Once there was a prince, and his name was John. One day his father said to him, "See, John; I am growing old, and after a while the time will come when I must go the way of everybody else. Now I would like to see you married before I leave you."
"Very well," said the Prince, for he always answered the King in seemly fashion; "and who shall it be?"
"Why not the Princess of the White Mountain?" said the old King.
"Why not, indeed?" said the young Prince, "only she is too short."
"Why not the Princess of the Blue Mountain?" said the old King.
"Why not, indeed?" said the young Prince, "only she is too tall."
"Why not the Princess of the Red Mountain?" said the old King.
"Why not, indeed?" said the young Prince, "only she is too dark."
"Then whom will you have?" said the old King.
"That I do not know," said the young Prince, "only this: that her brow shall be as white as milk, and her cheeks shall be as red as blood, and her eyes shall be as blue as the skies, and her hair shall be like spun gold."
"Then go and find her!" said the old King, in a huff, for his temper was as short as chopped flax. "And don't come back again till you've found her!" he bawled after the Prince as he went out to the door.
So the Prince went out into the wide world to find such a maiden as he spoke of—whose brow was as white as milk, whose cheeks were as red as blood, whose eyes were as blue as the skies, and whose hair was like spun gold—and he would have to travel a long distance to find such a one nowadays, would he not?
So off he went, tramp! tramp! tramp! till his shoes were dusty and his clothes were gray. Nothing was in his wallet but a lump of brown bread and a cold sausage, for he had gone out into the world in haste, as many a one has done before and since his day.
So he went along, tramp! tramp! tramp! and by-and-by he came to a place where three roads met, and there sat an old woman.
"Hui! hui! but I am hungry!" said the old woman.
Now the Prince was a good-hearted fellow, so he said to the old woman, "It is little I have, but such as it is you are welcome to it." Thereupon he gave the old woman the lump of brown bread and the cold sausage that was in his wallet, and the old woman ate it up at a bite.
"Hui! hui! but I am cold!" said she.
"It is little that I have, but such as it is you are welcome to it," said the Prince, and he gave the old woman the dusty coat off his back. After that he had nothing more to give her.
"One does not give something for nothing," said the old woman, so she began fumbling about in her pocket until she found an old rusty key. And the best part of the key was, that whenever one looked through the ring of it, one saw everything just as it really was and not as it seemed to be.
Who would not give his dinner and the coat off his back for such a key?
After that the Prince stepped out again, right foot foremost, tramp! tramp! tramp! until evening had come, and he felt as hungry as one is like to do when one goes without one's dinner. At last he came to a dark forest, and to a gray castle that stood just in the middle of it. This castle belonged to a great, ugly troll, though the Prince knew nothing of that.
"Now I shall have something to eat," said he, and he opened the door of the castle and went in.
Only one person was within, and that was a maiden; but she was as black from head to foot as Fritz the charcoal burner. The Prince had never seen the like of her in all of his life before, so he drew the rusty key out of his pocket and took a peep at her through the ring of it, to see what manner of body she really was.
Then he saw that she was no longer black and ugly, but as beautiful as a ripe apple; for her forehead was as white as milk, her cheeks were as red as blood, her eyes were as blue as the skies, and her hair was like spun gold. Moreover, any one could see with half an eye that she was a real princess, for she wore a gold crown on her head, such as real princesses are never without.
"You are the one whom I seek," said the Prince.
"Yes, I am the one you seek," said she.
"And how can I free you from your enchantment?" said he.
"If you will abide here three nights, and will bear all that shall happen to you without a word, then I shall be free," said she.
"Oh yes, I will do that," said the Prince.
After that the black Princess set a good supper before him, and the Prince ate like three men.
By-and-by there was a huge noise, and the door opened and in came an ugly troll with a head as big as a bucket. He rolled his great saucer eyes around till he saw the Prince where he sat beside the fire.
"Black cats and spotted toads!" bellowed he, "what are you doing here?"
But to this the Prince answered never a word.
"We shall see whether or no there is sound in you!" roared the troll. Thereupon he caught the Prince by the hair and dragged him out into the middle of the room. Then he snatched up a great cudgel and began beating the Prince as though he were a sack of barley-flour; but the Prince said never a word. At last the troll had to give over beating him, for the morning had come and the troll was afraid the sun would catch him; and if that were to happen, he would swell up and burst with a great noise. "We shall see whether you will come again!" said he, and then he left the Prince lying on the floor more dead than alive; and if anybody was sore in all of the world, the Prince was that man.
After the troll had left the house, the black Princess came and wept over the Prince; and when her tears fell on him, pain and bruise left him, and he was as whole as ever. When he looked he saw that the black Princess's feet were as white as silver.
The next night the troll came again, and with him two others. "Black cats and spotted toads!" bellowed he, "are you here again?" Then he caught the Prince by the hair and dragged him out into the middle of the floor, and all three of the trolls fell upon the Prince and beat him with clubs, as though he had been a sack of barley-flour. But the Prince bore this too without a word. At last the morning came, and they had to give over beating him. "We shall see if you will come again," said the troll of the house.
After the trolls had gone, the black Princess came and wept over the Prince as she had done before, and when her tears fell on him he was made whole again. And now the hands of the black Princess were as white as silver.
The third night the troll of the house came, and brought with him six others. Then the same thing happened as before, and they beat the Prince with great cudgels as thick as my thumb. At last the morning came, and they went away bellowing and howling, for their enchantment had gone. As for the Prince, he lay upon the floor more dead than alive, for he could neither see nor hear anything that happened about him.
