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Hans The Mermaid's Son

from The Pink Fairy Book





Translated from the Danish.


In a village there once lived a smith called Basmus, who was in a very
poor way. He was still a young man, and a strong handsome fellow to
boot, but he had many little children and there was little to be earned
by his trade. He was, however, a diligent and hard-working man, and when
he had no work in the smithy he was out at sea fishing, or gathering
wreckage on the shore.

It happened one time that he had gone out to fish in good weather,
all alone in a little boat, but he did not come home that day, nor the
following one, so that all believed he had perished out at sea. On the
third day, however, Basmus came to shore again and had his boat full
of fish, so big and fat that no one had ever seen their like. There
was nothing the matter with him, and he complained neither of hunger or
thirst. He had got into a fog, he said, and could not find land again.
What he did not tell, however, was where he had been all the time; that
only came out six years later, when people got to know that he had been
caught by a mermaid out on the deep sea, and had been her guest during
the three days that he was missing. From that time forth he went out no
more to fish; nor, indeed, did he require to do so, for whenever he went
down to the shore it never failed that some wreckage was washed up, and
in it all kinds of valuable things. In those days everyone took what
they found and got leave to keep it, so that the smith grew more
prosperous day by day.

When seven years had passed since the smith went out to sea, it happened
one morning, as he stood in the smithy, mending a plough, that a
handsome young lad came in to him and said, 'Good-day, father; my mother
the mermaid sends her greetings, and says that she has had me for six
years now, and you can keep me for as long.'

He was a strange enough boy to be six years old, for he looked as if he
were eighteen, and was even bigger and stronger than lads commonly are
at that age.

'Will you have a bite of bread?' said the smith.

'Oh, yes,' said Hans, for that was his name.

The smith then told his wife to cut a piece of bread for him. She did
so, and the boy swallowed it at one mouthful and went out again to the
smithy to his father.

'Have you got all you can eat?' said the smith.

'No,' said Hans, 'that was just a little bit.'

The smith went into the house and took a whole loaf, which he cut into
two slices and put butter and cheese between them, and this he gave to
Hans. In a while the boy came out to the smithy again.

'Well, have you got as much as you can eat?' said the smith.

'No, not nearly,' said Hans; 'I must try to find a better place than
this, for I can see that I shall never get my fill here.'

Hans wished to set off at once, as soon as his father would make a staff
for him of such a kind as he wanted.

'It must be of iron,' said he, 'and one that can hold out.'

The smith brought him an iron rod as thick as an ordinary staff, but
Hans took it and twisted it round his finger, so that wouldn't do. Then
the smith came dragging one as thick as a waggon-pole, but Hans bent it
over his knee and broke it like a straw. The smith then had to collect
all the iron he had, and Hans held it while his father forged for him a
staff, which was heavier than the anvil. When Hans had got this he said,
'Many thanks, father; now I have got my inheritance.' With this he set
off into the country, and the smith was very pleased to be rid of that
son, before he ate him out of house and home.

Hans first arrived at a large estate, and it so happened that the squire
himself was standing outside the farmyard.

'Where are you going?' said the squire.

'I am looking for a place,' said Hans, 'where they have need of strong
fellows, and can give them plenty to eat.'

'Well,' said the squire, 'I generally have twenty-four men at this time
of the year, but I have only twelve just now, so I can easily take you
on.'

'Very well,' said Hans, 'I shall easily do twelve men's work, but then I
must also have as much to eat as the twelve would.'

All this was agreed to, and the squire took Hans into the kitchen, and
told the servant girls that the new man was to have as much food as the
other twelve. It was arranged that he should have a pot to himself, and
he could then use the ladle to take his food with.

It was in the evening that Hans arrived there, so he did nothing more
that day than eat his supper--a big pot of buck-wheat porridge, which
he cleaned to the bottom and was then so far satisfied that he said he
could sleep on that, so he went off to bed. He slept both well and long,
and all the rest were up and at their work while he was still sleeping
soundly. The squire was also on foot, for he was curious to see how the
new man would behave who was both to eat and work for twelve.

But as yet there was no Hans to be seen, and the sun was already high in
the heavens, so the squire himself went and called on him.

'Get up, Hans,' he cried; 'you are sleeping too long.'

Hans woke up and rubbed his eyes. 'Yes, that's true,' he said, 'I must
get up and have my breakfast.'

So he rose and dressed himself, and went into the kitchen, where he got
his pot of porridge; he swallowed all of this, and then asked what work
he was to have.

