In the morning he aroused them, and they all set out again on their wandering.
During that day they came to the edge of the forest, but only to find a vast desert before them. Their hearts sank within them, but, nothing daunted, they set forth, saying one to the other, 'There is no desert that has no boundaries. We shall come to the other side.'
But for three whole days they journeyed on, and all was still desert as far as the eye could see; and their food and water were exhausted, and they were sore distressed. Then, as they saw that the desert had no end, they cried to God to deliver them. And it seemed that the haze of the desert lifted, and they saw before them a lake, calm and peaceful. On its shore they would spend the night.
Having refreshed themselves from its waters, and eaten of some luscious fruits that grew upon its margin, they made their camp; and this time the youngest brother watched while the other two slept.
And he, also, had an adventure, but far more terrible than either of his brothers had encountered. As they were sleeping soundly, and he was looking at the still surface of the lake, something heaved up out of the depths and swam rapidly towards him. When it came up out of the water he saw that it was a monstrous alligator, with three heads. As it advanced upon him, with all three mouths wide open, ready to devour him and his sleeping brothers, he sprang to meet it, and, with three mighty strokes like flashes of lightning, severed the three heads from the body. Then he cut off the six ears and placed them in his haversack. As the other two brothers had done, he, also, kept the matter to himself.
It was not yet dawn, and the fire was burning low. In order to replenish it the young Prince went into the surrounding desert to look for fuel. After searching for some time in vain, he mounted a rock and looked around; and there, not very far away, he saw the gleam of a fire. He ran towards it, knowing he should find some fuel. But, when he arrived at the place where the fire was burning, he found the glare of it came from within a large cave. Creeping forward cautiously, he peered in, and saw a strange sight. The fire was blazing in the middle of the floor, and round it sat nine giants, eating the flesh of human beings, whose limbs they drew from a huge cauldron over the fire.
Horrifying was this sight to the Prince. He made up his mind to trick the giants. He advanced boldly into the cave and gave them greeting.
'Good-morrow, my friends,' he cried jauntily; 'I've been searching for you everywhere.'
'Good-morrow, friend!' replied the biggest of the giants. 'And, if you're indeed one of us, you will, of course, join us in our feast, and then help us in our search for more.'
'With every pleasure!' cried the Prince; 'indeed, I need hardly thank you for the kind invitation, since I am at all times ready to assist you in your hunting expeditions. I have a rare tooth for the flesh of mortals, and the bigger they are the better I like them.'
The giants looked at one another and grunted approvingly. Then said the chief: 'Since you are with us, what is your name?'
'I am Nine Man Mord,' replied the Prince, taking the name of that hero of a far land who had slain nine men in so many strokes of his sword. 'I have journeyed from the North and have come to dwell among you, and be one of you.'
They were all astonished, for they had heard wonderful stories of Nine Man Mord; and they seemed to forget that they themselves were nine.
'Come, Nine Man Mord!' they cried; 'come, sit and eat with us.'
Readily the Prince took his place among them; but, though it seemed to them that he ate of the human flesh, he did not really do so. While pretending to eat, he told them such tales of his adventures in the far country that none of them noticed he was not eating, but disposing of the flesh cunningly, sometimes by throwing it behind him, and again by offering a tit-bit to one or another in token of friendship.
When the feast was over, the giants rose and stretched themselves.
'Now,' said the biggest one, 'we'll go a-hunting. There's always to-morrow's feast to be thought of. We go, O Nine Man Mord, to the Tsar's city. There is still good flesh to be got there, though we have been feeding on it for many, many years. And, I may tell you, as the prey is not so plentiful as it used to be, it affords all the better sport in the taking.'
'I'm with you,' replied the Prince, 'and, maybe, I can show you a trick or two.'
So they set out and journeyed together—the nine giants and the Prince—till they came to the outskirts of a large and beautiful city. Here, in the surrounding forest, the giants plucked up two great trees by the roots, and took them to the city walls, where they placed one tree as a ladder.
Then the chief giant said to the Prince: 'O Nine Man Mord, climb by this to the top of the wall, and then we will pass the other tree up to you so that you can fix it as a ladder on the other side for all of us to descend by.'
The Prince climbed the tree-ladder; and, when he had reached the top of the wall they pushed the other tree up to him.
'Now,' he called down, 'I don't quite know how you want it placed. Will one of you come up and show me?'
In answer to this the chief himself climbed up and swung the tree over roots first, while he held and steadied it by its topmost branches. At this moment the Prince, unseen by the others, drew his sword, and, with one stroke, hewed off the giant's head. It fell within the city walls, and, in another second, the headless body went tumbling after it.
'Now,' he cried down to the others, 'it's all fixed, and your chief has gone down. Come up one by one, and I will hold the tree for you, and steady it, so that you can reach the ground quickly.'
And they came up one by one; and, one by one, off went their heads; and they, and their bodies after them, reached the ground very quickly. Then he climbed down the tree, and over the piled carcases of the nine giants, and made his way into the city.
It was true what the giants had said; for, although the sun had not yet risen, signs were not wanting that the city, if not deserted, was very thinly inhabited. The streets were neglected; the houses for the most part were falling to decay; and though, no doubt, those who remained—if any—feared a visit from the man-eating giants, still no watch was set, and the Prince, as he made his way through the streets, saw no one.
At last, as he went on, he espied a high tower, and, at one of its windows, there was a light. He made his way to this tower, and quickly ran up the stairs leading to the room that contained the light. At last, seeing its rays through the crack of the door, he turned the handle and entered.
A strange sight met his gaze as he stood a moment on the threshold. It was a splendid apartment of velvet and gold, magnificently decorated; but what immediately riveted his eyes was the figure of a beautiful princess sleeping upon a richly furnished couch. She was lovely to look upon; and, as he advanced into the room, he could see nothing but her. Presently, however, a hiss greeted his ears; and, looking up, he was startled to see a huge snake lying on the ledge above the couch, with its arched neck bent down ready to strike the sleeping girl.
With a loud cry the Prince tried to attract its attention; then, as it raised its head, he snatched his dagger from his belt, and, with one blow, pinned its head to the wall.
'Hold wood! Hold dagger!' he cried, releasing the hilt. 'None can draw that blade from the wall but him who planted it there!'
Then, without waking the beautiful maiden, he stole from the room and went back over the city wall, and beyond, till he came again to the giants' cave, where he quickly gathered some fuel and hurried back to his brothers, whom he found still sleeping. When he had set the fire in a blaze, he watched till the hour of sunrise, and then woke them with a loud cry:
'Arouse ye, my brothers; the day is here!'
But he told them nothing of his adventures of the night.
When they set out they came very soon to a high-road that led to the gates of the Tsar's city. Now it was the daily practice of the Tsar to walk in the ways of the city for an hour after sunrise, and bewail the death of those of his people who had perished by the hands of the giants, and also to pray fervently that his own daughter would never so perish. So it was that on this same morning he came, by his wanderings through empty streets, to the part of the wall where the tall tree-ladder was standing; and, as he drew near, he saw with amazement the great bodies of the giants lying on the ground, each with his head severed from his body.
When the Tsar saw this he raised his hands to high heaven and cried, 'This is a great day, for the giants are all slain!' And the people, who still remained to him, hearing his cry of joy, came running, and gathered about him, praying that God would preserve the mighty one who had done this astonishing deed. They were still praising the unknown hero, when some attendants came running swiftly from the palace, to tell the Tsar that a great snake had almost succeeded in killing the Princess.
At this he hastened back and made his way to the room in the tower where the Princess was lying asleep; and there he found the snake pinned to the wall by a dagger. At once he took the hilt in his hand and tried to drag it from the wall, but, to his great wonder, it resisted all his efforts.
On this, seeing the great strength of the hero who had planted the dagger there, and knowing that none but he could have the strength to remove it, he ordered a proclamation to be issued throughout the whole kingdom: that, if the man who had killed the nine giants and pinned the head of the snake to the wall with his dagger, would come and draw his dagger forth again, he would be rewarded with splendid gifts and receive the Princess in marriage.
Far and wide went this proclamation, but the Tsar, to make doubly sure, posted a thousand officials at as many inns on the great high-roads that connected the city with the outlying parts of the kingdom. And these officials' duty was to question travellers, and learn whether they had met, or heard of, any such hero as he who had killed the giants and transfixed the snake. Rewards were offered to any who could supply information, and punishments were held out to those who concealed it.
Now it so happened that the three Princes, in their search for their sisters, chanced to rest at an inn on one of the high-roads; and, when they had finished supper, they fell into conversation with an interesting stranger—a courtly man of cities, with manners that are only learnt in kings' palaces. He begged to be allowed to call for wine,—which in those days was no offence,—and, as they drank their toasts, he fell to narrating his wonderful exploits in a far-off kingdom—so far-off, indeed, that imagination alone could reach it, and no other traveller could ever return to tell a different tale.
