WHEN Ferdinand King of Spain drove the Moors out of his dominions with his invincible sword, there were among their chiefs many descended from right noble lineage. Among them was one, of whose ancestor Clotaldo the following story was told, who for his prowess was elected king of the fertile provinces of that part of the East which is called Syria.
Clotaldo had three beautiful daughters, who were so beautiful that men said they were divinities and not women. The King thought that as they were so very beautiful they ought not to be given in marriage in the ordinary way, but that whoso would marry them should perform some great deed of valour. So he called together all the masons of the kingdom and made them build an immense castle, so high that it seemed to reach up to heaven. And more than this, he gathered all the magicians and made them enchant it with all their enchantments, so that no one might ever be able to get at them or see them unless the King himself should admit him.
So the magicians enchanted the castle with all their spells, and set three enchanted horses to guard the enclosure so that no one might break through.
Meantime the King sent heralds round into all countries to proclaim that every noble, or knight of high degree, who could make his way into the castle should have one of his daughters in marriage; they were likewise at the same time to set forth their beauty, to let all men know the worth of the prize for which they were asked to contend. And he did this because he thought that none but one worthy of them would be able to overcome all the obstacles he had interposed.
Many were the adventurous and valorous knights and nobles and princes who were drawn to try their fortune at this high enterprise. But none could find any way into the castle, and they all came back crest-fallen, without having effected any thing.
At last came three brothers, who though but simple knights and poor of estate, yet were of high and noble lineage, and of higher and nobler courage. They no sooner heard Clotaldo's heralds pronounce this embassy in their country, which was Denmark, than they set out to try whether they might not be fortunate enough to deliver the three princesses from the enchanted tower.
First they came to Clotaldo and told him their purpose, who ordered that every thing they asked for should be given them for their assistance; so the two elder brothers asked for mettled horses and shining arms; but the youngest brother said all he wanted was a waggon and two oxen, with provisions for several days, an immeasurably long rope, some long nails, and a powerful hammer. Whatever each asked for he received.
The two elder brothers set off very confidently on their dashing steeds, and in a very short time arrived at an eminence overlooking the castle; but to their dismay they found it was ten times as high as they had ever imagined; and then, too, that it had neither door nor window, nor the smallest break of any kind in the massive walls.
"How can we ever get into a place like this?" said the eldest brother, looking very foolish.
"It looks to me very like a fool's errand," said the other.
"I vote we go back," answered the first.
"The best thing we can do," rejoined the second.
"And the sooner the better," continued the first.
"Here we go, then," added the second; and they turned their horses' heads round, like chicken-hearted men, and galloped back by the way they had come.
They had not gone far when they met their younger brother toiling along in his cart.
"It is no use your going to the castle," said the eldest brother: "we have been there, and find the game is impossible."
"We shall see," answered the youth.
"But I tell you the thing can't be done!" ejaculated the second.
"When I go out to do a thing I don't go back without doing it," said the youngest, quietly. "But as there is a considerable distance to be got over yet, I am going to have some dinner: you had better do the same."
The other brothers, who had not had the foresight to bring any provisions themselves, were very glad of the invitation, so they all sat down and dined. When they had done, the youngest brother set out to continue his journey in his waggon, and the two horsemen were going to pursue theirs homewards, when suddenly one of them said to the other, "Suppose we stop and see what he does; may-be he will succeed, and then, as we are two to one, who knows but that we may be able to overcome him, and take the merit to ourselves?"
"Well thought!" exclaimed the eldest, heartily; and they turned their horses' heads again, and followed behind the cart; telling their younger brother they had come to see if they could not be of any service in case his temerity led him into danger.
The younger had overheard their conversation; but he saw no way of getting rid of the brothers, who were well armed and well mounted; so he could but continue his way and trust to his wits to save him from their intentions afterwards. As he rode along he measured the vast height of the castle with his eye, and laid all his plans in his head. Arrived under the wall, he bound the nails and hammer into his girdle, and, tying one end of the rope round his arm, proceeded to scale the wall of the castle.
