"Once on a time there was a cottager who had an only son, and this lad was weakly, and hadn't much health to speak of; so he couldn't go out to work in the field.
"His name was Freddy, and undersized he was, too; and so they called him Little Freddy. At home there was little either to bite or sup, and so his father went about the country trying to bind him over as a cowherd or an errand-boy; but there was no one who would take his son till he came to the sheriff, and he was ready to take him, for he had just packed off his errand-boy, and there was no one who would fill his place, for the story went that he was a skinflint.
"But the cottager thought it was better there than nowhere: he would get his food, for all the pay he was to get was his board--there was nothing said about wages or clothes. So when the lad had served three years he wanted to leave, and then the sheriff gave him all his wages at one time. He was to have a penny a year. 'It couldn't well be less,' said the sheriff. And so he got threepence in all.
"As for little Freddy, he thought it was a great sum, for he had never owned so much; but for all that he asked if he wasn't to have something more.
"'You have already had more than you ought to have,' said the sheriff.
"'Sha'n't I have anything, then, for clothes?' asked little Freddy; 'for those I had on when I came here are worn to rags, and I have had no new ones.'
"And, to tell the truth, he was so ragged that the tatters hung and flapped about him.
"'When you have got what we agreed on,' said the sheriff, 'and three whole pennies beside, I have nothing more to do with you. Be off!'
"But for all that he got leave just to go into the kitchen and get a little food to put in his scrip; and after that he set off on the road to buy himself more clothes. He was both merry and glad, for he had never seen a penny before; and every now and then he felt in his pockets as he went along to see if he had them all three. So when he had gone far, and farther than far, he got into a narrow dale, with high fells on all sides, so that he couldn't tell if there were any way to pass out; and he began to wonder what there could be on the other side of those fells, and how he ever should get over them.
"But up and up he had to go, and on he strode; he was not strong on his legs, and had to rest every now and then--and then he counted and counted how many pennies he had got. So when he had got quite up to the very top, there was nothing but a great plain overgrown with moss. There he sat him down, and began to see if his money were all right; and before he was aware of him a beggarman came up to him--and he was so tall and big that the lad began to scream and screech when he got a good look of him, and saw his height and length.
"'Don't you be afraid,' said the beggarman, 'I'll do you no harm; I only beg for a penny, in God's name.'
"'Heaven help me!' said the lad. 'I have only three pennies, and with them I was going to the town to buy clothes.'
"'It is worse for me than for you,' said the beggarman. "'I have got no penny, and I am still more ragged than you.'
"'Well! then you shall have it,' said the lad.
"So when he had walked on awhile he got weary, and sat down to rest again. But when he looked up there he saw another beggarman, and he was still taller and uglier than the first; and so when the lad saw how very tall and ugly and long he was he fell a-screeching.
"'Now, don't you be afraid of me,' said the beggar; 'I'll not do you any harm. I only beg for a penny, in God's name.'
"'Now, may heaven help me!' said the lad. 'I've only got two pence, and with them I was going to the town to buy clothes. If I had only met you sooner, then----'
"'It's worse for me than for you,' said the beggarman. I have no penny, and a bigger body and less clothing.'
"'Well, you may have it,' said the lad.
"So he went awhile farther, till he got weary, and then he sat down to rest; but he had scarce sat down than a third beggarman came to him. He was so tall and ugly and long, that the lad had to look up and up, right up to the sky. And when he took him all in with his eyes, and saw how very, very tall and ugly and ragged he was he fell a-screeching and screaming again.
"'Now, don't you be afraid of me, my lad,' said the beggarman. 'I'll do you no harm; for I am only a beggarman, who begs for a penny in God's name.'
"'May heaven help me!' said the lad. 'I have only one penny left, and with it I was going to the town to buy clothes. If I had only met you sooner, then----'
"'As for that,' said the beggarman, 'I have no penny at all--that I haven't, and a bigger body and less clothes, so it is worse for me than for you.'
"'Yes!' said little Freddy, he must have the penny then--there was no help for it; for so each would have what belonged to him, and he would have nothing.
"'Well!' said the beggarman, 'since you have such a good heart that you gave away all that you had in the world, I will give you a wish for each penny.' For you must know it was the same beggarman who had got them all three; he had only changed his shape each time, that the lad might not know him again.
"'I have always had such a longing to hear a fiddle go, and see folk so glad and merry that they couldn't help dancing,' said the lad; and so, if I may wish what I choose, I will wish myself such a fiddle, that everything that has life must dance to its tune.'
"'That he might have,' said the beggarman; but it was a sorry wish. 'You must wish something better for the other two pennies.'
"'I have always had such a love for hunting and shooting,' said little Freddy; 'so if I may wish what I choose, I will wish myself such a gun that I shall hit everything I aim at, were it ever so far off.'
"'That he might have,' said the beggarman; 'but it was a sorry wish. You must wish better for the last penny.'
