ONCE upon a time, a long while ago, there lived in a very far-off country, a young nobleman who was so exceedingly poor that all his property was an old castle, a handsome horse, a trusty hound, and a good rifle.
This nobleman spent all his time in hunting and shooting, and lived entirely on the produce of the chase.
One day he mounted his well-kept horse and rode off to the neighbouring forest, accompanied, as usual, by his faithful hound. When he came to the forest he dismounted, fastened his horse securely to a young tree, and then went deep into the thicket in search of game. The hound ran on at a distance before his master, and the horse remained all alone, grazing quietly. Now it happened that a hungry fox came by that way, and seeing how well-fed and well-trimmed the horse was, stopped a while to admire him. By-and-by she was so charmed with the handsome horse, that she lay down in the grass near him to bear him company.
Some time afterwards the young nobleman came back out of the forest, carrying a stag that he had killed, and was extremely surprised to see the fox lying so near his horse. So he raised his rifle with the intention of shooting her; but the fox ran up to him quickly and said, 'Do not kill me! Take me with you, and I will serve you faithfully. I will take care of your fine horse whilst you are in the forest.'
The fox spoke so pitifully that the nobleman was sorry for her, and agreed to her proposal. Thereupon he mounted his horse, placed the stag he had shot before him, and rode back to his old castle, followed closely by his hound and his new servant, the fox.
When the young nobleman prepared his supper, he did not forget to give the fox a due share, and she congratulated herself that she was never likely to be hungry again, at least so long as she served so skilful a hunter.
The next morning the nobleman went out again to the chase, the fox also accompanied him. When the young man dismounted and bound his horse, as usual, to a tree, the fox lay down near it to bear it company.
Now, whilst the hunter was far off in the depth of the forest looking for game, a hungry bear came by the place where the horse was tied, and, seeing how invitingly fat it looked, ran up to kill it. The fox hereupon sprang up and begged the bear not to hurt the horse, telling him if he was hungry he had only to wait patiently until her master came back from the forest, and then she was quite sure that the good nobleman would take him also to his castle and feed him, and care for him, as he did for his horse, his hound, and herself.
The bear pondered over the matter very wisely and deeply for some time, and at length resolved to follow the fox's advice. Accordingly he lay down quietly near the horse, and waited for the return of the huntsman. When the young noble came out of the forest he was greatly surprised to see so large a bear near his horse, and, dropping the stag he had shot from his shoulders, he raised his trusty rifle and was about to shoot the beast. The fox, however, ran up to the huntsman and entreated him to spare the bear's life, and to take him, also, into his service. This the nobleman agreed to do; and, mounting his horse, rode back to his castle, followed by the hound, the fox, and the bear.
The next morning, when the young man had gone again with his dog into the forest, and the fox and the bear lay quietly near the horse, a hungry wolf, seeing the horse, sprang out of a thicket to kill it. The fox and the bear, however, jumped up quickly and begged him not to hurt the horse, telling him to what a good master it belonged, and that they were sure, if he would only wait, he also would be taken into the same service, and would be well cared for. Thereupon the wolf, hungry though he was, thought it best to accept their counsel, and he also lay down with them in the grass until their master came out of the forest.
You can imagine how surprised the young nobleman was when he saw a great gaunt wolf lying so near his horse! However, when the fox had explained the matter to him, he consented to take the wolf, also, into his service. Thus it happened this day that he rode home followed by the dog, the fox, the bear, and the wolf. As they were all hungry, the stag he had killed was not too large to furnish their suppers that night, and their breakfasts next morning.
Not many days afterwards a mouse was added to the company, and after that a mole begged so hard for admission that the good nobleman could not find it in his heart to refuse her. Last of all came the great bird, the kumrekusha--so strong a bird that she can carry in her claws a horse with his rider! Soon after a hare was added to the company, and the nobleman took great care of all his animals and fed them regularly and well, so that they were all exceedingly fond of him.
One day the fox said to the bear, 'My good Bruin, pray run into the forest and bring me a nice large log, on which I can sit whilst I preside at a very important council we are going to hold.'
Bruin, who had a great respect for the quick wit and good management of the fox, went out at once to seek the log, and soon came back bringing a heavy one, with which the fox expressed herself quite satisfied. Then she called all the animals about her, and, having mounted the log, addressed them in these words:--
'You know all of you, my friends, how very kind and good a master we have. But, though he is very kind, he is also very lonely. I propose, therefore, that we find a fitting wife for him.'
The assembly was evidently well pleased with this idea, and responded unanimously, 'Very good, indeed, if we only knew any girl worthy to be the wife of our master; which, however, we do not.'
Then the fox said, 'I know that the king has a most beautiful daughter, and I think it will be a good thing to take her for our lord; and therefore I propose, further, that our friend the kumrekusha should fly at once to the king's palace, and hover about there until the princess comes out to take her walk. Then she must catch her up at once, and bring her here.'
