ONCE there lived in Farawayland two kings whose countries bordered on each other; but, as they were rivals in wealth and power, and one was called king and the other badshah, they were not good friends. But to escape continual quarrels, the king and the badshah had drawn up an agreement, stamped and signed, declaring that if any of their subjects crossed the border between the two kingdoms, he might be seized and punished badly.
One morning the badshah and his chief minister were just about to begin their morning's work over the affairs of the kingdom, and the badshah had taken up a pen and was cutting it to his liking with a sharp knife, when the knife slipped and cut off the tip of his finger.
"Oh-he, minister!" cried the king, "I've cut off the tip of my finger!"
"I say! That's good to hear!" answered the minister.
"What?" exclaimed the king. "Do you take pleasure in the misfortunes of others, and in mine too? Take him away, my guards, and put him in the court prison till I have time to punish him as he deserves!"
At once the officers in attendance seized on the minister and dragged him out toward a narrow doorway that unhappy criminals used to be led through to prison or execution.
As the door opened, the minister muttered something into his great white beard which the soldiers could not hear.
"What did he say?" shouted the king.
"He says he thanks your majesty," replied one of the gaolers. And at his words, the king stared at the closing door, angry and amazed.
"He must be mad," he cried, "for he is grateful, not only for the misfortunes of others, but for his own. Well, maybe something has turned his head!"
The king was really very fond of his old minister, and although the court physician came and bound up his injured finger with cool and healing ointment and soothed the pain, he could not soothe the soreness of the king's heart. Nor could any of all his ministers and courtiers, who found him to be very cross all day long.
Early next morning the king ordered his horse and declared that he would go hunting. At once all was bustle and preparation in stable and hail. By the time he was ready, a score of ministers and huntsmen stood ready to mount and accompany him. But to their astonishment the king would have none of them. Instead he glared at them so fiercely that they were glad to leave him. So away and away he wandered, over field and through forest, so moody and thoughtful that many a fat buck and gaudy pheasant escaped without notice. So careless was he where he was going that he strayed without noticing it over into the king's territory. He only discovered the fact when men suddenly stepped from all sides out of a thicket, and there was nothing to do but surrender.
Then the badshah was seized and bound and taken to the king's prison, thinking most of the time of his minister who was suffering a similar fate. The badshah wished that he could feel that there was something to give thanks for, like the minister.
That night the king held a special council to consider what should be done to his rival who had thus given himself into his hands. All the high priests were sent for fat priests who understood all about everything, and what days were lucky and what unlucky and, while all the rest of the king's councellors were offering him different advice till he was nearly crazy with anger and indecision, the chief priest was squatting in a corner. He kept figuring out sums and signs to himself with an admiring group of lesser priests around him. At last he arose, and advanced toward the throne.
"Well," said the king anxiously, "what do you advise?"
"A very unlucky day!" exclaimed the chief priest. "Oh, a very unlucky day! The god Gussara is full of wrath, and commands that tomorrow you must chop off this badshah's head and offer it in sacrifice."
"Well," said the king, "let it be done. I leave it to you." And he bowed politely to the others and left the room.
Before dawn great preparations were being made for a grand festival in honour of the great idol Gussara. Hundreds of banners waved, hundreds of drummers drummed, hundreds of singers chanted chants, hundreds of priests, well washed and anointed, performed their sacred rites. And the king was sitting nervous and ill at ease among hundreds of courtiers and servants, wishing it were all well over.
At last the time came for the sacrifice, and the poor badshah was led out bound to have his head chopped off.
The chief priest came along with a smile on his face and a big sword in his hand, Then he suddenly noticed that the badshah's finger was tied up in a bit of rag. At once he dropped the sword, and with his eyes starting out of his head with excitement, pounced on the rag and tore it off. There he saw that the tip of the badshah's finger was missing. At this he got very red and angry, and he led the badshah up to where the king sat wondering.
"Look, king," he said, "this sacrifice is useless. The tip of his finger is gone! A sacrifice is no sacrifice unless it is complete." He began to weep.
But instead of wailing likewise, the king sighed with relief and answered:
"Well, that settles the matter. If it had been anyone else I should not have minded; but, well, it doesn't seem quite right to sacrifice a king."
And with that he jumped up and cut the badshah's cords with his jewelled dagger, and marched with him out of the temple back to the palace.
After having bathed and refreshed his guest, the king loaded him with gifts, and himself accompanied him with a large escort as far as the frontier between their kingdoms. There they toe up the old agreement among salutes and great rejoicings and drew up another where each king promised welcome and safe conduct to any of the other's people who came over the border on any errand. At last they embraced, and each went his own way.
When the badshah got home that evening he sent for his imprisoned minister.
"Well, minister!" he said, when the old man had been brought before him, "what do you think has happened to me?"
"How can a man in jail know what is happening outside it?" answered the minister.
