There was once upon a time a merchant’s son who squandered and wasted all his goods. To such a pass did he come at last that he had nothing to eat. So he seized a spade, went out into the market-place, and began waiting to see if any one would hire him as a labourer. And behold, the merchant who was one in seven hundred1 came along that way in his gilded coach; all the day-labourers saw him, and the whole lot of them immediately scattered in every direction and hid themselves in corners.
The merchant’s son alone of them all remained standing in the market-place. “Do you want work, young man?” said the merchant who was one in seven hundred; “then take hire from me.”—“Right willingly; ’twas for no other reason that I came to the market-place.”—“And what wage do you require?”—“If you lay me down one hundred roubles a day, ’tis a bargain.”—“That is somewhat dear!”—“If you think it dear, go and seek a cheaper article; but this I know, crowds of people were here just now, you came, and—away they all bolted.”—“Well, agreed! come to-morrow to the haven.”
The next day, early in the morning, our merchant’s son came to the haven; the merchant who was one in seven hundred had already been awaiting him some time. They went on board ship and went to sea. They sailed and sailed. In the midst of the sea an island appeared; on this island stood high mountains, and on the sea-shore something or other was burning like fire. “Can that which I see be fire?” said the merchant’s son. “Nay, that is my little golden castle.”
They drew near to the island; they went ashore; his wife and daughter came forth to meet the merchant who was one in seven hundred, and the daughter was beautiful with a beauty that no man can imagine or devise, and no tale can tell. As soon as they had greeted one another they went on to the castle, and took the new labourer along with them; they sat them down at table, they began to eat, drink, and be merry.
“A fig for to-day,” said the host; “to-day we’ll feast, to-morrow we’ll work.” And the merchant’s son was a fair youth, strong and stately, of a ruddy countenance like milk and blood, and he fell in love with the lovely damsel. She went out into the next room; she called him secretly, and gave him a flint and steel.
“Take them,” said she, “and if you should be in any need, use them.” Next day the merchant who was one in seven hundred set out with his servant for the high golden mountain. They climbed and climbed, but they climbed not up to the top; they crawled and crawled, but they crawled not up to the top.
“Well,” said the merchant, “let’s have a drink first of all.” And the merchant handed him a sleeping poison. The labourer drank and fell asleep. The merchant drew out his knife, killed his wretched nag which he had brought with him, took out its entrails, put the young man into the horse’s stomach, put the spade in too, sewed up the wound, and went and hid himself among the bushes. Suddenly there flew down a whole host of black iron-beaked ravens. They took up the carcase, carried it up into the mountain, and fell a-pecking it; they began eating up the horse, and soon pierced right down to the merchant’s son.
Then he awoke, beat off the black crows, looked hither and thither, and asked himself, “Where am I?” The merchant who was one in seven hundred bawled up at him, “On the golden mountain; come, take your spade and dig gold.” So he digged and digged, throwing it all down below, and the merchant put it on wagons. By evening he had filled nine wagons.
“That’ll do,” cried the merchant who was one in seven hundred; “thanks for your labour. Adieu!”—“But how about me?”—“You may get on as best you can. Ninety-nine of your sort have perished on that mountain—you will just make up the hundred!” Thus spake the merchant and departed. “What’s to be done now?” thought the merchant’s son; “to get down from this mountain is quite impossible. I shall certainly starve to death.”
So there he stood on the mountain, and above him wheeled the black iron-beaked crows, they plainly scented their prey. He began to bethink him how all this had come to pass, and then it occurred to him how the lovely damsel had taken him aside and given him the flint and steel, and said to him herself—“Take it, and if you are in need make use of it.”—“And look now, she did not say it in vain. Let us try it.” The merchant’s son took out the flint and steel, struck it once, and immediately out jumped two fair young heroes.
“What do you want? What do you want?”—“Take me from this mountain to the sea-shore.” He had no sooner spoken than they took him under the arms and bore him carefully down from the mountain. The merchant’s son walked about by the shore, and lo, a ship was sailing by the island. “Hi, good ship-folk, take me with you!”—“Nay, brother, we cannot stop, such a stoppage would lose us one hundred knots.”
The mariners passed by the island, contrary winds began to blow, a frightful hurricane arose. “Alas! he is plainly no simple man of our sort, we had better turn back and take him on board ship.” So they returned to the island, stopped by the shore, took up the merchant’s son, and conveyed him to his native town. A long time and a little time passed by, and then the merchant’s son took his spade and again went out into the market-place to wait for some one to hire him. Again the merchant who was one in seven hundred passed by in his gilded carriage; the day-labourers saw him and scattered in every direction, and hid them in corners.
The merchant’s son was the sole solitary little one left. “Will you take hire from me?” said the merchant who was one in seven hundred. “Willingly; put down two hundred roubles a day, and set me my work.”—“Rather dear, eh?”—“If you find it dear, go and seek cheaper labour. You saw how many people were here, and the moment you appeared they all ran away.”—“Well, then, done; come to-morrow to the haven.”
The next morning they met at the haven, went on board the ship, and sailed to the island. There they ate and drank their fill one whole day, and the next day they got up and went towards the golden mountain. They arrived there, the merchant who was one in seven hundred pulled out his drinking-glass.
“Come now, let us have a drink first,” said he.—“Stop, mine host! You who are the chief ought to drink the first, let me treat you with mine own drink.” And the merchant’s son, who had betimes provided himself with sleeping poison, poured out a full glass of it and gave it to the merchant who was one in seven hundred. He drank it off and fell into a sound sleep.
The merchant’s son slaughtered the sorriest horse, disembowelled it, laid his host in the horse’s belly, put the spade there too, sewed up the wound, and went and hid himself among the bushes. Instantly the black iron-beaked crows flew down, took up the carcase, carried it to the mountain, and fell a-pecking at it. The merchant who was one in seven hundred awoke and looked hither and thither. “Where am I?” he asked. “On the mountain,” bawled the merchant’s son. “Take your spade and dig gold; if you dig much, I will show you how to get off the mountain.”
The merchant who was one in seven hundred took his spade and dug and dug, he dug up twenty wagon loads. “Stop, that’s enough now,” said the merchant’s son; “thanks for your labour, and good-bye.”—“But what about me?”—“You? why, get off as best you can. Ninety-nine of your sort have perished on that mountain, you can make up the hundred.”
So the merchant’s son took all the twenty wagons, went to the golden castle, married the lovely damsel, the daughter of the merchant who was one in seven hundred, took possession of all her riches, and came to live in the capital with his whole family. But the merchant who was one in seven hundred remained there on the mountain, and the black iron-beaked crows picked his bones.