After describing some heroic combats the stranger at last remarked, 'And what may be the doughty deeds that you young heroes have set to your credit?'
At this the eldest brother told how he had slain the alligator; and, to vouch for the truth of his story, showed the two ears he had preserved, placing them before the stranger.
When the unknown had applauded his story the younger brother told how he had slain the alligator with two heads, and threw down on the table the four ears as evidence.
The stranger applauded more loudly than before, and then turned to the youngest brother; but he remained silent.
'Come,' said the stranger, coaxing him; 'your brothers have performed great exploits: have you not followed their example?'
Then the young Prince replied: 'I am only young; but, now I think of it, I did kill an alligator once, myself. It was a rather ferocious beast in its way, and had three heads; but I managed to—well, here are its ears.' And he threw the six ears on the table.
At this his two brothers were as much astonished as the stranger; for, though he was the youngest, he had done the bravest deed. The official—for such was the stranger—then begged the young Prince to tell of his other exploits. So the hero told how he had slain the giants. This was enough for the official: he sprang up and hastened away to the palace, where he informed the Tsar that he had found the mighty hero for whom every one was searching.
The Tsar was delighted; and having rewarded the official, sent for the Princes in all haste. When they arrived, he bade them tell all they had been through, and listened to their adventures with all attention. And, when they had finished, he turned to the youngest brother and said: 'Your exploits, young sir, are the most extraordinary of all I have heard. But all of you follow me to the tower; I would make certain—quite certain!'
Beckoning the three brothers to follow him, he led the way; and, finally, they reached the room where the youngest had pinned the snake's head to the wall.
The couch was empty, but the snake and the dagger were still there, just as the young Prince had left them.
Then said the Tsar, addressing the eldest: 'Draw forth the dagger!'
The eldest brother seized the hilt, and put forth all his strength; but the dagger did not move.
Then said the Tsar: 'It is so. Let your younger brother try.'
His words were obeyed; but the dagger was immovable.
Then said the Tsar: 'It is so. Let the youngest try.'
His words were obeyed. The youngest Prince took the hilt, and, with a mighty wrench, tore it from the wall; then, as he restored it to its sheath at his side, the snake fell at his feet.
'It is so!' said the Tsar. 'It was your hand saved my daughter's life. I will give her to you in marriage, and you shall be my Prime Minister.' Then, to the two elder Princes, he said: 'If you would prefer to remain with your brother in my country I will bestow two ladies of the land upon you for wives, and give you suitable castles to live in.'
But, though the youngest accepted the Tsar's offer with a proud pleasure, the other two excused themselves with thanks, saying that it was only right for their brother to remain, but, for themselves, their duty was to carry out the quest for their lost sisters.
The Tsar honoured their refusal, and, having given orders that they should be escorted from the city with every mark of royal favour, bade them farewell; and they departed the richer by two asses laden with gifts of gold and silver and precious stones. Shortly afterwards, the youngest Prince and the Princess were married; and the whole city rejoiced for three days with great celebrations.
But the Prince, much as he loved his wife, soon began to blame himself for accepting this great happiness so easily when the quest of his lost sisters was his first duty. On this account he began to pine, and the Princess could not comfort him.
One day, when his grief threatened to sink him in remorse, the Tsar came to him with a bunch of nine keys in his hand, and said: 'My son; I am going forth to the hunt; but you remain, and, with these keys, you may open some delights while I am absent.'
Then he took him and showed him the doors of nine rooms of the palace, assuring him he would find great joy in the first four, a more hidden joy in the next three, and, in the eighth, a summing up of all the joys in the four and the three; but—the ninth he must not enter; for, what was there, no man could endure.
When the Tsar had gone to the hunt, the young Prince opened the doors one by one, and he was truly amazed at what was revealed to him. The first four led him to all the delights of earth; the next three to all the delights of heaven; and the eighth to the Great Joy of Earth and Heaven in one.
And now he stood at the door of the ninth.
'What is here?' said he. 'What is here that is denied me? I have slain the three-headed alligator; I have hewed off the heads of nine giants; I have vanquished the serpent that encircles the world, and rescued the Princess from his lowering fangs. Surely the Tsar is testing me! Come what may, I will enter at this door; for he who does not go on, slides back.'
With this he selected the key; and, inserting it in the lock, opened the ninth door, and entered. What an unexpected sight was there! The joys of the four, the three, and the eighth—were they at last bound up in this?—this man with the strength of the under-world in his limbs, the strength of the mid-world in his set face, and the strength of the skies in his calm gaze beneath tortured brows?
There, before him, was a man, bound, it seemed, by all the bonds of the universe. His legs were encircled with bands of iron, which, at their fastenings into the floor, were rusted. His hips and loins were bound with lead. A copper girdle held his breast. A silver band enthralled his tongue and hands, and what seemed like a spider's web of thin, light-blue wire encircled his body and gathered itself in a circlet of the same woven material upon his brows. Truly, if ever a man was fast bound, this man was; for, in addition to all these things, there was a ring of gold round his neck, and from it extended thick cables of platinum, which were firmly riveted into four strong beams, one in each corner of the room. Around him, on the eight sides of the room, were open windows revealing all the joys of the eight chambers; but the man was bound in the centre.
And, as the Prince looked upon him, the captive gasped, 'O young man, for the love of God, bring me a cup of water from yonder fountain; and I, in return, will give thee another life.'
The Prince at once drew him the draught from the nearest fountain, thinking the while that it would be good to have a life to spare. Then, when the chained captive had drunk the water eagerly, the two looked at one another.
'What is your name?' asked the Prince.
'My name is Bashtchelik, which, as you know, means "real steel."'
'Farewell, then, Bashtchelik; I hear the hoof-beats of the Tsar's horses in the distance.' And he turned towards the door.
'Nay, leave me not!' cried Bashtchelik, and then he implored him: 'Give me a second cup of water, and I will give you a second life.'
The Prince drew him another cup of water and handed it to him with a good heart, thinking, as it was returned to him empty, that a second life was well worth having. Then, hearing the approach of the Tsar more distinctly, he bade farewell a second time and turned away; but the captive again besought him.
'O mighty one!' he cried; 'do not leave me. I know thee, I know thy name; I know thy noble deeds. Twice hast thou given me to drink; I pray thee, do it yet a third time and I will give thee a third life.'
Hastily the Prince filled the cup and gave him to drink, for the Tsar and his company were now at the gates, and he knew not how to face him. But, before he could gain the door, he heard a crash behind him; and, looking back, he saw that the captive had broken his bonds and stood free. Then, before one could say it had happened, he had loosed a great pair of wings from his sides, and rushed through the doorway. The Prince, looking out, saw him snatch up the Princess, his wife, from the terrace of the Palace, and soar rapidly away.
Ere the beating of wings was lost in the distance, the Tsar came in and demanded to know why the ninth room was open and the captive gone. The Prince then explained everything, and begged the Tsar not to be angry.
'He broke his bonds,' he said, 'and has gone, taking my wife—the daughter that you gave me—away with him. But give me leave, and I will find her and kill Bashtchelik.'
'Alas!' replied the Tsar, 'you have done a rash thing. You know not this man. I lost the best part of a whole army in capturing him. What can you do, my son?'
'I will go forth and seek him,' replied the Prince without wavering. 'If he is stronger than I, then you will see neither me nor my wife again; but, if I prevail, we will return to you.'
* * * * *
So the Prince set forth on his quest; and after three days' journey, he came to a beautiful city. And, as he rode beneath the walls of a castle, he heard a voice from a window high in the tower, calling to him. He drew rein and dismounted; then, as he advanced into the courtyard, a girl came running towards him.
'O my brother!' she cried; 'you have come at last!'
It was his eldest sister whom he had found so easily. They embraced and kissed, and then she led him into the castle.
'And your husband?' he asked as they stepped aside into a dimly-lighted antechamber; 'who and what is he?'
'He is the Dragon King,' she replied in a whisper; 'and he is no friend of my brothers. Yet I will hide you, and then ask him what he would do if you sought me out.'
That evening, when the Dragon King came home on whirring wings, there was no sign of either the Prince or his charger. Yet he raised his nostrils in the air and sniffed.
'I smell a human being,' he said. 'Confess, woman; who is it?'
'No one,' replied she. But he was certain about the matter, saying that his senses had never yet deceived him, though a woman might.
'That is nought,' said she. 'But, tell me; if my brothers came to look for me, how would you take it?'
'If your eldest brother came here,' replied the Dragon King, 'I would eat him raw. Your second brother I would stew gently over a slow fire, or, if he were nice and fat, I should roast him to a turn; but your youngest brother—him I would spare.'
