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

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Dark King, The (Il Rè Moro)


THEY say there was once a poor chicory-gatherer who went out every day with his wife and his three daughters to gather chicory to sell for salad. Once, at Carneval time, he said, 'We must gather a fine good lot to-day,' and they all dispersed themselves about trying to do their best. The youngest daughter thus came to a place apart where the chicory was of a much finer growth than any she had ever seen before. 'This will be grand!' she said to herself, as she prepared to pull up the finest plant of it. But what was her surprise when with the plant, up came all the earth round it and a great hole only remained!

               When she peeped down into it timidly she was further surprised to find it was no dark cave below as she had apprehended, but a bright apartment handsomely furnished, and a most appetising meal spread out on the table, there was, moreover, a commodious staircase reaching to the soil on which she stood, to descend by.

               All fear was quickly overcome by the pleasant sight, and the girl at once prepared to descend, and, as no one appeared, to raise any objection, she sat down quite boldly and partook of the good food. As soon as she had finished eating, the tables were cleared away by invisible hands, and, as she had nothing else to do she wandered about the place looking at everything. After she had passed through several brilliant rooms she came to a passage, out of which led several store-chambers, where was laid up a good supply of everything that could serve in a house. In some there were provisions of all sorts, in some stuffs both for clothes and furniture.

               'There seems to be no one to own all these fine things,' said the girl. 'What a boon they would be at home!' and she put together all that would be most useful to her mother. But what was her dismay when she went back to the dining-hall to find that the staircase by which she had descended was no longer there!

               At this sight she sat down and had a good cry, but by-and-by, supper-time came, and with it an excellent supper, served in as mysterious a way as the dinner; and as a good supper was a rare enjoyment for her, she almost forgot her grief while discussing it. After that, invisible hands led her into a bedroom, where she was gently undressed and put to bed without seeing anyone. In the morning she was put in a bath and dressed by invisible hands, but dressed like a princess all in beautiful clothes.

               So it all went on for at least three months; every luxury she could wish was provided without stint, but as she never saw anyone she began to get weary, and at last so weary that she could do nothing but cry. At the sound of her crying there came into the room a great black King. [2] Though he was so dark and so big that she was frightened at the sight of him, he spoke very kindly, and asked her why she cried so bitterly, and whether she was not provided with everything she could desire. As she hardly knew herself why she cried, she did not know what to answer him, but only went on whimpering. Then he said, 'You have not seen half the extent of this palace yet or you would not be so weary; here are the keys of all the locked rooms which you have not been into yet. Amuse yourself as much as you like in going through them; they are all just like your own. Only into the room of which the key is not among these do not try to enter. In all the rest do what you like.'

               The next morning she took the keys and went into one of the locked rooms, and there she found so many things to surprise and amuse her that she spent the whole day there, and the next day she examined another, and so on for quite three months together, and the locked room of which she had not the key she never thought of trying to enter. But all amusements tire at last, and at the end of this time she was so melancholy that she could do nothing but cry. Then the Dark King came again and asked her tenderly what she wanted.

               'I want nothing you can give me,' she replied this time. 'I am tired of being so long away from home. I want to go back home.'

               'But remember how badly you were clothed, and how poorly you fared,' replied the Dark King.

               'Ah, I know it is much pleasanter here,' said the girl, 'for all those matters, but one cannot do without seeing one's relations, now and then at least.'

               'If you make such a point of it,' answered the Dark King, 'you shall go home and see papa and mamma, but you will come back here. I only let you go on that condition.'

               The arrangement was accepted, and next day she was driven home in a fine coach with prancing horses and bright harness. Her appearance at home caused so much astonishment that there was hardly room for pleasure, and even her own mother would hardly acknowledge her; as for her sisters, they were so changed by her altered circumstances and so filled with jealousy they would scarcely speak to her. But when she gave her mother a large pot of gold which the Dark King had given her for the purpose, their hearts were somewhat won back to her, and they began to ask all manner of questions concerning what had befallen her during her absence. So much time had been lost at first, however, that none was left for answering them, and, promising to try and come back to them soon, she drove away in her splendid coach.

