THE WINNING OF VANELLA
MY father was a rich merchant, and I naturally expected that he would give me enough to insure me a fair start in life. Consequently, after the celebration of my twenty-first birthday, I was not surprised when he told me that he wished to hold a serious conversation with me in his study. I found him sitting upon his favorite green silk divan.
He motioned to me to be seated.
"My son," he began, "it is time you chose your career."
"Most true, Parent revered," was my answer.
"Unfortunately," he went on, "the pirates have lately captured six of my largest galleys loaded with emeralds, topazes, and notions, and I shall be unable to provide for you as I wished to do. But the money, which it seems was fated to be lost, would have been only a disappointment, and you can now show me what you are capable of doing by your unaided efforts."
"It is an excellent opportunity," I agreed.
"Your brothers, as you know, have already attempted to cope with the world."
"I know," I assented.
"But hitherto I have not told you of their fortunes. The King of a neighboring country seeks a husband for his only daughter, and promises to abdicate as soon as he has found a suitable son-in-law for the place."
"What sort of a son-in-law does his Majesty desire?"
"He does n't say. Both of your excellent brothers have returned to me for enough to make a new start in life, after having failed to win the hand of this princess."
"Did they tell you of their experiences?" I inquired with natural curiosity.
"Only in the most general terms," my father answered, smiling grimly at his own thoughts. "They told me that each candidate had certain tasks to perform, and agreed to leave the country forever if unsuccessful."
"And my brothers failed?"
"At the first task," said my father.
"Which was, perhaps, difficult?"
"Difficult, you may well say. It was to bring from the Hereditary Khan of Bijoutery, a proud and warlike chieftain, his most cherished bit of bric-à-brac, a goblet containing three priceless amethysts, given to him by a descendant of Haroun Alraschid. The Princess thinks she would like to have the jewels set in her bonbonniere."
"Pardon me, Papa," said I, "but I do not know that Frankish term."
"It is an outlandish name for a candy-box," said my father, who was simplicity itself.
"Could not my brothers obtain this little favor for the gentle Princess?" was my comment.
"They escaped with their lives only by the merest accident," said he. "The eldest made a midnight visit to the Khan's jewel-room, was discovered and leaped into the moat, some fifty parasangs below, if my memory be what it was; and then he swam four leagues, according to his own estimate, before rising to the surface for air."
"And the second?"
"Formed an alliance with a Cossack leader, and made war upon the Khan. But the Khan defeated them in seven pitched battles, and that discouraged your brother so that he returned home."
"Hearty commiserations for my brothers' misfortunes!" I said, after a few moments spent in reflection. "And the Princess—is she beautiful, that she inspires such courage and resolution?"
"The Princess Vanella is an exceedingly nice girl," said my father. "She is graceful, respectful to her elders, plays upon the lute like a true daughter of the desert, makes excellent muffins, and has the happiest disposition (next to that of your lamented mother) I have ever known. She is worthy of your highest ambition. To win her hand would be happiness, even should you thereafter lose the kingdom that goes with her. And those realms, my son," added my father, with a sigh, "are always slipping through one's fingers!"
In silence I waited my father's recovery from his emotion. My loved parent had lost several kingdoms already—not by his fault, but through misfortune. From our earliest days my mother taught us never to remind Papa of the thrones that were once his. She was always considerate.
"Why should I not undertake this adventure in my turn?" I asked soon after.
"So I asked your brothers; but they were inclined to ridicule the idea."
"'Ultimate ridicule is most satisfactory,'" I suggested, quoting a proverb of my native land.
"No doubt," my father agreed, nodding his great white turban. "Really, your chances are excellent. The fairy stories are all in your favor. You are the third son, and I have nothing to give you; your elder brothers have failed, and scorn your desire to attempt the tasks. You will, when you go, have only your father's blessing—which I will furnish. All seems favorable. But are you stupid enough? There I cannot help you. The true stupidity is natural, not acquired."
"I will be as stupid as I can," said I, with proud humility. "The lovely Princess Vanella shall be mine. I am enchanted with her already. She shall be mine."
"Enough!" said my father; and I withdrew.
In a few days I started, with my father's blessing, carrying all my possessions in a silk handkerchief slung from a stout staff. Upon my way I kept a sharp lookout for old men with bundles of fagots too heavy for their strength, aged women asking alms, and, in fact, for all unattractive wayfarers; for I knew that fairies were likely to take such forms.
