ONCE upon a time there was a very poor fisherman, who lived in a little hut on the banks of a river. This river, although deep, was very calm and clear, and, gliding from the sun and noise, would hide itself among the trees, reeds, and brambles, in order to listen to the birds who delighted it with their songs.
One day when the fisherman went out in his boat to cast his nets, he saw a casket of crystal slowly drifting along with the stream. He rowed towards it, but what was his horror at seeing two little babies, apparently twins, lying in it upon a bundle of cotton! The poor fisherman pitied them, took them out, and carried them home to his wife.
“What have you got there?” she exclaimed, as he presented them to her. “We have eight children already, and as if that were not enough, you must bring me some more!”
“Wife,” replied the poor fisherman, “what could I do? I found these dear little creatures floating on the river below, and they would have died of hunger, or have been drowned, if I had not rescued them. Heaven, which has sent us these two more children, will assist us to provide for them.”
And so it proved; and the children, a boy and a girl, grew up healthy and robust, together with the eight other children. They were both so good, so docile, and so peaceable, that the fisherman and his wife loved them exceedingly, and always held them up as examples to the other children; but they, envious and enraged, did them a thousand injustices and injuries. To escape from these cruelties, the twins would take refuge together among the thickets and bushes on the rivers banks; there they would divert themselves with the birds, and carry crumbs of bread to them; and the birds, grateful to them for their kindness, would fly to meet them, and teach them the bird-language. The children learned to converse with the birds very quickly, and thus they could amuse themselves with their feathered friends, who also taught them many other very good and useful things, one of them being how to get up early in the morning, and another how to sing. One day when the fisherman’s children were more annoying than they had ever been before, they said to the twins:—
“We are the true-born children of Christians, but you, with all your neatness and superiority, are but castaways, without any other father or mother than the river, and belong to the toads and frogs!”
Upon receiving this insult, the poor children were so filled with shame and distress that they determined to go right away from home, and travel in search of their real parents. At the early dawn next day they got up and went forth without any one knowing it, and began their journey, travelling they knew not whither.
Half the day passed by, and they had not perceived as yet any abode, nor seen a single living being. They were hungry, thirsty, and tired, when, on turning round a hill-side, they discovered a little house; on reaching it, they found it was empty and its inhabitants absent
Thoroughly disheartened, they seated themselves on a bench in the doorway to rest. After a little while they noticed a number of swallows collected together under the eaves of the roof, and as they are such chatterboxes, they began to prattle with each other. Having learned the language of birds, the children knew what the swallows said.
“Holloa! my lady friend,” said one of the birds, who had a somewhat rustic air about it, to another that was of a very elegant and distinguished mien, “my eyes are glad to see you once more! I thought you had forgotten your country friends. How do you live in the palace?”
“I possess the nest of my ancestors,” replied the other, “and as yet they have not disinherited me, although, like yours, it is a century old. But tell me before all,” continued she with admirable finesse, “how you and all your family are?”
“Well, thank Heaven! for although I have had my little Beatrice laid up with an inflammation of the eyes that was within an ace of leaving her blind, when I obtained our old remedy, the pito-real, it cured her as if by magic.”
“But what news have you to relate to me, friend Beatrice? Does the nightingale still sing well? Does the lark soar as high as of yore? Does the linnet still prune itself?”
“Sister,” responded the swallow, “I have nothing but downright scandals to tell you of. Gur flock, which formerly was so innocent and temperate, is utterly lost, and has quite taken to the manners of mankind. It is heartbreaking!”
“What! Simple customs and innocence not to be found in the country, nor among birds? My dear friend, what do you tell me?”
“The pure truth, and nothing more. Just figure to yourself, that on our arrival here, whom should we meet but those chattering linnets; they went off, when the spring came with longer days and bright flowers, in search of cold and storm! We tried to dissuade the crazy creatures, but they answered us with the utmost insolence.”
“What did they say?”
“They said to us—
“‘Whither do we go?
Whence come you, reprobates,
Who travel so little
And talk so much?’
This was their reply to us, and on hearing it we made them march to double quick time.”
“What do I hear!” exclaimed the interlocutor. “That any one has dared to accuse us, the most honest and faithful of birds, of being reprobates?”
“Then what will you think when I tell you,” said the first speaker, “that the lark, who was so timid and ladylike, has become an insolent pilferer, and that—
“The lady lark upon her flight
Pilfers pulse and pilfers maize,
Before the very sower’s sight,
And at his anger pertly says,
‘Sower, sower, more seed sow,
As that sown can never grow’?”
