There was once a poor man who had twelve children, and he was obliged to labour day and night that he might earn food for them. When at length, as it so happened, a thirteenth came into the world, the poor man did not know how to help himself, so he ran out into the highway, determined to ask the first person he met to be godfather to the boy.
There came stalking up to him Death, who said—
“Take me for a godfather.”
“Who are you?” asked the father.
“I am Death, who makes all equal,” replied the stranger.
Then said the man—
“You are one of the right sort: you seize on rich and poor without distinction; you shall be the child’s godfather.”
“I will make the boy rich and renowned throughout the world, for he who has me for a friend can want nothing.”
Said the man—
“Next Sunday will he be christened, mind and come at the right time.”
Death accordingly appeared as he had promised, and stood godfather to the child.
When the boy grew up his godfather came to him one day, and took him into a wood, and said—
“Now shall you have your godfather’s present. I will make a most famous physician of you. Whenever you are called to a sick person, I will take care and show myself to you. If I stand at the foot of the bed, say boldly, ‘I will soon restore you to health,’ and give the patient a little herb that I will point out to you, and he will soon be well. If, however, I stand at the head of the sick person, he is mine; then say, ‘All help is useless; he must soon die.'”
Then Death showed him the little herb, and said—
“Take heed that you never use it in opposition to my will.”
It was not long before the young fellow was the most celebrated physician in the whole world.
“The moment he sees a person,” said every one, “he knows whether or not he’ll recover.”
Accordingly he was soon in great request. People came from far and near to consult him, and they gave him whatever he required, so that he made an immense fortune. Now, it so happened that the king was taken ill, and the physician was called upon to say whether he must die. As he went up to the bed he saw Death standing at the sick man’s head, so that there was no chance of his recovery. The physician thought, however, that if he outwitted Death, he would not, perhaps, be much offended, seeing that he was his godfather, so he caught hold of the king and turned him round, so that by that means Death was standing at his feet. Then he gave him some of the herb, and the king recovered, and was once more well. Death came up to the physician with a very angry and gloomy countenance, and said—
“I will forgive you this time what you have done, because I am your godfather, but if you ever venture to betray me again, you must take the consequences.”
Soon after this the king’s daughter fell sick, and nobody could cure her. The old king wept night and day, until his eyes were blinded, and at last he proclaimed that whosoever rescued her from Death should be rewarded by marrying her and inheriting his throne. The physician came, but Death was standing at the head of the princess. When the physician saw the beauty of the king’s daughter, and thought of the promises that the king had made, he forgot all the warnings he had received, and, although Death frowned heavily all the while, he turned the patient so that Death stood at her feet, and gave her some of the herb, so that he once more put life into her veins.
When Death saw that he was a second time cheated out of his property, he stepped up to the physician, and said—
“Now, follow me.”
He laid hold of him with his icy cold hand, and led him into a subterranean cave, in which there were thousands and thousands of burning candles, ranged in innumerable rows. Some were whole, some half burnt out, some nearly consumed. Every instant some went out, and fresh ones were lighted, so that the little flames seemed perpetually hopping about.
“Behold,” said Death, “the life-candles of mankind. The large ones belong to children, those half consumed to middle-aged people, the little ones to the aged. Yet children and young people have oftentimes but a little candle, and when that is burnt out, their life is at an end, and they are mine.”
The physician said—
“Show me my candle.”
Then Death pointed out a very little candle-end, which was glimmering in the socket, and said—
Then the physician said—
“O dearest godfather, light me up a new one, that I may first enjoy my life, be king, and husband of the beautiful princess.”
“I cannot do so,” said Death; “one must burn out before I can light up another.”
“Place the old one then upon a new one, that that may burn on when this is at an end,” said the physician.
Death pretended that he would comply with this wish, and reached a large candle, but to revenge himself, purposely failed in putting it up, and the little piece fell and was extinguished. The physician sank with it, so he himself fell into the hands of Death.
Gaffer Death – Folk-lore and Legends: Germany