And my vigilance was rewarded. At the first cross-roads I saw an ancient beggar crone hurling stones at a tree with more earnestness than aim.
"What seekst thou, honest dame?" I inquired in an anxious tone, as a rock avoided the tree and came most marvelously close to my right ear.
"Alas! my best bonnet has flown on the zephyr's wing, and roosts in yon tree," she replied, poising another boulder.
Resolved to stop the bombardment at any cost, I spoke hastily:
"Nay, pelt not the shrub! Care thou for my burden, and I will scale the branches and rescue the errant triumph of the milliner's art!"
My language was romantic in those days, perhaps too romantic, for she failed to catch my meaning, and waved the stone uneasily.
"Hold on!" I said. "Drop the rock, and I 'll get the bonnet. If you hit it, you might smash all the style out of it."
My praise of her bonnet was not unpleasant to her, for when I brought it she said gratefully:
"You are a noble youth. I have little with which to reward you; but give me the pen and inkhorn that dangles from your belt, and a bit of parchment. I can write you a line that may aid you in time of need."
Convinced that she was a fairy, I obeyed. She wrote a few words in a crabbed hand, and advised me to read them when I was in need of counsel.
"Give you good day, fair youth," said she, courteously.
"Fare thee well, gentle dame," I replied, removing my left slipper, which is a token of respect in my native land.
I met with but one other adventure on my way to the Khan's palace. I rescued an emerald-green parrot from a cat, and seeing no dwelling near carried the pretty creature with me.
On the eighth day after leaving my father's house, I was ushered by two gorgeous guards into the courtyard of the palace where the beautiful Vanella dwelt. My heart beat rapturously, and I felt so young, so brave, and so strong that I feared neither the King nor his people.
I happened to arrive just when the King was holding audience, and he was graciously pleased to see me without more than three or four hours' delay in the anteroom.
When the curtained doorway was opened I advanced into the audience-hall and saw—Vanella!
For seventeen minutes I saw nothing but the Princess! In fact, the guards had just been ordered to show me out as a dumb and senseless wanderer, when I came to myself, and began to catch sight of the King dimly through the edges of the glory which in my eyes surrounded the Princess.
"Pardon, father of Vanella the peerless," said I, "the stupefaction of one who indeed knew your daughter to be beautiful, but had no idea what a pretty girl she was. I never saw any princess who can hold a rushlight to her; and it was very sudden. I am better now."
"We are glad you are better," said the King, "and hope you will soon be well enough to tell us what you wish."
"I have come to marry Her Effulgent Perfectness the Princess Vanella!"
"Yes?" said the King, with a slightly sarcastic air.
"Provided I can win her," I added. "And that we shall soon see."
I think the old man liked my courage. At all events, he called me to him, and presented me to the Princess. For he was a very sensible ruler and an indulgent father; and he had no idea of marrying his daughter to any man she did n't think worthy of her. So in all cases, permission had to be given by the Princess before the candidate could begin the ordeal. But so beautiful was Vanella, and so eager were the young nobility to win her hand, that they all looked handsome and daring when in her presence. I think I must have been attractive in those days, for Vanella says now that she never admired me more than when I was first presented to her. It was love at first sight on both sides. In fact, after we had conversed a few minutes, the Princess told me that she was "sorry the tests were so awfully difficult, and she did n't care so very much about the goblet after all, though, of course she would like it, if it was n't too much trouble to get it."
"No trouble at all," said I. "I would get it for you, even if you did n't want it at all."
She looked pleased and then frowned.
"I mean," I added hastily, "I'd get it if you wanted it, even if you did n't care whether I got it or not."
She seemed to understand me perfectly.
"I shall start after luncheon," I said. "And, before I go, is there anything else of the Khan's that you'd like? It's no bother to me to get you the whole treasury if you'd care for it."
"The goblet will do," she said, blushing charmingly, and looking at her father to see whether he was listening. He was n't.
"Papa," said Vanella, "it's all right."
"Eh? What's all right?"
"He's going, after luncheon."
"This young gentleman."
"Oh, yes," said the King. "Very well. I suppose he will get the goblet first. Yes? Well, then, good-by, my young friend. Good-by."
