Die Gebrüder Grimm ~ The Youth Who Could Not Shudder


There was once a Father who had two sons. One was clever and sensible, and always knew how to get on. But the younger one was stupid, and could not learn anything, and he had no imagination.

When people saw him, they said: ‘His Father will have plenty of trouble with him.’

Whenever there was anything to be done, the eldest one always had to do it. But if his Father sent him to fetch anything late in the evening, or at night, and the way lay through the churchyard, or any other dreary place, he would answer: ‘Oh no, Father, not there; it makes me shudder!’ For he was afraid.

In the evening, when stories were being told round the fire which made one’s flesh creep, and the listeners said: ‘Oh, you make me shudder!’ the youngest son, sitting in the corner listening, could not imagine what they meant. ‘They always say “It makes me shudder! It makes me shudder!” And it doesn’t make me shudder a bit. It must be some art which I can’t understand.’

Now it happened one day that his Father said to him: ‘I say, you in the corner there, you are growing big and strong. You must learn something by which you can make a living. See what pains your brother takes, but you are not worth your salt.’

‘Well, Father,’ he answered, ‘I am quite ready to learn something; nay, I should very much like to learn how to shudder, for I know nothing about that.’

The elder son laughed when he heard him, and thought: ‘Good heavens! what a fool my brother is; he will never do any good as long as he lives.’

But his Father sighed, and answered: ‘You will easily enough learn how to shudder, but you won’t make your bread by it.’

Soon after, the Sexton came to the house on a visit, and the Father confided his troubles about his son to him. He told him how stupid he was, and how he never could learn anything. ‘Would you believe that when I asked him how he was going to make his living, he said he would like to learn how to shudder?’

‘If that’s all,’ said the Sexton, ‘he may learn that from me. Just let me have him, and I’ll soon put the polish on him.’

The Father was pleased, for he thought: ‘Anyhow, the Lad will gain something by it.’

So the Sexton took him home with him, and he had to ring the church bells.

A few days after, the Sexton woke him at midnight, and told him to get up and ring the bells. ‘You shall soon be taught how to shudder!’ he thought, as he crept stealthily up the stairs beforehand.

When the Lad got up into the tower, and turned round to catch hold of the bell rope, he saw a white figure standing on the steps opposite the belfry window.

‘Who is there?’ he cried; but the figure neither moved nor answered.

‘Answer,’ cried the Lad, ‘or get out of the way. You have no business here in the night.’

But so that the Lad should think he was a ghost, the Sexton did not stir.

The Lad cried for the second time: ‘What do you want here? Speak if you are an honest fellow, or I’ll throw you down the stairs.’

The Sexton did not think he would go to such lengths, so he made no sound, and stood as still as if he were made of stone.

Then the Lad called to him the third time, and, as he had no answer, he took a run and threw the ghost down the stairs. It fell down ten steps, and remained lying in a corner.

Then he rang the bells, went home, and, without saying a word to anybody, went to bed and was soon fast asleep.

The Sexton’s wife waited a long time for her husband, but, as he never came back, she got frightened, and woke up the Lad.

‘Don’t you know what has become of my husband?’ she asked. ‘He went up into the church tower before you.’

‘No,’ answered the Lad. ‘There was somebody standing on the stairs opposite the belfry window, and, as he would neither answer me nor go away, I took him to be a rogue and threw him downstairs. Go and see if it was your husband; I should be sorry if it were.’

The woman hurried away and found her husband lying in the corner, moaning, with a broken leg. She carried him down, and then hastened with loud cries to the Lad’s father.

‘Your son has brought about a great misfortune; he has thrown my husband downstairs and broken his leg. Take the good-for-nothing fellow away, out of our house.’

The Father was horrified, and, going back with her, gave the Lad a good scolding.

‘What is the meaning of this inhuman prank? The evil one must have put it into your head.’

‘Father,’ answered the Lad, ‘just listen to me. I am quite innocent. He stood there in the dark, like a man with some wicked design. I did not know who it was, and I warned him three times to speak, or to go away!’

‘Alas!’ said his Father, ‘you bring me nothing but disaster. Go away out of my sight. I will have nothing more to do with you.’

