There was once a very poor old man who had three sons. They lived by ferrying people over a river, but he had had nothing but  bad luck all his life. And to crown it all, on the night he died, there was a great storm, and in it the crazy old ferry-boat, on which his sons depended for a living, was sunk.

As they were lamenting both their father and their poverty, an old man came by, and learning the reason for their sorrow said, “Never mind, all will come right in time. Look! There is your boat as good as new.”

And there was a fine new ferry-boat on the water, in place of the old one, and a number of people waiting to be ferried over.

The three brothers arranged to take turns with the boat, and divide the fares they took.

However they had very different characters. The two elder brothers were greedy and would never take anyone over the river, without being paid for it.

But the youngest brother took over poor people, who had no money, for nothing. Moreover he frequently helped them out of his own pocket.

One day, at sunset, when the eldest brother was at the ferry the same old man, who had visited them on the night their father died, came, and asked for a passage.

“I have nothing to pay you with, but this empty purse,” he said.

“Go and get something to put in it then first,” replied the ferry-man, “and be off with you now!”

Next day it was the second brother’s turn. The same old man came, and offered his empty purse as his fare. But he received the same reply.

The third day it was the youngest brother’s turn. When the old man arrived, and asked to be ferried over for charity, he answered, “Yes, get in, old man.”

“And what is the fare?” asked the old man.

“That depends upon whether you can pay or not,” was the reply, “but if you cannot, it is all the same to me.”

“A good deed is never without its reward,” said the old man: “but in the meantime take this empty purse. Even though it is very worn, and looks like it is worth nothing if you shake it, and say’ For his sake who gave it, this purse I hold, I wish may always be full of gold;’ it will always give you as much gold as you wish for.”

 The youngest brother came home, and his brothers, who were sitting over a good supper, laughed at him, because he had taken only a few copper coins that day. They told him he should have no supper. But when he began to shake his purse and scatter gold coins about, they jumped up from the table, and began picking them up eagerly.

As it was share and share alike, they all grew rich very quickly. The youngest brother made good use of his riches, for he gave away money freely to the poor. But the greedy elder brothers envied him because he had the wonderful purse, and plotted to steal it from him. Waiting till he was asleep one night the two older brothers took the purse from the table where the youngest had carelessly left it. Then they left their old home. One bought a ship, filled it with all sorts of merchandize, for a trading voyage. However, the ship ran onto a rock, and everyone on board was drowned. The second brother was no more fortunate, for as he was travelling through a forest, with an enormous treasure of precious stones, which he had bought, to sell at a profit, he was attacked by robbers, who murdered him, and shared the treasure among themselves.

The youngest brother, who remained at home, having lost his purse, became poor again. But he still did as before, took pay from passengers who could afford it, ferried over poor folks for nothing, and helped those who were poorer than himself so far as he could.

One day the same old man with the long white beard came by. The ferry-man welcomed him as an old friend, and while rowing him over the river, told him all that had happened since he last saw him.

“Your brothers did very wrong, and they have paid for it,” said the old man, “but you were also wrong. Still, I will give you one more chance. Take this hook and line and whatever you catch, hold it fast, and do not let it escape or you will bitterly repent it.”

The old man then disappeared, and the ferry-man looked in wonder at his new fishing-tackle—a diamond hook, a silver line, and a golden rod.

All at once the hook sprang by itself into the water; the line lengthened out along the river current, and there came a strong pull upon it. The fisherman drew it in, and saw a most lovely creature, from the waist up it was a woman, but with a fish’s tail.

“Good ferry-man, let me go,” she said. “Take your hook out of my hair! The sun is setting, and after sunset I can no longer be a water-nymph again.”

But without answering, the ferry-man only held her fast and covered her with his coat, to prevent her escaping. Then the sun set and she lost her fish-tail.

“Now,” she said, “I am yours, so let us go to the nearest church and get married.”

She was already dressed as a bride, with a myrtle garland on her head, in a white dress, with a rainbow-coloured belt, and rich jewels in her hair and on her neck. And she held in her hand the wonderful purse that was always full of gold.

They found the priest all ready at the church. They were married in a few minutes and then came home to their wedding-feast, to which all the neighbours were invited. They were royally entertained, and when they were about to leave the bride shook the wonderful purse, and sent a shower of gold pieces flying among the guests so they all went home very well pleased.

The good ferry-man and his marvelous wife lived most happily together. They never wanted for anything, and gave freely to all who came. He continued to work on his ferry-boat but he now took all the passengers over for nothing, and gave them each a piece of gold as well.

Now there was a king of that country, who a year before had succeeded his elder brother. He had heard of the ferry-man, who was so marvelously rich. He wished to find out the truth so he came to see for himself. But when he saw the ferry-man’s beautiful young wife, he made up his mind to have her for himself, and was determined to get rid of her husband somehow.

At that time there was an eclipse of the sun and the king sent for the ferry-man, and told him he must find out the cause of this eclipse, or be put to death.

