The White Snake





A long time ago there lived a king who was famed for his wisdom through

all the land. Nothing was hidden from him, and it seemed as if news of

the most secret things was brought to him through the air. But he had a

strange custom; every day after dinner, when the table was cleared,

and no one else was present, a trusty servant had to bring him one more

dish. It was covered, however, and even the servant did not know what

was in it, neither did anyone know, for the king never took 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 took

away the dish, was overcome with such curiosity that he could not help

carrying 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. But

when 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 it

touched his tongue than he heard a strange whispering of little voices

outside his window. He went and listened, and then noticed that it was

the sparrows who were chattering together, and telling one another of

all kinds of things which they had seen in the fields and woods. Eating

the snake had given him power of understanding the language of animals.



Now it so happened that on this very day the queen lost her most

beautiful ring, and suspicion of having stolen it fell upon this trusty

servant, who was allowed to go everywhere. The king ordered the man to

be brought before him, and threatened with angry words that unless he

could before the morrow point out the thief, he himself should be looked

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 took thought

how to help himself out of his trouble. Now some ducks were 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 servant stood by and listened.

They were telling one another of all the places where they had been

waddling about all the morning, and what good food they had found; and

one said in a pitiful tone: 'Something lies heavy on my stomach; as

I was eating in haste I swallowed a ring which lay under the queen's

window.' The servant at once seized her 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, and weighed her in his hand; 'she has spared

no trouble to fatten herself, and has been waiting to be roasted long

enough.' So he cut off her head, and as she was being dressed for the

spit, the queen's ring was found inside her.



The servant could now easily prove his innocence; and the king, to make

amends for the wrong, allowed him to ask a favour, and promised him

the best place in the court that he could wish for. The servant refused

everything, and only asked for a horse and some money for travelling, as

he had a mind to see the world and go about a little. When his request

was granted he set out on his way, and one day came to a pond, where he

saw three fishes caught in the reeds and gasping for water. Now, though

it is said that fishes are dumb, he heard them lamenting that they must

perish so miserably, and, as he had a kind heart, he got off his

horse and put the three prisoners back into the water. They leapt with

delight, put out their heads, and cried 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 voice in

the sand at his feet. He listened, and heard an ant-king complain: 'Why

cannot folks, with their clumsy beasts, keep off our bodies? That stupid

horse, with his heavy hoofs, has been treading down my people without

mercy!' So he turned on to a side path and the ant-king cried out 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 standing

by their nest, and throwing out their young ones. 'Out with you, you

idle, good-for-nothing creatures!' cried they; 'we cannot find food for

you 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 for ourselves,

and yet we cannot fly! What can we do, but lie here and starve?' So the

good young fellow alighted and killed his horse with his sword, and gave

it to them for food. Then they came hopping up to it, satisfied their

hunger, and cried: 'We will remember you--one good turn 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

the streets, and a man rode up on horseback, crying aloud: 'The king's

daughter wants a husband; but whoever seeks her hand must perform a hard

task, and if he does not succeed he will forfeit his life.' Many had

already made the attempt, but in vain; nevertheless when the youth

saw the king's daughter he was so overcome by her great beauty that he

forgot all danger, went before the king, and declared himself a 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 from the

bottom of the sea, and added: 'If you come up again without it you will

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 suddenly

he saw three fishes come swimming towards him, and they were the very

fishes whose lives he had saved. The one in the middle held a mussel 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 in the shell.

Full of joy he took it to the king and expected that he would grant him

the promised reward.



But when the proud princess perceived that he was not her equal in

birth, she scorned him, and required him first to perform another

task. She went down into the garden and strewed with her own hands ten

sacksful of millet-seed on the grass; then she said: 'Tomorrow morning

before sunrise these must be picked up, and not a single grain be

wanting.'



The youth sat down in the garden and considered how it might be possible

to perform this task, but he could think of nothing, and there he sat

sorrowfully awaiting the break of day, when he should be led to death.

But as soon as the first rays of the sun shone into the garden he saw

all the ten sacks standing side by side, quite full, and not a single

grain was missing. The ant-king had come in the night with thousands

and thousands of ants, and the grateful creatures had by great industry

picked up all the millet-seed and gathered them into the sacks.



Presently the king's daughter herself came down into the garden, and was

amazed to see that the young man had done the task she had given him.

But she could not yet conquer her proud heart, and said: 'Although he

has performed both the tasks, he shall not be my husband until he had

brought me an apple from the Tree of Life.' The youth did not know where

the Tree of Life stood, but he set out, and would have gone on for ever,

as long as his legs would carry him, though he had no hope of finding

it. After he had wandered through three kingdoms, he came one evening to

a wood, and lay down under a tree to sleep. But he heard a rustling in

the branches, and a golden apple fell into his hand. At the same time

three ravens flew down to him, perched themselves upon his knee, and

said: 'We are the three young ravens whom you saved from starving; when

we had grown big, and heard that you were seeking the Golden Apple,

we flew over the sea to the end of the world, where the Tree of Life

stands, and have brought you the apple.' The youth, full of joy, set out

homewards, and took the Golden Apple to the king's beautiful daughter,

who had now no more excuses left to make. They cut the Apple of Life in

two and ate it together; and then her heart became full of love for him,

and they lived in undisturbed happiness to a great age.





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