Once upon a time there was a youthful Prince who was so wonderfully handsome that no one had ever seen his like; and he knew this, and was very glad of it. And everybody said that he was as clever as he was handsome, and that no one could be compared to him. Of this he was quite convinced, and he made a solemn vow that he would never take any woman to wife unless she was as handsome and nearly as clever as he was himself. If he could find such a paragon he would marry her. There were many beautiful maidens in the land, but they were not the cleverest. There were also many maidens who were clever enough, but they were not the fairest. This much is certain, the Prince found no girl who combined in her person half enough good looks and wit to suit him. He was now of an age when he and his father the King, and their faithful subjects, were all of opinion that he ought to get married; but, as we have seen, because of the vow he had made, there was not a maiden in the land to whom he could pay his addresses.
So he determined to journey to other countries, and to travel incognito and unattended. He wanted to see things for himself, and to have no one with him who could reveal anything about him. He traveled far and wide, from one land to another, but it fared with him abroad as it had fared with him at home; he could find no girl beautiful or clever enough for him, much less could he find one who could lay claim to the possession of both these attributes. So once more he felt his quest for a worthy bride had proved vain, and turned his face homeward.
One day he was riding through a wood. He rode and rode, still he could not get to the end of the forest. Noonday came, and evening came, and still he was in the wood, and still could see no way out of it. He had completely lost his way; he had no idea where he was, nor where he was going, nor where he should find shelter for the night and food and rest for himself and his horse. And they were both tired out. At last he saw a small cloud of blue smoke rising amid the green trees, and riding toward it he soon came to a little cottage, very poor and mean-looking. But he was glad enough, for here at least he should find somebody. He got off his horse and knocked at the door. A poor old man opened it, and a poor old woman also came forward. They appeared very much astonished to see such a fine, handsome young knight. The Prince, after wishing them good evening, said that he had lost his way, and that he had been riding through the wood all day long without coming to a dwelling of any kind, and now he begged them to give him shelter for the night. At first they said they were not the sort of people to receive such grand gentlefolk. It was easy to see they wanted to get rid of him; but when he told them that neither he nor his horse could hold out any longer, so greatly did they need rest and a night's lodging, the old couple had not the heart to refuse, so they agreed to take him in if he would put up with what they could offer him. His first care was for his horse. Stable there was none, but there was a bit of a shed for the old people's cow. As it was summer time the cow was out to grass, so the Prince put his horse up in the shed, and gave him a drink of water and a bundle of hay, to the great content of the poor, tired beast. Then he went into the cottage, which consisted of one little room, which was both dark and low. He sat down on a wooden bench and began to talk to the old people. Did they live here all alone in the wild wood? Yes, the old folk said, they did. There was nobody else in the house, and there was no other house for miles and miles around. They got on as best they could, and managed to make a living out of their goat and their cow.
Then the Prince had his supper, the best the house could afford—a crust of dry bread and a bowl of milk. The old folk then fetched a wisp of straw and spread it out on the floor, intending to lie upon it—they had but one bed, and they meant to give it up to their grand guest. But the Prince would not hear of such a thing; they should sleep in their own bed, and he would lie on the bundle of straw that was spread upon the floor. So it was arranged as he wished, and they all three retired to rest. It was quite a different sort of couch from the one he was accustomed to, but he was thoroughly tired out, so he soon fell asleep, and he dreamt of all the beautiful maidens who were not clever enough, and of all the clever maidens who were not beautiful enough, and so he slept sweetly till the day began to dawn.
Then he awoke, and stiff enough he was in all his limbs from lying on so hard a bed; twist and turn as he might, he could not get to sleep again. Presently he heard something stirring in the little loft overhead. It might be rats or mice, or perhaps a cat. Yes, it was certainly a cat. But a little while after he heard a whirring sound, exactly like a spinning wheel. Then he heard singing. That could not be the cat, nor was it the song of the birds out in the wood; no, it was a woman's sweet voice keeping time with the whirring of the wheel. So sweet a song he had never heard before. He sprang to his feet, rubbed his eyes, pricked up his ears, and at the same moment the old folk got up too. The Prince at once asked them who it was up there in the loft that had begun spinning and singing at the break of day. All was quite quiet again overhead now, and the old people persisted, as they had the previous night, that there was no one in the house but themselves.
