In the Hillman’s Service


There was a man who had three sons. They were, of course, called Povl, Per, and Esben Ashrake. He was called so by his brothers because he was always indoors with his mother, and there he lay by the hearth, raking the ashes. When they were all three grown-up, their father said to them one day:

“Look here, lads! Now you must go out into the world and support yourselves. I cannot afford to have you hanging about at home any longer.”

Well, Povl was ready to go at once. He packed his knapsack and went off. It was not long before he met a little man in grey clothes, with a red cap on his head.

“Hullo, my son,” said the old man, “where are you off to?”

“I am out to try and find a place,” answered Povl.

“That comes in pat, for I have come out to hire a farmhand. If you will serve me, I’ll give you a bushel of money when the year is over. You’ll have to do everything I ask of you, and he who is the first to get angry will have a slice cut out of his belly, and a slice out of his backside. Will you consent to that agreement, my son?”

Povl said he would. He thought he would have a whole bushel of money when the year was over, and he had never seen as much as that before. So he went home with the hillman. Now it was evening.

“Can you go and rock the child, little Povl?” said the hillman. So Povl sat rocking the cradle while the hillwoman ladled out the supper and put it on the table before her husband and herself, leaving Povl by the cradle. He stole a wistful glance at the porringer, but nobody cared. When they had finished their meal, the hillman said:

“Now you had better go to bed, so as to be up early tomorrow and do some work.”

He then showed him where to lie down, and it was not long before Povl fell asleep.

Next morning the hillman said to him:

“Time for you to get up, Povl. First you must clean the stable and groom the horses, and then go ploughing. You can plough, can’t you?”

Well, he could, to be sure.

“That’s a good thing, for I need some ploughing done. But I suppose you haven’t got a watch to go by?”

No, Povl had no watch.

“It doesn’t matter,” said the hillman, “for I have a dog here. He can go with you; he is sure to lie down at the end of the field, and when he goes home, you can come too.”

Certainly Povl would do all this; and with these instructions he went off. The dog lay down at the end of the field, and stayed there, very comfortably. When it was noon, all the people in the neighbouring fields went home. But the dog did not budge.

“Confound that damned dog!” thought Povl. He was almost starving, for he had had nothing to eat since he left home. However, he went on ploughing until evening; and then, at last, the dog went home.

So Povl went back to the hillman’s house at last also, but his patience was at an end. As soon as he was in the courtyard, he tore the harness off the horses and hurled it, clinking, along the paving. The hillman came out.

“What’s up? You seem to be throwing the harness away very fast. You are not angry, are you?”

“Well, I scarcely know what to say to that,” said Povl. “I have been here since yesterday, and never a bite to eat have I had. I don’t call that decent!”

“I see. You are not satisfied with my service? Well, then, you know what has been agreed between us,” said the hillman. “Now I’ll cut a slice from your belly and a slice from your backside.”

When he had done so, Povl was allowed to go where he liked. At length, he came dragging himself home to his father, and there was much lamentation when they heard what had happened to him.

Now it was Per who must go out to service, for the father could not support them all. He advised him to try to come out better than his brother. But, to cut a long story short, he had no better luck. He met the hillman, was engaged, and of course, he was the first to get angry, whereupon he suffered the same treatment as Povl. Things looked bad for his father when he, too, returned. Now both strapping fellows were lying at home, and neither could work at all.

“Now I think I had better be off,” said Esben, “to see whether I shall have the same bad luck as my big brothers.”

“Yes, indeed,” said the father. “Since they have not been able to make shift for themselves, I am afraid things will go utterly wrong with you. But do at all costs be careful not to enter the hillman’s service!”

“Ho-ho! He is the very man I want to go to,” said Esben. “It must be great fun to serve a hillman!”

Then he packed his clothes, put spoon and fork and knife in his pocket, and went off.

It was not long before he met the hillman, and he at once took service with him on the same terms as Povl and Per, and went with him to his home. It was just evening when they arrived. Then the hillman said:

“Can you rock the child while your mistress ladles out the supper?”

Well, certainly he could.

The hillwoman ladled out a very good ale-caudle for supper, but not the slightest hint was given that Esben should join them. He was, however, equal to the occasion. He left the cradle, went calmly up to the table, and sat down in their company. Then he took his spoon out of his pocket and began to eat. It is true they scowled at him a little, but that was no business of his. He ate a good supper, for he liked the food quite well, and when he had finished eating, he put the spoon back into his pocket. Then the hillman showed him his bed, and Esben slept well until morning.

