There was once a poor woodcutter who toiled from early morning till late at night. When at last he had laid by some money he said to his boy, "You are my only child, I will spend the money which I have earned with the sweat of my brow on your education, if you learn some honest trade you can support me in my old age, when my limbs have grown stiff and I am obliged to stay at home."
Then the boy went to a high school and learned diligently so that his masters praised him, and he remained there a long time. When he had worked through two classes, but was still not yet perfect in everything, the little pittance which the father had earned was all spent, and the boy was obliged to return home to him.
"Ah," said the father, sorrowfully, "I can give you no more, and in these hard times I cannot earn a farthing more than will suffice for our daily bread."
"Dear father," answered the son, "don't trouble yourself about it, if it is God's will, it will turn to my advantage. I shall soon accustom myself to it." When the father wanted to go into the forest to earn money by helping to chop and stack wood, the son said, "I will go with you and help you." "Nay, my son," said the father, "that would be hard for you. You are not accustomed to rough work, and will not be able to bear it.
Besides, I have only one axe and no money left wherewith to buy another." "Just go to the neighbor," answered the son, "he will lend you his axe until I have earned one for myself."
The father then borrowed an axe of the neighbor, and next morning at break of day they went out into the forest together. The son helped his father and was quite merry and brisk about it. But when the sun was right over their heads, the father said, "We will rest, and have our dinner, and then we shall work twice as well."
The son took his bread in his hands, and said, "Just you rest, father, I am not tired, I will walk up and down a little in the forest, and look for birds' nests." "Oh, you fool," said the father, "why should you want to run about there? Afterwards you will be tired, and no longer able to raise your arm. Stay here, and sit down beside me."
The son, however, went into the forest, ate his bread, was very merry and peered in among the green branches to see if he could discover a bird's nest anywhere.
So he walked to and fro until at last he came to a great dangerous-looking oak, which certainly was already many hundred years old, and which five men could not have spanned. He stood still and looked at it, and thought, many a bird must have built its nest in that. Then all at once it seemed to him that he heard a voice. He listened and became aware that someone was crying in a very smothered voice, "Let me out, let me out." He looked around, but could discover nothing.
Then he fancied that the voice came out of the ground. So he cried, "Where are you?" The voice answered, "I am down here amongst the roots of the oak-tree. Let me out. Let me out."
The schoolboy began to loosen the earth under the tree, and search among the roots, until at last he found a glass bottle in a little hollow. He lifted it up and held it against the light, and then saw a creature shaped like a frog, springing up and down in it. "Let me out. Let me out," it cried anew, and the boy thinking no evil, drew the cork out of the bottle. Immediately a spirit ascended from it, and began to grow, and grew so fast that in a very few moments he stood before the boy, a terrible fellow as big as half the tree.
"Do you know," he cried in an awful voice, "what your reward is for having let me out?" "No," replied the boy fearlessly, "how should I know that?" "Then I will tell you," cried the spirit, "I must strangle you for it." "You should have told me that sooner," said the boy, "for I should then have left you shut up, but my head shall stand fast for all you can do, more persons than one must be consulted about that." "More persons here, more persons there," said the spirit.
"You shall have the reward you have earned. Do you think that I was shut up there for such a long time as a favor. No, it was a punishment for me. I am the mighty Mercurius. Whoso releases me, him must I strangle."
"Slowly," answered the boy, "not so fast. I must first know that you really were shut up in that little bottle, and that you are the right spirit. If, indeed, you can get in again, I will believe and then you may do as you will with me." The spirit said haughtily, "that is a very trifling feat." Drew himself together, and made himself as small and slender as he had been at first, so that he crept through the same opening, and right through the neck of the bottle in again.
Scarcely was he within than the boy thrust the cork he had drawn back into the bottle, and threw it among the roots of the oak into its old place, and the spirit was deceived.
And now the schoolboy was about to return to his father, but the spirit cried very piteously, "Ah, do let me out, ah, do let me out." "No," answered the boy, "not a second time. He who has once tried to take my life shall not be set free by me, now that I have caught him again." "If you will set me free," said the spirit, "I will give you so much that you will have plenty all the days of your life."
"No," answered the boy, "you would cheat me as you did the first time." "You are spurning you own good luck," said the spirit, "I will do you no harm but will reward you richly." The boy thought, "I will venture it, perhaps he will keep his word, and anyhow he shall not get the better of me."
Then he took out the cork, and the spirit rose up from the bottle as he had done before, stretched himself out and became as big as a giant. "Now you shall have your reward," said he, and handed the boy a little rag just like stiking-plaster, and said, "If you spread one end of this over a wound it will heal, and if you rub steel or iron with the other end it will be changed into silver."
"I must just try that," said the boy, and went to a tree, tore off the bark with his axe, and rubbed it with one end of the plaster. It immediately closed together and was healed. "Now, it is all right," he said to the spirit, "and we can part." The spirit thanked him for his release, and the boy thanked the spirit for his present, and went back to his father.
"Where have you been racing about?"
said the father. "Why have you forgotten your work? I always said that you would never come to anything." "Be easy, father, I will make it up." "Make it up indeed," said the father angrily, "that's no use."
"Take care, father, I will soon hew that tree there, so that it will split." Then he took his plaster, rubbed the axe with it, and dealt a mighty blow, but as the iron had changed into silver, the edge bent. "Hi, father, just look what a bad axe you've given me, it has become quite crooked." The father was shocked and said, "Ah, what have you done! Now I shall have to pay for that, and have not the wherewithal, and that is all the good I have got by your work."
"Don't get angry," said the son, "I will soon pay for the axe." "Oh, you blockhead," cried the father, "Wherewith will you pay for it? You have nothing but what I give you. These are students' tricks that are sticking in your head, you have no idea of woodcutting."
After a while the boy said, "Father, I can really work no more, we had better take a holiday."
"Eh, what," answered he, "do you think I will sit with my hands lying in my lap like you. I must go on working, but you may take yourself off home." "Father, I am here in this wood for the first time, I don't know my way alone. Do go with me." As his anger had now abated, the father at last let himself be persuaded and went home with him.
Then he said to the son, "Go and sell your damaged axe, and see what you can get for it, and I must earn the difference, in order to pay the neighbor."
The son took the axe, and carried it into town to a goldsmith, who tested it, laid it in the scales, and said, "It is worth four hundred talers, I have not so much as that by me." The son said, "Give me what thou have, I will lend you the rest." The goldsmith gave him three hundred talers, and remained a hundred in his debt. The son thereupon went home and said, "Father, I have got the money, go and ask the neighbor what he wants for the axe."
"I know that already," answered the old man, "one taler, six groschen." "Then give him him two talers, twelve groschen, that is double and enough. See, I have money in plenty." And he gave the father a hundred talers, and said, "You shall never know want, live as comfortably as you like."
"Good heavens," said the father, "how have you come by these riches?"
The boy then told how all had come to pass, and how he, trusting in his luck, had made such a packet. But with the money that was left, he went back to the high school and went on learning more, and as he could heal all wounds with his plaster, he became the most famous doctor in the whole world.