IT HAPPENED once upon a time, many years ago, that a certain king went into his forest to hunt, when instead of the usual game he caught a wild man. This wild man the king had taken to his castle, and locked up, for safety, in a dungeon. This done, he put out a proclamation that whosoever should dare to set the wild man free should be put to death.
As luck would have it, the dungeon where the creature was confined was just below the sleeping-room of the king's youngest son. Now the wild man cried and groaned incessantly to be set free, and these unceasing lamentations at length so moved the young prince that one night he went down and opened the dungeon door, and let out the prisoner.
Next morning the king and all the courtiers and servants were exceedingly astonished to hear no longer the usual sounds of wailing from the dungeon, and the king, suspecting something amiss, went down himself to see what had become of his captive. When he found the den empty he flew into a great passion, and demanded fiercely who had presumed to disobey his commands and let out the wild man. All the courtiers were so terrified at the sight of the king's angry countenance, that not one of them dared speak, not even to assert their innocence. However, the young prince, the king's son, went forward at last and confessed that the pitiful crying of the poor creature had so disturbed him day and night, that at length he himself had opened the door. When the king heard this, it was his turn to be sorry, for he found himself compelled to put his own son to death or give his own proclamation the lie.
However, some of his old counsellors, seeing how greatly the king was perplexed and troubled, came and assured his Majesty that the proclamation would in reality be carried out if the prince, instead of being put to death, was simply banished from the kingdom for ever.
The king was very glad to find this way of getting out of the dilemma, and so ordered his son to leave the country, and never come back to it, at the same time he gave him many letters of recommendation to the king of a very distant kingdom, and directed one of the court servants to go with the young prince to wait upon him. Then the unhappy young prince and his servant started on their long journey.
After travelling some time, the young prince became very thirsty, and, seeing a well not far off, went up to it to drink. However, there happened to be no bucket at the well, nor anything in which to draw water, though the well was pretty full. Seeing this, the young prince said to his servant, 'Hold me fast by the heels, and let me down into the pit that I may drink.' So saying, he bent over the well, and the servant let him down as he was directed.
When the prince had quenched his thirst, and wished to be pulled back, the servant refused, saying, 'Now I can let you fall into the pit in a moment, and I shall do so unless you consent at once to change clothes and places with me. I will be the prince henceforth, and you shall be my servant.'
The king's son, seeing that he had foolishly placed himself in the power of the servant, promised readily everything his servant asked, and begged only to be drawn up.
But the faithless servant, without noticing his master's prayers, said roughly, 'You must make a solemn oath that you will not speak a word to any one about the change we are going to make.'
Of course, since the prince could not help himself, he took the oath at once, and then the servant drew him up, and they changed clothes. Then the wicked servant dressed himself in his master's fine clothes, mounted his master's horse, and rode forward on the journey, whilst the unfortunate prince, disguised in his servant's dress, walked beside him.
In this way they went on until they came to the court of the king to which the exiled son had been recommended by his father.
Faithful to his promise, the unfortunate prince saw his false servant received at the court with great honours as the son of a great king, whilst he himself, all unnoticed, stood in the waiting-room with the servants, and was treated by them with all familiarity as their equal.
After having some time enjoyed to his heart's content the hospitalities the king lavished upon him, the false servant began to be afraid that his master's patience might be wearied out soon, under all the indignities to which he was exposed, and that one day he might be tempted to forget his oath and proclaim himself in his true character. Filled with these misgivings, the wicked man thought over all possible ways by which he could do away with his betrayed master without any danger to himself.
One day he thought he had found out a way to do this, and took the first opportunity to carry out his cruel plan.
Now you must know that the king at whose court this unhappy prince and the false servant were staying, kept in his gardens a great number of wild beasts fastened up in large cages. One morning, as the pretended prince was walking in these gardens with the king, he said suddenly, 'Your Majesty has a large number of very fine wild beasts, and I admire them very much; I think, however, it is a pity that you keep them always fastened up, and spend so much money over their food. Why not send them under a keeper to find their own food in the forest? I dare say your Majesty would be very glad if I recommended a man to you who could take them out in the morning and bring them back safely at night?'
The king asked, 'Do you really think, prince, that you can find me such a man?'
'Of course, I can,' replied unhesitatingly the cruel man; 'such a man is now in your Majesty's court. I mean my own servant. Only call him and threaten that you will have his head cut off if he does not do it, and compel him to accept the task. I dare say he will try to excuse himself, and say the thing is impossible, but only threaten him with the loss of his head whether he refuses or fails. For my part, I am quite willing your Majesty should have him put to death, if he disobeys.'
When the king heard this, he summoned the disguised prince before him, and said, 'I hear that you can do wonders: that you are able to drive wild beasts out like cattle to find their own food in the forest, and bring them back safely at night into their cages. Therefore, I order you this morning to drive all my bears into the forest, and to bring them back again in the evening. If you don't do this, your head will pay for it; so beware!'
The unlucky prince answered, 'I am not able to do this thing, so your Majesty had better cut off my head at once.'
But the king would not listen to him, only saying, 'We will wait until evening; then I shall surely have your head cut off unless you bring back all my bears safely to their cages.'
Now nothing was left for the poor prince to do but open the cage-doors and try his luck in driving the bears to the forest. The moment he opened the doors all the bears rushed out wildly, and disappeared quickly among the trees.
The prince followed them sadly into the forest, and sat down on a fallen tree to think over his hard fortunes. As he sat thus, he began to weep bitterly, for he saw no better prospect before him than to lose his head at night.