"Nay," said the Prince, "it is no use trying to make me believe that. I prefer believing in what I have heard with my own ears. And you may as well tell me the plain truth, for I am determined to learn it, one way or another."
So then the old man made a clean breast of it. The Prince was quite right, there was somebody else in the house—it was their daughter, in her little room up in the loft. They were so afraid lest some one should see her and want to take her away from them; for, indeed, they would miss her sadly, old and feeble as they were; she earned a few pence by her spinning and weaving. Who else was there to take care of them? Soon they would be no longer able to look after themselves.
Well, the Prince said he had heard her, and now he wanted to see her. He was no man-eater, nor woman-eater either, so far as he knew; therefore they might surely let him see the maiden. So the old man had to go and call her, and she came running down, tripping along, clad in mean attire, so blithe and fresh and fair. When she saw the handsome young man, she blushed rosy red, and the Prince was thunderstruck as he looked on her. Never had he seen anything half so lovely as she was! He was utterly at a loss what to say or do. In all his travels he had seen no one to be compared with her. This poor peasant's daughter was far more beautiful than all the princesses and grand ladies he had ever met at home or abroad. He could not picture to himself anything more lovely. But a poor beggar-maid, such as she was, he might not even dream of making his wife. So he turned resolutely away, and at once bestirred himself, getting his horse ready to start, and would not so much as allow himself to look at her again. But when he was in the saddle, just setting off, as he nodded good-by to the old folk, to whom he had given a broad gold piece for his night's lodging, and who now were bowing and scraping before him, he could not help giving a side glance to where she stood gazing at him with lovely, wondering eyes. And now, of course, he was obliged to lift his hat and bow "farewell"; and as she returned his greeting with downcast eyes, and bowed and blushing face, the Prince felt as if his heart were in his mouth. The lovely eyes looked up once more as he galloped off, and they followed him till he was out of sight. And not only did they follow him thus far, but long after he had left both house and wood far behind those beautiful eyes still haunted him. And as he rode along he said to himself:
"Yes, she is beautiful, and more than beautiful enough for me; but I also vowed that she whom I marry must be as clever, or nearly as clever, as I am, and that, of course, she cannot be."
He marked well where the little cottage stood, and soon he reached a road he knew well, for the wild wood lay on the very border of his own land. He rode straight home to his father's castle, and told him he had not yet found anyone who could be considered his equal.
The old King was much vexed on hearing this, but he was so certain of his son's exceeding cleverness that he had no doubt matters were exactly as the Prince represented. He had but one wish, to see his son married before closing his eyes forever, and he had such faith in his son that he knew the Prince's choice of a wife would be a wise one.
So now the Prince was at home once more, surrounded by all the good things imaginable, and yet he knew not one moment's content. Dainty food failed to tempt his appetite, no sweet sleep came to him on his downy couch. His thoughts were always with the fair young maiden who dwelt in the wild wood. He thought of her early and late, and whether he would or not.
At last he said to himself: "There must be an end of this."
He called to mind his vow that the loveliest and cleverest girl should be his bride, and so in order to be rid of all thought of her he determined to convince himself that although the peasant's daughter might be beautiful enough, yet she was far from being clever enough for him. So he wrote a letter to her, enclosing two skeins of silk, and bidding her weave for him with them a pair of bed curtains. He sent off a royal courier at once, bidding him bring back an immediate answer. The messenger returned the same evening with a letter from the woodland maiden, and in the letter lay two tiny splinters of wood. The maiden had written that if out of these bits of wood he would make her a loom she would weave him the curtains he had ordered.
After this the Prince could no longer doubt that she was quite as clever as he was, and now he felt bound to perform the vow that he had made, which was just what he most wished to do. So he rode forth with all his royal train to the cottage in the wild wood; and he told the old people that he had come to woo their daughter for his bride—if she were willing. And she was willing. The old folk were very down-hearted at parting from their child, but they did not wish to stand in the way of her happiness, so they gave their consent. Then the court ladies clad the bride in scarlet and silk attire, and adorned her with gold and jewels. And she had ladies-in-waiting and coaches and carriages and all sorts of splendor, and the wedding was celebrated with joy and great magnificence.