NCE there was a king, who, as time went on, found himself waxing old in years and feeble in body, so he began to think of giving up the cares of government and of taking his ease for as much of life as was left him. But here was the trouble: there were three princes, and each one of them was just as clever as the other two, so that the old king could not tell which to choose as the right one to sit in his place. He thought and thought and thought, until at last he plucked an apple off of his thinking-tree, as folks say. All three of the princes should go out into the world, and whichever of them should fetch back an apple from the Tree of Happiness should rule over all of the kingdom. And I speak the truth when I say that the apple was cheap enough even at that price.
So off went the three to seek for what they wanted. They travelled along without let or stay until towards evening they came to a place where two houses stood, the one on the one side of the road and the other on the other.
One of them was as fine a house as a body ever saw. Every window was lit up by the warm fires and the bright lights within, and even out on the high-road one could hear the merry times the folks were having; laughing and singing and clinking their glasses together. As for the good things cooking in the kitchen, why it was enough to make one hungry just to smell the steam of them. Over the door was a sign, and on the sign was written.
"WHO ENTERS HERE SHALL HAVE WHAT
HE LIKES AND PAY NOTHING FOR IT."
The other house was a poor, mean, little, tumble-down hut, as silent as death, and with never a spark of light or fire shining at the windows. There was also a sign over the door, and on the sign was written,
"WHO ENTERS HERE SHALL HAVE WHAT HE
NEEDS AND PAY WHAT HE CAN."
"Yonder is the place for us," said the older brothers, and they pointed with their thumbs to the grand house, where there was good company with plenty to eat and drink and nothing to pay.
"Yes," says the youngest of the three, "that is all very well, but I would rather pay for what I need than get what I like for nothing."
Dear, dear, how the two did laugh at the one to be sure! but all the same, the one held to what he had said, and so at last the two flew into a huff. "Go your way," said they, "and we will go ours." And into the grand house they went. There they gave themselves up to ease and comfort, and it was a merry time they had of it, I can tell you.
But the youngest brother went over to the little dark house and knocked upon the door, and it was opened by a poor old man whose head and beard were as white as the snow, and whose clothes hung about him all in tags and tatters.
"Come in and welcome," said he, "for you are the first who has been here for twenty-seven ages;" and that is a long time, as anybody knows without the telling.
But in the little house there was no wood to make a fire, and there was no water to boil in the pot. So the prince took the axe and went out and chopped an armful of wood, and then he took the pot and filled it at the well.
Out in the stable stood a white cow with silver horns; but there was never a straw for it to lie upon, and never a bit of hay for it to eat. So the prince shook down a bed for it, and then he filled the rack with hay and left it munching away for dear life.
Out in the yard was a red cock and a white hen, but though they scratched and scratched it was never a grain that they found. So the prince threw them a handful of barley and left them pecking away at it, as though they had not seen the like for a week of Sundays.
After he had done all these things, he and the old man sat down to supper together, and if it was not of the finest, why the prince had a good appetite, and one can have no better sauce to a crust than that.
The prince stayed all night, and the next morning he was for jogging on his way. But before he went he offered the old man what money he had, because anybody could read the sign over the door.
But the old man shook his head. "No, no," said he, "you have paid your score. You have given what you can, and you shall have what you need. Here is a little book, and in it you may read whatever you wish to know. Go out into the stable and you will find a barley straw back of the white cow's ear. Take that with you, for you will need it. Look in the manger and you will find an egg that the white hen has laid; take it with you also, for it is worth the having."
Then he said good-bye and shut the door, and that was the last the prince saw of him.
The prince went to the stable, and there he found the barley straw and the egg, just as the old man had said, and off he marched with them.
He went to the grand house over the way and called his brothers, but they only came to the windows and laughed and jeered at him. "No, no," said they, "we are going no farther along the road, for we know very well when the world is smooth with us. The Fruit of Happiness can bring us nothing better than what we have at hand."
And so the young prince had to trudge away by himself. But what to do with the straw and the egg he knew no more than my grandmother's cat. So he opened his little book, and this was what it said between the leaves:
"Mount the straw and ride it whither it takes you."
"So," said the prince; "that would be a strange thing to do for sure and certain. All the same, an easy task is worth the trying;" so he just flung his leg over the straw and—whisk! pop!—there he was, astride of a great splendid horse with smooth hair as yellow as gold.
That straw was a straw worth having!