"'I have always had a longing to be in company with folk who were kind and good,' said little Freddy; and so, if I could get what I wish, I would wish it to be so that no one can say 'Nay' to the first thing I ask.'
"'That wish was not so sorry,' said the beggarman; and off he strode between the hills, and he saw him no more. And so the lad laid down to sleep, and the next day he came down from the fell with his fiddle and his gun.
"First he went to the storekeeper and asked for clothes, and at one farm he asked for a horse, and at another for a sledge; and at this place he asked for a fur-coat, and no one said him 'Nay,'--even the stingiest folk, they were all forced to give him what he asked for. At last he went through the country as a fine gentleman, and had his horse and his sledge; and so when he had gone a bit he met the sheriff with whom he had served.
"'Good-day, master,' said Little Freddy, as he pulled up and took off his hat.
"'Good-day,' said the sheriff. And then he went on, 'When was I ever your master?'
"'Oh, yes!' said little Freddy. 'Don't you remember how I served you three years for three pence?'
"'Heaven help us!' said the sheriff. 'How you have got on all of a hurry! And pray how was it that you got to be such a fine gentleman?'
"'Oh, that's telling!' said little Freddy.
"'And are you full of fun, that you carry a fiddle about with you?' asked the sheriff.
"'Yes! yes!' said Freddy. 'I have always had such a longing to get folk to dance; but the funniest thing of all is this gun, for it brings down almost anything that I aim at, however far it may be off. Do you see that magpie yonder, sitting in the spruce fir? What'll you bet I don't bag it, as we stand here?'
"On that the sheriff was ready to stake horse and groom, and a hundred dollars beside, that he couldn't do it; but, as it was, he would bet all the money he had about him; and he would go to fetch it when it fell--for he never thought it possible for any gun to carry so far.
"But as the gun went off down fell the magpie, and into a great bramble thicket; and away went the sheriff up into the brambles after it, and he picked it up and showed it to the lad. But in a trice Little Freddy began to scrape his fiddle, and the sheriff began to dance, and the thorns to tear him; but still the lad played on, and the sheriff danced, and cried, and begged till his clothes flew to tatters, and he scarce had a thread to his back.
"'Yes!' said Little Freddy; 'now I think you're about as ragged as I was when I left your service. So now you may get off with what you have got.'
"But, first of all, the sheriff had to pay him what he had wagered that he could not hit the magpie.
"So when the lad came to the town he turned aside into an inn, and he began to play, and all who came danced, and he lived merrily and well. He had no care, for no one could say him 'Nay' to anything he asked.
"But just as they were all in the midst of their fun up came the watchmen to drag the lad off to the town-hall: for the sheriff had laid a charge against him, and said he had waylaid him and robbed him, and nearly taken his life. And now he was to be hanged--they would not hear of anything else. But Little Freddy had a cure for all trouble, and that was his fiddle. He began to play on it, and the watchmen fell a-dancing, till they lay down and gasped for breath.
"So they sent soldiers and the guard on their way; but it was no better with them than with the watchmen. As soon as ever Little Freddy scraped his fiddle, they were all bound to dance, so long as he could lift a finger to play a tune; but they were half dead long before he was tired. At last they stole a march on him, and took him while he lay asleep by night; and when they had caught him he was doomed to be hanged on the spot, and away they hurried him to the gallows-tree.
"There a great crowd of people flocked together to see this wonder, and the sheriff, he, too, was there; and he was so glad at last at getting amends for the money and the skin he had lost, and that he might see him hanged with his own eyes. But they did not get him to the gallows very fast, for little Freddy was always weak on his legs, and now he made himself weaker still. His fiddle and his gun he had with him also--it was hard to part him from them; and so, when he came to the gallows, and had to mount the steps, he halted on each step; and when he got to the top he sat down, and asked if they could deny him a wish, and if he might have leave to do one thing? He had such a longing, he said to scrape a tune and play a bar on his fiddle before they hanged him.
"'No! no!' they said. 'It were sin and shame to deny him that.' For, you know, no one could gainsay what he asked.
"But the sheriff he begged them, for God's sake, not to let him have leave to touch a string, else it was all over with them altogether; and if the lad got leave, he begged them to bind him to the birch that stood there.
"So little Freddy was not slow in getting his fiddle to speak, and all that were there fell a-dancing at once--those who went on two legs, and those who went on four; both the dean and the parson, and the lawyer, and the bailiff, and the sheriff; masters and men, dogs and swine, they all danced and laughed and screeched at one another. Some danced till they lay for dead; some danced till they fell into a swoon. It went badly with all of them, but worst of all with the sheriff, for there he stood bound to the birch, and he danced and scraped great bits off his back against the trunk. There was not one of them who thought of doing anything to little Freddy, and away he went with his fiddle and his gun, just as he chose; and he lived merrily and happily all his days, for there was no one who could say him 'Nay' to the first thing he asked for."