The brothers sat on their horses watching him, expecting every minute to see him fall to the ground; but on he went, steady and lithe, with the tenacity of a cat or squirrel, till he got so high that he looked like a little speck, and at last was lost from sight altogether.
Scarcely had he attained the battlements of the wall, and trod a few steps upon the flat, than three most beautiful nymphs, who seemed more divine than human, came out to meet him. At first he was so dazzled with the sight of their exceeding beauty, that he could not speak, but stood gazing at them while they said,--
"Who art thou, young man, who venturest to profane the decorum of this alcázar , the abode of three virgin princesses? With thy life must thou expiate this temerity."
"To die at your command, fair ladies, and in your sight, would be joy enough for me," stammered forth the young knight; "but yet I have first a work to accomplish, which is your liberation. So tell me now, what is it I have to do to set you free?"
"Since thou art so stout-hearted and so well-spoken," responded the sisters, "we will even tell thee what thou hast to do, and great shall be thy reward. Know, then, in this castle are three noble horses, and thou hast to take one hair from the tail of each, for in this lies the spell which binds us. But they are fierce and shy of approach; nevertheless fear not if they even breathe out fire upon thee; for if thou art bold, thou shalt succeed."
The young knight went out to meet the three enchanted horses without fearing or flinching; and though they breathed out fire upon him, he took the three hairs from their tails, and destroyed the spell of the princesses.
Then he bound the cord round the first princess, and with much care and address he lowered her gently and safely on to the ground below. He did the same with the second. But when he would have parted from the third, she turned and thanked him with gentle words, and said,--
"Take this necklace, noble youth, which for both workmanship and power has no other like to it on earth. Never part from it, and may-be that one day it may deliver thee from as great strait as that from which thou hast delivered us."
With that she waved her hand to him, and prepared to descend as her sisters had done.
As soon as the young knight had watched her reach the ground in safety, he turned to drive the strong nails into the tower to make fast the rope for his own descent; but scarcely was he thus occupied than his wicked brothers, seeing the moment of their advantage had arrived, gave a violent pull to the rope, and down it came, leaving him no means of escape!
Then they made haste and carried off the princesses, riding on without stopping till they came to the king.
Clotaldo, seeing his daughters free, never doubted but that those who had brought them were their true deliverers, and therefore loaded them with honour and favour, and married them to the two elder princesses. It was in vain that the youngest princess tried to explain the deceit: there were four living witnesses against her; for the elder princesses took the part of their promised husbands, and said that the long imprisonment had turned their younger sister's mind, and no one listened to her. So there was a great rejoicing, and a noble marriage-feast; but she sat in her chamber apart, weeping.
Meantime the youngest brother was left full of terror and dismay on top of the exceeding high tower, with no means of ever getting away from it, and, which was worst of all, with the prospect of never again seeing his little princess. He did not care about the others, but she who alone had thanked him, and that so prettily, and who had had a thought for his future welfare in giving him the splendid necklace, he could not give her up.
He took it out and looked at it: it was indeed of curious workmanship, and the bright gems sparkled like rays of hope. He kissed it because it reminded him of the kind little princess, but he could not see how it was to help him; so after gazing at it for a long time, he at last wrapped it up, and put it by in his bosom again. But as he continued to think of all that had lately taken place, he remembered how the sisters had spoken of the wonderful qualities of the horses who held their spell, and at last he began to wonder whether with their aid he could not make his escape.
To remain where he was was certain death, and a shameful, pusillanimous death to boot. He was never wanting in clear thoughts, or fair courage to execute them, and a plan now ripened rapidly in his mind which he determined to put into execution.
"If thou art bold, thou shalt succeed." The words rang in his ears, and seemed an omen of good fortune. He went back to the place where he had found the horses before: there they stood, all three abreast of each other, as if waiting a word of command from him.
Resolutely the young knight sprang on the back of the centre one, and gathering the floating manes of the three in his hand, all started together, and with one fearful bound, which seemed to shiver the tower to atoms behind them, they dashed off the battlements, the wild career through the air depriving him of the use of his senses.
