Tales of Old Lusitania/The Snake with Seven Heads
THE SNAKE WITH SEVEN HEADS.
Once a brother and sister lived together very happily and contentedly. They kept a farm of sheep, pigs, bees, and everything else that could make them comfortable; and their crops were always plentiful. The sister was industrious and a good manager, and looked after the comfort and well-being of her brother. But their neighbour, an old woman whose thoughts were ever bent on mischief, began to think how she might sow the seeds of discord between the brother and sister and destroy their happiness. One day, when the sister was alone and engaged in her household affairs, this old woman came in to see her, and after great professions of friendship she said to her: "Poor girl, I do pity you, working so hard and economising as you do for that worthless brother of yours, while he is regaling himself at the inn with a fair companion, and then comes home, making you believe he has been hard at work all the time. I could tell you a great deal more about him, but I do not wish to make you unhappy."
The sister, who had perfect faith in her brother's love and goodness, told the old woman that she did not believe a word of what she said. But the wicked old hag, finding she could make no mischief there, went away to see if she could not influence the brother against the happy girl. She was not long in finding an opportunity. As she was walking along a path in the pine forest which skirted their village, she suddenly came upon the brother, who was engaged in felling trees. She stopped short and looked on for some minutes, and then began to say: "Poor man, you lead a life of toil to maintain in comfort and ease a sister who only repays your kindness by a great pretence of industry and economy, which I can assure you is more talk than anything else; she makes you live on the plainest food, while she takes care to dine before you return home on some nice little dainty in company with a young beau. I could tell you much more about her, but I do not wish to make you unhappy."
The man foolishly believed every word the old hag said against his sister. He went home and, without saying a word, put on his best suit of clothes, threw a sack over his shoulder, into which he put some loaves of bread, took down his gun and left the house. He also took with him three sheep and four reals, which was all the money he possessed in the world.
While journeying along, he met a beggar who seemed famished and in great distress; moved with pity he gave the man his three sheep and all the bread, leaving himself nothing but the few small coins he had in his pocket. But as the beggar was no other than our Lord, who had assumed that disguise. He changed the three sheep into three large and powerful dogs, and told the brother to take them as his best friends and defenders, for their strength was a match for the most dangerous enemy or beast he might meet with. From that day he was always very successful in the chase, and he and his dogs were sure to be engaged to accompany any hunting excursion that took place in the neighbourhood.
One day, as he was travelling through some hills, he suddenly came to a pass, where he saw a girl at the entrance of a cave, who cried to him, as he approached her: "Fly! Fly for your life, good man, for a great snake with seven heads will soon come to attack you and will kill you."
"What great monster can it be that I cannot defend myself against?"
"It is a monster snake which no huntsman has ever succeeded in destroying. It devours a human being every day as they pass through these hills, according to whose turn it may be to serve as a morsel for the hungry beast. I am the daughter of a king, but the lot fell upon me to-day, and here I am, waiting in dread for my unhappy fate."
"Fear nothing," said the man, "I have three dogs here that are always ready to attack any living thing they meet with, whether man or beast."
That moment a great hissing was heard, which resounded for three leagues round, and soon after a snake of enormous size, with seven huge heads, was seen advancing towards them. It came creeping slowly and steadily—a dreadful monster, with two brilliant eyes flashing from side to side. The girl all the time stood motionless with dismay; but the dogs, at the man's command, bounded forward, and, quicker than I can tell it you, threw themselves upon the dangerous monster and killed it, and the redoubtable snake lay a huge and helpless mass. The girl, surprised to find herself saved so soon and in so marvellous a way, said to the man: "Come with me to the palace, for my father, the king, is prepared to pay you a great price for your noble deed; he has even promised to give me in marriage to any man that shall kill the monster."
"I thank you much, but I do not wish to marry."
"Nevertheless, come and receive the reward you merit."
"I need no reward, and will take none," said the man.
"Well, if you will not take the recompense that is your due, at least accept this ring, and wear it in remembrance of the event."
She pulled a ring off her finger and gave it to the man, who accepted it. The girl took her departure, and the man set to work to cut the tongues out of the seven heads of the snake. He tied the tongues up in his handkerchief and put them in his pocket.
The rumour soon spread that the monster had been slain, and as the king had promised to give his daughter in marriage to whoever should kill it, a negro, who heard of the heroic deed, went to the mountain where the beast lay, cut the seven heads off and took them to the king, saying that he was the successful slayer of the beast, and claiming the hand of his daughter as the promised reward. The king was sorry now that he had made such a rash promise, and said to the princess: "My daughter, there is no help for it; but you must marry this negro who has killed the monster and saved your life."
"Oh, father! the man that destroyed the snake was a very handsome white man, who had with him three magnificent dogs; besides, he refused to receive any reward, or even to take me for his wife; but as a remembrance I gave him a ring."
But the king persisted in saying that the princess must marry the negro, for he had brought the heads of the snake as a proof that he had killed the beast.
Preparations for the marriage were accordingly begun and proceeded without interruption, though the king was sorely troubled, and the princess was in tears; and the man that had really destroyed the snake wandered through the hills with other huntsmen, ignorant of what was passing in the Court.
At last some huntsmen joined a party, who began talking of the news how the king's daughter was about to marry the negro.
"What a pity," said they, "that such a lovely girl should have to marry that fellow."
"Why, what marriage is this?" asked the man with the dogs.
"Do you not know that the negro that killed the snake with the seven heads has claimed the princess's hand as his reward, according to the king's promise? The poor girl maintains that the negro is a cheat, and is not the man that killed the snake; and she is praying all day to Saint Antony that the right man may be found."
On hearing this, the man who had the three dogs made no reply, but went the next morning to the palace. He asked to see the king; but his majesty, with his thoughts full of his daughter's unfortunate marriage, refused to see anybody. The man, however, repeated his request, begging that if the king still refused to see him, he would at least permit him to speak to the princess, if only from one of the palace windows, for his business was about the terrible snake that was killed. These words aroused the king's attention, and he consented to see the man, while the princess, greatly agitated and anxious, insisted on being present at the interview. The man entered the audience chamber, and the moment the princess looked upon him she cried out in great joy: "Oh, father, here is the man who killed the snake."
The king, turning round to the man, said: "What account can you give me of the affair? How is it that the seven heads of the snake have been brought to me by another man?"
The man replied that the snake which had seven heads must have had seven tongues; then, taking them out of his pocket, he said: "And here they are."
The king took up the parcel, and untying the handkerchief, saw the tongues inside; he next examined the heads of the snake and found that the man's statement was true, for the heads were without tongues. The king, full of wrath at the deception, ordered the negro to be put to death. He then said to the man that had killed the snake with seven heads: "Here is my daughter, marry her and be happy."
"Oh, most gracious king, I thank you for your majesty's great kindness and the honour you do me, but I have no desire to marry."
"Ask, then, whatever you wish as a recompense for your noble deed."
"I require nothing whatever, for I have all I want with my three dogs; with them I do what I please, go where I choose, am welcome everywhere, and can undertake any enterprise, certain of success."
The king then awarded him a medal, and appointed him to the highest honours of his Court.