The Four Skillful Brothers

(Die vier kunstreichen Brüder)

[From the vicinity of Paderborn, this tale was first published in the edition of 1819. About the Grimm Collection.]

There was once a poor man who had four sons. When they grew up, he said to them, “Dear children, now you must go out in the world. I have nothing to give you. Set out and go abroad, learn a trade and see how you fare.” Then the four brothers got ready for their journey, said good-bye to their father, and went out the gate together. When they’d been traveling for some time, they came to a crossroads which led in four different directions. “Here we must part,” said the eldest, “but four years from today let’s meet again at this spot and in the meanwhile try our luck.”

Each went his way, and the eldest met a man who asked him where he was going and what he intended to do. “I want to learn a trade,” he answered. Then the man said, “Come with me and become a thief.” “No,” he answered, “that’s no longer considered a reputable trade, and the end of the story is that one swings for it.” “Oh,” said the man, “you needn’t be afraid of the gallows: I’ll simply teach you how to fetch what nobody else can get, and where no one will get on your track.” He let himself be persuaded, under the man’s schooling became an expert thief, and acquired such skill that once he really wanted it, nothing was safe from him.

The second brother met a man who put the same question to him: what did he want to learn abroad. “I don’t know yet,” he answered. “Well, come with me and become an astronomer. There’s nothing better than that; nothing stays hidden from one.” He accepted the proposal and became so skilled an astronomer that when he was through studying and was going to move on, his master gave him a telescope and said to him, “With this you can see what goes on on earth and in the heavens, and nothing can stay hidden from you.”

The third brother was taken as an apprentice by a huntsman who gave him such good instruction in everything that had to do with huntsmanship that he became an expert huntsman. On parting, the master made him a present of a gun, saying, “It doesn’t miss. Whatever you train the bead on, you’re sure to hit.”

The youngest brother, likewise, met a man who spoke to him and asked him his plans. “Don’t you want to become a tailor?” “I don’t know,” said the boy. “Sitting cross-legged from morning to night, sweeping back and forth with the needle, and using the goose doesn’t appeal to me.” “My goodness!” answered the man, “you talk according to your lights. You’ll learn a very different kind of tailoring from me, one that’s respectable and proper, in a way quite reputable.” He let himself be persuaded, went along with him, and learned the man’s trade from the bottom up. On parting, the latter gave him a needle, saying, “With this you can sew up whatever you’re faced with, be it soft as an egg or hard as steel. It will become all one piece and not a stitch will show.”

When the four years agreed upon were up, the four brothers met at the same time at the crossroad, embraced and kissed one another, and returned home to their father. “Well,” said the latter, “what wind blew you all back here to me at once?” They told him how they’d fared and that each had learned his trade.

One afternoon they were sitting outside the house under a big tree, when their father said, “Now I’m going to test you and see what you can do.” Looking up, he said to the second son, “Up there in the top of this tree between two branches is a chaffinch’s nest. Tell me how many eggs are in it.” The astronomer took his glass, looked up, and said, “Five.” To the eldest the father said, “Fetch down the eggs without disturbing the broody bird that’s sitting on them.” The skillful thief climbed up and took the five eggs from under the bird, which noticed nothing and remained quietly sitting there, and brought them down to his father. His father took them, placed one at each corner of the table and the fifth in the middle, and said to the huntsman, “Shoot the five eggs in two in the middle with one shot.” The huntsman aimed his gun and shot the eggs as his father requested—all five, and actually with one shot. (He must certainly have had some of that gunpowder that shoots around a corner.) “Now it’s your turn,” said the father to the fourth son. “You sew the eggs together again, also the young birds that are in them, and in just such a way that the shot will have done them no harm.” The tailor got his needle and sewed as his father had requested.

When he’d finished, the thief had to carry the eggs back up the tree into the nest and put them under the bird again without its noticing anything. The little creature sat her full time, and a few days later the chicks crept out of the eggs and where the tailor had sewed them together had a red line around their necks. “Yes,” said the father to his sons, “I can’t but praise you to the skies. You’ve improved your time and learned something useful and good. I can’t say which of you deserves the palm. If you only get a chance soon to apply your skill, it will become apparent enough.”

Not long after there was a great commotion in the country: the king’s daughter had been carried off by a dragon. The king grieved over this night and day and announced that whoever brought her back should have her in marriage. Amongst themselves the four brothers said, “That would be a chance to show off our skills,” and wanted to set out together and free the king’s daughter. “I’ll soon find out where she is,” said the astronomer, who, looking through his telescope, said, “I already see her; she’s sitting far away from here on a rock in the sea, and beside her is the dragon who is guarding her.”

Then he went to the king and begged for a ship for himself and his brothers, and with them journeyed across the sea until they came to the rock. The king’s daughter was sitting there, but the dragon was lying asleep in her lap. “I mustn’t shoot,” said the huntsman. “I’d kill the beautiful maiden at the same time.” “Then I’ll try my luck,” said the thief, crept up and stole her from under the dragon, but so quietly and deftly that the monster noticed nothing and just snored on.

Joyfully they hurried with her aboard the ship and headed for the open sea. The dragon, however, who on waking up missed the king’s daughter, came after them, snorting furiously through the air. When it was hovering right over the ship and was about to pounce upon it, the huntsman aimed his gun and shot it through the heart. The monster dropped dead but it was so terribly big that in its fall it smashed the whole ship to bits. Luckily they got hold of a few planks and swam about in the open sea. Thus they were again in dire straits, but the tailor, never slow on the job, took his marvelous needle, hastily basted the planks together with a few big stitches, got on them and gathered up all the pieces of the ship. These, too, he sewed together so skillfully that in short order the ship was again ready to sail, and they were able to travel home safely.

When the king saw his daughter again, there was great rejoicing. He said to the four brothers, “One of you shall have her in marriage, but settle among yourselves which it’s to be.” Then a violent argument arose among them, for each advanced his claims. The astronomer said, “If I hadn’t seen the king’s daughter, all your arts would have been in vain: therefore she’s mine.” The thief said, “What good would seeing her have done if I hadn’t got her out from under the dragon? Therefore she’s mine.” The huntsman said, “You and the king’s daughter would have been torn to pieces by the monster if my bullet hadn’t hit it: therefore she’s mine.” The tailor said, “And if I hadn’t patched up the ship for you with my skill, you would all have drowned miserably: therefore she’s mine.” Then the king made the award: “Each of you has an equal claim, and because you can’t all have the maiden, none of you shall have her. However, as a reward I shall give each one half a kingdom.” This decision pleased the brothers, and they said, “It’s better so than that we should fall at odds.” Then each received half a kingdom, and they lived very happily with their father as long as it pleased God.

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