When he came to, he found himself lying on the ground in a wild wood so full of thick trunks of withered trees that daylight hardly penetrated. He walked on for a long lonesome way, till at last he came to a place where cattle were feeding. Of the herd tending them he asked where he was, and found he was on the borders of Clotaldo's kingdom; "but," said the herd, "you are not of this people, by your dress and speech."
"No, friend," replied the young knight; "I am a poor foreigner, who am come out to seek fortune, and she has reduced me to a sad plight. But I have one favour to ask, which is that you will exchange clothes with me."
The cattle-herd was pleased enough at the proposal, and asked no further questions. He had soon arrayed himself in the knight's fine clothes, and he in turn found a complete disguise in the rough clothing of undressed skins which made up the peasant's attire.
Thus he walked on eight hundred leagues, begging alms to sustain his life by the way; and with all the fatigues, and privations, and hardships he had endured, he was quite altered, so that his brothers would not know him again. That he might appear still more different from his former self, he assumed the manners of a half-silly person, and took the name of Juan; and all the people called him "Juanillo el loco ."
All this time Clotaldo had been urging his youngest daughter that she should marry like her sisters, but she never would look at any of the princes he named to her. She had determined to belong to no one but the young knight her deliverer, and she felt all confidence in his valour, that he would find means to make his way to her. At last, one day, when the king had been persuading her very urgently to follow his counsel, she brought out a drawing she had made in secret of the necklace she had bestowed on her knight, and told her father that when he could find any one who could produce a necklace like that, she would be his wife.
The king was very glad to have her consent on any conditions, and forthwith set clever draughtsmen to copy the drawing, and sent heralds abroad over the whole earth, to proclaim that whoever could make the necklet to the required pattern should have the hand of his daughter. But the workmanship was so fine, and the setting of the jewels so cunningly devised, that no goldsmith on earth could produce it.
It was just about the time that Juan reached the kingdom that all the people were full of excitement about this subject, and thus it came to his ears also. So when he heard the conditions the princess had made, and remembered her words when she gave him the necklet--"that the earth could not produce such another"--he was beside himself for joy, for he knew that she was waiting for his return.
However, not to betray himself too soon, he continued his silly ways, and, as if he knew nothing of the matter, asked to see the design. The guards and people told him to go away, but the king was a very just man, and said there was no exception named in his decree, and therefore whoever applied must be allowed a fair trial.
"But," he added, when he saw the rough, uncouth form of the suppliant, "remember, fellow, if you fail, your throat shall pay the forfeit of your impudence."
The feigned Juanillo played his part perfectly; he gave his assent by a silly grin, and a nod of his head to all the remonstrances used to dissuade him; and at last they shut him up in a tower, with a furnace and crucible, and much gold, and priceless diamonds, and emeralds, and rubies.
So the knight let them fasten the gate as if he were going to set to work in earnest. And at the end of three days, when they came to see what he had done, he brought out the original necklet; and every one was in amazement, because all could see that it presented the perfect image of the design.
When the princess heard by the cries of all the people that some one had succeeded in producing the necklet, she came forward to see who it was; and in an instant, through all the disguise, she knew her deliverer again; and she turning to the king said,--
"Well, the conditions are fulfilled: I am ready to do your bidding!"
Her father was amazed at her readiness to marry the rough, silly man Juanillo appeared, and tried all he could to dissuade her; but, as she would not change her mind, there was no excuse for him to go back from the word plighted by his proclamation. So the princess and the knight were married; though Clotaldo was so ashamed of the bridegroom, he had the ceremony performed in the quietest way, and assigned them a little house outside the walls of the town to live in, where no one should see or hear any thing more of them.
Clotaldo had had a very prosperous career hitherto; but the troubles of life were beginning to press round him, and the first trouble he had was failing eyesight. His physicians could not understand the malady, or do any thing for him; and at last he became quite blind. In despair at the loss of his sight, he sent into all countries to call together the wisest mediciners; but none could help him; till one day an ancient man appeared, who said that the only remedy for his case was the water of a fountain flowing out of a sharp rock in the mountains of Sclavonia; but that it was a perilous journey to fetch it, on account of the fierce beasts inhabiting the surrounding country.