Then the badshah told him all his adventures. And when he had reached the end he added:
"I have made up my mind, to pardon you freely as a token of gratitude for my escape, if you will tell me why you gave thanks when I cut off the tip of my finger."
"Well," replied the old minister, "am I not right in thinking that it was a very lucky thing for you that you cut off the tip of your finger? Otherwise you would have lost your head. And to lose a scrap of one's finger was the least of the two evils."
"How true," said the king, touching his head as he spoke, as if to make certain that it was still there, "but yet why did you give thanks when I put you in prison?"
"I gave thanks," said the minister, "because it is good always to give thanks. And had I known that being in prison would prevent the god Gussara claiming me as a perfect offering instead of your majesty, then I should have given greater thanks still."
LONG AGO there was a king and a queen in the south of somewhere who had three sons, all beautiful children; but the queen, their mother, sickened unto death when they were yet very young, which caused great grief throughout the court, particularly to the king, her husband, who could in no wise be comforted. Seeing that death was drawing near her, she called the king to her and spoke as follows:
"I'm now going to leave you, and as you're young and in your prime, of course after my death you'll marry again. Now all the request I ask of you is that you'll build a tower in an island in the sea, wherein you'll keep your three sons till they are come of age and fit to do for themselves; so that they may not be under the power or jurisdiction of any other woman. Neglect not to give them education suitable to their birth, and let them be trained up to every exercise and pastime requisite for king's sons to learn. This is all I have to say, so farewell."
The king had scarce time, with tears in his eyes, to assure her she should be obeyed in everything, when she, turning herself in her bed, with a smile gave up the ghost. Never was greater mourning seen than was throughout the court and the whole kingdom; for a better woman than the queen, to rich and poor, was not to be found in the world. She was interred with great pomp and magnificence, and the king, her husband, became in a manner inconsolable for the loss of her. However, he caused the tower to be built and his sons placed in it, under proper guardians, according to his promise.
In process of time the lords and knights of the kingdom counselled the king (as he was young) to live no longer as he had done, but to take a wife; which counsel prevailing, they chose him a rich and beautiful princess to be his consort - a neighbouring king's daughter, of whom he was very fond. Not long after, the queen had a fine son, which caused great feasting and rejoicing at the court, in so much that the late queen, in a manner, was entirely forgotten. That fared well, and king and queen lived happy together for several years.
At length the queen, having some business with the hen-wife, went herself to her, and, after a long conference passed, was taking leave of her, when the hen-wife prayed that if ever she should come back to her again she might break her neck. The queen, greatly incensed at such a daring insult from one of her meanest subjects, demanded immediately the reason, or she would have her put to death.
"It was worth your while, madam," says the hen-wife, "to pay me well for it, for the reason I prayed so on you concerns you much."
"What must I pay you?" asked the queen.
"You must give me," says she, "the full of a pack of wool, and I have an ancient crock which you must fill with butter, likewise a barrel which you must fill for me full of wheat."
"How much wool will it take to the pack?" says the queen.
"It will take seven herds of sheep," said she, "and their increase for seven years."
"How much butter will it take to fill your crock?"
"Seven dairies," said she, "and their increase for seven years."
"And how much will it take to fill the barrel you have?" says the queen.
"It will take the increase of seven barrels of wheat for seven years."
"That's a great quantity," says the queen; "but the reason must be extraordinary, and before I want it, I'll give you all you demand."
"Well," says the hen-wife, "it's because you're so stupid that you don't observe or find out those affairs that are so dangerous and hurtful to yourself and your child."
"What's that?" says the queen.
"Why," says she, "the king your husband has three fine sons he had by the late queen, whom he keeps shut up in a tower till they come of age, intending to divide the kingdom between them, and let your son push his fortune; now, if you don't find some means of destroying them; your child and perhaps yourself will be left desolate in the end."
"And what would you advise me to do?" said she; "I'm wholly at a loss in what manner to act in this affair."
"You must make known to the king," says the hen-wife, "that you heard of his sons, and wonder greatly that he concealed them all this time from you; tell him you wish to see them, and that it's full time for them to be liberated, and that you would be desirous he would bring them to the court. The king will then do so, and there will be a great feast prepared on that account, and also diversions of every sort to amuse the people; and in these sports," said she, "ask the king's sons to play a game at cards with you, which they won't refuse. Now," says the hen-wife, "you must make a bargain, that if you win they must do whatever you command them, and if they win, that you must do whatever they command you to do; this bargain must be made before the assembly, and here is a pack of cards," says she, "that I'm thinking you won't lose by."
The queen immediately took the cards, and, after returning the hen-wife thanks for her kind instruction, went back to the castle, where she was quite uneasy till she got speaking to the king in regard of his children; at last she broke it off to him in a very polite and engaging manner, so that he could see no muster or design in it. He readily consented to her desire, and his sons were sent for to the tower, who gladly came to Court, rejoicing that they were freed from such confinement. They were all very handsome, and very expert in all arts and exercises, so that they gained the love and esteem of all that had seen them.
