The Trade That No One Knows
Source: Hero Tales And Legends Of The Serbians
A long while ago there lived a poor old couple, who had an only
son. The old man and his wife worked very hard to nourish their child
well and bring him up properly, hoping that he, in return, would take
care of them in their old age.
When, however, the boy had grown up, he said to his parents, "I am a
man now, and I intend to marry, so I wish you to go at once to the
king and ask him to give me his daughter for wife." The astonished
parents rebuked him, saying: "What can you be thinking of? We have
only this poor hut to shelter us, and hardly bread enough to eat,
and we dare not presume to go into the king's presence, much less
can we venture to ask for his daughter to be your wife."
The son, however, insisted that they should do as he said, threatening
that if they did not comply with his wishes he would leave them,
and go away into the world. Seeing that he was really in earnest
in what he said, the unhappy parents promised him they would go and
ask for the king's daughter. Then the old mother made a wedding cake
in her son's presence, and, when it was ready, she put it in a bag,
took her staff in her hand, and went straight to the palace where the
king lived. There the king's servants bade her come in, and led her
into the hall where his Majesty was accustomed to receive the poor
people who came to ask alms or to present petitions.
The poor old woman stood in the hall, confused and ashamed at her
worn-out, shabby clothes, and looking as if she were made of stone,
until the king said to her kindly: "What do you want from me,
She dared not, however, tell his Majesty why she had come, so she
stammered out in her confusion: "Nothing, your Majesty."
Then the king smiled a little and said, "Perhaps you come to ask alms?"
Then the old woman, much abashed, replied: "Yes, your Majesty, if
Thereupon the king called his servants and ordered them to give the
old woman ten crowns, which they did. Having received this money,
she thanked his Majesty, and returned home, saying to herself:
"I dare say when my son sees all this money he will not think any
more of going away from us."
In this thought, however, she was quite mistaken, for no sooner had
she entered the hut than the son came to her and asked impatiently:
"Well, mother, have you done as I asked you?"
At this she exclaimed: "Do give up, once for all, this silly fancy,
my son. How could you expect me to ask the king for his daughter to
be your wife? That would be a bold thing for a rich nobleman to do,
how then can we think of such a thing? Anyhow, I dared not say one
word to the king about it. But only look what a lot of money I have
brought back. Now you can look for a wife suitable for you, and then
you will forget the king's daughter."
When the young man heard his mother speak thus, he grew very angry,
and said to her: "What do I want with the king's money? I don't want
his money, but I do want his daughter! I see you are only playing with
me, so I shall leave you. I will go away somewhere--anywhere--wherever
my eyes lead me."
Then the poor old parents prayed and begged him not to go away from
them, and leave them alone in their old age; but they could only quiet
him by promising faithfully that the mother should go again next day
to the king, and this time really ask him to give his daughter to
her son for a wife.
In the morning, therefore, the old woman went again to the palace, and
the servants showed her into the same hall she had been in before. The
king, seeing her stand there, inquired: "What want you, my old woman,
now?" She was, however, so ashamed that she could hardly stammer,
"Nothing, please your Majesty."
The king, supposing that she came again to beg, ordered his servants
to give this time also ten crowns.
With this money the poor woman returned to her hut, where her son
met her, asking: "Well, mother, this time I hope you have done what
I asked you?" But she replied: "Now, my dear son, do leave the king's
daughter in peace. How can you really think of such a thing? Even if
she would marry you, where is the house to bring her to? So be quiet,
and take this money which I have brought you."
At these words the son was more angry than before, and said sharply:
"As I see you will not let me marry the king's daughter, I will
leave you this moment and never come back again;" and, rushing out
of the hut, he ran away. His parents hurried after him, and at length
prevailed on him to return, by swearing to him that his mother should
go again to the king next morning, and really and in truth ask his
Majesty this time for his daughter.
So the young man agreed to go back home and wait until the next day.
On the morrow the old woman, with a heavy heart, went to the palace,
and was shown as before into the king's presence. Seeing her there
for the third time, his Majesty asked her impatiently: "What do
you want this time, old woman?" And she, trembling all over, said:
"Please your Majesty--nothing." Then the king exclaimed: "But it
cannot be nothing. Something you must want, so tell me truth at once,
if you value your life!" Thereupon the old woman was forced to tell
all the story to the king; how her son had a great desire to marry
the princess, and so had forced her to come and ask the king to give
her him to wife.
