THE THREE BLACK DOGS.
THE wind roared through the tall fir-trees, and swept the snow-flakes in masses against the window-panes; the rafters rattled and the casements clattered; but dismally, above the roaring and the clattering, sounded the howling of three black dogs at the cottage-door; for their good master lay on the pallet within, near his end, and never more should he urge them on to the joyous hunt.
The old man was stark and grey; one bony hand held fast the bed-clothes with convulsive clutch, and one rested in benediction on the dark locks of his only son kneeling by his side. Long he lay as if at the last gasp. Then suddenly raising his weary head from the pillow, he exclaimed, "Jössl, my son, forget not to pray for your father when he is no more." And Jössl sobbed in reply.
"Jössl," continued the old man, with painful effort, "you know fortune has never favoured me in this world: you are my noble boy, and I would have left you rich enough to be a great man, as your looks would have you--but it was not to be! Jössl, it was not to be!" and the old man sank back upon the bed, and hid his face and wept.
"Father, you have taught me to labour, to be honest, to face danger, and to fear God!" said the brave youth, throwing himself upon him and caressing his hollow cheeks; "that was the best inheritance you could leave me."
"Well said! my noble son," replied the father. "But you are young to rough the world by yourself; and I have nothing to leave you but the Three Black Dogs--my faithful dogs--they are howling my death-knell without. Let them in, Jössl--they are all you have now in the world!"
Jössl went to let them in; and as he did so the old man's eyes glazed over and his spirit fled, and Jössl returned to find only a corpse.
The Three Black Dogs ceased their howling when they saw his grief, and came and fawned upon him and licked his hands. For three days they remained mourning together; and then the men came and buried the father. Other people came to live in the cottage, and Jössl went out to wander over the wide world, the Three Black Dogs following behind.
When there was a day's work to be done they fared well enough. Though he had so fair a face and so noble a bearing, Jössl was always ready to apply his stalwart limbs to labour, and what he earned he shared with the Three Black Dogs, who whined and fawned and seemed to say,--
"We are eating your bread in idleness now; but never mind, the day will come when we will earn you yours."
But when there was no work to be had, when the storm beat and the winter wind raged, Jössl was fain to share a peasant's meal where he could find pity by the way, and many there were who said, "God be gracious unto thee, my son," when they saw his comely face; but the Black Dogs slunk away, as if ashamed that their master's son should have to beg, not only for himself, but for them also.
Better times came with the spring; and then there was the hay-cutting, and the harvesting, and the vintage, and Jössl found plenty of work. But still he journeyed on, and the Three Black Dogs behind.
At last he saw in the distance the towers of a great city, and he hasted on, for all his life he had lived in the mountains, and had never seen a town.
But when he reached it, he found that though it was a vast city, it was empty and desolate. Broad well-paved roads crossed it, but they were more deserted than the mountain-tracks. There were workshops, and smithies, and foundries, and ovens, but all silent and empty, and no sound was heard! Then he looked up, and saw that every house was draped with black, and black banners hung from the towers and palaces.
Still not a human being appeared, either in the public squares or at the house-windows; so he still wandered on, and the Three Black Dogs behind.
At last he espied in the distance a waggoner with his team coming through the principal road which traversed the city, and lost no time in making his way up to him and asking what this unearthly stillness meant.
The waggoner cracked his whip and went on, as if he were frightened and in a hurry; but Jössl kept up with him. So he told him, as they went along, that for many years past a great Dragon had devastated the country, eating up all the inhabitants he found in the way, so that every one shunned the streets; nor should he be going through now, but that need obliged him to pass that way, and he got through the place as quickly as he could. But, he added, there was less danger for him now, because lately they had found that if every morning some one was put in his way to devour, that served him for the day, and he left off teasing and worrying others as he had been used to do; so that now a lot was cast every day, and upon whomsoever of the inhabitants the lot fell, he had to go out upon the highway early the next morning that the dragon might devour him and spare the rest.
Just then a crier came into the street, and proclaimed that the lot that day had fallen on the king's daughter, and that to-morrow morning she must be exposed to the dragon.
The people, who had come to the windows to hear what the crier had to say, now no longer kept within doors. Every one was so shocked to think that the lot had fallen on their beautiful young princess, that they all came running out into the streets to bewail her fate aloud; and the old king himself came into their midst, tearing his clothes and plucking out his white hair, while the tears ran fast down his venerable beard.
When Jössl saw that, it reminded him of his own father, and he could not bear to see his tears.
Then the king sent the crier out again to proclaim that if any one would fight the dragon, and deliver his daughter, he should have her hand, together with all his kingdom. But the fear of the dragon was so great on all the people of the city that there was not one would venture to encounter it, even for the sake of such a prize.