‘Gladly, Father. Only wait till daylight; then I will go away, and learn to shudder. Then, at least, I shall have one art to make my living by.’

‘Learn what you like,’ said his Father. ‘It’s all the same to me. Here are fifty thalers for you. Go out into the world, and don’t tell a creature where you come from, or who your Father is, for you will only bring me to shame.’

‘Just as you please, Father. If that is all you want, I can easily fulfil your desire.’

At daybreak, the Lad put his fifty thalers into his pocket, and went out along the high road, repeating over and over to himself as he went: ‘If only I could shudder, if only I could shudder.’

A Man came by and overheard the words the Lad was saying to himself, and when they had gone a little further, and came within sight of the gallows, he said: ‘See, there is the tree where those seven have been wedded to the ropemaker’s daughter, and are now learning to fly. Sit down below them, and when night comes you will soon learn to shudder.’

‘If nothing more than that is needed,’ said the Lad, ‘it is easily done. And if I learn to shudder as easily as that, you shall have my fifty thalers. Come back to me early to-morrow morning.’

Then the Lad went up to the gallows, and sat down under them to wait till night came.

As he was cold he lighted a fire, but at midnight the wind grew so cold that he did not know how to keep himself warm.

The wind blew the men on the gallows backwards and forwards, and swung them against each other, so he thought: ‘Here am I freezing by the fire, how much colder they must be up there.’

And as he was very compassionate, he mounted the ladder, undid them, and brought all seven down one by one.

Then he blew up the fire, and placed them round it to warm themselves.

They sat there and never moved, even when the fire caught their clothing.

‘Take care, or I will hang you all up again.’

The dead men, of course, could not hear, and remained silent while their few rags were burnt up.

Then he grew angry, and said: ‘If you won’t take care of yourselves, I can’t help you, and I won’t be burnt with you.’

So he hung them all up again in a row, and sat down by the fire and went to sleep again.

Next morning, the Man, wanting to get his fifty thalers, came to him and said: ‘Now do you know what shuddering means?’

‘No,’ he said; ‘how should I have learnt it? Those fellows up there never opened their mouths, and they were so stupid that they let the few poor rags they had about them burn.’

Then the Man saw that no thalers would be his that day, and he went away, saying: ‘Never in my life have I seen such a fellow as this.’

The Lad also went on his way, and again began saying to himself: ‘Oh, if only I could learn to shudder, if only I could learn to shudder.’

A Carter, walking behind him, heard this, and asked: ‘Who are you?’

‘I don’t know,’ answered the Youth.

‘Who is your Father?’

‘That I must not say.’

‘What are you always mumbling in your beard?’

‘Ah,’ answered the Youth, ‘I want to learn to shudder, but no one can teach me.’

‘Stop your silly chatter,’ said the Carter. ‘Just you come with me, and I’ll see that you have what you want.’

The Youth went with the Carter, and in the evening they reached an inn, where they meant to pass the night. He said quite loud, as they entered: ‘Oh, if only I could learn to shudder, if only I could learn to shudder.’

The Landlord, who heard him, laughed, and said: ‘If that’s what you want, there should be plenty of opportunity for you here.’

‘I will have nothing to say to it,’ said the Landlady. ‘So many a prying fellow has already paid the penalty with his life. It would be a sin and a shame if those bright eyes should not see the light of day again.’

But the Youth said: ‘I will learn it somehow, however hard it may be. I have been driven out for not knowing it.’

He gave the Landlord no peace till he told him that there was an enchanted castle a little way off, where any one could be made to shudder, if he would pass three nights in it.

The King had promised his daughter to wife to any one who dared do it, and she was the prettiest maiden the sun had ever shone on.

There were also great treasures hidden in the castle, watched over by evil spirits, enough to make any poor man rich who could break the spell.

Already many had gone in, but none had ever come out.

Next morning the Youth went to the King, and said: ‘By your leave, I should like to pass three nights in the enchanted castle.’

The King looked at him, and, as he took a fancy to him, he said: ‘You may ask three things to take into the castle with you, but they must be lifeless things.’

He answered: ‘Then I ask for a fire, a turning-lathe, and a cooper’s bench with the knife.’