As the kumrekusha was glad to do anything for her kind master, she flew away at once, without even waiting to hear the decision of the assembly on this proposal.
Just before evening set in, the princess came out to walk before her father's palace; whereupon the great bird seized her and placed her gently on her outspread wings, and thus carried her off swiftly to the young nobleman's castle.
The king was exceedingly grieved when he heard that his daughter had been carried off, and sent out everywhere proclamations promising rich rewards to any one who should bring her back, or even tell him where he might look for her. For a long time, however, all his promises were of no avail, for no one in the kingdom knew anything at all about the princess.
At last, however, when the king was well-nigh in despair, an old gipsy woman came to the palace and asked the king, 'What will you give me if I bring back to you your daughter, the princess?'
The king answered quickly, 'I will gladly give you whatever you like to ask, if only you bring me back my daughter!'
Then the old gipsy went back to her hut in the forest, and tried all her magical spells to find out where the princess was. At last she found out that she was living in an old castle, in a very distant country, with a young nobleman who had married her.
The gipsy was greatly pleased when she knew this, and taking a whip in her hand seated herself at once in the middle of a small carpet, and lashed it with her whip. Then the carpet rose up from the ground and bore her swiftly through the air, towards the far country where the young nobleman lived, in his lonely old castle, with his beautiful wife, and all his faithful company of beasts.
When the gipsy came near the castle she made the carpet descend on the grass among some trees, and leaving it there went to look about until she could meet the princess walking about the grounds. By-and-by the beautiful young lady came out of the castle, and immediately the ugly old woman went up to her, and began to fawn on her and to tell her all kinds of strange stories. Indeed, she was such a good story-teller that the princess grew quite tired of walking before she was tired of listening; so, seeing the soft carpet lying nicely on the green grass, she sat down on it to rest awhile. The moment she was seated the cunning old gipsy sat down by her, and, seizing her whip, lashed the carpet furiously. In the next minute the princess found herself borne upon the carpet far away from her husband's castle, and before long the gipsy made it descend into the garden of the king's palace.
You can easily guess how glad he was to see his lost daughter, and how generously he gave the gipsy even more than she asked as a reward. Then the king made the princess live from that time in a very secluded tower with only two waiting-women, so afraid was he lest she would again be stolen from him.
Meanwhile the fox, seeing how miserable and melancholy her young master appeared after his wife had so strangely been taken from him, and having heard of the great precautions which the king was using in order to prevent the princess being carried off again, summoned once more all the animals to a general council.
When all of them were gathered about her, the fox thus began: 'You know all of you, my dear friends, how happily our kind master was married; but you know, also, that his wife has been unhappily stolen from him, and that he is now far worse off than he was before we found the princess for him. Then he was lonely; now he is more than lonely--he is desolate! This being the case, it is clearly our duty, as his faithful servants, to try in some way to bring her back to him. This, however, is not a very easy matter, seeing that the king has placed his daughter for safety in a strong tower. Nevertheless, I do not despair, and my plan is this: I will turn myself into a beautiful cat, and play about in the palace gardens under the windows of the tower in which the princess lives. I dare say she will long for me greatly the moment she sees me, and will send her waiting-women down to catch me and take me up to her. But I will take good care that the maids do not catch me, so that, at last, the princess will forget her father's orders not to leave the tower, and will come down herself into the gardens to see if she may not be more successful. I will then make believe to let her catch me, and at this moment our friend, the kumrekusha, who must be hovering over about the palace, must fly down quickly, seize the princess, and carry her off as before. In this way, my dear friends, I hope we shall be able to bring back to our kind master his beautiful wife. Do you approve of my plan?'
Of course, the assembly were only too glad to have such a wise councillor, and to be able to prove their gratitude to their considerate master. So the fox ran up to the kumrekusha, who flew away with her under her wing, both being equally eager to carry out the project, and thus to bring back the old cheerful look to the face of their lord.
When the kumrekusha came to the tower wherein the princess dwelt she set the fox down quietly among the trees, where it at once changed into a most beautiful cat, and commenced to play all sorts of graceful antics under the window at which the princess sat. The cat was striped all over the body with many different colours, and before long the king's daughter noticed her, and sent down her two women to catch her and bring her up in the tower.
The two waiting-women came down into the garden, and called, 'Pussy! pussy!' in their sweetest voices; they offered her bread and milk, but they offered it all in vain. The cat sprang merrily about the garden, and ran round and round them, but would on no account consent to be caught.
At length the princess, who stood watching them at one of the windows of her tower, became impatient, and descended herself into the garden, saying petulantly, 'You only frighten the cat: let me try to catch her!' As she approached the cat, who seemed now willing to be caught, the kumrekusha darted down quickly, seized the princess by the waist, and carried her high up into the air.