The queen, more jealous with them than ever, thought it an age till all the feasting and rejoicing was over, that she might get making her proposal, depending greatly on the power of the hen- wife's cards. At length this royal assembly began to sport and play at all kinds of diversions, and the queen very cunningly challenged the three princes to play at cards with her, making bargain with them as she had been instructed.
They accepted the challenge, and the eldest son and she played the first game, which she won; then the second son played, and she won that game likewise; the third son and she then played the last game, and he won it, which sorely grieved her that she had not him in her power as well as the rest, being by far the handsomest and most beloved of the three.
However, everyone was anxious to hear the queen's commands in regard to the two princes, not thinking that she had any ill design in her head against them. Whether it was the hen-wife instructed her, or whether it was from her own knowledge, I can't tell; but she gave out they must go and bring her the knight of the Glen's wild Steed of Bells, or they should lose their heads.
The young princes were not in the least concerned, not knowing what they had to do; but the whole Court was amazed at her demand, knowing very well that it was impossible for them ever to get the steed, as all that ever sought him perished in the attempt. However, they couldn't retract the bargain, and the youngest prince was desired to tell what demand he had on the queen, as he had won his game.
"My brothers," says he, "are now going to travel, and, as I understand, a perilous journey wherein they know not what road to take or what may happen them. I'm resolved, therefore, not to stay here, but to go with them, let what will betide; and I request and command, according to my bargain, that the queen shall stand on the highest tower of the castle till we come back (or find out that we are certainly dead), with nothing but sheaf corn for her food and cold water for her drink, if it should be for seven years and longer."
All things being now fixed, the three princes departed the court in search of the knight of the Glen's castle, and travelling along the road they came up with a man who was a little lame, and seemed to be somewhat advanced in years; they soon fell into discourse, and the youngest of the princes asked the stranger his name, or what was the reason he wore so remarkable a black cap as he saw on him.
"I'm called," said he, "the thief of Sloan, and sometimes the Black Thief from my cap; "and so telling the prince the most of his adventures, he asked him again where they were bound for, or what they were about.
The prince, willing to gratify his request, told him their affairs from the beginning to the end. "And now," said he, "we are travelling, and don't know whether we are on the right road or not."
"Ah! my brave fellows," says the Black Thief, "you little know the danger you run. I'm after that steed myself these seven years, and can never steal him on account of a silk covering he has on him in the stable, with sixty bells fixed to it, and whenever you approach the place he quickly observes it and shakes himself; which, by the sound of the bells, not only alarms the prince and his guards, but the whole country round, so that it's impossible ever to get him, and those that are so unfortunate as to be taken by the knight of the Glen are boiled in a red-hot fiery furnace."
"Bless me," says the young prince, "what will we do? If we return without the steed we will lose our heads, so I see we are ill fixed on both sides."
"Well," says the thief of Sloan, "if it were my case I would rather die by the knight than by the wicked queen; besides, I'll go with you myself and show you the road, and whatever fortune you'll have, I'll take chance of the same."
They returned him sincere thanks for his kindness, and he, being well acquainted with the road, in a short time brought them within view of the knight's castle.
"Now," says he, "we must stay here till night comes; for I know all the ways of the place, and if there be any chance for it, it's when they are all at rest; for the steed is all the watch the knight keeps there."
Accordingly, in the dead hour of the night, the king's three sons and the thief of Sloan attempted the Steed of Bells in order to carry him away, but before they could reach the stables the steed neighed most terribly and shook himself so, and the bells rung with such noise, that the knight and all his men were up in a moment.
The Black Thief and the king's sons thought to make their escape, but they were suddenly surrounded by the knight's guards and taken prisoners; where they were brought into that dismal part of the castle where the knight kept a furnace always boiling, in which he threw all offenders that ever came in his way, which in a few moments would entirely consume them.
"Audacious villains!" says the knight of the Glen, "how dare you attempt so bold an action as to steal my steed? See, now, the reward of your folly; for your greater punishment I won't boil you all together, but one after the other, so that he that survives may witness the dire afflictions of his unfortunate companions."
So saying he ordered his servants to stir up the fire: "We will boil the eldest-looking of these young men first," said he, "and so on to the last, which will be this old champion with the black cap. He seems to be the captain, and looks as if he had come through many toils."
"I was as near death once as the prince is yet," says the Black Thief, "and escaped; and so will he too."
"No, you never were," said the knight; "for he is within two or three minutes of his latter end."
"But," says the Black Thief, "I was within one moment of my death, and I'm here yet."
"How was that?" says the knight; "I would be glad to hear it, for it seems impossible."
