In a strange land far over the sea there once lived a very rich Earl who had three sons. Now it happened that this Earl fell sick, and not one of the doctors in all that country was wise enough to tell what ailed him or to do anything that would make him feel better. At last there came a wise man from the other side of the great blue mountains, who seemed to know all about the case; and he said that nothing in the world could save the Earl's life except the wonderful Golden Blackbird which lived in the land of Nobody-knows-where.
The Earl at once called to his eldest son and bade him go and look for the Golden Blackbird; and he promised him great riches if he would find it and bring it back with him.
The young man started out very gaily, for he thought it would be fine sport to go into the woods and pick a golden blackbird off the first tree he came to. He traveled on without seeing anybody, and came at last to a place where four roads met. There were no signboards there, and so he was a long time making up his mind which road to take.
"I suppose that they all lead to the land of Nobody-knows-where," he said; "but I should like to take the shortest cut, for I am getting tired."
Then he shut his eyes and threw his hat high into the air, and when it fell he took the road which was nearest to it. He followed this road for two or three days, seeing plenty of trees but not a single blackbird. At last he came to an inn where there were several young men of his own age, eating and drinking.
"Where are you going, sir?" asked the landlord.
"To Nobody-knows-where," answered he.
"Then come in and rest a little while," said the landlord.
"Yes, come in and rest a little while," said all the guests.
The young man went inside with the merry-makers, and was in no haste to come out again.
"Why should I spend my time in hunting for a blackbird?" he said to himself. "If I should find it, I would only get what I am sure to have as soon as my father dies."
And he stayed in the inn.
After waiting a long time, the sick Earl called his second son and bade him go and find the Golden Blackbird. The youth started out in the same direction which his brother had taken, and when he came to the cross-roads he threw up his cap to find out which way he should go.
The cap fell in the same place, and the youth took the same road. After traveling until he was very tired, he came to the same inn, and saw his brother among the merry guests who were eating and drinking within.
"Come in and rest a little while," said the landlord.
"Yes, come in and rest a little while," said the young man, his brother.
He was not slow to do as they asked him, and he was in no hurry to begin his journey again.
"Why should we bother about the Golden Blackbird?" said the brothers. "If our father dies, we shall both be rich; for we will divide the property between us."
And they stayed at the inn until all their money was gone; and then they stayed until they had gotten so deeply in debt that the landlord would not let them go, but held them as prisoners until they should pay him.
After a while the sick Earl called to his youngest son, whose name was Princet, and bade him go and find the Golden Blackbird. Princet started out at once, and in three or four days came to the inn where his brothers were staying. They tried hard to get him to stop.
"What is the use of hunting for that blackbird?" they said. "Come in, and let us have a good time; and when our father dies we'll divide the property."
But Princet shook his head.
"My father trusted me," he said and I will go all over the world to find the Golden Blackbird. So, don't ask me to stop."
The young men laughed at him and called him names, but he went on.
One day, after he had been traveling for a long time, he met a White Rabbit, who stopped to look at him and said:
"Good morning, my laddie! Where are you going?"
"I am on my way to Nobody-knows-where," answered Princet. "I want to find the Golden Blackbird and fetch him home to cure my father, who is sick."
"You have a long way to go," said the White Rabbit; "for it is at least seven hundred miles to the place where the Golden Blackbird sits."
"Oh, dear!" cried Princet. "How can I ever travel so far?"
"Get on my back, and I'll carry you," said the White Rabbit.
Princet did so, and the White Rabbit started at once for the land of Nobody-knows-where. At each leap he went seven miles, and in a little while they came in sight of a white castle with golden towers, more beautiful than anything Princet had ever seen before.
"I will leave you here," said the White Rabbit.
"But where is the Golden Blackbird?" asked the lad.
"There is a little log hut in the wood close by the castle," answered the White Rabbit; "and in the log hut there is a golden bird cage; and, sitting on a perch close beside the bird cage, you will find the Golden Blackbird. When you take the Blackbird do not put him in the cage, for then the people of the castle will think you are trying to steal him. But you will not be stealing him; for the law of the land says that he belongs to any one who can take him."
Princet hurried away to the log hut, and there he saw the Golden Blackbird sitting just as the White Rabbit had said. But the bird was stiff and cold, and seemed to be dead, and this troubled Princet very much.
"If I could only put him into the cage," said he, "maybe he would come to life again."
As soon as the Golden Blackbird touched the bars of the cage, he opened his eyes and began to sing so loudly that everybody in the castle rushed out to see what was the matter.
"The lad is trying to steal the Golden Blackbird," cried the servants.
"I am not trying to steal him," said Princet; "but my father is very sick, and if I may carry the Blackbird to him, he will get well."
"All right!" they answered. "You may have the Golden Blackbird, if you will find the Porcelain Maiden and bring her to this place."
"But who is the Porcelain Maiden, and where is she?" he asked.
"That is what you are to find out," said they; and they drove him out of the log hut and slammed the door behind him.
As he was going through the wood, feeling very sad, the White Rabbit met him.
"What is the matter, my laddie?" he asked.
"They will not let me have the Golden Blackbird unless I find the Porcelain Maiden and bring her to them," said Princet.
"Foolish boy," said the White Rabbit; "if you had only done what I told you, this would not have happened. The Golden Blackbird doesn't belong to the people of the castle, but to the first one who is wise enough to carry him away. If you had not put him into the golden cage, he would have kept still, and you might have carried him away; and then he would have been rightfully your own."
"But what about the Porcelain Maiden?" cried Princet.
"Ah, yes! The Porcelain Maiden sits on a shelf in the Queen's pantry, two hundred miles from here. She is very pretty, but she is deaf and dumb. If you can only make her sing, she will lose her deafness and come with you."