He was to thresh that day, said the squire; the other twelve men were
already busy at it. There were twelve threshing-floors, and the twelve
men were at work on six of them--two on each. Hans must thresh by
himself all that was lying upon the other six floors. He went out to the
barn and got hold of a flail. Then he looked to see how the others did
it and did the same, but at hte first stroke he smashed the flail in
pieces. There were several flails hanging there, and Hans took the one
after the other, but they all went the same way, every one flying in
splinters at the first stroke. He then looked round for something else
to work with, and found a pair of strong beams lying near. Next he
caught sight of a horse-hide nailed up on the barn-door. With the beams
he made a flail, using the skin to tie them together. The one beam he
used as a handle, and the other to strike with, and now that was all
right. But the barn was too low, there was no room to swing the flail,
and the floors were too small. Hans, however, found a remedy for
this--he simply lifted the whole roof off the barn, and set it down in
the field beside. He then emptied down all the corn that he could lay
his hands on and threshed away. He went through one lot after another,
and it was ll the same to him what he got hold of, so before midday he
had threshed all the squire's grain, his rye and wheat and barley and
oats, all mixed through each other. When he was finished with this, he
lifted the roof up on the barn again, like setting a lid on a box, and
went in and told the squire that the job was done.

The squire opened his eyes at this announcement; and came out to see
if it was really true. It was true, sure enough, but he was scarcely
delighted with the mixed grain that he got from all his crops. However,
when he saw the flail that Hans had used, and learned how he had made
room for himself to swing it, he was so afraid of the strong fellow,
that he dared not say anything, except that it was a good thing he had
got it threshed; but it had still to be cleaned.

'What does that mean?' asked Hans.

It was explained to him that the corn and the chaff had to be separated;
as yet both were lying in one heap, right up to the roof. Hans began
to take up a little and sift it in his hands, but he soon saw that
this would never do. He soon thought of a plan, however; he opened both
barn-doors, and then lay down at one end and blew, so that all the chaff
flew out and lay like a sand-bank at the other end of the barn, and the
grain was as clean as it could be. Then he reported to the squire that
that job also was done. The squire said that that was well; there was
nothing more for him to do that day. Off went Hans to the kitchen, and
got as much as he could eat; then he went and took a midday nap which
lasted till supper-time.

Meanwhile the squire was quite miserable, and made his moan to his wife,
saying that she must help him to find some means to getting rid of this
strong fellow, for he durst not give him his leave. She sent for the
steward, and it was arranged that next day all the men should go to the
forest for fire-wood, and that they should make a bargain among them,
that the one who came home last with his load should be hanged. They
thought they could easily manage that it would be Hans who would lose
his life, for the others would be early on the road, while Hans would
certainly oversleep himself. In the evening, therefore, the men sat and
talked together, saying that next morning they must set out early to
the forest, and as they had a hard day's work and a long journey before
them, they would, for their amusement, make a compact, that whichever of
them came home last with his load should lose his life on the gallows.
So Hans had no objections to make.

Long before the sun was up next morning, all the twelve men were on
foot. They took all the best horses and carts, and drove off to the
forest. Hans, however, lay and slept on, and the squire said, 'Just let
him lie.'

At last, Hans thought it was time to have his breakfast, so he got up
and put on his clothes. He took plenty of time to his breakfast, and
then went out to get his horse and cart ready. The others had taken
everything that was any good, so that he had a difficulty in scraping
together four wheels of different sizes and fixing them to an old cart,
and he could find no other horses than a pair of old hacks. He did not
know where it lay, but he followed the track of the other carts, and in
that way came to it all right. On coming to the gate leading into the
forest, he was unfortunate enough to break it in pieces, so he took a
huge stone that was lying on the field, seven ells long, and seven ells
broad, and set this in the gap, then he went on and joined the others.
These laughed at him heartily, for they had laboured as hard as they
could since daybreak, and had helped each other to fell trees and put
them on the carts, so that all of these were now loaded except one.

Hans got hold of a woodman's axe and proceeded to fell a tree, but he
destroyed the edge and broke the shaft at the first blow. He therefore
laid down the axe, put his arms round the tree, and pulled it up by the
roots. This he threw upon his cart, and then another and another, and
thus he went on while all the others forgot their work, and stood with
open mouths, gazing at this strange woodcraft. All at once they began to
hurry; the last cart was loaded, and they whipped up their horses, so as
to be the first to arrive home.

When Hans had finished his work, he again put his old hacks into the
cart, but they could not move it from the spot. He was annoyed at this,
and took them out again, twisted a rope round the cart, and all the
trees, lifted the whole affair on his back, and set off home, leading
the horses behind him by the rein. When he reached the gate, he found
the whole row of carts standing there, unable to get any further for the
stone which lay in the gap.

