Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome | Annotated Tale

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Pot of Marjoram, The (Il Vaso di Persa)


THEY say there was once a father who was a rich, very rich, merchant, and the daughters had been used all their lives to have every thing that money could buy them, so that one day when the father was going to a distant mart where he expected to find the choicest wares, and asked them what he should bring home, they scarcely knew what to ask. But when he told them he expected to find shawls of such brilliant hues as they had never seen, with gold threads interwoven, the eldest instantly begged him to bring her one of these; and when he said he expected to find coverlets of bird plumage vieing with the rainbow in brilliancy, the second entreated him to bring her one of these.

               The third daughter, however, who was distinguished by stay-at-home habits, and by her distaste for vanity of every kind, would not have any of these gay ornaments, though he not only offered her shawls and coverlets such as her sisters revelled in the idea of possessing, but precious jewelry, sparkling rubies, and rarest pearls. She would have none of these, but asked him only to bring her a pot of marjoram, which she wanted for household uses as none was to be got in the country where they were living.

               The father soon after set out on his travels, and having reached his destination did not fail, while laying in his rare and precious stock, to select the choicest specimens to bestow on his two eldest daughters.

               But the homely pot of marjoram quite went out of his head, and he returned homewards without having so much as thought of it.

               He was nearly home when he was accosted on the way by a strange-looking man one evening, who asked him if he would not buy of him a pot of marjoram.

               'A pot of marjoram!' The words brought back his youngest daughter's request whom he would not have disappointed for all the world.

               'A pot of marjoram, say you? Yes, it's just what I want. Give it here, and there's something extra because it is just what I want;' and throwing him money to three or four times the ordinary value of the article, he called to an attendant to stow the pot on to the pack-saddle of one of the mules.

               But the stranger held back the pot and laughed in his face.

               'I had thought you were a trader,' he said, 'and knew enough of the rules of trade to let a man fix his own price on his own wares.'

               The merchant laughed in his turn at what seemed to him an insolent comparison.

               'When a trader goes thousands of miles, through a thousand perils to bring home precious wares from afar which those at home scarcely know the use of, true, then, he alone can fix the price. But a pot of marjoram, every one knows the price of that.'

               'Perhaps not,' replied the stranger, binding his cloak about him with the pot tightly held under his arm. 'At all events it is clear you don't;' and he took a step forward as if he considered the negotiation at an end.

               The merchant was vexed; he would not on any account miss taking back a pot of marjoram, and he knew he was now so near home that no other chance would there be of procuring one. Swallowing down his annoyance as well as he could, therefore, he led his horse nearer to the strange man and said,--

               'You make me quite curious to hear your price named, friend, as till this moment I had not thought there could be two ideas on the subject.'

               'My price is three hundred thousand scudi,' replied the strange man, who was really a magician; 'and if you knew its powers you would know, too, it is cheap at that.'

               And again he made as if he would have gone on his way, indifferent whether the bargain were concluded or not.

               The merchant was quite puzzled how to act. The pot of marjoram he must have, and his knowledge of the art of bargaining convinced him that the man's manner meant he would not rebate an iota of his price. Whatever awkwardness he felt in suddenly giving three hundred thousand scudi for an article he had just appraised at a paul it was even more apparent to him that any attempt at haggling would only have added to the absurdity of the situation by its futility. Therefore, assuming a magnificent air, as if the vast price were after all no matter to him, he called to his steward to count out the sum demanded and rode on.

               Arrived at home, his showy presents were received with raptures by his two eldest daughters, while the youngest received her modest-seeming share of his generosity with an expression of surprise and admiration, which gave the good merchant a secret satisfaction in imagining that she was not altogether ignorant of its immense value.

               As days went by, however, everything fell back into the usual routine. The elder sisters continued the same round of gaiety in which they had ever been immersed, the younger remained as of old, quietly absorbed in her household duties; but if she had any pastime it was that of diligently cultivating her pot of marjoram. By degrees, however, through the steward's gossip with the servants, it came round to the knowledge of the sisters that, though their younger sister had seemed to frame so humble a request, its satisfaction had cost their father's treasury a fabulous sum. The discovery excited their utmost indignation, and their jealousy being roused, they determined to inflict a condign and appropriate punishment for what they deemed her presumption, by destroying the illstarred pot of marjoram.

