IN THE Springtime a certain King pitched his tent in a flowery meadow tract, among shady trees and near a gurgling brook. There came from the village three sisters, maidens of marriageable age, to gather flowers and edible vegetables. At noon-time they sat down on the bank of the crystal brook, not far from the royal tent, and began to prattle.
"If the King takes me in marriage for his eldest son," said the oldest maiden, "I will weave for him a tent so big that it will accommodate all his army, and yet one-half of it will be empty."
"If the King takes me in marriage for his second son," said the second maiden, "I will weave for him a rug so big that it will accommodate all his court and the people of his realm, and yet half of it will be left empty."
"I will not brag," said the youngest sister; "but if the King takes me in marriage for his youngest son, and if it pleases Heaven, I will give birth to twins,--a silver-haired boy and a golden-haired girl."
The two older maidens laughed at their young sister and ridiculed her. The King, who was listening to the talk of the maidens from behind the arras, was pleased with them and gave all three in marriage to his three sons. One day he asked of the oldest sister:
"Where is the tent which you were going to weave?"
"It was only vain prattle we sisters were indulging in," said she.
"Where is your rug?" inquired the King of the second sister.
"It was merely idle talk," replied she.
"And where are your twins?" asked he of the youngest sister.
"If it pleases Heaven I will bear them in the fulness of time," replied she.
The older sisters became very envious of their younger sister and they vowed to be revenged, for now the love and caresses of the whole court seemed to be bestowed upon her. One night there came to the arms of the youngest sister the promised silver-haired boy and golden-haired girl. The envious sisters immediately took the babies away and put them into a chest which they threw into the river. Bringing a pair of puppies, they placed them by the bedside of the young mother. Then they went to the young Prince and informed him that his beloved wife was mother to the two puppies. The young Prince was horror-stricken. The King was mad with rage. He ordered his servants to wrap the young woman in a camel's hide and put her in the corner by the palace door, so that every one who entered the palace might spit in her face, for her base conduct in thus bringing shame upon those who had loved and favored her. The King's order was at once put into execution.
It so happened that there was an old man and his wife living in a hut on the banks of the river on the outskirts of the city. The old man used to cast his nets into the river every day and catch two fish, one for himself and one for his wife. On that day he threw his net for fish, and lo! a chest was drawn out. He took it to his hut where he and his wife opening it saw that there was in it a pair of pretty babies. The silver-haired boy had put his thumb into the mouth of the golden-haired girl, and the girl had put her thumb into the mouth of the boy. So they were sucking one another's thumbs and were not crying at all. The aged couple looked upon them with great joy and said:
"Thank Heaven! We were till now without offspring, and lo! Heaven has now granted us twins."
The old dame washed the babies, and lo! gold and silver fell down from their hair. She said to her husband,--
"Now, husband, get up and take this gold and silver to the mart and buy for us a cow that we may feed the babies with milk."
The old man went, and with that silver and gold bought not only a cow, but a great many other things necessary for the twins, who were brought up with great care and kindness, although in an obscure hut. The children grew rapidly and became a great comfort to the aged couple. The boy grew to be a brave lad and became a hunter, and the girl grew to be a beautiful, intelligent maiden. The aged couple, following the course of the world, died when the children were quite young. The girl had only once heard from the old woman that they were fished from the river in a chest, and that the despised woman in the King's palace door was their mother, whom the King's two daughters-in-law had put in that position by falsehood. After the death of their benefactors, the sister and brother continued to live in the hut. The lad went hunting, and the maiden used to visit the court, for the purpose of seeing their mother; but, following the advice of her deceased godmother, she did not let herself be known, lest mischief should befall herself and her brother. She learned, however, all that was going on in the royal palace. One day the lad hunted for an antelope and found a fine one, which he secured.
"This is worthy of the King," said the lad, and took it to the palace. The King was very much pleased. On another day he shot a lion, whose skin he took to the King, who said to him:
"Good for you, my little hunter! Come to-morrow to the palace again; I will praise you before my men."
The lad came home and told his sister that he was invited to the palace by the King.
"Good!" said the maiden; "take this bouquet with you. When you enter the King's palace you will see there, in a corner, a woman wrapped in the hide of a camel, and buried in the dust up to her waist. All who enter the door spit in her face; for my sake, do throw this bunch of roses to her as you pass by her."
