The Brothers Grimm – The Goose-Girl at the Well

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There was once upon a time a very old woman, who lived with her
flock of geese in a remote clearing in the mountains, and there
had a little house. The clearing was surrounded by a large forest,
and every morning the old woman took her crutch and hobbled
into it. There, however, she was quite active, more so than
any one would have thought, considering her age, and collected
grass for her geese, picked all the wild fruit she could
reach, and carried everything home on her back. Anyone would have
thought that the heavy load would have weighed her to the ground,
but she always brought it safely home. If anyone met her, she
greeted him quite courteously. Good day, dear countryman, it
is a fine day. Ah, you wonder that I should drag grass about, but
everyone must take his burden on his back. Nevertheless, people
did not like to meet her if they could help it, and took by
preference a round-about way, and when a father with his boys
passed her, he whispered to them, beware of the old woman. She
has claws beneath her gloves. She is a witch.
One morning, a handsome young man was going through the forest.
The sun shone bright, the birds sang, a cool breeze crept
through the leaves, and he was full of joy and gladness. He
had as yet met no one, when he suddenly perceived the old witch
kneeling on the ground cutting grass with a sickle. She had
already thrust a whole load into her bundle, and near it stood
two baskets, which were filled with wild apples and pears. But,
good little mother, said he, how can you carry all that away. I
must carry it, dear sir, answered she, rich folk's children
have no need to do such things, but with the peasant folk the
saying goes, don't look behind you, you will only see how crooked
your back is.
Will you help me, she said, as he remained standing by her.
You have still a straight back and young legs, it would be a
trifle to you. Besides, my house is not so very far from here,
it stands there on the heath behind the hill. How soon you
would bound up thither. The young man took compassion on the
old woman. My father is certainly no peasant, replied he, but
a rich count. Nevertheless, that you may see that it is not only
peasants who can carry things, I will take your bundle. If
you will try it, said she, I shall be very glad. You will
certainly have to walk for an hour, but what will that matter to
you, only you must carry the apples and pears as well. The young
man felt somewhat uneasy when he heard of an hour's walk, but the
old woman would not let him off, packed the bundle on his back,
and hung the two baskets on his arm. See, it is quite light, said
she. No, it is not light, answered the count, and pulled a rueful
face. Verily, the bundle weighs as heavily as if it were full of
cobblestones, and the apples and pears are as heavy as lead. I
can scarcely breathe. He had a mind to put everything down
again, but the old woman would not allow it. Just look, said
she mockingly, the young gentleman will not carry what I, an old
woman, have so often dragged along. You are ready with fine words,
but when it comes to be earnest, you want to take to your heels.
Why are you standing loitering there. She continued, step out.
No one will take the bundle off again. As long as he walked on
level ground, it was still bearable, but when they came to the hill
and had to climb, and the stones rolled down under his feet as if
they were alive, it was beyond his strength. Drops of sweat stood
on his forehead, and ran, hot and cold, down his back. Mother,
said he, I can go no farther. I want to rest a little. Not
here, answered the old woman, when we have arrived at our journey's
end, you can rest. But now you must go forward. Who knows
what good it may do you. Old woman, you are becoming shameless,
said the count, and tried to throw off the bundle, but he labored
in vain. It stuck as fast to his back as if it grew there.
He turned and twisted, but he could not get rid of it. The old
woman laughed at this, and sprang about quite delighted on
her crutch. Don't get angry, dear sir, said she, you are growing
as
red in the face as a turkey-cock. Carry your bundle patiently.
I will give you a good present when we get home.
What could he do. He was obliged to submit to his fate, and
crawl along patiently behind the old woman. She seemed to grow
more and more nimble, and his burden still heavier. All
at once she made a bound, jumped on to the bundle and seated
herself on the top of it. And however withered she might be,
she was yet heavier than the stoutest country lass. The
youth's knees trembled, but when he did not go on, the old woman
hit him about the legs with a switch and with stinging-nettles.
Groaning continually, he climbed the mountain, and at length
reached the old woman's house, when he was just about to drop.
