从前有一个老婆婆，她和一群鹅住在大山之间的荒野里，荒野的四周环绕着一片大森林。 每天清晨，老婆婆都要拄着拐杖，颤颤巍巍地走到森林中去，她在那儿不停地忙着，别人真无法相信她这么大的年纪了还能做这么多事：她要替自己的鹅打草，用手采摘野果，还要把所有的这些东西背回家去。 别人一定以为这么重的东西一定会把她压倒在地，可是她却总是能够把它们全都背回去。 如果她碰到别人，她都会十分和蔼地向他打招呼："你好呀，亲爱的老乡，今天天气可真不错哩。是的，你看见我拖着这么多草准会吃惊，可是每个人都得背起他自己的负担啊。"不过，人们宁可绕弯路也还是不愿遇见她。 如果一位父亲带着他的儿子从她身边经过，他便会悄悄地对儿子说："小心这个老太婆，她是一个非常狡猾的女巫。"
一天早晨，一个英俊的少年在林中漫步。 清晨的森林，阳光明媚，鸟儿欢唱，阵阵凉风轻拂着树叶，此时的少年心情舒畅极了。 就在这时，他突然看见了那个老太婆，她正跪在地上用镰刀割草哩。 她已经割了一大捆草，她的身旁还放着两个装满了野梨和苹果的篮子。 "嗨，老太太，"少年说，"你一个人怎么搬得动这么多东西呢？""我不搬不行啊，亲爱的先生，"她回答道，"有钱人家的少爷不用干这个。可是有句俗语说得好：'别东张西望，你的背像弯弓一样。'"
"你愿意帮帮我吗？"老太婆看到少年还站着没走，便问道，"你的背还是直直的，腿脚还很利落，干这个并不难。再说我家离这儿并不太远，就在这座山后面的荒原上，很快就能走到。"这时少年对这个老太婆充满了同情，便说："虽然我的父亲不是农民而是一位富有的伯爵，可是为了让你看看并不是只有农民才能干重活儿，我愿意帮你把这些东西背回去。""如果是这样的话，那我太高兴了，"她说，"你得走上一小时，可这对你又算得了什么呢？对了，那边的梨子和苹果你也得背上。"年轻的伯爵听说要走上一小时的路，变得有些犹豫了。 可是老太婆并不放过他，而是马上把草捆放在了他的背上，再把两只篮子挎在他的手腕上。 "你瞧，这不是挺轻松的吗？"她说。 "不，并不轻松。"小伯爵愁容满面地说道，"这些草捆在背上非常沉，好像里面尽是装的大石头。苹果和梨子也重得像灌了铅一样，我被压得都快要憋不过气来了。"他很想把东西全都放下，可是老太婆不让他这么干。 "瞧，"她嘲讽地说道，"你这位年轻的先生连我这个老太婆经常搬的东西都搬不动。你说起漂亮话来倒是蛮厉害的，真要干起来的时候却想逃之夭夭，你还站在那儿干嘛呢？"她继续说道，"走吧，快抬腿！没有人会替你背的。"只要走的是平路，年轻人还顶得住，可是当他们来到山前，不得不往上爬，而脚下的石头又一个个像是活了似的往下滚的时候，他就吃不消了。 只见他不仅额头上挂着一颗颗的汗珠儿，身上也是汗流浃背的，让他觉得一会儿冷，一会儿热。 "老婆婆，"他说，"我不行了，想休息休息。""不行！"老太婆回答说，"我们到了以后，你才可以休息，现在你还得往前走。谁知道你打的是什么主意呢？""老太婆，你好不讲理！"小伯爵说着就想放下背上的草捆，可他是白费心机，因为那个包袱牢牢地挂在了他的背上，像是长在了他身上一样。 他急得转过来，又转过去，可是怎么也摆脱不掉。 见此情形，老太婆高兴得哈哈大笑，在那儿拄着拐棍乱蹦乱跳。 "别生气，亲爱的先生，"她说，"你的脸红得像一只火鸡。耐心一点背你的包袱吧，到家后我会多多给你赏钱的。"小伯爵无可奈何，只好认命，耐着性子跟在老太婆的身后慢慢地走着。 老太婆好像变得越来越矫健，而他的负荷却变得越来越沉重。 突然，她往上一跳，跳到草捆上坐了下来。 虽然她骨瘦如柴，却比那种最胖的乡下姑娘还要重。 年轻人两膝打颤，可是他要是不往前走，老太婆便会用树枝和麻杆抽打他的腿。 他就这么气喘嘘嘘地爬上了山，终于到了老太婆的家，这时他累得差不多快要倒下去了。 那些鹅一看见老太婆便竖起它们的翅膀，伸长脖子嘎嘎嘎地朝她跑了过来。 一个妇人手里拿着一根树枝，跟在那群鹅的后面走了过来。 她又高又壮，丑得像个母夜叉。 "妈妈，"她对老太婆说，"怎么啦，你怎么才回来？""没什么，我的女儿，"老太婆回答说，"我没遇到什么坏事，恰恰相反，这位好心的先生帮我把东西背回来了哩。当我走累了，他还连我也一起背了上来。这段路对我们来说根本不算远，我们一路上非常高兴，还一直闹着玩儿呐。"终于，老太婆走了过来，从年轻人的背上把草捆取了下来，并接过他手腕上的篮子，非常和蔼地看着他说，"现在你坐到门口的长凳上去好好休息一下吧。你应该得到的那一份报酬，我是不会少你的。"然后她对牧鹅女说，"我的女儿，你进屋去，你不适合同一位年轻的先生单独待在一起。咱们不应该火上浇油，否则他会爱上你的。"伯爵听了哭笑不得，心想："这样一个活宝，哪怕她再年轻三十岁，也打动不了我的心。"这时，只见那老太婆像抚摸自己的孩子一样抚摸着她的那群鹅，随后便同女儿一道进屋去了。 于是，少年便在野苹果树下的一条长凳上躺了下来。 山上的空气清新宜人，周围是一大片绿色的草地，草地上开满了樱草、野麝香和各色各样的花儿；一条清清的小溪从草地间流过，水面上波光鳞鳞；那些白白的鹅，有的在水中漫步，有的在水中嬉戏玩耍。 "这儿可真美啊！"少年说道，"可是我累得连眼皮都抬不起来了，我得先睡一会儿才行。但可千万别起风呀，因为风儿一定会把我这双软得像火绒似的腿给吹跑的。"
刚刚睡着不一会儿，那老太婆就走了过来把他摇醒说："起来，你不能留在这儿。是的，我把你累坏了，可是你不还是活得好好的吗？我现在就把你应得的报酬给你。金银财宝你不需要 ，我要给你一件别的东西。 "说着，她便把一只用一整块绿宝石雕刻而成的精制的小匣子放到了他的手中。然后又接着说："好好保管它，它会给你带来幸福的。 "伯爵一听自己可以走了，便高兴得跳了起来，这时他人也清醒了，精神也好了，于是谢了那个老太婆便头也不回地朝山下走去，身后传来鹅群阵阵欢快的叫声。
