NCE there was a king who had a pear-tree which bore four-and-twenty golden pears. Every day he went into the garden and counted them to see that none were missing.
But, one morning, he found that a pear had been taken during the night, and thereat he was troubled and vexed to the heart, for the pear-tree was as dear to him as the apple of his eye. Now, the king had three sons, and so he called the eldest prince to him.
"See," said he, "if you will watch my pear-tree to-night, and will find me the thief who stole the pear, you shall have half of my kingdom now, and the whole of it when I am gone."
You can guess how the prince was tickled at this: oh, yes, he would watch the tree, and if the thief should come he should not get away again as easily.
Well, that night he sat down beside the tree, with his gun across his knees, to wait for the coming of the thief.
He waited and waited, and still he saw not so much as a thread or a hair. But about the middle of the night there came the very prettiest music that his ears had ever heard, and before he knew what he was about he was asleep and snoring until the little leaves shook upon the tree. When the morning came and he awoke, another pear was gone, and he could tell no more about it than the man in the moon.
The next night the second son set out to watch the pear-tree. But he fared no better than the first. About midnight came the music, and in a little while he was snoring till the stones rattled. When the morning came another pear was gone, and he had no more to tell about it than his brother.
The third night it was the turn of the youngest son, and he was more clever than the others, for, when the evening came, he stuffed his ears full of wax, so that he was as deaf as a post. About midnight, when the music came, he heard nothing of it, and so he stayed wide awake. After the music had ended he took the wax out of his ears, so that he might listen for the coming of the thief. Presently there was a loud clapping and rattling, and a white swan flew overhead and lit in the pear-tree above him. It began picking at one of the pears, and then the prince raised his gun to shoot at it. But when he looked along the barrel it was not a swan that he saw up in the pear-tree, but the prettiest girl that he had ever looked upon.
"Don't shoot me, king's son! Don't shoot me!" cried she.
But the prince had no thought of shooting her, for he had never seen such a beautiful maiden in all of his days. "Very well," said he, "I will not shoot, but, if I spare your life, will you promise to be my sweetheart and to marry me?"
"That may be as may be," said the Swan Maiden. "For listen! I serve the witch with three eyes. She lives on the glass hill that lies beyond the seven high mountains, the seven deep valleys, and the seven wide rivers; are you man enough to go that far?"
"Oh, yes," said the prince, "I am man enough for that and more too."
"That is good," said the Swan Maiden, and thereupon she jumped down from the pear-tree to the earth. Then she became a swan again, and bade the king's son to mount upon her back at the roots of her wings. When he had done as she had told him, she sprang into the air and flew away, bearing him with her.
On flew the swan, and on and on, until, by and by, she said, "What do you see, king's son?"
"I see the grey sky above me and the dark earth below me, but nothing else," said he.
After that they flew on and on again, until, at last, the Swan Maiden said, "What do you see now, king's son?"
"I see the grey sky above me and the dark earth below me, but nothing else," said he.
So once more they flew on until the Swan Maiden said, for the third time, "And what do you see by now, king's son?"
But this time the prince said, "I see the grey sky above me and the dark earth below me, and over yonder is a glass hill, and on the hill is a house that shines like fire."
"That is where the witch with three eyes lives," said the Swan Maiden; "and now listen: when she asks you what it is that you came for, ask her to give you the one who draws the water and builds the fire; for that is myself."
So, when they had come to the top of the hill of glass, the king's son stepped down to the ground, and the swan flew over the roof.
Rap! tap! tap! he knocked at the door, and the old witch herself came and opened it.
"And what do you want here?" said she.
"I want the one who draws the water and builds the fire," said the prince.
At this the old witch scowled until her eyebrows met.
"Very well," said she, "you shall have what you want if you can clean my stables to-morrow between the rise and the set of the sun. But I tell you plainly, if you fail in the doing, you shall be torn to pieces body and bones."
But the prince was not to be scared away with empty words. So the next morning the old witch came and took him to the stables where he was to do his task. There stood more than a hundred cattle, and the stable had not been cleaned for at least ten long years.
"There is your work," said the old witch, and then she left him.
Well, the king's son set to work with fork and broom and might and main, but—prut!—he might as well have tried to bale out the great ocean with a bucket.
At noontide who should come to the stable but the pretty Swan Maiden herself.
"When one is tired, one should rest for a while," said she; "come and lay your head in my lap."
The prince was glad enough to do as she said, for nothing was to be gained by working at that task. So he laid his head in her lap, and she combed his hair with a golden comb till he fell fast asleep. When he awoke the Swan Maiden was gone, the sun was setting, and the stable was as clean as a plate. Presently he heard the old witch coming, so up he jumped and began clearing away a straw here and a speck there, just as though he was finishing the work.
"You never did this by yourself!" said the old witch, and her brows grew as black as a thunder-storm.
"That may be so, and that may not be so," said the king's son, "But you lent no hand to help; so now may I have the one who builds the fire and draws the water?"
At this the old witch shook her head. "No," said she, "there is more to be done yet before you can have what you ask for. If you can thatch the roof of the stable with bird feathers, no two of which shall be of the same color, and can do it between the rise and the set of sun to-morrow, then you shall have your sweetheart and welcome. But if you fail your bones shall be ground as fine as malt in the mill."
Very well; that suited the king's son well enough. So at sunrise he arose and went into the fields with his gun; but if there were birds to be shot, it was few of them that he saw; for at noontide he had but two, and they were both of a color. At that time who should come to him but the Swan Maiden.
"One should not tramp and tramp all day with never a bit of rest," said she; "come hither and lay your head in my lap for a while."
