Tales of Old Lusitania/The Horse's Skin
THE HORSE'S SKIN.
This is the story of a wicked king, who was a widower and had three daughters.
Many years had elapsed since his queen died, and he began to feel lonely without a partner in life, and one who could occupy the vacant seat beside him on the throne, so he resolved to visit a certain Court where a princess lived, whom he admired, and to make an offer of marriage to her. The princess, who was selfish and only cared for her own comfort, asked the king before accepting his offer, what he intended to do with his daughters, as she did not want them about her in the palace. "If my daughters," replied the king, "are a hindrance to our union, I can soon dispose of them, and send them where you will never see them or hear of them."
On his return to the palace he said to his daughters, "Get ready at once to go with me to the Tower of Moncorvo, where I will show you what you have never seen before in your life." The daughters, full of confidence in their father, and not suspecting any treachery, readily prepared to accompany him, and after travelling many leagues arrived at the celebrated tower. When the king had them safe in the castle, he said to his daughters, "Remain here, whilst I pay a short visit to a friend and worthy subject, who lives in this neighbourhood. On my return I will take you back to the palace." The wicked king, who only made up this excuse to blind his daughters to his real intentions, fastened the great gates of the Tower as he went out, so that his daughters could not possibly escape. He supplied them with food every day until his marriage day, but after that he never concerned himself about them any more, but left them to their fate.
Hours passed, and days came and went, and still no succour arrived, and they began to be in a dreadful state, without a morsel of food or water to refresh them. And so it happened that one day, when they had given up all hopes of being relieved, and were nearly dead from starvation, the eldest of the princesses said to her sisters, "Why should we all starve? The best thing you two can do is to kill me and feed upon me as long as I afford you sustenance." She had hardly said these words when she dropped down dead from want.
A few days after this sad event the surviving princesses were again short of food, and nothing was left them but to die. Then the second sister, remembering what the first one had so generously done, followed her example, and suggested that her younger sister should kill her for food; and when she had finished uttering the last words of her advice she also dropped down and died.
The poor young girl, now left alone in the large dreary castle, felt very disconsolate, and rent the air with her lamentations. But after a while, being of a courageous mind, she thought to herself that weeping was no remedy for her woes, and that she must devise some means of escape from her prison before she became faint again with want. She now set about examining the various rooms of which the castle was composed, and when she reached the top of the watch tower she looked out and saw a ship sailing on the ocean. Overjoyed at the sight, she at once began to make signals, waving her handkerchief in hopes of attracting the notice of some one in the vessel. The sailors were not slow to perceive the signal, and calling up their captain, drew his attention to it. The captain, who was a humane and chivalrous man, directed the ship towards the spot, and effected an entrance by scaling the wall of the fortress. On reaching the watch tower, the captain and the sailors that accompanied him were shocked to see a maiden of such rank and beauty treated worse than a common criminal. They took her up tenderly and lowered her into the vessel, and sailing to a port of safety they landed her, together with a chest in which she had packed some of her own and her sisters' dresses. As she stood on the seashore she glanced around her, and felt the wretchedness of her situation, without a home or friends to whom to apply for shelter. She had not been long immersed in these melancholy thoughts when she perceived an old woman coming towards her, whom she felt sure was a good benevolent person. She approached her and addressed her thus: "My good woman, do you know of any one that would give me shelter and a meal for to-day? I am willing to work for it."
"If you want employment come and draw water from the well, and help me to carry it to the house I work for; there you will get a meal, and in the evening you can take up your quarters in my little cottage."
"Tell me first," replied the princess, "what house it is you work for?"
"Oh! I draw water for our king's palace."
The young maiden consented to help the old woman, but as she could not work in her fine clothes, she had a garment made for her of the skin of a horse, and thus disguised she did not think that any one would take her for a princess.
Every day she went to the well and helped the old woman to draw water and carry the pitchers to the palace; and from the odd garments she wore every one in the palace called her "Horse-skin."
One day as she entered the palace yard, carrying a pitcher of water poised on her head in a light and graceful manner, which showed off her elegant figure, a page, who had often noticed her beauty, and secretly suspected that the girl was not born to do this drudgery, and that there was some mystery about her, accosted her very respectfully, and said: "Do you know that our good king is going to give balls for three nights running, so that he may choose himself a wife from among the dancers? The prettiest girl is to carry off the prize, and the king, as a mark of his choice, is to give her a ring—and what a ring that will be! I wish you could manage to go."
"What have I to do with balls, a poor girl like me? It is all very well for princesses and fine people. I shall turn in at my old woman's to-night, as usual."