"If you think, sir knight," says the Black Thief, "that the danger I was in surpasses that of this young man, will you pardon him his crime?"
"I will," says the knight, "so go on with your story."
"I was, sir," says he, "a very wild boy in my youth, and came through many distresses; once in particular, as I was on my rambling, I was benighted and could find no lodging. At length I came to an old kiln, and being much fatigued I went up and lay on the ribs. I had not been long there when I saw three witches coming in with three bags of gold. Each put their bags of gold under their heads, as if to sleep. I heard one of them say to the other that if the Black Thief came on them while they slept, he wouldn't leave them a penny. I found by their discourse that everybody had got my name into their mouth, though I kept silent as death during their discourse. At length they fell fast asleep, and then I stole softly down, and seeing some turf convenient, I placed one under each of their heads, and off I went, with their gold, as fast as I could. "I had not gone far," continued the thief of Sloan, "till I saw a grey-hound, a hare, and a hawk in pursuit of me, and began to think it must be the witches that had taken the shapes in order that I might not escape them unseen either by land or water. Seeing they didn't appear in any formidable shape, I was more than once resolved to attack them, thinking that with my broad sword I could easily destroy them. But considering again that it was perhaps still in their power to become alive again, I gave over the attempt and climbed with difficulty up a tree, bringing my sword in my hand and all the gold along with me. However, when they came to the tree they found what I had done, and making further use of their hellish are, one of them was changed into a smith's anvil and another into a piece of iron, of which the third soon made a hatchet. Having the hatchet made, she fell to cutting down the tree, and in the course of an hour it began to shake with me. At length it began to bend, and I found that one or two blows at the most would put it down. I then began to think that my death was inevitable, considering that those who were capable of doing so much would soon end my life; but just as she had the stroke drawn that would terminate my fate, the cock crew, and the witches disappeared, having resumed their natural shapes for fear of being known, and I got safe off with my bags of gold.
"Now, sir," says he to the knight of the Glen, "if that be not as great an adventure as ever you heard, to be within one blow of a hatchet of my end, and that blow even drawn, and after all to escape, I leave it to yourself."
"Well, I can't say but it's very extraordinary," says the knight of the Glen, "and on that account pardon this young man his crime; so stir up the fire, till I boil this second one."
"Indeed," says the Black Thief, "I would fain think he wouldn't die this time either."
"How so?" says the knight; "it's impossible for him to escape."
"I escaped death more wonderfully myself," says the thief of Sloan, "than if you had him ready to throw into the furnace, and I hope it will be the case with him likewise."
"Why, have you been in another great danger?" says the knight. "I would be glad to hear the story too, and if it be as wonderful as the last, I'll pardon this young man as I did the other."
"My way of living, sir," says the Black Thief, "was not good, as I told you before; and being at a certain time fairly run out of cash, and meeting with no enterprise worthy of notice, I was reduced to great straits. At length a rich bishop died in the neighbourhood I was then in, and I heard he was interred with a great deal of jewels and rich robes on him, all which I intended in a short time to be master of. Accordingly that very night I set about it, and coming to the place, I understood he was placed at the further end of a long dark vault, which I slowly entered. I had not gone in far till I heard a foot coming towards me with a quick pace, and although naturally bold and daring, yet, thinking of the deceased bishop and the crime I was engaged in, I lost courage, and ran towards the entrance of the vault. I had retreated but a few paces when I observed, between me and the light, the figure of a tall black man standing in the entrance. Being in great fear and not knowing how to pass, I fired a pistol at him, and he immediately fell across the entrance. Perceiving he still retained the figure of a mortal man, I began to imagine that it couldn't be the bishop's ghost; recovering myself therefore from the fear I was in, I ventured to the upper end of the vault, where I found a large bundle, and on further examination I found that the corpse was already rifled, and that which I had taken to be a ghost was no more than one of his own clergy. I was then very sorry that I had the misfortune to kill him, but it then couldn't be helped. I took up the bundle that contained everything belonging to the corpse that was valuable, intending to take my departure from this melancholy abode; but just as I came to the mouth of the entrance I saw the guards of the place coming towards me, and distinctly heard them saying that they would look in the vault, for that the Black Thief would think little of robbing the corpse if he was anywhere in the place. I didn't then know in what manner to act, for if I was seen I would surely lose my life, as everybody had a look-out at that time, and because there was no person bold enough to come in on me. I knew very well on the first sight of me that could be got, I would be shot like a dog. However, I had not time to lose. I took and raised up the man which I had killed, as if he was standing on his feet, and I, crouching behind him, bore him up as well as I could, so that the guards readily saw him as they came up to the vault. Seeing the man in black, one of the men cried that was the Black Thief, and, presenting his piece, fired at the man, at which I let him fall, and crept into a little dark corner myself, that was at the entrance of the place. When they saw the man fall, they ran all into the vault, and never stopped till they were at the end of it, for fear, as I thought, that there might be some others along with him that was killed. But while they were busy inspecting the corpse and the vault to see what they could miss, I slipped out, and, once away, and still away; but they never had the Black Thief in their power since."
