Today's classic tale is from the Green Fairy Book, a collection of tales assembled and translated by Andrew Lang, published in 1892.
There was once upon a time a king called Kojata, whose beard was so long that it reached below his knees. Three years had passed since his marriage, and he lived very happily with his wife, but Heaven granted him no heir, which grieved the King greatly. One day he set forth from his capital, in order to make a journey through his kingdom. He travelled for nearly a year through the different parts of his territory, and then, having seen all there was to be seen, he set forth on his homeward way. As the day was very hot and sultry he commanded his servants to pitch tents in the open field, and there await the cool of the evening. Suddenly a frightful thirst seized the King, and as he saw no water near, he mounted his horse, and rode through the neighbourhood looking for a spring. Before long he came to a well filled to the brim with water clear as crystal, and on the bosom of which a golden jug was floating. King Kojata at once tried to seize the vessel, but though he endeavoured to grasp it with his right hand, and then with his left, the wretched thing always eluded his efforts and refused to let itself be caught. First with one hand, and then with two, did the King try to seize it, but like a fish the goblet always slipped through his fingers and bobbed to the ground only to reappear at some other place, and mock the King.
‘Plague on you!’ said King Kojata. ‘I can quench my thirst without you,’ and bending over the well he lapped up the water so greedily that he plunged his face, beard and all, right into the crystal mirror. But when he had satisfied his thirst, and wished to raise himself up, he couldn’t lift his head, because someone held his beard fast in the water. ‘Who’s there? let me go!’ cried King Kojata, but there was no answer; only an awful face looked up from the bottom of the well with two great green eyes, glowing like emeralds, and a wide mouth reaching from ear to ear showing two rows of gleaming white teeth, and the King’s beard was held, not by mortal hands, but by two claws. At last a hoarse voice sounded from the depths. ‘Your trouble is all in vain, King Kojata; I will only let you go on condition that you give me something you know nothing about, and which you will find on your return home.’
The King didn’t pause to ponder long, ‘for what,’ thought he, ‘could be in my palace without my knowing about it—the thing is absurd;’ so he answered quickly:
‘Yes, I promise that you shall have it.’
The voice replied, ‘Very well; but it will go ill with you if you fail to keep your promise.’ Then the claws relaxed their hold, and the face disappeared in the depths. The King drew his chin out of the water, and shook himself like a dog; then he mounted his horse and rode thoughtfully home with his retinue. When they approached the capital, all the people came out to meet them with great joy and acclamation, and when the King reached his palace the Queen met him on the threshold; beside her stood the Prime Minister, holding a little cradle in his hands, in which lay a new-born child as beautiful as the day. Then the whole thing dawned on the King, and groaning deeply he muttered to himself ‘So this is what I did not know about,’ and the tears rolled down his cheeks. All the courtiers standing round were much amazed at the King’s grief, but no one dared to ask him the cause of it. He took the child in his arms and kissed it tenderly; then laying it in its cradle, he determined to control his emotion and began to reign again as before.
The secret of the King remained a secret, though his grave, careworn expression escaped no one’s notice. In the constant dread that his child would be taken from him, poor Kojata knew no rest night or day. However, time went on and nothing happened. Days and months and years passed, and the Prince grew up into a beautiful youth, and at last the King himself forgot all about the incident that had happened so long ago.
One day the Prince went out hunting, and going in pursuit of a wild boar he soon lost the other huntsmen, and found himself quite alone in the middle of a dark wood. The trees grew so thick and near together that it was almost impossible to see through them, only straight in front of him lay a little patch of meadowland. Overgrown with thistles and rank weeds, in the centre of which a leafy lime tree reared itself. Suddenly a rustling sound was heard in the hollow of the tree, and an extraordinary old man with green eyes and chin crept out of it.
‘A fine day, Prince Milan,’ he said; ‘you’ve kept me waiting a good number of years; it was high time for you to come and pay me a visit.’
‘Who are you, in the name of wonder?’ demanded the astonished Prince.