Then said she, 'O King, my youngest brother, who is your brother-in-law, is here in your castle. I will summon him.'
It was a great meeting between the young Prince and the Dragon King. One would have thought that they had known each other for years. They embraced and wished each other health and long life; and then they sat down to a sumptuous banquet quickly brought in by winged attendants, who were evidently of the uneducated dragon classes;—indeed, though richly attired, they looked like slaves.
In the course of conversation the Prince happened to mention that he was on the track of one Bashtchelik, who had run off with his wife against her will.
'Bashtchelik!' exclaimed the Dragon King. 'My dear brother, I beseech you, seek him not. This kingdom itself put out five thousand strong, and took him unawares. But he escaped by a trick, gave battle to ten thousand of my picked dragons, fought his retreat to the mountains, and so escaped triumphant. Man to man—you against Bashtchelik—you cannot hope to win. If you will go back to your home, I will give you an escort and three asses laden with gold.'
'Three asses laden with gold!' said the Prince. 'I thank you much, but I have better than that: I have three lives, which I won from Bashtchelik himself. I will seek him and reclaim my wife.'
The Dragon King wondered at his words; then, plucking a feather from his wing, he said, 'You are determined, and I wish you well. Take this feather, and, if at any time you want my aid, burn it and I will come to you instantly with ten thousand chosen dragons.'
The Prince thanked him, and placed the feather in his girdle. The next morning he took leave of his sister and the Dragon King, and set out in search of Bashtchelik.
He left the city and crossed a desert, where he endured fatigues and encountered perils; but still, by his strong right arm, he preserved his three lives. Then, at last, he came to a city; and, as he took the mainway of it, the same thing happened as before. It was a woman's voice calling from a castle tower: 'O Prince! Dismount and come in hither!'
Again he made his way into a courtyard, and again he was met by a woman—his second sister—who greeted him with joy. Soon she led him into her boudoir, and immediately he asked: 'My sister, who is your husband?'
'He is the Eagle King,' said she.
Then, as it had happened with the Dragon King, so it happened with the Eagle King. He came whirring home from a great height, and, by the artfulness of his wife, he met and embraced the young Prince; for, though the Eagle King would have pecked out the livers of the elder brothers, he was glad to meet the youngest. A feast was spread, and, afterwards, the talk led on to Bashtchelik.
'Bashtchelik!' cried the Eagle King. 'Young man, will you listen to me? Once we battered him with ten thousand pairs of wings and assailed him with ten thousand beaks, but he triumphed. For one man to go up against him is as a thistledown attacking a whirlwind. Do nought. Stay with me: I will give you all you desire.'
But, as the Prince held fast to his purpose, the Eagle King plucked a feather from his wing and gave it him.
'If you are in sore straits,' he said, 'burn this feather, and, on the instant, I will come to your aid with ten thousand eagles.'
Then the Prince, thanking the Eagle King, set forth once more. And, in his further journeying, he again came to a city, and heard, beneath a castle wall, a woman's voice calling to him.
It was his youngest sister. She also contrived to bring him face to face with her husband, the Falcon King, who warned him strongly against Bashtchelik, and gave him a feather from his wing in case of need.
After a long search and many adventures, the Prince at last found his wife, standing at the mouth of a large cave. She was much surprised to see him, and ran forward to embrace him. He then told her all he had done since their parting, and she clung to him in great joy.
'Now, dear wife,' he said at last; 'now that I have found you, we will go together to your father's palace.'
'But Bashtchelik!' she exclaimed.
'Bashtchelik is not your husband,' he replied; 'I am your husband.'
'Yes, yes; but if we flee, beloved, Bashtchelik will surely follow us. His rage would be terrible, and I should lose you for ever, and find a frightful punishment.'
'Nay, nay; I am your husband, and I will protect you; come!' Then he added to himself, 'She does not know I have three lives now, and I doubt whether Bashtchelik could kill me three times.'
So they fled together. But, some hours later, Bashtchelik returned from hunting and found the Princess had gone. From some footprints outside the cave he gleaned that she had not gone alone, and instantly guessed that her husband had carried her off. With a cry of rage he sprang into the air, and began to fly round the cave at terrific speed, and in ever-widening circles.
The sun was low down on the Western horizon when the Prince, riding hard with his wife on the saddle-bow, heard a whirring sound in the sky and looked up.
'Hasten!' cried the Princess in alarm; 'it is Bashtchelik. If we can reach the shelter of yonder forest he may not see us.'
But hardly had she spoken when an angry cry from afar fell on their ears. Bashtchelik had seen them—seen her long, yellow hair floating on the breeze and gleaming like gold in the rays of the setting sun. He swerved and swooped downwards, and, madly as they rode for the edge of the forest, he was upon them by the time they reached the outskirts.
Alighting on the ground, he tore the Princess from the Prince's arms, and cried out in sorrowful anger, 'O Prince, I gave you three lives out of gratitude to you, but, if you attempt to steal your wife again, I will kill you.' And with this he mounted in the air with the Princess, and soon disappeared in the distance, leaving the Prince lost in wonder at the suddenness of it all.
Nevertheless he was not to be beaten. He returned to the cave under cover of night, and, having concealed his steed, crept forward and hid himself near the cave, to wait until Bashtchelik should go forth to the hunt.
And he was not disappointed. Soon after the sun rose, Bashtchelik came out from the cave, bearing his bow and arrows, and went in search of prey. Then, when he was out of sight, the Prince dashed into the cave, took his wife and rode away with her. But again ere sunset they heard the whir of wings; and again Bashtchelik snatched the Princess from the Prince's arms. And this time he placed an arrow on his bowstring and drew it to the full.
'O Prince,' he said, 'I give you your choice: will you die by arrow or sabre?'
'By sabre,' said the Prince, feeling for his own.
'Nay, nay!' returned Bashtchelik, relenting. 'Because I gave you three lives, I pardon you a second time; but, if you attempt to steal your wife again, I shall slay you without a thought.'
But the Prince, as he watched Bashtchelik fly away with his wife, was not daunted. 'I wish he would stay to fight, said he; 'but maybe he will next time, for I shall certainly take her again.'
And he did. And again they were overtaken. On this occasion it was nowise different, save that when Bashtchelik forgave the Prince it was in angry and threatening tones, before bearing the Princess away.
Having failed three times, the Prince rode sadly homewards. But he had not gone far when he bethought him of the three feathers given him by his brothers-in-law, and of their promises of help. He reined in his steed, and turned and galloped back. He would beard Bashtchelik in his cave, and then give battle, with three armies at his call, if, perchance, this powerful foe should seem to prevail.
When he reached the cave it was an hour after sunrise. He leapt from his steed and entered without knocking. There was a fire burning within, and his wife sat by it with her head on her hand, thinking. She sprang up at the sound of his footstep.
'You!' she cried. 'Ah! my beloved, you are in unseemly haste to quit this life, since you come for me a fourth time.'
'Listen to me,' he said; 'for you are my wife, and none shall keep you from me.' Then he showed her the three feathers, and explained to her that they were pledges of help in time of need. He placed them in her hand, and gave her also the burning-glass he used for kindling a fire, and said: 'Do not burn them until you see the combat is going against me. He will certainly follow us, but, this time, I think he will fight.'
The Princess seemed to agree to his wish, and, soon afterwards, they set out and rode rapidly away.
It was high noon when they heard the whir of wings and knew they were followed. Bashtchelik approached at a great speed, and they saw his sabre flashing in the sun. The Prince drew rein and dismounted; then, drawing his weapon, he advanced to meet his foe. But, ere their sabres clashed, the Princess, fearful for her husband's life, had taken the burning-glass and pinned the sun's rays to the feathers. A tiny curl of blue smoke arose, and then they burst into flame.
Instantly—ere yet the heart could beat twice—there was a shrill chord of three sounds, and as many colours shimmered like lightning in the air. Then as the feathers blazed, came dragon hosts upon the plain; flaming eagles flocked in; and the Falcon King with his myriads swooped down. Bashtchelik was surrounded on three sides, but he dealt a mighty stroke at the Prince's heart; and then, seeming invincible, fought his way through with much slaughter and gained the side of the Princess. Before she knew it she was caught up, and Bashtchelik was bearing her on rapid wings away.
But the Prince? Among the thick of the slain the three kings—his brothers-in-law—found him dead! But they took thought together as to how they might recall him to life, and at last decided to send for some water from the Jordan. They summoned three of the swiftest dragons and asked how long it would take to fetch it. 'Half an hour!' said the first. 'Ten minutes!' said the second; but the third said at once, 'Nine seconds!'
So they dispatched him; and, like a flash, he winged his fiery flight, returning in nine seconds with the water from the Jordan. With this they bathed the Prince's wounds, and they healed up at once; and lo, he rose up alive and well, but with only two lives left to him.
