FAR, very far, there was once, I do not know where, even beyond the frozen Operencian Sea, a poplar-tree, on the top of which there was a very old, tattered petticoat. In the tucks of this old petticoat I found the following tale. Whosoever listens to it will not see the kingdom of heaven.
There was in the world a poor man and this poor man had twelve sons. The man was so poor that sometimes he had not even enough wood to make a fire with. So he had frequently to go into the forest and would pick up there what he could find. One day, as he could not come across anything else, he was just getting ready to cut up a huge tree-stump, and, in fact, had already driven his axe into it, when an immense, dread-inspiring serpent, as big as a grown-up lad, crept out of the stump. The poor man began to ponder whether to leave it or to take it home with him; it might bring him luck or turn out a disastrous venture. At last he made up his mind that after all was said and done he would take it home with him. And so it happened, he picked up the creature and carried it home. His wife was not a little astonished at seeing him arrive with his burden, and said, "What on earth induced you, master, to bring that ugly creature home? It will frighten all the children to death."
"No fear, wife," replied the man; "they won't be afraid of it; on the contrary, they will be glad to have it to play with."
As it was just meal-time, the poor woman dished out the food and placed it on the table. The twelve children were soon seated and busily engaged with their spoons, when suddenly the serpent began to talk from underneath the table, and said, "Mother, dear, let me have some of that soup."
They were all not a little astonished at hearing a serpent talk; and the woman ladled out a plateful of soup and placed it under the bench. The snake crept to the plate and in another minute had drunk up the soup, and said: "I say, father, will you go into the larder and fetch me a loaf of bread?"
"Alas! my son," replied the poor man, "it is long--very long--since there was any bread in the larder. I was wealthy then; but now the very walls of the larder are coming down."
"Just try, father, and fetch me a loaf from there."
"What's the good of my going, when there is nothing to be found there?"
"Just go and see."
After a good deal of pressing the poor man went to the larder when--oh, joy!--he was nearly blinded by the sight of the mass of gold, silver, and other treasure; it glittered on all sides. Moreover, bacon and hams were hanging from the roof, casks filled with honey, milk, &c., standing on the floor; the bins were full of flour; in a word, there were to be seen all imaginable things to bake and roast. The poor man rushed back and fetched the family to see the miracle, and they were all astounded, but did not dare to touch anything.
Then the serpent again spoke and said "Listen to me, mother dear. Go up to the king and ask him to give me his daughter in marriage."
"Oh, my dear son, how can you ask me to do that? You must know that the king is a great man, and he would not even listen to a pauper like myself."
"Just go and try."
So the poor woman went to the king's palace, knocked at the door, and, entering, greeted the king, and said: "May the Lord grant you a happy good day, gracious king!"
"May the Lord grant the same to you, my good woman. What have you brought? What can I do for you?"
"Hum! most gracious king, I hardly dare to speak ... but still I will tell you.... My son has sent me to request your majesty to give him your youngest daughter in marriage."
"I will grant him the request, good woman, on one condition. If your son will fill with gold a sack of the size of a full-grown man, and send it here, he can have the princess at any minute."
The poor woman was greatly pleased at hearing this; returned home and delivered the message.
"That can easily be done, dear mother. Let's have a wagon, and the king shall have the gold to a grain."
And so it happened. They borrowed a wagon of the king, the serpent filled a sack of the required size full of gold, and put a heap of gold and diamonds loose in the wagon besides. The king was not a little astonished, and exclaimed, "Well! upon my word, although I am a king I do not possess so much gold as this lad." And the princess was accordingly given away.
It happened that the two elder princesses were also to be married shortly, and orders were issued by the king that the wedding of his youngest daughter should take place at the same time. The state carriage was therefore wheeled out of the shed, six fine horses were put to it, the youngest princess sat in it and drove straight to the poor man's cottage to fetch her bridegroom. But the poor girl very nearly jumped out of the coach when she saw the snake approaching. But the snake tried to allay her fears and said, "Don't shrink from me, I am your bridegroom," and with this crept into the carriage. The bride--poor thing, what could she do?--put her arm round the snake and covered him with her shawl, as she did not wish to let the whole town know her misfortune. Then they drove to church. The priest threw up his arms in amazement when he saw the bridegroom approach the altar. From church they drove to the castle. There kings, princes, dukes, barons, and deputy-lieutenants of the counties were assembled at the festival and enjoying themselves; they were all dancing their legs off in true Magyar style, and very nearly kicked out the sides of the dancing-room, when suddenly the youngest princess entered, followed by her bridegroom, who crept everywhere after her. The king upon seeing this grew very angry, and exclaimed, "Get out of my sight! A girl who will marry such a husband does not deserve to stay under the same roof with me, and I will take care that you two do not remain here. Body-guards, conduct this woman with her snake-husband down into the poultry-yard, and lock them up in the darkest poultry-house among the geese. Let them stay there, and don't allow them to come here to shock my guests with their presence."
And so it happened. The poor couple were locked up with the geese; there they were left crying and weeping, and lived in great sorrow until the day when the curse expired, and the snake--who was a bewitched prince--became a very handsome young man, whose very hair was of pure gold. And, as you may imagine, great was the bride's joy when she saw the change.
"I say, love," spoke her prince, "I will go home to my father's and fetch some clothes and other things; in the meantime, stay here; don't be afraid. I shall be back ere long without fail."
Then the prince shook himself and became a white pigeon, and flew away. Having arrived at his father's place he said to his parent, "My dear father, let me have back my former horse, my saddle, sword, gun, and all my other goods and chattels. The power of the curse has now passed away, and I have taken a wife to myself."
"The horse is in the stables, my son, and all your other things are up in the loft."
The prince led out his horse, fetched down his things from the loft, put on his rich uniform all glittering with gold, mounted his charger, and flew up into the air. He was yet at a good distance from the castle where the festivities were still going on, when all the loveliest princesses turned out and crowded the balconies to see who the great swell was whom they saw coming. He did not pass under the crossbeam of the gate, but flew over it like a bird. He tied his charger to a tree in the yard, and then entered the castle and walked among the dancers. The dance was immediately stopped, everybody gazed upon him and admired him, and tried to get into his favour. For amusement several of the guests did various tricks; at last his turn came, and by Jove! he did show them things that made the guests open their mouths and eyes in astonishment. He could transform himself into a wild duck, a pigeon, a quail, and so on, into anything one could conceive of.
After the conjuring was over he went into the poultry-yard to fetch his bride. He made her a hundred times prettier than she already was, and dressed her up in rich garments of pure silver and gold. The assembled guests were very sorry that the handsome youth in rich attire, who had shown them such amusing and clever tricks, had so soon left them.
All at once the king remembered the newly-married couple and thought he would go to see what the young folks were doing in the poultry-yard. He sent down a few of his friends, who were nearly overpowered by the shine and glitter on looking into the poultry-house. They at once unlocked the door, and led the bride and bridegroom into their royal father's presence. When they entered the castle, every one was struck with wonder at discovering that the bridegroom was no one else than the youth who had amused them shortly before.
Then the bridegroom walked up to the king and said: "Gracious majesty, my father and king, for the past twelve years I lay under a curse and was compelled to wear a serpent's skin. When I entered, not long ago, your castle in my former plight, I was the laughing-stock of everybody, all present mocked me. But now, as my time of curse has passed, let me see the man who can put himself against me."
"There is, indeed, nobody, no man living," replied the king.
The bridegroom then led off his bride to the dance, and celebrated such a fine wedding, that it was talked of over seven countries.