THERE was once, I don't know where, a king, who had three sons. They had reached a marriageable age, but could not find any one who suited them, or who pleased their father. "Go, my sons, and look round in the world," said the king, "and try to find wives somewhere else." The three sons went away, and at bed-time they came to a small cottage, in which a very, very old woman lived. She asked them about the object of their journey, which the princes readily communicated to her. The old woman provided them with the necessaries for the journey as well as she could, and before taking leave of her guests, gave them an orange each, with instructions to cut them open only in the neighbourhood of water, else they would suffer great, very great damage. The three princes started on their way again, and the eldest not being able to restrain his curiosity as to what sort of fruit it could be, or to conceive what harm could possibly happen if he cut it open in a place where there was no water near: cut into the orange; and lo! a beautiful girl, such as he had never seen before, came out of it, and exclaimed, "Water! let me have some water, or I shall die on the spot." The prince ran in every direction to get water, but could not find any, and the beautiful girl died in a short time, as the old woman had said. The princes went on, and now the younger one began to be inquisitive as to what could be in his orange.
They had just sat down to luncheon on a plain, under a tall, leafy tree, when it appeared to them that they could see a lake not very far off. "Supposing there is a girl in the fruit, I can fulfil her wish," he thought to himself, and not being able to restrain his curiosity any longer, as to what sort of girl there could be inside, he cut his orange; and lo! a girl, very much more beautiful than the first, stepped out of it, and called out for water, in order to save her life. He had previously sent his brother to what he thought was a lake; and, as he could not wait for his return with the water, he ran off himself, quite out of breath, but the further he ran the further the lake appeared to be off, because it was only a mirage. He rushed back to the tree nearly beside himself, in order to see whether the girl was yet alive, but only found her body lifeless, and quite cold.
The two elder brothers, seeing that they had lost what they had been searching for, and having given up all hope of finding a prettier one, returned in great sorrow to their father's house, and the youngest continued his journey alone. He wandered about until, after much fatigue, he came to the neighbourhood of some town, where he found a well. He had no doubt that there was a girl in his orange also, so he took courage, and cut it; and, indeed, a girl, who was a hundred times prettier than the first two, came out of it. She called out for water, and the prince gave her some at once, and death had no power over her. The prince now hurried into the town to purchase rich dresses for his love; and that no harm might happen to her during his absence, he made her sit up in a tree with dense foliage, the boughs of which overhung the well.
As soon as the prince left, a gipsy woman came to the well for water. She looked into the well, and saw in the water the beautiful face of the girl in the tree. At first she fancied that she saw the image of her own face, and felt very much flattered; but soon found out her mistake, and looking about discovered the pretty girl in the tree. "What are you waiting for, my pretty maid?" inquired the gipsy woman with a cunning face. The girl told her her story, whereupon the gipsy woman, shamming kindness, climbed up the tree, and pushed the pretty girl into the well, taking her place in the tree, when the pretty girl sank. The next moment a beautiful little gold fish appeared swimming in the water; the gipsy woman recognised it as the girl, and, being afraid that it might be dangerous to her, tried to catch it, when suddenly the prince appeared with the costly dresses, so she at once laid her plans to deceive him: the prince immediately noticed the difference between her and the girl he had left; but she succeeded in making him believe that for a time after having left the fairy world, she had to lose her beauty, but that she would recover it the sooner the more he loved her: so the prince was satisfied and went home to his father's house with the woman he found, and actually loved her in hopes of her regaining her former beauty. The good food and happy life, and also the pretty dresses, improved the sunburnt woman's looks a little: the prince imagining that his wife's prediction was going to be fulfilled, felt still more attached to her, and was anxious to carry out all her wishes.
The woman, however, could not forget the little gold fish, and therefore feigned illness, saying that she would not get better till she had eaten of the liver of a gold fish, which was to be found in such and such a well: the prince had the fish caught at once, and the princess having partaken of the liver, got better, and felt more cheerful than before. It happened, however, that one scale of the fish had been cast out in the courtyard with the water, and from it a beautiful tree began to grow; the princess noticed it and found out the reason, how the tree got there, and again fell ill, and said that she could not get better until they burnt the tree, and cooked her something by the flames. This wish also was fulfilled, and she got better; it happened, however that one of the woodcutters took a square piece of the timber home to his wife, who used it as a lid for a milk jug: these people lived not very far from the royal palace, and were poor, the woman herself keeping the house, and doing all servants' work.
One day she left her house very early, without having put anything in order, and without having done her usual household work; when she came home in the evening, she found all clean, and in the best order; she was very much astonished, and could not imagine how it came to pass; and it happened thus on several days, whenever she had not put her house in order before going out. In order to find out how these things were accomplished, one day she purposely left her home in disorder, but did not go far, but remained outside peeping through the keyhole, to see what would happen. As soon as everything became quiet in the house, the woman saw that the lid of the milk jug which was standing in the window, began to move with gentle noise, and in a few moments a beautiful fairy stepped out of it, who first combed her golden tresses, and performed her toilet, and afterwards put the whole house in order. The woman, in order to trap the fairy before she had time to retransform herself, opened the door abruptly. They both seemed astonished, but the kind and encouraging words of the woman soon dispelled the girl's fear, and now she related her whole story, how she came into the world, how she became a gold fish, and then a tree, and how she used to walk out of the wooden lid of the milk jug to tidy the house; she also enlightened the woman as to who the present queen was. The woman listened to all in great astonishment, and in order to prevent the girl from slipping back into the lid, she had previously picked it up, when she entered, and now threw it into the fire. She at once went to the prince, and told him the whole story.
The prince had already grown suspicious about his wife's beauty, which had been very long in returning, and now he was quite sure that she was a cheat: he sent for the girl and recognised her at once as the pretty fairy whom he had left in the tree. The gipsy woman was put into the pillory, and the prince married the pretty girl, and they lived ever after in happiness.