'Venture not again,' was the counsel of the three kings. 'Go not forth against Bashtchelik, for he is perfect steel, the mightiest of all; and none can conquer him: he has all Force behind him.'
But the Prince would not accept their words of warning. 'Force is not the strongest thing,' he said. 'Force is hard as steel, yet it can be overcome by the will of Love, which is so soft that it melts at a touch. In that I go forth again to conquer Bashtchelik, and regain my wife.'
They could not restrain him, but, ere he went, they counselled him again: 'Since you are willing to risk all, you must go; but think not that by mighty blows you can conquer Bashtchelik. Get speech with your wife, and bid her learn from him, by a woman's wit, wherein the secret of his strength lies. Then come and tell us; and, with that knowledge, we can help you to slay him.'
The Prince agreed, and parted from them. Making his way very cautiously to the cave, he waited till Bashtchelik had gone forth to the hunt, and then entered and found his wife, and bade her glean from Bashtchelik the secret of his strength. Then he returned to his place of concealment.
That evening, when Bashtchelik returned to the cave, the Princess praised his great strength and flattered him mightily upon it.
'Tell me, I pray thee,' she said at last, 'wherein thy great strength lieth, and wherewith thou mightest be bound; for'—with a laugh—'I would fain bind thee with my hair.'
Bashtchelik laughed, well pleased at her words. 'Wouldst thou know it?' said he. 'My strength is in my sword; were that taken from me I should then be weak, and be as another man.'
The Princess then bowed down before his sword and did homage to it, and sang a great song of joy that all power on earth was in the sword. But, on hearing this, Bashtchelik laughed, and laughed again, saying, 'Foolish one! my real strength lies no more in my sword than in its scabbard.'
'Then,' said she, 'thou hast mocked me. Tell me, I pray thee, wherein thy strength lieth.'
'In my bow and arrows,' replied he. And at once the Princess bowed down and did homage to his bow and arrows, singing their praise: how swift their flight through the air, how true their aim, how deadly their piercing points.
But Bashtchelik laughed again, and again, and again.
'Foolish one!' said he. 'My real strength lies not in my bow, nor in my arrows. But, tell me, why do you seek to know the secret of my strength?'
'Because I am a woman; and was there ever a woman who loved a man and did not want to know his secret?'
'Ay—to know it, and to impart it to others.'
'Nay, nay; to know it is enough. Tell me, I pray thee, and tell me truly, wherein the secret of thy great strength lieth.'
At this he was much distressed, and, thinking that the Princess believed her husband dead, he hoped at last to win her love; and so he told her.
'Listen to me,' said he. 'Far away in a high tableland in the interior of this country there is a mountain reaching up to the sky, and rooted far down into the earth. In a spot of that mountain—in a den where a serpent lies asleep—there is a fox, and in its heart there hides a bird. That bird is the storehouse of my strength. One flutter of its wings would scatter a whole army; one beat of its heart would shake the whole world—if the fox so willed it. But the will of the fox is over mine, and what strength I have comes from the bird through the will of the fox. And that fox is the hardest thing in the world to catch: it can take any shape it likes. So, now, you know all.'
'You have told me truly?'
'I do not laugh: I have told you truly.'
Then the Princess dallied with him, giving ear to his tales of terror and triumph. But, when he had supped and fallen asleep, she stole out and told the Prince all about it. And he, bidding his wife farewell, rode off in haste to tell his brothers-in-law. When they heard his news they called up their forces—the dragons, the eagles, the falcons—and proceeded forthwith against the mountain on the high tableland.
By certain signs the Prince discovered the den of the sleeping serpent, and there they surprised the fox, who, seeing the vast array on the sides of the mountain and on the plain, quickly took refuge in flight. But a host of eagles and falcons tore after him and overtook him near a great lake. Here he changed himself into a duck with six wings, and dived and disappeared. Presently, far away on the lake, they saw him reappear on the surface, and rise from the water, and wing his way up into the clouds. Immediately the dragons gave chase, and the eagles and falcons strove to encircle the swift-winged bird. Finally, seeing no way of escape, the duck swooped to earth, and changed again into a fox. Then the pursuers pounced and caught him.
The three kings then consulted together and decided to cut open the fox and take its heart out. This was soon done; then they built a great fire and threw the heart into it. And, as it burned, they saw a bird fly from it through the flames and fall scorched at their feet. Now, as they gazed upon it, it changed rapidly, growing in size and altering in shape, until at last there lay before them the body of Bashtchelik, his wings all burnt and his body charred.
So this monster perished, and the Prince regained his long-lost bride.
THE FRIAR AND THE BOY
AN ENGLISH FAIRY TALE
'You good-for-nothing boy, you! It's always meal-times when you come home: that's all you care about here. Look at the knees of your trousers; why, playing marbles in the street with all the other filthy little brats is about all you're fit for. How d'you think I'm going to spend all my time patching up your holes and tatters? Drat you! Get out of it and wipe your boots before you come into a clean kitchen. I've been all the afternoon tidying up for the good Friar's visit this evening, and now you——'
'Hang the good Friar!' said Jack under his breath, for he was sick and tired of his stepmother's sour tongue, and more than sick and tired of the good Friar, who, he knew, was only 'good' when he was not feeling well. Taking a fairy-tale book from the shelf he went and sat in the inglenook, thus sheltering himself from a further storm of abuse from his stepmother.
The fact of the matter was, that thrice upon a time his father had married. Jack, a merry-hearted boy, and lovable for all his mischief, was his son by his first wife. The other two had no children, and the stepmother now living seemed to resent the fact of Jack's existence. His father loved him dearly, but, when the father was away, Jack had a sore time with his sour-tempered stepmother. No wonder he only came home to meals; no wonder he preferred his fairy-tale book to her venomous tongue.
When supper-time came, Jack was always summoned to his food well in time for it to be cleared away before his father came in; and the reason for this was that his father should not see how he was stinted.
But one day the father got to know about these things, and taxed his wife on her treatment of the boy.
'Look here, sir,' said she, 'I wish to goodness you would take your wretched son away and put him in a school for saints, since you think he is so good. As for me, he plagues my life out, and, if you keep him here with his ne'er-do-well ways, you'll come home some evening to find me gone.'
Instead of beating his wife for these words—as some men do when their wives so beseech them—the goodman put his hand on her shoulder and said, 'Nay, nay, my dear; the boy is only a boy; let him stay with us another year until he can fend for himself. Now, I'll tell you what: let the man who looks after the sheep come in here and do the work about the house, and Jack will take his place in the field. The man can have Jack's bed, and Jack will be delighted to sleep in the outhouse. What say you?'
The wife could not object to this, for, at least, the man would be more useful and less troublesome about the house than Jack could ever be. So she agreed to her husband's proposal.
The next day the plan was put into operation.
The man was set to work about the house, and Jack was sent out into the fields to mind the sheep. As he went he sang merrily, for he loved the green fields and the animals. He doubted the dinner his stepmother had put up for him, wrapped in a kitchen clout; yet he sang merrily as he went in search of the sheep:
'Green gravel! Green gravel! Thy grass is so green. 'Tis the fairies' green gravel With the daisies between.'
Then, when he had found them:
'Snowy sheepie-woolsides, Save your wool for me; Then in snowy yuletides Snug and warm I'll be.'
Then, later, when he began to get hungry, it was:
'Sheepie, wander, wander All the fields about; Grass is growing under, Clover budding out. My mother does not squander Cakes on me, I doubt; What is here, I wonder, In this kitchen clout?'
And, sitting down on a mossy bank, he opened the clout in which his stepmother had wrapped his dinner. Lo and behold, it was dry bread, with a very thick layer of dripping scraped off from it back into the pot. He ate very little, thinking that surely his father would give him something nicer to eat when he got home.
In the afternoon he sat on the hillside watching the sheep and singing merrily, when he saw an aged man with a staff making his way towards him.
'God bless you, son,' said the aged one.
'Good-morrow, father,' replied the boy. 'You are weary. Rest a while on this mossy bank.'
'Ay, I will,' said the old man, sitting down beside the boy. 'You speak truly: I am weary, and hungry, and thirsty too. Have you any food? And would your young legs take you to the stream to bring me back a draught of water?'
'I have food, such as it is,' replied Jack readily; and he offered him the dry bread and scrape that his stepmother had given him. 'As for water, I have a pannikin, and I'll soon fill it at the stream.' And with that he hurried off to fetch the water.
When he returned, and the old man had eaten and drank, he thanked the boy. 'God love you, child,' he said; 'you have been kind to me. And now, in return, I am minded to grant you three wishes of your heart. Think well, and then name them; and it shall be as I say.'
Jack thought and thought; but all he could decide on to begin with was a bow and arrow. So he asked for that.
