Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Howard Pyle



The Best That Life Has To Give

T HERE was a blacksmith who lived near to a great dark pine forest. He was as poor as charity soup; but dear knows whether that was his fault or not, for he laid his troubles upon the back of ill-luck, as everybody else does in our town.

One day the snow lay thick all over the ground, and hunger and cold sat in the blacksmith's house. "I'll go out into the forest," says he, "and see whether I cannot get a bagful of pine-cones to make a fire in the stove." So off he stumped, but could find no cones, because they were all covered up with white. On into the woods he went, farther and farther and deeper and deeper, until he came to a high hill, all of bare rock. There he found a clear place and more pine-cones scattered over the ground than a body could count. He filled his basket, and it did not take him long to do that.

But he was not to get his pine-cones for nothing: click! clack!—a great door opened in the side of the hill, and out stepped a little dwarf, as ugly as ugly could be, for his head was as big as a cabbage, his hair as red as carrots, and his eyes as green as a snake's.

"So," said, he, "you are stealing my pine-cones are you? And there are none in the world like them. Look your last on the sunlight, for now you shall die."


Down fell the blacksmith on his knees. "Alas!" said he, "I did not know that they were your pine-cones. I will empty them out of my sack and find some elsewhere."

"No," said the dwarf, "it is too late to do that now. But listen, you might hunt the world over, and find no such pine-cones as these; so we will strike a bit of a bargain between us. You shall go in peace with your pine-cones if you will give me what lies in the bread-trough at home."

"Oh, yes," said the blacksmith, "I will do that gladly."

"Very well," said the dwarf, "I will come for my pay at the end of seven days," and back he went into the hill again, and the door shut to behind him.

Off went the blacksmith, chuckling to himself. "It is the right end of the bargain that I have this time," said he.

But, bless you! He talked of that horse before he had looked into its mouth, as my Uncle Peter used to say. For listen: while his wife sat at home spinning, she wrapped the baby in a blanket and laid it in the bread-trough, because it was empty and as good as a cradle. And that was what the dwarf spoke of, for he knew what had been done over at the blacksmith's house.

But the blacksmith was as happy as a cricket under the hearth; on he plodded, kicking up the soft snow with his toes; but all the time the basket of pine-cones kept growing heavier and heavier.

"Come," said he, at last, "I can carry this load no farther, some of the pine-cones must be left behind." So he opened the basket to throw a parcel of them out. But—

Hi! how he did stare! For everyone of those pine-cones had turned to pure silver as white as the frost on the window-pane. After that he was for throwing none of them away, but for carrying all of them home, if he broke his back at it, and upon that you may depend.

"And I had them all for nothing," said he to his wife; "for the dwarf gave them to me for what was in the bread-trough, and I knew very well that there was nothing there."

"Alas," said she, "what have you done! The baby is sleeping there, and has been sleeping there all morning."

When the blacksmith heard this he scratched his head, and looked up and looked down, for he had burned his fingers with the hot end of the bargain after all. All the same, there was nothing left but to make the best that he could of it. So he took two or three of the silver pine-cones to the town and bought plenty to eat, and plenty to drink, and warm things to wear into the bargain.

At the end of seven days up came the dwarf and knocked at the blacksmith's house.

"Well, and is the baby ready?" said he, "for I have come to fetch it."

But the blacksmith's wife begged and prayed and prayed and begged that the baby might be spared to her. "Let us keep it for seven years at least," said she, "for what can you want with a young baby in the house?"

Yes, that was very true. Young babies were troublesome things to have about the house, and the woman might keep it for seven years since she was anxious to do so. So off went the dwarf, and the woman had what she wanted, for seven years is a long time to put off our troubles.

But at the end of that time up came the dwarf a second time.

"Well, is the boy ready now?" said he, "for I have come to take him."

"Yes, yes," says the woman, "the boy is yours, but why not leave him for another seven years, for he is very young to be out in the world yet?"

Yes, that was true, and so the dwarf put off taking him for seven years longer.

But when it had passed, back he came again, and this time it did no good for his mother and father to beg and pray, for he had put off his bargain long enough, and now he was for having what was his.

"All the same," says he to the blacksmith, "if you will come after five years to the place in the woods where you saw me, you shall have your son, if you choose to take him." And off he went with the lad at his heels.

Well, after five years had passed, the blacksmith went into the forest to find the dwarf and to bring back his son again.

There was the dwarf waiting for him, and in his hand he held a basket. "Well, neighbor," says he, "and have you come to fetch your son again?"