               Another three months passed away after this, and at the end of it she was once more so weary, her tears and cries again called the Dark King to her side.

               Again she confided to him that her great grief was the wish to see her friends at home. She could not bear being so long without them. To content her once more he promised to let her drive home the next day; and the next day accordingly she went home.

               This time she met with a better reception, and having brought out her pot of gold at her first arrival, everyone was full of anxiety to know how it came she had such riches at her disposal.

               'What that pot of money!' replied the girl, in a tone of disparagement. 'That's nothing. You should see the beautiful things that are scattered about in my new home, just like nothing at all;' and then she went on to describe the magnificence of the place, till nothing would satisfy them but that they should go there too.

               'That's impossible,' she replied. 'I promised him not even to mention it.'

               'But if he were got rid of, then we might come,' replied the elder sisters.

               'What do you mean by "got rid of"?' asked the youngest.

               'Why, it is evident he is some bad sort of enchanter, whom it would be well to rid the earth of. If you were to take this stiletto and put it into his breast when he is asleep, we might all come down there and be happy together.'

               'Oh, I could never do that!'

               'Ah, you are so selfish you want to keep all for yourself. If you had any spirit in you, you would burst open that locked door where, you may depend the best of the treasure is concealed, and then put this stiletto into the old enchanter, and call us all down to live with you.'

               It was in vain she protested she could not be so ungrateful and cruel; they over-persuaded her with their arguments, and frightened her so with their reproaches that she went back resolved to do their bidding.

               The next morning she called up all her courage and pushed open the closed door. Inside were a number of beautiful maidens weaving glittering raiment.

               'What are you doing?' asked the chicory-gatherer.

               'Making raiment for the bride of the Dark King against her espousals,' replied the maidens.

               A little further on was a goldsmith and all his men working at all sorts of splendid ornaments filled with pearls and diamonds and rubies.

               'What are you doing?' asked the girl.

               'Making ornaments for the bride of the Dark King against her espousals,' replied the goldsmiths.

               A little further on was a little old hunchback sitting crosslegged, and patching an old torn coat with a heap of other worn-out clothes lying about him.

               'What are you doing?' asked the maiden.

               'Mending the rags for the girl to go away in who was to have been the bride of the Dark King,' replied the little old hunchback.

               Beyond the room where this was going on was a passage, and at the end of this a door, which she also pushed open. It gave entrance to a room where, on a bed, the Dark King lay asleep.

               'This is the time to apply the stiletto my sisters gave me,' thought the maiden. 'I shall never have so good a chance again. They said he was a horrid old enchanter; let me see if he looks like one.'

               So saying she took one of the tapers from a golden bracket and held it near his face. It was true enough; his skin was black, his hair was grizly and rough, his features crabbed and forbidding.

               'They're right, there's no doubt. It were better the earth were rid of him, as they say,' she said within herself; and, steeling herself with this reflection, she plunged the knife into his breast.

               But as she wielded the weapon with the right hand, the left, in which she held the lighted taper, wavered, and some of the scalding wax fell on the forehead of the Dark King. The dropping of the wax [3] woke him; and when he saw the blood flowing from his breast, and perceived what she had done, he said sadly,

               'Why have you done this? I meant well by you and really loved you, and thought if I fulfilled all you desire, you would in time have loved me. But it is over now. You must leave this place, and go back to be again what you were before.'

               Then he called servants, and bade them dress her again in her poor chicory-gatherer's dress, and send her up to earth again; and it was done. But as they were about to lead her away, he said again,

               'Yet one thing I will do. Take these three hairs; and if ever you are in dire distress and peril of life with none to help, burn them, and I will come to deliver you.'

               Then they took her back to the dining-hall, where the staircase was seen as at the first, and when they touched the ceiling, it opened, and they pushed her through the opening, and she found herself in the place where she had been picking chicory on the day that she first found the Dark King's palace.

