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ONCE upon a time there lived a barn-keeper who had few to equal him in courage. The Old Boy himself admitted that a bolder man had never yet appeared on earth. In the evening, when the threshers were no longer at work in the barn, he often paid a visit to the barn-keeper, and never tired of talking with him. He was under the impression that the barn-keeper did not recognise him, and supposed him to be only an ordinary peasant; but his host knew him well enough, though he pretended not, and had made up his mind to box Old Hornie’s ears if he could. One evening the Old Boy began to complain of the hard life of a bachelor, and how he had nobody to knit him a p. 196 pair of stockings or to hem a handkerchief. The barn-keeper answered, “Why don’t you go a-wooing, my brother?” The Old Boy returned, “I’ve tried my luck often enough, but the girls won’t have me. The younger and prettier they are, the more they laugh at me.”
The barn-keeper advised him to court old maids or widows, who would be much easier to win, and who would not be so likely to despise a suitor. The Old Boy took his advice, and some weeks afterwards married an old maid; but it was not long before he came back to the barn-keeper to complain of his troubles. His newly-married wife was full of tricks; she left him no rest night or day, and tormented him continually. “What sort of a man are you,” laughed the barn-keeper, “to allow your wife to wear the trousers? If you marry a wife, you must take care to be master.” The Old Boy answered, “I couldn’t manage her. If she chose to bring anybody else into the house, I couldn’t venture to set foot in it.” The barn-keeper sought to comfort him, and advised him to try his luck elsewhere; but the Old Boy thought that the first trial was enough, and had no inclination to put his neck under a woman’s yoke again.
In the autumn of the following year, when threshing had begun again, the old acquaintance of the barn-keeper paid him another visit. The latter saw that the peasant had something on his mind, but he asked no questions, thinking it best to wait till the other broached the matter himself. He had not long to wait before he heard all the old fellow’s misfortunes. During the summer he had made the acquaintance of a young widow who cooed like a dove, so that the little man again thought of courtship. In short, he married her, but discovered afterwards that she was a shocking scold at home, who would gladly have scratched his eyes out of his head, and he had cause to thank his stars that he had escaped from her hands. The barnkeeper remarked, “I see you’re good for nothing as a husband, for you are chicken-hearted, and don’t know how to manage a wife.” The Old Boy was forced to acknowledge that it was true. After they had talked awhile about women and marriage, the Old Boy said, “If you are really such a bold man as you pretend, and could tame the most hellish1 woman that exists, I will show you a way by which you can turn your courage to better p. 198 account than by subduing a violent woman. Do you know the ruins of the old castle on the mountain? A great treasure lies there since ancient times, which no one has been able to get at, just because nobody has had enough courage to dig it up.” The barn-keeper said, smiling, “If nothing more is needed than courage, the treasure is already as good as in my pocket.” Then the Old Boy told him that he must go to dig up the treasure next Thursday night, when the moon would be full; but added, “Take good care that you are not a bit afraid, for if your heart fails you, or if only a muscle of your body trembles, you will not only lose the expected treasure, but may even lose your life, like many others who have tried their luck before you. If you don’t believe me, you may go into any farmhouse, and the people will tell you what they have heard about the walls of the old castle. Many people even profess to have seen something with their own eyes. But once more, if you value your life, and wish to possess the treasure, beware of all fear.”
On the morning of the appointed Thursday, the barn-keeper set out, and although he did not feel the slightest fear, he turned into the village inn, p. 199 hoping to find somebody there who could give him some kind of information about the ruins of the old castle. He asked the landlord what the old ruins on the hill were, and whether people knew anything about who built them, and who destroyed them. An old farmer, who overheard the question, gave him the following information: “The report goes that a very rich squire lived there many centuries ago, who was lord over vast territories and a great population. This lord ruled with an iron hand, and treated his subjects with great severity, but he had amassed vast wealth by their sweat and blood, and gold and silver poured into his castle on all sides in hogsheads. Here he stored his wealth in deep cellars, where it was secure from thieves and robbers. No one knows how the wealthy miscreant came to his end. One morning the attendants found his bed empty and three drops of blood on the floor. A great black cat, which was never seen before or afterwards, was sitting on the canopy of the bed. It is supposed that this cat was the Evil Spirit1 himself, who had p. 200 strangled the squire in his bed in this form, and had then carried him off to Pōrgu to expiate his crimes. As soon as the relatives of the squire heard of his death, they wished to secure his treasures, but not a single copeck was to be found. It was at first thought that the servants had stolen it, and they were brought to trial; but as they knew that they were innocent, nothing could be extracted from them, even under the torture. In the meantime, many people heard a chinking like money deep under ground at night, and informed the authorities; and as this was investigated and the report confirmed, the servants were set at liberty. The strange nocturnal chinking was often heard afterwards, and many people dug for the treasure, but nothing was discovered, and no one returned from the caverns under the castle, for they were doubtless seized upon by the same power which had brought the owner of the money to such a dreadful end. Every one saw that there was something uncanny about it, and no one dared to live in the old castle. At length the roof and walls fell in from long exposure to rain and wind, and nothing was left p. 201 but an old ruin. No one dares to spend the night near it, and still less would any one be rash enough to seek for the ancient treasure there.” So said the old farmer.
