THEY say there was a duke who wandered over the world seeking a beautiful maiden to make his wife.
After many years he came to an inn where was a lady, who asked him what he sought.
'I have journeyed half the earth over,' answered the duke, 'to find a wife to my fancy, and have not found one; and now I go back to my native city as I came.'
'How sad!' answered the lady. 'I have a daughter who is the most beautiful maiden that ever was made; but three fairies have taken possession of her, and locked her up in a casino in the Campagna, and no one can get to see her.'
'Only tell me where she is,' replied the duke, 'and I promise you I'll get to see her, in spite of all the fairies in the world.'
'It is useless!' replied the lady. 'So many have tried and failed. So will you.'
'Not I!' answered the duke. 'Tell me how they failed, and I will do otherwise.'
'I have told so many, and all say the same as you, and all go to seek her, but none ever come back.'
'Never mind! Tell it once again, and I promise you it shall be the last time, for I will surely come back.'
'If you are bent on sacrificing yourself uselessly,' proceeded the lady, 'this is the story. You must go to the mountain of Russia, and at the foot of it there will meet you three most beautiful maidens, who will come round you, and praise you, and flatter you, and pour out all manner of blandishments, and will ask you to go into their palace with them, and will entreat you so much that you will not be able to resist; then you will go into their palace with them, and they will turn you into a cat, for they are three fairies. But, on the other hand, if you can resist only for the space of one hour to all they will say to you, then you will have conquered, and they will be turned into cats, and you will have free access to my daughter to release her.'
'I will go,' said the duke firmly; and he rose up and went his way to the mountain of Russia.
'Now, if all these other men have failed in this same attempt,' he mused within himself as he went along, 'it behoves me to be prudent. I know what I will do; I will put a bandage over my eyes, and then I shan't see the fairies, and their blandishments will have no power over me.' And so he did.
Then the fairies came out to him and said, 'Signor Lattanzio! welcome, welcome! how fair you are; do take the bandage off and let us see you; how noble you look. Do let us see your face? We are dying to have you with us!'
But the duke remained firm, and seemed to take no heed, though their voices were so soft and persuasive that he longed to look at them, or even to lift up one corner of the bandage and take a peep. But he remained firm.
'Signor Lattanzio! Signor Lattanzio! Don't be so ungallant,' pursued the fairies. 'Here are we at your feet, as it were, begging you to give us your company, and you will not so much as speak to us, or even look at us!'
But the duke remained firm, and seemed to take no heed, though his head was turned by their accents, and he felt that if he could only go with them as they wished he should want no more. But he remained firm.
'Signor Lattanzio! Signor Lattanzio! Signor Lattanzio!' cried the three fairies disdainfully, for now they began to suspect in right good earnest that at last one had come who was too strong for them. 'The fact is you are afraid of us. If you are a man, show you have no fear, and come and talk with us.'
But the duke remained firm, though a vanity, which had nearly lost him, whispered that it would be a grander triumph to look them in the face and yet resist them, than to conquer without having ventured to look at them, yet prudence prevailed, and he remained firm.
So they went on, and the duke felt that the hour was drawing to a close. He took out his repeater and struck it, and the hour of trial was over.
'Traitor!' cried the three fairies, and in the same instant they were turned into cats. Then the duke went into their palace, and took their wand, and with it he could open the gates of the casino where the lady's daughter was imprisoned.
When he saw her, he found her indeed fairer than the fairest; fairer even than his conception.
When, therefore, with the wand he had restored all the cats that were upon the mountain to their natural shapes as those that had failed in their enterprise, he took her home with him to be his wife.