The Honourable Penny
Once upon a time there was a woman of poor means who lived in a tumble-down hut far into the forest. Little had she to eat, and nothing at all to burn, and so she sent a little boy whom she had out into the wood to gather fuel.
He ran and jumped, and jumped and ran, to keep himself warm, for it was a cold grey autumn day, and every time he found a bough or a root for his billet, (an order), he had to beat his arms across his breast, for his fists were as red as the cranberries over which he walked, from the very coldness.
So when he had got his bundle of fuel and was off to home, he came upon a clearing of stumps along the hillside, and there he saw a white crooked stone.
"Ah! you poor old stone," said the boy; "how white and wan you are! I'll be bound you are frozen to death;" and with that he took off his jacket and laid it on the stone.
So when he got to home with his billet of wood his mother asked of him what it all meant that he walked about in wintry weather in nought but his shrtsleeves. Then he told her how he had seen an old crooked stone, which was all white and wan for the frost, and of how he had given it his jacket.
"What a fool are you!" said his mother; "do you think a stone can freeze? But even if freeze it did till it shook again, know you this – every one is nearest to his own self. It costs quite enough to get clothes to your back without your going and hanging them on stones in the clearings;" and as she stated this last, she hunted the boy out of the house to fetch his jacket.
So when he came upon the the clearing where the stone lie, lo! it had turned itself and lifted itself up on one side from the ground.
"Yes! Yes! This is since you got the jacket, poor old thing," said the boy.
But when he peered a little closer upon the stone, he saw a money-box, full of bright silver, under it.
"This is stolen money, no doubt," though the boy; "no one puts money, come by honest, under a stone away in the wood."
So he took the money-box and bore it up to a tarn hard by, and there threw the whole hoard far into the mountainous lake; but one silver penny-piece floated back towards him on the top of the water.
"Ah! Ah! That is honest," said the lad' "for what is honest never sinks."
So he took the silver penny and started back to home with it in his hand and his jacket upon his back. When he arrived, he told his mother how it all had happened, how the stone had turned itself, and how he had found a money-box full of silver under it, which he had thrown out into the tarn because it was surely stolen money, and how one silver penny floated on the top.
"That I kept," said the lad, "because it is honest monies."
"You are a born fool," seethed his mother, for she was very angry; "were naught else honest than what floats on water, there wouldn't be much peoples in the world. And even though the money were stolen ten times over, still you had found it; and I tell you again what I told you before, every one is nearest to his own self. Had you only kept the found monies we might have lived well and happy all our days. But a ne'er-do-weel thou art, and a ne'er-do-weel thou wilt be, and now I won't drag on any longer toiling and moiling for thee. Be off with thee out into the world and earn thine own bread."
So the lad had to venture out into the wide world, and he went both far and long seeking a place to fit. But wherever he came, folk thought of him too little and too weak, and said they could put him to no use. At last he came unto a merchant, and there he got leave to be in the kitchen and carry in wood and water for the cook. Well, after he had been there for quite some time, the merchant had to make a journey into foreign lands, and so he asked all his servants in turn what they would like for him to buy and bring home for each. So, when all had said what they would have, the turn came to the scullion too, who brought in wood and water for the cook, where-upon he held out his penny.
"Well, what shall I buy with this?" asked the merchant; "There won't be much time lost over this bargain."
"Buy what-so-ever you may get for it. It is honest silver, that I know," said the lad.
That his master gave his word he would do, and so he sailed away.
So when the merchant arrived in foreign lands, and had unladed his ship and laded her again, and bought what he had promised his servants to buy for them, he came down to his ship, and was just going to shove off from the wharf. Then all at once it came into his head that the scullion had sent out a silver penny with him, that he might buy something for him.
"Must I go all the way back into the town for the sake of a silver penny, no matter how honest? One would then have small gain in taking such a begger into one's house." thought the merchant.
Just then an old wife came walking by with a bag at her back.
"What have you got there in your bag, mother?" asked the merchant.
"Oh! Nothing else than a cat. I can't afford to feed it any longer, so I thought I would throw it into the sea, and make away with it," answered the woman.