Every hour through the day the crier went out and renewed the proclamation. But every one was too much afraid of the dragon to make the venture, and Jössl, though he felt he would have courage to meet the dragon; could not find heart to come forward before all the people of the king's court, and profess to do what no one else could do. So the hours went by all through the day and all through the night, and no one had appeared to deliver the princess.
Then daybreak came, and with it the mournful procession which was to conduct the victim to the outskirts of the city; and all the people came out to see it, weeping. The old king came down the steps of the palace to deliver up his daughter; and it was all the people could do to hold him back from giving himself up in her place.
But when the moment of parting from her came, the thought was so dreadful that he could not bring himself to make the sacrifice; and when he should have given her up he only clasped her the tighter in his arms. Then the people began to murmur. They said, "The hour is advancing, and the dragon will be upon us, and make havoc among us all. When the lot fell upon one of us, we gave up our wives, and our fathers, and our children; and now the same misfortune has visited you, you must do no less;" and as the time wore on they grew more and more angry and discontented.
This increased the distress and terror of the king, and he raved with despair.
When Jössl found matters as bad as this, he forgot his bashfulness, and coming forward through the midst of the crowd, he asked permission to go out to meet the dragon; "and if I fail," he added, "at least I shall have prolonged the most precious life by one day;" and he bent down and kissed the hem of the princess's garment.
When the princess heard his generous words she took heart, and looked up, and was right glad to see one of such noble bearing for her deliverer. But the old king, without stopping to look at him, threw himself on his neck and kissed him with delight, and called him his son, and promised him there was nothing of all the crier had proclaimed that should not be fulfilled.
The discontent of the people was changed into admiration; and they accompanied Jössl to the city gates with shouts of encouragement as he went forth to meet the dragon, and the Three Black Dogs behind.
If the king's daughter had been pleased with the appearance of her deliverer, Jössl had every reason to be no less delighted with that of the lady to whom he was about to devote his life.
Full of hope and enthusiasm, he passed on through the midst of the people--regardless of their shouts, for he was thinking only of her--and the Three Black Dogs behind.
It was past the time when the dragon usually received his victim, and he was advancing rapidly towards the city walls, roaring horribly, and "swinging the scaly horrors of his folded tail." The fury of the monster might have made a more practised arm tremble, but Jössl thought of his father's desire that he should be a great man, and do brave deeds, and his courage only seemed to grow as the danger approached. He walked so straight towards the dragon, with a step so firm and so unlike the trembling gait of his usual victims, that it almost disconcerted him. When they had approached each other within a hundred paces, Jössl called to his dog Lightning, "At him, good dog!" At the first sound of his voice Lightning sprang to the attack, and with such celerity that the dragon had no time to decide how to meet his antagonist.
"Fetch him down, Springer!" cried Jössl next; and the second dog, following close on Lightning's track, sprang upon the dragon's neck, and held him to the ground.
"Finish him, Gulper!" shouted Jössl; and the third dog, panting for the order, was even with the others in a trice, and fixing his great fangs in the dragon's flesh, snapped his spine like glass, and bounded back with delight to his master's feet.
Jössl, only stopping to caress his dogs, drew his knife, and cut out the dragon's tongue; and then returned to the city with his trophy, and the Three Black Dogs behind.
If the people had uttered jubilant shouts when he started, how much more now at his victorious return! The king and his daughter heard the shout in their palace, and came down to meet the conqueror.
"Behold my daughter!" said the old king: "take her; she is yours, and my kingdom with her! I owe all to you, and in return I give you all I have."
"Nay, sire," interposed Jössl; "that you give me permission to approach the princess is all I ask, and that she will deign to let me think that I may be one day found not unworthy of her hand. But as regards your kingdom, that is not for me. I am but a poor lad, and have never had any thing to command but my Three Black Dogs: how should I, then, order the affairs of a kingdom?"
The king and all the people, and the princess above all, were pleased with his modesty and grace; and they sounded his praises, and those of his Three Black Dogs too, and conducted them with him to the palace, where Jössl received a suit of embroidered clothes and the title of duke, and was seated next the princess.
The king, finding that he was resolute in refusing to accept the crown, determined to adopt him for his son; and had him instructed in every thing becoming a prince, so that he might be fit to succeed him at his death. To the Three Black Dogs were assigned three kennels and three collars of gold, with three pages to wait on them; and whenever Jössl went on a hunting-party, his Three Black Dogs had precedence of all the king's dogs.
As time wore on Jössl had other opportunities of distinguishing himself; and by little and little he came to be acknowledged as the most accomplished courtier and the most valiant soldier in the kingdom.
The princess had admired his good looks and his self-devotion from the first, but when she found him so admired and courted by all the world too, her esteem and her love for him grew every day, till at last she consented to fulfil the king's wish, and they were married with great pomp and rejoicing. Never was there a handsomer pair; and never was there a braver procession of lords and ladies and attendants, than that which followed them that day, with music and with bells, and the Three Black Dogs behind.