The King had all three carried into the castle for him.

When night fell, the Youth went up to the castle and made a bright fire in one of the rooms. He put the cooper’s bench with the knife near the fire, and seated himself on the turning-lathe.

‘Oh, if only I could shudder,’ he said; ‘but I shan’t learn it here either.’

Towards midnight he wanted to make up the fire, and, as he was blowing it up, something in one corner began to shriek: ‘Miau, miau, how cold we are!’

‘You fools!’ he cried. ‘What do you shriek for? If you are cold, come and warm yourselves by the fire.’

As he spoke, two big black cats bounded up and sat down, one on each side of him, and stared at him with wild, fiery eyes.

After a time, when they had warmed themselves, they said: ‘Comrade, shall we have a game of cards?’

‘Why not?’ he answered; ‘but show me your paws first.’

Then they stretched out their claws.

‘Why,’ he said, ‘what long nails you’ve got. Wait a bit; I must cut them for you.’

He seized them by the scruff of their necks, lifted them on to the cooper’s bench, and screwed their paws firmly to it.

Crowds of black cats and dogs swarmed out of every corner.

‘I have looked at your fingers, and the desire to play cards with you has passed.’

Then he killed them and threw them out into the moat.

But no sooner had he got rid of these two cats, and was about to sit down by his fire again, than crowds of black cats and dogs swarmed out of every corner, more and more of them.

They howled horribly, and trampled on his fire, and tried to put it out.

For a time he looked quietly on, but when it grew too bad he seized his cooper’s knife, and cried: ‘Away with you, you rascally pack,’ and let fly among them right and left. Some of them sprang away, the others he killed, and threw them out into the water.

When he came back he scraped the embers of his fire together again, and warmed himself. He could hardly keep his eyes open, and felt the greatest desire to go to sleep. He looked round, and in one corner he saw a big bed.

‘That’s the very thing,’ he said, and lay down in it. As soon as he closed his eyes, the bed began to move, and soon it was tearing round and round the castle. ‘Very good!’ he said. ‘The faster the better!’ The bed rolled on as if it were dragged by six horses; over thresholds and stairs, up and down.

Suddenly it went hop, hop, hop, and turned topsy-turvy, so that it lay upon him like a mountain. But he pitched the pillows and blankets into the air, slipped out of it, and said: ‘Now any one may ride who likes.’

Then he lay down by his fire and slept till daylight.

In the morning the King came, and when he saw him lying on the floor, he thought the ghosts had killed him, and he was dead. So he said: ‘It’s a sad pity, for such a handsome fellow.’

But the Youth heard him, and sat up, saying: ‘It has not come to that yet.’

The King was surprised and delighted, and asked him how he had got on.

‘Pretty well!’ he answered. ‘One night is gone, I suppose I shall get through the others too.’

When the Landlord saw him he opened his eyes, and said: ‘I never thought I should see you alive again. Have you learnt how to shudder now?’

‘No,’ he answered; ‘it’s all in vain. If only some one would tell me how.’

The second night came, and up he went again and sat down by the fire, and began his old song: ‘Oh, if only I could learn to shudder.’

In the middle of the night a great noise and uproar began, first soft, and then growing louder; then for a short time there would be silence.

At last, with a loud scream, half the body of a man fell down the chimney in front of him.

‘Hullo!’ he said, ‘another half is wanting here; this is too little.’

The noise began again, and, amidst shrieks and howls, the other half fell down.

‘Wait a bit,’ he said; ‘I’ll blow up the fire.’

When this was done, and he looked round, the two halves had come together, and a hideous man sat in his place.

‘We didn’t bargain for that,’ said the Youth. ‘The bench is mine.’

The man wanted to push him out of the way, but the Youth would not have it, flung him aside, and took his own seat.

Then more men fell down the chimney, one after the other, and they fetched nine human shin bones and two skulls, and began to play skittles.

The Youth felt inclined to join them, and cried: ‘I say, can I play too?’

‘Yes, if you’ve got any money.’

‘Money enough,’ he answered, ‘but your balls aren’t quite round.’

Then he took the skulls and turned them on the lathe till they were quite round. ‘Now they will roll better,’ he said. ‘Here goes! The more, the merrier!’

