THERE was once a great King who ruled over broad lands. He was the father of many sons, but the first of his wives had borne no child. Yet because she was the daughter of a great King she maintained her state, and though they were jealous that the King still paid her so much honour, the other women of the kraal dare not mock at her openly.
The Queen shed many tears because she was childless, and one day when she sat alone and sorrowful in front of her hut, two Pigeons alighted near by.
"If we give you a child, what will you give us in return?" asked one.
The Queen, overjoyed, offered everything that she possessed: her mantle of skins, her bracelets and anklets of brass, her carved pillow and her staff. The Pigeons refused them all, saying, "We have no need of such things, but in your hut stands a vessel filled with the seeds of the castor plant. Give these to us, and you shall bear a son."
Gladly the Queen went into the hut, and bringing out the pot scattered the seeds upon the ground. These the Pigeons ate until not one was left.
Then with their beaks they wounded the Queen's side and flew away.
The Queen spoke to no one of their coming, but waited in patience, and when the ninth moon was on the wane she gave birth to a son, fairer than any child born within the kraal. Fearing the jealousy of the other women, she wrapped the little one in the skin of a boa-constrictor and hid it from their eyes, having secretly sent the glad tidings to her father's house.
So carefully did the Queen conceal her son that in time it was said, "The Queen's son is dead," or "The young Prince has been lost." Later it was whispered in closest confidence that he had been changed into a snake.
As the years passed less respect was paid to the Queen, whose child was surrounded with so much mystery, and her hut, which till then had stood in the place of honour, was removed to the lower end of the kraal, as if she were indeed a childless woman.
Her son was now growing toward manhood, and when he learnt why he was compelled to live in hiding, fear took possession of him, and he refused to remain longer with his mother.
"If I stay here with you," he said to her, "I shall be slain by other children of my father's wives." Then he left her home, nor could she find him though she sought him through the whole countryside.
At last, when she had lost all hope, she built a hut for him, sighing, "Let his house be ready, lest he return."
Each night at dusk she went to the empty hut, placing within it meat and drink for her son. When she returned at daybreak the food was still untouched.
It was rumoured, however, in the neighbouring villages, that the King's heir still lived, though none knew where he was hidden, and there were not lacking royal maidens willing to be the bride of the mysterious Prince. As one after another these Princesses came to the kraal, the King would say, "My heir is not here. Nevertheless, the girl may remain; let her be given in marriage to one of my other sons."
The unseen heir was almost forgotten, and for years no maiden had come to the kraal to present herself as his bride, when the daughter of a neighbouring king, Untombinde, the Tall Princess, came and stood at the upper end of the kraal. The people asked her why she had come; she answered: "Your King has a son, the heir to his kingdom. I come to be his bride."
"The King's heir was lost when he was a child," was the reply; and the Queen wept because her son was not there to claim so fair a bride.
The people told Untombinde to depart, but she refused to go. Then the King said: "My youngest son has no wife; let her remain as his bride." But the Princess would not consent to marry him, nor would she leave the kraal. Wondering at her beauty and at her courage, the Queen had a hut built for her as if she were in truth her own son's bride, and bade her stay there.
When night fell the Queen entered the hut and placed within it a portion of meat, some sour milk, and beer as if for the bridal meal.
"Why do you do this?" asked Untombinde.
I have done it nightly for years. I did it before your coming," said the Queen; and she departed, leaving the girl alone.
Untombinde lay down and slept, and when she woke at dawn she saw that some one had entered the hut in the night and had eaten of the food.
A little later the Queen came in, and seeing that part of the food had gone, asked who had partaken of it. "I do not know," replied Untombinde.
"Did you not see the man?" asked the Queen.
"I have seen no one," said Untombinde, and the Queen guessed that it was her son who had visited the hut, for no maiden touches the bridal meal before her wedding.
The next night the Queen again brought food, and again Untombinde slept till she awoke to feel some one softly touching her face.
"What are you doing here?" the intruder asked. "I have come to marry the King's heir," was her answer.
"But the Prince was lost when he was a boy. Whom will you marry in his stead? The King's youngest son is seeking a wife. Why do you not take him for a husband, instead of waiting for a man who was lost years ago?"
"I will marry none but the King's heir," repeated Untombinde.
"Let us eat and drink," said the unseen visitor, but Untombinde would touch no food; for before the marriage feast a bride must not satisfy her hunger. She would, however, have lit a fire had the stranger allowed her, but he would not, lest she should see his face. He stayed beside her until the dawn, and then silently disappeared. Untombinde, wondering, tried the fastenings of the wicker door, and found that they had not been disturbed.
When the Queen came into the hut that morning, she asked the Princess with whom she had conversed in the night; Untombinde would not tell her.
The third night the strange visitor came again, and this time he bade her touch his body, which was smooth and slippery like a snake's. The girl's hands glided from it, and she was afraid.
Then he bade her light a fire, and while she was busy with her task a loud voice said: "Hail, Chief! hail, thou who art as great as the mountains!"
Looking up, Untombinde saw in the flickering light a tall and goodly man. Her heart went out to him.
"I am the King's heir," he said, and questioned her about his mother. She told him how the Queen still grieved for him, and how daily she came and placed food within his hut to be ready should he return. When the grey light of dawn stole into the hut, he said: "I am going, I must leave you." But Untombinde detained him still.
"Where do you live?" she asked him gently.
"Underground," he answered. "I left my mother's hut when I was a child, for my brothers would have slain me else, because I am my father's heir, and I, who am younger than they, would have ruled in his stead when he died. Therefore I left the kraal." As she listened, and marked the sadness of his face, Untombinde's heart was filled with pity, and she would not let him depart.
"Bring my mother here," he said at last, and Untombinde hastened to call the Queen. At the sight of her son her tears fell like rain, and she said: "Come with me that your father may look upon you and be glad."
When the King saw his son restored to him in strength and beauty, he commanded that a great feast should be prepared, and that his wedding should be celebrated with the Princess Untombinde by whose love and courage he had been restored.