When the barn-keeper had heard the story, he said, half joking, “I should like to try my luck. Who’ll go with me to-morrow night?” The men made the sign of the cross, and declared that their lives were more to them than all the treasures in the world, and that no one could reach these treasures without losing his soul. Then they begged the stranger to recall his words, and not to pledge himself to the Evil One. But the bold barn-keeper gave no heed to their entreaties and expostulations, and resolved to attempt the adventure alone. In the evening he asked the host for a bundle of pine-splinters, that he might not be in the dark, and then inquired the nearest way to the ruins.
One of the peasants, who seemed to be a little bolder than the others, went with him for some distance as his guide with a lighted lantern. As the sky was cloudy, and it was quite dark, the barnkeeper was obliged to grope his way. The whistling of the wind and the screeching of the owls p. 202 were terrible to hear, but could not frighten his bold heart. As soon as he was able to strike a light under the shelter of the masonry, he lit a splinter and looked about for a door or an opening through which he could get down underground. After looking about fruitlessly for some time, at last he discovered a hole at the foot of the wall, which seemed to lead downwards. He put the burning splinter in a crack in the wall, and cleared out so much earth and rubbish with his hands that he could creep through. After he had gone some distance, he came to a flight of stone stairs, and there was now room enough for him to stand upright. He descended the stairs with his bundle of splinters on his shoulder and one burning in his hand, and at last reached an iron door, which was not locked. He pushed the heavy door open, and was about to enter, when a large black cat with fiery eyes dashed through the door like the wind and rushed up the stairs. The barn-keeper thought, “That must be what strangled the lord of the castle;” so he pushed the door to, threw down the bundle of splinters, and then examined the place more carefully. It was a great wide hall, with doors everywhere in the walls; he p. 203 counted twelve, and considered which he should try first. “Seven’s a lucky number,” said he, so he counted till he came to the seventh door, but it was locked, and would not yield. But when he pushed at the door with all his strength, the rusty lock gave way and the door flew open. When the barn-keeper entered, he found a room of moderate size; on one side stood a table and bench, and at the opposite wall was a stove, with a bundle of faggots lying on the ground near the hearth. The inspector then lit a fire, and by its light he found a small pot and a cup of flour standing on the stove, and some salt in a salt-cellar. “Look here!” cried the barn-keeper. “Here I find something to eat unexpectedly; I have some water with me in my flask, and can cook some warm porridge.” So he set the pot on the fire, put some flour and water into it, added some salt, stirred it with a splinter of wood, and boiled his porridge well, after which he poured it into the cup, and set it on the table. The bright fire lit up the room, and he did not need to light a splinter. The bold barn-keeper seated himself at the table, took the spoon, and began to eat the warm porridge. All at once he looked up and saw the black p. 204 cat with the fiery eyes sitting on the stove. He could not comprehend how the beast had come there, as he had seen it running up the stairs with his own eyes. After this, three loud knocks were struck on the door, till the walls and floor shook. The barn-keeper did not lose his presence of mind, but cried out loudly, “Let anybody enter who has a head on his shoulders!” Immediately the door flew wide open, and the black cat sprang from the stove and darted through, while sparks of fire flew from its eyes and mouth. As soon as the cat had disappeared, four tall men entered, clad in long white coats, and wearing caps of flame-colour, which shone so brightly that the room became as bright as day. The men carried a bier on their shoulders, and a coffin stood upon it, but still the bold barn-keeper did not feel the least bit afraid. The men set the coffin on the ground without speaking a word, and then one after another went out at the door, and closed it behind them. The cat whined and scratched at the door, as if it wanted to get in, but the barn-keeper did not concern himself, and only ate his warm porridge. When he had eaten enough, he stood up, and looked at the coffin. He broke open the lid, and beneath it p. 205 he beheld a little man with a long beard. The barn-keeper lifted him out, and carried him to the fire to warm him. It was not long before the little old man began to revive, and to move his hands and feet. The bold barn-keeper was not a bit afraid; he took the porridge-pot and the spoon from the table, and began to feed the old man. The latter said presently, “Thank you, my son, for taking pity on such a poor creature as I am, and reviving my body, which was stiff with cold and hunger. I will give you such a princely reward for your good deed that you shall not forget me as long as you live. Behind the stove you will find some pitch-torches, light one and come with me. But first make the door securely fast, that the furious cat may not get in to break your neck. We will afterwards make it so tame that it cannot hurt anybody again.”