"All right," said the lad; and on the following day, as he was entering the palace, he threw the bunch of roses to the despised woman. He then entered the King's apartment, where both the King and the courtiers were very much pleased with him. His manly bearing and intelligent conversation were the subject of general admiration. But the King's two daughters-in-law were very much displeased with the little hunter, who threw a bunch of roses to their disgraced sister instead of spitting at her. They thought there was something at the bottom of the lad's conduct, and said to one another:
"Let us find out some means of getting rid of this urchin, lest our secret should leak out."
As they had great influence with the King and the court, they went to the King and said:
"Long live the King! You see that this lad is an expert hunter; he has brought you a lion's hide; but it shall be useless as long as there is only one. Send him to bring a dozen more lions' skins with which to adorn the new palace."
The King liked this suggestion and sent the lad to bring him a dozen lions' skins. The lad came home and told his sister, who said to him:
"Brother, when our godmother died she told me that we had an aunt living somewhere among the rocks of yonder Black Mountains. In case some difficult task was imposed upon us by the court we might go to our aunt, who would always be glad to help us. So you had better go to her; she will show you how to hunt twelve lions."
The lad started towards the Black Mountains. There, in a deep cavern, he saw an old fairy woman sitting. He ran to her and at once kissed her hand.
"Halloo!" exclaimed the old dame, "is it you, silver-haired twin?"
"Aye, auntie, it is I," answered the lad.
"And how does your golden-haired sister thrive?" the fairy woman asked.
"She humbly kisses both of your hands, auntie," said the lad.
"And what have you come for, my boy?" inquired the fairy dame.
"The King wants from me a dozen lions' skins," answered the lad.
"Well then, come and hide you under my apron till your forty cousins come," said the old woman, hiding the lad in the folds of her skirts.
Soon the forty fairies, the sons of the old dame, came, and smelling the lad, exclaimed:
"How now, mother! have you prepared for us a meal of human meat to-day?"
"No, sons," answered the dame, "unless you are so cruel as to eat your own human cousin."
"Where is he, mother?" inquired the forty, "we will not hurt him, but talk to him."
The lad came out from under the apron of his fairy aunt.
The forty brothers were very much pleased with him and kissed him by turns. Then they asked him about his errand, and when the lad told them, they said:
"That is nothing, cousin, we will give you twelve lions' skins which we are now using as quilts and replace them with new ones to-morrow."
They gave the lad the lions' skins to carry to the King, also a tent as a present to his golden-haired sister. The lad came home, and giving the tent to his sister, took the skins to the King, who was highly pleased with them. But the two women were more uneasy now than ever, and asked the King to send the lad to bring seven pairs of elephants' tusks, in order to decorate the new palace with ivory. The King, not knowing that the intention of the wicked women was to destroy the youth, sent him to bring the ivory. The lad went again to his fairy cousins and told his errand.
"Cousin," said the forty brothers, "we can bring you seven pairs of elephants' tusks, but you must bring us a saw, and seven horse-loads of seven-year-old wine."
The lad went back to the city, and getting the saw and seven skinfuls of old wine, loaded them on seven horses and brought them to the fairies, who took them to the pool which was the elephants' watering-place. They emptied the water from the pool and filled it with wine. At night the elephants came to drink, and not knowing that it was wine, they soon were drunken and fell down senseless. Thereupon the fairies cut off their tusks and brought them to the lad. Besides this they gave him also a rug as a present for the golden-haired maiden. The lad came home, and giving the rug to his sister, he took the ivory to the King, who was very much pleased with it. But the King's two daughters-in-law were very angry at the lad's success, and went again to the King, saying:
"Long live the King! The new palace is very nicely decorated with lions' skins and ivory, but it has one deficiency, and that is a beautiful mistress to dwell in it. The King of India's daughter must live there. Her beauty is unequalled in the world. And as your youngest son is without a wife, she will be his wife. Send the little hunter to bring her."
The King was persuaded and sent the lad on the errand. The youth again went to his fairy cousins, who kidnaped and brought the daughter of the King of India safely, and gave her to the lad. They gave to him also a table, which was served by itself, as a present. He fell in love with the maiden at first sight; she also fell in love with the lad. But as he had promised to take her to the King, he did so. The King ordered him to take the maiden to the new palace, and invited the lad who was the hero of so many great deeds to a private banquet at the palace. The two wicked women, seeing that they could not destroy the lad by sending him on difficult errands, were mad with anger. The lad went home and told his sister that the King had invited him for the following day.
