It was old ’Drea I was talking to, this time. Andrea was my peasant friend’s father, a small, infirm-looking man, about eighty years of age, of great shrewdness and penetration. We were sitting in the little kitchen garden beside the bean-vines, and as we chatted his eye roamed continually over the valley and the hills beyond, with the expression of one accustomed to render an account to himself of all he saw. He told me of his life as foreman to the great landowner of that part of the country; of his journeyings from one outlying farm to another, to collect the half of the farm-produce which is the due of the owner of the soil; of his experiences as head forester down in Maremma; of the power of the priests in his young days, the days of the Archduke Peter Leopold. “Why in those days,” said he, “two lines from the parish priest would send a man to the galleys for eight years without trial. There were Giovanni and Sandro, lived opposite the post office, in that house with a railing—you know it?—well, they’re old men now; but they have each served their eight years as convicts, nobody ever knew why.”
At last he asked me if I should like a story. ’Drea was a well-known story-teller and improviser, so I said nothing would please me better, and he began :—
ONCE upon a time there was a knight who had three beautiful daughters. Now this knight determined to go to the Holy Land to fight for the tomb of our Lord, but he did not know what to do with his three daughters. At length a friend said:—“Build a tower for them,” and the idea was such a good one that he adopted it. He had a tall tower built, with three bedrooms and a sitting-room at the top of it; he locked the door at the foot and provided his daughters with a basket and a long rope with which to draw up their food. Then he gave each girl a diamond ring, and said:—
“So long as you are good, the diamonds will be bright and victorious, but if you do wrong I shall find them dull on my return.”
So he went away to fight the Saracens.
A little while after he had gone, the eldest daughter going to draw up the basket one morning, saw a poor man down below shivering with cold.
“Oh, sisters,” she said, “look at that poor man: shall we draw him up and feed him and warm him?”
“Do as you like,” said they; “we won’t be answerable for the results.”
So the girl bade the man get into the basket, drew him up, made a blazing fire, warmed him thoroughly, and gave him some dinner.
“Now you must go,” she said after a time, “you are warm, you have been fed, you have rested; what more do you want?”
“I must have supper with you.” To that the girl agreed, and then again told him to go away.
“I must sleep with you to-night,” said he.
Well, the girl did not know what to do, so she submitted.
The next morning after breakfast, the second daughter said to the man:—
“Now be off, we’ve had enough of you.”
“No, I am going to stay to dinner”: and after dinner it was:—“No, I am going to stay to supper,” and after supper the same thing as before.
The next day it was the third sister’s turn. Now the younger sisters are always more cunning than the elder ones, and this was no exception to the rule.
As before, the man stopped to breakfast, dinner and supper; but after supper the girl went to her room, saying to him:—“Wait till I call you.”
Now the tower had been built in a hurry and the floors were of plank only, not of brick or stone. Of this the maiden took advantage. She raised three or four planks just inside the door and then called:—“My light’s out, come and light it.”
The man ran to do so, but fell down the hole to the bottom of the tower; and as it was a high one he was killed by the fall.
The next morning the three sisters looked at their rings, but only that of the youngest was bright, the others were dull and clouded.
“What shall we do?” said the girls.
“I’ll tell you,” said the youngest; “we’ll sit all in a row, and pass my ring from one to another so cleverly that nobody shall notice.”
Presently their father came back. They did as their sister advised, and he was quite satisfied. Then they all went home to live in their old house and had a merry time of it.
One day, as the eldest was looking out of the window she saw the king’s baker.
“Ah, what a handsome man,” said she. “If he were to marry me I would make, in one day, enough bread to last the court for a year.”
These words were repeated to the baker; he married her and she managed to keep her promise.
A little while afterwards the second daughter was looking out of window when she spied the king’s pastry-cook.
“How I should like to marry that fine-looking man,” said she. “I would make enough cakes in a day to last a year.”
As before, the words were repeated; the girl had her wish, and managed to keep her promise.
But the third daughter saw the king’s son, and said, “If the king’s son were to marry me I would bring him three children, two boys and a girl, each with the red cross of a knight on his chest.”
This saying was repeated to the prince who married the girl and almost immediately afterwards became king. But he had not been king long before a terrible war broke out, and he had to leave his bride and go far away to fight. He put her under the charge of his mother, with strict injunctions that he should receive information as to whether his wife had kept her promise or not. Now the queen-mother was a wicked woman, who hated her daughter-in-law because she was not a princess by birth, but only the daughter of a poor knight; and the two elder sisters also hated the queen, being jealous of her, because they had to bow before her and do her homage. So these three women consulted together, and sent for a wicked witch to help them injure the poor queen. The queen had three children as she had promised, two boys and a girl, each with the red cross of a knight on his chest; but as soon as they were born, the witch let three black puppies run about the room, and took away the children and put them on the river-bank in the forest hard by. Then she sent word to the king:—
“Your wife has brought you three black dogs.”