As there was no one with sufficient courage to run the great risks, the king called his two sons-in-law, and said, as they had been so valiant in overcoming the spells of the great castle, they could doubtless help him now; and that they would not shrink from the perils of the journey, which was to procure the means of restoring his sight.
The knights did not dare to show any hesitation, as it would have betrayed their former deception. So they set out on the journey, but with heavy hearts, and plotting as they went what excuse they could make for coming back without success.
But Juanillo, the moment he had heard the old physician's sentence, had taken counsel with his princess, and at her bidding went out into the wilderness, and called one of the enchanted horses, and vaulting on to him, sped away like a whirlwind. After passing through ten thousand perils, he filled his flask with the water of the fountain which sprang out of the sharp rock in the mountains of Sclavonia, and made the best of his way back again.
As he had nearly reached home he met his two brothers riding out, looking very doleful and in great perplexity. When they saw him speeding along like the wind, they were very curious to know who he was and whence he came; so they called to him to stop and tell them. And he answered, courteously,--
"I have been to fill my flask with water which flows over the sharp rock in the mountains of Sclavonia!"
When they heard that, their first impulse was to spring upon him and take the prize from him; but when they saw his impetuous horse, and reflected that he had come back unscathed from all the perils of the adventure, they perceived who he was, and feared to measure their strength against his, therefore they assumed a different tone. Instead, however, of making up for past faults, and cheerfully acquiescing and rejoicing in his success, they still followed their selfish aim, but in a more covert way than they had at first meditated. Thus they offered him any bribe he liked to name if he would give them the flask of water.
Juanillo gave them the flask, but refused their bribes, naming as his only guerdon two golden pears which the king had given them off a tree in his garden, which only produced two every year, and which none might pluck but he.
The bargain was thus settled. Juanillo returned to tell all to the little princess; and the two knights bore the flask exulting to the king, and vaunting the deeds of valour by which they pretended they had won it, taking care to say nothing about poor Juanillo.
The king recovered his sight, and loaded them with rewards and honours. But before long he was stricken with another infirmity: gradually his hearing began to fail; and getting no relief from his physicians, he very soon became quite deaf. A proclamation of great reward attracted the learned in the medical art again to his court, and among the men of science came once more the old doctor who had given effectual counsel before.
In the deserts of Albania, he said, under the shade of the highest mountains, live, among their many wild beasts, a race of lionesses, more fierce than the rest of their kind: if any one can by artifice procure the milk of one of these, without injury to her life, that would be the sovereign remedy.
Juanillo no sooner heard the sentence than he went out into the wilderness and called another of the enchanted horses, and started off on him like the wind, to the desert of Albania; and, armed with the words of magic the little princess had taught him, he could get up to the lioness without being perceived by her, and fill his flask with her milk.
Meantime the king had called his two elder sons-in-law, and not doubting that, as they had acquitted themselves so well before, they would be able to accomplish this feat also, despatched them to the mountains of Albania. They, suspecting that their brother would do the work as before, set out with less concern than on former occasions, and only plotted how they should cajole him this time. Nor had they advanced many leagues when they met him coming back at full speed on his brave steed, and the bottle of lioness' milk in a flask at his girdle.
"Good morrow, friend!" they cried, as he came near: "whence ride ye, so fast and so early?"
"I have been to the desert of Albania, to fetch the lioness' milk to bathe the ears of our good king," replied the younger brother.
"At what price do ye put it, friend?"
"Nay, this I sell not."
"But we have come out to fetch it, and how shall we return to the king without it?" And they pleaded so wheedlingly, that Juanillo was fain to give them the flask, but exacting this time the penalty of an ear of each of them.
The condition was hard, but the game was desperate now. If they returned empty-handed this time, it was an acknowledgment of their perfidy before; and after all it was a much less injury than might have befallen them in the deserts of Albania if they had pursued the journey, or from the anger of the king and the populace if they had remained at home. So they combed the hair over their ears to conceal the loss, and pushed their way home to the king with their trophy, while Juanillo returned to his little princess.
