Once upon a time a poor Brahman was walking along a dusty road, when he saw something sparkling on the ground. On picking it up, it turned out to be a small red stone, so, thinking it somewhat curious, the Brahman put it into his pocket and went on his way. By and by he came to a corn-merchant's shop, at the side of the road, and being hungry he bethought himself of the red stone, and taking it out, offered it to the corn-dealer in exchange for a bite and sup, as he had no money in his pocket.
Now, for a wonder, the shopkeeper was an honest man, so, after looking at the stone, he bade the Brahman take it to the king, for, said he, "all the goods in my shop are not its equal in value!"
Then the Brahman carried the stone to the king's palace, and asked to be shown into his presence. But the prime minister refused at first to admit him; nevertheless, when the Brahman persisted that he had something beyond price to show, he was allowed to see the king.
Now the snake-stone was just like a ruby, red and fiery; therefore, when the king saw it he said, "What dost thou want for this ruby, O Brahman?"
Then the Brahman replied, "Only a pound of meal to make a girdle cake, for I am hungry!"
"Nay," said the king, "it is worth more than that!"
So he sent for a lâkh of rupees from his treasury, and counted it over to the Brahman, who went on his way rejoicing.
Then the king called his queen, and gave the jewel into her custody, with many instructions for its safe keeping, for, said he, there was not its like in the whole world. The queen, determined to be careful, wrapped it in cotton-wool, and put it away in an empty chest, locking the chest with double locks.
So there the ruby snake-stone lay for twelve long years. At the end of that time the king sent for his queen, and said," Bring me the ruby; I wish to satisfy myself that it is safe,"
The queen took her keys, and going to her room, opened the chest, and, lo! the ruby was gone, and in its place was a handsome stripling! She shut down the box again in a great hurry, and thought and thought what she had better do to break the news to the king.
Now as she thought, the king became impatient, and sent a servant to ask what the delay was. Then the queen bade the servant carry the box to the audience chamber, and going thither with her keys, she unlocked the chest before the king.
Out stepped the handsome stripling, to everybody's astonishment.
"Who are you?" quoth the king, "and where is my jewel?"
"I am Ruby Prince" returned the boy; "more than that you cannot know."
Then the king was angry, and drove him from the palace, but, being a just man, he first gave the boy a horse and arms, so that he might fight his way in the world.
Now, as Prince Ruby journeyed on his steed, he came to the outskirts of the town, and saw an old woman making bread, and as she mixed the flour she laughed, and as she kneaded it she cried.
"Why do you laugh and cry, mother?" quoth Prince Ruby.
"Because my son must die to-day." returned the woman." There is an ogre in this town, which every day eats a young man. It is my son's turn to provide the dinner, and that is why I weep."
Then Prince Ruby laughed at her fears, and said he would kill the ogre and set the town free; only the old woman must let him sleep a while in her house, and promise to wake him when the time came to go forth and meet the ogre.
"What good will that do to me?" quoth the old woman; "you will only be killed, and then my son will have to go to-morrow. Sleep on, stranger, if you will, but I will not wake you!"
Then Prince Ruby laughed again. "It is of no use, mother!" he said, "fight the ogre I will; and as you will not wake me I must even go to the place of meeting and sleep there."
So he rode off on his steed beyond the gates of the city, and, tying his horse to a tree he lay down to sleep peacefully. By and by the ogre came for its dinner, but hearing no noise, and seeing no one, it thought the townspeople had failed in their bargain, and prepared to revenge itself. But Ruby Prince jumped up, refreshed by slumber, and falling on the ogre, cut off its head and hands in a trice. These he stuck on the gate of the town, and returning to the old woman's house, told her he had killed the ogre, and lay down to sleep again.
Now when the townspeople saw the ogre's head and hands peering over the city gate, they thought the dreadful creature had come to revenge itself for some slight. Therefore they ran to the king in a great fright, and he, thinking the old woman, whose son was to have formed the ogre's dinner, must have played some trick, went with his officers to the place where she lived, and found her laughing and singing.
"Why do you laugh?" he asked sternly.
"I laugh because the ogre is killed!" she replied, "and because the prince who killed it is sleeping in my house."
Great was the astonishment at these words, yet, sure enough, when they came to examine more closely, they saw that the ogre's head and hands were those of a dead thing.
Then the king said, "Show me this valiant prince who sleeps so soundly."
And when he saw the handsome young stripling, he recognised him as the lad whom he had driven from the palace. Then he turned to his prime minister, and said, "What reward should this youth have?"