He came home in great distress to his wife; but she replied, “Never mind, my dear. I will tell you what to do, and how to satisfy the king’s curiosity.”

So she gave him a wonderful ball of thread, which he was to throw before him, and follow the thread as it kept unwinding—towards the East.

He went on a long way, over high mountains, deep rivers, and wide regions. At last he came to a ruined city, where a number of corpses were lying about unburied.

The good man was sorry to see this, and took the pains to summon men from the neighbouring cities, and get the bodies properly buried. He then resumed his journey.

He came at last to the ends of the earth. Here he found a magnificent golden palace, with an amber roof, and diamond doors and windows.

The ball of thread went straight into the palace, and the ferry-man found himself in a vast room, where a very dignified old lady sat, spinning from a golden distaff.

“Wretched man! What are you here for?” she exclaimed, when she saw him. “My son will come back presently and burn you up.”

He explained to her how he had been forced to come.

“Well, I must help you,” replied the old lady, who was no less than the Mother of the Sun, “because you did that good turn some days ago, in burying the inhabitants of that town, when they were killed by a dragon. My son journeys every day across the wide arch of heaven, in a diamond carriage, drawn by twelve grey horses, with golden manes, giving heat and light to the whole world. He will soon be back here, to rest for the night…. But … here he comes. Hide yourself, and take care to observe what follows.”

So saying she changed her visitor into a lady-bird, and let him fly to the window.

Then the neighing of the wonderful horses and the rattling of chariot wheels were heard, and the bright Sun himself presently came in, and stretching himself upon a coral bed, remarked to his mother:

“I smell a human being here!”

“What nonsense you talk!” replied his mother. “How could any human being come here? You know it is impossible.”

The Sun, as if he did not quite believe her, began to peer anxiously about the room.

“Don’t be so restless,” said the old lady; “but tell me why you caused an eclipse a month or two ago.”

“How could I help it?” answered the Sun; “When the dragon from the deep abyss attacked me I had to fight him? Perhaps I would have been fighting with the monster till now, if a wonderful mermaid had not come to help me. When she began to sing, and looked at the dragon with her beautiful eyes, all his rage softened at once. He was absorbed in gazing on her beauty, and I meanwhile burnt him to ashes, and threw them into the sea.”

The Sun then went to sleep, and his mother again touched the ferry-man with her spindle. He then returned to his natural shape, and slipped out of the palace. Following the ball of thread he reached home at last, and the next day went to the king, and told him everything.

But the king was so enchanted at the description of the beautiful mermaid, that he ordered the ferry-man to go and bring her to him, or be put to death.

He went home very sad to his wife, but she told him she would manage this also. She gave him another ball of thread, to show him which way to go, and she also gave him a carriage-load of expensive lady’s dresses and jewels, and ornaments—told him what he was to do, and they took leave of one another.

On the way the ferry-man met a young man, riding on a fine grey horse, who asked,

“What have you got there?”

“A woman’s dress, most dear and beautiful”—he had several dresses, not simply one.

“I say, give me some of those as a present for my bride-to-be, whom I am going to see. I can be of use to you, for I am the Storm-wind. I will come, whenever you call upon me by saying, ‘Storm-wind! Storm-wind! Come with speed! Help me in my sudden need!'”

The ferry-man gave him some of the most beautiful things he had, and the Storm-wind left.

A little further on, he met an old man, grey-haired, but strong and vigorous-looking, who also said, “What have you got there?”

“Women’s garments, costly and beautiful.”

“I am going to my daughter’s wedding. She is to marry the Storm-wind. Give me something as a wedding present for her, and I will be of use to you. I am the Frost; if you need me call upon me by saying,’ Frost, I call you; come with speed; Help me in my sudden need!'”

The ferry-man let him take all he wanted and went on.

Then he reached the sea-coast. Here the ball of thread stopped, and would go no further.

The ferry-man waded up to his waist into the sea, and set up two high poles, with cross-bars between them, upon which he hung dresses of various colours, scarves, and ribbons, gold chains, and diamond earrings and pins, shoes, and mirrors. Then he hid himself, with his wonderful hook and line ready.

As soon as the morning rose from the sea, there appeared far away on the smooth waters a silvery boat, in which stood a beautiful maiden, with a golden oar in one hand, while with the other she gathered together her long golden hair, all the while singing so beautifully to the rising sun, that, if the ferry-man had not quickly blocked his ears, he would have fallen into a dream, and then sleep.

She sailed along a long time in her silver boat, and round her leaped and played golden fishes with rainbow wings and diamond eyes. But all at once she noticed the rich clothes and ornaments, hung up on the poles, and as she came nearer, the ferry-man called out, “Storm-wind! Storm-wind! Come with speed! Help me in my sudden need!”

“What do you want?” asked the Storm-wind.

The ferry-man without answering him, called out, “Frost, I call you; come with speed, Help me in my sudden need!”