Clotaldo recovered his hearing by the use of the lioness' milk. But a direr danger awaited him now; for a powerful neighbouring sovereign suddenly declared war against him, while he was quite unprepared. His prowess in battle in his younger days it was which had procured him the throne; but now, in his declining years, he feared to take the field, not through any coward fear for his life, but lest the glory of his country should be tarnished by his waning energy. So he called his two sons-in-law to him, and said that their valour, which had been proved in so many enterprises, had now a signal occasion for manifesting itself; and he gave them the command of Captains-General of his forces, and sent them out as if they had been his own sons, to meet the foe.
This order gave them greater trepidation than any of the preceding, for there appeared no way out of it. How was Juanillo himself to fight the battle for them without an army? and how could they transfer the command of the army to him without betraying all?
While they were going along, then, sad of heart, to put themselves at the head of the forces and trust to good luck to extricate them from the fray, they met Juanillo, coming along at fiery speed, with two of the enemy's standards planted on his stirrups, and they saw by the colours that the enemy had been laid low. For at the first threat of war he had taken soft leave of the little princess, had gone out into the wilderness and called the third of the enchanted horses, and with him had ridden with such impetuosity against the enemy, imitating Saint Jago, that he had put the whole army to flight, and borne off their banners as trophies.
But the brothers talked and persuaded him, with soft words, into giving these up also; and the payment he exacted this time was, that they should let him brand them on the shoulder as if they had been his slaves of war.
After this he returned home to the little princess, and his brothers carried the banners to the king's feet. When the king saw this fresh testimony to their merit, his indignation rose high against his third son-in-law, whom he supposed to be living in shameful indolence, and doing nothing for the honour of the dynasty and nation. So he pronounced a decree banishing him from his kingdom, and forbidding him ever to appear before him again. The brothers, who had always lived in fear that their treachery would come out some day, upheld him in his intention, as they thought they would breathe easier when he was removed to a distance.
Now Juanillo had been very forbearing and very generous all this time, but this was rather too much. He could not bear that his little princess should be banished from her friends and country without any fault; and she, too, represented to him how sad it would be for the people when the old king died, if they were to live under the governance of the two wicked brothers. So Juanillo went up to the king, and begged him with great humility on his knees that he would grant him one last favour before he went away for good and all; and that was, to have a famous banquet on the last day, and invite all the kingdom to it.
The good king granted the request; and a day was appointed when all the great men and small of the kingdom met for a famous banquet.
Simple Johnny dressed himself for this occasion in his true character. His massive chestnut curls were parted on his lofty forehead, and every one was struck by the dignity with which his broad shoulders carried the crimson and ermine mantle; in fact, few suspected that it was Simple Johnny at all, and the most inclined to believe it were still doubtful. But he, as one who had a great duty to perform, went up with earnest mien to the king, and laying down the two pears and the ears before him said,--
"The time is come, O King, to make known the truth to thee. Long have I suffered in secret; but if my silence is to occasion my banishment and that of my dear wife, I must make known that it was I who delivered the princesses, I who fetched the water from the sharp rock in the mountains of Sclavonia, I who brought the milk of the lioness from the deserts of Albania, I who overcame thine enemies and brought home the two standards. Here are my proofs; and if more are needed, bid the princes uncover their shoulders, and they shall be found branded as my slaves taken in war."
The good king was much astonished at this revelation; but now something came back to him of what the little princess had said, and how he had thought her mad for the story. And when he had investigated all patiently, and was convinced of the truth of Juanillo's statement, he was full of indignation, and commanded the bad brothers to be put to death, and his daughters banished for their silent participation in their infamy. To Simple Johnny he gave a very hearty embrace in the sight of the people, and not only made him heir to all the kingdom, but associated him with himself in the government, beginning from that very day.
Simple Johnny, however, would not allow his brothers to be put to death, but only deprived them of the right to reign, which might have brought misery on the kingdom, and appointed them houses and money that they might spend the rest of their days in harmless retirement.