HE old King lay dying and was very much worried in his mind because he was leaving behind him, as his heir, his son, who was a headstrong and willful youth, not yet come to years of wisdom. He called to his bedside faithful John, who had been his servant ever since he was a boy, and charged him thus:
"I am going to my last rest, and am sorrowful because my boy is left alone in a high position, and will have no other guidance but yours. Be his guardian and counselor, and serve him faithfully even as you have served me, or I cannot die happily."
"Master, I will," answered faithful John, "even if it cost me my life."
"Now I can rest in peace," said the King. "When I am dead you must lead him all over the castle, and show him the halls and chambers and the vaults and the treasures therein. But one room he must never enter, the last room in the long corridor, for there hangs the portrait of the daughter of the King of the Golden Palace, and she is so beautiful that whoever gazes on her picture will fall down in a swoon for love of her, and will go through great perils for her sake. Therefore he must never enter that room."
The trusty servant pressed his master's hand and promised to do his commands, and soon afterwards the King laid his head on the pillow and died.
After the old King was laid in his grave, the faithful John told the young King of the commands his father had laid upon him, and swore to serve him faithfully, even unto death.
When the days of mourning were over he told the young King that it was now time for him to see his inheritance; so they went all over the castle, up into the towers and down into the vaults, and saw all the great treasure the old King had collected; and they went into all the grand halls and splendid chambers, into all save one—the last room at the end of the long corridor, wherein hung the portrait.
The King noticed that they always passed this door, and asked John why.
"There is something there that it is dangerous to see," said John.
"But," answered the King, "I have seen everything else that I possess, and you must not imagine I am going away without seeing this."
Faithful John tried to argue him out of it, but it was of no use, and the obstinate King even made an effort to force the door open, and declared that he would not leave the spot till he had seen the contents of the chamber.
So John, seeing that there was nothing for it but to yield, sorrowfully took the key from the bunch and put it in the lock. He turned it suddenly and hurried in, hoping to cover over the portrait before the King saw it; but he was close on his heels, and John was too late to prevent the catastrophe, for no sooner had his master set eyes on the wonderful painting which appeared to be living, breathing flesh, than he fell on the floor in a swoon.
Poor John carried him tenderly to his bed, deeply bewailing the misfortune that had come upon them, and by dint of forcing wine down his throat he brought him round again. The first words that he uttered were:
"Who is the lady of the beautiful picture?"
"She is the daughter of the King of the Golden Palace," replied John.
"Then," said the King, "we must seek her at once, for I am filled with so great a love for her that if all the leaves on the trees had tongues they should not gainsay it."
Then trusty John thought for a long, long time as how to set about the matter, for it was very difficult to reach the presence of the beautiful Princess. At last he thought of a plan, and he said to the King:
"I have thought of a way by which you may achieve your end; all the things the Princess uses, and all the things about her, are gold—chairs, tables, dishes, pots and pans, all are fashioned of gold. There are five tons of gold bars in your cellars; you must have them wrought into articles of every kind, even into beasts and flowers, and then we will set out and seek her favor."
So the King sent for all the goldsmiths in the kingdom, and they worked day and night till all the gold was made into most wonderful and beautiful forms of the finest workmanship. Then they took them all aboard a great ship and set sail. They sailed for many days, till they came to the city where dwelt the daughter of the King of the Golden Palace.
The faithful John had decided that it was better for him to go ashore, so he told the King to remain on board and have all things in readiness, the treasures displayed and all in order, lest he should bring the Princess back with him. Then he tied up some of the smaller things in a handkerchief and rowed ashore.
When he entered the courtyard of the palace, he saw a beautiful girl filling two golden pails at the well. When they were full she turned, and, perceiving the stranger, demanded his business. So he untied the handkerchief and showed her the dainty trinkets. She was delighted with them, and at once said:
"The Princess must see these, for she has a passion for golden things, and will, no doubt, buy them all." So she took him by the hand and led him to the King's daughter. The Princess was even more beautiful than report had made her, and John was dazzled. The lady was very gracious to him, and was charmed with his treasures, which she wished to purchase. But John said:
"I am only a servant. My master is a rich merchant who has even more beautiful things than these aboard his ship."
"Let them be brought hither," replied the Princess; but he said:
"That would take many days and nights, their number is so vast, and even if they were all brought hither there is no room in the palace large enough to show them to advantage."
The Princess's curiosity was very much excited by this time and she said: "Bring me to the ship, and I will see them there."
Faithful John was overjoyed at the success of his plans and conducted her thither immediately. When the King saw her, he was so overcome with her beauty that he could hardly help her aboard, but he managed to control the violent beatings of his heart, and led her down into the cabin. John remained on deck, and commanded the helmsman to steer out to sea, and put on all the sail he could, so that they might leave the land far behind.
Down below the Princess was enjoying herself immensely, looking at all the beautiful and curious things, and several hours passed before she bethought her that it was time to go ashore. So she went on deck prepared to land immediately, and behold! no land was to be seen, nothing but the wide sea all around her.
"Ah!" she screamed, in sudden terror, "I am entrapped by a strange merchant. I would rather die than remain in his power!"
The King reassured her, and taking her hand he said: "I am no merchant, I am a king of royal blood like yourself. I have carried you off because my love for you is so great that I cannot live without you. You must know that when I saw your portrait, I was so stricken with love for you that I fell in a swoon before it."