When the geese perceived the old woman, they flapped their wings,
stretched out their necks, ran to meet her, cackling all the
while. Behind the flock walked, stick in hand, an old wench,
strong and big, but ugly as night. Good mother, said she to
the old woman, has anything happened to you, you have stayed
away so long. By no means, my dear daughter, answered she,
I have met with nothing bad, but, on the contrary, with this
kind gentleman, who has carried my burden for me. Only think,
he even took me on his back when I was
tired. The way, too, has not seemed long to us. We have been
merry, and have been cracking jokes with each other all the
time. At last the old woman slid down, took the bundle off the
young man's back, and the baskets from his arm, looked at him
quite kindly, and said, now seat yourself on the bench before
the door, and rest. You have fairly earned your wages, and they
shall not be wanting. Then she said to the goose-girl, go
into the house, my dear daughter, it is not becoming for you
to be alone with a young gentleman. One must not pour oil on to
the fire, he might fall in love with you. The count knew not
whether to laugh or to cry. Such a sweetheart as that, thought
he, could not touch my heart, even if she were thirty years
younger. In the meantime the old woman stroked
and fondled her geese as if they were children, and then went
into the house with her daughter. The youth lay down on the
bench, under a wild apple-tree. The air was warm and mild. On
all sides stretched a green meadow, which was set with cowslips,
wild thyme, and a thousand other flowers. Through the midst
of it rippled a clear brook on which the sun sparkled, and
the white geese went walking backwards and forwards, or paddled in
the water. It is quite delightful here, said he, but I am so
tired that I cannot keep my eyes open. I will sleep a little.
If only a gust of wind does not come and blow my legs off my
body, for they are as rotten as tinder.
When he had slept a little while, the old woman came and shook
him till he awoke. Sit up, said she, you can not stay here. I
have certainly treated you ill enough, still it has not cost you
your life. Of money and land you have no need, here is something
else for you. Thereupon she thrust a little box into his hand,
which was cut out of a single emerald. Take great care of it,
said she, it will bring you good fortune. The count sprang up,
and as he felt that he was quite fresh, and had recovered his
vigor, he thanked the old woman for her present, and set off
without even once looking back at the beautiful daughter. When
he was already some way off, he still heard in the distance the
noisy cry of the geese.
For three days the count had to wander in the wilderness before
he could find his way out. He then reached a large town, and as
no
one knew him, he was led into the royal palace, where the king
and queen were sitting on their throne. The count fell on one
knee, drew the emerald box out of his pocket, and laid it at the
queen's feet. She bade him rise and hand her the little box.
Hardly, however, had she opened it, and looked therein, than she
fell as if dead to the ground. The count was seized by the king's
servants, and was being led to prison, when the queen opened
her eyes, and ordered them to release him, and every one was to
go out, as she wished to speak with him in private.
When the queen was alone, she began to weep bitterly, and said,
of what use to me are the splendors and honors with which I am
surrounded. Every morning I awake in pain and sorrow. I had
three daughters, the youngest of whom was so beautiful that the
whole world looked on her as a wonder. She was as white as snow,
as rosy as apple-blossom, and her hair as radiant as sun-beams.
When she cried, not tears fell from her eyes, but pearls and
jewels only. When she was fifteen years old, the king summoned
all three sisters to come before his throne. You should have seen
how all the people gazed when the youngest entered, it was just
as if the sun were rising. Then the king spoke, my daughters,
I know not when my last day may arrive. I will to-day decide what
each shall receive at my death. You all love me, but the one
of you who loves me best, shall fare the best. Each of them
said she loved him best. Can you not express to me, said the king,
how much you do love me, and thus I shall see what you mean. The
eldest spoke, I love my father as dearly as the sweetest sugar.
