NCE upon a time there was a man who was well off in the world so far as good things were concerned; but all the flesh and blood that belonged to him was a daughter, for his wife was dead, and he lived alone.
One day he went away from home and was gone for a long, long time, and when he came back again he brought a new wife with him, for that was the business that he had been about. As for the woman, she was as wicked as she was handsome, and as handsome as she was wicked, and whichever of the two one said of her one spoke the truth; for, though she was the most beautiful woman in all of the land, she was as great a witch as ever turned over the leaves of the black book with the red letters in it.
At first things went as smoothly in the rich man's house as butter and eggs, for the Step-mother was forever petting and caressing the man's daughter, and could not make enough of her. But that was only for a while, for as the maid grew in years she grew prettier and prettier, until there was none like her in all of that land.
One day the Step-mother and the step-daughter walked together in the fields, for it was in the spring-time, the weather was pleasant, and the grass was fresh and green. Two crows sat on a flowering thorn.
"Look," says one crow, "yonder go two beauties."
"Yes," says the other, "but when you talk of good looks, the old one is to the young one as cabbage is to a rose."
Then, "Caw! caw!" they both cried, and flapped their wings and flew away.
That was what the two crows said; and though the maiden knew nothing, the Step-mother could tell what passed between them as well as could be, for she had eaten a bite of the white snake, and knew all the birds and the beasts said to one another. So her heart grew bitter with hatred and envy, and she began to cudgel her brains for some means to put the girl out of the way. That night she made a ball of hollow gold and wrote this and that upon it, which nobody but herself could read. The next day she and the girl walked in the fields again, and when nobody was near the wicked Step-mother took the golden ball out of her pocket.
"See," said she, "here is a new plaything for you." She threw it upon the ground, and it rolled and rolled and rolled, and whether she liked it or not, the maiden had to follow wherever it went. On and on rolled the ball, for no matter how fast the girl ran she could not catch it. By and by she came to a dark, lonesome place, where was a great, deep pit. Into the pit rolled the golden ball, and the poor girl had to follow. So into the pit she fell, and there she lay, for the sides were as smooth as glass, and one would have to have feet like a fly to climb from the bottom to the top.
As for the witch Step-mother, she was well content with what she had done, for the two crows sat on the
"Look," said the first, "yonder goes the beauty."
"It is the truth that you speak," said the second. "For the other followed the golden ball and fell into the deep pit!" And then they clapped their wings and away they flew.
But the poor girl lay in the deep pit all alone, and cried and cried.
Suddenly a little door opened—click! clack!—and there was a little grey man no higher than a body's knee, but with a long white beard that touched the ground.
"Hi!" says he to the step-daughter, "and how came you here in the pit?"
The girl told him all from beginning to end, and the little man listened to every word.
"See, now," said he, when she had ended her story. "Since you are here in the deep pit and cannot get out, you shall be the queen of all the little men like myself, and we shall serve you, for you are the most beautiful maiden that ever my eyes looked upon."
So there the maiden lived for many a long day, and the little man and others like him brought her rich food and wine, and covered all the inside of the pit with jewels and with gold, so that it was most splendid to see. And every day the maiden grew more and more beautiful.
One day the young king of that country went a-hunting, and all of his court with him, and four-and-twenty hounds besides. They came riding by the pit where the maiden sat, and there the hounds stopped and began to whimper and to howl, for they knew very well that human flesh and blood was down below.
"Listen to the hounds," says the king; "there is somebody fallen into the pit; now who will go down and bring the unfortunate up again?"
At this everybody looked at his neighbor, but nobody said, "I will go."
"Very well," said the king, "then I myself will go down into the pit, if no one else dares to venture."
So the others lowered the king into the pit, and when he reached the bottom you can guess how he stared and how he wondered; but he had no eyes for the jewels and gold that covered the walls; he had often seen the like of them, but never in all of his days had he beheld such a beauty as the maiden he found there.
Then the people above hauled them up together, and the king set her upon a milk-white horse, and then they all rode away to the palace, for that was where he was to take her. There they dressed her in splendid clothes and put a golden crown upon her head, and then she and the king were married. Around her neck he hung a golden chain and a locket, and in the locket was a picture of himself; on her finger he slipped a ring, and within were secret words which nobody but he and she knew.
One day the wicked Step-mother was walking in the fields, and the two crows sat on the thorn-tree.
"Look," says the first crow, "yonder goes the beauty."
"Yes," says the second, "but she is only as a cabbage to a rose when compared to the lass who followed the golden ball down into the pit, and who has married the handsome young king over at the castle yonder."
Then, "Caw! caw!" they cried, and flapped their wings and flew away.
As for the Step-mother, her heart was ready to burst with anger and with spite. Home she went and began to think of what she should do to put her step-daughter out of the way again.
She took some dough and some feathers, and of them she made an old hen and six chicks. She put them in the oven and baked them, and when she drew them out again they were all of pure gold. But the strangest of all was, that when she set them upon the table the little golden hen strutted and clucked, and the chicks cried, "Peep! peep!" and followed at her heels.