"Well, my brave fellow," says the knight of the Glen, "I see you have come through many dangers: you have freed these two princes by your stories; but I'm sorry myself that this young prince has to suffer for all. Now, if you could tell me something as wonderful as you have told already, I would pardon him likewise; I pity this youth and don't want to put him to death if I could help it."
"That happens well," says the thief of Sloan, "for I like him best myself, and have reserved the most curious passage for the last on his account."
"Well, then," says the knight, "let's hear it."
"I was one day on my travels," says the Black Thief, "and I came into a large forest, where I wandered a long time, and couldn't get out of it. At length I came to a large castle, and fatigue obliged me to call in the same, where I found a young woman and a child sitting on her knee, and she crying. I asked her what made her cry, and where the lord of the castle was, for I wondered greatly that I saw no stir of servants or any person about the place.
" "It's well for you," says the young woman, "that the lord of this castle isn't at home at present; for he is a monstrous giant, with but one eye on his forehead, who lives on human flesh. He brought me this child," says she, "I don't know where he got it, and ordered me to make it into a pie, and I can't help crying at the command."
"I told her that if she knew of any place convenient that I could leave the child safely I would do it, rather than it should be killed by such a monster.
"She told me of a house a distance off where I would get a woman who would take care of it. "But what will I do in regard of the pie?"
" "Cut a finger off it," said I, " and I'll bring you in a young wild pig out of the forest, which you may dress as if it was the child, and put the finger in a certain place, that if the giant doubts anything about it you may know where to turn it over at the first, and when he sees it he'll be fully satisfied that the pie is made of the child."
"She agreed to the scheme I proposed, and, cutting off the child's finger, by her direction I soon had it at the house she told me of, and brought her the little pig in the place of it. She then made ready the pie, and after eating and drinking heartily myself, I was just taking my leave of the young woman when we observed the giant coming through the castle gates.
" "Bless me," said she, "what will you do now? Run away and lie down among the dead bodies that he has in the room (showing me the place), and strip off your clothes that he may not know you from the rest if he has occasion to go that way."
"I took her advice, and laid myself down among the rest, as if dead, to see how he would behave. The first thing I heard was him calling for his pie. When she set it down before him he swore it smelled like swine's flesh, but knowing where to find the finger, she immediately turned it up, which fairly convinced him of the contrary. The pie only served to sharpen his appetite, and I heard him sharpening his knife and saying he must have a collop or two, for he was not near satisfied. But what was my terror when I heard the giant groping among the bodies, and, fancying myself, cut the half of my hip off, and took it with him to be roasted. You may be certain I was in great pain, but the fear of being killed prevented me from making any complaint. However, when he had eaten all he began to drink hot liquors in great abundance, so that in a short time he couldn't hold up his head, but threw himself on a large creel he had made for the purpose, and fell fast asleep. When I heard him snoring, as I was I went up and caused the woman to bind my wound with a handkerchief; and, taking the giant's spit, reddened it in the fire, and ran it through the eye, but was not able to kill him.
"However, I left the spit sticking in his head, and took to my heels; but I soon found he was in pursuit of me, although blind; and having an enchanted ring he threw it at me, and it fell on my big toe and remained fastened to it.
"The giant then called to the ring, where it was, and to my great surprise it made him answer on my foot; and he, guided by the same, made a leap at me which I had the good luck to observe, and fortunately escaped the danger. However, I found running was of no use in saving me, as long as I had the ring on my foot; so I took my sword and cut off the toe it was fastened on, and threw both into a large fish-pond that was convenient. The giant called again to the ring, which by the power of enchantment always made him answer; but he, not knowing what I had done, imagined it was still on some part of me, and made a violent leap to seize me, when he went into the pond, over head and ears, and was drowned. Now, sir knight," says the thief of Sloan, "you see what dangers I came through and always escaped; but, indeed, I'm lame for the want of my toe ever since."
"My lord and master," says an old woman that was listening all the time, "that story is but too true, as I well know, for I'm the very woman that was in the giant's castle, and you, my lord, the child that I was to make into a pie; and this is the very man that saved your life, which you may know by the want of your finger that was taken off, as you have heard, to deceive the giant."
The knight of the Glen, greatly surprised at what he had heard the old woman tell, and knowing he wanted his finger from his childhood, began to understand that the story was true enough.
"And is this my deliverer?" says he. "Brave fellow, I not only pardon you all, but will keep you with myself while you live, where you shall feast like princes, and have every attendance that I've myself." They all returned thanks on their knees, and the Black Thief told him the reason they attempted to steal the Steed of Bells, and the necessity they were under in going home.