‘You’ll find out soon enough, but in the meantime do as I bid you. Greet your father King Kojata from me, and don’t forget to remind him of his debt; the time has long passed since it was due, but now he will have to pay it. Farewell for the present; we shall meet again.’
With these words the old man disappeared into the tree, and the Prince returned home rather startled, and told his father all that he had seen and heard.
The King grew as white as a sheet when he heard the Prince’s story, and said, ‘Woe is me, my son! The time has come when we must part,’ and with a heavy heart he told the Prince what had happened at the time of his birth.
‘Don’t worry or distress yourself, dear father,’ answered Prince Milan. ‘Things are never as bad as they look. Only give me a horse for my journey, and I wager you’ll soon see me back again.’
The King gave him a beautiful charger, with golden stirrups, and a sword. The Queen hung a little cross round his neck, and after much weeping and lamentation the Prince bade them all farewell and set forth on his journey.
He rode straight on for two days, and on the third he came to a lake as smooth as glass and as clear as crystal. Not a breath of wind moved, not a leaf stirred, all was silent as the grave, only on the still bosom of the lake thirty ducks, with brilliant plumage, swam about in the water. Not far from the shore Prince Milan noticed thirty little white garments lying on the grass, and dismounting from his horse, he crept down under the high bulrushes, took one of the garments and hid himself with it behind the bushes which grew round the lake. The ducks swam about all over the place, dived down into the depths and rose again and glided through the waves. At last, tired of disporting themselves, they swam to the shore, and twenty-nine of them put on their little white garments and instantly turned into so many beautiful maidens. Then they finished dressing and disappeared. Only the thirtieth little duck couldn’t come to the land; it swam about close to the shore, and, giving out a piercing cry, it stretched its neck up timidly, gazed wildly around, and then dived under again. Prince Milan’s heart was so moved with pity for the poor little creature that he came out from behind the bulrushes, to see if he could be of any help. As soon as the duck perceived him, it cried in a human voice, ‘Oh, dear Prince Milan, for the love of Heaven give me back my garment, and I will be so grateful to you.’ The Prince lay the little garment on the bank beside her, and stepped back into the bushes. In a few seconds a beautiful girl in a white robe stood before him, so fair and sweet and young that no pen could describe her. She gave the Prince her hand and spoke.
‘Many thanks, Prince Milan, for your courtesy. I am the daughter of a wicked magician, and my name is Hyacinthia. My father has thirty young daughters, and is a mighty ruler in the underworld, with many castles and great riches. He has been expecting you for ages, but you need have no fear if you will only follow my advice. As soon as you come into the presence of my father, throw yourself at once on the ground and approach him on your knees. Don’t mind if he stamps furiously with his feet and curses and swears. I’ll attend to the rest, and in the meantime we had better be off.’
With these words the beautiful Hyacinthia stamped on the ground with her little foot, and the earth opened and they both sank down into the lower world.
The palace of the Magician was all hewn out of a single carbuncle, lighting up the whole surrounding region, and Prince Milan walked into it gaily.
The Magician sat on a throne, a sparkling crown on his head; his eyes blazed like a green fire, and instead of hands he had claws. As soon as Prince Milan entered he flung himself on his knees. The Magician stamped loudly with his feet, glared frightfully out of his green eyes, and cursed so loudly that the whole underworld shook. But the Prince, mindful of the counsel he had been given, wasn’t the least afraid, and approached the throne still on his knees. At last the Magician laughed aloud and said, ‘You rogue, you have been well advised to make me laugh; I won’t be your enemy any more. Welcome to the underworld! All the same, for your delay in coming here, we must demand three services from you. For to-day you may go, but to-morrow I shall have something more to say to you.’
Then two servants led Prince Milan to a beautiful apartment, and he lay down fearlessly on the soft bed that had been prepared for him, and was soon fast asleep.
