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The White Snake

A long while ago there lived a King whose wisdom was world-renowned. Nothing remained unknown to him, and it seemed as if the tidings of the most hidden things were borne to him through the air. But he had one strange custom: every noontime, when the table was quite cleared, and no one was present, his trusty servant had to bring him a dish, which was covered up, and the servant himself did not know what lay in it, and no man knew, for the King never uncovered it nor ate thereof until he was quite alone. This went on for a long time, until one day such a violent curiosity seized the servant, who as usual carried the dish, that he could not resist the temptation, and took the dish into his bedchamber. As soon as he had carefully locked the door, he raised the cover, and there lay before him a White Snake. At the sight he could not restrain the desire to taste it, so he cut a piece off and put it in his mouth. But scarcely had his tongue touched it, when he heard before his window a curious whispering of low voices. He went and listened, and found out that it was the Sparrows who were conversing with one another, and relating what each had seen in the field or wood. The morsel of the Snake had given him the power to understand the speech of animals. Now it happened just on this day that the Queen lost her finest ring, and suspicion fell on this faithful servant, who had the care of all the things, that he had stolen it. The King ordered him to appear before him, and threatened in angry words that he should be taken up and tried if he did not know before the morrow whom to name as the guilty person.

He protested his innocence in vain, and was sent away without any mitigation of the sentence. In his anxiety and trouble he went away into the courtyard, thinking how he might help himself. There, on a running stream of water, the Ducks were congregated familiarly together, and smoothing themselves down with their beaks while they held a confidential conversation. The servant stood still and listened to them as they narrated to each other whereabouts they had waddled, and what nice food they had found; and one said in a vexed tone, "Something very hard is in my stomach, for in my haste I swallowed a ring which laid under the Queen's window." Then the servant caught the speaker up by her neck, and carried her to the Cook, saying, "Just kill this fowl, it is finely fat." "Yes," said the Cook, weighing it in her hand, "it has spared no trouble in cramming itself; it ought to have been roasted long ago." So saying, she chopped off its head, and, when she cut it open, in its stomach was found the Queen's ring. Now, the servant was able to prove easily his innocence to the Queen, and, as she wished to repair her injustice, she granted him her pardon, and promised him the greatest place of honor which he wished at court. The servant refused everything, and only requested a horse and money, for he had a desire to see the world, and to travel about it for a while.

As soon as his request was granted he set off on his tour, and came one day by a pond, in which he remarked three Fishes which were caught in the reeds, and lay gasping for water. Although men say Fishes are dumb, yet he understood their complaint, that they must die so miserably. Having a compassionate heart, he dismounted and put the three prisoners again into the water. They splashed about for joy, and, putting their heads above the water, said to him, "We shall be grateful, and repay you for saving us." He rode onwards, and, after a while, it happened that he heard, as it were, a voice in the sand at his feet. He listened, and perceived that an Ant King was complaining thus: — "If these men could but keep away with their great fat beasts! Here comes an awkward horse treading my people under foot unmercifully." So he rode on to a side path, and the Ant King called to him: "We will be grateful and reward you."

His way led him into a forest, and there he saw a male and female Raven, standing by their nest, and dragging their young out. "Off with you, you gallows birds!" they exclaimed, "we can feed you no longer, you are big enough now to help yourselves." The poor young ones lay on the ground fluttering and beating their wings, and crying "We, helpless children, we must feed ourselves, we who cannot fly yet! what is left to us but to die here of hunger?" Then the servant dismounted, and, killing his horse with his sword, left it for the young Raven to feed upon. They soon hopped upon it, and when they were satisfied they exclaimed, "We will be grateful, and reward you in time of need!"

He was obliged now to use his own legs, and after he had gone a long way he came to a large town, where in the streets there was a great crowd and shouting, and a man upon horseback riding along, who proclaimed, "The Princess seeks a husband; but he who would win her must perform a difficult task, and, if he should not luckily complete it, his life will be forfeited." Many had tried already, but in vain; their life had been forfeited. But the Youth, when he had seen the Princess, was so blinded by her beauty, that he forgot all danger, and stepping before the King, offered himself as a suitor. Immediately he was conducted to the sea, and a golden ring thrown in before his eyes. Then the King bade him fetch this ring up again from the bottom of the sea, adding, "If you rise without the ring, you shall be thrown in again and again, until you perish in the waves." Everyone pitied the handsome Youth, and then left him alone on the seashore. There he stood considering what he should do, and presently he saw three fishes at once swimming towards him, and they were no others than the three whose lives he had saved. The middle one bore a mussel-shell in its mouth, which it laid on the shore at the feet of the Youth, who taking up and opening it, found the golden ring within. Full of joy, he brought it to the King, expecting that he should receive his promised reward.

But the proud Princess, when she saw that he was not her equal in birth, was ashamed of him, and desired that he should undertake a second task. She went into the garden, and strewed there ten bags of millet seed in the grass, "These he must pick up by the morning, before the sunrise, and let him not venture to miss one grain." The Youth sat himself down in the garden, thinking how it was possible to perform the task, but that he could not discover, and so he sat there sorrowfully, awaiting at the dawn of day to be conducted to death. But, as soon as the first rays of the sun fell on the garden, he saw that the ten sacks were all filled, and standing by him, while not a single grain remained in the grass. The Ant King had come in the night with his thousands and thousands of men, and the grateful insects had collected the millet with great industry, and put it into the sacks. The Princess herself came into the garden, and saw with wonder that the Youth had performed what was required of him.

But still she could not bend her proud heart, and she said, "Although he may have done these two tasks, yet he shall not be my husband until he has brought me an apple from the tree of life." The Youth did not know where the tree of life stood; he got up, indeed, and was willing to go so long as his legs bore him, but he had no hope of finding it. After he had wandered through three kingdoms he came by evening into a forest, and sitting down under a tree, he wished to sleep; when he heard a rustling in the branches and a golden apple fell into his hand. At the same time three Ravens flew down, and settled on his knee, saying "We are the three young Ravens whom you saved from dying of hunger; when we were grown up, and heard that you sought the golden apple, then we flew over the sea, even to the end of the world where stands the tree of life, and we have fetched you the apple."

Full of joy, the Youth set out homewards, and presented the golden apple to the beautiful Princess, who now had no more excuses. So they divided the apple of life, and ate it between them; then her heart was filled with love towards him, and they lived to a great age in undisturbed tranquillity.


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