And the best part of the matter was that the prince had no need to draw the bridle-rein either to the right or to the left; for the yellow horse took the bit in his teeth and away he pounded so that the ground smoked under his hoofs, and the wind whistled back of the prince's ears. By and by they came to a great sandy desert-place where not a twig or a leaf was to be seen, but only white bones scattered here and there, for the prince was not the first by many who had tried to cross that desert to the Tree of Happiness.
But he had better luck than the others, for the yellow horse carried him along like the wind, and on and on until at last he came within sight of the Tree of Happiness. There sat three terrible giants, an old giant and his two sons, and alongside of each lay a great iron club with sharp spikes in the end of it. But all three sat with their eyes shut, sleeping away as though they would never awaken. And that was a good thing for the prince, for he had never seen such terrible, wicked-looking creatures as the old giant and his two sons. He leaped from off the back of the yellow horse, and there it was, nothing but a barley straw. He put it in his pocket and took out his Book of Knowledge and opened it. This was what it said:
"Fear not the giants, for they will not awake; but touch neither the golden fruit nor the silver fruit, for they are not for you."
When the prince read what the Book of Knowledge said, he knew that it was so. Up he marched to the Tree of Happiness as bold as bold could be, and the giants snored away so that the leaves shook.
There hung three apples; the first was of gleaming gold, the second was of shining silver, and the third was just a poor, weazened, shriveled thing, that looked as though there were not three drops of juice in it.
"Prut!" says the prince, "it can never be that I have travelled all this way for nothing in the world but a dead apple. After all, it must be the golden fruit that I am to take, in spite of what the Book of Knowledge said; for if happiness is to be found in anything, it is to be found in such as it."
So he reached up his hand and plucked the golden apple, and then—hi! what a hubbub, for the Tree of Happiness began to clamor and call as though every leaf on it had become a tongue to speak with.
"Help! help!" it cried. "Here is one coming to rob us of our golden fruit!"
Up jumped the three giants, and each one snatched up his iron club and came at the prince as though to put an end to him without any more talk over the business. But the prince begged and prayed and prayed and begged that they would spare his life.
"Listen," said the old giant; "if you will promise to bring us the Sword of Brightness that shines in the darkness and cuts whatsoever the edge is turned against, we will not only spare your life, but give you the Fruit of Happiness into the bargain." That was what the old giant said, and the others agreed to it; for if they could once lay hand upon such a sword as that they would be masters of all the world.
Well, the prince promised that he would get them the Sword of Brightness, for one will promise much before one will be knocked on the head with an iron club; and then the giant let him go, and glad enough he was to get away.
Off he went back of the hill. He drew out his barley straw and threw his leg over it, and there he sat astride of his yellow horse again.
"I should like," said he, "to be carried to where I can find the Sword of Brightness that shines in the darkness and cuts whatever its edge is turned against." That was all that he had to say, and away clattered the yellow horse over stock and stone so that the ground smoked beneath his hoofs. On they went and on they went for a great long while, until at last they came to a tall castle as black as your hat, and there was where the Sword of Brightness was to be found. In front of the castle gate lay two great fiery dragons, with smoke coming up out of their nostrils instead of the breath of life, and all over their bodies were brazen scales that shone like gold in the sunlight. But both dragons were sound asleep.
Inside of the court-yard were many and one fierce soldiers armed in shining armor and each with a battle-axe or a sword or an iron club lying beside him; but they too were as sound asleep as the dragon.
Down jumped the prince from the great yellow horse, and there was the barley straw again. He took out the Book of Knowledge from his pocket, and this was what it said:
"Fear not the dragons nor the fierce soldiers, for they will not awaken; but take only the old leathern scabbard with the sword."
So up walked the prince as bold as brass, and the soldiers and the dragons said never a word, but just snored away so that the windows rattled. Into the castle he walked, and nobody said "No" to him. There sat an old man, as wicked as sin and as grey as the ashes in the hearth. He never moved a hair, only his little red eyes turned here and there, and were never still for a wink. A great keen sword lay on the table in front of him, and the light on the blade was like the bright flash of lightning. The prince took the sword up from the table, and the little old man looked at him, but said never a word, good or bad.
On the wall hung three scabbards; one was of gold studded all over with precious stones; another of silver that gleamed like the light of the moon in frosty weather; and the third was of nothing but old, shabby, worm-eaten leather that looked as though they had just fetched it down from the dusty garret.
