Soon after this we reached Clementina’s house. The old woman gave the beef-steak and the medicine to her neighbour (whose husband, just returned from Maremma, was down with fever), took up a large wicker-covered flask, and called us to go with her to the “fonte fresca” to get water. So we moved off through the chestnut woods, and soon found the spring, half-hidden by the ferns and long grass. It fully deserved its name and reputation; the water was so cold and sparkling as to be almost exhilarating, and I felt a sudden new sympathy with the feeling which prompted the Greeks to such efforts to obtain the water of well-known springs.
When we had emerged from the wood on our way back, Clementina put down her flask and seated herself on a bank with her back to the sunset. We threw ourselves on the grass at her feet, and the old woman, beginning again, told us the following version of our old friend Bluebeard:—
ONCE upon a time there was a woman who had three daughters. One day a sexton knocked at her door and said:—
“Good wife, give me a piece of bread.”
The woman said to the eldest daughter:—
“Take the poor man a piece of bread: he looks very wretched.”
But when the girl got outside the door with the bread, the sexton said:—
“It’s you I want,” and he caught her up and carried her away.
After a while they reached a field where there was a hole in the ground. In the hole the girl saw steps, and when they got to the bottom of these, she found herself in the most beautiful palace she had ever seen.
“Now,” said the man, “this palace shall belong to you. I shall be away all day, but shall come back every evening; so you need not be lonely. While I am away you may amuse yourself as you like. Here are the keys; you can explore the whole palace except the room which this key opens; there you are never to go.”
“Very well,” said the girl, “I won’t.”
“Take this ring,” continued the man, putting one on her finger. “So long as the gold remains bright, I shall know you have been obedient. When it is cloudy, I shall know you have opened the door.”
For some days the girl was quite happy exploring the wonders of this underground palace; but little by little she began to want to see what was in the room which was forbidden her; and at last the desire to open that door quite overcame her dread of punishment. She put in the key, turned it, pushed open the door, and went in.
She found herself in a marble courtyard opening on to a beautiful garden. In the middle of the courtyard was a pond, in which was swimming a lovely gold-red fish.
“Oh, I must catch you,” said the girl, and plunged her hand into the water. But the fish bit her so sharply that she withdrew her hand immediately, and then she saw that the ring was covered with blood. She rubbed and rubbed, but the blood would not come off; the ring was stained and cloudy, and sadly she went out, locking the door behind her.
When the man came home that night he found her sad and dejected.
“Ah,” said he, “you have disobeyed me. Let me see the ring.”
She tried to hide her hand, but it was no good. He looked at the ring, and then cut off her head, and put head and body against one of the columns in the marble courtyard.
After that he went back to the girl’s home, and again asked for bread.
“Go,” said the mother to the second daughter, “carry the poor man something to eat.”
But when the second daughter came to him he treated her as he had done the first. He carried her off to the underground palace, gave her the keys, and a ring, and told her, too, that she might do anything she liked, except open that door.
It happened to the second as it had done to the first. She got tired of wandering about the palace with nothing to do, opened the door, and went into the marble courtyard. She, too, tried to catch the fish; she, too, was bitten; her ring became cloudy, and she was beheaded and put beside her sister.
Then the man returned, and carried away the youngest girl. Now the youngest is always cleverer than her elder sisters; and so it happened in this case. After she had spent some time in the palace, she, too, determined to open the forbidden door. So she took off her ring, put it in her work-basket, and went in. She tried to catch the fish, as her sisters had done, and then began to wander about. She soon saw her sisters’ heads and bodies, and that made her sad. When it was near evening she left the courtyard, put on her ring, and went to meet her husband as brightly and cheerfully as ever.
“Ah,” said the man, “I can see that you have not disobeyed me. You’re a dear, good little wife.”
Every day, as soon as her husband was gone, the girl took her work into the garden and sat there, knitting or playing with the fish, but she was unhappy because of her sisters.
One morning as she was at work she saw a little lizard without a tail; the tail was lying on the ground beside it. She watched the creature and saw it bite a leaf off a certain plant, turn its head over its back, and touch its body and its tail with the leaf. Instantly tail and body grew together, and the lizard ran off quite merrily.
“Aha,” thought the girl, “now I know what to do!” So she picked the plant, went into the courtyard, put her sisters’ heads on to their respective bodies, touched the necks with the plants, and there were her sisters quite well again. Then she took them upstairs and hid them.
That evening she said to her husband, “I am afraid my mother must be very unhappy. She is old and poor, and now there is no one to work for her or take care of her. Let me go and see her.”
“No,” said the man; “I can’t spare you.”
“Well, then, let me fill a chest with clothes and money, and you shall carry it to her.”
“Very well,” said the man; “have it ready by to-morrow morning.”
So the girl put linen and gold into a chest. Then she made her eldest sister get in, and shut down the lid.
“Now,” she said to her husband, “you must not set down the chest at all: remember, I can see you all the way. Go straight there and back again, for I want you at home.”
The man put the chest on his head and set off. After a time he began to want to put down his burden for a little, and said to himself:—
“My wife can’t possibly see me; there’s this hill between me and her”: and he began to set down the chest.
“Do you think I can’t see you?” a voice said. “Silly man, I can see you everywhere.”
“Oh dear, oh dear,” said the man to himself, “what a clever wife mine is! She can see me even through a hill. And how fond of me she is! She knows what I am doing wherever I am.” So he staggered on to his mother-in-law’s, threw down the box, and went home again.
A little while after the second sister was sent home in the same way, and now the girl began to think how she could get away herself. One evening she said to her husband:—
“I want you to take some more things to my mother. I shall get everything ready to-night. Don’t wake me in the morning before you go, as I shall come to bed very late. I have to make the bread.”
The man went off to bed, and the girl set to work. She made a great doll of dough and put it in her bed; then she put clothes and money into the chest, crept in herself, and pulled down the lid.
The next morning the man got up early. “Wife, wife,” he shouted, “good-bye!”
No answer. “Ah, I forgot, she was up late making bread. She’s a dear little wife, and works very hard.”
So he crept on tiptoe to her bedside, saw the figure under the clothes, and went out as quietly as he had gone in.
Then he took the chest and started. Again he wanted to set down his burden, again the warning voice stopped him, and at last he flung down the box at his mother-in-law’s door, declaring that this was the last he would bring her.
When he got home he called, “Wife! wife!”
Still no answer. “What, is she still asleep? She must be tired”; and he went to shake her. Then he found that there was no wife there, but only a figure of dough, and that he was alone once more in his underground palace.