Once on a time there were three brothers, who had lost their parents; and as they had left nothing behind them on which the lads could live, they had to go out into the world to try their luck. The two elder fitted themselves out as well as they could; but the youngest, whom they called Taper Tom, because he always sat in the chimney-corner and held tapers of pine wood, him they would not have with them.
The two set out early in the grey dawn; but, however fast they went, or did not go, Taper Tom came just as soon as the others to the king's palace. So when they got there, they asked for work. The king said he had nothing for them to do; but as they were so pressing, he'd see if he could not find them something,--there must be always something to do in such a big house. Yes! they might drive nails into the wall; and when they had done driving them in, they might pull them out again. When they had done that, they might carry wood and water into the kitchen.
Taper Tom was the handiest in driving nails into the wall and in pulling them out again and he was the handiest also in carrying wood and water. So his brothers were jealous of him, and said he had given out that he was good enough to get the king the prettiest princess who was to be found in twelve kingdoms; for you must know the king had lost his old dame, and was a widower. When the king heard that, he told Taper Tom he must do what he had said, or else he would make them lay him on the block and chop his head off.
Taper Tom answered, he had never said nor thought anything of the kind; but, as the king was so stern, he would try what he could do. So he got him a scrip of food over his shoulders, and set off from the palace; but he had not gone far on the road before he grew hungry, and wanted to taste the food they had given him when he set out. So when he had seated himself to rest at his ease, under a spruce by the roadside, up came an old hag hobbling, who asked what he had in his scrip.
'Salt meat and fresh meat,' said the lad. 'If you are hungry, granny, come and take a snack with me.'
Yes! She thanked him, and then she said, might be she would do him a good turn herself; and away she hobbled through the wood. So when Taper Tom had eaten his full, and had rested, he threw his scrip over his shoulder and set off again; but he had not gone far before he found a pipe. That, he thought, would be nice to have with him and play on by the way; and it was not long before he brought the sound out of it, you may fancy. But then there came about him such a swarm of little Trolls, and each asked the other in full cry,--
'What has my lord to order? What has my lord to order?'
Taper Tom said he never knew he was lord over them; but if he was to order anything, he wished they would fetch him the prettiest princess to be found in twelve kingdoms. Yes! that was no great thing, the little Trolls thought; they knew well enough where she was, and they could show him the way, and then he might go and get her for himself, for they had no power to touch her.
Then they showed him the way, and he got to the end of his journey well and happily. There was not anyone who laid so much as two sticks across in his way. It was a Troll's castle, and in it sat three lovely princesses; but as soon as ever Taper Tom came in, they all lost their wits for fear, and ran about like scared lambs, and all at once they were turned into three lemons that lay in the window. Taper Tom was so sorry and unhappy at that, he scarce knew which way to turn. But when he had thought a little, he took and put the lemons into his pocket, for he thought they would be good to have if he got thirsty by the way, for he had heard say lemons were sour.
So when he had gone a bit of the way, he got so hot and thirsty; water was not to be had, and he did not know what he should do to quench his thirst. So he fell to thinking of the lemons, and took one of them out and bit a hole in it. But, lo! inside sat the princess as far as her armpits, and screamed out--
'Water!--water!' Unless she got water, she must die, she said.
Yes! the lad ran about looking for water as though he were a mad thing; but there was no water to be got, and all at once the princess was dead.
So when he had gone a bit further, he got still hotter and thirstier; and as he could find nothing to quench his thirst, he pulled out the second lemon and bit a hole in it. Inside it was also a princess, sitting as far as her armpits, and she was still lovelier than the first. She, too, screamed for water, and said, if she could not get it she must die outright. So Taper Tom hunted under stone and moss, but he could find no water; and so the end was the second Princess died too.