小伯爵在荒野里转了三天才找到出去的路。 这时，他来到一个陌生的地方，因为当地没有人认识他，人们便把他带到了王宫里。 来到王宫，只见国王和他的王后正端坐在高高的宝座上。 于是他单膝跪地，从口袋里把绿宝石小匣子掏了出来，呈送给王后。 只见那王后还没等打开小匣子就昏倒在地了，国王的侍卫于是便把少年抓了起来，要把他送进牢房。 这时王后睁开眼睛并命令侍卫把他给放了，然后她让所有的人都退下，因为她要和小伯爵单独谈谈。
却说那个老太婆此时正坐在家里的纺车边纺纱织布，此时天已经黑了下来，她脚边的炉子里燃着的一块木炭发出了微弱的亮光。 这时，从远处突然传来一阵嘎嘎嘎的声音，原来是她的鹅群从草地上回来了 ，不一会儿，她的女儿也回来了。 可是老太婆却没怎么搭理她，只是对她点头示了意。 于是女儿便坐到她的身边，从她手中接过纺锤，像个年轻的姑娘一般灵巧地纺起线来。 她们就这样默默地干了两个小时，谁都没说一句话。 这时，她们听到有什么东西在窗外叫着，还看到有两只眼睛在忽闪忽闪地往里瞅着。 原来那是一只老猫头鹰在咕咕咕地叫哩。 于是老太婆抬头看了看天，然后说：
于是，姑娘便走了出去。 她到底要去哪儿呢？ 只见她穿过草地然后继续朝前走去，一直走进山谷，最后她来到了三棵老橡树旁的井边。 这时，圆圆的月亮已经悄悄地爬上了山顶，皎洁的月光照在山谷里，一切都是那么明亮，仿佛针儿掉在地上也能找到。 只见她取下脸上的面皮，把头低下在井边洗了起来。 洗完脸后，她又把那张面皮浸到水里，然后再在草地上铺平凉干。 可是你绝对想像不到这个月光下的女孩是什么样子！ 只见她那头花白的假辫子掉了下来，一头金发像阳光一样披散在肩头，仿佛像一件外套似的盖住了她的整个身躯。 她的两只眼睛像夜空中的星星一样晶莹剔透，娇嫩的双颊恰似那盛开的花儿。
可是美丽的少女却十分忧伤，她坐到地上，伤心地哭了起来，泪珠一颗颗地落到披散的头发间。 她就这样坐了很久，突然 ，附近的树林里发出了一阵沙沙的声音，她像一头听到猎人枪声的小鹿似的从地上一跃而起。 这时，月亮被一团星云遮住了，一眨眼，那姑娘又重新套上了她的面皮和假发，像一盏被风吹灭了的灯一样骤然消逝在树林之中。
姑娘像一片白杨树叶似的全身颤慄着跑回了家。 那老太婆这时正站在门边，姑娘想把发生的事情告诉她，可是她却笑着说："我已经全知道了。"老太婆把姑娘带进屋里，然后在火炉里再加上了一块木头，可是她却没有坐到纺车前去，而是拿来一把扫帚，开始打扫屋子。 "一切都要弄得干干净净的才行。"她对姑娘说道。 "可是，妈妈，"姑娘说，"你为什么这么晚才开始干呢？你怎么啦？""你知不知道现在是几点钟？"老太婆问道。 "还没到午夜，"姑娘回答说，"可是已经过了十一点了。""你不记得了吗？你就是三年前的今天到我这儿来的呀！"老太婆继续说道，"你在我这儿的时间已经够久的了，你不能再待在这儿了。"姑娘吃了一惊，问："唉，亲爱的妈妈，你难道想赶我走吗？你叫我去哪儿呢？我既没有朋友，也没有了家，我能上哪儿去呢？凡是你叫我做的活儿我都做了，你也对我挺满意，别赶我走吧！"老太婆不愿告诉她真正的原因，只是说："我不再待在这儿了，可我搬走的时候，要把这儿打扫得干干净净的，所以不要妨碍我干活，你也不用担心，你会找到住处的。而且我将要给你的报酬你也会很满意的。""可是请你告诉我，到底会发生什么事呢？"姑娘继续问道。 "我再对你说一遍，不要妨碍我干活。不要再问了，回你的房间去，把脸上的面皮取下来，再穿上你当初来我这儿时穿的那件丝绸衣服，然后呆在你自己的房间里，直到我叫你出来为止。"
却说国王和王后以及小伯爵一起出了王宫，准备到荒野上去找那个老太婆。 夜里，小伯爵在森林里掉了队，只好一个人继续朝前走。 第二天，他才找到了那条上山的路，便不停地朝前赶路，一直走到天黑才爬到一棵树上，准备在那儿过夜。 当月亮出来的时候，他发现了一个人影从山上走了下来，虽然这人的手里没有拿鞭子，可是他却一眼认出这个人就是那个牧鹅女。 "呀，"他差点失声叫了出来，"是她，我刚刚才从一个巫婆的魔掌中逃出来，莫非现在又要落入另一个巫婆的魔掌？"可是，当他看到牧鹅女走到井边取下面皮，一头金色的长发披散在肩上的时候，他大吃了一惊，因为他一生也没见过像她那么美丽的女孩。 他大气都不敢出，却竭力伸长脖子，目不转睛地盯着这个美丽的姑娘。 也许是因为他的身体太往前倾，或是别的什么原因，'喀嚓'一声，一根树枝突然断了下来。 就在这时，只见姑娘飞快地套上面皮和假发，像小鹿似的跳了起来，在月亮被乌云遮住的一刹那，姑娘就在他的眼皮底下消失了。
她刚逃走，他便从树上飞快地跳了下来，紧跟在她身后。 没多久，他便看见夜色中有两个人影穿过草地，原来那是国王和王后。 他们远远地看见了老太婆屋里的亮光 ，便朝着这边走了过来。 这时，伯爵上前把他在井边见到的怪事告诉了他们，他们很快就确认那一定是他们失踪多年的女儿。 于是他们就兴高采烈地朝前走，很快便到了那个有亮光的小屋前。 只见那些鹅蹲成一圈，脑袋全都插进它们的翅膀里在睡觉哩。 他们三人朝窗户里看去，只见那老太婆一个人正坐在屋里纺线，又点了点头，却没有回头看。 屋子里打扫得干干净净，仿佛这儿住的全都是些脚上不会粘上灰尘的小雾人似的。 他们看了好一会儿，却没看见那个姑娘。 于是他们鼓足勇气，轻轻地敲了敲窗户。 这时，那个好像是一直在等着他们的老太婆站了起来，非常和蔼地说："只管进来好了，我早就知道你们来了。"于是，他们走了进去，那老太婆又说："要是你们三年前不把自己善良可爱的孩子赶出家门，那今天也不用走这么远的路了。只是她在这儿对她也没什么坏处，因为三年来，她只管放鹅，因此她那小小的心灵并没受到什么创伤，倒是你们却一直生活在焦虑不安之中，得到了应有的惩罚。"说完，她便走到另一扇门前，大声说："出来吧，我的女儿。"这时，门儿打开了，从里面走出来一位身着袍子的美丽姑娘。 只见她一头金发披散在肩头，两只眼睛扑闪扑闪的，恰似一位下凡的仙女。
