Once upon a time there was a poor woman who went about begging with her son; for at home she had neither a morsel to eat nor a stick to burn. First she tried the country, and went from parish to parish; but it was poor work, and so she came into the town. There she went about from house to house for a while, and at last she came to the Lord Mayor. He was both open-hearted and open-handed, and he was married to the daughter of the richest merchant in the town, and they had one little daughter. As they had no more children, you may fancy she was sugar and spice and all that's nice, and in a word there was nothing too good for her. This little girl soon came to know the beggar boy as he went about with his mother; and as the Lord Mayor was a wise man, as soon as he saw what friends the two were, he took the boy into his house that he might be his daughter's playmate. Yes, they played and read and went to school together, and never had so much as one quarrel.
One day the Lady Mayoress stood at the window, and watched the children as they were trudging off to school. There had been a shower of rain, and the street was flooded, and she saw how the boy first carried the basket with their dinner over the stream, and then he went back and lifted the little girl over, and when he set her down he gave her a kiss.
When the Lady Mayoress saw this, she got very angry. "To think of such a ragamuffin kissing our daughter—we who are the best people in the place!" That was what she said. Her husband did his best to stop her tongue. "No one knew," he said, "how children would turn out in life, or what might befall his own. The boy was a clever, handy lad, and often and often a great tree sprang from a slender plant."
But no! it was all the same, whatever he said and whichever way he put it. The Lady Mayoress held her own, and said beggars on horseback always rode their cattle to death, and that no one had ever heard of a silk purse being made out of a sow's ear; adding, that a penny would never turn into a shilling, even though it glittered like a guinea. The end of it all was that the poor lad was turned out of the house, and had to pack up his rags and be off.
When the Lord Mayor saw there was no help for it, he sent him away with a trader who had come thither with a ship, and he was to be a cabin boy on board her. He told his wife he had sold the boy for a roll of tobacco.
But before he went the Lord Mayor's daughter broke her ring into two bits and gave the boy one bit, that it might be a token to know him by if they ever met again; and so the ship sailed away, and the lad came to a town far, far off in the world, and to that town a priest had just come who was so good a preacher that everyone went to church to hear him, and the crew of the ship went with the rest the Sunday after to hear the sermon. As for the lad, he was left behind to mind the ship and to cook the dinner. So while he was hard at work he heard some one calling out across the water on an island. So he took the boat and rowed across, and there he saw an old hag, who called and roared.
"Aye," she said, "you have come at last! Here have I stood a hundred years calling and bawling, and thinking how I should ever get over this water; but no one has ever heard or heeded but you, and you shall be well paid if you will put me over to the other side."
So the lad had to row her to her sister's house, who lived on a hill on the other side close by; and when they got there, she told him to beg for the old tablecloth which lay on the dresser. Yes! He would beg for it; and when the old witch who lived there knew that he had helped her sister over the water, she said he might have whatever he chose to ask.
"Oh," said the boy, "then I won't have anything else than that old tablecloth on the dresser yonder."
"Oh," said the old witch, "that you never asked out of your own wits."
"Now I must be off," said the lad, "to cook the Sunday dinner for the church-goers."
"Never mind that," said the first old hag; "it will cook itself while you are away. Stop with me, and I will pay you better still. Here have I stood and called and bawled for a hundred years, but no one has ever heeded me but you."
The end was he had to go with her to another sister, and when he got there the old hag said he was to be sure and ask for the old sword, which was such that he could put it into his pocket and it became a knife, and when he drew it out it was a long sword again. One edge was black and the other white, and if he smote with the black edge everything fell dead, and if with the white everything came to life again. So when they came over, and the second old witch heard how he had helped her sister across, she said he might have anything he chose to ask for her fare.
"Oh," said the lad, "then I will have nothing else but that old sword which hangs up over the cupboard."
"That you never asked out of your own wits," said the old witch; but for all that he got the sword.
Then the old hag said again: "Come on with me to my third sister. Here have I stood and called and bawled for a hundred years, and no one has heeded me but you. Come on to my third sister, and you shall have better pay still."
So he went with her, and on the way she told him he was to ask for the old hymn book; and that was such a book that when anyone was sick and the nurse sang one of the hymns, the sickness passed away, and they were well again. Well! when they got across, and the third old witch heard he had helped her sister across, she said he was to have whatever he chose to ask for his fare.
"Oh," said the lad, "then I won't have anything else but granny's old hymn book."