Then the merchant said quietly to himself, "Didn't the lad say I was to buy what I could get for his honest penny?" So he asked the old wife if she would take four farthings for her cat. Yes! the goody was none to slow in answer. It was a done deal, and so the bargain was soon struck.
Now when the merchant had sailed a bit, fearful weather fell upon his ship. Such a storm it was, there was nothing for it, but to drive and drive till he did not know whither he was going. At the last he came upon a land on which he had never set foot before, and so up he went into the town.
At the inn where he turned in, the board was laid with a rod for each man who sat at it. The merchant thought it very strange, for he couldn't at all make out what they were to do with all these rods; but he sat him down, and thought he would watch well what the others did, and so do like them. Well! As soon as the meat was set on the board, he saw well enough what the rods meant; for out swarmed mice in thousands, and each one who sat at the board had to take to his rod and flog and flap about him, and naught else could be heard other than one cut of the rod harder than the one which went before it. Sometimes they whipped one another in the face, and just gave themselves time to say, "Beg pardon," and then they went back at it again.
"Hard work it is to dine thusly in this land!" said the merchant. "But do you folk not keep cats here to ease this growing problem?"
"Cats?" they all asked in unison, for indeed they did not know what cats even were.
So the merchant sent and fetched the cat he had bought for the scullion, and as soon as the cat got on the table-board, off ran the mice every-which-way to their holes, and the folk had never in their collective memory had such rest at their meat.
Then the folk of the town begged and beseached the merchant to sell to them the cat, and at the last, after a long, haggling time, he promised to let them have it; but he would have an hundred dollars for it; and that sum they gladly gave, and their thanks besides.
So the merchant sailed off again; but he had scarce got good sea-room before he saw the cat a-sitting up at the mainmast head, and all at once again came foul weather and a storm worse than the first, and he drove and drove until he knew not whither he was going, when at the last, he got to a country where he had never before been. The merchant went up to an inn, and here, too, the board was spread with rods; but they were much bigger and longer than those of the first inn. To tell the truth, as always should be done, they had need to be larger; for here the mice were many more, and every mouse was twice as big as those he had before seen.
So he again sold the cat, and this time he got an hundred dollars twice over for it, and without any haggling at all.
So when he had sailed away from that land, and got a bit out at sea, there again sat Grimalkin atop the masthead; and the bad weather began at once again, and the end of it was, he was again driven to a land where he had never before been.
He went once again ashore, up to the town, and turned into an inn. Here, too, the board was laid with rods, but every rod was an ell and a half long, and as thick as a small broom; and the folk said that to sit at meat was the hardest trial they had, for there were many thousands of big ugly rats, so that it was only with sore toil and trouble one could get a morsel into one's mouth, 'twas such hard work to keep off the rats.
So the cat had to once again be fetched up from the ship, and then the folk got their food in peace. After-which, they heartily begged and beseached the merchant, for Eir's sake, to sell to them his cat. For a long time he said "No;" but at the last he gave his word to take an hundred dollars thrice over for it. That sum the folk paid down at once, and thanked him and blessed him for it into the bargain.
Now, when the merchant got out at sea, he fell to a-thinking how much monies the scullion-lad had made out of the honest silver penny he had sent out with him.
"Yes, yes, some of the coin he shall have," said the merchant quitely to himself, "but not all. Me it is that he has to thank for the cat I bought; and besides, every man is nearest to his own self."
But no sooner had the merchant utterd this, such a storm and gale arose that every one thought the ship must surely founder. So the merchant saw there was no help for it, and he made to vow that the lad should have every penny; and no sooner had the merchant vowed this vow, than the weather turned good, and he got a snoring breeze fair for home.
So, when he got to his own wharf, he gave the lad an hundred dollars six times over, and his daughter besides; for now the little scullion-lad was just as rich as his master, the merchant, and even richer; and, after that, the lad lived all his days in mirth and jollity; and he sent for his mother, and treated her as well as or better than he treated himself; "for," said the lad, "I do not believe that that every one is nearest to his own self."
Source: Scandinavian Folk and Fairy Tales: 1836
copyright © 2000 Reverend Godhi Yens Jensen all rights reserved