她朝着自己的父母走去，搂住他们不停地亲吻着，大家全都高兴得哭了起来。 这时，姑娘看见了站在他们身旁的这位年轻的伯爵，她的脸儿就像原野上那羞答答地绽开着的玫瑰。 这时，国王说："亲爱的孩子，我的王国已经给了你的两个姐姐，我该拿什么送给你呢？""她什么都不需要，"老太婆说道，"我要把她为你们流的眼泪还给她，那全是一颗颗比从海里采撷出来的珍珠还要美、比你的整个王国还更珍贵的宝贝。还有，我要把这间小屋留给她，作为她在这儿放鹅的报酬。"话音刚落，那个老太婆便在他们面前消失了。 这时，他们听见四周的墙壁正在嘎嘎作，转头一看，原来这间小屋已变成了一座华丽的宫殿，御膳桌也已摆好，还有许多仆人正在忙着上菜哩！
故事到这儿还没完，可是给我讲这个故事的祖母已经记不清楚后面的情节了。 可我总认为，美丽的公主一定和伯爵结了婚，他们一定住在那座宫殿里，过着美满幸福的生活，一直到老。 而当初在小屋前饲养的那群小白鹅，是否是那些被老太太收养的少女--她们现在有没有恢复人形，并留在年轻的王后身边当侍女，我都不清楚，可是我想一定是这样的。 不过有一点是确信无疑的，那就是那个老太太不是人们所说的老巫婆，而是一位好心肠的女术士，并且让公主一生下来，哭出来的就不是眼泪，而是一颗颗珍珠的人，也多半是这位老太太。
There was once upon a time a very old woman, who lived with he flock of geese in a waste place among the mountains, and there had a little house. The waste was surrounded by a large forest, and every morning the old woman took her crutch and hobbled into it. There, however, the dame 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. Any one would have thought that the heavy load would have weighed her to the ground, but she always brought it safely home. If any one 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 every one must take his burthen 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 cloth, and near it stood two baskets, which were filled with wild apples and pears. "But, good little mother," said he, "how canst thou 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 signify to you; only you must carry the apples and pears as well?" It now seemed to the young man just a little serious, 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 cobble stones, 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. The drops of perspiration stood on his forehead, and ran, hot and cold, down his back. "Dame," 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, thou art becoming shameless!" said the count, and tried to throw off the bundle, but he laboured 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 spring, 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 burthen 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 thee to be alone with a young gentleman; one must not pour oil on to the fire, he might fall in love with thee." 