Once there was a poor man who had three sons. He brought them up well, but when they had grown to be fine tall fellows, the little farm afforded them a very scanty living. So they made up their minds to be no longer a burden to their father, but to go out to the world and seek their fortunes. First they asked their father's blessing, and then they set off together, each with a tiny pack on his back, containing all he possessed, and a stick in his hand cut from the nut-tree in the garden.
They walked cheerily on, making great plans for the future, till they came to a place where three roads met. Here they agreed to part, promising, however, to come back again to the same spot on midsummer say seven years later.
Well, the eldest brother went on his way till, in a week or so, he came to a camp of soldiers. Straightway he enrolled himself in their company and marched with them off to the wars. Before long he was counted the best fighting man of them all; and so able-bodied, alert and nimble was he, that it was the easiest thing in the world for him to scale any fortress wall with a weapon in each hand.
The second brother went on by the second road till he reached a seaport town. There he apprenticed himself to a shipbuilder, and learnt the business so well that he became the best workman in the trade. No ships were as good as those he built, and in a few years he became a famous man.
As for the third, he had no wish to learn any trade at all. He sauntered on, turning this way and that as the whim pleased him, till one day of days he came to a wood. He entered it and flung himself down on a bed of leaves. Not to sleep, however. He was no dull, sleepy fellow. He lay there still and quiet, because he was listening to a nightingale singing so sweetly, that in all the world there seemed to be nothing else to do but lie there and listen. And when the bird flew away he got up and followed it, to hear the song in a fresh place. Thus he travelled through woods and forests and beautiful lonely places, always tracking the bird.
To learn its song, and the songs of other birds, was trade enough for him. He forgot the world, forgot about making a fortune, well content to live in the woods with the wild things, eating berries and herbs and nuts, talking with the birds, and learning their tongue. This he did because they feared him not at all, but gathered round him, perched on him, ate out of his hand, and taught him all the secrets of their speech and music.
When seven years had gone by, the first and second brothers came to the appointed meeting-place even before the day they had named. The third would have forgotten, had not a little bird trilled to him a reminder that his two brothers would be waiting, and would think him faithless if he did not set off on the instant for the meeting-place at the three cross-roads. So he hurried away from his beloved woods, trudged along, whistling to the birds on the wayside trees, or talking to those that perched on his hat or shoulder, just as if he had been a friendly branch fluttered by the wind. He reached the spot on the morning of St. John's Day. Now, when his brothers caught sight of him, he was so wild and longhaired and shaggy that they did not know him again; but when he greeted and embraced them they recognised his voice. "Alas!" they said to themselves, looking at his ragged garments, "into what a state of poverty has he fallen!" So they unloaded the packs from their mules, got out new raiment for him, and clothed him on the spot. Then they all went together to an inn to celebrate their meeting after such long absence.
Now, while they sat at table, telling each other their adventures, a little bird on a tree by the door sang a song in their ears. A loud, piercing melody it was; but only the youngest brother understood it.
"Do you hear that bird?" he said. "Do you know what it is singing? No? Well, listen and I will reveal the meaning of what it sings. Near the corner-stone of this very inn," it says, "is hidden a treasure. It has lain there hundreds and hundreds of years. Dig for it, and it shall be yours." That is what the little bird sings; and birds always sing the truth. Eh, my brothers, shall we dig for it?"
The eldest laughed, but he consented to dig all the same. All three dug; the treasure was found, shared quite fairly between them, and they were now very rich men, So they went back to their old home, embraced their father, told him all their adventures, and provided for his comfort for the remainder of his days.
While they were resting at home, one day a bird perched on the garden wall and sang. The youngest brother understood what was sung.
"Do you hear that bird?" he said. "Shall I tell you what it is singing? Listen then. In the sea there is an island where there is a great marble palace. But a fiery serpent guards the entrance, and on the threshold is a basilisk. Inside the castle the fair Princess Aglea is a prisoner, sitting lonely and disconsolate. Whoever shall rescue her shall have her to wife, and her treasure of gold and silver and crystal and precious stones shall be his too."
The three brothers could not hear of the fair princess being left a prisoner any longer; and they planned together how she might be rescued. First, the second brother made a fine, swift, strong ship; and all three sailed away in it to the island. A great storm arose, and had not the ship been the best and strongest in the world, it would have been dashed to pieces on the rocks of the island. They landed on the island and saw the castle with the terrible guardians of its entrance. These they evaded, creeping stealthily round to the back, where was no door, but a lofty tower with no openings of any kind except a window near the summit. The eldest brother set about climbing the lofty tower with a rope coiled round his body and a dagger in each hand to stick into the crevices, for there was no foothold to be had. Just as he was near the top, the fair princess looked out of the window.
"We are friends," he whispered, as he grasped the window-sill; and he told her their plan of rescue. Getting inside, he tied the strong rope round her, and gently let her down to his brothers below. Then he searched about the tower and palace till he discovered the treasure of silver and gold and precious stones. Gathering it hastily together, he made it into several bundles, and these he lowered too. Last of all, he came down himself.
The three brothers then carried the lovely lady and her wealth safely to the fine home they had built for their father. "Take my treasure," she said. "It is a very small reward for your courage and generosity."
But whose bride should she be? They had just asked her opinion on the point when I heard of them last.