When the king had heard everything, he said: "Well, after all, I
shall say nothing against it if my daughter will consent to it." He
then told his servants to lead the princess into his presence. When
she came he told her all about the affair, and asked her, "Are you
willing to marry the son of this old woman?"
The princess answered: "Why not? If only he learns first the trade
that no one knows!" Thereupon the king bade his attendants give money
to the poor woman, who now went back to her hut with a light heart.
The moment she entered her son asked her: "Have you engaged her?" And
she returned: "Do let me get my breath a little! Well, now I have
really asked the king: but it is of no use, for the princess declares
she will not marry you until you have learnt the trade that no
"Oh, that matters nothing!" exclaimed the son. "Now I only know the
condition, it's all right!" The next morning the young man set out on
his travels through the world in search of a man who could teach him
the trade that no one knows. He wandered about a long time without
being able to find out where he could learn such a trade. At length
one day, being quite tired out with walking and very sad, he sat
down on a fallen log by the wayside. After he had sat thus a little
while, an old woman came up to him, and asked: "Why art thou so sad,
my son?" And he answered: "What is the use of your asking, when you
cannot help me?" But she continued: "Only tell me what is the matter,
and perhaps I can help you." Then he said: "Well, if you must know,
the matter is this: I have been travelling about the world a long time
to find a master who can teach me the trade that no one knows." "Oh,
if it is only that," cried the old woman, "just listen to me! Don't
be afraid, but go straight into the forest which lies before you,
and there you will find what you want."
The young man was very glad to hear this, and got up at once and went
to the forest. When he had gone pretty far in the wood he saw a large
castle, and whilst he stood looking at it and wondering what it was,
four giants came out of it and ran up to him, shouting: "Do you wish
to learn the trade that no one knows?" He said: "Yes; that is just
the reason why I come here." Whereupon they took him into the castle.
Next morning the giants prepared to go out hunting, and, before
leaving, they said to him: "You must on no account go into the first
room by the dining-hall." Hardly, however, were the giants well out
of sight before the young man began to reason thus with himself:
"I see very well that I have come into a place from which I shall
never go out alive with my head, so I may as well see what is in
the room, come what may afterwards." So he went and opened the door
a little and peeped in. There stood a golden ass, bound to a golden
manger. He looked at it a little, and was just going to shut the door
when the ass said: "Come and take the halter from my head, and keep
it hidden about you. It will serve you well if you only understand
how to use it." So he took the halter, and, after fastening the
room-door, quickly concealed it under his clothes. He had not sat
very long before the giants came home. They asked him at once if
he had been in the first room, and he, much frightened, replied:
"No, I have not been in." "But we know that you have been!" said the
giants in great anger, and seizing some large sticks they beat him
so severely that he could hardly stand on his feet. It was very lucky
for him that he had the halter wound round his body under his clothes,
or else he would certainly have been killed.
The next day the giants again prepared to go out hunting, but before
leaving him they ordered him on no account to enter the second room.
Almost as soon as the giants had gone away he became so very curious
to see what might be in the second room, that he could not resist
going to the door. He stood there a little, thinking within himself,
"Well, I am already more dead than alive, much worse cannot happen to
me!" and so he opened the door and looked in. There he was surprised
to see a very beautiful girl, dressed all in gold and silver, who sat
combing her hair, and setting in every tress a large diamond. He stood
admiring her a little while, and was just going to shut the door again,
when she spoke, "Wait a minute, young man. Come and take this key,
and mind you keep it safely. It will serve you some time, if you only
know how to use it." So he went in and took the key from the girl,
and then, going out, fastened the door and went and sat down in the
same place he had sat before.
He had not remained there very long before the giants came home from
hunting. The moment they entered the house they took up their large
sticks to beat him, asking, at the same time, whether he had been
in the second room. Shaking all over with fear, he answered them,
"No, I have not!"
"But we know you have been," shouted the giants in great anger,
and they then beat him worse than on the first day.