Early the next morning the Magician sent for him, and said, ‘Let’s see now what you’ve learnt. In the first place you must build me a palace to-night, the roof of purest gold, the walls of marble, and the windows of crystal; all round you must lay out a beautiful garden, with fish-ponds and artistic waterfalls. If you do all this, I will reward you richly; but if you don’t, you shall lose your head.’
‘Oh, you wicked monster!’ thought Prince Milan, ‘you might as well have put me to death at once.’ Sadly he returned to his room, and with bent head sat brooding over his cruel fate till evening. When it grew dark, a little bee flew by, and knocking at the window, it said, ‘Open, and let me in.’
Milan opened the window quickly, and as soon as the bee had entered, it changed into the beautiful Hyacinthia.
‘Good evening, Prince Milan. Why are you so sad?’
‘How can I help being sad? Your father threatens me with death, and I see myself already without a head.’
‘And what have you made up your mind to do?’
‘There’s nothing to be done, and after all I suppose one can only die once.’
‘Now, don’t be so foolish, my dear Prince; but keep up your spirits, for there is no need to despair. Go to bed, and when you wake up to-morrow morning the palace will be finished. Then you must go all round it, giving a tap here and there on the walls to look as if you had just finished it.’
And so it all turned out just as she had said. As soon as it was daylight Prince Milan stepped out of his room, and found a palace which was quite a work of art down to the very smallest detail. The Magician himself was not a little astonished at its beauty, and could hardly believe his eyes.
‘Well, you certainly are a splendid workman,’ he said to the Prince. ‘I see you are very clever with your hands, now I must see if you are equally accomplished with your head. I have thirty daughters in my house, all beautiful princesses. To-morrow I will place the whole thirty in a row. You must walk past them three times, and the third time you must show me which is my youngest daughter Hyacinthia. If you don’t guess rightly, you shall lose your head.’
‘This time you’ve made a mistake,’ thought Prince Milan, and going to his room he sat down at the window. Just fancy my not recognising the beautiful Hyacinthia! Why, that is the easiest thing in the world.’
‘Not so easy as you think,’ cried the little bee, who was flying past. ‘If I weren’t to help you, you’d never guess. We are thirty sisters so exactly alike that our own father can hardly distinguish us apart.’
‘Then what am I to do?’ asked Prince Milan.
‘Listen,’ answered Hyacinthia. ‘You will recognise me by a tiny fly I shall have on my left cheek, but be careful for you might easily make a mistake.’
The next day the Magician again commanded Prince Milan to be led before him. His daughters were all arranged in a straight row in front of him, dressed exactly alike, and with their eyes bent on the ground.
‘Now, you genius,’ said the Magician, ‘look at these beauties three times, and then tell us which is the Princess Hyacinthia.’
Prince Milan went past them and looked at them closely. But they were all so precisely alike that they looked like one face reflected in thirty mirrors, and the fly was nowhere to be seen; the second time he passed them he still saw nothing; but the third time he perceived a little fly stealing down one cheek, causing it to blush a faint pink. Then the Prince seized the girl’s hand and cried out, ‘This is the Princess Hyacinthia!’
‘You’re right again,’ said the Magician in amazement; ‘but I’ve still another task for you to do. Before this candle, which I shall light, burns to the socket, you must have made me a pair of boots reaching to my knees. If they aren’t finished in that time, off comes your head.’
The Prince returned to his room in despair; then the Princess Hyacinthia came to him once more changed into the likeness of a bee, and asked him, ‘Why so sad, Prince Milan?’
‘How can I help being sad? Your father has set me this time an impossible task. Before a candle which he has lit burns to the socket, I am to make a pair of boots. But what does a prince know of shoemaking? If I can’t do it, I lose my head.’
‘And what do you mean to do?’ asked Hyacinthia.
‘Well, what is there to be done? What he demands I can’t and won’t do, so he must just make an end of me.’
‘Not so, dearest. I love you dearly, and you shall marry me, and I’ll either save your life or die with you. We must fly now as quickly as we can, for there is no other way of escape.’
