Once a king had two daughters. He loved them with all his heart. When they grew up, he wanted to see how well they loved him, and made up his mind that he would give his kingdom to the one who showed she loved him the most.
He called the elder princess and said to her, "How much do you love me?"
"As the apple of my eye!" answered she.
"Ah!" exclaimed the king, kissing her tenderly as he spoke, "you are a good daughter."
Then he sent for the younger, and asked her how much she loved him.
"I look on you, father, as I look on salt in my food," she answered.
The king did not like her words, and ordered her to quit the court and never again to appear before him. The poor princess went sadly up to her room and began to cry, but when she was reminded of her father's commands, she dried her eyes, made a bundle of her jewels and her best dresses and hurriedly left the castle where she was born.
She walked straight along the road in front of her without knowing very well where she was going or what was to become of her, for she had never been shown how to work. All she had learnt consisted of a few household rules, and receipts of dishes that her mother had taught her long ago. As she was afraid that no housewife would want to engage a girl with a pretty face, she determined to make herself look as ugly as she could.
She therefore took off the dress that she was wearing and put on some horrible old rags belonging to a beggar, all torn and covered with mud. After that she smeared mud all over her hands and face, and shook her hair into a great tangle. Having thus changed her appearance, she went about offering herself as a goose-girl or shepherdess. But the farmers' wives would have nothing to say to such a dirty maiden, and sent her away with a morsel of bread for charity's sake.
After walking for a great many days without being able to find any work, she came to a large farm where they were in want of a shepherdess, and engaged her gladly.
One day when she was keeping her sheep in a lonely tract of land, she suddenly felt a wish to dress herself in her robes of splendour. She washed herself carefully in the stream, and as she always carried her bundle with her, it was easy to shake off her rags, take on the nice clothes and look fine.
The king's son, who had lost his way out hunting, noticed this lovely damsel a long way off and wished to look at her closer. But as soon as the girl saw what he was at, she fled swiftly into the wood. The prince ran after her, but as he was running he caught his foot in the root of a tree and fell, and when he got up again, he could not see her anywhere.
When the girl was quite safe, she put on her rags again and smeared over her face and hands. However the young prince, who was hot and thirsty, found his way to the farm to ask for a drink of cider, and also asked who was that beautiful lady that kept the sheep. At this everyone began to laugh, saying that the shepherdess was one of the ugliest and dirtiest creatures under the sun.
The prince thought some witchcraft must be at work, and hastened away before the shepherdess returned. When she did, she became the butt of everybody's jests that evening.
But the king's son thought often of the lovely maiden he had only seen for a moment. For some reason or other she seemed to him much more fascinating than any lady of the court. At last he dreamed of nothing else and grew thinner day by day until his parents asked what was the matter, promising to do all they could to make him as happy as he once was. He dared not tell them the truth, lest they should laugh at him, so he only said that he should like some bread baked by the kitchen girl in the distant farm.
Although the wish appeared rather odd, they hastened to fulfil it, and the farmer was told the request of the king's son. The maiden showed no surprise at receiving such an order, but merely asked for some flour, salt, and water, and also that she might be left alone in a little room adjoining the oven, where the kneading-trough stood. Before beginning her work she washed herself carefully, and even put on her rings; but, while she was baking, one of her rings slid into the dough. When she had finished she dirtied herself again, and let the lumps of the dough stick to her fingers, so that she became as ugly as before.
The loaf, which was a very little one, was brought to the king's son, who ate it with pleasure. But in cutting it he found the ring of the princess, and declared to his parents that he would marry the girl whom that ring fitted.
So the king made a proclamation through his whole kingdom and ladies came from afar to lay claim to the honour. But the ring was so tiny that even those who had the smallest hands could only get it on their little fingers. In a short time all the maidens of the kingdom, including the peasant girls, had tried on the ring, and the king was just about to announce that their efforts had been in vain, when the prince observed that he had not yet seen the shepherdess try it on.
They sent to fetch her. She arrived covered with rags, but with her hands cleaner than usual so that she could easily slip on the ring. The king's son declared that he would fulfil his promise, and when his parents mildly remarked that the girl was only a keeper of sheep, and a very ugly one too, the maiden boldly said that she was born a princess, and that if they would only give her some water and leave her alone in a room for a few minutes, she would show that she could look as well as anyone in fine clothes.
They did what she asked, and when she entered in a magnificent dress, she looked beautiful. The king's son recognised the charming damsel he had once caught a glimpse of, flung himself at her feet and asked if she would marry him. The princess then told her story, and said that they would have to send an ambassador to her father to ask his consent and to invite him to the wedding.
The princess's father had never ceased to repent his harshness towards his daughter. He had sought her through the land, but no one could tell him anything of her, so he supposed she was dead. Therefore it was with great joy he heard that she was living and that a king's son asked her in marriage. He quitted his kingdom with his elder daughter so as to be present at the ceremony.
By the orders of the bride, at the wedding breakfast they served her father bread without salt, and meat without seasoning. Seeing him make faces and eat very little, his daughter, who sat beside him, asked if his dinner was not to his taste.