So he played with them, and lost some money, but when it struck twelve everything disappeared. He lay down, and was soon fast asleep.

Next morning the King came again to look after him, and said: ‘Well, how did you get on this time?’

‘I played skittles,’ he answered, ‘and lost a few coins.’

‘Didn’t you learn to shudder?’

‘Not I. I only made merry. Oh, if I could but find out how to shudder.’

On the third night he again sat down on his bench, and said quite savagely: ‘If only I could shudder!’

When it grew late, six tall men came in, carrying a bier, and he said: ‘Hullo there! That must be my cousin who died a few days ago.’ And he beckoned and said: ‘Come along, cousin, come along.’

The men put the coffin on the floor, and he went up and took the lid off, and there lay a dead man. He felt the face, and it was as cold as ice. ‘Wait,’ he said; ‘I will warm him.’

Then he went to the fire and warmed his hand, and laid it on his face, but the dead man remained cold. He took him out of the coffin, sat down by the fire, and took him on his knees, and rubbed his arms to make the blood circulate.

But it was all no good. Next, it came into his head that if two people were in bed together, they warmed each other. So he put the dead man in the bed, covered him up, and lay down beside him.

After a time the dead man grew warm, and began to move.

Then the Youth said: ‘There, you see, cousin mine, have I not warmed you?’

But the Man rose up, and cried: ‘Now, I will strangle you!’

‘What!’ said he, ‘are those all the thanks I get? Back you go into your coffin then.’ So saying, he lifted him up, threw him in, and fastened down the lid. Then the six men came back and carried the coffin away.

‘I cannot shudder,’ he said; ‘and I shall never learn it here.’

Just then a huge Man appeared. He was frightful to look at, old, and with a long white beard.

‘Oh, you miserable wight!’ he cried. ‘You shall soon learn what shuddering is, for you shall die.’

‘Not so fast,’ said the Youth. ‘If I am to die, I must be present.’

‘I will make short work of you,’ said the old monster.

‘Softly! softly! don’t you boast. I am as strong as you, and very likely much stronger.’

‘We shall see about that,’ said the Old Man. ‘If you are the stronger, I will let you go. Come; we will try.’

Then he led him through numberless dark passages to a smithy, took an axe, and with one blow struck one of the anvils into the earth.

‘I can better that,’ said the Youth, and went to the other anvil. The Old Man placed himself near to see, and his white beard hung over.

Then the Youth took the axe and split the anvil with one blow, catching in the Old Man’s beard at the same time.

‘Now, I have you fast,’ said the Youth, ‘and you will be the one to die.’

Then he seized an iron rod, and belaboured the Old Man with it, till he shrieked for mercy, and promised him great riches if he would stop.

Then the Youth pulled out the axe and released him, and the Old Man led him back into the castle, and showed him three chests of gold in a cellar.

‘One is for the poor,’ he said, ‘one for the King, and one for you.’

The clock struck twelve, and the ghost disappeared, leaving the Youth in the dark.

‘I must manage to get out somehow,’ he said, and groped about till he found his way back to his room, where he lay down by the fire and went to sleep.

Next morning the King came and said: ‘Now you must have learnt how to shudder.’

‘No,’ said he. ‘What can it be? My dead cousin was there, and an Old Man with a beard came and showed me a lot of gold. But what shuddering is, that no man can tell me.’

Then said the King: ‘You have broken the spell on the castle, and you shall marry my daughter.’

‘That is all very well,’ he said; ‘but still I don’t know what shuddering is.’

The gold was got out of the castle, and the marriage was celebrated, but, happy as the young King was, and much as he loved his wife, he was always saying: ‘Oh, if only I could learn to shudder, if only I could learn to shudder.’

At last his wife was vexed by it, and her waiting-woman said: ‘I can help you; he shall be taught the meaning of shuddering.’

And she went out to the brook which ran through the garden and got a pail full of cold water and little fishes.

At night, when the young King was asleep, his wife took the coverings off and poured the cold water over him, and all the little fishes flopped about him.

Then he woke up, and cried: ‘Oh, how I am shuddering, dear wife, how I am shuddering! Now I know what shuddering is!’


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