With these words she breathed on the window, and her breath froze on the pane. Then she led Milan out of the room with her, shut the door, and threw the key away. Hand in hand, they hurried to the spot where they had descended into the lower world, and at last reached the banks of the lake. Prince Milan’s charger was still grazing on the grass which grew near the water. The horse no sooner recognized his master, than it neighed loudly with joy, and springing towards him, it stood as if rooted to the ground, while Prince Milan and Hyacinthia jumped on its back. Then it sped onwards like an arrow from a bow.
In the meantime the Magician was waiting impatiently for the Prince. Enraged by the delay, he sent his servants to fetch him, for the appointed time was past.
The servants came to the door, and finding it locked, they knocked; but the frozen breath on the window replied in Prince Milan’s voice, ‘I am coming directly.’ With this answer they returned to the Magician. But when the Prince still did not appear, after a time he sent his servants a second time to bring him. The frozen breath always gave the same answer, but the Prince never came. At last the Magician lost all patience, and commanded the door to be burst open. But when his servants did so, they found the room empty, and the frozen breath laughed aloud. Out of his mind with rage, the Magician ordered the Prince to be pursued.
Then a wild chase began. ‘I hear horses’ hoofs behind us,’ said Hyacinthia to the Prince. Milan sprang from the saddle, put his ear to the ground and listened. ‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘they are pursuing us, and are quite close.’ ‘Then no time must be lost,’ said Hyacinthia, and she immediately turned herself into a river, Prince Milan into an iron bridge, and the charger into a blackbird. Behind the bridge the road branched off into three ways.
The Magician’s servants hurried after the fresh tracks, but when they came to the bridge, they stood, not knowing which road to take, as the footprints stopped suddenly, and there were three paths for them to choose from. In fear and trembling they returned to tell the Magician what had happened. He flew into a dreadful rage when he saw them, and screamed out, ‘Oh, you fools! the river and bridge were they! Go back and bring them to me at once, or it will be the worse for you.’
Then the pursuit began afresh. ‘I hear horses’ hoofs,’ sighed Hyacinthia. The Prince dismounted and put his ear to the ground. ‘They are hurrying after us, and are already quite near.’ In a moment the Princess Hyacinthia had changed herself, the Prince, and his charger into a thick wood where a thousand paths and roads crossed each other. Their pursuers entered the forest, but searched in vain for Prince Milan and his bride. At last they found themselves back at the same spot they had started from, and in despair they returned once more with empty hands to the Magician.
‘Then I’ll go after the wretches myself,’ he shouted. ‘Bring a horse at once; they shan’t escape me.’
Once more the beautiful Hyacinthia murmured, ‘I hear horses’ hoofs quite near.’ And the Prince answered, ‘They are pursuing us hotly and are quite close.’
‘We are lost now, for that is my father himself. But at the first church we come to his power ceases; he may chase us no further. Hand me your cross.’
Prince Milan loosened from his neck the little gold cross his mother had given him, and as soon as Hyacinthia grasped it, she had changed herself into a church, Milan into a monk, and the horse into a belfry. They had hardly done this when the magician and his servants rode up.
‘Did you see no one pass by on horseback, reverend father?’ he asked the monk.
‘Prince Milan and Princess Hyacinthia have just gone on this minute; they stopped for a few minutes in the church to say their prayers, and bade me light this wax candle for you, and give you their love.’
‘I’d like to wring their necks,’ said the magician, and made all haste home, where he had every one of his servants beaten to within an inch of their lives.
Prince Milan rode on slowly with his bride without fearing any further pursuit. The sun was just setting, and its last rays lit up a large city they were approaching. Prince Milan was suddenly seized with an ardent desire to enter the town.
‘Oh my beloved,’ implored Hyacinthia, ‘please don’t go; for I am frightened and fear some evil.’
‘What are you afraid of?’ asked the Prince. ‘We’ll only go and look at what’s to be seen in the town for about an hour, and then we’ll continue our journey to my father’s kingdom.’