'Certainly!' said the old man; and, rising, he went behind the bank, and presently returned with the bow and arrow, which he gave to the boy.
'This will last you all your life,' he said; 'and it will never break. All you have to do is to draw it with the arrow on the string, and whatever you aim at will fall, pierced by the arrow.'
Jack was delighted, and, in order to test it, he fixed an arrow and let it fly at a hawk passing overhead. The arrow sped and pierced the body of the hawk, which came down plump at their feet.
At this Jack considered his second wish, for he said to himself, 'An old man who can give me a bow and arrow that can never miss, can give me almost anything.' Then he made up his mind and asked for a pipe on which to play tunes.
'I have always wanted a pipe,' he said; 'I would like one so much, no matter how small it is.'
Then the old man got up and went behind the bank, and came back presently with a beautiful pipe, which he gave to the boy.
'It is a strange pipe,' he said. 'When you play upon it any one besides yourself who hears the music must dance, and keep on dancing till the music stops.'
Jack thought this was fine, and would have played a tune there and then, but he looked at the aged man and saw that it would hurt him to dance; so he waited: there was always the 'good Friar' to pipe to.
'Now, child,' said the old man at last, 'what is your third and last wish?'
Jack pondered a long time, and at last he chuckled and clapped his hands with glee. When the old man asked him what tickled him so, he could not reply at once, as he was so busy enjoying some joke beforehand. At last, when he was able to speak, he said, 'Father, it has just crossed my mind that my stepmother is always looking at me sourly and always scolding me. I wish that when she does this she will laugh, and go on laughing till I give her the word to stop. Can you grant that wish, father?'
'I can,' said the old man; 'and it will be so. When she looks at you sourly or speaks to you crossly, she will laugh until she falls to the ground, and then go on laughing until you tell her to stop.'
When Jack had thanked him, the old man said good-bye and tottered away, leaning heavily on his staff. Meanwhile Jack sat and nursed his three wishes, feeling as gay-hearted about his good luck as a lambkin with three tails.
When the sun set at last and his day's work was done, he rose and trudged homewards in great glee. As he went he played his pipe, and all the sheep and cattle and horses and dogs danced, till he left off for laughing at the sight of them kicking up their heels. Even the birds and the bees waltzed in the air, and, as he crossed a bridge, he saw the little fishes pirouetting in the stream below.
As soon as he reached home he put the pipe away, and, going into the house, found his father at supper.
'Father,' said he, 'I am terribly hungry after looking to the sheep all day; and, besides, my dinner was very dry.'
'Here you are, my son,' replied his father; and, cutting a wing from the roast capon on the table before him, he set it on a plate and pushed it over to the boy.
At this the stepmother, grudging to see such a nice portion given to the boy, turned upon him with a look that would have made a cow give sour milk. Then, on the instant, she burst out laughing. Her husband stared at her in amazement, but still she laughed, her sides shaking with her shrill peals; and louder and louder she laughed, until the rafters shook and she fell to the ground, still laughing as if she would die of it.
At last Jack, with his capon's wing in both hands before him, stopped eating to cry, 'Enough, I say!' And immediately the stepmother ceased her laughter and struggled to her feet, looking more dead than alive.
Now, the next day, when Jack was minding the sheep, the good Friar called at the house, and the stepmother told him what a naughty boy Jack was, and how he had made her laugh till she had nearly died, and then mocked her.
'Go you, now,' she said; 'go and find him in the fields and give him a sound beating for my sake. It will do him good—and me too.'
So the Friar went out into the fields and at last found the boy, with his bow and arrow in his hands.
'Young man,' said the Friar, 'tell me at once what you have done to your stepmother that she is so angered with you. Tell me at once, I say, or I will give you a sound beating.'
'What's the matter with you?' replied Jack. 'If my stepmother wants me beaten, let her do it herself. See that bird?' He pointed to a very plump bird flying overhead. 'If you fetch it when it drops, you can have it.'
With this he let fly an arrow and pierced the bird, which fell to earth a little way off in a bramble patch. As the Friar darted forward to get it—for it was indeed a plump bird—Jack drew forth his pipe and began to play.
It is said that he who hops among thorns is either chasing a snake or being chased by one; and it looked as if either the one or the other was the Friar's case, for he hopped high in the bramble bushes and danced as if he had gone mad in both heels at once.
To see the good Friar dancing willy-nilly among the bramble bushes, kicking up his heels to the tune of the pipe, higher still and higher—oh, it was a sight for Jack's eyes, for he loved the Friar to distraction in less ways than one. So long as Jack piped, the Friar danced. His dress was torn to shreds, but that seemed a small matter. The thorns did admirable work, but the Friar did not care. On with the dance! Tara-tara-tara-ra-ra—the Friar seemed to be enjoying himself, though more for Jack's benefit than his own. Faster and faster shrilled the pipe, and faster danced the Friar, until at last he fell down among the brambles, a sorry spectacle, still kicking his feet in the air to the merry rhythm. Then Jack ceased piping, but only to laugh; for he had small pity for the Friar.
'Friend Jack!' cried the Friar, gathering himself up, 'forbear, I pray you. I am nigh to death. Permit me to depart and I will be your friend for ever.'
'Get up and go, then,' cried Jack, 'before I begin to play again.'
The good Friar needed no further permission. What remnant of a robe was left him he gathered up, and fled to his own home. There he clothed himself decently and made all haste to Jack's parents.
When they saw his woebegone countenance they questioned him closely.
'I have been with your son,' he replied. 'Grammercy! By these scratches on my face, and by others you cannot see, he is in league with the Evil One, or I am no holy Friar. He played a tune on his pipe and I danced—danced!—think of it! And all in the bramble bushes! Your son is plainly lost; I hesitate to think what it will cost you to save his soul from the devil's clutch.'
'Here is a fine thing,' exclaimed the wife, turning to her husband. 'This your son has nearly killed the holy Father!'
'Benedicite!' said the good man fervently, and the Friar wondered for a moment what he meant exactly.
When Jack returned home his father at once asked him what he had been doing. He replied that he had been having a merry time with the good Friar, who was so fond of music that he could dance to it anywhere—among bramble bushes for preference. These saints, of course——
'But what music is this you play?' broke in his father, who was growing vastly interested. 'I should like to hear it.'
'Heaven forfend!' cried the Friar, getting uneasy.
'Yes, yes; I should like to hear it,' persisted his father.
'Then, if that is so, and you must hear his accursed tune, I beg that you will bind me to the door-post so that I cannot move. I have had more than enough of it.'
They took him at his word and bound him securely to the door-post; so that he was, so to speak, out of the dance when Jack took his pipe and began to play.
Then had you seen a merry spectacle! At the first notes the good man and his wife began to tread a sprightly measure, while the Friar, bound fast to the post, squirmed and wriggled, showing plainly that he would foot it if he could, and dispense with the brambles for once.
As the piping went on, the merry measure became a tarantelle. The staid old folks threw off their age, and kicked their heels high in the air. Faster and faster went the music; wilder and wilder grew the dance. The Friar burst his bonds and joined in. Nothing was safe: chairs were hustled into the fire; the table was pushed this way and that, and the lighted lamp upon it was rocking.
Seeing the fury of the thing, Jack got up and led the way out into the street, still piping. They followed; the neighbours flocked out and joined in the dance; even those who had gone to bed rushed down, and all followed at Jack's heels down the village street, dancing madly to his wild piping. People jostled and fell and went on dancing on all fours, but the Friar kept his feet, if not his head, and whirled many a maid into the thick of it.
At length, when they had reached the village green, and the scene had become one of indescribable confusion and abandon, Jack's father drew near him and said, as he whirled by: 'Jack! if you have any consideration for your poor old father, for heaven's sake, stop!'
Now the boy loved his father; so, on hearing these words, he ceased his piping. Suddenly all came to a standstill. There was a rapid melting away as if people had awakened from a dream in which they had been making themselves ridiculous. And, in the midst of this, came forward the Friar with Jack's stepmother in close attendance.
'That cursed boy!' cried he, shaking his fist at Jack. 'See here, my fine fellow, you cannot do this kind of thing with impunity. I hereby summon you before the Judge next Friday, and see to it that you appear in person to answer the charges I shall bring against you.'
At this the boy raised his pipe again to his lips; but, before he could blow a single note, they had all taken to their heels in dismay, leaving him standing there alone in the empty square.
* * * * *
It was Friday, and the Judge, be-wigged and severe, sat on the bench, with all the appearance of a great case before him. The Friar was there as prosecutor; the King's Proctor was watching the case—in case; the Public Persuader was there with his suave and well-paid manner, admonishing all sides; Jack's parents and all his relations and friends were there, wondering greatly whether Jack, who stood in the dock, would live to tell the tale of what death was meted out to him.