The Third Room
The next morning, as the giants went out as usual to hunt, they said
to him: "Do not go into the third room, for anything in the world;
for if you do go in we shall not forgive you as we did yesterday,
and the day before! We shall kill you outright!" No sooner, however,
had the giants gone out of sight, than the young man began to say to
himself, "Most likely they will kill me, whether I go into the room
or not. Besides, if they do not kill me, they have beaten me so badly
already that I am sure I cannot live long, so, anyhow, I will go and
see what is in the third room." Then he got up and went and opened
He was quite shocked, however, when he saw that the room was full
of human heads! These heads belonged to young men who had come,
like himself, to learn the trade that no one knows, and who, having
obeyed faithfully and strictly the orders of the giants, had been
killed by them.
The young man was turning quickly to go away when one of the heads
called out: "Don't be afraid, but come in!" Thereupon he went into
the room. Then the head gave him an iron chain, and said: "Take care
of this chain, for it will serve you some time if you know how to
use it!" So he took the chain, and going out fastened the door.
He went and sat down in the usual place to wait for the coming home
of the giants, and, as he waited, he grew quite frightened, for he
fully expected that they would really kill him this time.
The instant the giants came home they took up their thick sticks and
began to beat him without stopping to ask anything. They beat him
so terribly that he was all but dead; then they threw him out of the
house, saying to him: "Go away now, since you have learnt the trade
that no one knows!" When he had lain a long time on the ground where
they had thrown him, feeling very sore and miserable, at length he
tried to move away, saying to himself: "Well, if they really have
taught me the trade that no one knows for the sake of the king's
daughter I can suffer gladly all this pain, if I can only win her."
After travelling for a long time, the young man came at last to
the palace of the king whose daughter he wished to marry. When he
saw the palace, he was exceedingly sad, and remembered the words of
the princess; for, after all his wanderings and sufferings, he had
learnt no trade, and had never been able to find what trade it was
"that no one knows." Whilst considering what he had better do,
he suddenly recollected the halter, the key and the iron chain,
which he had carried concealed about him ever since he left the
castle of the four giants. He then said to himself, "Let me see what
these things can do!" So he took the halter and struck the earth
with it, and immediately a handsome horse, beautifully caparisoned,
stood before him. Then he struck the ground with the iron chain, and
instantly a hare and a greyhound appeared, and the hare began to run
quickly and the greyhound to follow her. In a moment the young man
hardly knew himself, for he found himself in a fine hunting-dress,
riding on the horse after the hare, which took a path that passed
immediately under the windows of the king's palace.
Now, it happened that the king stood at a window looking out, and
noticed at once the beautiful greyhound which was chasing the hare,
and the very handsome horse which a huntsman in a splendid dress was
mounted on. The king was so pleased with the appearance of the horse
and the greyhound that he called instantly some of his servants, and,
sending them after the strange rider, bade them invite him to come to
the palace. The young man, however, hearing some people coming behind
him calling and shouting, rode quickly behind a thick bush, and shook
a little the halter and the iron chain. In a moment the horse, the
greyhound, and the hare had vanished, and he found himself sitting
on the ground under the trees dressed in his old shabby clothes. By
this time the king's servants had come up, and, seeing him sit there,
they asked him whether he had seen a fine huntsman on a beautiful
horse pass that way. But he answered them rudely: "No! I have not
seen any one pass, neither do I care to look to see who passes!"
Then the king's servants went on and searched the forest, calling
and shouting as loudly as they could, but it was all in vain; they
could neither see nor hear anything of the hunter. At length they
went back to the king, and told him that the horse the huntsman rode
was so exceedingly quick that they could not hear anything of him in
The Son Returns
The young man now resolved to go to the hut where his old parents
lived; and they were glad to see that he had come back to them
Next morning, the son said to his father: "Now, father, I will
show you what I have learned. I will change myself into a beautiful
horse, and you must lead me into the city and sell me, but be very
careful not to give away the halter, or else I shall remain always a
horse!" Accordingly, in a moment he changed himself into a horse of
extraordinary beauty, and the father took him to the market-place to
sell him. Very soon a great number of people gathered round the horse,
wondering at his unusual beauty, and very high prices were offered
for him; the old man, however, raised the price higher and higher at
every offer. The news spread quickly about the city that a wonderfully
handsome horse was for sale in the market-place, and at length the
king himself heard of it, and sent some servants to bring the horse,
that he might see it. The old man led the horse at once before the
palace, and the king, after looking at it for some time with great
admiration, could not help exclaiming, "By my word, though I am a
king, I never yet saw, much less rode, so handsome a horse!" Then he
asked the old man if he would sell it him. "I will sell it to your
Majesty, very willingly," said the old man; "but I will sell only
the horse, and not the halter." Thereupon the king laughed, saying:
"What should I want with your dirty halter? For such a horse I will
have a halter of gold made!" So the horse was sold to the king for
a very high price, and the old man returned home with the money.