‘The town is easy to get into, but more difficult to get out of,’ sighed Hyacinthia. ‘But let it be as you wish. Go, and I will await you here, but I will first change myself into a white milestone; only I pray you be very careful. The King and Queen of the town will come out to meet you, leading a little child with them. Whatever you do, don’t kiss the child, or you will forget me and all that has happened to us. I will wait for you here for three days.’
The Prince hurried to the town, but Hyacinthia remained behind disguised as a white milestone on the road. The first day passed, and then the second, and at last the third also, but Prince Milan did not return, for he had not taken Hyacinthia’s advice. The King and Queen came out to meet him as she had said, leading with them a lovely fair-haired little girl, whose eyes shone like two clear stars. The child at once caressed the Prince, who, carried away by its beauty, bent down and kissed it on the cheek. From that moment his memory became a blank, and he forgot all about the beautiful Hyacinthia.
When the Prince did not return, poor Hyacinthia wept bitterly and changing herself from a milestone into a little blue field flower, she said, ‘I will grow here on the wayside till some passer-by tramples me under foot.’ And one of her tears remained as a dewdrop and sparkled on the little blue flower.
Now it happened shortly after this that an old man passed by, and seeing the flower, he was delighted with its beauty. He pulled it up carefully by the roots and carried it home. Here he planted it in a pot, and watered and tended the little plant carefully. And now the most extraordinary thing happened, for from this moment everything in the old man’s house was changed. When he awoke in the morning he always found his room tidied and put into such beautiful order that not a speck of dust was to be found anywhere. When he came home at midday, he found a table laid out with the most dainty food, and he had only to sit down and enjoy himself to his heart’s content. At first he was so surprised he didn’t know what to think, but after a time he grew a little uncomfortable, and went to an old witch to ask for advice.
The witch said, ‘Get up before the cock crows, and watch carefully till you see something move, and then throw this cloth quickly over it, and you’ll see what will happen.’
All night the old man never closed an eye. When the first ray of light entered the room, he noticed that the little blue flower began to tremble, and at last it rose out of the pot and flew about the room, put everything in order, swept away the dust, and lit the fire. In great haste the old man sprang from his bed, and covered the flower with the cloth the old witch had given him, and in a moment the beautiful Princess Hyacinthia stood before him.
‘What have you done?’ she cried. ‘Why have you called me back to life? For I have no desire to live since my bridegroom, the beautiful Prince Milan, has deserted me.’
‘Prince Milan is just going to be married,’ replied the old man. ‘Everything is being got ready for the feast, and all the invited guests are flocking to the palace from all sides.’
The beautiful Hyacinthia cried bitterly when she heard this; then she dried her tears, and went into the town dressed as a peasant woman. She went straight to the King’s kitchen, where the white-aproned cooks were running about in great confusion. The Princess went up to the head cook, and said, ‘Dear cook, please listen to my request, and let me make a wedding-cake for Prince Milan.’
The busy cook was just going to refuse her demand and order her out of the kitchen, but the words died on his lips when he turned and beheld the beautiful Hyacinthia, and he answered politely, ‘You have just come in the nick of time, fair maiden. Bake your cake, and I myself will lay it before Prince Milan.’
The cake was soon made. The invited guests were already thronging round the table, when the head cook entered the room, bearing a beautiful wedding cake on a silver dish, and laid it before Prince Milan. The guests were all lost in admiration, for the cake was quite a work of art. Prince Milan at once proceeded to cut it open, when to his surprise two white doves sprang out of it, and one of them said to the other: ‘My dear mate, do not fly away and leave me, and forget me as Prince Milan forgot his beloved Hyacinthia.’
Milan sighed deeply when he heard what the little dove said. Then he jumped up suddenly from the table and ran to the door, where he found the beautiful Hyacinthia waiting for him. Outside stood his faithful charger, pawing the ground. Without pausing for a moment, Milan and Hyacinthia mounted him and galloped as fast as they could into the country of King Kojata. The King and Queen received them with such joy and gladness as had never been heard of before, and they all lived happily for the rest of their lives.