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The False Prince And The True

from The Lilac Fairy Book





The king had just awakened from his midday sleep, for it was
summer, and everyone rose early and rested from twelve to three,
as they do in hot countries. He had dressed himself in cool white
clothes, and was passing through the hall on his way to the
council chamber, when a number of young nobles suddenly appeared
before him, and one amongst them stepped forward and spoke.

'Sire, this morning we were all playing tennis in the court, the
prince and this gentleman with the rest, when there broke out
some dispute about the game. The prince lost his temper, and said
many insulting things to the other, who was playing against him,
till at length the gentleman whom you see there struck him
violently in the face, so that the blood ran from his mouth and
nose. We were all so horrified at the sight, that we should most
likely have killed the man then and there, for daring to lay
hands on the prince, had not his grandfather the duke stepped
between and commanded us to lay the affair before you.'

The king had listened attentively to the story, and when it was
ended he said:

'I suppose the prince had no arms with him, or else he would have
used them?'

'Yes, sire, he had arms; he always carries a dagger in his belt.
But when he saw the blood pouring from his face, he went to a
corner of the court and began to cry, which was the strangest
thing of all.'

On hearing this the king walked to the window and stood for a few
minutes with his back to the room, where the company of young men
remained silent. Then he came back, his face white and stern.

'I tell you,' he said, 'and it is the solemn truth, that I would
rather you had told me that the prince was dead, though he is my
only son, than know that he would suffer such an injury without
attempting to avenge it. As for the gentleman who struck him, he
will be brought before my judges, and will plead his own cause,
but I hardly think he can escape death, after having assaulted
the heir to the crown.'

The young man raised his head as if to reply, but the king would
not listen, and commanded his guards to put him under arrest,
adding, however, that if the prisoner wished to visit any part of
the city, he was at liberty to do so properly guarded, and in
fifteen days he would be brought to trial before the highest
judges in the land.

The young man left the king's presence, surrounded by soldiers,
and accompanied by many of his friends, for he was a great
favourite. By their advice he spent the fourteen days that
remained to him going about to seek counsel from wise men of all
sorts, as to how he might escape death, but no one could help
him, for none could find any excuse for the blow he had given to
the prince.

The fourteenth night had come, and in despair the prisoner went
out to take his last walk through the city. He wandered on hardly
knowing where he went, and his face was so white and desperate
that none of his companions dared speak to him. The sad little
procession had passed some hours in this manner, when, near the
gate of a monastery, an old woman appeared round a corner, and
suddenly stood before the young man. She was bent almost double,
and was so wizened and wrinkled that she looked at least ninety;
only her eyes were bright and quick as those of a girl.

'Sir,' she said, 'I know all that has happened to you, and how
you are seeking if in any wise you can save your life. But there
is none that can answer that question save only I myself, if you
will promise to do all I ask.'

At her words the prisoner felt as if a load had all at once been
rolled off him.

'Oh, save me, and I will do anything!' he cried. 'It is so hard
to leave the world and go out into the darkness.'

'You will not need to do that,' answered the old woman, 'you have
only got to marry me, and you will soon be free.'

'Marry you?' exclaimed he, 'but--but--I am not yet twenty, and
you --why, you must be a hundred at least! Oh, no, it is quite
impossible.'

He spoke without thinking, but the flash of anger which darted
from her eyes made him feel uncomfortable. However, all she said
was:

'As you like; since you reject me, let the crows have you,' and
hurried away down the street.

Left to himself, the full horror of his coming death rushed upon
the young man, and he understood that he had thrown away his sole
chance of life. Well, if he must, he must, he said to himself,
and began to run as fast as he could after the old crone, who by
this time could scarcely be seen, even in the moonlight. Who
would have believed a woman past ninety could walk with such
speed? It seemed more like flying! But at length, breathless and
exhausted, he reached her side, and gasped out:

'Madam, pardon me for my hasty words just now; I was wrong, and
will thankfully accept the offer you made me.'