"Well," says the knight of the Glen, "if that's the case I bestow you my steed rather than this brave fellow should die; so you may go when you please, only remember to call and see me betimes, that we may know each other well."
They promised they would, and with great joy they set off for the king their father's castle, and the Black Thief along with them.
The wicked queen was standing all this time on the tower, and, hearing the bells ringing at a great distance off, knew very well it was the princes coming home, and the steed with them, and through spite and vexation precipitated herself from the tower and was shattered to pieces.
The three princes lived happy and well during their father's reign, and always keeping the Black Thief along with them; but how they did after the old king's death isn't known.
[The Hibernian Tales - #11.2]
ONCE on a time there was a poor fisher who built a hut on the banks of a stream. Shunning the glare of the sun and the noise of the towns it flowed quietly past trees and under bushes, listening to the songs of the birds overhead.
One day when the fisherman had gone out as usual to cast his nets, he saw borne towards him on the current a cradle of good material. Slipping his net quickly beneath it he drew it out and lifted the silk coverlet. Inside, lying on a soft bed of cotton, were two babies, a boy and a girl, who opened their eyes and smiled at him. The man was filled with pity at the sight. He threw down his lines for a moment and took the cradle and the babies home to his wife.
The good woman flung up her hands in despair when she beheld the contents of the cradle.
"Aren't eight children enough," she cried, "without bringing us two more? How do you think we can feed them?"
"You wouldn't have had me leave them to die of hunger," answered he, "or be swallowed up by the sea? What is enough for eight is also enough for ten."
The wife said no more; and in truth her heart yearned over the little creatures. Somehow or other food was never lacking in the hut, and the children grew up and were so good and gentle that, in time, their foster-parents loved them as well or better than their own, who were quarrelsome and envious. It did not take the orphans long to notice that the boys did not like them, and were always playing tricks on them, so they used to go away by themselves and spend whole hours by the banks of the river. Here they would take out the bits of bread they had saved from their breakfasts and crumble them for the birds. In return, the birds taught them many things: how to get up early in the morning, how to sing, and how to talk their language, which very few people know.
But though the little orphans did their best to avoid quarrelling with their foster-brothers, it was very difficult always to keep the peace. Matters got worse and worse till, one morning, the eldest boy said to the twins:
"It's all very well for you to pretend that you have such good manners, and are so much better than we, but we have at least a father and mother, while you have only got the river, like the toads and the frogs."
The poor children did not answer the insult; but it made them very unhappy. And they told each other in whispers that they could not stay there any longer, but must go into the world and seek their fortunes.
So next day they arose as early as the birds and stole downstairs without anybody hearing them. One window was open, and they crept softly out and ran to the side of the river. Then, feeling as if they had found a friend, they walked along its banks, hoping that by- and-by they should meet some one to take care of them.
The whole of that day they went steadily on without seeing a living creature, till, in the evening, weary and footsore, they saw before them a small hut. This raised their spirits for a moment; but the door was shut, and the hut seemed empty, and so great was their disappointment that they almost cried. However, the boy fought down his tears, and said cheerfully:
"Well, at any rate here is a bench where we can sit down, and when we are rested we will think what is best to do next."
Then they sat down, and for some time they were too tired even to notice anything; but by-and-by they saw that under the tiles of the roof a number of swallows were sitting, chattering merrily to each other. Of course the swallows had no idea that the children understood their language, or they would not have talked so freely; but, as it was, they said whatever came into their heads.
"Good evening," remarked a swallow, whose manners were rather rough and countryfied to another who looked distinguished. "Happy are the eyes that look at you! You have returned to your long-forgotten country friends, after you have lived for years in a castle!"
"I have inherited this nest from my parents," replied the other, "and as they left it to me I certainly shall make it my home. But," she added politely, "I hope that you and all your family are well?"
"Very well indeed, I am glad to say. But my poor daughter had, a short time ago, such bad inflammation in her eyes that she would have gone blind had I not been able to find the magic herb, which cured her at once."
"And how is the nightingale singing?"
"Worse than before. And the crested lark is now no better than a thief, and steals maize and corn whenever she can find them."
"I am astonished."
"You'll be more astonished when I tell you that on my arrival here for the summer I found my nest occupied by a shameless sparrow! 'This is my nest,' I said. 'Yours?' he answered. And at that my husband threw him out of the nest. I am sure nothing of this sort ever happens in a town."
"Not exactly, perhaps. Butif you only knew!"
"Oh! do tell us! do tell us!" cried they all. And then the city swallow began:
"Our king fell in love with the youngest daughter of a tailor, who was as good and gentle as she was beautiful. His nobles hoped that he would have chosen a queen from one of their daughters, and tried to prevent the marriage; but the king would not listen to them, and it took place. Not many months later a war broke out, and the king rode away at the head of his army, while the queen remained behind, very unhappy at the separation. When peace was made, and the king returned, he was told that his wife had had two babies in his absence, but that both were dead; that she herself had gone out of her mind and was obliged to be shut up in a tower in the mountains, where, in time, the fresh air might cure her."