               Only as they were leading her along, she had considered that it might be dangerous for her, a young girl, to be wandering about the face of the country alone, and she had, therefore, begged the servants to give her a man's clothes instead of her own; and they gave her the worn-out clothes that she had seen the little old hunchback sitting crosslegged to mend.

               When she found herself on the chicory-bed it was in the cold of the early morning, and she set off walking towards her parents' cottage. It was about midday when she arrived, and all the family were taking their meal. Poor as it was, it looked very tempting to her who had tasted nothing all the morning.

               'Who are you?' cried the mother, as she came up to the door.

               'I'm your own child, your youngest daughter. Don't you know me?' cried the forlorn girl in alarm.

               'A likely joke!' laughed out the mother; 'my daughter comes to see me in a gilded coach with prancing horses!'

               'Had you asked for a bit of bread in the honest character of a beggar,' pursued the father, 'poor as I am, I would never have refused your weary, woebegone looks; but to attempt to deceive with such a falsehood is not to be tolerated;' and he rose up, and drove the poor child away.

               Protests were vain, for no one recognised her under her disguise.

               Mournful and hopeless, she wandered away. On, on, on, she went, till at last she came to a palace in a great city, and in the stables were a number of grooms and their helpers rubbing down horses.

               'Wouldn't there be a place for me among all these boys?' asked the little chicory-gatherer, plaintively. 'I, too, could learn to rub down a horse if you taught me.'

               'Well, you don't look hardly strong enough to rub down a horse, my lad,' answered the head-groom; 'but you seem a civil-spoken sort of chap, so you may come in; I dare say we can find some sort of work for you.'

               So she went into the stable-yard, and helped the grooms of the palace.

               But every day the queen stood at a window of the palace where she could watch the fair stable-boy, and at last she sent and called the head-groom, and said to him, 'What are you doing with that new boy in the stable-yard?'

               The head-groom said, 'Please your Majesty he came and begged for work, and we took him to help.'

               Then the queen said, 'He is not fit for that sort of work, send him to me.'

               So the chicory-gatherer was sent up to the queen, and the queen gave her the post of master of the palace, and appointed a fine suite of apartments and a dress becoming the rank, and was never happy unless she had this new master of the palace with her.

               Now the king was gone to the wars, and had been a long time absent. One day the queen said to the master of the palace that very likely the king would not come back, so that it would be better they should marry.

               Then the poor chicory-gatherer was sadly afraid that if the queen discovered that she was a woman she would lose her fine place at the palace, and become a poor beggar again without a home; so she said nothing of this, but only reasoned with the queen that it was better to wait and see if the king did not come home. But as she continued saying this, and at the same time never showed any wish that the king might not come back, or that the marriage might take place, the queen grew sorely offended, and swore she would be avenged.

               Not long after, the king really did come back, covered with glory, from the wars. Now was the time for the queen to take her revenge.

               Choosing her opportunity, therefore, at the moment when the king was rejoicing that he had been permitted to come back to her again, with hypocritical tears she said,

               'It is no small mercy, indeed, that your Majesty has found me again here as I am, for it had well-nigh been a very different case.'

               The king was instantly filled with burning indignation, and asked her further what her words meant.

               'They mean,' replied the queen, 'that the master of the palace, on whom I had bestowed the office only because he seemed so simple, as you too must say he looks, presumed on my favour, and would have me marry him, urging that peradventure the king, who had been so long absent at the wars, might never return.'

               The king started to his feet at the words, placing his hand upon his sword in token of his wrath; but the queen went on:

               'And when he found that I would not listen to his suit, he dared to assume a tone of command, and would have compelled me to consent; so that I had to call forth all my courage, and determination, and dignity, to keep him back; and had the King's Majesty not been directed back to the palace as soon as he was, who knows where it might have ended!'

               It needed no more. The king ordered the master of the palace to be instantly thrown into prison, and appointed the next day for him to be beheaded.

