14.THE WONDERFUL RING

Once upon a time there lived a King who had two sons, and when he died he left them all his treasures. But the younger brother began to spend it all so extravagantly that the elder brother said, ‘Let us divide what there is, and you take your own share, and do what you please with it.’

So the younger took his share, and spent every penny of it in no time.

When he had nothing left, he asked his wife to give him what she had. Then she wept, saying, ‘I have nothing left but one small piece of jewellery. However, take that also if you want it.’

So he took the jewel, sold it for four gold dollars, and taking the money with him, set off to make his fortune in the world.

As he went on his way he met a man with a cat, ‘How much for your cat?’ asked the
Prince.

‘Nothing less than a gold dollar,’ replied the man.

‘A bargain indeed!’ cried the younger brother, and immediately bought the cat for a gold dollar.

Later on he met a man with a dog, and called out as before, ‘How much for your dog?’ And when the man said not less than a gold dollar, the Prince again declared it was a bargain indeed, and bought it cheerfully.

Then he met a man carrying a parrot, and called out as before, ‘How much for the parrot?’ And when he heard it was only a gold dollar he was delighted, saying once more that was a bargain indeed.

He had only one pound left. Yet even then, when he met a monk carrying a snake, he cried out at once, ‘Oh monk, how much for the snake?’

‘Not a cent less than a gold dollar,’ said the monk.

‘And very little, too!’ cried the spendthrift, handing over his last coin.

So there he was, with a cat, a dog, a parrot, and a snake, but not a single penny in his pocket. However, he set to work bravely to earn his living; but the hard labour wearied him dreadfully, for being a Prince he was not used to it. Now when his snake saw this, it pitied its kind master, and said, ‘Prince, if you are not afraid to come to my father’s house, he will perhaps give you something for saving me from the monk.’ The Prince was not a bit afraid of anything, so he and the snake set off together, but when they arrived at the house, the snake told the Prince to wait outside, while it went in alone and prepared the snake-father for a visitor. When the snake-father heard what the snake had to say, he was much pleased, declaring he would reward the Prince by giving him anything he desired. So the snake went out to fetch the Prince in to meet the snake-father , and when doing so, it whispered in his ear, ‘My father will give you anything you desire. Remember only to ask for his little ring as a keepsake.’

This rather astonished the Prince, who naturally thought a ring would be of little use to a man who was half starving. However, he did as he was told, and when the snake-father asked him what he desired, he replied, ‘Thank you, I have everything, and need nothing.’

Then the snake-father asked him once more what he would take as a reward, but again he answered that he wanted nothing, having all that his heart could desire.

Nevertheless, when the snake-father asked him the third time, he replied, ‘Since you wish me to take something, let it be the ring you wear on your finger, as a keepsake.’

Then the snake-father frowned, and looked displeased, saying, ‘Were it not for my promise, I would have killed you on the spot, for daring to ask for my greatest treasure. But as I have said, it must be. Take the ring, and go!’

So the Prince, taking the ring, set off homewards with his servant the snake, to whom he said regretfully, ‘This old ring is a mistake. I have only made the snake-father angry by asking for it, and much good it will do me! It would have been wiser to say a sack of gold.’

‘Not so, my Prince!’ replied the snake. ‘That ring is a wonderful ring! You have only to make a clean square place on the ground, put the ring in the centre, sprinkle it with milk and then whatever you wish for will be granted immediately.’

Delighted at possessing so great a treasure as this magic ring, the Prince went on his way rejoicing, but by and by, as he trudged along the road, he began to feel hungry, and thought he would put his ring to the test. So, making a place, he put the ring in the centre, sprinkled it with milk, and cried, ‘Oh ring, I want some sweetmeats for dinner!’

No sooner had he uttered the words, than a dishful of most delicious sweets appeared. These he ate, and then set off to a city he saw in the distance.

As he entered the gate a proclamation was being made that anyone who would build a palace of gold, with golden stairs, in the middle of the sea, in the course of one night, should have half the kingdom and the King’s daughter in marriage. But if he failed, instant death would be the result.

Hearing this, the Prince went at once to the Court and declared his readiness to fulfill the conditions.

The King was much surprised at his boldness, and told him to consider well what he was doing, telling him that many princes had tried to perform the task before, and showing him a necklace of their heads, in hopes that the dreadful sight might deter him from his purpose.

But the Prince merely replied that he was not afraid, and that he was certain he should succeed.

Whereupon the King ordered him to build the palace that very night, and setting a guard over him, told the sentries to be careful the young boaster did not run away. Now when evening came, the Prince lay down calmly to sleep. The guard whispered amongst themselves that he must be a madman to throw away his life so uselessly. Nevertheless, at dawn the Prince arose, and making a holy place, laid the ring in the centre, sprinkled it with milk, and cried, ‘Oh ring, I want a palace of gold, with golden stairs, in the midst of the sea!’

And lo! There in the sea it stood, all glittering in the sunshine. Seeing this, the guard ran to tell the King, who could scarcely believe his eyes when he and all his Court came to the spot and saw the golden palace.

Nevertheless, as the Prince had fulfilled his promise, the King performed his, and gave his daughter in marriage, and half his kingdom, to him.

‘I don’t want your kingdom or your daughter either!’ said the Prince. ‘I will take the palace I have built in the sea as my reward.’

So he went to live there, but when they sent the Princess to him, he changed his mind after seeing her beauty; and so they were married and lived very happily together.

Now, when the Prince went out hunting he took his dog with him, but he left the cat and the parrot in the palace, to amuse the Princess. Nevertheless, one day, when he returned, he found her very sad and sorrowful, and when he begged her to tell him what the matter was, she said, ‘Oh dear Prince, I wish to be turned into gold by the power of the magic ring by which you built this glittering golden palace.’

