There was once upon a time an old man whose family consisted of his wife and three sons. They were exceedingly poor, and finding that they could not possibly all live at home, the three sons went out into the world in different directions to find some means of living. Thus the old man and his wife remained alone.
Having neither horses nor oxen, the old man was obliged to go every day to the forest for fuel, and carry home the firewood on his back.
On one occasion it was nearly evening when he started to go to the forest, and his wife, who was afraid to remain alone in the house, begged very hard to be permitted to go with him. He objected very much at first, but as she persisted in her entreaties, he at length consented to her following him, first bidding her, however, take good care to make the house-door safe, lest some one should break into the house.
The old wo. nan thought the door would be safest if she took it off its hinges, and carried it away on her back. So she took it off and followed her husband as fast as she was able. The old man, however, was not angry when he saw how she had mistaken his words, and the manner she had chosen to make sure of the door; for, he reflected, there was little or nothing at all in the house for any one to steal.
When they had reached the forest the husband began to cut wood, and his wife gathered the branches together in a heap. Meanwhile it had got very late, and they were anxious as to how they should pass the night, seeing their own house was so far off that they would be unable to reach it before morning, and there were no houses in the neighbourhood where they could sleep. At last they observed a very tall and widely spreading pine-tree, and they resolved to climb up and pass the night on one of its branches.
The man got up first, and his wife followed him, drawing, with great difficulty, the door after her. Her husband advised her to leave the door on the ground under the tree; but she would not listen to him, and could not be persuaded to remain in the tree without her house-door. Hardly had they settled themselves on a branch, the old woman holding fast her door, before they heard a great noise, which came nearer and nearer.
They were excessively frightened at the noise, and dared neither speak nor move.
In a short time they saw a captain of robbers followed by twelve of his men, approach the tree; the robbers were dressed all alike, in gold and silver, and one of them carried a sheep killed and ready for roasting.
When the old man and woman saw the band of robbers come and settle under the pine-tree in which they had themselves taken refuge they thought their time was come, and gave themselves up for lost.
As soon as the robbers had settled themselves, the youngest of them made a fire and put the sheep down to roast, whilst the captain conversed with the others. The sheep was already roasted and cut up, and the robbers had begun with great gaiety to eat it, when the old woman told her husband that she could not possibly hold the door any longer, but must let it fall. The old man begged her piteously not to let it go, but to hold it fast and keep quiet, lest the robbers should discover and kill them. The old woman said, however, that she was so exceedingly tired she could no longer by any possibility hold it. The old man, seeing it was no good talking about it, declared that, as he could not hold his corner of the door any longer when she had let go her corner, it was not worth while to complain, "since," as he said, "what must be must be, and it is no use to be sorry for anything in this world." Thereupon they both loosened their holds of the door at once, and it fell down, making a great noise - especially with its iron lock - as it fell from branch to branch.
The door made so much noise in falling, that the whole forest re-echoed with the sound.
The robbers, greatly astonished at the noise, and too frightened by the unexpected clashing above their heads to see what was the cause, took to their heels, without once thinking of the roast sheep they left behind, or of any of the treasures which they had brought with them. One of them alone did not run away far from the spot, but hid himself behind a tree, and waited to see what might come of so much noise.
The old couple, seeing the robbers did not return, came down from the tree, and, being exceedingly hungry, began to eat heartily; the old man all the time praising the wisdom of his wife in throwing down the door.
The robber who had hidden himself, seeing only the old people near the fire, came up to them, and begged to be allowed to share their meal, as he had not eaten anything for the last twenty-four hours. This they permitted, and spoke of all kinds of things, until the old man exclaimed suddenly to the robber, "Take care! you have a hair on your tongue! Do not choke yourself, for I have no means to bury you here!"
The brigand took this joke in earnest, and begged the old man to take the hair out of his mouth, and he would in return show him a cave wherein a great treasure was hidden. As he was describing the great heaps of gold ducats, thalers, shillings, and other coins which he said were in the cave, the old woman interrupted him, saying, "I will take the hair out of your mouth, without pay! Only put your tongue out and shut your eyes!" The robber very gladly did as she told him, and she caught up a knife and in a moment cut off a piece of his tongue. Then she said, "Well, now! I have taken the hair out!" When the robber felt what had been done to him he jumped up and down in pain, and at length ran away without hat or coat in the same direction as his companions had gone, shouting all the time, "Help! help! give me some plaster!" His companions, hearing imperfectly these words, misunderstood him, and thought he cried to them, "Help yourselves; here is the police-master!" especially as he ran as if the captain of police with a large force was at his heels. Accordingly, the robbers themselves ran faster and farther away.
Meanwhile the old couple thought it no longer safe to stay under the pine-tree, so they gathered up quickly all the money, whether gold or silver, which they could carry, and hurried back to their home. When they got there they found the hens of the neighbours had pulled off the thatch of their house; they were, however, the less sorry for this, since they had now money enough to build another and a better home. And this they did, and continued to live in their fine new house without once remembering their sons, who had been wandering about the world already some nine long years.