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, "thou canst not stay here; I have certainly treated thee hardly, still it has not cost thee thy life. Of money and land thou hast no need, here is something else for thee." Thereupon she thrust a little book into his hand, which was cut out of a single emerald. "Take great care of it," said she, "it will bring thee 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 book out of his pocket, and laid it at the Queen's feet. She bade him rise and hand her the little book. 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 splendours and honours 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 thou, my dearest child, how much dost thou 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 thou lovest me like salt, thy love shall also be repaid thee 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 book, 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 hear 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 thee to go out and do thy 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 sunbeams, 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 neighbouring 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?" - "Dost thou know then what time it is?" asked the old woman. "Not yet midnight," answered the maiden, "but already past eleven o'clock." - "Dost thou not remember," continued the old woman, "that it is three years to-day since thou camest to me? Thy 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 parlour must be clean: therefore do not hinder me in my work. Have no care for thyself, thou shalt find a roof to shelter thee, and the wages which I will give thee shall also content thee." - "But tell me what is about to happen," the maiden continued to entreat. "I tell thee again, do not hinder me in my work. Do not say a word more, go to thy chamber, take the skin off thy face, and put on the silken gown which thou hadst on when thou camest to me, and then wait in thy chamber until I call thee."
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 any one 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 dared, 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 eyes.
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, the old woman was sitting there 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, 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 thee?" - "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 now-a-days, or else the poor would soon become rich.