O NCE upon a time there was a lad named Jacob Boehm, who was a practical huntsman.
One day Jacob said to his mother, "Mother, I would like to marry Gretchen—the nice, pretty little daughter of the Herr Mayor."
Jacob's mother thought that he was crazy. "Marry the daughter of the Herr Mayor, indeed! You want to marry the daughter of the Herr Mayor? Listen; many a man wants and wants, and nothing comes of it!"
That was what Jacob Boehm's mother said to him.
But Jacob was deaf in that ear; nothing would do but his mother must go to the Herr Mayor, and ask for leave for him to marry Gretchen. And Jacob begged and begged so prettily that at last his mother promised to go and do as he wished. So off she went, though doubt was heavy in her shoes, for she did not know how the Herr Mayor would take it.
"So Jacob wants to marry Gretchen, does he?" said the Herr Mayor.
Yes; that was what Jacob wanted.
"And is he a practical huntsman?" said the Herr Mayor.
Oh yes, he was that.
"So good," said the Herr Mayor. "Then tell Jacob that when he is such a clever huntsman as to be able to shoot the whiskers off from a running hare without touching the skin, then he can have Gretchen."
Then Jacob's mother went back home again. "Now," said she, "Jacob will, at least, be satisfied."
"Yes," said Jacob, when she had told him all that the Herr Mayor had said to her, "that is a hard thing to do; but what one man has done, another man can." So he shouldered his gun, and started away into the world to learn to be as clever a huntsman as the Herr Mayor had said.
He plodded on and on until at last he fell in with a tall stranger dressed all in red.
"Where are you going, Jacob?" said the tall stranger, calling him by his name, just as if he had eaten pottage out of the same dish with him.
"I am going," said Jacob, "to learn to be so clever a huntsman that I can shoot the whiskers off from a running hare without touching the skin."
"That is a hard thing to learn," said the tall stranger.
Yes; Jacob knew that it was a hard thing; but what one man had done another man could do.
"What will you give me if I teach you to be as clever a huntsman as that?" said the tall stranger.
"What will you take to teach me?" said Jacob; for he saw that the stranger had a horse's hoof instead of a foot, and he did not like his looks, I can tell you.
"Oh, it is nothing much that I want," said the tall man; "only just sign your name to this paper—that is all."
But what was in the paper? Yes; Jacob had to know what was in the paper before he would set so much as a finger to it.
Oh, there was nothing in the paper, only this: that when the red one should come for Jacob at the end of ten years' time, Jacob should promise to go along with him whithersoever he should take him.
At this Jacob hemmed and hawed and scratched his head, for he did not know about that. "All the same," said he, "I will sign the paper, but on one condition."
At this the red one screwed up his face as though he had sour beer in his mouth, for he did not like the sound of the word "condition." "Well," said he, "what is the condition?"
"It is only this," said Jacob: "that you shall be my servant for the ten years, and if, in all that time, I should chance to ask you a question that you cannot answer, then I am to be my own man again."
Oh, if that was all, the red man was quite willing for that.
Then he took Jacob's gun, and blew down into the barrel of it. "Now," said he, "you are as skillful a huntsman as you asked to be."
"That I must try," said Jacob. So Jacob and the red one went around hunting here and hunting there until they scared up a hare. "Shoot!" said the red one; and Jacob shot. Clip! off flew the whiskers of the hare as neatly as one could cut them off with the barber's shears.
"Yes, good!" said Jacob, "now I am a skillful huntsman."
Then the stranger in red gave Jacob a little bone whistle, and told him to blow in it whenever he should want him. After that Jacob signed the paper, and the stranger went one way and he went home again.
Well, Jacob brushed the straws off from his coat, and put a fine shine on his boots, and then he set off to the Herr Mayor's house.
"How do you find yourself, Jacob?" said the Herr Mayor.
"So good," said Jacob.
"And are you a skillful huntsman now?" said the Herr Mayor.
Oh yes, Jacob was a skillful huntsman now.
Yes, good! But the Herr Mayor must have proof of that. Now, could Jacob shoot a feather out of the tail of the magpie flying over the trees yonder?
Oh yes! nothing easier than that. So Jacob raised the gun to his cheek. Bang! went the gun, and down fell a feather from the tail of the magpie.
At this the Herr Mayor stared and stared, for he had never seen such shooting.
"And now may I marry Gretchen?" said Jacob.
At this the Herr Mayor scratched his head, and hemmed and hawed. No; Jacob could not marry Gretchen yet, for he had always said and sworn that the man who should marry Gretchen should bring with him a plough that could go of itself, and plough three furrows at once. If Jacob would show him such a plough as that, then he might marry Gretchen and welcome. That was what the Herr Mayor said.
Jacob did not know how about that; perhaps he could get such a plough, perhaps he could not. If such a plough was to be had, though, he would have it. So off he went home again, and the Herr Mayor thought that he was rid of him now for sure and certain.
But when Jacob had come home, he went back of the woodpile and blew a turn or two on the little bone whistle that the red stranger had given him. No sooner had he done this than the other stood before him as suddenly as though he had just stepped out of the door of nowheres.
"What do you want, Jacob?" said he.
"I would like," said Jacob, "to have a plough that can go by itself and plough three furrows at once."