"Brother," said the maiden, "when you go to-morrow to the King's palace, take your hound with you. Let it go before you, and you step only wherever it has stepped. And when you eat, first give your dog to eat of the meat. If you see it has not hurt him, you may eat of the meat; but if he dies, be careful not to eat, lest you die also."
On the following day the lad did as the maiden had advised him and sent the dog before him. Just under the threshold of the door there was a deep pit dug which was discovered by the dog's walking before him, and he avoided it. Entering in, he cast the bouquet which his sister had given him to the woman in the dust. And when he was called to the table he gave a piece of the food to the dog, and lo! it died at once. Thereupon he withdrew, saying:
"I am not hungry to-day. I had my meal before I came."
He refused to touch any of the food, in spite of the polite entreaties of the King's two daughters-in-law. Then in his interview with the King he asked his majesty to accept his invitation and come to his humble home for dinner, with all the court. The King, who by this time had become very much fascinated with the appearance of the youth, accepted his invitation. In the evening the lad came home and told his sister what had happened.
"Do you know who digged the pit under the threshold?" asked the maiden.
"Who?" said the lad.
"The King's two daughters-in-law," said the maiden, "in order that you might fall into it and be killed."
"But they were so friendly and polite," said the lad.
"And do you know why your dog died?" inquired the maiden.
"Why?" said the lad.
"The King's two daughters-in-law had poisoned the food, in order to kill you," said the maiden.
"Strange!" exclaimed the lad, "what have I done to them?"
"And do you know who the woman is who is buried in the dust and to whom you have given bunches of roses while all others spat at her?" asked the maiden.
"Oh! her lot is most pitiful; for Heaven's sake tell me who she is," said the lad.
"She is our mother, the one who gave us our existence," said she.
"How! how!" exclaimed the lad, impatiently.
The maiden told him everything. She also told him that it was their cruel aunts who, wanting to destroy him, had persuaded the King to send him on dangerous errands. Then sister and brother planned how to entertain the King on the following day. They at first pitched the tent sent by the fairies, and lo! it was so large that a whole kingdom could be entertained in it. Then they stretched the rug, and lo! it was as large as the tent. Then they put in the middle of it the wishing-table, which served as much and as many kinds of food as one desires. On the following day the King with all the court and the army came, and seeing the tent the King said to himself:
"Aha! this is the tent that my oldest daughter-in-law would weave."
Entering in, he saw the immense rug, and he said to himself:
"This is the rug which my second daughter-in-law was boasting about."
All his army was entertained and there was still room for as many more people. The King fell into deep meditation and thought there must be something at the bottom of it all. The foods served from the wishing-table were so various and delicious that the King was very much pleased, and at the end of the banquet, while all the crowd was listening, he said to the twins:
"Ask of me whatever you want, and I will give it to you, even to the half of my kingdom."
"Is there anything more precious than father and mother?" said the twins; "mighty King, give us our father and mother."
"Although I am a King," said the King, "do not forget that I am human. Is it possible that a human being should give you your lost parents?"
"How is it," said the twins, "that you believe that a human being can give birth to dogs, and you do not believe a human being to be able to restore lost parents? If one is true, the other also must be true."
A thunderbolt suddenly falling from the sky would not have frightened the King's two daughters-in-law as much as did these words.
"What do you mean?" said the King, with a trembling voice.
The twins told him their story, at the end of which the lad took off his cap, displaying his silver hair; and the maiden took off her head-dress, letting fall her rich golden locks. Thereupon the King embraced his grandchildren, weeping loudly because of great joy. Then they embraced the Prince, their father, and their dear, wronged mother, who was immediately released from her disgraceful punishment. The King at once ordered the furnace to be heated to seven times the usual heat, and the two wicked women were thrown into the fire. Then a wedding was celebrated for forty days and nights and the lad was married to the daughter of the King of India, whom he had brought to the palace.
Thus Heaven rewarded the good and punished the evil.
Three apples fell from heaven; one for me, one for the story-teller, and one for him who entertained the company.