FIFTY years ago there lived a king who was very anxious to get married; but, as he was quite determined that his wife should be as beautiful as the sun, the thing was not so easy as it seemed, for no maiden came up to his standard. Then he commanded a trusty servant to search through the length and breadth of the land till he found a girl fair enough to be queen, and if he had the good luck to discover one he was to bring her back with him.
The servant set out at once on his journey, and sought high and low-in castles and cottages; but though pretty maidens were plentiful as blackberries, he felt sure that none of them would please the king.
One day he had wandered far and wide, and was feeling very tired and thirsty. By the roadside stood a tiny little house, and here he knocked and asked for a cup of water. Now in this house dwelt two sisters, and one was eighty and the other ninety years old. They were very poor, and earned their living by spinning. This had kept their hands very soft and white, like the hands of a girl, and when the water was passed through the lattice, and the servant saw the small, delicate fingers, he said to himself: ‘A maiden must indeed be lovely if she has a hand like that.’ And he made haste back, and told the king.
‘Go back at once,’ said his majesty, ‘and try to get a sight of her.’
The faithful servant departed on his errand without losing any time, and again he knocked at the door of the little house and begged for some water. As before, the old woman did not open the door, but passed the water through the lattice.
‘Do you live here alone?’ asked the man.
‘No,’ replied she, ‘my sister lives with me. We are poor girls, and have to work for our bread.’
‘How old are you?’
‘I am fifteen, and she is twenty.’
Then the servant went back to the king, and told him all he knew. And his majesty answered: ‘I will have the fifteen-year-old one. Go and bring her here.’
The servant returned a third time to the little house and knocked at the door. In reply to his knock the lattice window was pushed open, and a voice inquired what it was he wanted.
‘The king has desired me to bring back the youngest of you to become his queen,’ he replied.
‘Tell his majesty I am ready to do his bidding, but since my birth no ray of light has fallen upon my face. If it should ever do so I shall instantly grow black. Therefore beg, I pray you, his most gracious majesty to send this evening a shut carriage, and I will return in it to the castle.
When the king heard this he ordered his great golden carriage to be prepared, and in it to be placed some magnificent robes; and the old woman wrapped herself in a thick veil, and was driven to the castle.
The king was eagerly awaiting her, and when she arrived he begged her politely to raise her veil and let him see her face.
But she answered: ‘Here the tapers are too bright and the light too strong. Would you have me turn black under your very eyes?’
And the king believed her words, and the marriage took place without the veil being once lifted. Afterwards, when they were alone, he raised the corner, and knew for the first time that he had wedded a wrinkled old woman. And, in a furious burst of anger, he dashed open the window and flung her out. But, luckily for her, her clothes caught on a nail in the wall, and kept her hanging between heaven and earth.
While she was thus suspended, expecting every moment to be dashed to the ground, four fairies happened to pass by.
‘Look, sisters,’ cried one, ‘surely that is the old woman that the king sent for. Shall we wish that her clothes may give way, and that she should be dashed to the ground?’
‘Oh no! no!’ exclaimed another. ‘Let us wish her something good. I myself will wish her youth.’
‘And I beauty.’
‘And I wisdom.’
‘And I a tender heart.’
So spake the fairies, and went their way, leaving the most beautiful maiden in the world behind them.
The next morning when the king looked from his window he saw this lovely creature hanging on the nail. ‘Ah! what have I done? Surely I must have been blind last night!’
And he ordered long ladders to be brought and the maiden to be rescued. Then he fell on his knees before her, and prayed her to forgive him, and a great feast was made in her honour.
Some days after came the ninety-year-old sister to the palace and asked for the queen.
‘Who is that hideous old witch?’ said the king.
‘Oh, an old neighbour of mine, who is half silly,’ she replied.
But the old woman looked at her steadily, and knew her again, and said: ‘How have you managed to grow so young and beautiful? I should like to be young and beautiful too.’
This question she repeated the whole day long, till at length the queen lost patience and said: ‘I had my old head cut off, and this new head grew in its place.’
Then the old woman went to a barber, and spoke to him, saying, ‘I will give you all you ask if you will only cut off my head, so that I may become young and lovely.’
‘But, my good woman, if I do that you will die!’
But the old woman would listen to nothing; and at last the barber took out his knife and struck the first blow at her neck.
‘Ah!’ she shrieked as she felt the pain.
‘Il faut souffrir pour etre belle,’ said the barber, who had been in France.
And at the second blow her head rolled off, and the old woman was dead for good and all.