               To get at it, however, was no easy matter, as its guardian seldom left the house, and was always watching over it with jealous care. At last they resolved, by way of pretext for securing her absence, to represent to their father that it was not good for a young girl to remain so shut up; that whether she had a taste for it or not, she ought to see the world; and urged their arguments so efficaciously that he quite admitted their cogency, and one evening, calling his youngest daughter to him, imperatively required that she should accompany him to an evening engagement.

               The poor child dared not disobey her father, but parted from her pot of marjoram with a heavy heart, as if some foreboding of evil possessed her. No sooner had she left the house than the sisters went up into her room, and taking the pot of marjoram, flung it out of the window, so that it all lay broken and shattered on the highroad, where it was soon trampled under foot and every vestige of it dispersed.

               When she came in and saw what was done her grief was unbounded, and no sooner was the house sunk in slumber than, determining to live no longer under the same roof with those who had treated her so unfeelingly, she set out to wander forth absorbed in sorrow, and not caring whither she went.

               On, on, on she went, taking no heed of the way, all through the night, and when the morning dawned she found herself in the midst of a vast plain, at a place where many roads met. As she hesitated for a moment which she should take, there suddenly appeared before her a fairy, [2] though the last time she looked up she had not seen a speck anywhere between herself and the horizon.

               'Where are you going so early, my pretty maiden, and why weep you?' said the fairy, in a soothing voice that seemed made to charm an answer out of the most reluctant.

               Nevertheless, it was no easy question to answer, for the maiden had no sort of idea whither she was going; therefore she took the second question first and poured out the whole tale of her sisters' harshness and her late terrible disappointment.

               'That is not so very bad after all,' replied the fairy, when she had finished her tale. 'I see you have been trying to be a sensible girl, but you must be brave as well as sensible. Men say of us women, "Women always look at the dark side of things;" [3] there is always a bright side which you must try to look out for, even when, as in this instance, you couldn't possibly see it; for all the evil that befalls us does not work evil in the end. [4] Now it happens that there is a particularly bright side to this case of yours, and the evil that was done you will bring you no ultimate harm. But you must exercise fortitude and stedfastness in what you will have to do. For this I will give you a man's clothing, as it would not be seemly for a young girl like you to be going about the world alone, and it will save you from many dangers.'

               So saying, though she had no bundle of any sort about her, she produced a complete suit of male attire, travelling cloak and all, and in the girdle were bound weapons, and many articles of which the maiden did not even know the use or the name, but the fairy assured her she would want them all by and by. Then, having pointed out which was the road she should take, she again bid her be of good heart, and disappeared almost before the maiden had time to utter her heartfelt thanks.

               The fairy had no sooner vanished than the whole face of the country wore a different aspect; instead of being surrounded by a vast plain, mighty mountains rose on the right hand and on the left, while before her, straight along her path, was a dense forest. The maiden's heart misgave her at the sight, but she remembered the fairy's advice and walked steadily along. Notwithstanding her conversation had not seemed to last many minutes too, the sun was already high in the heavens, and its rays beat so fiercely upon her that she was glad even of the gloomy forest's shade. Arrived at the first trees she was pleased to hear the trickling of a little brook over the stones, and to find that the good fairy had not failed to give her a supply of provisions of which she now gladly availed herself.

               As the afternoon grew cooler she rose and walked on till nightfall without further adventure, and then disposed herself to rest for the night, climbing first into the spreading boughs of a large tree, that she might be out of the way of any wild beasts which the forest might harbour.

               In the middle of the night her sleep was disturbed by a horrible growling; and what was her surprise when she fully woke to find that though it proceeded from a common he-, and she-bear [5] stretched out under the very tree she had chosen for her resting-place, she could understand all the meaning it contained just as if they had spoken in words; and she recognised the new power as another gift of the good fairy.

               'Where have you been all this long time?' growled the she-bear; 'it is quite abominable what a long time you stay away now continually; I have been hunting through the whole forest for you.'