"No," he replied, "the dishes are carefully cooked and sent up, but they are all so dreadfully tasteless."
"Didn't I tell you, my father, that salt was the best thing in life? And yet, when I compared you to salt to show how much I loved you, you drove me off."
The king embraced his daughter and admitted that he had not understood her very well at that time. Then, for the rest of the wedding feast they gave him bread made with salt, and dishes with seasoning, and he said they were the very best he had ever eaten.
Among the mountain pastures and valleys in the centre of France there lived a mischievous kind of spirit called Puck. He delighted to play tricks on everybody, and particularly on the shepherds and the cowboys. They never knew when they were safe from him, as he could change himself into a man, woman or child, a stick, a goat, or a ploughshare. There was only one thing he could not change himself into, and that was a needle with a hole in it. Try as he might he was never able to imitate the hole, so every woman would have found him out at once if he became a needle with no hole in it, and this he knew.
Now the hour oftenest chosen by the naughty Puck for doing his pranks was about midnight, just when the shepherds and cowherds, tired out with their long day's work, were sound asleep. Then he would go into the cowsheds and unfasten the chains that fixed each beast in its own stall, and let the chains fall with a heavy clang to the ground. The noise was so loud that it was certain to awaken the cowherds, however fatigued they might be, and they dragged themselves wearily to the stable to put back the chains. But no sooner had they returned to their beds than the same thing happened again, and so on until the morning. Or perhaps Puck would spend his night in plaiting together the manes and tails of two of the horses, so that it would take the grooms would have to work for hours to get them right in the morning. Meanwhile Puck, hidden among the hay in the loft, would peep out to watch them, enjoying himself all the time.
One evening more than eighty years ago a man named William was passing along the bank of a stream when he noticed a sheep who was bleating loudly. William thought it must have strayed from the flock, and that he had better take it home with him till he could find the owner. So he went up to where it was standing. As it seemed so tired that it could hardly walk, he lifted it on his shoulders and went on his way. The sheep was quite heavy, but the good man was merciful and staggered along as best he could under his load.
"It is not much further," he thought to himself as he reached an avenue of walnut trees, when suddenly a voice spoke out from over his head, and made him jump.
"Where are you?" said the voice, and the sheep answered:
"Here on the shoulders of a donkey."
In another moment the sheep was standing on the ground and William was running towards home as fast as his legs would carry him. But as he went, a laugh, which yet was something of a bleat, rang in his ears, and though he tried not to hear, the words reached him, "Oh, dear! What fun I have had!"
Puck was careful not always to play his tricks in the same place, but visited one village after another, so that everyone trembled lest he should be the next victim. After a bit he grew tired of cowherds and shepherds, and wondered if there was no one else to give him some sport. At length he was told of a young couple who were going to the nearest town to buy all that they needed for setting up house. Quite certain that they would forget something which they could not do without, Puck waited patiently till they were jogging along in their cart on their return journey, and changed himself into a fly in order to overhear their conversation.
For a long time it was very dull – all about their wedding day next month, and who were to be invited. This led the bride to her wedding dress, and she gave a little scream.
"Oh! I have forgotten to buy the different coloured reels of cotton to match my clothes!"
"Dear, dear!" said the young man. "Didn't you tell me that the dressmaker was coming in tomorrow?"
"Yes, I did," she answered.
Then suddenly she gave another little scream, which had quite a different sound from the first. "Look! Look!"
The bridegroom looked, and on one side of the road he saw a large ball of thread of all colours – of all the colours of the dresses that were tied on to the back of the cart.
"That seems like a wonderful piece of good fortune," he cried as he sprang out to get it. "One could think a fairy had put it there on purpose."
"Perhaps she has," laughed the girl. As she spoke she seemed to hear an echo of her laughter coming from the horse.
The dressmaker was delighted with the thread she got by the couple. It matched the stuffs so perfectly, and never tied itself in knots, or broke perpetually, as most thread did. She finished her work much quicker than she expected. The bride invited her to come to the church and see her in her wedding dress.
There was a great crowd assembled to witness the ceremony, for the young people were very well liked in the neighbourhood, and their parents were wealthy. The doors were open, and the bride could be seen from afar as she came walking under the chestnut avenue.
"What a beautiful girl!" exclaimed the men. "What a lovely dress!" whispered the women. But just as she entered the church and took the hand of the bridegroom, who was waiting for her, a loud noise was heard.
"Crick! crack! Crick! crack!" and the wedding garments fell to the ground, to the great confusion of the wearer.
Not that the ceremony was put off for a little thing like that! Cloaks in profusion were at once offered to the young bride, but she was so upset that she could hardly keep from tears. One of the guests, more curious than the rest, stayed behind to examine the dress, for she wanted to try to find out the cause of the disaster.
"The thread must have been rotten," she said to herself. "I will see if I can break it." But there was no thread at all.
["A French Puck", in Literature Orale de l'Auvergne, by Paul Sebillot. Retold.]