When morning came, the hillman said:

“Well, little Esben, now you must get up to clean the stable and groom the horses.”

Esben finished that job in a hurry, and went in to see if breakfast was ready. And sure enough, at the very same moment, the hill-woman came in with a fine bacon omelette and put it on the table. Esben went calmly up, sat down at the table, took knife and fork from his pocket, and began to eat. They glanced at him, it is true, but he did not care. When he had finished eating, he put knife and fork back into his pocket.

“Well, little Esben, can you now go out to plough?”

Certainly he could.

“You see, I need to have some ploughing done. But I suppose you have not got a watch?”

No, he had no watch.

“It does not matter, anyhow,” said the hillman. “Here is a dog to take with you. When he goes home, you can come too.”

The dog lay at the end of the field and stayed there. At noon all the neighbours went home, but the dog didn’t budge.

“To hell with that dog!” thought Esben. He snatched up one of the plough-handles and hit the dog a hard blow on his side. Howling and yelling, the dog ran homewards for all he was worth. Now Esben got busy. He took out his pocket-knife and cut all the four traces; then he leapt on one of the horses, and rode off homewards after the dog.

No sooner had he come into the courtyard than the hillman came out.

“Why have you come rushing home, little Esben? What’s up?”

“I’ll tell you, master,” said Esben. “I don’t know what possessed that damned dog. All of a sudden, he began to howl and yell, and then ran homewards as if he were in a bad way, and I had to cut the traces. Otherwise I was afraid you would be angry when the dog arrived, and I had not come with him.”

“I have been little short of duped,” said the hillman.

“You are not angry, master, are you?” said Esben.

No, oh no, that was out of the question.

Some time passed. Esben attended to his duties. Then one day, the hillman said:

“Look here, Esben, can you look after my pigs in the wood?”

Well, to be sure, Esben could do that.

“I must tell you that in the autumn I usually drive my pigs to the wood when the beechmast and acorns are ripe, and let them fatten there.”

On the first day, he himself took Esben out to the woods.

“Now you may let them run about the wood,” he said, “but over there you see a big miry hole. Take care that they don’t run into it. Otherwise we shall not be able to get them out again.”

Yes, Esben would take care, to be sure. The hillman went home.

Esben walked about the woods for a long time, looking after the pigs. The hillman was well satisfied with him, for now the pigs were nearly fat enough. But one day, Esben took out his pocket-knife, cut off all the pigs’ tails, and stuck their thick ends in the mire. Then he drove all the pigs home to his father, who was very glad of all the good pork. This done, Esben ran back to the hillman’s house and cried out:

“Things have gone all wrong, master, for all the pigs have run into the mire, and there is nothing to be seen of them but the tails!”

When the hillman heard that, he ran at once towards the wood, and Esben after him. He hurried to the hole and began to tug at one of the tails in order to pull out the pig, but the tail broke, and the hillman fell backwards into the mire. Esben now hastened to the spot to help him pull out the pigs, but it was the same thing with all of them.

“I thought as much,” said the hillman, “they were too fat. Now the tails won’t hold in pulling them out. I have been little short of duped!”

“You are not angry, master, are you?” said Esben.

No, oh no, he was not at all angry.

After some time, the hillman said: “I say, little Esben, can you drive to the mill today? We need some corn ground for Christmas.”

Well, Esben could do so, to be sure.

The hillman measured off the corn himself and carried it out to the cart.

“Listen now, little Esben, you must try to make them grind it as fine as sand, for they are somewhat lazy with their grinding.”

“I’ll do so, master, to be sure,” said Esben, and he drove off. But he did not go to the mill. Instead, he drove home to his father with the corn. Then he drove to a sandpit that was owned by his father, where there was good fine sand. He filled the bags with sand and took them home to the hillman.

When the hillwoman was about to bake, of course she discovered that the bags were full of sand instead of flour, and she told her husband.

“How is this, little Esben?” said he.

“Why, didn’t you tell me to ask them to grind it as fine as sand? And so I did.”

“I have been little short of duped,” said the hillman.

“You are not angry, master, are you?” said Esben.

Oh no, certainly, not in the least.

Again some time passed. One day, the hillman said:

“I am going to town today, and you’ll have to help your mistress at home; for she is very busy today.”

Well, Esben would do so, to be sure, and the hillman drove away. The woman was brewing beer, and Esben had to carry in water and peat for her. Suddenly she said:

“Look here, little Esben, can you go and see if the child is awake, and if he has dirtied himself? If so, you must clean him both outside and in. Can you do this, little Esben?”