So, to please her, he made a holy place, put the ring in the centre, sprinkled it with milk, and cried, ‘Oh ring, turn my wife into gold!’

No sooner had he said the words than his wish was accomplished, and his wife became a golden Princess.

Now, when the golden Princess was washing her beautiful golden hair one day, two long glittering hairs came out in the comb. She looked at them, regretting that there were no poor people near to whom she might have given the golden strands. Then, deciding they should not be lost, she made a cup of green leaves, and curling the hairs inside it, set it afloat upon the sea.

As luck would have it, after drifting here and there, it reached a distant shore where a washerman was at work. The poor man, seeing the wonderful gold hairs, took them to the King, hoping for a reward, The King in his turn showed them to his son, who was so much struck by the sight that he lay down on a dirty old bed, to show his extreme grief and despair, and, refusing to eat or drink anything, swore he must marry the owner of the beautiful golden hair, or die.

The King, greatly distressed at his son’s state, thought about how he should find the golden-haired Princess, and after calling his ministers and nobles to help him, came to the conclusion that it would be best to employ a wise woman. So he called the wisest woman in the land to him, and she promised to find the Princess, on condition of the King, in his turn, promising to give her anything she desired as a reward.

Then the wise woman caused a golden barge to be made, and in the barge a silken cradle swinging from silken ropes. When all was ready, she set off in the direction from where the leafy cup had come, taking with her four boatmen, whom she trained carefully always to stop rowing when she put up her finger, and go on as long as she kept it down.

After a long while they came in sight of the golden palace, which the wise woman guessed at once must belong to the golden Princess; so, putting up her finger, the boatmen ceased rowing, and the wise woman, stepping out of the boat, went swiftly into the palace. There she saw the golden Princess, sitting on a golden throne. Going up to her she kissed her, saying, ‘Dearest niece! Do you not know me? I am your aunt.’

But the Princess at first drew back, and said she had never seen or heard of such an aunt. Then the wise woman explained how she had left home years before, and made up such a cunning, believable story that the Princess, who was only too glad to get a companion, really believed what she said, and invited her to stop a few days in the palace.

Now, as they sat talking together, the wise woman asked the Princess if she did not find it dull alone in the palace in the midst of the sea, and inquired how they managed to live there without servants, and how the Prince her husband came and went. Then the Princess told her about the wonderful ring the Prince wore day and night, and how by its help they had everything heart could desire.

On hearing this, the false aunt looked very serious, and suggested the terrible trouble in which the Princess would be left should the Prince come to harm while away from her. She spoke so earnestly that the Princess became quite alarmed, and the same evening, when her husband returned, she said to him, ‘Husband, I wish you would give me the ring to keep while you are away hunting, for if you were to come to harm, what would become of me alone in this sea palace?’

So, next morning, when the Prince went hunting, he left the magical ring in his wife’s keeping.

As soon as the wicked wise woman knew that the ring was really in the possession of the Princess, she persuaded her to go down the golden stairs to the sea, and look at the golden boat with the silken cradle. So, by nice words and cunning the golden Princess was tricked into the boat, in order to have a tiny sail on the sea. But no sooner was her prize safe in the silken cradle, than the false aunt turned down her finger, and the boatmen immediately began to row swiftly away.

Soon the Princess begged to be taken back, but the wise woman only laughed, and answered all the poor girl’s tears and prayers with slaps and harsh words. At last they arrived at the royal city, where great rejoicings arose when the news was heard that the wise woman had returned with the golden bride for the love-sick Prince. Nevertheless, despite all begging, the Princess refused even to look at the Prince for six months. If in that time, she said, her husband did not claim her, she might think of marriage, but until then she would not hear of it.

To this the Prince agreed, seeing that six months was not a very long time to wait. Besides, he knew that even should her husband or any other person turn up, nothing was easier than to kill them, and so get rid both of them and their claims.

Meanwhile, the Prince having returned from hunting, called out as usual to his wife on reaching the golden stairs, but received no answer. Then, entering the palace, he found no one there except the parrot, which flew towards him and said, ‘Oh master, the Princess’s aunt came here, and has carried her off in a golden boat.’

Hearing this, the poor Prince fell to the ground in a fit, and would not be comforted. At last, however, he recovered a little, when the parrot, to comfort him, told him to wait there while it flew away over the sea to gather news of the lost bride.

So the faithful parrot flew from land to land, from city to city, from house to house, until it saw the glitter of the Princess’s golden hair. Then it fluttered down beside her and telling her to be brave, for it had come to help her, asked for the magic ring. The golden Princess wept more than ever, for she knew the wise woman kept the ring in her mouth day and night, and that no one could take it from her.

However, when the parrot asked the cat, which had accompanied the bird, the crafty creature declared nothing could be easier.

‘All the Princess has to do,’ said the cat, ‘is to ask the wise woman to give her rice for supper tonight, and instead of eating it all, she must scatter some in front of the rat-hole in her room. The rest is my business, and yours.’

So that night the Princess had rice for supper, and instead of eating it all, she scattered some before the rat-hole. Then she went to bed, and slept soundly, and the wise woman snored beside her. By and by, when all was quiet, the rats came out to eat up the rice, when the cat, with one jump, pounced on the one which had the longest tail, and carrying it to where the wise woman lay snoring with her mouth open, thrust the tail up her nose. She woke with a most terrific sneeze, and the ring flew out of her mouth on to the floor. Before she could turn, the parrot seized it in his beak, and, without pausing a moment, flew back with it to his master the Prince, who only had to but make a holy place, lay the ring in the centre, sprinkle it with milk, and say, ‘Oh ring, I want my wife!’ and there she was, as beautiful as ever, and overjoyed at seeing the golden palace and her dear husband once more.