Next morning, however, there was a great stir and much consternation
in the royal stables, for the beautiful horse had vanished somehow
during the night. And at the time when the horse disappeared, the
young man returned to his parents' hut.
A day or two afterwards the young man said to his father: "Now I
will turn myself into a fine church not far from the king's palace,
and if the king wishes to buy it you may sell it him, only be sure
not to part with the key or else I must remain always a church!"
When the king got up that morning, and went to his window to look out,
he saw a beautiful church which he had never noticed before. Then
he sent his servants out to see what it was, and soon after they
came back saying, that "the church belonged to an old pilgrim,
who told them that he was willing to sell it if the king wished to
buy it." Then the king sent to ask what price he would sell it for,
and the pilgrim replied: "It is worth a great deal of money."
The King Outbid
Whilst the servants were bargaining with the father an old woman came
up. Now this was the same old woman who had sent the young man to
the castle of the four giants, and she herself had been there and
had learnt the trade that no one knew. As she understood at once
all about the church, and had no mind to have a rival in the trade,
she resolved to put an end to the young man. For this purpose she
began to outbid the king, and offered, at last, so very large a sum
of ready money, that the old man was quite astonished and confused
at seeing the money which she showed him. He accordingly accepted
her offer, but whilst he was counting the money, quite forgot about
the key. Before long, however, he recollected what his son had said,
and then, fearing some mischief, he ran after old woman and demanded
the key back. But the woman could not be persuaded to give back the
key, and said it belonged to the church which she had bought and paid
for. Seeing she would not give up the key, the old man grew more and
more alarmed, lest some ill should befall his son, so he took hold
of the old woman by the neck and forced her to drop the key. She
struggled very hard to get it back again, and, whilst the old man
and she wrestled together, the key changed itself suddenly into a
dove and flew away high in the air over the palace gardens.
When the old woman saw this, she changed herself into a hawk, and
chased the dove. Just, however, as the hawk was about to pounce upon
it, the dove turned itself into a beautiful bouquet, and dropped down
into the hand of the king's daughter, who happened to be walking in
the garden. Then the hawk changed again into the old woman, who went
to the gate of the palace and begged very hard that the princess
would give that bouquet, or, at least, one single flower from it.
But the princess said, "No! not for anything in the world! These
flowers fell to me from heaven!" The old woman, however, was determined
to get one flower from the bouquet, so, seeing the princess would not
hear her, she went straight to the king, and begged piteously that
he would order his daughter to give her one of the flowers from her
bouquet. The king, thinking the old woman wanted one of the flowers
to cure some disease, called his daughter to him, and told her to
give one to the beggar.
But just as the king said this, the bouquet changed itself into a
heap of millet-seed and scattered itself all over the ground. Then
the old woman quickly changed herself into a hen and chickens, and
began greedily to pick up the seeds. Suddenly, however, the millet
vanished, and in its place appeared a fox, which sprang on the hen
and killed her.
Then the fox changed into the young man, who explained to the
astonished king and princess that he it was who had demanded the hand
of the princess, and that, in order to obtain it he had wandered all
over the world in search of some one who could teach him "the trade
that no one knows."
When the king and his daughter heard this, they gladly fulfilled their
part of the bargain, seeing how well the young man had fulfilled his.
Then, shortly afterwards, the king's daughter married the son of the
poor old couple; and the king built for the princess and her husband
a palace close to his own. There they lived long and had plenty of
children, and people say that some of their descendants are living at
present, and that these go constantly to pray in the church, which is
always open because the key of it turned itself into a young man who
married the king's daughter, after he had shown to her that he had done
as she wished, and learnt, for her sake, "the trade that no one knows."
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