Once on a time there were two young men who were such great friends that they swore to one another they would never part, either in life or death. One of them died before he was at all old, and a little while after the other wooed a farmer's daughter, and was to be married to her. So when they were bidding guests to the wedding the bridegroom went himself to the churchyard where his friend lay, and knocked at his grave, and called him by name. No! he neither answered nor came. He knocked again, and he called again, but no one came. A third time he knocked louder and called louder to him, to come that he might talk to him. So, after a long, long time, he heard a rustling, and at last the dead man came up out of the grave.
'It was well you came at last,' said the bridegroom, 'for I have been standing here ever so long, knocking and calling for you.'
'I was a long way off,' said the dead man, 'so that I did not quite hear you till the last time you called.'
'All right,' said the bridegroom; 'but I am going to stand bridegroom to-day, and you mind well, I dare say, what we used to talk about, and how we were to stand by each other at our weddings as best man.'
'I mind it well,' said the dead man, 'but you must wait a bit till I have made myself a little smart; and, after all, no one can say I have on a wedding garment.'
The lad was hard put to it for time, for he was overdue at home to meet the guests, and it was all but time to go to church; but still he had to wait awhile and let the dead man go into a room by himself, as he begged, so that he might brush himself up a bit, and come smart to church like the rest, for, of course, he was to go with the bridal train to church.
Yes! the dead man went with him both to church and from church, but when they had got so far on with the wedding that they had taken off the bride's crown, he said he must go. So, for old friendship's sake, the bridegroom said he would go with him to the grave again. And as they walked to the churchyard the bridegroom asked his friend if he had seen much that was wonderful, or heard anything that was pleasant to know.
'Yes! that I have,' said the dead man. 'I have seen much, and heard many strange things.'
'That must be fine to see,' said the bridegroom. 'Do you know I have a mind to go along with you, and see all that with my own eyes.'
'You are quite welcome,' said the dead man; 'but it may chance that you may be away some time.'
'So it might,' said the bridegroom; but for all that he would go down into the grave.
But before they went down the dead man took and cut up a turf out of the graveyard and put it on the young man's head. Down and down they went, far and far away, through dark, silent wastes, across wood, and moor, and bog, till they came to a great, heavy gate, which opened to them as soon as the dead man touched it. Inside it began to grow lighter, first as though it were moonshine, and the further they went the lighter it got. At last they got to a spot where there were such green hills, knee-deep in grass, and on them fed a large herd of kine, who grazed as they went; but for all they ate those kine looked poor, and thin, and wretched.
'What's all this?' said the lad who had been bridegroom; 'why are they so thin, and in such bad case, though they eat, every one of them, as though they were well paid to eat?'
'This is a likeness of those who never can have enough, though they rake and scrape it together ever so much,' said the dead man.
So they journeyed on far and farther than far, till they came to some hill pastures, where there was naught but bare rocks and stones, with here and there a blade of grass. Here was grazing another herd of kine, which were so sleek, and fat, and smooth that their coats shone again.
'What are these,' asked the bridegroom, 'who have so little to live on, and yet are in such good plight? I wonder what they can be.'
'This,' said the dead man, 'is a likeness of those who are content with the little they have, however poor it be.'
So they went farther and farther on till they came to a great lake, and it and all about it was so bright and shining that the bridegroom could scarce bear to look at it--it was so dazzling.
'Now, you must sit down here,' said the dead man, 'till I come back. I shall be away a little while.'
With that he set off, and the bridegroom sat down, and as he sat sleep fell on him, and he forgot everything in sweet deep slumber. After a while the dead man came back.
'It was good of you to sit still here, so that I could find you again.'
But when the bridegroom tried to get up he was all overgrown with moss and bushes, so that he found himself sitting in a thicket of thorns and brambles.
So when he had made his way out of it they journeyed back again, and the dead man led him by the same way to the brink of the grave. There they parted and said farewell, and as soon as the bridegroom got out of the grave he went straight home to the house where the wedding was.
But when he got where he thought the house stood, he could not find his way. Then he looked about on all sides, and asked every one he met, but he could neither hear nor learn anything of the bride, or the wedding, or his kindred, or his father and mother; nay, he could not so much as find any one whom he knew. And all he met wondered at the strange shape, who went about and looked for all the world like a scarecrow.
Well! as he could find no one he knew, he made his way to the priest, and told him of his kinsmen and all that had happened up to the time he stood bridegroom, and how he had gone away in the midst of his wedding. But the priest knew nothing at all about it at first; but when he had hunted in his old registers he found out that the marriage he spoke of had happened a long, long time ago, and that all the folk he talked of had lived four hundred years before.
In that time there had grown up a great stout oak in the priest's yard, and when he saw it he clambered up into it, that he might look about him. But the grey-beard who had sat in Heaven and slumbered for four hundred years, and had now at last come back, did not come down from the oak as well as he went up. He was stiff and gouty, as was likely enough; and so when he was coming down he made a false step, fell down, broke his neck, and that was the end of him.