Yes, that was what the blacksmith wanted.

"Very well," says the dwarf, "here he is, and all that you have to do is to take him." He opened the basket, and inside was a wren, a thrush, and a dove.

"But which of the three is the lad?" says the blacksmith.

"That is for you to tell, neighbor," says the dwarf.

The blacksmith looked and looked, and first he thought it might be the wren, and then he thought it might be the thrush, and then he thought it might be the dove. But he was afraid to choose any one of the three, lest he should not be right in the choosing. So he shook his head and sighed, and was forced at last to go away with empty hands.

Out by the edge of the forest sat an old woman spinning flax from a distaff.

"Whither away, friend?" said she, "and why do you wear such a sorrowful face?"

The blacksmith stopped and told her the whole story from beginning to end. "Tut!" said the old woman, "you should have chosen the dove for that was your son for sure and certain."

"There!" said the blacksmith, "if I had only known that in the first place it would have saved me so much leg wear," and back he went, hotfoot, to find the dwarf and to get his son again.

There was the dwarf waiting for him with a basket on his arm, but this time it was a sparrow and a magpie and a lark that were in it, and the blacksmith might take which of the three he liked, for one of them was his own son.

The man looked and looked, and could make nothing of it, so all that he could do was to shake his head and turn away again with empty hands.

Out by the edge of the forest sat the old woman spinning. "Prut!" says she, "you should have chosen the lark, for it was your son for sure and certain. But listen; go back and try again; look each bird in the eyes, and choose where you find tears; for nothing but the human soul weeps."

Back went the man into the forest for the third time, and there was the dwarf just as before, only this time it was a sparrow and a jackdaw and a raven that he had in his basket.

The man looked at each of the three in turn, and there were tears in the raven's eyes.

"This is the one I choose," said he, and he snatched it and ran. And it was his son and none other whom he held.

As for the dwarf, he stood and stamped his feet and tore his hair, but that was all he could do, for one must abide by one's bargains, no matter what happens.


You can guess how glad the father and the mother were to have their son back home again. But the lad just sat back of the stove and warmed his shins, and stared into the Land of Nowhere, without doing a stroke of work from morning till night. At last the father could stand it no longer, for, though one is glad to have one's own safe under the roof at home, it is another thing to have one's own doing nothing the livelong day but sit back of the stove and eat good bread and meat; for the silver pine-cones were gone by this time, and good things were no more plentiful in the blacksmith's house than they had been before.

"Come!" says he to lazy-boots one day, "is there nothing at all that you can do to earn the salt you eat?"

"Oh, yes," said the lad, "I have learned many things, and one over at the dwarf's house yonder, for the dwarf is a famous blacksmith." So out he came from behind the stove, and brushed the ashes from his hair, and went out into the forge.

"Give me a piece of iron," says he, "and I will show you a trick or two worth knowing."

"Yes," says the blacksmith, "you shall have the iron; all the same I know that it is little or nothing that you know about the hammer and the tongs."

But the young fellow answered nothing. He made a bed of hot coals, and laid the iron in it.

"Here," said he to his father, "do you blow the bellows till I come back, and be sure that you do not stop for so much as a wink, or else all will be spoiled." So he gave the handle into the blacksmith's hand and off he went.

The old man blew the bellows and blew the bellows, but the dwarf over in the forest knew what was being done as well as though he stood in the forge. He was not for letting the lad steal his tricks if he could help it. So he changed himself into a great fly, and came and lit on the blacksmith's neck, and bit him till the blood ran; but the blacksmith just shut his eyes tight, and grinned and bore it, and blew the bellows and blew the bellows.

By and by the lad came in, and the fly flew away. He drew the iron out of the fire, and dipped it in the water, and what do you think it was? Why, a golden tree with a little golden bird sitting in the branches, with bright jewels for its eyes.

The lad drew a little silver wand from his pocket, and gave the tree a tap, and the bird began to hop from branch to branch, and to sing so sweetly that it made one's heart stand still to listen to it.

As for the blacksmith, he just stood and gaped and stared, with his mouth and eyes as wide open as if they never would shut again.

Now there was no king in that country, but a queen who lived in a grand castle on a high hill, and was as handsome a one as ever a body's eyes looked upon.

"Here," says the lad to his father, "take this up to the queen at the castle yonder, and she will pay you well for it." Then he went and sat down back of the stove again, and toasted his shins and stared at nothing at all.