As he spoke, the old man raised a square trap-door about three feet broad from the floor, and it was plain that the stone covered the entrance to a cellar. The old man went down the steps first, and the barn-keeper followed him with the torch till they reached a terribly deep cavern.
In this great cellar-like arched cavern lay an p. 206 enormous heap of money, as big as the largest haycock, half silver and half gold. The little old man took from a cupboard in the wall a handful of wax-candles, three bottles of wine, a smoked ham, and a loaf of bread. Then he said to the barn-keeper, “I give you three days’ time to count and sort this heap. You must divide the heap into two equal parts, exactly alike, and so that nothing remains over. While you are busy with this, I will lie down by the wall to sleep, but take care not to make the least mistake or I’ll strangle you.”
The barn-keeper at once set to work, and the old man lay down. In order to guard against any mistake, the barn-keeper always took two similar coins to divide, whether thalers or roubles, gold or silver, and he laid one on his right, and the other on his left, to form two heaps. When he found his strength failing, he took a pull at one of the bottles, ate some bread and meat, and then set to work with renewed strength. As he only allowed himself a short sleep at night, in order to get on with his work, he had already finished the sorting on the evening of the second day, but one small piece of silver remained over. What was to be done? This did not trouble the bold barn-keeper; he drew his p. 207 knife from his pocket, laid the blade on the middle of the coin, and struck the back of the knife so hard with a stone that the coin was split in two halves. One half he laid to the right heap, and the other to the left, after which he roused up the old man, and asked him to inspect the work. When the old man saw the two halves of the last coin lying on the heap to the right and left, he uttered a cry of joy, and fell on the neck of the barn-keeper, stroked his cheeks, and at last exclaimed, “A thousand and again a thousand thanks to you, brave youth, for releasing me from my long, long captivity. I have been obliged to watch over my treasure here for many hundred years, because there was no one who had sufficient courage or sense to divide the money so that nothing was left over. I was therefore forced by a binding oath to strangle one after another, and as no one returned, for the last two hundred years no one has dared to come here, though there was not a night which I allowed to pass without jingling the money. But it was destined for you, O child of good luck! to become my deliverer, after I had almost abandoned all hope, and fancied myself doomed to eternal imprisonment. Thanks, a thousand thanks, for your good deed! p. 208 Take now one of these heaps of money as the reward for your trouble, but the other you must divide among the poor, as an atonement for my grievous sins; for when I lived on earth in this castle I was a great libertine and scoundrel. You have still to accomplish one task for my benefit, and for your own. When you go upstairs again, and you meet the great black cat on the stairs, seize it and hang it up. Here is a noose from which it cannot escape again.”
Hereupon he took from his bosom a chain woven of fine gold thread, as thick as a shoe-string, which he handed to the barn-keeper, and then vanished, as if he had sunk into the ground. A tremendous crash followed, as if the earth had cloven asunder beneath the barn-keeper’s feet. The light went out, and he found himself in thick darkness, but even this unexpected event did not shake his courage. He contrived to grope his way till he came to the stairs, which he ascended till he reached the first room, where he had boiled his porridge. The fire in the hearth had long been extinguished, but he found some sparks among the ashes, which he succeeded in blowing into a flame. The coffin was still standing on the ground, but instead of p. 209 the old man, the great black cat was sleeping in it. The barn-keeper seized it by the head, slipped the gold chain round its neck, hung it on a strong iron nail in the wall, and then laid down on the floor to rest.
Next morning he made his way out of the ruins, and took the nearest path to the inn from whence he had started. When the host saw that the stranger had escaped unhurt, his joy and astonishment knew no bounds. But the barn-keeper said, “Get me a few dozen sacks to hold a ton, for which I will pay well, and hire horses, so that I can fetch away my treasure.” Then the host perceived that the stranger’s expedition had not been fruitless, and he immediately fulfilled the rich man’s orders.
When the barn-keeper learned from the people what part of the old man’s domains was formerly under the authority of the lord of the castle, he assigned one-third of the money destined for the poor to this district, handed over the remaining two-thirds to the local authorities for distribution, and settled himself with his own money in a distant country, where nobody knew him. His descendants live there as rich people to this day, and p. 210 extol the bravery of their ancestor, who carried off the treasure.
1 Pōrgulise is the actual word used here.
1 This term, kuri vaim, is explicitly used here, not Vana pois, as we find in the earlier part of the story; and seems to indicate a different and much more malevolent being than the simpleton who visited the barn-keeper, though the term Vana pois sometimes occurs p. 200 in stories like “The Wooden Man and Birch-bark Maid,” in which souls are actually sold to the Devil.