               The chicory-gatherer was ready enough now to protest that she was a woman. But it helped nothing; they only laughed. And who could stand against the word of the queen?

               Next day, accordingly, the scaffold was raised, and the master of the palace was brought forth to be beheaded, the king and the queen, and all the court, being present.

               When the chicory-gatherer, therefore, found herself in dire need and peril of life, she took out one of the hairs the Dark King had given her, and burnt it in the flame of a torch. Instantly there was a distant roaring sound as of a tramp of troops and the roll of drums. Everyone started at the sound, and the executioner stayed his hand.

               Then the maiden burnt the second hair, and instantly a vast army surrounded the whole place; round the palace they marched and up to the scaffold, and so to the very throne of the king. The king had now something to think of besides giving the signal for the execution, and the headsman stayed his hand.

               Then the maiden burnt the third hair, and instantly the Dark King himself appeared upon the scene, clothed in shining armour, and fearful in majesty and might. And he said to the king,

               'Who are you that you have given over my wife to the executioner?'

               And the king said,

               'Who is thy wife that I should give her to the executioner?'

               The Dark King, taking the master of the palace by the hand, said,

               'This is my wife. Touch her who dares!'

               Then the king knew that it had been true when the master of the palace had alleged that she was not guilty of the charge the queen had brought against her, being a woman; and seeing clearly what had been the malice of the queen, he ordered the executioner to behead her instead, but the chicory-gatherer he gave up to the Dark King.

               Then the Dark King said to the chicory-gatherer,

               'I came at your bidding to defend you, and I said you were my wife to save your life; but whether you will be my wife or not depends on you. It is for you to say whether you will or not.'

               Then the maiden answered,

               'You have been all goodness to me; ungrateful indeed should I be did I not, as I now do, say "yes."'

               As soon as she said 'yes,' the earth shook, and she was no longer standing on a scaffold, but before an altar in a splendid cathedral, surrounded by a populous and flourishing city. By her side stood the Black King, but black no longer. He was now a most beautiful prince; for with all his kingdom he had been under enchantment, and the condition of his release had been that a fair maiden should give her free consent to marry him. [4]


Prior to the tale: Next we have a group where a younger sister of three comes to supernatural good fortune, without any previous envy or ill-treatment on the part of her elders.


[1] 'Il Rè Moro.'

[2] 'Moro' does not necessarily mean a Moor, it is continually used for any dark-complexioned person; also commonly for dark or black, as a pet name for a black dog, &c.

[3] The 'moccolaio.'

[4] The narrator ended this story with the following stanza:--

Si faceva le nozze         
Con pane e tozze,         
E polla vermiciosa,         
E viva la sposa!

               This is one of those rough verses with which such stories abound, and they have been rendered rougher than they originally were by substituting words which serve to retain the jingle after those conveying the sense are forgotten, like many of our own nursery-rhymes. The literal rendering of this one would be, 'So the marriage was celebrated with bread and hunches of bread, and a chicken stuffed with vermicelli. Long live the bride!' 'Vermiciosa' is not a dictionary word; 'vermicoloso' is the nearest, and probably a corruption of the same. Of course, primarily it means 'full of worms;' but as all the forms of words compounded out of the diminutive of 'verme,' a worm, may be applied to the fine kind of maccaroni which bears the same name, I am more inclined to think a fowl stuffed or served up with maccaroni is meant here--if it have any meaning at all beyond the purpose of a rhyme--rather than 'a wormy fowl,' the literal interpretation.

               I have met this same 'tag' again and again in the mouths of various narrators at the end of stories which end in a marriage. Another such, familiarly used by every Roman narrator, is:--

'Stretta la foglia,         
Larga la via (often, 'Stretta la via'),        
Dite la vostra, Larga la foglia,         
Ch' ho detto la mia.'

               ('Narrow the leaf, broad the way. Tell me your tale, for I've told you mine.') Perhaps originally it was 'Larga la voglia' (my willingness is ample, but my means of amusing you are restricted).

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Dark King, The (Il Rè Moro)
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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