'What!' said Hans, 'can twelve men not move that stone?' With that he
lifted it and threw it out of hte way, and went on with his burden on
his back, and the horses behind him, and arrived at the farm long before
any of the others. The squire was walking about there, looking and
looking, for he was very curious to know what had happened. Finally, he
caught sight of Hans coming along in this fashion, and was so frightened
that he did not know what to do, but he shut the gate and put on the
bar. When Hans reached the gate of the courtyard, he laid down the trees
and hammered at it, but no one came to open it. He then took the trees
and tossed them over the barn into the yard, and the cart after them, so
that every wheel flew off in a different direction.

When the squire saw this, he thought to himself, 'The horses will come
the same way if I don't open the door,' so he did this.

'Good day, master,' said Hans, and put the horses into the stable, and
went into the kitchen, to get something to eat. At length the other men
came home with their loads. When they came in, Hans said to them, 'Do
you remember the bargain we made last night? Which of you is it that's
going to be hanged?' 'Oh,' said they, 'that was only a joke; it didn't
mean anything.' 'Oh well, it doesn't matter, 'said Hans, and there was
no more about it.

The squire, however, and his wife and the steward, had much to say to
each other about the terrible man they had got, and all were agreed that
they must get rid of him in some way or other. The steward said that he
would manage this all right. Next morning they were to clean the well,
and they would use of that opportunity. They would get him down into
the well, and then have a big mill-stone ready to throw down on top of
him--that would settle him. After that they could just fill in the well,
and then escape being at any expense for his funeral. Both the squire
and his wife thought this a splendid idea, and went about rejoicing at
the thought that now they would get rid of Hans.

But Hans was hard to kill, as we shall see. He slept long next morning,
as he always did, and finally, as he would not waken by himself, the
squire had to go and call him. 'Get up, Hans, you are sleeping too
long,' he cried. Hans woke up and rubbed his eyes. 'That's so,' said
he, 'I shall rise and have my breakfast.' He got up then and dressed
himself, while the breakfast stood waiting for him. When he had finished
the whole of this, he asked what he was to do that day. He was told to
help the other men to clean out the well. That was all right, and he
went out and found the other men waiting for him. To these he said that
they could choose whichever task they liked--either to go down into the
well and fill the buckets while he pulled them up, or pull them up, and
he alone would go down to the bottom of the well. They answered that
they would rather stay above-ground, as there would be no room for so
many of them down in the well.

Hans therefore went down alone, and began to clean out the well, but
the men had arranged how they were to act, and immediately each of them
seized a stone from a heap of huge blocks, and threw them down above
him, thinking to kill him with these. Hans, however, gave no more heed
to this than to shout up to them, to keep the hens away from the well,
for they were scraping gravel down on the top of him.

They then saw that they could not kill him with little stones, but they
had still the big one left. The whole twelve of them set to work with
poles and rollers and rolled the big mill-stone to the brink of the
well. It was with the greatest difficulty that they got it thrown down
there, and now they had no doubt that he had got all that he wanted. But
the stone happened to fall so luckily that his head went right through
the hole in the middle of the mill-stone, so that it sat round his neck
like a priest's collar. At this, Hans would stay down no longer. He came
out of the well, with the mill-stone round his neck, ad went straight to
the squire and complained that the other men were trying to make a
fool of him. He would not be their priest, he said; he had too little
learning for that. Saying this, he bent down his head and shook the
stone off, so that it crushed one of the squire's big toes.

The squire went limping in to his wife, and the steward was sent for. He
was told that he must devise some plan for getting rid of this terrible
person. The scheme he had devised before had been of no use, and now
good counsel was scarce.

'Oh, no' said the steward, 'there are good enough ways yet. The squire
can send him this evening to fish in Devilmoss Lake: he will never
escape alive from there, for no one can go there by night for Old Eric.'

That was a grand idea, both the squire and his wife thought, and so
he limped out again to Hans, and said that he would punish his men for
having tried to make a fool of him. Meanwhile, Hans could do a little
job where he would be free from these rascals. He should go out on the
lake and fish there that night, and would then be free from all work on
the following day.

'All right,' said Hans; 'I am well content with that, but I must have
something with me to eat--a baking of bread, a cask of butter, a barrel
of ale, and a keg of brandy. I can't do with less than that.'

The squire said that he could easily get all that, so Hans got all of
these tied up together, hung them over his shoulder on his good staff,
and tramped away to Devilmoss Lake.