As he sat thus crying, a creature in form like a man, but covered all over with thick hair, came out of a neighbouring thicket, and asked him what he was crying for. Then the prince told him all that had happened to him, and that as all the bears had run away he expected to be beheaded at night when he returned without them. Hearing this, the wild man gave him a little bell, and said kindly, 'Don't be afraid! Only take care of this bell, and when you wish the bears to return, just ring it gently, and they will all come back and follow you quietly into their cages.' And having said this he went away.
When the sun began to go down, the prince rang the little bell gently, and, to his great joy, all the bears came dancing awkwardly round him, and let him lead them back to the gardens, following him like a flock of sheep, whilst he, pleased with his success, took out a flute and played little airs as he walked before them. In this way he was able to fasten them up again in their dens without the least trouble.
Every one at the court was astonished at this, and the false servant more than all the others, though he concealed his surprise, and said to the king, 'Your Majesty sees now that I told you the truth. I am quite sure the man can manage the wolves just as well as the bears, if you only threaten him as before.'
Thereupon, the next morning the king called the poor prince, and ordered him to lead out the wolves to find their food in the forest and to bring them back to their cages at night. 'Unless you do this,' said his Majesty, as before, 'you will lose your head.'
The prince pleaded vainly the impossibility of his doing such a thing; but the king would not hear him, only saying, 'You may as well try, for whether you refuse or fail you will certainly lose your head.'
So the prince was obliged to open the cages of the wolves, and the moment he did this the wild animals sprang past him into the thickets just as the bears had done, and he, following them slowly, went and sat down to bewail his ill-luck.
Whilst he sat thus weeping, the wild man came out of the wood and asked him, just as he had done the day before, what he was crying for. The prince told him, whereupon the creature gave him another little bell, and said, 'When you want the wolves to come back, just ring this bell, and they will all come and follow you.' Having said this he went back into the wood, and left the prince alone.
Just before it grew dark, the prince rang his bell, and to his great joy all the wolves came rushing up to him from all quarters of the forest, and followed him quietly back to their cages.
Seeing this, the false servant advised the king to send out the birds also, and to threaten the disguised prince with the loss of his head if he failed to bring them also back in the evening.
Accordingly the next morning the king ordered the prince to let out all the wild doves, and to bring them all safely to their different cages before night set in.
The instant the poor young man opened the cage-doors the wild doves rose like a cloud into the air, and vanished over the tops of the trees. So the prince went into the forest and sat down again on the fallen tree. As he sat there, thinking how hopeless a task he had now before him, he could not help crying aloud and bewailing all his past misfortunes and present miserable fate.
Hardly had he begun to lament, however, before the same wild man came from the bushes near him and asked what fresh trouble had befallen him. Then the prince told him. Thereupon the wild man gave him a third bell, saying, 'When you wish the wild doves to return to their cages you have only to ring this little bell.' And so it indeed happened, for the moment the prince began ringing softly, all the doves came flying about him, and he walked back to the palace gardens and shut them up in their different cages without the least trouble.
Now, happily for the prince, the king had just at this time much more important business on his hands than finding his wild beasts and birds in food without paying for it. No less a matter, in fact, began to occupy him than the finding a suitable husband for his daughter. For this purpose he sent out a proclamation that he would hold races during three days, and would reward the victor of each day with a golden apple. Whosoever should succeed in winning all three apples should have the young princess for his wife. Now this princess was far more beautiful than any other princess in the world, and an exceeding great number of knights prepared to try and win her. This, the poor prince in his servant's dress watched with great dismay; for he had fallen deeply in love with the fair daughter of the king. So he puzzled himself day and night with plans how he, too, could try his luck in the great race.
At last he determined to go into the forest and ask the wild man to help him. When the wild man heard the prince calling, he came out of the thicket, and listened to all he had to say about the matter. Seeing how much the prince was interested in the young princess, who was to be the prize of the victor, the wild man brought out some handsome clothes and a fine horse, and gave them to the prince, saying, 'When you start in a race, do not urge your horse too much, but at the end, when you are getting near the goal, spur him, and then you will be sure to win. Don't forget, however, to bring me the golden apple as soon as you receive it.'
All came to pass just as the wild man had said. The prince won the apples the two first days; but as he disappeared as soon as he received them from the king, no one in the court recognised him in his fine attire, and all wondered greatly who the stranger knight might be. As for the king, he was more perplexed and curious than all the rest, and determined not to let the stranger escape so easily the third day. So he ordered a deep, wide ditch to be dug at the end of the race-course, and a high wall built beyond it, thinking thus to stop the victor and find out who he was.
The prince, hearing of the king's orders, and guessing the reason of them, went once again into the forest to ask help from his wild friend. The wild man, thereupon, brought out to him a still more beautiful racer, and a suit of splendid clothes; and, thus prepared, the prince took his place as before among the knights who were going to try for the prize. He won the golden apple this third time also; but, to the surprise of the king and the whole court, who hoped now to find out who he was, he made his horse spring lightly over the ditch, and the great wall, and vanished again in the forest.
The king tried every way to find out who had won the three golden apples, but all in vain. At last, one day, the princess, walking in the gardens of the palace, met the prince disguised in his servant's dress, and saw the shining of the three apples which he carried concealed in his bosom. Thereupon she ran at once to her father, and told him what she had seen, and the king, wondering very much, called the servant before him.
Now the prince thought it time to put an end to all his troubles, and therefore told the king frankly all his misfortunes. He related how he had offended the king, his father, and been exiled for life; how his false servant had betrayed him; and how the wild man he had set free had come to help him out of the fearful snares the wicked servant had spread for him.
After hearing all this, the king very gladly gave him the princess for wife, and ordered the false servant to be put to death immediately.
As for the prince, he lived with his beautiful princess very happily for many years after this, and when the king, his father-in-law, died, he left to them both the kingdom.