“Yes, to be sure,” said Esben, and he went in to the child. Sure enough, the child was awake and had dirtied himself. Esben took him to the brook, stripped him to the skin, washed and scrubbed both the boy and his clothes in the brook, and hung them up on the fence pickets. Then he went quietly into the room and sat down. Presently the hillwoman came in and said:

“Dear me, Esben! Where have you left the child?”

“Well, you see, he had dirtied himself, and I have cleaned him both outside and in, as you asked me to do, and I have hung both the boy and his clothes on the fence to dry.”

“Dear me!” cried the woman, “the child must have frozen to death!”

And out she ran to see the poor child. But he was both stiff and dead, and no wonder, for it was very cold. Here was a nice mess; but nothing could be done about it any more.

At noon the hillman returned and asked for something to eat.

“But where is the child, my dear wife?” he asked. “I can’t see him.”

She told him what Esben had done with the child, and how she had found him frozen quite stiff when she went out to him.

“That’s too bad!” said the hillman. “I have been little short of duped!”

“You are not angry, master, are you?” said Esben, who stood listening to them.

No, oh no, he could not think of such a thing.

Some days passed. Then the hillman said to Esben:

“Today we are going to a feast, my wife and I. Meantime, you can trim the midden a little; and when you have finished that, you can try to arrange something safe down by the brook, for my crossing tonight; for I expect it will be dark before I return, and maybe I shall be a little tipsy, and not quite steady on my legs. When you have done that, you can come to the place where the feast is held, and have a dance and amuse yourself in the evening as long as we are there. And you can cast a good eye at me now and then; that will please me. And it would be a good thing if you can arrange for some light to see by when we are returning home. Let me see, little Esben, that you do as I have told you.”

“To be sure I will, master,” said Esben.

The hillman and his wife went to the feast. And you can bet that Esben then got busy. First he swept the courtyard, and then he hauled all their furniture and possessions on to the midden and piled it up there: chests and cupboards, tables and chairs, pots and saucepans, and frying-pans as well.

“There! That’s well done!” he thought to himself, “but what can I find to put across the brook?”

Then he bethought himself that he would take four of their best cows. He drove them down to the water, killed them, and laid them in the brook with the horns upwards, so that there were four horns on either side, like a hand-rail. There now! That was well done! But he still had to find some very good eyes to cast at the hillman. It struck him that they had four good sheep; their eyes were certainly good, and they could be used. He seized the sheep, killed them, and took out their eyes.

“There now! That is that!” said Esben. “Now I am ready to go to the feast, and indeed, it will soon be getting dark. Come to think of it, I was to arrange for some light. Of course, I could bring the lantern, yet I think that will not be necessary, for if I set the barn on fire now, I am sure we can find our way by the light.”

He then put on his best clothes, and before leaving, he set fire to the barn.

Now everything was as it should be. He went to the feast. There he was kindly welcomed, given both food and drink, and then invited to come to the parlour for a dance. The hillman was there too, and every time he glanced at Esben, the lad managed to throw one of the sheep’s eyes at his head. The hillman did not like that much, and of course, he wondered what those wet lumps were that Esben threw at his head every time he glanced at him.

So it was not long before the hillman went to his wife and said they must be going home now. But she was for staying a little longer. She pleaded that Esben had only just arrived, and why shouldn’t he, too, have some merriment? But her words were lost on the hillman, and they went away at once. When they were outside, he said:

“Now I come to think of it, little Esben, did you bring the lantern?”

“No, master, you only told me to arrange for a light, so I set the barn on fire before leaving. I thought it would be possible for us to find our way by that. You can see for yourself how brightly and clearly it is burning.”

“I have been little short of duped,” said the hillman.

“You are not angry, master, are you?” said Esben.

No, oh no, he was not at all angry.

“But tell me, little Esben, what were those lumps you threw at my head while you were dancing?”

Indeed I’ll tell you that, master. You told me to throw some really good eyes at you when I was up there, and I could think of nothing better than to put out the eyes of our four best sheep, for I am sure they must have good eyes, and it was those I threw at you, master.”

“I have been little short of duped,” said the hillman.

“You are not angry, master, are you?” said Esben.

No, oh no, he could not think of such a thing.

A little later, they arrived at the brook. The hillman led the way, and he said:

“I wonder what it is that you have put into the brook, little Esben? It seems to be yielding and ever yielding under me.”