               'That was quite waste of trouble,' replied the he-bear testily, 'for I have been a long way from the forest.'

               'Where were you, then?' growled the she-bear again, with a tone that showed she was determined to know all about it.

               'If you must know, I went twenty miles along the side of the river, then over the back of the rocky mountains, and then skirting round the forest till I came to the kingdom of Persia. And out of the kingdom of Persia there went up a great wail, for last night, from his high tower, the king of Persia fell out of window and broke all his bones, moreover his flesh is all cut with the glass, which has entered into his wounds. Therefore the land of Persia bewails her king.'

               'Then let them get another king,' growled the she-bear.

               'That is not so easy,' rejoined the he-bear. 'For over all the face of the earth was no king so comely in person as the king of Persia. But that is not the worst, for the matter concerns us more nearly than you have any idea of.'

               'How can it concern us?' retorted the she-bear.

               'It concerns us so much that if anyone only knew of us we should both be killed. For the only remedy for his wounds is that we should both be killed, the fat of our bodies be melted together, an ointment made of it with honey and wax, and be smeared over the king's body, and then bathe him in warm baths, doing this alternately for the space of three days he will be made well again. And now he has sent a proclamation into all lands inviting any physician to come to heal him by his art, and if any of them by their books and their divination should discover this we both shall certainly be put to death.'

               'Nonsense! do come and go to sleep,' replied the she-bear testily; 'how should anyone find us out in the midst of this forest?'

               'It's not very likely certainly,' growled the he-bear.

               And in consequence of this happy feeling of security both brutes were soon fast asleep.

               How gladly the maiden listened to their snoring, when she found she could understand it just as well as their growling.

               'I'm sound asleep,' snored the she-bear.

               'I'm so tired I don't want ever to wake again,' snored her mate.

               'Neither shall you,' said the maiden as she noiselessly let herself down from the tree.

               'Only think of that old king of Persia wanting our fat; long may he wish for it!' snored the she-bear.

               'Now it would be a fine thing to give back all his strength and his beauty to the king of Persia, but the price of one's life is too much for the honour,' snored the he-bear.

               'Nevertheless, you shall have that honour,' whispered the maiden, as she drew two sharp two-edged knives with which her girdle was furnished, and, taking her stand firmly, plunged one with each hand deep into the throat of each beast. A mingled stream of blood gushed forth, and the two huge carcases rolled over without so much as a grunt, so neatly had the execution been performed.

               By the first morning's light she once more called all her courage to her assistance, and cut up the carcasses, extracting the fat. Then she lit a fire and melted it down together, nor was she without the requisite wax and honey, for the good fairy had provided her with enough of each. The ointment made, she set out to follow the line of travel the bear had indicated, and not without much toil and weariness at last found herself in the kingdom of Persia. Strong in belief in the efficacy of her remedy, she presented herself at once at the palace gate and demanded admission on the score of her ability to effect the desired cure of the ailing king.

               'Though I may not have the high-sounding fame of which I daresay many can boast who have come at the summons of your king, yet so certain am I of the powers of my treatment that I put my life in your hands, and give you leave to torture me to death if I succeed not.'

               'Fear not, fair sir,' replied the chamberlain; 'no difficulty will be made in admitting you, for you alone have applied to heal the king. Every other mediciner throughout the whole world, on reading the description of the king's ailments given in the proclamation, has pronounced his health past recovery, and not one will even make the attempt.'

               Pale, emaciated, and agonised as he was, the maiden at once recognised on her admission to the presence of the king the justice of the bear's account of his personal attractions, and now more earnestly than ever desired her success.

               The king very willingly submitted to her medicaments, and at the end of three days was, as the bear had predicted, quite sound in limb and restored to all his beauty of person. If his personal attractions had been an object of admiration to the maiden, those of his supposed physician had not been lost on the king, and when she came on the fourth day to take her leave of him, he told her at once he could not think of parting with her; she must remain attached to his court, and be always his physician in attendance. The flush of joy which she could not conceal at the proposal sufficed to convince the king of the justice of certain suspicions he had already entertained, that his supposed physician was no physician, but a maiden worthy to be his queen.