"Au revoir," I answered, in the Frankish mode.
"Can you not leave the parrot?" suggested Vanella. "I adore green parrots—of that particular shade of green, I mean!"
"With pleasure," I answered with a grateful glance. "May I ask you to allow it to remind you of me?"
"The color will help," said the King, a little maliciously, I thought. So I hurried away without further delay.
As there were no modern systems of rapid transit, I traveled speedily but comfortably toward Bijoutery, thinking so constantly of the Princess that I never reflected upon how I was to obtain possession of the goblet until I found myself upon the frontier. Then I was stopped by an outpost of the Khan's army.
"Who goes there?" he inquired, as he drew his bow and adjusted an arrow to the string.
"Goes where?" I asked, waking up from a brown study, for I was a little abstracted.
"Wherever you are going," he explained, lowering his bow.
"Why, I do, I suppose," I answered, a little annoyed by the question, which was absurd on the face of it.
"Well, what do you want?" he asked.
"I want to marry the Princess Vanella," I said, absent-mindedly.
"Why don't you, then?" the soldier inquired, smiling indulgently.
"She has sent me to get the Khan's goblet," I said, for I had no wish to go about the enterprise in any underhand manner.
"I did n't know he was going to send it to her," said the sentinel.
"Perhaps he won't after all," I said frankly.
"Maybe not," answered the soldier; "he thinks a great deal of it. But I suppose she would n't have sent you unless she thought he would let you have it. Would she, now?" he asked. He seemed to be proud of his cleverness.
"Well, she might," I said, cautiously, "But if he does n't care to give it to me, he can say so."
"So he can," said the soldier. "I wish you good luck."
Thanking him for his kindness, I went on my way. It did n't occur to me until afterward that the soldier thought I was a mere messenger sent by the Princess according to some arrangement between the Khan and herself.
Once within the frontier, I had no further difficulty until I reached the Khan's castle. I attributed my good fortune thus far to the fact that I had minded my own business. It is so much easier to go into a foreign country by yourself than it is to get in at the head of an army. My brother expected to be stopped, and he was stopped. I took it for granted that I could go in, and they let me in. It was very simple indeed.
Now another problem confronted me. Here was a strong castle built on a rocky promontory surrounded on three sides by the sea, and on the fourth defended by a lofty wall of hewn stone.
I went to the drawbridge gate and blew the trumpet.
"Hello! Who's there?" said a gruff voice.
"It's a gentleman to see the Khan," I said.
"Where is he?" asked the voice, through an iron lattice.
"I am the gentleman," I replied.
"Go away, boy!" said the voice, and the latticed window was shut.
This was discouraging.
"What would the Princess say if she saw me now?" I thought, and then I returned to the gate and again winded the trumpet. No answer. I kept on winding the trumpet, but without result. At last, having blown so hard that I broke it, I was in despair.
I sat me down on the bank of the moat and threw stones into the water, with a strong desire to throw myself in after them.
Then I remembered the bit of parchment which the old woman had given me, and concluded it was time to use it. At first I hesitated, because I thought I should perhaps need the charm when I came to the other tasks which the King would set me. However, reasoning that I should never come to the second task until the first was performed, I drew out the bit of writing and read:
"IF YOU DON'T SEE WHAT YOU WANT, ASK FOR IT."
That was all it said. Bitterly disappointed, I flung it after the stones into the moat. But I could n't forget it. And as I began to think it over, I found the advice good.
"What is it I want to do?" I asked myself. "Why, to get at the Khan and his goblet." Now, the thing that stopped me was simply a stone wall and a locked gate; and I was n't anxious to get into the castle. 1 wanted to communicate with the gentleman of the house.
Nothing could be simpler. I still had my writing-materials, and in a few moments I had written a note and tossed it over the wall. It was as follows:
Kaba ben Ephraf.
This letter was of course handed to the Khan as soon as it was picked up, and I was admitted at once to his presence.
He demanded an explanation of my letter, and I told him just how the matter stood.
"I did n't believe you would allow a paltry bit of glassware and jewelry to stand between a young man and happiness—especially when a lady had asked for it.
