well, he stowed away all these fine gifts in his locker, except the tablecloth, which he laid on the ship's table. When the captain and the crew came back, there was the finest dinner you ever saw, waiting for them. Very pleased they were with Olaf. And then they sailed out into the great ocean to go to foreign parts.
They sailed and sailed and encountered great storms, and at last came to a strange country where spices and strange sweet flowers and fruits grew along by the water's edge. There were fine trees where monkeys and parrots screamed and frolicked. The ship drew up at a marble quay with palaces rising from it and people walking about dressed in gold and silver, just as Olaf's mother had described to him when he was a tiny boy. But every one seemed miserable, and presently they saw a fine gentleman coming to the ship, dressed out in a floating cloak stiff with jewels and wearing a gold crown. This was the King and he ran down to the ship and cried out, "Is there any one aboard who could cure my daughter? She is sick unto death."
Every one was very sorry for him and said no, there wasn't.
But the King said, "Is there any one aboard who is not standing there on deck?" and they said, "Yes, a little cabin boy."
"Fetch him," cried the King, and the captain told Olaf to come up. But when Olaf came, he carried Granny's old hymn-book under his arm, and when the King asked if he could cure his daughter, Olaf said he thought he could.
Then the captain was so angry with what he thought was Olaf's foolish boasting that he stamped and stamped with anger, but he did not dare forbid Olaf's going, because the King was there. Olaf got off the ship and ran alongside of the King to the palace. Then the King took Olaf into the Princess's room, and there she was lying white and still, just a little girl, and Olaf opened the old hymn-book and began to sing the first hymn he clapped eyes on. By the time he had finished the first verse, the Princess opened her eyes and smiled, by the time he had finished the second, she raised her arm and yawned as if she were waking, and by the time he finished the third, she sat up and asked why every one was looking at her that way.
Great were the rejoicings when she ran down the palace steps perfectly well, and the King begged Olaf to stay with them awhile. So Olaf did. But one day some enemies of the King came to make war on him and Olaf ran amongst them with his sword and toppled them over. Then he touched them all with the white edge as they lay on the ground and up they got, very ashamed of having been so wicked and silly as to come and make war. Of course the King forgave them and as they were all away from their homes and very hungry, he wished to feed them. But there were so many he had not enough food in the city. Then Olaf took out his old tablecloth and spread it on the honest earth and there was food enough for all and some to pack in their knapsacks and every enemy went away a friend.
The King was so pleased, he offered Olaf a ship of his very own, and a crew to sail it, and Olaf went aboard and waved good-bye to the King and Princess and all the friends he had made and set sail for the town where he had left the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress and his mother.
But he was grown such a big lad now and was dressed so fine, nobody in the town knew who it was when this great painted ship came sailing in. The Lord Mayor himself came down to the quay to ask if the noble stranger would not come to dinner with him, so Olaf marched up the street beside the Lord Mayor, with all the children and people he knew so well cheering and welcoming him. Not one knew the fine stranger was little Olaf, the cabin boy.
When he got to the Lord Mayor's house and sat down between him and the Lady Mayoress, Olaf shook out his table napkin. He saw it was embroidered with ships in the corners and well he knew who had worked it.
"Never have I seen such beautifully embroidered napkins," said he. "Pray, may I ask to shake the hand of whoever worked this before I eat my dinner?"
"Certainly, for it was worked by the best and bravest woman in Norway," said the Lady Mayoress. "A fine woman whom we are proud to call our friend and who should be sitting at the table with us, but she was so wishful to see the dinner was served right."
"Fetch her to me," commanded Olaf like the great lord they took him for. But when they brought in his mother and he stood up and went to her, she did not wonder who he was, but ran straight to him and cried, "Why, 'tis my little Olaf come home."
Then Olaf and his mother and the Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress could hardly eat their dinner for talking. After dinner, Olaf took them all to his ship and took them round to the little islands and the huts and houses where the four old women lived. The little old women were glad to see him and hear of the good things their gifts had brought him. And then Olaf and his mother and the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress said good-bye, and Olaf and his mother sailed away to go round the world and visit the King and Princess and many fine countries, and so well did they like their ship that they made it their home.