When the King's daughter heard this her fear disappeared, and love grew in its place and she was willing to be his bride.
One day, when John was sitting on deck piping sweet music, three crows flew over the ship, talking hard all the time.
John understood every word they said, and this is what he heard:
"There he is, sailing home with the daughter of the King of the Golden Palace," said the first, "Ah! they are not home yet," said the second. "But she is with him in the ship," said the third. "What matters that?" began the first again; "when they land there will come a beautiful fox-colored horse, and he will spring upon it and the horse will bound away with him up into the air and he will never be seen again."
"But is there no way to save him?" the second one asked. "Yes, if one springs up quickly behind him and seizes the pistols which are in the holsters and shoots the fox-colored horse, then the King will be saved. But nobody knows, and if one knew and told him, he would be turned into stone from toe to knee."
Then the second crow spoke again:
"I know still more, for even if the horse be shot he will not keep his lovely bride. When they arrive at the castle a bridal shirt will be brought to him on a dish, looking as though it were made of silver and gold, but it is only sulphur and pitch, and when he puts it on he will be burned to the marrow of his bones."
"Is there no way to save him?" asked the third crow.
"Oh, yes! if one were to take up the shirt with his gloves on and throw it on the fire before the King touches it, he will be saved. But what matter? for no one knows that, and if one knew and were to tell, he would be turned into stone from his knee to his heart."
Then the third crow spoke again:
"I know even more. Even if the shirt be burned the King will not keep his bride. After supper a dance will be held, and suddenly, when she is dancing, the Queen will turn pale and fall in a faint; and if some one does not raise her up and take three drops of blood from her little finger and throw them away, she will die. But if anyone knows that and tells it, he will be turned into stone from the crown of his head to the toes of his feet."
Then the crows flew away, leaving John very quiet and sad; for if he concealed what he knew, misfortune would fall upon his master, and if he told, he must lose his own life; but he decided that whatever happened to himself he must save his master.
When they landed it happened just as the crows had said, and a beautiful fox-colored horse appeared in front of the King. He exclaimed with pleasure:
"Splendid! this shall carry us to the castle." And he sprang into the saddle.
But John sprang up after him, and finding the pistols, shot the horse dead. The other servants who were jealous of John, began to grumble at this, and said:
"Shame to kill such a lovely animal, which was fit to bear the King!"
But the King said:
"Peace; be silent. He is my faithful servant and I trust him. Who knows what he has saved us from?"
Then they went on to the castle, and in the hall it happened just as it had been foretold—a beautiful bridal shirt was brought to the King. He was just about to pick it up and put it on when John threw himself in front of him, and seizing the shirt, carried it to the fire and burned it.
Again the other servants set up a murmur:
"What is he about? See, he has burned the bridal shirt!"
But the King silenced them and said:
"He is my faithful John, and I trust him. Who knows what danger he has averted?"
After the wedding supper a grand ball was given, and John watched the Queen very carefully while she danced. Suddenly he saw her turn pale and fall in a faint. He hurried toward her, and lifting her up he carried her away to her chamber. Then he knelt down, and drawing three drops of blood from her little finger he threw them away. Soon the Queen stirred, and then sat up, quite herself again. But the King had watched all this, and this time he was furiously angry with faithful John, and ordered him to be thrown into prison. Next day he was brought to trial and condemned to be hanged at the gallows. When he was about to be executed he asked for the usual privilege of a condemned prisoner, to speak once what was in his mind. The King granted it, and faithful John began:
"I am innocent of any crime against you, and have always served you faithfully."
Then he told what he had heard the crows saying at sea; and how he had done all these things to save his master's life.
Then the King cried: "Pardon, pardon, my faithful friend; you are innocent!"
But at the last word he had spoken John had fallen down, turned into stone.
After this there was great sorrow and lamentation in the palace, and they had the statue raised and taken to their chamber and placed near the bed, and often the King looked at it and said:
"Ah! my trusty John, could I but bring you back to life again!"
Some time afterwards, to their great joy, twins were born to them, two healthy boys. One day the Queen was at church and the King was at home playing with his children, when he looked up at the statue and said:
"Ah, my poor faithful John, what would I not do to bring you back to life!"
To his surprise the statue answered him and said:
"If you will sacrifice what is dearest to you, you can restore my life to me."
"I will do anything in the world for you, only tell me what," answered the King.
Then the statue spoke again:
"Cut off the heads of your children, and sprinkle me with their blood, and I will be restored to life."
The poor King was horrified when he heard this, for how could he do such an awful deed as to kill his own children? But he thought of all John had done for him, and how much he had sacrificed, and, without flinching, he drew his sword to cut off their heads.
But as he was about to kill the little princes, faithful John became alive again, crying:
"Stop, stop, my master! Your faith in me is rewarded, and I am free."
The King was now as happy as he could be, and he thought to give his wife a pleasant surprise; so when he heard her coming he hid faithful John and the twins in a cupboard. When she came in he asked her if she had prayed for all her friends.
"Yes," she answered; "but I have been thinking of poor John, who is past our prayers."
Then the King said:
"We can restore him to life again, but we must sacrifice both our sons."
The Queen turned very pale at this and nearly fainted; but she thought of how it was their fault that John had suffered, and she said bravely that if it was to restore him to life it must be done.
The King was overjoyed to find that she thought as he did, and he threw open the cupboard door and disclosed, not only the twins, but faithful John also. Then they all rejoiced and were happy together to the end of their days.