'M'lud!' said the Friar when there was silence in court; 'I have brought before you a wicked boy who, by associating with the Evil One, has corrupted the manners of this community, and brought sorrow and trouble to all. Though young he is none the less a wizard, having infernal skill.'
'Ay, that he is,' put in the stepmother. 'He is in league—in league——' But she got no further, for, in a trice, she was laughing as none had ever been known to laugh.
The Judge was scandalised.
'Woman!' he said. 'This Court itself has been known to laugh, but this behaviour on your part is unseemly.'
'Stop it!' said Jack from the dock, and he spoke short and sharp.
She ceased immediately, and then the Judge requested her to tell her tale; but she was so exhausted that the Friar had to tell it for her.
'M'lud,' he said, 'it is simply this: the prisoner here has a pipe, and, when he plays upon it, all who hear must dance themselves to death, whether they like it or not.'
'Ah!' said the Judge, 'I should like to hear this Dance of Death. You have heard it, good father, and you still live. Maybe, when I have heard it, I shall be charmed, like the serpent, and come out to be killed at once. Let him play his music.'
And, with this remark, the Judge sat back, while Jack took up his pipe to play.
'Stop! stop!' cried the Friar in dismay. But Jack heeded not. At the nod of the Judge he started up a merry tune, and immediately the whole Court began to imagine itself a ballroom. Set to partners—cross—ladies' chain—chasse! It was a regular whirl as the boy piped faster and faster. The Judge himself leapt down from the bench and joined in, holding up his robes and footing it merrily. But, when he bruised his shins severely against the clerk's desk, he yelled for the boy to cease piping.
'Yes, I will,' cried Jack, and as he paused with his pipe raised to his lips they all waited on his words: 'I will, if they will all promise to treat me properly from this time forward.'
'I think,' said the Judge, 'if you will put your pipe away, they will consent to an amicable arrangement.'
Then he climbed back to the bench and sat himself down, and put on his considering cap to pass sentence.
There was silence in court for some minutes. Then came in solemn tones:
'Judgment for the defendant—with costs!'
And so, all parties being satisfied, the Court adjourned, and every one went home to supper quite happy.
THE GREEN SERPENT
A FRENCH FAIRY TALE
There was once upon a time a very great Queen who gave birth to little twin girls. She immediately sent out invitations to twelve fairies in the neighbouring countries to come to the feast according to the custom of the country—a custom that was never by any means overlooked, because it was such a great advantage to have the fairies as guests.
When the twelve fairies were all assembled in the great hall where the feast was to be held, they took their seats at the table—a very big table laden with such good things to eat, and so rich, that it was past all comprehension. No sooner had all the guests seated themselves, than who should enter but the wicked fairy Magotine!
Now the Queen, when she saw her, felt that some disaster would follow because she had omitted to send this fairy an invitation; but she hid the thought deep in her mind, and off she went and found a beautiful soft seat all embroidered in gold and inlaid with sapphires; then all the other fairies moved up and made room for Magotine to seat herself, saying at the same time, 'Hurry up, sister, and make your wish for the little Princesses, and then come and sit down.'
But, before Magotine came to table, she said rudely that she was quite big enough to eat standing. There she made a great mistake, because the table was very high and Magotine was very small, and, in reaching up, she fell. This misfortune only increased her bad temper.
'Madam,' said the Queen, 'I beg you to be seated at table.'
'If you had so much wished to see me here,' replied the fairy, 'you would have sent me an invitation the same as the others. You have only invited to your court the most beautiful, well-dressed and good-tempered fairies, like my sisters here. With them I have no fault to find; I, however, have one advantage over them, as you will see!'
Then all the fairies begged her to seat herself with them, and she did so. In front of each fairy was placed a beautiful bouquet made of all kinds of precious stones. Each took the bouquet immediately in front of her, and there remained none at all for Magotine; and she growled furiously between her teeth.
The Queen, quickly noticing the awful error, ran to her cabinet and came back with a large cup all perfumed and studded outside with rubies, and inside full of diamonds that gave forth a thousand different colours. Going up to Magotine, she begged her to receive the present. But Magotine only shook her head and replied: 'Keep your jewels, madam, I do not want them. I came simply to see if you had thought of me, and I find that you have forgotten me altogether.' And with this she gave a tap with her wand on the table and at once all the good things were turned into serpents, which wriggled about and hissed viciously. The other fairies, seeing this, were filled with horror; they threw down their serviettes and quitted the table.
While they were leaving the table the wicked little fairy Magotine, who had come to disturb the peace, made her way to the room where the little Princesses were asleep in a golden cot covered with a canopy studded with diamonds, the most beautiful ever seen in the world. The other fairies followed her to watch. Magotine stopped beside the cot, and, taking out her wand quickly, she touched one of the little Princesses, saying at the same time: 'I wish that you become the most ugly person that it would be possible to find.' Then she turned to the other little Princess; but, before she could do anything further, the other fairies interfered, and taking a great pan full of vitriol, threw it over the wicked Magotine. But not a drop touched her, for, before it splashed upon the floor, she had disappeared before their very eyes.
The Queen then made her way to the cot and took out the little Princess that Magotine had wished to be so ugly; and the Queen cried with sorrow because, every minute as she looked at it, the child was becoming uglier and uglier, until at last any one could see she was the ugliest baby in the world.
Now the other good fairies consulted amongst themselves how they could lighten this great sorrow, so they turned to the Queen and said: 'Madam, it is not possible to undo the evil that the fairy Magotine has put upon your child, but we will wish for her something that will help to balance that evil.' And then they told the Queen that one day her daughter would be extremely happy. With this the fairies took their departure, but not before the Queen had given them all some beautiful presents; for this custom goes on amongst all the peoples of the earth, and will continue when other customs are forgotten.
The Queen called her ugly daughter Laideronnette, and the beautiful daughter Bellote; and these names suited them perfectly, because Laideronnette was frightfully ugly, and her sister was equally charming and beautiful.
When Laideronnette was twelve years old, she went and threw herself at the feet of the King and Queen, and begged them to allow her to go and shut herself up in a castle far away near the Light of Dawn, and to let her take the necessary servants and food to live there. She reminded them that they still had Bellote, and that she was enough to console them.
After a long while they agreed, and Laideronnette went away to her castle near the Light of Dawn. On one side of the castle the sea came right up to the window, and on another there was a great canal; from still another view was a vast forest as far as the eye could see, and beyond again a great desert.
The little Princess played musical instruments beautifully, and also had a sweet voice just like a bird, and sang divinely; and so, with these delights, she lived for two whole years in perfect solitude. Then, at the end of the two years, she began to feel homesick and wished to see her father and mother, the King and Queen; so she started on the journey home at once, and arrived just as her sister the Princess Bellote was going to be married.
Now as soon as they saw Laideronnette, they did not offer to kiss her or say they were pleased to see her; and they told her she was not to come to the marriage feast, nor to the ball afterwards. Poor little Laideronnette said she had not come to dance and be merry; neither had she come to the marriage feast; she had come because she felt homesick and wanted to see her father and mother. However, she would go away back to her castle near the Light of Dawn, for there the desert, the trees, and the fountains never reproached her with her ugliness when she came near them.
The King and Queen were sorry that they had been so unkind, and asked Laideronnette to remain two or three days; but Laideronnette was so upset that she refused. Then her sister Bellote gave her some silk, and Bellote's betrothed gave her some ribbons. Now, if Laideronnette had been like some people she would have thrown the silk and the ribbons at the Princess and her future husband. But Laideronnette was not like that, and she only felt a great sorrow in her little heart, and turned away and took her faithful nurse with her; and all the way home towards the Light of Dawn, Laideronnette never spoke a single word.
One day, when Laideronnette was walking in a very shaded valley in the forest, she saw on a tree a big green serpent, who lifted his head and said to her, 'Laideronnette, you are not the only unhappy person; look at my horrible form, and I was born more beautiful than you.' The Princess was so terrified to hear a serpent talk that she fled away and remained in her room for days, in case she should see or meet the green serpent again.
Eventually Laideronnette got tired of being shut up in her room all day alone, so one evening she came down and went to the edge of the sea, bewailing all the time her awful loneliness and her sad destiny, when suddenly she saw coming towards her over the waves a little barque of a thousand different colours and designs on its sides. The sail was beautifully embroidered in gold, and the Princess became very curious to see all the beauties that the barque must contain inside.
She made her way aboard. Inside she found it lined with lovely velvet, the seats of pure gold and the walls studded with diamonds; then, all of a sudden, the barque turned and went out to sea. The Princess ran up and caught hold of the oars, thinking to get back to her castle; but it was no use: she could do nothing at all. On and on went the barque and the poor little Princess wept bitterly at this new sorrow that had come to her.