“I am astounded!”
“That is only half my story. When we arrived here, and I wished to enter my nest, I found a shameless sparrow making himself quite at home in it. ‘This nest is mine,’ I said to him. ‘Yours?’ he answered rudely, and began to laugh. ‘Mine and mine only.’
‘Property is robbery,’ piped he quite coolly. ‘Sir, are you crazy?’ I said to him. ‘My ancestors built this nest, my parents educated me in it, and in it I mean to bring up my children.’ Then at seeing me fainting, all my companions began to weep. By the time I recovered my consciousness, our husbands had put an end to the thieving rascal. But you, sister, never see such scandals in the palace.”
“Don’t we! . . . Ah, if you only knew!”
“Do tell us! do tell us!” exclaimed all the swallows with one voice. When silence had been re-established, thanks to a loud and prolonged hus-s-s-sh, uttered by an elder, the court dame began her story in these terms.—
“You must know that the king fell in love with the youngest daughter of a tailor who lived near the palace, and married her; the girl deserved his love, as she was as good as she was beautiful, and as modest as she was discreet. It so happened that the king had to go to the wars and leave his poor wife in the saddest and most perplexed position. For his ministers and courtiers, who were very indignant at having a tailor’s daughter for their queen, conspired to ruin her. And they availed themselves of the first opportunity. During the kings absence beautiful twins, a boy and a girl, were born; but the wicked conspirators sent to tell him that the queen had for children a cat and a serpent.
“When the king received this intelligence, he was very furious, and sent off a royal mandate that the queen should be entombed alive, and the children cast into the river. This was done; the beautiful queen was shut up in a stone vault, and her little darling twins were placed in a crystal coffer, and left to the mercy of the stream.”
When they heard the fate of the poor queen and her innocent babes, the swallows, who are very kind and affectionate, began to lament most heartily, whilst the twins looked at one another in amazement, suspecting it to be very probable that they themselves were the castaway children.
The city swallow continued her narrative:— “But now hear how God frustrated the plots of these traitors. The queen was entombed; but her attendant, who was very devoted to her, contrived to make a hole in the wall, and supplied her with food through it, as we do to our little ones through our nests, and thus the lady lives, although a life of misery. Her children were rescued by a good fisherman, who has brought .them up, so a friend of mine, Martin Fisher, who lives on the banks of the river, has informed me.”
The twins, who had heard the whole story, were delighted that they had learned the language of birds; which, indeed, is a proof that we should never neglect any opportunity of learning, for, when least we think it, what we have learnt may prove of great utility to us.
“So then,” said the swallows joyfully, “when these children are older, they will be able to regain their place at their father’s side, and liberate their mother.”
“That is not so easy,” said the narrator, because they will not be able to prove their identity, nor prove their mother’s innocence, nor the malice of the Ministry. There is only one method by which they would be able to undeceive the king.”
“And what is that? What is that?” cried all the swallows together. “And how do you know it?”
“I know it,” responded the narrator, “because one day when I was passing by the palace garden, I met and had a chat with a cuckoo, who, as you know, is a conjuror, and can foretell what will happen. As we were discoursing with one another the affairs of the palace, he said to me——”
The children and the swallows were listening with redoubled attention, and even the young swallows were thrusting their little bald heads so far out of their nests, that they were in great peril of falling; their parents did not notice the danger, or they would have given the youngsters a good smack.
“‘The only one who is able to persuade the king,’ said the cuckoo to me, ‘is the Bird of Truth, who speaks the language of men, although they for the most part do not know truth, and do not wish to understand it.’ ‘And this bird, where is it?’ I asked the cuckoo. ‘This bird/ he answered, ‘ is in the castle of Go and Return Not; the castle is guarded by a ferocious giant who only sleeps one quarter of an hour in the twenty-four hours. If when he wakes up any one should be within reach of his tremendous arm, he seizes and swallows him as we should a mosquito.’”
“And where is this castle?” inquired the inquisitive Beatrice.
“That is what I don’t know,” responded her friend; “all that I know about it is, that not far from it is a tower in which dwells a wicked witch, who knows the way and will point it out to any one who will bring her from the fountain that flows there, the Water of Many Colours, which water she makes use of in her enchantments. But I should also tell you that she would like to destroy the Bird of Truth, though as no one is able to kill this bird, what she and her friend the giant do is to keep it a prisoner guarded by the Birds of Falsehood, who will not let it speak a single word.”