"I will try," said Princet; "but how am I to find her?"
"Get on my back, and I'll carry you to her," said the White Rabbit.
Away he went, leaping seven miles at every leap, and in half an hour they were close by a beautiful palace.
Princet looked through the open doors and saw many costly and wonderful things.
"This is the Queen's china pantry," said the White Rabbit, "and there is the Porcelain Maiden sitting on the top shelf. When you carry her back to the castle, don't be foolish. Remember that the Golden Blackbird is yours if you are wise enough to carry him away. So take him in one hand and the golden cage in the other, and walk away with them. You have the right to do this, and nobody will hinder you. Good by."
Princet was sorry to see the White Rabbit hop away, but he was gone before he could speak. All this time the Porcelain Maiden sat on her shelf and looked straight before her, for she had not heard a word. Princet thought that she was the prettiest little lady he had ever seen. But how was he going to make her sing? All at once he leaped through the door of the pantry, and screamed:
This so startled the Porcelain Maiden that she lost her balance and came tumbling down from her shelf to the floor. As soon as her feet touched the floor, she began to sing:
And there she stood before Princet, as pretty as any princess and ten times more charming.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"I am Princet," he answered, "and I want you to go with me to get the Golden Blackbird to take to my father, who is very sick."
"Certainly I will go with you," she said.
But it was two hundred miles back to the castle, and the Porcelain Maiden could not walk so far; so Princet bought a little horse for her to ride upon, and then they sped through the woods at a wondrous rate.
When at last they reached the little log hut close to the white castle, there sat the Golden Blackbird, stiff and cold, on his perch, and the golden cage hung empty on the wall. Princet was not going to be foolish this time. He took the bird in one hand and the cage in the other, and walked away with them; and the Porcelain Maiden sat on her little horse, and rode merrily along behind him.
"Now my father will soon be well again," said Princet; and the seven hundred miles did not seem to be more than seven, he was so happy.
One evening they came to an inn by the roadside.
"Come in and rest a little while," said the landlord.
"Yes, come in and rest a little while," said two young men who were looking out from a window above.
"No, I will not," said Princet; "my father is very sick, and I am taking the Golden Blackbird to him; for it is the only thing in the world that can cure him."
"Ah! is it you, little Princet?" said his brothers. "What a lucky fellow you are!" And then they begged him to pay their debts and set them free.
Of course, Princet could not leave them there; and so he paid their debts, and all started homeward together.
But the two elder brothers were angry because they had not found the Golden Blackbird themselves; and as they were going along the bank of a river they seized Princet and threw him into the water. They were quite sure that he could never get out, and so they went on without looking back. One of them carried the bird and the cage, and the other led the little horse on which sat the Porcelain Maiden.
But Princet was not drowned. When he fell into the water, he sank to the very bottom. The next minute, however, he rose to the top and seized hold of some reeds which grew close to the bank. Then he began to shout for help as loud as he could. Pretty soon the White Rabbit came running towards him.
"Seize hold of my leg," he cried, "and I will pull you out."
When Princet was safe on shore, the White Rabbit said:
"Now, my little laddie, since you have served your father so well, it is not right that your big brothers should treat you in this way. Dress yourself up as a stable boy and go and offer to work for your father. Things will turn out well for you if you are wise."
Then he bowed and hopped away, and Princet never saw him again.
It was not much trouble for the lad to make himself look like a stable boy. All he had to do was to swap clothing with the first plow boy he met; and then, after he had made his face very dirty, nobody would have known him. The next day he went to his father's palace and asked if a stable boy was wanted.
"Yes: we want a good one," said the coachman; "for the master's sons have just brought home a little horse that nobody can touch. He has already kicked the gardener and two stable boys almost to death; and unless something is done he will soon tear down the whole barn."
"I am not afraid of him," said Princet; and as soon as he went into the stable the little horse became as gentle as a lamb.
"That is very strange," said everybody.
"Perhaps he knows me," said Princet.
"If some one could only manage the Porcelain Maiden as well," said the master of the house, "we should all feel a good deal safer."
"The Porcelain Maiden? Who is she?" asked the lad.
"She is a pretty little lady whom the master's sons have just brought from the land of Nobody-knows-where," was the answer. "But she is a terror. She bites and scratches and screams all the time; and she has broken every piece of china in my lady's pantry. Unless something is done, she will soon tear down the whole house."
"I should like to see her," said Princet.
As soon as he went into the room where she was, the Porcelain Maiden ran towards him and began to laugh and sing. Then she courtesied gently to the company, and spoke to Princet in a way which was so becoming and sweet that everybody said she was the most perfect little lady in the world.
"How very strange!" said the master of the house.
At that moment the Golden Blackbird, who had been as stiff and cold as lead, flew down from his perch on the wall, and lighted on Princet's shoulder. Then he began to sing a most wonderful song.
"It seems that the Porcelain Maiden and the Golden Blackbird both know the stable boy," said the lords and ladies, who had come in from the breakfast room.
"Yes, and the Porcelain Maiden can tell the truth about it if she will," said Princet.
Then the Porcelain Maiden courtesied again, and told the whole story of Princet and the Golden Blackbird, just as I have told it to you. And while she was speaking, everybody listened, and the great room was so still that you could have heard a pin drop on the floor. And when she had finished, there was a clapping of hands, and then a great shout, and Princet's father walked into the room, feeling as well as he had ever felt in his life.
"Welcome, my own Princet!" he said.
Do you want to know what became of the elder brothers? Well, I will leave that for you to guess; but you may be sure that they got what they deserved. As for Princet and the Golden Blackbird and the Porcelain Maiden, they got what they deserved, too.