"And was this not true?" asked the swallows eagerly.
"Of course not," answered the city bird. "The children were alive at that very moment in the gardener's cottage; but at night the chamberlain came down and put them in a cradle of crystal, which he carried to the river.
"For a whole day they floated safely, for though the stream was deep it was very still, and the children took no harm. In the morningso I am told by my friend the kingfisherthey were rescued by a fisherman who lived near the river bank."
The children had been lying on the bench, listening lazily to the chatter up to this point; but when they heard the story of the crystal cradle which their foster-mother had always been fond of telling them, they sat upright and looked at each other.
"Oh, how glad I am I learnt the birds' language!" said the eyes of one to the eyes of the other.
Meanwhile the swallows had spoken again.
"That was indeed good fortune!" cried they.
"And when the children are grown up they can return to their father and set their mother free."
"It will not be so easy as you think," answered the city swallow, shaking her head; "for they will have to prove that they are the king's children, and also that their mother never went mad at all. In fact, it's so difficult that there's only one way of proving it to the king."
"And what is that?" cried all the swallows at once. "And how do you know it?"
"One day, when I was passing through the castle garden, I met a cuckoo who always pretends to be able to see into the future. 'Ah,' said he, 'the only person who can expose the wickedness of the ministers and show the king how wrong he has been, is the bird of truth, who can speak the language of men. It's shut up in a castle guarded by a fierce giant, who only sleeps one quarter of an hour out of the whole twenty-four,' replied the cuckoo.
"And where is this castle?" inquired the country swallow.
"That is just what I don't know," answered her friend. "Not far from here is a tower where an old witch lives. It is she who knows the way, and she will only teach it to the person who promises to bring her the water from the fountain of many colours, which she uses for her enchantments. But never will she betray the place where the bird of truth is hidden, for she hates him, and would kill him if she could. Knowing well, however, that this bird cannot die, as he is immortal, she keeps him closely shut up and guarded night and day by the birds of bad faith. They seek to gag him so that his voice should not be heard.
There no one else who can tell the poor boy where to find the bird, except an owl who lives a hermit's life in that desert, and he knows only one word of man's speech, and that is 'cross.' Good-night, friends!"
Then the swallow flew away. The children, who had forgotten both hunger and weariness in the joy of this strange news, rose up and followed in the direction of her flight. After two hours' walking, they arrived at a large city. They felt sure it was the capital of their father's kingdom. Seeing a good-natured looking woman standing at the door of a house, they asked her if she would give them a night's lodging. She was so pleased with their pretty faces and nice manners that she welcomed them warmly.
It was scarcely light the next morning before the girl was sweeping out the rooms, and the boy watering the garden, so that by the time the good woman came downstairs there was nothing left for her to do. This so delighted her that she begged the children to stay with her altogether, and the boy answered that he would leave his sisters with her gladly, but that he himself had serious business on hand and must not linger in pursuit of it. So he bade them farewell and set out.
For three days he wandered by the most out- of-the-way paths, but no signs of a tower were to be seen anywhere. On the fourth morning it was just the same, and, filled with despair, he flung himself on the ground under a tree and hid his face in his hands. In a little while he heard a rustling over his head, and looking up, he saw a turtle dove watching him with her bright eyes.
"Oh dove!" cried the boy, addressing the bird in her own language, Tell me where is the castle of Come-and-never-go?"
"To get there," said the dove, "you must follow the wind, which today is blowing towards the castle."
The boy thanked her, and followed the wind, fearing all the time that it might change its direction and lead him astray. But the wind blew steadily on.
With each step the country became more and more dreary, but at nightfall the child could see behind the dark and bare rocks something darker still. This was the tower that the witch lived in. Seizing the knocker he gave three loud knock, and they were echoed in the hollows of the rocks around.
The door opened slowly, and there appeared on the threshold an old woman holding up a candle to her face, which was so hideous that the boy involuntarily stepped backwards.
"Who are you who dare to knock at my door and wake me?" cried she. "Be quick and tell me what you want, or it will be the worse for you."
"Hm," answered the child, "I believe that you know the way to the castle of Come-and-never-go, and I pray you to show it to me."
"Very good," replied the witch, with something that she meant for a smile, "but today it's late. Tomorrow you shall go. Now enter, and you shall sleep with my lizards."
"I cannot stay," said he. "I must go back at once, so as to reach the road from which I started before day dawns."
"If I tell you, will you promise me that you'll bring me this jar full of the many-coloured water from the spring in the court- yard of the castle?" asked she. "If you fail to keep your word I will change you into a lizard."
"Okay," answered the boy.