'Magotine is doing me a bad turn again,' she thought, so she abandoned herself to her fate, hoping that she would die. 'Just after I was looking forward to a little pleasure in seeing my parents yesterday, comes one catastrophe on another; and now my sister is going to be married to a great Prince. What have I done that I should have to live alone in a desert spot because of my ugliness? Alas! for my company I have only a serpent—who speaks!'
These reflections brought tears from the Princess, and she gazed on every side to see which way death was coming for her. While looking and gazing she saw, approaching on the waves, a serpent, flashing green in the sunlight. He came up to the side of the barque and said: 'If you are good enough to receive help from a poor Green Serpent, tell me, for I am in a position to save your life.'
'Death is nothing to me compared to the sight of you,' cried the Princess; 'and, if you really want to do me a favour, never show yourself before my eyes again.'
The Green Serpent gave a big sigh (for that is the way of serpents in love), and, without replying at all, he dived to the bottom of the sea.
'What a horrible monster!' said the Princess to herself. 'His body is of a thousand green colours, and he has eyes like fire. I would rather die than that he should save my life. What love can he have for me, and by what right does he speak like a human being?'
Suddenly a voice replied to her thoughts, and it said, 'Listen, Laideronnette, it is not my fault that I am a Green Serpent; and it will not be for ever; but, I assure you, I am less ugly in my special way than you are in yours. All the same, it is not my wish to pain you; I would comfort you if you would only let me!'
The voice surprised the Princess very much, so sweet was it that she could not hold back her tears. 'I am not crying because I am afraid to die,' she answered, 'but I am hurt enough to weep over my ugliness. I have nothing to live for, why should I cry for fear of dying?'
While she was thus moralising, the little barque that floated with the wind ran into a rock and broke up into pieces, and, when all else had sunk, there remained of the wreck only two little pieces of wood. The poor Princess caught hold of these two little pieces and kept herself afloat; then, happily, her feet touched a rock and she scrambled up on to it.
Alas! what was that coming towards her now but the Green Serpent! As if he knew that she was afraid, he moved away a little, and said: 'You would be less afraid of me, Laideronnette, if you knew what advantages can be had through me; it is one of the punishments of my destiny, however, that I should frighten every one in the world.'
And with this he threw himself back into the sea, and Laideronnette remained alone on the rock in the middle of the ocean. On whichever side she looked she saw nothing but what would cause her despair; and darkness began to fall, and she had no food to eat, and Laideronnette did not know where to sleep.
'I thought,' said she sadly, 'that I should end my days at the bottom of the sea; but without a doubt this is to be the end; what sea-monster will come to eat me up?'
She crept higher and higher up the rock, and looked out over the sea. Darkness was falling fast, so she took off her dress and covered her head and face in it, so that she could not see the awful things that would pass in the night.
After a long time she fell asleep, and dreamt that she heard the most melodious music, and she tried to persuade herself that she was awake, but in a second she heard a voice singing, as if to her alone:—
'Suffer the love that wounds you: It is a tender fire. The love that follows and surrounds you To your love would aspire. Banish fear, forgo all grieving: Love hath joys past all believing. Suffer the love that wounds you: It is a tender fire.'
At the end of this song she woke up at once. 'What happiness or what misfortune threatens me?' said she. She opened her eyes very carefully, for she was full of fear, expecting to find herself surrounded by monsters from the sea; but, imagine her surprise to find herself in a chamber all glittering with gold! The bed on which she lay was perfect, and the most beautiful to be seen anywhere in the wide world. Laideronnette got up and went out on to a wide balcony, where she saw all the beauties of nature before her. The gardens were full of flowers—flowers that gave out the rarest perfume; fountains splashed everywhere, and were surmounted by lovely figures; and outside the gardens was a wonderful forest green with verdure. The palace and the walls were encrusted with precious stones, the roofs and ceilings were made of pearls, so beautifully done that it was a perfect work of art. From the tower of the palace could be seen beyond the forest a sea calm and placid, just like a sheet of glass, and on the sea floated thousands of little boats with all kinds of different sails, which, when caught by the wind, had the most lovely effect imaginable.
'Gods, sweet gods!' cried Laideronnette, 'what do I see? Where am I? Is it possible that I am in heaven—I who yesterday was in peril in a barque?' She walked as she spoke, then she stopped; what noise was that she heard in her apartment? She turned and entered her room, and, coming towards her, she saw a hundred little animated pagodas, all of different designs. Some were very beautiful, while others were extremely ugly. In fact there was hardly any difference between the little pagodas and the people who inhabit the world.
The pagoda which now presented itself before Laideronnette was the deputy of the King. It said that sometimes it went travelling all over the world, but was allowed to do so only on one condition: namely, that it did not talk to any one; otherwise the King would not give the necessary permission. On its return it entertained the King by recounting all that it had heard and seen; moreover, it held the most precious secrets of the court. 'It will be a pleasure to serve you, madam,' it went on, 'and everything you want we shall be delighted to get for you; in the meantime we will play for you and dance so that you will have plenty to make you happy.' And they all began to dance and sing, and play on castanets and tambourines.
When they had finished, the principal pagoda said to the Princess: 'Listen, madam, these hundred pagodas are here expressly to serve you, and any mortal thing you want in the world you have only to ask for it and it shall be yours at once.' The little pagodas paused in their movements and came near to Laideronnette, and she saw at a glance that they were simply lovely. Looking inside, she saw that they contained presents for her, some useful and others so beautiful that she could only cry out with joy.
The biggest pagoda, which was a little figure of pure diamonds, then came up to Laideronnette and asked her if she would now like her bath in the little grotto. The Princess walked, between a guard of honour, to the place it pointed to, and there she saw two beautiful baths of crystal, and from them came such a lovely fragrance that Laideronnette could not help remarking about it. Then she asked why there were two bathing places, and they told her that one was for her and the other for the King of the Pagodas.
'But where is he, then?' cried Laideronnette. 'Madam,' said they, 'at present he is at the war; but you shall see him on his return.'
The Princess asked them if he was married, and they shook their little top turrets, meaning that he was not. Then they told her that he was so good and kind that he had never found any one good enough to marry.
Laideronnette then undressed herself and got into the bath, and at once the pagodas began to sing and play. Then, when the Princess was ready to come out of her bath, she was given a dress of shining colours, and they all walked before her to her room, where her toilet was made by maids, all of them quaint little pagodas.
The Princess was astounded, and expressed her delight at her great good fortune.
There was not a day that the pagodas did not come and tell her all the news of the courts where they had been in different parts of the world. People plotting for war, others seeking for peace; wives who were unfaithful, old widowers who married wives a thousand times more unsuitable than those they had lost; discovered treasures; favourites at court, and out of it, who had fallen from the coveted seat they occupied; jealous wives, to say nothing at all about husbands; women who flirted, and naughty children;—in fact they told her everything that was going on, to make her happy and to help to pass the time away.
Now one night it happened that the Princess could not sleep, and she lay awake, thinking. At last she said: 'What is going to happen to me? Shall I always be here? My life is passed more happily than I ever could wish; but, all the same, there is a feeling in my heart that there is something missing.'
'Ah! Princess,' said a voice, 'is it not your own fault? If you would only love me, you would recognise at once that it would be possible to remain in this palace for ever, alone with the one you loved, without ever wishing to leave it.'
'Which little pagoda is speaking to me now?' she asked. 'What dreadful counsel to give me, contrary to all I have been taught in my life!'
'It is not a pagoda who is talking to you; it is the unhappy King who loves you, madam.'
'A King who loves me!' replied the Princess. 'Has this King eyes, or does he need glasses? Has he not seen that I am the ugliest person in the world?'
'Yes, I have seen you, madam. All that you are, and all that you may have been, make not the least difference to me. I repeat, I love you.'
The Princess did not speak again, but she spent the rest of the night thinking over this adventure.
Every day on getting up she found new clothes and fresh jewels; it was too much homage, considering she was so ugly.
One night—it must have been the darkest night of the whole year—Laideronnette was asleep, and, on awakening, she felt that some one sat near her bed. The Princess put out her hand to feel, but somebody took her hand and kissed it, and in so doing let teardrops fall upon it. She knew full well that it must be the invisible King.
'What do you want with me?' she said. 'Can I love somebody I have never seen and do not know?'
'Ah! madam,' replied he, 'what pleasure it would give me to be able to fulfil your wish! But the wicked Magotine, who played you such a cruel trick, has done the same to me, for I am condemned to remain thus for seven years; five have already gone by and there remain another two years. You could, if you would, lessen the time and make it pass quickly for me if you would marry me; you will think that what I ask is impossible; but, madam, if you only knew how deep my love is for you, you would never refuse me the favour I ask of you.'