The second, I love my father as dearly as my prettiest dress. But
the youngest was silent. Then the father said, and you,
my dearest child, how much do you love me. I do not know, and
can compare my love with nothing. But her father insisted that
she should name something. So she said at last, the best food
does not please me without salt, therefore I love my father
like salt. When the king heard that, he fell into a passion, and
said, if you love me like salt, your love shall also be repaid you
with salt. Then he divided the kingdom between the two elder,
but caused a sack of salt to be bound on the back of the
youngest, and two servants had to lead her forth into the
wild forest. We all begged and prayed for her, said the queen,
but the king's anger was not to be appeased. How she cried
when she had to leave us. The whole road was strewn with the
pearls which flowed from her eyes. The king soon afterwards
repented of his great severity, and had the whole forest
searched for the poor child, but no one could find her. When
I think that the wild beasts have devoured her, I know not how
to contain myself for sorrow. Many a time I console myself
with the hope that she is still alive, and may have hidden herself
in a cave, or has found shelter with compassionate people. But
picture to yourself, when I opened your little emerald box, a
pearl lay therein, of exactly the same kind as those which used
to fall from my daughter's eyes. And then you can also imagine
how the sight of it stirred my heart. You must tell me how you
came by that pearl. The count told her that he had received it
from the old woman in the forest, who had appeared very strange
to him, and must be a witch, but he had neither seen nor heard
anything of the queen's child. The king and the queen resolved
to seek out the old woman. They thought that there where the
pearl had been, they would obtain news of their daughter.

The old woman was sitting in that lonely place at her spinning-wheel
spinning. It was already dusk, and a log which was burning
on the hearth gave a scanty light. All at once there was a noise
outside, the geese were coming home from the pasture, and uttering
their hoarse cries. Soon afterwards the daughter also entered.
But the old woman scarcely thanked her, and only shook her
head a little. The daughter sat down beside her, took her
spinning-wheel, and twisted the threads as nimbly as a young girl.
Thus they both sat for two hours, and exchanged never a word. At
last something rustled at the window and two fiery eyes peered
in. It was an old night-owl, which cried 'uhu, three times. The
old woman looked up just a little, then she said, now, my little
daughter, it is time for you to go out and do your work. She rose
and went out, and where did she go. Over the meadows ever onward
into the valley. At last she came to a well, with three old
oak-trees standing beside it. Meanwhile
the moon had risen large and round over the mountain, and
it was so light that one could have found a needle. She removed
a skin which covered her face, then bent down to the well, and
began to wash herself. When she had finished, she dipped the
skin also in the water, and then laid it on the meadow, so that
it should bleach in the moonlight, and dry again. But how the
maiden was changed. Such a change as that was never seen before.
When the gray mask fell off, her golden hair broke forth like
sun-beams, and spread about like a mantle over her whole form.
Her eyes shone out as brightly as the stars in heaven, and her
cheeks bloomed a soft red like apple-blossom.
But the fair maiden was sad. She sat down and wept bitterly.
One tear after another forced itself out of her eyes, and rolled
through her long hair to the ground. There she sat, and would
have remained sitting a long time, if there had not been a rustling
and cracking in the boughs of the neighboring tree. She sprang
up like a roe which has been overtaken by the shot of the hunter.
Just then the moon was obscured by a dark cloud, and in an instant
the maiden had put on the old skin and vanished, like a light
blown out by the wind.
She ran back home, trembling like an aspen-leaf. The old woman
was standing on the threshold, and the girl was about to relate
what had befallen her, but the old woman laughed kindly, and
said, I already know all. She led her into the room and lighted
a new log. She did not, however, sit down to her spinning again,
but fetched a broom and began to sweep and scour. All must be
clean and sweet, she said to the girl. But, mother, said the
maiden, why do you begin work at so late an hour. What do you
expect. Do you know then what time it is, asked the old woman.
Not yet midnight, answered the maiden, but already past eleven
o'clock. Do you not remember, continued the old woman, that
it is three years to-day since you came to me. Your time is up,
we can no longer remain together. The girl was terrified, and
said, alas, dear mother, will you cast me off. Where shall I go.
I have no friends, and no home to which I can go. I have always
done as you
bade me, and you have always been satisfied with me. Do not send
me away. The old woman would not tell the maiden what lay before
her. My stay here is over, she said to her, but when I depart,
house and parlor must be clean. Therefore do not hinder me in
my work. Have no care for yourself, you shall find a roof to
shelter you, and the wages which I will give you shall also
content you. But tell me what is about to happen, the maiden
continued to entreat. I tell you again, do not hinder me in my
work. Do not say a word more, go to your chamber, take the skin
off your face, and put on the silken gown which you had on when
you came to me, and then wait in your chamber until I call you.