“Then will nobody be able to inform the poor queen’s son where they have hidden the Bird of Truth?” inquired the country swallows.
“Nobody,” replied the city bird, “but a pious red owl, who lives as a hermit in the desert, but who knows no more of the language of men than the one word ‘Cross,’ which he learned when, at Calvary, he beheld the Crucifixion of the Redeemer, and which he has never ceased from sorrowfully repeating. And thus he will not be able to understand the prince, even supposing the impossible event should ever happen of the boy finding him out. But, my dear friends, I must say ‘Good-bye,’ for I have spent the whole afternoon in this pleasant chat. The sun is seeking his nest in the depths of the sea, and I am going to seek mine, where my little ones will be wondering what has happened to me. Good-bye, friend Beatrice.”
So saying, the swallow took to flight, and the children in their joy, feeling neither hunger nor fatigue, got up and pursued their way in the same direction that the bird had flown
At the hour of evening service the children arrived at a city which they imagined must be that in which the king, their father, dwelt. They begged a good woman to give them shelter for the night, and this, seeing they were so well-spoken and well-mannered, she kindly granted.
The following morning had scarcely dawned when the girl arose and tidied the house, and the boy drew the water and watered the garden, so that when the good woman got up she found all the house-work done. She was so pleased with this that she proposed to the children that they should remain and live with her. The boy said that his sister might, but that it was necessary for him to arrange some business matters, for which he had come to the city. So he departed, and followed a chance road, praying to Heaven to guide his steps and bring his enterprise to a successful ending.
For three days he followed various bye-ways, but without seeing any vestige of the tower; on the fourth, sad and weary, he seated himself under the shadow of a tree. After a short time he saw a little turtle-dove arrive and rest among the branches of the tree; so he said to it, in its own language:
“Little turtle-dove, I wish you could tell me where the castle of Go and Return Not is?”
“Poor boy,” responded the turtle-dove, “who bore you such ill-will as to send you there?”
“It is my good, or my evil fortune,” replied the boy.
“Then if you wish to know it,” said the bird, “follow the wind, which to-day blows towards it!”
Then the boy thanked the turtle-dove, and recommenced his journey, following the course of the wind as it changed and chopped about to different points of the compass. The country gradually grew sadder and more arid; and, as night approached, the path led between bare and sombre rocks, a vast black mass among them being the tower wherein dwelt the witch whom the boy was in search of. The sight of the hideous place terrified him at first; but as he was brave—like every one whose aim is the furtherance of a good work—he advanced boldly. When he reached the tower, he picked up a big stone and struck the gate with it three times; the hollows of the rocks reverberated with the sounds, as if sighs were uttered from their very entrails.
Then the door opened, and there appeared in the doorway an old woman carrying a candle that lit up her face, which was so wrinkled and so frightful that the poor boy recoiled in horror. Quite an army of beetles, lizards, salamanders, spiders, and other vermin surrounded the witch.
“How dare you disturb me, impudent beggar,” she exclaimed, “by coming to knock at my door? What do you want? Speak quickly!”
“Madam,” said the boy, “knowing that you alone know the way which leads to the castle of Go and Return Not, I come to ask you, if you please, to point it out to me.”
The old woman made a grimace, intended for a mocking smile, and answered:
“Very well; but now it is too late. You shall go to-morrow. Come in, and you shall sleep with these little insects.”
“I am not able to stay,” replied the boy, “it is necessary that I should go at once, as I have to return by day-break to the place whence I came.”
“May dogs worry you, and cats tear you, you stubborn boy,” growled the old witch angrily. “If I tell you the way,” she added, “it will only be upon condition that you bring me this jar full of the Water of Many Colours, which flows from the fountain in the courtyard of the castle; and if you do not bring it to me, I will change you into a lizard for all eternity.”
“Agreed!” cried the boy in return.
Then the old woman called a poor dog, which looked very thin and wretched, and said to it:
“Up! conduct this good-for-nought to the castle of Go and Return Not, and be careful that you inform my friend of his arrival.”
The dog snarled, shook himself savagely, and set forth. At the end of about two hours they arrived in front of a very black, enormous, and gloomy castle, whose portals stood wide open, but where neither light nor sound gave any indication that it was inhabited; even the rays of the moon, as they were reflected upon the sombre and lifeless mass, seemed to make it still more horrible.
As he went forward, the dog began to howl; but the boy, who knew not whether this was the giant’s hour for sleep, stopped and rested himself timorously against the trunk of a withered and leafless wild olive, which was the only tree to be found in that parched and naked district.