Then the woman clad herself in a strange dress, so that no one might know who she was. She hid a long, keen silver pin in her bosom, and off she set for the castle with the golden hen and the golden chickens in a basket wrapped up in a white napkin.
She set her basket on the ground under the palace window, and when the folks within saw the little clucking hen and her chicks, all made of pure gold that shone in the sunlight, they could not look enough.
Off ran one and told the queen, who came and looked and looked, and wondered and wondered, until by and by she longed for the golden hen and the golden chickens as she had never longed for anything in all of her life before. So she called one of her maids, and sent her down to ask the strange woman the price of her golden chickens.
"Prut!" says the wicked witch of a Step-mother, "who are you that you should come to talk with me? If the young queen would buy my wares she must come and bargain with me herself."
So down went the young queen to the wicked Step-mother; "And what is the price of your hen and chicks, my good woman," said she, for she did not know the other, because of the strange dress in which she was clad.
"Oh! it is little or nothing I ask for my hen and chickens," said the wicked Step-mother to the beautiful queen. "If you will give me a kiss down in the garden back of the rose-tree yonder, you may have the chickens and welcome."
Oh, yes; the queen was willing enough to pay the price, if that was all the woman wanted. So off they went back of the rose-tree, she and the Step-mother. There the witch drew out the silver pin from her bosom, and as she kissed the queen she thrust the pin deep into her head. Then quick as a wink the queen changed into a white dove and flew away over the tree-tops.
Off went the Step-mother, and was as pleased with what she had done this time as with what she had done that time; for the two crows sat on the thorn-tree, and the first crow said to the second crow, "Yonder goes the beauty." And the second crow said to the first, "Yes, there is none to compare with her now that the young queen has been changed to a white dove."
At the king's castle they hunted for the queen high, and they hunted for the queen low, but could find neither thread nor hair of her. As for the white dove, it had flown in at a window, and there the little cook-boy found it, and caught it and sold it to the cook for a penny. So the beautiful white dove sat over the kitchen window, and did nothing but mourn from the dawn to the gloaming.
One day the folk in the kitchen were talking together. The king was lying sick abed and dying of a broken heart because his beautiful young queen was nowhere to be found. That was what they said, and the white bird heard every word of it.
The next morning when they came to the kitchen there was a beautiful sweet cake lying upon a white napkin, and on the cake were written these words:
"Break this, my king, and ease thy sorrow."
They took the sweet cake to the king where he lay, and he broke it as the words told him to. Within it he found the ring which he had given to the queen, inside of which were written words which no one but he and she knew.
"Where did this come from?" said he; but nobody could tell him.
"Where the ring came from," said he, "there will the queen be found." And up he got from his bed and dressed himself, and ate his breakfast with a cheerful face.
They talked about what had happened down in the kitchen, and the white dove heard it all.
Next morning there, on a fine linen napkin, lay another cake like the first, and on it was written:
"Break this, my king, and be comforted."
They took it up to the king as they had done the first. And the king snatched it like a hungry man. He broke the cake, and there was the necklace and the locket that he had given the queen.
"Where did this come from?" said he.
But they could tell him no more about that than about the other.
All the same, they talked about it down in the kitchen, and the white dove heard what was said.
But that night the little cook-boy hid in the closet to watch, for he wanted to see who it was that brought the cakes that they took up-stairs to the king. So he watched and watched, and by and by the clock struck twelve. And when the last stroke sounded the dove flew down from over the window, and as soon as it lit upon the floor it was the white dove no longer, but the queen herself. She made a sweet cake of sugar and of flour, and in it she put a feather as white as silver. Then she became the white dove again, and flew back over the window where she had sat before.
The next morning they found the third cake lying upon a white napkin, and on the cake was written:
"Break this, my king, for the time has come."
They took it up to the king and he broke it, and there was the white feather.
Then the king called everybody that was in the castle, and asked each one in turn if he or she could tell where the sweet cake had come from. But no; nobody knew, until last of all they questioned the kitchen-boy.
"Oh, yes," said he, "I know who it was that brought the cake. Last night the white dove in the kitchen flew down from over the window and became the queen herself; she made the sweet cake and laid it upon the white napkin, for I saw her do it with my own eyes."
Up they brought the white dove from the kitchen, and the king took it in his own hands and held it up to his bosom, and stroked it and caressed it.
"If thou are my queen," said he, "why does thou not speak to me?"
But the dove answered never a word, and the king stroked it and stroked it.
By and by he felt something, and when he came to look it was the head of the silver pin. He drew it forth, and there stood the young queen again in her own true shape.
She told everything that had happened to her from the first to the last, and how her Step-mother had treated her. Then, hui! but the king was angry! He sent a great lot of soldiers off to the father's house to bring the Step-mother to the castle so that she might be punished for her wickedness. But she was not to be caught as easily as a sparrow in a rain-storm; she jumped upon a broom straw, and—puff!—away she flew up the chimney, and that was the last that anybody saw of her so far as ever I heard.
But they brought the father over to the king's castle, where he sat in the warmest corner and had the best that was to be had.
That is all of this story, and if you see a blind mouse run across the floor throw your cap over it and catch it, for it is yours.