Up went the blacksmith to the queen's castle with the golden bird and the golden tree wrapped up in his pocket-handkerchief. Dear, dear, how the queen did look and listen and wonder, when she saw how pretty it was, and heard how sweetly the little golden bird sang. She called her steward and bade him give the blacksmith a whole bag of gold and silver money for it, and off went the man as pleased as pleased could be.

And now they lived upon the very best of good things over at the blacksmith's house; but good things cost money, and by and by the last penny was spent of what the queen had given him, and nothing would do but for the lad to go out and work a little while at the forge. So up he got from back of the stove, and out he went into the forge. He made a bed of coals and laid the iron upon it.

"Now," says he to his father, "do you blow the bellows till I come back," and off he went.

Well, the old man took the handle and blew and blew, but the dwarf knew what was going on this time, just as well as he had done before. He changed himself into a fly, and came and lit on the blacksmith's neck, and dear, dear, how he did bite! The blacksmith shut his eyes and grinned, but at last he could bear it no longer. He raised his hand and slapped at the fly, but away it flew with never a hair hurt.

In came the lad and drew the iron out of the fire and plunged it into the water, and there it was a beautiful golden comb that shone like fire. But the lad was not satisfied with that. "You should have done as I told you," said he, "and have stopped at nothing; for now the work is spoiled."

The blacksmith vowed and declared that he had not stopped from blowing the bellows, but the lad knew better than that; for there should have been a golden looking-glass as well as the comb. The one was of no use without the other, for when one looked in the golden looking-glass, and combed one's hair with the golden comb, one grew handsomer every day, and the lad had intended both for the queen.

"All the same," said the old man, "I will take the golden comb up to the castle;" and it did no good for the lad to shake his head and say no. "For," says the father, "old heads are wise heads; and the queen will like this as well as the other." So up the castle he would go, and up to the castle he went.

But when the queen saw the golden comb her brows grew as black as a thunder-storm. "Where is the looking-glass?" said she; and though the old man vowed and declared that no looking-glass belonged with the comb, she knew a great deal better. So, now the blacksmith might have his choice; he should either bring her the looking-glass that belonged to the golden comb or bring her that which was the best in all the world. If he did neither of these he should be thrown into a deep pit full of toads and vipers.

Back went the old man home again and told the lad all that had happened from beginning to end. And then he wanted to know what he should do to get himself out of his pickle.

Well, it was no easy task to make what the queen wanted; all the same, the lad would try what he could do. So he rolled up his sleeves and out he went into the forge and laid a piece of iron upon the bed of hot coals.

This time he would not trust the old man to blow the bellows for him, but took the handle into his own hand and blew and blew.

The dwarf knew what was happening this time as well as before. He changed himself into a fly and came and sat on the lad's forehead, and bit until the blood ran down into his eyes and blinded him; but the lad blew the bellows and blew the bellows.

First the fire burned red, and then it burned white, and then it burned blue, and after that the work was done.

Then the young man raised his hand and struck the fly and killed it, and that was an end of the dwarf for good and all.

What he had made he dipped into the water and it was a gold ring, nothing less nor more. He took a sharp knife and drew charms upon it, and inside of the circle he wrote these words:



"Here," said the lad to his father, "take this up to the queen, for it is what she wants, and there is nothing better in the world."


Off marched the old man and gave the ring to the queen, and she slipped it on her finger.

That was how the blacksmith saved his own skin; but the poor queen did nothing but just sit and look out of the window, and sigh and sigh.

After a while she called her steward to her and bade him go over and tell the blacksmith's son to come to her.

There sat the lad back of the stove. "Prut!" said he, "she must send a better than you if she would have me come to her." So the steward had just to go back to the castle again and tell the queen what the lad had said.

Then the queen called her chief minister to her. "Do you go," said she, "and bid the lad come to me."

There sat the lad back of the stove. "Prut!" said he, "she must send a better than you if she would have me come to her."

Off went the minister and told the queen what he had said, and the queen saw as plain as the nose on her face that she must go herself if she would have the lad come at her bidding.

There sat the lad back of the stove. And would he come with her now?

Yes, indeed that he would. So he slipped from behind the stove and took her by the hand, and they walked out of the house and up to her castle on the high hill, for that was where he belonged now. There they were married, and ruled the land far and near. For it is one thing to be a blacksmith of one kind, and another thing to be a blacksmith of another kind, and that is the truth, whether you believe it or not.

And did the queen really get the best in the world? Bless your heart, my dear, wait until you are as old as I am, and have been married as long, and you will be able to answer that question without the asking.