Taper Tom thought things got worse and worse, and so it was, for the farther he went the hotter it got. The earth was so dry and burnt up, there was not a drop of water to be found, and he was not far off being half dead of thirst. He kept himself as long as he could from biting a hole in the lemon he still had, but at last there was no help for it. So when he had bitten the hole, there sat a princess inside it also; she was the loveliest in twelve kingdoms, and she screamed out if she could not get water she must die at once. So Taper Tom ran about hunting for water; and this time he fell upon the king's miller, and he showed him the way to the mill-dam. So when he came to the dam with her and gave her some water, she came quite out of the lemon, and was stark naked. So Taper Tom had to let her have the wrap he had to throw over her, and then she hid herself up a tree while he went up to the king's palace to fetch her clothes, and tell the king how he had got her, and, in a word, told him the whole story.
But while this was going on, the cook came down to the mill-dam to fetch water; and when she saw the lovely face which played on the water, she thought it was her own, and grew so glad she fell a-dancing and jumping because she had grown so pretty.
'The deil carry water,' she cried, 'since I am so pretty;' and away she threw the water-buckets. But in a little while she got to see that the face in the mill-dam belonged to the princess who sat up in the tree; and then she got so cross, that she tore her down from the tree, and threw her out into the dam. But she herself put on Taper Tom's cloak, and crept up into the tree.
So when the king came and set eyes on the ugly swarthy kitchen-maid, he turned white and red; but when he heard how they said she was the loveliest in twelve kingdoms, he thought he could not help believing there must be something in it; and besides he felt for poor Taper Tom, who had taken so much pains to get her for him.
'She'll get better, perhaps, as time goes on,' he thought, 'when she is dressed smartly, and wears fine clothes;' and so he took her home with him.
Then they sent for all the wig-makers and needlewomen, and she was dressed and clad like a princess; but for all they washed and dressed her, she was still as ugly and black as ever.
After a while the kitchen-maid was to go to the dam to fetch water, and then she caught a great silver fish in her bucket. She bore it up to the palace, and showed it to the king, and he thought it grand and fine; but the ugly princess said it was some witchcraft, and they must burn it, for she soon saw what it was. Well! the fish was burnt, and next morning they found a lump of silver in the ashes. So the cook came and told it to the king, and he thought it passing strange; but the princess said it was all witchcraft, and bade them bury it in the dung-heap. The king was much against it; but she left him neither rest nor peace, and so he said at last they might do it.
But lo! next day stood a tall lovely linden tree on the spot where they had buried the lump of silver, and that linden had leaves which gleamed like silver. So when they told the king that, he thought it passing strange; but the princess said it was nothing but witchcraft, and they must cut down the linden at once. The king was against that; but the princess plagued him so long that at last he had to give way to her in this also.
But lo! when the lasses went out to gather the chips of the linden to light the fires, they were pure silver.
'It isn't worth while,' one of them said, 'to say anything about this to the king or the princess, or else they, too, will be burnt and melted. It is better to hide them in our drawers. They will be good to have when a lover comes, and we are going to marry.'
Yes! They were all of one mind as to that; but when they had borne the chips a while, they grew so fearfully heavy that they could not help looking to see what it was; and then they found the chips had been changed into a child, and it was not long before it grew into the loveliest princess you ever set eyes on.
The lasses could see very well that something wrong lay under all this. So they got her clothes, and flew off to find the lad, who was to fetch the loveliest princess in twelve kingdoms, and told him their story.
So when Taper Tom came, the princess told him her story, and how the cook had come and torn her from the tree and thrown her into the dam; and how she had been the silver fish, and the silver lump, and the linden, and the chips, and how she was the true princess.
It was not so easy to get the king's ear, for the ugly black cook hung over him early and late; but at last they made out a story, and said that a challenge had come from a neighbour king, and so they got him out; and when he came to see the lovely princess, he was so taken with her, he was for holding the bridal feast on the spot; and when he heard how badly the ugly black cook had behaved to her, he said they should take her and roll her down hill in a cask full of nails. Then they kept the bridal feast at such a rate that it was heard and talked of over twelve kingdoms.