Then the Princess came for the third time and wept over him, and he was whole and sound again. As for the Princess, she stood before him, and now her brow was as white as milk, and her cheeks were as red as blood, and her eyes were as blue as the skies, and her hair was like spun gold. But the beautiful Princess had little or nothing upon her, so the Prince wrapped her in a ram's skin that was in the troll's house. Then he turned his toes the way he had come, and started away for home, taking her along with him.
So they went along and along till they had come so near to the King's house that they could see the high roofs and the weathercocks over the crest of the next hill. There the Prince bade the Princess to wait for him till he went home and brought her a dress of real silver and gold, such as was fitting for her to wear. Then he left her, and the Princess sat down beside the roadside to wait until he should come again.
Now as the Princess sat there, there came along the old goose-herd of the palace, and with her came her daughter; for they were driving the royal geese home again from where they had been eating grass. When they saw the beautiful Princess, clad in her ram's hide, they stared as though they would never shut their eyes again. Then they wanted to know all about her—who she was, and where she came from, and what she sat there for. So the Princess told them all that they wanted to know, and that she waited there for the Prince to come with a dress all of silver and gold, which would suit her better than the old ram's hide which she wore.
Then the old goose-woman thought that it would be a fine thing to have her daughter in the Princess's place, so that she might have the dress of real silver and gold, and marry the Prince. So the goose-herd's daughter held the Princess, and the old goose-herd stripped the ram's hide off from her.
No sooner had they done this than the Princess was changed into a beautiful golden bird, and flew away over hill and over valley. Then the goose-herd's daughter clad herself in the ram's hide, and sat down in the Princess's place.
"Yes, my pretty little bird," said the old goose-herd, "thou wilt make a fine Princess!" But, prut! she was no more like a Princess than I am, for she was squat, and round-shouldered, and had hair of the color of tow.
Then the old goose-herd drove her geese away, and the goose-girl waited for the coming of the Prince.
Sure enough, after a while the Prince came with a fine dress, all of real silver and gold; but when he saw the goose-girl he beat his head with his knuckles, for he thought that it was the Princess, and that she was enchanted again.
Why did he not look through the ring of his magic key?
Perhaps for this, perhaps for that—one cannot be always wise.
Then the Prince dressed the goose-girl in the fine dress of gold and silver, and took her home with him. Hui! how everybody stared and laughed when they saw what kind of a Princess it was that the Prince brought home with him! As for the poor old King, he rubbed his spectacles and looked and looked, for he thought that this was a strange sort of a wife for the Prince to make such a buzz about. However, he said nothing, for he thought to himself that perhaps she would grow prettier by-and-by.
So orders were given for a grand wedding on Thursday, and the old King asked all of the neighbors to come, and even those who lived at a distance, for this was to be a very grand wedding indeed.
But the old goose-herd told her daughter to mix a sleeping powder with the Prince's wine at supper, for, if the real Princess were to come at all, she would come that night. So the goose-girl did as she was told, and the Prince drank the sleeping powder with his wine, and knew nothing of it.
That night the golden bird came flying, and sat in the linden tree just outside of the Prince's chamber window. Then she clapped her wings and sang:
But the Prince slept as sound as a dormouse, and when the dawn came and the cocks crew the golden bird was forced to fly away.
The next night the false Princess did as she had done before, and mixed a sleeping powder with the Prince's cup of wine.
That night the golden bird came again, and perched in the linden tree outside of the Prince's window, and sang:
But once more the Prince slept through it all, and when morning had come the golden bird was forced to fly away.
Now it chanced that that night some of the folk of the King's household heard the bird singing, and they told the Prince all about it. So when the third night came, and the false Princess gave the Prince the cup of wine with the sleeping powder in it, he threw the wine over his shoulder, and never touched so much as a drop of it.
That night the bird came for the third time, and sang as it had done before.
But this time the Prince was not sleeping. He jumped out of his bed and ran to the window, and there he saw the bird, and its feathers shone like fire because they were of pure gold. Then he got his magic key and looked through the ring of it, and whom should he see but his own Princess sitting in the linden tree.
Then the Prince called to her, "What shall I do to set you free from this enchantment?"
"Throw your knife over me," said the Princess.
No sooner said than done. The Prince threw his knife over her, and there she stood in her own true shape. Then the Prince took her to the King, and when the King saw how pretty she was, he skipped and danced till his slippers flew about his ears.
The next morning the old King went to the false Princess, and said, "What should be done to one who would do thus and so?"
To this the false Princess answered, as bold as brass, "Such a one should be thrown into a pit full of toads and snakes."
"You have spoken for yourself," said the King; and he would have done just so to her had not the true Princess begged for her so that she was sent back again to tend the geese, for that was what she was fit for.
Then they had the grandest wedding that ever was seen in all of the world. Everybody was asked, and there was enough for all to eat as much as they chose, and to take a little something home to the children beside. If I had been there I would have brought you something.
What is the meaning of all this?
Listen, I will tell you something.
Once there was a man, and he winnowed a whole peck of chaff, and got only three good solid grains from it, and yet he was glad to have so much.
Would you winnow a whole peck of chaff for only three good grains? No? Then you will never know all that is meant by this story.
Ye Sad Story Concerning One Innocent Little Lamb and Four Wicked Wolves