The prince did as she bade him, and the maiden again combed his hair with a golden comb until he fell asleep. When he awoke the sun was setting, and his work was done. He heard the old witch coming, so up he jumped to the roof of the stable and began laying a feather here and a feather there, for all the world as though he were just finishing his task.
"You never did that work alone," said the old witch.
"That may be so, and that may not be so," said the prince; "all the same, it was none of your doing. So now may I have the one who draws the water and builds the fire?"
But the witch shook her head. "No," said she, "there is still another task to do before that. Over yonder is a fir-tree; on the tree is a crow's nest, and in the nest are three eggs. If you can harry that nest to-morrow between the rising and the setting of the sun, neither breaking nor leaving a single egg, you shall have that for which you ask."
Very well; that suited the prince. The next morning at the rising of the sun he started off to find the fir-tree, and there was no trouble in the finding I can tell you, for it was more than a hundred feet high, and as smooth as glass from root to tip. As for climbing it, he might as well have tried to climb a moonbeam, for in spite of all his trying he did nothing but slip and slip. By and by came the Swan Maiden as she had come before.
"Do you climb the fir-tree?" said she.
"None too well," said the king's son.
"Then I may help you in a hard task," said she.
She let down the braids of her golden hair, so that it hung down all about her and upon the ground, and then she began singing to the wind. She sang and sang, and by and by the wind began to blow, and, catching up the maiden's hair, carried it to the top of the fir-tree, and there tied it to the branches. Then the prince climbed the hair and so reached the nest. There were the three eggs; he gathered them, and then he came down as he had gone up. After that the wind came again and loosed the maiden's hair from the branches, and she bound it up as it was before.
"Now, listen," said she to the prince: "when the old witch asks you for the three crow's eggs which you have gathered, tell her that they belong to the one who found them. She will not be able to take them from you, and they are worth something, I can tell you."
At sunset the old witch came hobbling along, and there sat the prince at the foot of the fir-tree. "Have you gathered the crow's eggs?" said she.
"Yes," said the prince, "here they are in my handkerchief. And now may I have the one who draws the water and builds the fire?"
"Yes," said the old witch, "you may have her; only give me my crow's eggs."
"No," said the prince, "the crow's eggs are none of yours, for they belong to him who gathered them."
When the old witch found that she was not to get her crow's eggs in that way, she tried another, and began using words as sweet as honey. Come, come, there should be no hard feeling between them. The prince had served her faithfully, and before he went home with what he had come for he should have a good supper, for it is ill to travel on an empty stomach.
So she brought the prince into the house, and then she left him while she went to put the pot on the fire, and to sharpen the bread knife on the stone door-step.
While the prince sat waiting for the witch, there came a tap at the door, and whom should it be but the Swan Maiden.
"Come," said she, "and bring the three eggs with you, for the knife that the old witch is sharpening is for you, and so is the great pot on the fire, for she means to pick your bones in the morning."
She led the prince down into the kitchen; there they made a figure out of honey and barley-meal, so that it was all soft and sticky; then the maiden dressed the figure in her own clothes and set it in the chimney-corner by the fire.
After that was done, she became a swan again, and, taking the prince upon her back, she flew away, over hill and over dale.
As for the old witch, she sat on the stone door-step, sharpening her knife. By and by she came in, and, look as she might, there was no prince to be found.
Then if anybody was ever in a rage it was the old witch; off she went, storming and fuming, until she came to the kitchen. There sat the woman of honey and barley-meal beside the fire, dressed in the maiden's clothes, and the old woman thought that it was the girl herself. "Where is your sweetheart?" said she; but to this the woman of honey and barley-meal answered never a word.
"How now! are you dumb?" cried the old witch; "I will see whether I cannot bring speech to your lips." She raised her hand—slap!—she struck, and so hard was the blow that her hand stuck fast to the honey and barley-meal. "What!" cried she, will you hold me?"—slap!—she struck with the other hand, and it too stuck fast. So there she was, and, for all that I know, she is sticking to the woman of honey and barley-meal to this day.
As for the Swan Maiden and the prince, they flew over the seven high mountains, the seven deep valleys, and the seven wide rivers, until they came near to the prince's home again. The Swan Maiden lit in a great wide field, and there she told the prince to break open one of the crow's eggs. The prince did as she bade him, and what should he find but the most beautiful little palace, all of pure gold and silver. He set the palace on the ground, and it grew and grew and grew until it covered as much ground as seven large barns. Then the Swan Maiden told him to break another egg, and he did as she said, and what should come out of it but such great herds of cows and sheep that they covered the meadow far and near. The Swan Maiden told him to break the third egg, and out of it came scores and scores of servants all dressed in gold-and-silver livery.
That morning, when the king looked out of his bedroom window, there stood the splendid castle of silver and gold. Then he called all of his people together, and they rode over to see what it meant. On the way they met such herds of fat sheep and cattle that the king had never seen the like in all of his life before; and when he came to the fine castle, there were two rows of servants dressed in clothes of silver and gold, ready to meet him. But when he came to the door of the castle, there stood the prince himself. Then there was joy and rejoicing, you may be sure! only the two elder brothers looked down in the mouth, for since the young prince had found the thief who stole the golden pears, their father's kingdom was not for them. But the prince soon set their minds at rest on that score, for he had enough and more than enough of his own.
After that the prince and the Swan Maiden were married, and a grand wedding they had of it, with music of fiddles and kettle-drums, and plenty to eat and to drink. I, too, was there; but all of the good red wine ran down over my tucker, so that not a drop of it passed my lips, and I had to come away empty.
And that is all.