"It would be a pity," said the prince, "to put such a fine sword into such a poor scabbard. I'll not choose the gold because of what happened to me over at the Tree of Happiness yonder, but surely silver is none too good for the Sword of Brightness."
So he took down the silver scabbard and thrust the sword into it, and therewith dipped his spoon into the wrong pot again; for, no sooner had he sheathed the sword in the silver scabbard than the old gray man began to thump on the table in front of him and to bawl at the top of his voice, "Help! help! here is one come to steal our Sword of Brightness."
At this the soldiers outside woke up and began to clash and rattle with their battle-axes and swords and iron clubs, and the dragons began to roar and send up clouds of smoke like a chimney afire.
In ran the soldiers, and were for putting an end to the prince without another word being said, but he begged and prayed and prayed and begged that his life might be spared, just as he had done with the giants over yonder at the Tree of Happiness.
"Listen," says the old grey man at last; "if you will promise to bring me the White Bird from the black mountain, I will not only spare your life, but will give you the Sword of Brightness into the bargain."
Yes, the prince would get the White Bird if anybody in the world could get it. And thereupon they let him go, and glad enough he was to get away.
Back of the hedge he threw his leg over the barley straw.
"I would like," said he, "to be taken to where I can find the White Bird that lives on the black mountain;" and away thundered the yellow horse, like a storm in June.
If it was far that they travelled before, it was farther that they travelled this time. But at last they came to the black mountain, and the prince jumped off the nag and thrust the straw into his pocket.
There was not a blade of grass nor a bit of green to be seen on the hill, but only a great lot of round, black stones scattered from top to bottom. That was all that was left of the lads who had come that way before to find the White Bird.
On the top of the mountain sat an old witch with golden hair, and in her hand was the White Bird. The prince opened his Book of Knowledge, and there he read that if one would gain the White Bird one would have to catch the witch by her golden hair, for then she would be compelled to grant whatever was asked of her; only he would have to be very careful in his doings, for if the witch caught sight of him upon the black hill she would change him into a stone just as she had all the rest who had come that way.
But how was he to climb the hill without the witch seeing him? That was what the prince would like to know. So he turned over another leaf of the Book of Knowledge, and there it was all in plain black and white. This was what it said:
"Crack the egg of the white hen and put on the cap."
The prince cracked the egg, and sure enough, inside of it was a little cap of feathers. He put on the feather cap and—whisk!—as quick as a wink he was changed into a titmouse, which is the least of all the birds in that land.
He spread his wings and flew and flew and flew, until he was close behind the witch where she sat on the black mountain. He took off his cap and there he was in his own shape again. He caught the old witch by her golden hair and held her fast. And you should have heard how she screamed and scolded, and you should have seen how she twisted and turned!
But the prince just held fast, and she could make nothing of it for all her trying.
"And what do you want, that you come here to torment me?" said she at last.
"I want the White Bird," said the prince; "and I will be satisfied with nothing else." It was all to no purpose that the old witch stormed and scolded, for what he had said he had said, and he would be satisfied with nothing else. So at last, willy-nilly, she had to give him what he asked for.
The prince took it in his hands, and it was a white bird no longer, but the prettiest lass that ever a body's eyes looked upon, with cheeks as red as roses and skin as white as snow.
But still the prince held tight to the old witch's hair, and now what else was it he was wanting.
Why, before he would let her go, she must change all the round stones back again into the lads of flesh and blood they had been before.
So the old witch had to do that also, and there stood so many stout lads in the place of the hard, round stones.
But still the prince held fast to her golden hair. And what else was it he was wanting?
Why, this! The old witch must promise to do no harm to him or to anybody else who should come that way. The old witch had to promise. And then he let go of her hair, and you can guess what a rage she was in.
But the prince cared nothing for that, for he had found what he came for.
He took the barley straw out of his pocket and threw his leg over it. Then he took the princess up behind him on the great yellow horse, and away he clattered, leaving the witch scolding behind him.
After a while he came to the black castle; there he took out his Book of Knowledge, for now that he had the White Bird he could not bear to think of giving her up; and this was what the book said:
"Take the White Bird to the old grey man and he will give you the Sword of Brightness, turn the edge against him and against the fierce soldiers and against the two dragons, and then ride away with your White Bird."
So up he rode to the black castle, and the fiery dragons let him pass when they saw that the White Bird rode behind him. The old grey man gave the lad the Sword of Brightness quickly enough, for the White Bird was worth that and a great deal more, I can tell you.