“Let her and them be well taken care of,” wrote he. But the witch and the queen-mother changed the letter into:—
“Let her be walled in at the foot of the stairs, and let everyone who goes by spit on her”; and this was done. Now we will go back to the children.
In the forest there lived a hermit; he heard small voices crying, went and looked, and found the little ones. He took them to his hut, and tended them, and they grew up like flowers, fine and strong, with the red cross always in front.
After a time the king returned from the wars; and, when he reached his palace, saw his wife at the foot of the stairs and heard all that had been done to her. At first he was angry, but they persuaded him that it was all as it should be, and he left his queen there, thin and ill. Still he was very unhappy, and to console himself he went out hunting. In the forest there lived a fairy, a friend of the hermit’s. She it was who had led the hermit to the children, and now she guided the king to the hermit’s hut. There were the children, beautiful as flowers, each with the red cross.
“That reminds me of what my wife once said,” said he. “All come and have dinner with me to-morrow.”
With that he went home and told what had happened. So the queen-mother called the witch, and said:—
“What shall we do? We shall be found out.”
“No, no,” said the witch; “you leave all to me; it will be all right.”
Meanwhile the hermit had gone to ask advice from the fairy.
“You must all go,” said she. “When you come to the palace you will see a beautiful pale woman walled in at the foot of the stairs, and you will be told to spit on her; but you must refuse to do it. That is the children’s mother.”
The three children and the hermit went to the palace.
“Spit on that woman,” commanded the guard.
“No,” said they all; “such a thing would be very improper.”
“Then you can’t go in,” said the soldier. And so loud a dispute arose that the king came himself; and when he heard what was the matter, he brought them in gladly, and made them sit down at table. Then the witch who was there told a wicked lie.
“These children,” said she, “have said that they can bring the Sound and Song of the Lovely Sibyl.” But they had not promised anything of the kind.
“Very well,” said the king, “let them come back with it here.”
So the hermit and the children went away, and the eldest boy set out.
“If I am not back in seven days,” said he, “you may know that something has happened to me.”
He rode on till he came to a hermit with a white beard sitting by the roadside.
“Where are you going?” asked this hermit.
“Well-bred people don’t put questions of that sort,” answered the prince and passed on.
After the seven days were gone the second brother determined to try his luck, as the first had not yet returned. He, too, met the hermit, received the same question, gave the same answer, and rode away.
Now another seven days had elapsed, and the sister resolved to set out; but first she asked the advice of the fairy.
“After some time you will find a white-bearded hermit,” said the fairy; “don’t answer him as your brothers have done: tell him where you are going, and he will help you.”
So when she reached the old man she told him about the quest on which her brothers and herself had set out.
“Just look among my hair,” said the hermit, “and comb it. Will you?” And when she had done so he gave her a small rod and a couple of cakes, saying:—
“Ride on till you come to a palace with two lions in front of it. Throw the cakes to the lions and strike the door with the rod; it will open and in the hall you will see a beautiful girl. She will tell you what you want to know.”
So the maiden thanked the hermit and rode off. When she reached the palace she followed the hermit’s directions and found the girl.
“Take this rod,” said she, “and go into yonder garden. There you will find a bird which will come fluttering round your head and shoulders. Don’t attempt to catch it, however, till it reaches your lap; then put both hands over it quickly, hold it tightly, and it will tell you how to free your brothers. That bird is the Sound and Song of the Lovely Sibyl.”
The maiden went into the garden and sure enough the bird came fluttering round her as though asking to be caught. But she did not attempt to touch it till it had settled in her lap; then she held it fast with both hands, and the bird said:—
“All these statues you see round you were once men. Those two there are your brothers. Go and touch them with the rod you hold in your hand.”
The maiden did as she was bid; her brothers returned to life and they all went away together, carrying the bird with them. When they reached home the fairy said:—
“To-morrow you must go to court. Put the bird in a box and carry it with you; and when the king asks for it, put it on the table, that it may declare the wickedness of the dowager-queen, and the innocence of your mother.”
So the next day the three went to the palace and were invited to dine with the king. There were the queen-mother and the witch also present.
“Ah,” said the latter sneeringly, “you’ve kept your promise finely, haven’t you?”
“Certainly we have,” they answered.
“Why,” said the king, “where is the bird?”
They opened the box, and the Sound and Song of the Lovely Sibyl flew on to the table and told the whole black tale of deceit.
Then the queen-mother was burnt in the great public square, and the witch in a smaller square; but the children’s mother was crowned queen again amid the shouts of the people, and her husband and her children loved her dearly.
“So,” concluded old ’Drea, “innocence triumphs over vice.”