“What do you want?” asked the Frost.

“I want to capture the sea-maiden.”

Then the wind blew and blew, so that the silver boat sank, and the frost breathed on the sea till it was frozen over.

 Then the ferryman rushed up to the sea-maiden, entangling his hook in her golden hair, lifted her on his horse, and rode off as swift as the wind after his wonderful ball of thread.

She kept weeping and lamenting all the way but as soon as they reached the ferry-man’s home, and saw his wife, all her sorrow changed into joy. She laughed with delight, and threw herself into her arms.

Then it turned out that the two were sisters.

The next morning the ferry-man went to court with both his wife and sister-in-law, and the king was so delighted with the beauty of the latter, that he at once offered to marry her. But she could give him no answer until he had the Self-playing Guitar.

So the king ordered the ferry-man to obtain him this wonderful guitar, or be put to death.

His wife told him what to do, and gave him a handkerchief of hers, embroidered with gold, telling him to use this in case of need.

Following the ball of thread he came at last to a great lake, in the midst of which was a green island.

He began to wonder how he was to get there, when he saw a boat approaching, in which was an old man, with a long white beard, and he recognized him with delight, as his old friend.

“How are you, ferry-man?” he asked. “Where are you going?”

“I am going wherever the ball of thread leads me, for I must fetch the Self-playing Guitar.”

“This guitar,” said the old man, “belongs to Goldmore, the lord of that island. It is a difficult matter to deal with him, but perhaps you may succeed. You have often ferried me over the water. I will ferry you now.”

The old man pushed off, and they reached the island.

On arriving the ball of thread went straight into the palace. Goldmore came out to meet the traveller, and asked him where he was going and what he wanted.

He explained, “I have come for the Self-playing Guitar.”

“I will only let you have it on condition that you do not go to sleep for three days and nights. And if you do, you will not only lose all chance of having the Self-playing Guitar but you must die.”

What could the poor man do, but agree to this?

So Goldmore conducted him to a great room, and locked him in. The floor was strewn with sleepy-grass, so he fell asleep immediately.

Next morning in came Goldmore, and on waking him up said, “So you went to sleep! Very well, you shall die!”

He touched a spring in the floor, and the unhappy ferry-man fell down into a room beneath, where the walls were mirrors, and there were great heaps of gold and precious stones lying about.

For three days and nights he lay there. He became fearfully hungry.  Then it dawned upon him that he was to be starved to death!

He called out, and begged in vain. Nobody answered, and though he had piles of gold and jewels about him, they could not purchase him a morsel of food.

He sought in vain for any means of exit. There was a window, of clearest crystal, but it was barred by a heavy iron grating. The window looked over a garden whence he could hear nightingales singing, doves cooing, and the murmur of a brook. But inside he saw only heaps of useless gold and jewels, and his own face, worn and haggard, reflected a thousand times.

He could now only pray for a speedy death, and took out a little iron cross, which he had kept by him since his boyhood. But in doing so he also drew out the gold-embroidered handkerchief, given him by his wife, and which he had quite forgotten till now.

Goldmore had been looking on, as he often did, from an opening in the ceiling to enjoy the sight of his prisoner’s sufferings. All at once he recognized the handkerchief, as belonging to his own sister, the ferry-man’s wife.

He at once changed his treatment of his brother-in-law, as he had discovered him to be; took him out of prison, led him to his own rooms, gave him food and drink, and the Self-playing Guitar as well.

Coming home, the ferry-man met his wife half-way.

“The ball of thread came home alone,” she explained; “so I judged that some misfortune had befallen you, and I was coming to help you.”

He told her all his adventures and they returned home together.

The king was eager to see and hear the Self-playing Guitar so he ordered the ferry-man, his wife, and her sister to come with it to the palace at once.

Now the magic of this Self-playing Guitar was such that wherever its music was heard, the sick became well, those who were sad merry, ugly folks became handsome, magic spells were dissolved, and those who had been murdered rose from the dead, and killed their murderers.

So when the king, having been told the words to set the guitar playing, said the words. All the court began to be merry, and dance—except the king himself! For all at once the door opened, the music ceased, and the figure of the late king stood up in his shroud, and said, “I was the rightful possessor of the throne! And you, wicked brother, who caused me to be murdered, shall now reap your reward!”

So saying he breathed upon him, and the king fell dead—and then the ghost vanished.

But as soon as they recovered from their fright, all the nobility who were present acclaimed the ferry-man as their king.

The next day, after the burial of the late king, the beautiful sea-maiden, the beloved of the Sun, went back to the sea, to float about in her silvery boat, in the company of the rainbow fishes, and to rejoice in the sunbeams.

But the good ferry-man and his wife lived happily ever after, as king and queen. And they gave a grand ball to the nobility and to the people…. The Self-playing Guitar furnished the music, the wonderful purse scattered gold all the time, and the king entertained all the guests right royally.[68]