'Ah, I thought you would come to your senses,' answered she, in
rather an odd voice. 'We have no time to lose--follow me at
once,' and they went on silently and swiftly till they stopped at
the door of a small house in which the priest lived. Before him
the old woman bade the prisoner swear that she should be his
wife, and this he did in the presence of witnesses. Then, begging
the priest and the guards to leave them alone for a little, she
told the young man what he was to do, when the next morning he
was brought before the king and the judges.

The hall was full to overflowing when the prisoner entered it,
and all marvelled at the brightness of his face. The king
inquired if he had any excuse to plead for the high treason he
had committed by striking the heir to the throne, and, if so, to
be quick in setting it forth. With a low bow the youth made
answer in a clear voice:

'O my lord and gracious king, and you, nobles and wise men of the
land, I leave my cause without fear in your hands, knowing that
you will listen and judge rightly, and that you will suffer me to
speak to the end, before you give judgment.

'For four years, you, O king, had been married to the queen and
yet had no children, which grieved you greatly. The queen saw
this, and likewise that your love was going from her, and thought
night and day of some plan that might put an end to this evil. At
length, when you were away fighting in distant countries, she
decided what she would do, and adopted in secret the baby of a
poor quarryman, sending a messenger to tell you that you had a
son. No one suspected the truth except a priest to whom the queen
confessed the truth, and in a few weeks she fell ill and died,
leaving the baby to be brought up as became a prince. And now, if
your highness will permit me, I will speak of myself.'

'What you have already told me,' answered the king, 'is so
strange that I cannot imagine what more there is to tell, but go
on with your story.'

'One day, shortly after the death of the queen,' continued the
young man, 'your highness was hunting, and outstripped all your
attendants while chasing the deer. You were in a part of the
country which you did not know, so seeing an orchard all pink and
white with apple-blossoms, and a girl tossing a ball in one
corner, you went up to her to ask your way. But when she turned
to answer you, you were so struck with her beauty that all else
fled from your mind. Again and again you rode back to see her,
and at length persuaded her to marry you. She only thought you a
poor knight, and agreed that as you wished it, the marriage
should be kept secret.

'After the ceremony you gave her three rings and a charm with a
cross on it, and then put her in a cottage in the forest,
thinking to hide the matter securely.

'For some months you visited the cottage every week; but a
rebellion broke out in a distant part of the kingdom, and called
for your presence. When next you rode up to the cottage, it was
empty, and none could inform you whither your bride had gone.
That, sire, I can now tell you,' and the young man paused and
looked at the king, who coloured deeply. 'She went back to her
father the old duke, once your chamberlain, and the cross on her
breast revealed at once who you were. Fierce was his anger when
he heard his daughter's tale, and he vowed that he would hide her
safely from you, till the day when you would claim her publicly
as your queen.

'By and bye I was born, and was brought up by my grandfather in
one of his great houses. Here are the rings you gave to my
mother, and here is the cross, and these will prove if I am your
son or not.'

As he spoke the young man laid the jewels at the feet of the
king, and the nobles and the judges pressed round to examine
them. The king alone did not move from his seat, for he had
forgotten the hall of justice and all about him, and saw only the
apple-orchard, as it was twenty years ago, and the beautiful girl
playing at ball. A sudden silence round him made him look up, and
he found the eyes of the assembly fixed on him.

'It is true; it is he who is my son, and not the other,' he said
with an effort, 'and let every man present swear to acknowledge
him as king, after my death.'

Therefore one by one they all knelt before him and took the oath,
and a message was sent to the false prince, forbidding him ever
again to appear at court, though a handsome pension was granted
him.

At last the ceremony was over, and the king, signing to his newly
found son to follow him, rose and went into another room.

