The Wager Story
Illustrated By: Elizabeth Rocha
Many years ago in Denmark there was a poor father who lived with his son in a small cottage. Each day, they had to work hard to earn enough money to live. The father worked as a laborer. His son, John, ran errands.
One hot, summer day the son was sent a long distance to deliver a letter. After he had walked quite a while, he noticed a willow tree by the water/ Its roots were exposed and drying out, so young John covered them up with moist soil.
And then - what was that in the soil? Without a doubt it was a wallet - one that was full of money!
John ran back to the town and asked everyone he met if they had lost a wallet.
Soon a horseman came galloping by. When John asked him, the horseman replied that, in fact, that very morning he had dropped his wallet on the way from home. He described it in great detail, and so John returned the wallet to him.
It turns out that the man on the horse owned a large estate in the nearby town of Ostergaard. He was so grateful that he immediately gave the boy a generous reward. What's more, he asked the lad if he would like to work at his estate. He would pay room and board and wages besides.
"Yes, I would indeed!" answered John, delighted to find steady work. He delivered the letter he had been given that morning. Then he rushed home to share the good news with his father. In three days time John would move to Ostergaard.
It so happens that the next day, the man who owned the estate in Ostergaard was entertaining company. The lord of the manor was bragging to his guests about his new servant. The young man was so honest and faithful and honorable, said he, that it would simply not be possible to trick him into telling a lie.
"I wouldn't be so sure of that if I were you," said one guest. He was also a lord and owned an estate in the neighboring town of Nebbegaard.
"I think that if he were tempted enough, he would tell a lie," said the lord of Nebbegaard.
So sure was the lord of Ostergaard about the honest nature of his new servant that he immediately said he would place as large a wager as his neighbor pleased that he could not get John to tell a lie. Whichever lord won the wager would also win the entire estate of the lord who had lost.
The lord of Nebbegaard thought of a plan. First, he would write a letter to his daughter, a lovely young maiden back home in Nebbegaard, to be delivered by John. In the letter, he would ask his daughter to trick young John into giving her his master's horse. Then, when the young man returned to his master without the horse, surely he would make up some sort of lie to explain why the horse was gone!
And so the lord of Nebbegaard wrote the letter to his daughter. He told her about the wager and stressed how important it was for him to win. He wrote that the young man who delivered the letter was John and that she should seem as friendly toward him as possible.
Her task was to persuade John to give her the horse on which he rode.
So the lord of Nebbegaard sealed the letter and gave it to the lord of Ostergaard, who called at once for John. He asked his new hire to deliver the letter to the Nebbegaard estate.
"John," said he, "this is your first errand in my charge. Take my horse so that you can return more quickly, and deliver this letter to my guest's estate in Nebbegaard. Now do not ride too fast or by any means lose the horse. This is the finest and most valuable in my stable."
John said that he would do as his master told him.
After awhile, he climbed off the horse and led the animal on foot. That way he could spare the creature the work of carrying him. Of course, this took more time. It was nearly dark by the time he reached Nebbegaard.
When the young lady read her father's letter, she at once behaved in the most friendly manner toward John. Actually, this was not hard for her to do, since from the first moment he saw the lad she felt drawn to him. Yet she must do as her father had asked.
So she entertained John in the most sumptuous manner. They laughed and talked well into the night. Just after midnight, she offered him a drink in a jeweled cup which contained sleeping powder. When the lad was tired and drowsy and more than a little bit love struck, she begged him to let her keep the horse.
With a yawn, he agreed. Then John fell deeply asleep.
The next morning, John found that he no longer had the horse. Sadly, he took the saddle and bridle and wandered back to Ostergaard. As he walked along it struck him how foolishly he had acted to give away his master's horse.
"What shall I say when I reach home," he moaned, "and my master finds that the horse is gone? 'Well, John,' he will say, 'have you executed my errand and delivered the letter?' I shall answer, "Yes." Then my master will say. 'What has become of my horse, which I entrusted with you?' What will I say? Perhaps I should say, 'I met a band of robbers who took the horse from me.'"
He stopped in the path and shook his head.
"No, no, that will never do. I have never yet told a lie. I will not start now."
Then John imagined how disappointed his father would be to find out how poorly he had behaved in his new job, and on his very first errand, too. Another thought rose to mind: "I know! I will say that the horse fell down and that I buried it in a ditch... Oh, no,, that won't do either," John sighed.
Before long, John decided that he would say that the horse had suddenly run away and had shaken off his saddle and bridle, which was why he was carrying them.
Long before he reached the front door to the estate at Ostergaard, the guests saw him coming from the distance. They could tell he was carrying the saddle and the bridle.
"Here comes your truthful boy," exclaimed the lord of Nebbegaard. "Look how slowly he comes and without the horse. You know the instructions I gave my daughter in the letter. Who do you think will win the wager now?"
The lord of Ostergaard saw John also. He was very angry at seeing him return without the horse. As soon as the boy entered the house, he was called up to where all the guests were assembled. "Well, John," bellowed John's master, "have you finished and delivered the letter?"
"Yes, I have, gracious master," said the boy, trembling.
"And what has become of my good horse, with which I entrusted you and ordered you to take such good care?"
John did not dare to meet his master's gaze and cast his eyes on the ground. In a low, sorrowful voice he said:
The lady's arm was soft and round,
Her manner sweet; her cup I downed,
My senses took a different course,
And thus I lost my master's horse."
When he had finished, his mater embraced him in joy.
"You see?" he exclaimed. "I knew well enough this lad would speak the truth. Which of us has on the wager now?"
Young John was stunned. Why would his master be pleased with him? Then his master clapped John on the back of his shoulder. He cried, "Be of good heart, my boy! As you have kept to the path of truth and right, when you are old enough, I will give you both house, and land, and horses, too!"
So pleased was he to win the wager that the lord of Ostergaard allowed the lord of Nebbegaard to keep his estate after all. He invited John's father to come live with them.
For her part, the maiden was delighted to learn that John had proven himself to be honest and true. She was sorry for her part in getting him to give up the horse. He quickly forgave her, and before long, they were married.
Over time the lord of Ostergaard, who had no sons of his own, declared John to be the full heir to his estate. And so John and his new wife, always honest to each other, lived happily together.
Adapted by Elaine L. Lindy from the story, "Temptation," from the book Scandinavian Folk and Fairy Tales, edited by Claire Booss (Avenel Book, New York, 1984), pp. 488-493. ©2003. All rights reserved.