As soon as the prince had hold of the Sword of Brightness, he turned the keen edge of the blade against the wicked old man and the soldiers and the dragons; off flew their heads, and there they lay as dead as red herrings in a box.
Then he thrust the Sword of Brightness into the leathern scabbard, for he had learned a grain or two of wisdom by this time, and away he rode with the White Bird sitting behind him.
On they rode and on they rode until they came to the desert place and the Tree of Happiness. And then the prince took out his Book of Wisdom and turned over the leaves, for he was of no mind to give up the Sword of Brightness if he could help doing so.
"Turn the edge of the blade against the three giants."
Thus said the book, and the lad did so, and there they lay all three of them as dead as stocks.
I know that this is true which I tell, because since then there have been no cruel giants to keep a body from getting a taste of the Fruit of Happiness now and then, if a body chooses to travel that far to find it. But that is neither here nor there, and what I have to tell is this:
The young prince rode away towards home with the White Bird sitting behind him, the Sword of Brightness hanging by his side, and the Fruit of Happiness in his pocket.
By and by he came to the place where the two houses stood, the one on the one side of the road, and the one on the other, and there he took out his Book of Knowledge to have a peep at it, and this was what it said:
"Buy no black sheep."
"Prut!" says the prince, "what should I want with black sheep I should like to know?"
By and by he met a great crowd, and in the midst of all the rest were his two brothers with their hands tied behind them with stout ropes.
And what were they going to do with the two? That was what the prince would like to know.
"Why," said those who held them, "they have spent all their money at the great house over yonder, and have run up a score for good things besides, and now they are packing off to prison because they cannot pay what they owe."
"Come, come," says the prince, "let them go and I will pay their reckoning;" and so he did, and that was what the Book of Wisdom meant by buying black sheep.
After that they all stepped homeward, right foot foremost; for since the young prince had brought the Fruit of Happiness along with him, there was no need of the other brothers going to look for it.
By and by they felt weary and sat down by the roadside to rest, and as they sat there the youngest prince fell asleep. While he slept the elder brothers stole away the Sword of Brightness and the Fruit of Happiness. Then they wakened him and made him strip off his fine clothes, and gave him a parcel of rags and tatters fit for no one but a beggar, and he had to put them on or go without.
As for the White Bird, they made her vow and swear that she would say nothing of this. Then off they marched with her and with the Sword of Brightness, and left the prince with never a stitch or a thread that was worth the having.
"See," said they, as soon as they came home, "not only have we brought the Fruit of Happiness, but the Sword of Brightness and the White Bird into the bargain."
As for the youngest brother, they told the king that he had stopped over at the tavern yonder, and had spent all his money in eating and drinking, just as they themselves had really done.
But the White Bird did nothing but weep and weep, and neither this brother nor that could draw the Sword of Brightness from its leathern scabbard. And when the king came to taste the Fruit of Happiness, it was as bitter as gall. So, after all the two gained nothing by what they had done.
But the young prince was not for giving up all that he had lost, without trying to get what he could back again. Off he marched in his rags and tatters until he came to the castle where the king, his father lived. Up he stepped to the door and knocked, but nobody would let him in because he looked like nothing but a beggar. So down he sat beside the gate of the castle garden, since he could not come into the house.
After a while the folks came out, one by one and two by two, to walk in the garden and take the air, and all the time the prince sat there and nobody knew him.
Last of all came the old king, and with him walked the White Bird. The king was for passing the lad by as all the rest had done. But as soon as the White Bird saw him, she knew who he was and ran to him and threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.
"Here is my own sweetheart," said she, "and he has come back to me again."
The prince told the king all that had happened from beginning to end, and how it really was he who had found the White Bird, the Sword of Brightness, and the Fruit of Happiness.
"Yes, yes," says the king, "that is all very well, but it is just the tale that your brothers tell; now can you draw the Sword of Brightness from the leathern scabbard?"
"Oh, yes," said the prince, "I can do that easily enough." So the sword was brought and—whisk—he whipped the blade out of the scabbard so that the light of it dazzled the eyes of everybody that looked upon it.
Then the king saw what had happened as plain as the nose on his face, and was for punishing the elder brothers as they deserved, but nobody could find them, for as soon as they heard that the youngest prince had come home again they packed off without waiting to learn more news.
And why do I call this the story of the White Bird? Listen: any Tom or Jake or Harry might have found the Sword of Brightness or the Fruit of Happiness; but you may depend upon it that nobody but a real prince could ever have found the White Bird.