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The White Snake

A long time ago there lived a king who was famed for his wisdomthrough all the land. Nothing was hidden from him, and it...

The White Snake

A long time ago there lived a king who was famed for his wisdomthrough all the land. Nothing was hidden from him, and it seemed as ifnews of the most secret things was brought to him through the air.But he had a strange custom; every day after dinner, when the tablewas cleared, and no one else was present, a trusty servant had to bringhim one more dish. It was covered, however, and even the servant didnot know what was in it, neither did anyone know, for the king nevertook off the cover to eat of it until he was quite alone.

This had gone on for a long time, when one day the servant, who tookaway the dish, was overcome with such curiosity that he could not helpcarrying the dish into his room. When he had carefully locked the door,he lifted up the cover, and saw a white snake lying on the dish. Butwhen he saw it he could not deny himself the pleasure of tasting it,so he cut of a little bit and put it into his mouth. No sooner had ittouched his tongue than he heard a strange whispering of little voicesoutside his window. He went and listened, and then noticed that itwas the sparrows who were chattering together, and telling one anotherof all kinds of things which they had seen in the fields and woods.Eating the snake had given him power of understanding the language ofanimals.

Now it so happened that on this very day the queen lost her mostbeautiful ring, and suspicion of having stolen it fell upon this trustyservant, who was allowed to go everywhere. The king ordered the manto be brought before him, and threatened with angry words that unlesshe could before the morrow point out the thief, he himself should belooked upon as guilty and executed. In vain he declared his innocence;he was dismissed with no better answer.

In his trouble and fear he went down into the courtyard and tookthought how to help himself out of his trouble. Now some duckswere sitting together quietly by a brook and taking their rest; and,whilst they were making their feathers smooth with their bills,they were having a confidential conversation together. The servantstood by and listened. They were telling one another of all theplaces where they had been waddling about all the morning, and whatgood food they had found; and one said in a pitiful tone: «Somethinglies heavy on my stomach; as I was eating in haste I swallowed aring which lay under the queen’s window.» The servant at once seizedher by the neck, carried her to the kitchen, and said to the cook:«Here is a fine duck; pray, kill her.» «Yes,» said the cook, andweighed her in his hand; «she has spared no trouble to fattenherself, and has been waiting to be roasted long enough.» So he cut offher head, and as she was being dressed for the spit, the queen’s ringwas found inside her.

The servant could now easily prove his innocence; and the king, tomake amends for the wrong, allowed him to ask a favour, and promisedhim the best place in the court that he could wish for. Theservant refused everything, and only asked for a horse and some moneyfor travelling, as he had a mind to see the world and go about alittle. When his request was granted he set out on his way, and one daycame to a pond, where he saw three fishes caught in the reeds andgasping for water. Now, though it is said that fishes are dumb, heheard them lamenting that they must perish so miserably, and, as hehad a kind heart, he got off his horse and put the three prisonersback into the water. They leapt with delight, put out their heads, andcried to him: «We will remember you and repay you for saving us!»

He rode on, and after a while it seemed to him that he heard a voicein the sand at his feet. He listened, and heard an ant-king complain:«Why cannot folks, with their clumsy beasts, keep off our bodies? Thatstupid horse, with his heavy hoofs, has been treading down my peoplewithout mercy!» So he turned on to a side path and the ant-king criedout to him: «We will remember you—one good turn deserves another!»

The path led him into a wood, and there he saw two old ravens standingby their nest, and throwing out their young ones. «Out with you, youidle, good-for-nothing creatures!» cried they; «we cannot find food foryou any longer; you are big enough, and can provide for yourselves.’But the poor young ravens lay upon the ground, flapping their wings,and crying: «Oh, what helpless chicks we are! We must shift forourselves, and yet we cannot fly! What can we do, but lie here andstarve?» So the good young fellow alighted and killed his horse withhis sword, and gave it to them for food. Then they came hopping up toit, satisfied their hunger, and cried: «We will remember you—one goodturn deserves another!»

And now he had to use his own legs, and when he had walked a long way,he came to a large city. There was a great noise and crowd in thestreets, and a man rode up on horseback, crying aloud: «The king’sdaughter wants a husband; but whoever seeks her hand must perform ahard task, and if he does not succeed he will forfeit his life.’Many had already made the attempt, but in vain; nevertheless when theyouth saw the king’s daughter he was so overcome by her great beautythat he forgot all danger, went before the king, and declared himselfa suitor.

So he was led out to the sea, and a gold ring was thrown into it,before his eyes; then the king ordered him to fetch this ring up fromthe bottom of the sea, and added: «If you come up again without it youwill be thrown in again and again until you perish amid the waves.’All the people grieved for the handsome youth; then they went away,leaving him alone by the sea.

He stood on the shore and considered what he should do, when suddenlyhe saw three fishes come swimming towards him, and they were the veryfishes whose lives he had saved. The one in the middle held amussel in its mouth, which it laid on the shore at the youth’s feet,and when he had taken it up and opened it, there lay the gold ring inthe shell. Full of joy he took it to the king and expected that hewould grant him the promised reward.

But when the proud princess perceived that he was not her equal inbirth, she scorned him, and required him first to perform another task.She went down into the garden and strewed with her own hands tensacksful of millet-seed on the grass; then she said: «Tomorrow morningbefore sunrise these must be picked up, and not a single grain bewanting.»

The youth sat down in the garden and considered how it might bepossible to perform this task, but he could think of nothing, andthere he sat sorrowfully awaiting the break of day, when he should beled to death. But as soon as the first rays of the sun shone into thegarden he saw all the ten sacks standing side by side, quite full, andnot a single grain was missing. The ant-king had come in the nightwith thousands and thousands of ants, and the grateful creatures hadby great industry picked up all the millet-seed and gathered them intothe sacks.

Presently the king’s daughter herself came down into the garden, andwas amazed to see that the young man had done the task she had givenhim. But she could not yet conquer her proud heart, and said:«Although he has performed both the tasks, he shall not be my husbanduntil he had brought me an apple from the Tree of Life.» The youth didnot know where the Tree of Life stood, but he set out, and would havegone on for ever, as long as his legs would carry him, though he had nohope of finding it. After he had wandered through three kingdoms, hecame one evening to a wood, and lay down under a tree to sleep. Buthe heard a rustling in the branches, and a golden apple fell into hishand. At the same time three ravens flew down to him, perchedthemselves upon his knee, and said: «We are the three young ravens whomyou saved from starving; when we had grown big, and heard that youwere seeking the Golden Apple, we flew over the sea to the end of theworld, where the Tree of Life stands, and have brought you the apple.’The youth, full of joy, set out homewards, and took the Golden Appleto the king’s beautiful daughter, who had now no more excuses left tomake. They cut the Apple of Life in two and ate it together; and thenher heart became full of love for him, and they lived inundisturbed happiness to a great age.

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