Once upon a time there was a poor woodcutter who worked every day from early morning till late at night. When at last he had saved some money he said to his little boy, “You are my only child, I will spend the money which I have earned on your education. If you find a good job you can support me in my old age, when my legs are weak and I cannot leave the house.”
Then the boy went to a High School and studied so hard that his teachers praised him, and he remained there a long time. When he had studied for two years, the money that his father had earned ran out, so the boy had to return home.
“I’m sorry, son,” said the father, sorrowfully, “I can give you no more. I can only buy bread with the money that I make. Times are hard.”
“Dear father,” answered the son, “don’t worry about it. It is God’s will. I will find a way somehow.”
When the father wanted to go into the forest to earn money by chopping wood, the son said, “I will go with you and help you.”
“No, my son,” said the father, “that would be hard for you. You are not accustomed to rough work. Besides, I have only one axe and no money to buy another.”
“Just go to the neighbour,” answered the son, “he will lend you his axe until I have made enough money to buy one for myself.”
The father then borrowed an axe from the neighbour, and next morning at sunrise they went out into the forest together. The son helped his father and was quite cheerful. But when the sun was right over their heads, the father said, “Let’s take a rest, and have our dinner, and then we can work hard again this afternoon.”
The son took his bread in his hands, and said, “Just you rest, father, I am not tired; I will walk up and down a little in the forest, and look for birds’ nests.”
“Oh, you fool,” said the father, “don’t waste your energy! Afterwards you will be tired, so stay here, and sit down beside me.”
The son, however, went into the forest, ate his bread, and peered in among the green branches to see if he could discover a bird’s nest anywhere. So he went here and there to see if he could find a bird’s nest until at last he came to a big oak, which was already many hundred years old. He stood still and looked at it, and thought, “There must be many birds nests in this tree.”
Then all at once it seemed to him that he heard a voice. He listened and became aware that someone was crying in a very smothered voice, “Let me out, let me out!” He looked around, but could discover nothing. Nevertheless, he was sure that the voice came out of the ground. Then he shouted, “Where are you?”
The voice answered, “I am down here amongst the roots of the oak-tree. Let me out! Let me out!” The boy began to search among the roots under the tree, until at last he found a glass bottle in a little hollow. He lifted it up and held it against the light, and inside it he saw a creature shaped like a frog, jumping up and down.
“Let me out! Let me out!” it cried again, and because the boy thought that it would cause no harm, he pulled the cork out of the bottle. Immediately a spirit rose from it, and began to grow, and grew so fast that in a very few moments he stood before the boy. What a terrible sight he was! He was half as big as the tree by which he was standing.
“Do you know,” shouted the spirit in an awful voice, “what will happen to you for letting me out?”
“No,” replied the boy fearlessly, “how could I know that?”
“Then I will tell you,” cried the spirit; “I must strangle you for it.”
“You should have told me that sooner,” said the boy, “or I wouldn’t have let you out. I think you should ask more people about that.”
“It makes no difference,” said the spirit. “You must get what you deserve. Why do you think that I was shut up in the bottle for such a long time? It was a punishment for me. I am the mighty Mercurius. I must strangle whoever releases me.”
“Not so fast,” answered the boy. “ I must first know that you really were shut up in that little bottle, and that you are the right spirit. If, indeed, you can get in again, I will believe you and then you may do as you want with me.”
“That is a simple thing to do,” said the spirit arrogantly, and he made himself as small and slim as he had been at first, so that he crept right through the neck of the bottle again. Just as he got inside, the boy quickly put the cork back into the bottle and threw it among the roots of the oak back where it had been before, and the spirit was betrayed.
The boy was just about to return to his father, but the spirit cried out very piteously, “Ah, please let me out! Please let me out!”
“No,” answered the boy, “not a second time! I won’t set free anyone who tried to take my life.”
“If you set me free,” said the spirit, “I will give you so much that you will be rich for the rest of your life.”
“No,” answered the boy, “you would cheat me like you did the first time.”
“You are throwing away your own good luck,” said the spirit. “I will do you no harm and will reward you richly.”
“Perhaps I should try it,” thought the boy. “He might keep his word, and anyway, I am cleverer than him.”
Then he took out the cork, and the spirit rose up from the bottle as he had done before, stretched himself out and became as big as a giant.
“Now you shall have your reward,” he said, and handed the boy a little bag just like a plaster. “If you spread one end of this over a wound it will heal, and if you rub steel or iron with it, it will change into silver.”
“I must just try that,” said the boy, and went to a tree, tore off the bark with his axe, and rubbed it with one end of the plaster. It immediately closed together and was healed.
“Now, it is all right,” he said to the spirit, “and we can part.”
The spirit thanked him for his release, and the boy thanked the spirit for his present, and went back to his father.
“Where have you been?” said the father. “How could you forget your work? I told you that you wouldn’t find anything.”
“Don’t worry, father. I will make it up to you.”
“Make it up to me indeed,” said the father angrily, “It’s easy to say that.”
“Look, father, I will soon chop that tree there, so that it will split.”
Then he took his plaster, rubbed the axe with it, and hit the tree hard with it. However, as the iron had changed into silver, the edge bent.
“Father, just look what a bad axe you’ve given me. It has become crooked.”
The father was shocked and said, “Oh, what have you done? Now I will have to pay for that and I don’t have enough money.”
“Don’t get angry,” said the son, “I will soon pay for the axe.”
“You fool,” shouted the father, “how can you pay for it? The only money you have is what I give you. You are a student. You have no idea about wood-cutting.”
After a while the boy said, “Father, I can really work no more, we had better take a rest.”
“What?!” he answered. “Do you think I can take a rest? I have to continue working. Go off home, then.”
“Father, I am here in this wood for the first time, so I don’t know the way. Please go with me.”
As he had calmed down, the father finally agreed to go home with him. Then he said to the son, “Go and sell the damaged axe, and see what you can get for it. I must earn the difference, in order to pay the neighbour.”
The son took the axe, and carried it into town to a goldsmith, who tested it, laid it in the scales, and said, “It is worth four hundred thalers, but I don’t have that much money here.”
The boy said, “Give me what you can, and I will lend you the rest.”
The goldsmith gave him three hundred thalers, and remained a hundred in his debt. The son then went home and said, “Father, I have got the money, go and ask the neighbour what he wants for the axe.”
“I know that already,” answered the old man, “two thalers.” “Then give him four. That is double and that is enough. You see, I have plenty of money,” and he gave the father a hundred thalers, and said, “You will never be poor again. Live as comfortably as you like.”
“Good heavens!” said the father, “How did you find these riches?”
The boy then told his father everything that had happened and how he had trusted his luck and found riches. But with the money that was left, he went back to the High School and went on learning more, and as he could heal all wounds with his plaster, he became the most famous doctor in the whole world.