“Indeed I’ll tell you that, master. You told me to put something really safe into the brook for crossing, and I could think of nothing better than to take our four best cows and kill them, and so I took them and laid them here. Now you can see for yourself. At either side there are four horns that you can lean on.”

“I have been little short of duped,” said the hillman.

“You are not angry, master, are you?”

No, oh no, not at all.

At length they reached home, and the hillman went quite calmly up to the barn and blew out the fire as if it had been a candle.

“But what are all those things on top of the midden, little Esben?” he asked, when he caught sight of all that had been piled up there.

“I’ll tell you that, master. You told me to have the courtyard swept and the midden trimmed, and I could think of nothing but to take all our furniture and things to put on it, and that was not at all easy. You bet I have been busy all day.”

“I have been little short of duped,” said the hillman.

“You are not angry, master, are you?”

No, oh no, that was out of the question.

Esben then had to help the hillman take some of the things into the house again, and when they had finished that, they went to bed. Esben had his bed in the kitchen, and there was only a thin wall between it and the bed in which the hillman slept. So he could lie there and hear what the hillman said to his wife. That night, the hillman was in anything but a good temper when he got to bed.

“It will be false reckoning, my dear wife, if we keep that Esben. He spoils everything for us. Whatever am I to do to get rid of him?” The hillwoman did not know. It must be for himself to think something out.

“I think there will be no remedy but to kill him, and I may as well do it tonight. I expect he is sleeping fast after the feast.”

But Esben heard these words, you see. And what was he to do? He jumped out of bed and took hold of a big club from the kitchen, and he put it on his pillow. Then he took a big pot with some water in it, and put that under the eiderdown. As for himself, he crawled under the bed.

Before long, the hillman came creeping in with a big axe. He listened, as you may suppose, to make sure that everything was still and silent. Then, swinging the axe with all his might, he hit the club. There was a terrible noise. That seemed to be all right, but he thought he had better strike a blow on the belly as well; and there was a terrible splash.

“Well,” thought the hillman, “now I think he is done for!” Thereupon he went quietly to his bed and lay down.

After a while, Esben could hear him snore. He crawled out from under the bed, gathered the club and the potsherds together, and then went to bed himself. He slept peacefully until daybreak.

When he came in for breakfast, the hillman stared, I can tell you!

“Look here!” he said to the hillwoman. “Can’t you give me clean sheets and a shirt, mistress? Last night I was bitten by a flea, and when I killed it, both the bed and I got dirty.”

Then without more ado he went out to his work.

“There you are!” said the hillman to his wife. “He counts that blow as no more than a flea-bite! I don’t know how it is all going to end. There is nothing for it but to offer him money for leaving, since there is no other remedy.”

She answered that that was for himself to decide.

A little later Esben came in, and the hillman said to him:

“Look here, little Esben, do you know what I have been thinking?”

No, he did not know that, to be sure.

“You see, I have bethought myself that I don’t need a farmhand any longer. I think I can do the work myself. So I would like you to leave now, and I will pay you your wages for the whole year.”

“Well, I would willingly do so,” said Esben, “but I dare not do it because of my father. When I go home and say I have had to leave service before my time, I am afraid he will kill me.”

“But surely he won’t be angry if I give you your wages for the whole year.”

“It makes no difference, for I dare not do it,” said Esben.

The hillman was at a loss to know how to get rid of Esben. He dared not offer him all the money he could carry, for he was afraid Esben could carry more than he had. Then it struck him that he might offer him all the money he could cart with a team of two horses.

“Now, listen to me, little Esben. If I give you all the money I can cart with a team of two horses, what would you say?”

“Well,” said Esben, “you must cart the money home to my father’s house yourself, and tell him I have served you truly and loyally, and that I am not leaving because you have got tired of me. If you’ll agree to that, master, I’ll agree too.”

Well, the hillman consented to the arrangement, and he managed to scoop up the money on to the cart while Esben packed his clothes. Then they drove home to the lad’s father. The hillman told him he must not be angry with Esben for coming home before his time; really, he had been quite satisfied with him. So saying, he went off.

I dare say Esben and his father smacked their lips when the hillman had gone! Now they had got compensation for what his brothers had had to suffer. And they lived in prosperity and happiness for many years on the money they had from the hillman.

- Collected in 1887 from oral tradition in Ringgive, Eastern Jutland, Denmark, from an unknown informant. Printed in Skattegraveren IX (Kolding, 1887).


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