               For the moment he said nothing further, but only assigned to the stranger apartments in the palace, and a suite of his own, and a yearly stipend on the most liberal scale. As days went by, being continually in each other's presence, with that familiarity which their new relations allowed, each had the opportunity of growing more and more fond of the other. At last the king called his chamberlain to him one day and told him it was his desire that the state physician should appear before him dressed in queenly robes, and attended by a train of ladies of the court, and damsels and pages of honour.

               The chamberlain fancied that the life-peril through which the prince had so lately passed had injured his brain, and only undertook the commission with a visible reluctance. Nevertheless, as he durst not disobey any command of his sovereign, how strange soever, all was done as he had directed; though what puzzled the chamberlain the more was that the physician seemed as nearly demented as the king, for, instead of testifying any reluctance in submitting to such a travesty, his countenance had betrayed the most unmistakable joy at hearing the king's pleasure.

               The king had further given orders for the attendance of all the great officers of state and all the nobles of the land, as well as his guards of various degrees, all in brilliant gala dress. Before going into the state hall to receive their homage, however, he entered alone into his private cabinet, whither he commanded the attendance of his physician. Both meeting thus, each habited to the greatest advantage in their own appropriate dress, each was more than ever smitten with the attractions of the other. The king was not very long in winning from the maiden the confession that the robes she now wore were those of her sex, or that she shared his own desire that they should be united by that tie which would bind them together inseparably for ever. No sooner had he thus obtained her consent than he led her into the midst of the assembled court and required the homage of all his people to her as their queen.

               As for the wicked sisters, his first act was to send for them and have them burnt to death.


'How well I remember,' added the narrator, 'the way my mother used always to end that story when she told it to me.'

               'And how was that?' asked I eagerly, not at all sorry to come across some local addition at last.

               'But it has nothing to do with the tale, really,' she replied, as deeming it too unimportant to trouble me with.

               'Never mind, I should like to hear it,' said I.

               'Well then, it used to run thus: "Never was such a banquet made in all the world as for the nuptials of this king of Persia. The confetti were as big as eggs; and, do you know, I had five of them given to me."'

               'O mamma,' I used to say then, 'why didn't you keep them for me? what splendid confetti they must have been!'

               'Stop, and you shall hear what I did with them,' she would reply.

Uno lo dava al gallo
Che mi portava a cavallo,
Una a la gallina
Che m’ insegnò la via.
Uno al porco
Che m’ insegnò la porta.
Uno ne mangiai,
E uno ne misse là,
Che ancora ci sarà.


One I gave to the cock
Who carried me on his back, [6]
And one to the hen
Who showed me the way,
And one to the pig
Who pointed out the door;
One I ate myself,
And one I put by there,
Where no doubt it still remains.


                And she used to point as she spoke at an old glass cabinet, where I would go and rummage, always expecting to find the sweetmeat, till one day, getting convinced it had no existence, I got very angry, and threw a big key at one of the panes and broke it, and she never would tell me that story any more.]


[1] 'Il vaso di persa.' Marjoram goes by the name of 'persa' in the vernacular of Rome. Parsley, which sounds the more literal translation, is 'erbetta.' I think the narrator believed it to be connected with Persia.

[2] 'Fata' is a powerful enchantress. I know no English equivalent but 'fairy,' though there is this difference that a 'fata' is by no means invariably an airy and beautiful being; she more often wears a very ordinary appearance, and not unfrequently that of a very old wrinkled woman, but is always goodnatured and benevolent, as distinguished from the malevolent 'strega,' a nearer counterpart of our 'witch.'

[3] 'Le femmine sempre pigliano il peggio.'

[4] 'Non tutto il male vien' per nuocere.'

[5] 'Orgo,' the vernacular form of the classic 'Orco,' is the Italian equivalent for 'Old Bogey;' but it is also used in place of 'orso,' a bear (as in the precise instance of this tale being told to me), when it is desired to give terror to his character in a tale.

[6] Has this anything to do with 'riding the cock-horse'?

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Pot of Marjoram, The (Il Vaso di Persa)
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Estes and Lauriat
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1877
Country of Origin: Italy
Classification: unclassified

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