"TAKING THE GOBLET FROM THE SIDEBOARD, HE HANDED IT TO ME." "In my own country we never refuse any reasonable request a lady makes; and, in spite of reports to the contrary, I knew you to be too brave and great a man to depend upon the possession of a few gems for your renown. So, instead of bringing an army,—which, of course, you could easily defeat, thus causing much trouble and distress,—I thought I would see what you wished to do about it.'"
The Khan said not a word during my explanation. Then taking the crystal goblet from the top of his sideboard, he handed it to me, saying:
"Young man, you have my best wishes. You have acted like a gentleman in the whole matter. I believe your name is Kaba ben Ephraf, is n't it?"
"Well, was n't there a ben Ephraf whom I defeated a few months ago?"
"My brother," I explained.
"Yes, yes!" said the old gentleman. "He sent me a demand for the goblet, but as he did n't explain what he wished it for, of course I considered the message impertinent and refused it. It is n't the gems I care for; but I do insist upon being approached in a proper spirit. I am fond of romance myself, and if you and the Princess care to visit me some time, I 'll show you my jewels. I have barrels of them. I am tired of them—so tired of them that I prefer paste for personal use."
I looked uneasily at the goblet in my hand.
"Oh, that is all genuine," he said. "You are quite welcome to it. But," he added, after a pause, "when you come to the throne, there's a little province that abuts on my dominions, and if you could see the way to transfer it to me—why, favors between friends, you know—"
I begged him to receive the assurances of my wish to oblige him in any reasonable request, and we parted in the best of humor.
"By the way," said he, as he pressed my hand in parting, "that gatekeeper who called you 'boy'—"
"Oh, let it go," I said.
"He has already been beheaded, or something," said the Khan. "I'm sorry, if you would have preferred to forgive him."
"It is of no consequence," I said.
"None whatever," said the Khan good-humoredly. "Good-by."
I returned to the frontier in the Khan's private carriage, and had a pleasant trip back to the palace. Like many other distinguished people, the Khan had been misunderstood.
My meeting with Vanella was joyful, and she received the goblet with exclamations of admiration and gratitude.
The King invited me to stay to supper, informally; and we had the most delicious muffins I ever ate. The Princess has never been able to make them taste quite so good again. She says that they were then flavored with our first happiness; but I insist that it was simply a larger portion of sugar.
Next morning, bright and early, I announced to the King that I was ready for the second test.
"It is a sweet little puzzle," said the King. "My daughter has another name than Vanella, known only to herself and to me. We have vowed never to tell the name to any human being. You must find out by to-morrow morning what that name is."
I was much discouraged, and did not see how it was possible for me to perform this task. I returned to my own room in the palace and racked my brains in vain all day. There seemed no possible clue to the mystery, and the longer I thought of the difficulty of the task, the bluer I became. Just at nightfall there came a light footstep at my door and then a soft knock.
"Come in," I said in a hollow voice.
It was one of the Princess's attendants.
"The Princess Vanella's compliments," said the maiden, "and she says this parrot chatters so that she cannot sleep at night. She requests you to take charge of him yourself." She bowed and retired.
"She cares no longer for me or my presents!" said I, bitterly.
Then I put upon a table the golden cage in which the parrot was confined, and threw myself upon the divan without undressing.
"Alas!" I said bitterly, "I have deceived the Khan! I shall never be able to learn the name—and I can never give him the province he desires. Unhappy ben Ephraf!"
"Mrs. ben Ephraf!" said the parrot.
"Hush!" I said ill-naturedly.
"Vanella, Vanella; Strawberria, Strawberria!" repeated the parrot slowly and impressively.
It did not require a remarkably keen intellect to comprehend the Princess's kindly hint. I went cheerfully to sleep, slept soundly till morning, and awoke ready to resume the tests.
But when I had guessed the name "Strawberria," much to the King's surprise, Vanella objected to putting me through any further trials, and as there was no reason for delay we were married within a few weeks.
We invited the Khan to the wedding, and he proved an excellent dancer and a most agreeable conversationalist.
Vanella was delighted with him, and he sent her fourteen mule-loads of jewels as a wedding present. My father also came to the wedding and gave me his hearty congratulations.
"You have won a prize, my son," he said.
And so it proved.
Note. Any one who will give a green parrot a good home and kind treatment may have one free by applying to Mrs. ben Ephraf at the palace, any week-day between eleven and three o'clock.