“Heaven help me!” exclaimed the boy.
“Cross! Cross!” responded a sad voice among the branches of the olive. Joyfully the boy recognised the hermit owl which the swallow had mentioned; and said to it in the language of birds:
“Poor little owl, I beg you will help and guide me. I am come in search of the Bird of Truth, and I have to carry the Water of Many Colours to the witch of the tower.”
“Do not do that,” responded the owl; “but when you have filled the jar with the clear, pure water that flows from a spring at the foot of the fountain of Water of Many Colours, go in quickly to the aviary, which you will find in front of the doorway; do not take any notice of the various coloured birds that will come to meet you and deafen you by all shouting out together that they are the Bird of Truth; then seize a little white bird which the others thrust on one side and persecute ceaselessly, but they cannot kill, because it cannot die. But go quickly, for at this moment the giant is just going to sleep, and his sleep only lasts for a quarter of an hour!”
The boy began to run; he entered into the courtyard, where he found that the fountain had many spouts whence poured waters of different colours, but he did not look at them; he filled his jar at the spring of pure, dear water which flowed from the spring at the foot of the fountain, and then made his way to the aviary. Scarcely had he entered it, when he was surrounded by a troop of birds, some plovers, some black ravens, and others gorgeous peacocks, and each one declaring itself to be the Bird of Truth. The boy did not linger with them, but went right forward, and finding the white bird he was in search of huddled in the corner, he took it, placed it in his bosom, and went forth, not, however, without distributing a few good blows among the enemies of the Bird of Truth.
The boy did not cease running until he reached the witch’s tower. When he arrived, the old wretch seized the jar and flung all the contents at him, thinking that it was the water of many colours, and that he would be changed by it into a parrot; but as it was pure and clear water, the boy only became handsomer than he was before.
At the same time she had drenched all the insects, who were really people that had arrived there with the same intention as the little prince, and who were immediately changed back into their original forms,—the beetles into knights errant, the lizards into princesses, grasshoppers into dancers, crickets into musicians, flies into journalists, spiders into young ladies, curianas (black flies) into students, the weevils into boys, and so forth. When the old witch saw this, she seized a broom and flew away. Then the disenchanted people, the ladies, gentlemen, girls, and boys thanked their liberator, and accompanied him on his way back to the city.
You may imagine how delighted his sister was when she saw the young prince return with the Bird of Truth. But a very great difficulty still remained, and that was, how the bird could be got into the presence of the king without the knowledge of the courtiers, who were interested in preventing him from discovering the great crime which they had committed. And what was more, the Court having learnt that the Bird of Truth had been found, the news inspired such dread that few were able to sleep tranquilly in their beds. All kinds of weapons were prepared against it; some sharpened, others envenomed; hawks were trained to pursue it; cages were prepared in which to imprison it, if it were found impossible to kill it; they slandered it, saying that its whiteness was an artificial paint, with which it coated its black plumage; they satirized and ridiculed it in every possible manner. At last, much was said about the Bird of Truth, that it reached the king’s ears, who wished to see it; and the more that the courtiers intrigued to prevent it, the more he desired to view the bird. Finally, his Majesty issued a proclamation, that whoever had the Bird of Truth in his possession, was to present himself without delay to the king.
This was the very thing that the boy had wished for. So he hastened to the palace, carrying the Bird of Truth in his bosom; but, as you can imagine, the courtiers would not allow him to enter. Then the bird, taking flight, entered into the royal presence by a window, and presenting itself before the king, said:
“Lord, I am the Bird of Truth; the boy who brought me here in his bosom has not been allowed by the courtiers to enter.”
The king commanded that the boy should be brought in at once, and he entered with his sister, who had accompanied him to the palace. When they came into the royal presence the king inquired who they were.
“That the Bird of Truth can tell your Majesty,” said the boy.
And, questioned by the king, it answered that the children were his Majesty’s own, and informed him of all that had happened. A soon as the king heard the story of the treason, with tears of joy he clasped the children in his arms, and ordered masons to open the vault in which the good queen had been so many years entombed. When the poor lady came forth, she was so white that she looked like a statue of marble; but as soon as she beheld her children, the blood rushed from her heart to her cheeks, and she became again as beautiful as she had ever been before. The king embraced her, and seated her on the throne with her children by her side. Then he ordered the good fisherman to be fetched, and created him chief of the Ministry of Fishing; and the queens faithful attendant, who had saved her mistress’s life, he pensioned off, and created her a duchess, and distributed many other gifts and benefits.