But I must once more tell of the king and queen, who had
journeyed forth with the count in order to seek out the old woman
in the wilderness. The count had strayed away from them in the
wood by night, and had to walk onwards alone. Next day it seemed
to him that he was on the right track. He still went forward,
until darkness came on, then he climbed a tree, intending to
pass the night there, for he feared that he might lose his way.
When the moon illumined the surrounding country he perceived a
figure coming down the mountain. She had no stick in her hand,
but yet he could see that it was the goose-girl, whom he had
seen before in the house of the old woman. Oho, cried he, there
she comes, and if I once get hold of one of the witches, the
other shall not escape me. But how astonished he was, when
she went to the well, took off the skin and washed herself,
when her golden hair fell down all about her, and she was
more beautiful than anyone whom he had ever seen in the whole
world. He hardly dared to breathe, but stretched his head as
far forward through the leaves as he could, and stared at her.
Either he bent over too far, or whatever the cause might be, the
bough suddenly cracked, and that very moment the maiden slipped
into the skin, sprang away like a roe, and as the moon was
suddenly covered, disappeared from his sight. Hardly had she
disappeared, before the count descended from the tree, and
hastened after her with nimble steps. He had not been gone
long before he saw, in the twilight, two figures coming over
the meadow.
It was the king and queen, who had perceived from a distance the
light shining in the old woman's little house, and were going
to it. The count told them what wonderful things he had seen
by the well, and they did not doubt that it had been their lost
daughter. They walked onwards full of joy, and soon came to the
little house. The geese were sitting all round it, and had
thrust their heads under their wings and were sleeping, and not
one of them moved. The king and queen looked in at the window,
where the old woman was sitting quite quietly spinning, nodding
her head and never looking round. The room was perfectly clean,
as if the little mist men, who carry no dust on their feet, lived
there. Their daughter, however, they did not see. They gazed at
all this for a long time, until at last they took heart, and
knocked softly at the window. The old woman appeared to have
been expecting them. She rose, and called out quite kindly,
come in. I know you already. When they had entered the room,
the old woman said, you might have spared yourself the long
walk, if you had not three years ago unjustly driven away
your child, who is so good and lovable. No harm has come to her.
For three years she has had to tend the geese. With them she has
learnt no evil, but has preserved her purity of heart. You,
however, have been sufficiently punished by the misery in which
you have lived. Then she went to the chamber and called, come
out, my little daughter. Thereupon the door opened, and the
princess stepped out in her silken garments, with her golden
hair and her shining eyes, and it was as if an angel from heaven
had entered.
She went up to her father and mother, fell on their necks and
kissed them. There was no help for it, they all had to weep for
joy. The young count stood near them, and when she perceived him
she became as red in the face as a moss-rose, she herself did
not know why. The king said, my dear child, I have given away
my kingdom, what shall I give you. She needs nothing, said
the old woman. I give her the tears that she has wept on your
account. They are precious pearls, finer than those that are
found in the sea, and worth more than your whole kingdom, and I
give her my little
house as payment for her services. When the old woman had said
that, she disappeared from their sight. The walls rattled a
little, and when the king and queen looked round, the little
house had changed into a splendid palace, a royal table had been
spread, and the servants were running hither and thither.
The story goes still further, but my grandmother, who related
it to me, had partly lost her memory, and had forgotten the rest.
I shall always believe that the beautiful princess married the
count, and that they remained together in the palace, and
lived there in all happiness so long as God willed it. Whether
the snow-white geese, which were kept near the little hut, were
verily young maidens no one need take offence, whom the old
woman had taken under her protection, and whether they now
received their human form again, and stayed as handmaids to the
young queen, I do not exactly know, but I suspect it. This
much is certain, that the old woman was no witch, as people
thought, but a wise woman, who meant well. Very likely it was
she who, at the princess's birth, gave her the gift of weeping
pearls instead of tears. That does not happen nowadays, or else
the poor would soon become rich.

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