Laideronnette, as I have already said, thought that this invisible King was very sweet, and the love he offered was without a doubt genuine. And, in a moment of pity, she replied that she would like a few days to think over his proposal. So the days passed, and all the time the music went on and the pagodas danced and new presents arrived for her, better than those she had received before. And in the end the Princess made up her mind to marry the invisible King, and she promised to wait to see him until his time of punishment was over and he could take visible shape again.
Then the voice said: 'The consequences will be terrible for you and for me if your curiosity should overcome you, and I shall have to commence my punishment all over again; but, should you, on the other hand, stay your desire to see me, you will receive that beauty that the wicked Magotine took away from you.'
The Princess, full of this new hope, promised to keep her word to him. But after a while she had a deep desire to see her father and mother again; also her sister and her husband. The pagodas, who knew the road well, conducted the royal family to the castle of Laideronnette's father and mother; and when she saw them she nearly died of joy.
Her mother and her sister questioned Laideronnette about her husband, and Laideronnette remembered what her husband had told her; she did not like to tell her people the truth, so she told them that he was at the war fighting, and that he did not like seeing people. But her mother and sister chaffed her about him, and at last Laideronnette said that the wicked Magotine had punished him for seven years, that two remained to be finished, and that she had married him without ever having seen him; but that he was a charming person and his conversation proved the fact, and that if she held her curiosity until the two years were up, she would regain all the beauty that the fairy Magotine had taken from her.
'Ah!' replied her mother, 'is it possible that you are such a simpleton as to believe all those tales? Your husband is a huge monster; he is the King of monkeys truly.'
'I know full well,' replied Laideronnette, 'that he is the god of Love himself.'
'What a terrible mistake!' screamed the Queen Bellote.
The poor Princess was so confused and upset that, after giving them the presents, she resolved to go and see her husband. Ah, fatal curiosity! She took a little lamp with her that she might be able to see him the better. What was her surprise when, instead of Love, she saw the Green Serpent! He drew himself up in rage and sorrow:
'O wicked one!' cried he; 'is this the return for all my love for you?'
Now Magotine, knowing that Laideronnette and the Green Serpent were in trouble, came to add to their sorrow and taunt them. She took away, with one wave of her wand, all the lovely castles and fountains and gardens. And Laideronnette, seeing all that she had done, was very troubled. So, during the night, Laideronnette deplored her sad fate. Then, high up near the stars, she saw coming towards her the Green Serpent.
'I always make you afraid,' he cried; 'but you are infinitely dear to me.'
'Is it you, Serpent, dear lover; is it you?' cried Laideronnette. 'Can you forgive me for my fatal curiosity?'
'Ah! how the sorrow of absence troubles this loving heart!' replied the Serpent, with never a word of reproach to Laideronnette for her broken promise.
Magotine, now, was one of those fairies who never slept at all: the wish to do harm and never to miss the chance kept her awake; and she did not fail to hear the conversation between the King Serpent and his spouse; and she came down upon them in a fury.
'Now then, Green Serpent,' said she, 'I order you for your punishment to go right to the good Proserpine, and give her my compliments.'
The poor Green Serpent went at once with great sighs, leaving the Queen in sorrow. And Laideronnette cried out:
'What crime have we committed now, you wicked Magotine? I am certain that the poor King, whom you have sent to the bottomless pit of hell, was as innocent as I myself am; but let me die: it is the least you can do.'
'You would be too happy,' said Magotine, 'were I to listen and grant you your wish. I will send you to the bottom of the sea.' So saying, she took the poor Princess to the top of the highest mountain and tied a mill-stone about her neck, telling her that she was to go down and bring enough Water of Discretion to fill up her great big glass. The Princess said that it was absolutely impossible to carry all that water.
'If you do not,' said Magotine, 'you may rest assured that your Green Serpent will suffer more.'
This threat caused the Queen to think of her utter feebleness. She began to walk, but, alas! it was useless. Oh! if the Fairy Protectress would only help her! Loudly she called, and lo! there stood the good fairy by her side.
'See,' said she, 'to what a pass your fatal curiosity has brought you!' So saying, she took her to the top of the mountain; she gave her a little carriage drawn by two white mice and told them to descend the mountain. Then she gave the little mice a vessel to fill up with the Water of Discretion for Magotine, and produced a little pair of iron shoes for Laideronnette to put on. She counselled her not to remain on the mountain and not to stay by the fountain, but to go into a little wood and to remain there three years, for then Magotine would think that she was getting the water or that she had perished in the awful perils of the voyage.
Laideronnette kissed and embraced the good Fairy Protectress, and thanked her a thousand times for her great favours. 'But, madam,' said Laideronnette, 'all the joys that you have given me will not lessen the sorrow of not having my Green Serpent.'
'He will come to you after you have been three years in the wood in the mountain,' said the fairy; 'and on your return you can give the water to Magotine.'
Laideronnette promised the fairy not to forget anything she had told her. So, when she got into her carriage, the mice took her to get the water, and afterwards they went to the wood that the fairy had told them about. There never was a more lovely place. Fruit hung on all the branches; and there were long avenues where the sun could not pierce; thousands of little fountains splashed, but the most wonderful thing of all was, that all the animals could speak.
Three years passed, and the time had now arrived for her departure with the water for Magotine. So Laideronnette told all the animals that she was sorry to leave them, and tears fell from her eyes, because she was so touched with the kindness they all had shown her.
She did not forget the vessel full of the Water of Discretion, nor the little shoes of iron that the good fairy had given her; and, just when Magotine thought her dead, she presented herself all of a sudden before her, the stones around her neck, the shoes of iron on her feet, and the vessel full of water in her hand.
Magotine on seeing her cried out in surprise. Where had she come from?
'Madam,' said Laideronnette, 'I passed three years in trying to get this water for you.'
Magotine roared with laughter when she thought of the awful job this poor Queen must have had to get it; but she regarded her attentively.
'What is it that I see?' she cried to Laideronnette, who had changed greatly. 'How did you become so beautiful?'
Laideronnette told her that she had washed in the Water of Discretion, and that was how she had become beautiful.
Magotine, on hearing this, threw the water on the ground. 'I will be avenged,' said she. 'Go down to the bottomless pit and ask Proserpine to give you the Essence of Long Life for me; I am always afraid of falling ill and dying. When you have done this you will be free. But mind you do not upset any; neither may you drink the tiniest drop.
The poor Queen, on hearing this new order, was terribly cut up. She began to cry; and Magotine, seeing this, was delighted. 'Go on, get away!' said she. 'Do not lose one moment.'
Laideronnette walked for a long time without finding the right path, turning first one way and then the other; then suddenly she saw the Fairy Protectress, who said to her:
'Do you know, beautiful Queen, that by the orders of Magotine your husband is to remain as he is until you take the Essence of Life to that wicked fairy?'
'I am yet a long way away,' said Laideronnette.
'Here,' said the Fairy Protectress, 'see, here is a branch of a tree: touch the earth and repeat this verse distinctly.'
The Queen once again kissed the knees of this really good and generous fairy, and at the same time repeated after her:
'Thou who all malice canst disarm, Protect me as I rove! Deliver me from all who harm, But not from him I love. For, if devoured I am to be, He is my monster—none but he!'
And immediately, in answer to her prayer, a little boy more beautiful than any in heaven or earth came up to her. On his head was a garland of flowers, and in his hand a bow and arrow. The Queen knew at once that it was Love. He said to her:
'You appeal to me so tenderly that I deserted the heavens.'
Love, who sang beautifully in verse, gave three knocks while singing this song:
'Earth, listen and my voice obey. It is Love who speaks: reveal the way!'
The earth obeyed: a path opened up, and Love took Laideronnette under his protection; and so they arrived at the mouth of hell. She expected to see her husband in the form of a serpent, but he had just finished his terrible punishment. The first thing that Laideronnette saw was indeed her husband; but she had never seen such a charming figure, nor any one so handsome; and neither had he seen any one so beautiful as she had become. Then the Queen said with extreme tenderness:
'Destiny! I bend the knee To thee and thy decree: If he must dwell in deepest hell He dwelleth there with me, For e'en in hell I'll love him well For all eternity.'
The King was full of joy and love, and showed it by the way he kissed her. Love, however, never did believe in wasting time, so he took the Queen to Proserpine. The Queen gave the compliments of the fairy Magotine, and begged her to give her the Essence of Long Life. Love took it and handed it to her, telling her not to forget the penalty that she had paid for her curiosity, and to take every care this time. He would never leave them again. He conducted them to the fairy Magotine, and then, so that Magotine should not see him, he hid in their hearts.
During this time the fairy Magotine was so impressed with the beauty of human feelings, that she received the poor unfortunate King and Queen with some feeling of generosity. She gave them back the lovely palace with all the good things that they had before, and made the King head of the pagodas again. So they went home, and all the great sorrows that they had passed through they soon forgot in the greater joy of each other.