And the prime minister answered at once, "Your daughter in marriage, and half your kingdom, is not too high a reward for the service he has rendered!"
So Ruby Prince was married in great state to the king's fair daughter, and half the kingdom was given him to rule.
But the young bride, much as she loved her gallant husband, was vexed because she knew not who he was, and because the other women in the palace twitted her with having married a stranger, a man come from No-man's-land, whom none called brother.
So, day after day, she would ask her husband to tell her who he was and whence he came, and every day Ruby Prince would reply, "Dear heart, ask me anything but that; for that you must not know!"
Yet still the princess begged, and prayed, and wept, and coaxed, until one day, when they were standing by the river side, she whispered, "If you love me, tell me of what race you are!"
Now Ruby Prince's foot touched the water as he replied, "Dear heart, anything but that; for that you must not know!"
Still the princess, imagining she saw signs of yielding in his face, said again, "If you love me, tell me of what race you are!"
Then Ruby Prince stood knee-deep in the water, and his face was sad as he replied, "Dear heart, anything but that; for that you must not know!"
Once again the wilful bride put her question, and Ruby Prince was waist-deep in the stream.
"Dear heart, anything but that!"
"Tell me! tell me!" cried the princess, and, lo! as she spoke, a jewelled snake with a golden crown and ruby star reared itself from the water, and with a sorrowful look towards her, disappeared beneath the wave.
Then the princess went home and wept bitterly, cursing her own curiosity, which had driven away her handsome, gallant young husband. She offered a reward of a bushel of gold to any one who would bring her any information about him; yet day after day passed, and still no news came, so that the princess grew pale with weeping salt tears. At last a dancing-woman, one of those who attend the women's festivals, came to the princess, and said, "Last night I saw a strange thing. When I was out gathering sticks, I lay down to rest under a tree, and fell asleep. When I awoke it was light, neither daylight nor moonlight; and while I wondered, a sweeper came out from a snake-hole at the foot of the tree, and swept the ground with his broom; then followed a water-carrier, who sprinkled the ground with water; and after that two carpet-bearers, who spread costly rugs, and then disappeared. Even as I wondered what these preparations meant, a noise of music fell upon my ear, and from the snake-hole came forth a goodly procession of young men, glittering with jewels, and one in the midst, who seemed to be the king. Then, while the musicians played, one by one the young men rose and danced before the king. But one, who wore a red star on his forehead, danced but ill, and looked pale and wan. That is all I have to say."
So the next night the princess went with the dancing-girl to the tree, where, hiding themselves behind the trunk, they waited to see what might happen.
Sure enough, after a while it became light that was neither sunlight nor moonlight; then the sweeper came forth and swept the ground, the water-carrier sprinkled it, the carpet-bearers placed the rugs, and last of all, to the sound of music the glittering procession swept out. How the princess's heart beat when, in the young prince with the red star, she recognised her dearest husband; and how it ached when she saw how pale he was, and how little he seemed to care to dance.
Then, when all had performed before the king, the light went out, and the princess crept home. Every night she would go to the tree and watch; but all day she would weep, because she seemed no nearer getting back her lover.
At last, one day, the dancing-girl said to her, "O princess, I have hit upon a plan. The Snake-king is passionately fond of dancing, and yet it is only men who dance before him. Now, if a woman were to do so, who knows but he might be so pleased that he would grant her anything she asked? Let me try!"
"Nay," replied the princess, "I will learn of you and try myself."
So the princess learnt to dance, and in an incredibly short time she far surpassed her teacher. Never before or since was such a graceful, charming, elegant dancer seen. Everything about her was perfection. Then she dressed herself in finest muslins and silver brocades, with diamonds on her veil, till she shone and sparkled like a star.
With beating heart she hid behind the tree and waited. The sweeper, the water-carrier, the carpet-bearers, came forth in turn, and then the glittering procession. Ruby Prince looked paler and sadder than ever, and when his turn came to dance, he hesitated, as if sick at heart; but from behind the tree stepped a veiled woman, clad in white, with jewels flashing, and danced before the king. Never was there such a dance!—everybody held their breath till it was done, and then the king cried aloud, "O unknown dancer, ask what you will, and it shall be yours!"
"Give me the man for whom I danced!" replied the princess.
The Snake-king looked very fierce, and his eyes glittered, as he said, "You have asked something you had no right to ask, and I should kill you were it not for my promise. Take him, and begone!"
Quick as thought, the princess seized Ruby Prince by the hand, dragged him beyond the circle, and fled.
After that they lived very happily, and though the women still taunted her, the princess held her tongue, and never again asked her husband of what race he came.