When the princess had done her work she went home, and that evening being the first night of the balls at the palace, she dressed herself in her eldest sister's clothes, and went to the ball. When she entered the ball-rooms, which were brilliantly lighted up, all eyes were turned upon her, and before the end of the dance she was pronounced by all present as most beautiful. The king was not long in discovering her charms, and caused great jealousy among the ladies by asking her again and again to dance with him, and loading her with delicate and polite attentions. But she slipped out of the palace early, before the king had time to notice her absence. The next day Horse-skin was again toiling and carrying water to the palace as if nothing had happened. As she entered the palace yard the page again accosted her, and repeated what he had said the day before.
"Have I not told you, man, that all this does not concern me? What is it to me whether the king gives a ball or not? I shall go home to my old lady and spend the evening resting after my hard work."
The princess went to the second ball in her second sister's dress, which set off her beauty even more than the first had done. A number of partners were anxious to dance with her, but they had little chance, for the king mostly danced with her. He treated the princess with the profoundest respect as he gazed on her loveliness, and dared not ask her who she was. But she with her usual discretion left the ball-room at a moment when the king's attention was engaged by other guests; and next morning, as usual, Horse-skin was at her duties in the palace. The page once again came up to her and said in a beseeching tone: "Do, Horse-skin, go to the last ball, which is to take place in the palace to-night, for the king is to give the ring to-night to the fairest lady and the one he admires most? You should have seen what jealousy there was among the ladies that attended the ball last night; they say it is useless for them to go to the ball again, as the king would not so much as look at them, or speak a word to them. All his interest was centred on a lovely and mysterious maiden who attended the last two dances, and who, I assure you, has nearly turned the king's brain with love; you should see her smile, her coral lips, her star-like eyes—the very image of yours, I declare!—and the fascinating manner in which she danced—there—I only wish I was a prince to marry her!"
The princess's only reply to all this, was: "Leave me alone; what matters it to me whom the king admires? To-night I shall be at my old woman's, as usual."
At the last ball the princess wore her own robes, the colour, stuff, and make of which harmonised with her beauty still more than did her sister's garments; and as she mingled among the invited in the state apartments that night, she outshone all the other ladies—princesses, marchionesses, duchesses, and squires' daughters—like a brilliant gem of the first water. The king, fairly captivated, danced with her alone, and towards the end of the evening gave her the ring, as the sign of his having chosen her to be his spouse and queen. And though he had set several of his Court courtiers to watch and see which way she took when she left the palace, the princess eluded their vigilance, and departed without being noticed even by the sentinels at the palace gate.
Next day the king was sorely puzzled and grieved when, on making enquiries, he found that no one in the palace could give him the slightest information about the lady to whom he had given the ring, in token of his admiration and choice. He ordered a search through all the country round, to find out, if possible, who the maiden was; but all was of no avail, for the damsel could not be discovered high or low. At this the king, from grief and disappointment, sickened, and lay in a stupor for days together, until the physicians began to fear he would not live much longer. One day Horse-skin met his majesty's nurse, and asked her how the king was. The nurse said the king was so ill that he was not expected to live through the day, all through the violent passion his majesty had conceived for the damsel to whom he had given the ring, and of whom no traces could be found. "And," said she, "unless the cruel girl makes herself known to his majesty soon, we shall lose our beloved king."
The nurse was at the time carrying some broth to give to the king; and Horse-skin took this opportunity to drop the ring into the basin, without the nurse perceiving her. Great was the king's surprise when he discovered the ring; and the nurse being asked who had put that ring in his broth, replied that she did not know, and that the only person that had come near her, when carrying the basin, was poor Horse-skin. The king then sent for Horse-skin, and bade her tell him who had given her the ring which she had dropped into the basin.
"If your majesty will allow me to leave your presence for a few minutes, I will tell you, on my return, who gave the ring to me."
She had not been absent long when she returned to the king dressed in her own rich garments, and adorned as she had appeared at the last ball in the palace. She stood before the king, and said, "Does your majesty know me now?"
"Of course I do, you are the same sweet damsel to whom I gave the ring."
"Very well," said the princess, "I am she who dropped it in the broth, and I am your humble servant, Horse-skin."
"Explain yourself, you are still a mystery to me."
Thereupon the princess related the history of her life, which she did amid tears and sobs, as it brought back to her mind all she had suffered since her cruel father had deserted her and her sisters.
The king from being sad, was now delighted to have found his lost love, and soon recovered from his illness, and was once more full of health. The king then led her to a magnificently furnished chamber where she was to remain until his marriage with her, as he would not let her return to the old woman's cottage.
The happy pair were married amid great rejoicings, and the king and his beautiful bride were heartily welcomed by his subjects, who had mourned his absence from state affairs. They reigned happily for many long years.