'Tell me how you knew all that,' he said, throwing himself into a
carved chair filled with crimson cushions, and the prince told of
his meeting with the old woman who had brought him the jewels
from his mother, and how he had sworn before a priest to marry
her, though he did not want to do it, on account of the
difference in their ages, and besides, he would rather receive a
bride chosen by the king himself. But the king frowned, and
answered sharply:

'You swore to marry her if she saved your life, and, come what
may, you must fulfil your promise.' Then, striking a silver
shield that hung close by, he said to the equerry who appeared
immediately:

'Go and seek the priest who lives near the door of the prison,
and ask him where you can find the old woman who visited him last
night; and when you have found her, bring her to the palace.'

It took some time to discover the whereabouts of the old woman,
but at length it was accomplished, and when she arrived at the
palace with the equerry, she was received with royal honours, as
became the bride of the prince. The guards looked at each other
with astonished eyes, as the wizened creature, bowed with age,
passed between their lines; but they were more amazed still at
the lightness of her step as she skipped up the steps to the
great door before which the king was standing, with the prince at
his side. If they both felt a shock at the appearance of the aged
lady they did not show it, and the king, with a grave bow, took
her band, and led her to the chapel, where a bishop was waiting
to perform the marriage ceremony.

For the next few weeks little was seen of the prince, who spent
all his days in hunting, and trying to forget the old wife at
home. As for the princess, no one troubled himself about her, and
she passed the days alone in her apartments, for she had
absolutely declined the services of the ladies-in-waiting whom
the king had appointed for her.

One night the prince returned after a longer chase than usual,
and he was so tired that he went up straight to bed. Suddenly he
was awakened by a strange noise in the room, and suspecting that
a robber might have stolen in, he jumped out of bed, and seized
his sword, which lay ready to his hand. Then he perceived that
the noise proceeded from the next room, which belonged to the
princess, and was lighted by a burning torch. Creeping softly to
the door, he peeped through it, and beheld her lying quietly,
with a crown of gold and pearls upon her head, her wrinkles all
gone, and her face, which was whiter than the snow, as fresh as
that of a girl of fourteen. Could that really be his wife--that
beautiful, beautiful creature?

The prince was still gazing in surprise when the lady opened her
eyes and smiled at him.

'Yes, I really am your wife,' she said, as if she had guessed his
thoughts, 'and the enchantment is ended. Now I must tell you who
I am, and what befell to cause me to take the shape of an old
woman.

'The king of Granada is my father, and I was born in the palace
which overlooks the plain of the Vega. I was only a few months
old when a wicked fairy, who had a spite against my parents, cast
a spell over me, bending my back and wrinkling my skin till I
looked as if I was a hundred years old, and making me such an
object of disgust to everyone, that at length the king ordered my
nurse to take my away from the palace. She was the only person
who cared about me, and we lived together in this city on a small
pension allowed me by the king.

'When I was about three an old man arrived at our house, and
begged my nurse to let him come in and rest, as he could walk no
longer. She saw that he was very ill, so put him to bed and took
such care of him that by and bye he was as strong as ever. In
gratitude for her goodness to him, he told her that he was a
wizard and could give her anything she chose to ask for, except
life or death, so she answered that what she longed for most in
the world was that my wrinkled skin should disappear, and that I
should regain the beauty with which I was born. To this he
replied that as my misfortune resulted from a spell, this was
rather difficult, but he would do his best, and at any rate he
could promise that before my fifteenth birthday I should be freed
from the enchantment if I could get a man who would swear to
marry me as I was.

'As you may suppose, this was not easy, as my ugliness was such
that no one would look at me a second time. My nurse and I were
almost in despair, as my fifteenth birthday was drawing near, and
I had never so much as spoken to a man. At last we received a
visit from the wizard, who told us what had happened at court,
and your story, bidding me to put myself in your way when you had
lost all hope, and offer to save you if you would consent to
marry me.

'That is my history, and now you must beg the king to send
messengers at once to Granada, to inform my father of our
marriage, and I think,' she added with a smile, 'that he will not
refuse us his blessing.'

Adapted from the Portuguese.





Next: The Jogi's Punishment

Previous: The Shifty Lad



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