The frightened waiting-women ran to report to the king what had happened to the princess; whereupon the king immediately let loose all his greyhounds to seize the cat which had been the cause of his daughter being carried off a second time. The dogs followed the cat closely, and were on the point of catching her, when she, just in the nick of time, saw a cave, with a very narrow entrance, and ran into it for shelter. There the dogs tried to follow her, or to widen the mouth of the cave with their claws, but all in vain; so, after barking a long time very furiously, they at length grew weary, and stole back ashamed and afraid to the king's stables.
When all the greyhounds were out of sight the cat changed herself back into a fox, and ran off in a straight line towards the castle, where she found her young master very joyful, for the kumrekusha had already brought back to him his beautiful wife.
Now the king was exceedingly angry to think that he had again lost his daughter, and he was all the more angry to think that such poor creatures as a bird and a cat had succeeded in carrying her off after all his precautions. So, in his great wrath, he resolved to make a general war on the animals, and entirely exterminate them.
To this end he gathered together a very large army, and determined to be himself their leader. The news of the king's intention spread swiftly over the whole kingdom, whereupon the fox called, for the third time, all her friends--the bear, the wolf, the kumrekusha, the mouse, the mole, and the hare--together, to a general council.
When all were assembled the fox addressed them thus: 'My friends, the king has declared war against us, and intends to destroy us all. Now it is our duty to defend ourselves in the best way we can. Let us each see what number of animals we are able to muster. How many of your brother bears do you think you can bring to our help, my good Bruin?'
The bear got up as quickly as he could on his hind legs, and brummed out, 'I am sure I can bring a hundred.'
'And how many of your friends can you bring, my good wolf?' asked the fox anxiously.
'I can bring at least five hundred wolves with me,' said the wolf with an air of importance.
The fox nodded her satisfaction and continued, 'And what can you do for us, dear master hare?'
'Well, I think I can bring about eight hundred,' said the hare cautiously.
'And what can you do, you dear little mouse?'
'Oh, I can certainly bring three thousand mice.'
'Very well, indeed!--and you, Mr. Mole?'
'I am sure I can gather eight thousand.'
'And now what number do you think you can bring us, my great friend, kumrekusha?'
'I fear not more than two or three hundred, at the very best,' said the kumrekusha sadly.
'Very good; now all of you go at once and collect your friends; when you have brought all you can, we will decide what is to be done,' said the fox; whereupon the council broke up, and the animals dispersed in different directions throughout the forest.
Not very long after, very unusual noises were heard in the neighbourhood of the castle. There was a great shaking of trees; and the growling of bears and the short sharp barking of wolves broke the usual quiet of the forest. The army of animals was gathering from all sides at the appointed place.
When all were gathered together the fox explained to them her plans in these words:--'When the king's army stops on its march to rest the first night, then you, bears and wolves, must be prepared to attack and kill all the horses. If, notwithstanding this, the army proceeds further, you mice must be ready to bite and destroy all the saddle-straps and belts while the soldiers are resting the second night, and you hares must gnaw through the ropes with which the men draw the cannon. If the king still persists in his march, you moles must go the third night and dig out the earth under the road they will take the next day, and must make a ditch full fifteen yards in breadth and twenty yards in depth all round their camp. Next morning, when the army begins to march over this ground which has been hollowed out, you kumrekushas must throw down on them from above heavy stones while the earth will give way under them.'
The plan was approved, and all the animals went off briskly to attend to their allotted duties.
When the king's army awoke, after their first night's rest on their march, they beheld, to their great consternation, that all the horses were killed. This sad news was reported at once to the king; but he only sent back for more horses, and, when they came late in the day, pursued his march.
The second night the mice crept quietly into the camp, and nibbled diligently at the horses' saddles and at the soldiers' belts, while the hares as busily gnawed at the ropes with which the men drew the cannon.
Next morning the soldiers were terrified, seeing the mischief the animals had done. The king, however, reassured them, and sent back to the city for new saddles and belts. When they were at length brought he resolutely pursued his march, only the more determined to revenge himself on these presumptuous and despised enemies.
On the third night, while the soldiers were sleeping, the moles worked incessantly in digging round the camp a wide and deep trench underground. About midnight the fox sent the bears to help the moles, and to carry away the loads of earth.
Next morning the king's soldiers were delighted to find that no harm seemed to have been done on the previous night to their horses or straps, and started with new courage on their march. But their march was quickly arrested, for soon the heavy horsemen and artillery began to fall through the hollow ground, and the king, when he observed that, called out, 'Let us turn back. I see God himself is against us, since we have declared war against the animals. I will give up my daughter.'
Then the army turned back, amidst the rejoicings of the soldiers. The men found, however, to their great surprise and fear, that whichever way they turned, they fell through the earth. To make their consternation yet more complete, the kumrekushas now began to throw down heavy stones on them, which crushed them completely. In this way the king, as well as his whole army, perished.
Very soon afterwards the young nobleman, who had married the king's daughter, went to the enemy's capital and took possession of the king's palace, taking with him all his animals; and there they all lived long and happily together.