"That you shall have," said the red one. Then he thrust his hand into his breeches pocket, and drew forth the prettiest little plough that you ever saw. He stood it on the ground before Jacob, and it grew large as you see it in the picture. "Plough away," said he, and then he went back again whither he had come.
So Jacob laid his hands to the plough and—whisk!—away it went like John Stormwetter's colt, with Jacob behind it. Out of the farm-yard they went, and down the road, and so to the Herr Mayor's house, and behind them lay three fine brown furrows, smoking in the sun.
When the Herr Mayor saw them coming he opened his eyes, you may be sure, for he had never seen such a plough as that in all of his life before.
"And now," said Jacob, "I should like to marry Gretchen, if you please."
At this the Herr Mayor hemmed and hawed and scratched his head again. No; Jacob could not marry Gretchen yet, for the Herr Mayor had always said and sworn that the man who married Gretchen should bring with him a purse that always had two pennies in it and could never be emptied, no matter how much was taken out of it.
Jacob did not know how about that; perhaps he could get it and perhaps he could not. If such a thing was to be had, though, he would have it, as sure as the Mecklenburg folks brew sour beer. So off he went home again, and the Herr Mayor thought that now he was rid of him for certain.
But Jacob went back of the woodpile and blew on his bone whistle again, and once more the red one came at his bidding.
"What will you have now?" said he to Jacob.
"I should like," said Jacob, "to have a purse which shall always have two pennies in it, no matter how much I take out of it."
"That you shall have," said the red one; whereupon he thrust his hand into his pocket, and fetched out a beautiful silken purse with two pennies in it. He gave the purse to Jacob, and then he went away again as quickly as he had come.
After he had gone, Jacob began taking pennies out of his purse and pennies out of his purse, until he had more than a hatful—hui! I would like to have such a purse as that.
Then he marched off to the Herr Mayor's house with his chin up, for he might hold his head as high as any, now that he had such a purse as that in his pocket. As for the Herr Mayor, he thought that it was a nice, pretty little purse; but could it do this and that as he had said?
Jacob would show him that; so he began taking pennies and pennies out of it, until he had filled all the pots and pans in the house with them. And now might he marry Gretchen?
Yes; that he might! So said the Herr Mayor; for who would not like to have a lad for a son-in-law who always had two pennies more in his purse than he could spend.
So Jacob married his Gretchen, and, between his plough and his purse, he was busy enough, I can tell you.
So the days went on and on and on until the ten years had gone by and the time had come for the red one to fetch Jacob away with him. As for Jacob, he was in a sorry state of dumps, as you may well believe.
At last Gretchen spoke to him. "See, Jacob," said she, "what makes you so down in the mouth?"
"Oh! nothing at all," said Jacob.
But this did not satisfy Gretchen, for she could see that there was more to be told than Jacob had spoken. So she teased and teased, until at last Jacob told her all, and that the red one was to come the next day and take him off as his servant, unless he could ask him a question which he could not answer.
"Prut!" said Gretchen, "and is that all? Then there is no stuffing to that sausage, for I can help you out of your trouble easily enough." Then she told Jacob that when the next day should come he should do thus and so, and she would do this and that, and between them they might cheat the red one after all.
So, when the next day came, Gretchen went into the pantry and smeared herself all over with honey. Then she ripped open a bed and rolled herself in the feathers.
By-and-by came the red one. Rap! tap! tap! he knocked at the door.
"Are you ready to go with me now, Jacob?" said he.
Yes; Jacob was quite ready to go, only he would like to have one favor granted him first.
"What is it that you want?" said the red one.
"Only this," said Jacob: "I would like to shoot one more shot out of my old gun before I go with you."
Oh, if that was all, he might do that and welcome. So Jacob took down his gun, and he and the red one went out together, walking side by side, for all the world as though they were born brothers.
By-and-by they saw a wren. "Shoot at that," said the red one.
"Oh no," said Jacob, "that is too small."
So they went on a little farther.
By-and-by they saw a raven. "Shoot at that, then," said the red one.
"Oh no," said Jacob, "that is too black."
So they went on a little farther.
By-and-by they came to a ploughed field, and there was something skipping over the furrows that looked for all the world like a great bird. That was Gretchen; for the feathers stuck to the honey and all over her, so that she looked just like a great bird.
"Shoot at that! shoot at that!" said the red one, clapping his hands together.
"Oh yes," said Jacob, "I will shoot at that." So he raised his gun and took aim. Then he lowered his gun again. "But what is it?" said he.
At this the red one screwed up his eyes, and looked and looked, but for the life of him he could not tell what it was.
"No matter what it is," said he, "only shoot and be done with it, for I must be going."
"Yes, good! But what is it?" said Jacob.
Then the red one looked and looked again, but he could tell no better this time than he could before. "It may be this and it may be that," said he. "Only shoot and be done with it, for they are waiting for me at home."
"Yes, my friend," said Jacob, "that is all very good; only tell me what it is and I will shoot."
"Thunder and lightning!" bawled the red one, "I do not know what it is!"
"Then be off with you!" said Jacob, "for, since you cannot answer my question, all is over between us two."
At this the red one had to leave Jacob, so he fled away over hill and dale, bellowing like a bull.
As for Jacob and Gretchen, they went back home together, very well pleased with each other and themselves.
And the meaning of all this is, that many another man
beside Jacob Boehm would find himself in a
pretty scrape only for his wife.