Then the old woman called to a very thin dog, and said to him:
"Conduct this child to the castle of Come-and-never-go, and take care that you warn my friend of his arrival." And the dog arose and shook itself, and set out.
At the end of two hours they stopped in front of a large castle, big and black and gloomy, whose doors stood wide open, although neither sound nor light gave sign of any presence within. The dog, however, seemed to know what to expect, and, after a wild howl, went on; but the boy, who was uncertain whether this was the quarter of an hour when the giant was asleep, hesitated to follow him, and paused for a moment under a wild olive that grew near by, the only tree which he had beheld since he had parted from the dove.
"Oh, heaven, help me!" cried he.
"Cross! cross!" answered a voice.
The boy leapt for joy as he recognised the note of the owl that the swallow had spoken of, and he said softly in the bird's language:
"Hello, wise owl, I hope you will protect and guide me, for I have come in search of the bird of truth. And first I must fill this jar with the many-coloured water in the courtyard of the castle."
"Don't do that," answered the owl, "but fill the jar from the spring which bubbles close by the fountain with the many-coloured water. Afterwards, go into the aviary opposite the great door, but be careful not to touch any of the bright-plumaged birds inside it. Those birds will cry to you, each one, that he is the bird of truth. Choose only a small white bird that is hidden in a corner, which the others try incessantly to kill, not knowing that it cannot die. And, be quick!for at this very moment the giant has fallen asleep, and you have only a quarter of an hour to do everything."
The boy ran as fast as he could and entered the courtyard, where he saw the two springs close together. He passed by the many-coloured water without casting a glance at it, and filled the jar from the fountain whose water was clear and pure. He next hastened to the aviary, and was almost deafened by the clamour that rose as he shut the door behind him. Voices of peacocks, voices of ravens, voices of magpies, each claiming to be the bird of truth. With steadfast face the boy walked by them all, to the corner, where, hemmed in by a hand of fierce crows, was the small white bird he sought. Putting her safely in his breast, he passed out, followed by the screams of the birds of bad faith which he left behind him.
Once outside, he ran without stopping to the witch's tower, and handed to the old woman the jar she had given him.
"Become a parrot!" cried she, flinging the water over him. But instead of losing his shape, as so many had done before, he only grew ten times as handsome; for the water was enchanted for good and not ill. Then the creeping multitude around the witch hastened to roll themselves in the water, and stood up, human beings again.
When the witch saw what was happening, she flew away.
Who can guess the delight of the sister at the sight of her brother, bearing the bird of truth? But although the boy had accomplished much, something very difficult yet remained, and that was how to carry the bird of truth to the king without her being seized by the wicked courtiers, who would be ruined by the discovery of their plot.
Soonno one knew howthe news spread abroad that the bird of truth was hovering round the castle, and the courtiers made all sorts of preparations to hinder her reaching the king.
They got ready weapons that were sharpened, and weapons that were poisoned; they sent for eagles and falcons to hunt her down, and constructed cages and boxes in which to shut her up if they were not able to kill her. They declared that her white plumage was really put on to hide her black feathersin fact there was nothing they did not do in order to prevent the king from seeing the bird or from paying attention to her words if he did.
As often happens in these cases, the courtiers brought about that which they feared. They talked so much about the bird of truth that at last the king heard of it, and said he wanted to see her. The more difficulties that were put in his way the stronger grew his desire, and in the end the king published a proclamation that whoever found the bird of truth should bring her to him without delay.
As soon as he saw this proclamation the boy called his sister, and they hastened to the castle. The bird was buttoned inside his tunic, but, as might have been expected, the courtiers barred the way, and told the child that he could not enter. It was in vain that the boy declared that he was only obeying the king's commands; the courtiers only replied that his majesty was not yet out of bed, and it was forbidden to wake him.
They were still talking, when, suddenly, the bird settled the question by flying upwards through an open window into the king's own room. Alighting on the pillow, close to the king's head, she said:
"Here I am, the bird of truth that you wanted to see, and I have been obliged to approach you in the manner because the boy who brought me is kept out of the castle by your courtiers."
"They shall pay for their insolence," said the king. And he instantly ordered one of his attendants to conduct the boy at once to his apartments; and in a moment more the prince entered, holding his sister by the hand.
"Who are you?" asked the king; "and what has the bird of truth to do with you?"
"If it please your majesty, the bird of truth will explain that herself," answered the boy.
And the bird explained; and the king heard for the first time of the wicked plot that had been successful for so many years. He took his children in his arms, with tears in his eyes, and hurried off with them to the tower in the mountains where the queen was shut up. The poor woman was as white as marble, for she had been living almost in darkness; but when she saw her husband and children, the colour came back to her face, and she was as beautiful as ever.
They all returned in state to the city, where great rejoicings were held. The wicked courtiers had their heads cut off, and all their property was taken away. As for the good old couple, they were given riches and honour, and were loved and cherished to the end of their lives.