There he got into the boat, rowed out upon the lake, and got everything
ready to fish. As he now lay out there in the middle of the lake, and
it was pretty late in the evening, he thought he would have something to
eat first, before starting to work. Just as he was at his busiest with
this, Old Eric rose out of the lake, caught him by the cuff of the neck,
whipped him out of the boat, and dragged him down to the bottom. It was
a lucky thing that Hans had his walking-stick with him that day, and had
just time to catch hold of it when he felt Old Eric's claws in his neck,
so when they got down to the bottom he said, 'Stop now, just wait a
little; here is solid ground.' With that he caught Old Eric by the back
of the neck with one hand, and hammered away on his back with the staff,
till he beat him out as flat as a pancake. Old Eric then began to lament
and howl, begging him just to let him go, and he would never come back
to the lake again.

'No, my good fellow,' said Hans, 'you won't get off until you promise
to bring all the fish in the lake up to the squire's courtyard, before
to-morrow morning.'

Old Eric eagerly promised this, if Hans would only let him go; so Hans
rowed ashore, ate up the rest of his provisions, and went home to bed.

Next morning, when the squire rose and opened his front door, the fish
came tumbling into the porch, and the whole yard was crammed full of
them. He ran in again to his wife, for he could never devise anything
himself, and said to her, 'What shall we do with him now? Old Eric
hasn't taken him. I am certain that all the fish are out of the lake,
for the yard is just filled with them.'

'Yes, that's a bad business,' said she; 'you must see if you can't get
him sent to Purgatory, to demand tribute.' The squire therefore made
his way to the men's quarters, to speak to Hans, and it took him all his
time to push his way along the walls, under the eaves, on account of the
fish that filled the yard. He thanked Hans for having fished so well,
and said that now he had an errand for him, which he could only give to
a trusty servant, and that was to journey to Purgatory, and demand three
years tribute, which, he said, was owing to him from that quarter.

'Willingly,' said Hans; 'but what road do I go, to get there?'

The squire stood, and did not know what to say, and had first to go in
to his wife to ask her.

'Oh, what a fool you are!' said she, 'can't you direct him straight
forward, south through the wood? Whether he gets there or not, we shall
be quit of him.'

Out goes the squire again to Hans.

'The way lies straight forward, south through the wood,' said he.

Hans then must have his provisions for the journey; two bakings of
bread, two casks of butter, two barrels of ale, and two kegs of brandy.
He tied all these up together, and got them on his shoulder hanging on
his good walking-stick, and off he tramped southward.

After he had got through the wood, there was more than one road, and he
was in doubt which of them was the right one, so he sat down and opened
up his bundle of provisions. He found he had left his knife at home, but
by good chance, there was a plough lying close at hand, so he took the
coulter of this to cut the bread with. As he sat there and took his
bite, a man came riding past him.

'Where are you from?' said Hans.

'From Purgatory,' said the man.

'Then stop and wait a little,' said Hans; but the man was in a hurry,
and would not stop, so Hans ran after him and caught the horse by the
tail. This brought it down on its hind legs, and the man went flying
over its head into a ditch. 'Just wait a little,' said Hans; 'I am going
the same way.' He got his provisions tied up again, and laid them on the
horse's back; then he took hold of the reins and said to the man, 'We
two can go along together on foot.'

As they went on their way Hans told the stranger both about the errand
he had on hand and the fun he had had with Old Eric. The other said but
little but he was well acquainted with the way, and it was no long time
before they arrived at the gate. There both horse and rider disappeared,
and Hans was left alone outside. 'They will come and let me in
presently,' he thought to himself; but no one came. He hammered at the
gate; still no one appeared. Then he got tired of waiting, and smashed
at the gate with his staff until he knocked it in pieces and got inside.
A whole troop of little demons came down upon him and asked what he
wanted. His master's compliments, said Hans, and he wanted three years'
tribute. At this they howled at him, and were about to lay hold of him
and drag him off; but when they had got some raps from his walking-stick
they let go again, howled still louder than before, and ran in to Old
Eric, who was still in bed, after his adventure in the lake. They told
him that a messenger had come from the squire at Devilmoss to demand
three years' tribute. He had knocked the gate to pieces and bruised
their arms and legs with his iron staff.

'Give him three years'! give him ten!' shouted Old Eric, 'only don't let
him come near me.'

So all the little demons came dragging so much silver and gold that it
was something awful. Hans filled his bundle with gold and silver coins,
put it on his neck, and tramped back to his master, who was scared
beyond all measure at seeing him again.

But Hans was also tired of service now. Of all the gold and silver
he brought with him he let the squire keep one half, and he was glad
enough, both for the money and at getting rid of Hans. The other half
he took home to his father the smith in Furreby. To him also he said,
'Farewell;' he was now tired of living on shore among mortal men, and
preferred to go home again to his mother. Since that time no one has
ever seen Hans, the Mermaid's son.





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