"That," said the old hag, "you never asked out of your own wits."
When he got back to the ship the crew were still at church, so he tried his tablecloth, and spread just a little bit of it out, for he wanted to see what good it was before he laid it on the table. Yes! in a trice it was covered with good food and strong drink, enough and to spare. So he just took a little snack, and then he gave the ship's dog as much as it could eat.
When the church-goers came on board, the captain said: "Wherever did you get all that food for the dog? Why, he's as round as a sausage, and as lazy as a snail."
"Oh, if you must know," said the lad, "I gave him the bones."
"Good boy," said the captain, "to think of the dog."
So he spread out the cloth, and at once the whole table was covered all over with such brave meat and drink as they had never before seen in all their born days.
Now when the boy was again alone with the dog, he wanted to try the sword, so he smote at the dog with the black edge, and it fell dead on the deck; but when he turned the blade and smote with the white edge the dog came to life again and wagged his tail and fawned on his playmate. But the book—that he could not get tried just then.
Then they sailed well and far till a storm overtook them which lasted many days, so they lay to and drove till they were quite out of their course, and could not tell where they were. At last the wind fell, and then they came to a country far, far off that none of them knew; but they could easily see there was great grief there, as well there might be, for the King's daughter was a leper. The King came down to the shore, and asked was there anyone on board who could cure her and make her well again.
"No, there was not." That was what they all said who were on deck.
"Is there no one else on board the ship than those I see?" asked the King.
"Yes; there's a little beggar boy."
"Well," said the King, "let him come on deck."
So when he came and heard what the King wanted, he said he thought he might cure her; and then the captain got so wroth and mad with rage that he ran round and round like a squirrel in a cage, for he thought the boy was only putting himself forward to do something in which he was sure to fail, and he told the King not to listen to such childish chatter.
But the King only said that wit came as children grew, and that there was the making of a man in every bairn. The boy had said that he could do it, and he might as well try. After all, there were many who had tried and failed before him. So he took him home to his daughter, and the lad sang a hymn once. Then the Princess could lift her arm. Once again he sang it, and she could sit up in bed. And when he had sung it thrice, the King's daughter was as well as you and I are.
The King was so glad he wanted to give him half his kingdom and the princess to wife.
"Yes," said the lad, "land and power are fine things to have half of," and was very grateful; "but as for the Princess, he was betrothed to another," he said, "and he could not take her to wife."
So he stayed there awhile and got half the kingdom; and when he had not been very long there, war broke out, and the lad went out to battle with the rest, and you may fancy he did not spare the black edge of his sword. The enemy's soldiers fell before him like flies, and the King won the day. But when they had conquered, he turned the white edge, and they all rose up alive and became the King's soldiers, who had granted them their lives. But then there were so many of them that they were badly off for food, though the King wished to send them away full, both of meat and drink. So the lad had to bring out his tablecloth, and then there was not a man that lacked anything.
Now when he had lived a little longer with the King, he began to long to see the Lord Mayor's daughter. So he fitted out four ships of war and set sail; and when he came off the town where the Lord Mayor lived, he fired off his cannon like thunder, till half the panes of glass in the town were shivered. On board those ships everything was as grand as in a King's palace; and as for himself, he had gold on every seam of his coat, so fine he was. It was not long before the Lord Mayor came down to the shore and asked if the foreign lord would not be so good as to come up and dine with him. "Yes, he would go," he said; and so he went up to the Mansion House where the Lord Mayor lived, and there he took his seat between the Lady Mayoress and her daughter.
So as they sat there in the greatest state, and ate and drank and were merry, he threw the half of the ring into the daughter's glass, and no one saw it; but she was not slow to find out what he meant, and excused herself from the feast and went out and fitted his half to her half. Her mother saw there was something in the wind and hurried after her as fast as she could.
"Do you know who that is in there, mother?" said the daughter.
"No!" said the Lady Mayoress.
"He whom papa sold for a roll of tobacco," said the daughter.
At these words the Lady Mayoress fainted and fell down flat on the floor.
In a little while the Lord Mayor came out to see what was the matter, and when he heard how things stood he was almost as uneasy as his wife.
"There is nothing to make a fuss about," said Master Tobacco. "I have only come to claim the little girl I kissed as we were going to school."
But to the Lady Mayoress he said:
"You should never despise the children of the poor and needy, for none can tell how they may turn out; since there is the making of a man in every child of man, and wit and wisdom come with growth and strength."