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The Pentamerone, or The Story of Stories/The Three Sisters

Parsely, Porziella, Three Sisters.jpg



It is a great truth, if we make the saying good, that from the same wood are formed the statues of idols and the rafters of the gallows, kings' thrones and cobblers’ stalls; and another strange thing is, that from the same rags is made the paper on which the wisdom of sages is recorded, and the crown which is placed on the head of a fool,—a thing that would puzzle the cleverest astrologer in the world. The same too may be said of a mother, who brings forth one good daughter and another bad, one an idle hussy, another a good housewife; one fair, another ugly; one spiteful, another kind; one unfortunate, another born to good luck,—who, all being of one family, ought to be of one nature. But leaving this subject to those who know more about it, I will merely give you an example of what I have said, in the story of three daughters of one and the same mother, wherein you will see the difference of manners, which brought the wicked daughters into a ditch, and the good daughter to the top of the wheel of fortune.

There was one time a woman who had three daughters, two of whom were so unlucky that nothing ever succeeded with them; all their projects went wrong, all their hopes were turned to chaff. But the youngest, who was named Nella, was born to good luck, and I verily believe that at her birth all things conspired to bestow on her the best and choicest gifts in their power: the Sky gave her the perfection of its light, Venus a matchless beauty of form, Love the first dart of his power, Nature the flower of manners. She never set about any work, that it did not go off to a nicety; she never took anything in hand, that it did not succeed to a hair; she never stood up to dance, that she did not sit down with applause. On which account she was envied by her jealous sisters, and yet not so much as she was loved and wished well to by all others; and greatly as her sisters desired to put her underground, still much more did other folks carry her on the palms of their hands.

Now there was in that country an enchanted prince, who sailed along the sea of her beauty, and flung out the hook of amorous servitude to this beautiful goldfish, until at length he caught her by the gills of affection and made her his own. And in order that they might enjoy one another's company without exciting the suspicion of the mother, who was a wicked woman, the prince made a crystal passage, which led from the royal palace directly into Nella's apartment, although it was eight miles distant; and giving her a certain powder, he said, "Every time you wish to feed me, like a sparrow, with a sight of your charming beauty, throw a little of this powder into the fire, and instantly I will come through the passage as quick as a bird, running along a crystal road to gaze upon this face of silver."

Having arranged it thus, not a night passed that the prince did not go in and out, backwards and forwards, along the crystal passage; until at last the sisters, who were spying the actions of Nella, found out the secret, and laid a plan to put a stop to the sport. And in order to cut the thread at once, they went and broke the passage here and there; so that when the unhappy girl threw the powder into the fire, to give the signal to her lover, the prince, who used always to come running in furious haste, hurt himself in such a manner against the broken crystal that it was truly a pitiable sight to see. And being unable to pass further on, he turned back, all cut and slashed like a Dutchman's breeches. Then he laid himself in his bed, and sent for all the doctors in the town; but as the crystal was enchanted, the wounds were mortal, and no human remedy availed. When the king saw this, despairing of his son's condition, he sent out a proclamation, that whoever would cure the wounds of the prince,—if a woman, she should have him for her husband,—if a man, he should have half his kingdom.

Now when Nella, who was pining away for the loss of the prince, heard this, she dyed her face, and disguised herself, and unknown to her sisters she left home, to go and see him before his death. But as by this time the Sun's gilded balls, with which he plays in the fields of Heaven, were running towards the west, night overtook her in a wood, close to the house of an ogre, where, in order to get out of the way of danger, she climbed up into a tree. Meanwhile the ogre and his wife were sitting at table, with the windows open, in order to enjoy the fresh air while they ate; and as soon as they had emptied their cups, and put out the lamps, they began to chat of one thing and another; so that Nella, who was as near to them as the mouth to the nose, heard every word they spoke.

Among other things, the ogress said to her husband, "My pretty Hairy-hide, tell me, what news? what do they say abroad in the world?" And he answered, "Trust me there's not a hand's-breadth clean; everything is going topsy-turvy and awry."—"But what is it?" replied his wife.—"Why, I could tell pretty stories of all the confusion that is going on," said the ogre; "for one hears things that are enough to drive one mad, such as buffoons rewarded with gifts, rogues esteemed, cowards honoured, robbers and assassins protected, and honest men little thought of and less prized. But as these things are enough to make one burst with vexation, I will merely tell you what has befallen the king's son. He had made a crystal path, along which he used to go to visit a pretty lass; but by some means or other, I know not how, all the road has been broken; and as he was going along the passage as usual he has wounded himself in such a manner, that before he can stop the leak the whole conduit of his life will run out. The king has indeed issued a proclamation, with great promises to whoever cures his son; but it is all labour lost, and the best thing he can do is quickly to get ready mourning and prepare the funeral."

When Nella heard the cause of the prince's illness, she sobbed and wept bitterly, and said to herself, "Who is the wicked soul that has broken the passage along which my painted bird used to pass, so that the channel through which my spirits run may break?" But as the ogress now went on speaking, Nella was as silent as a mouse and listened.

"And is it possible," said the ogress, "that the world is lost to this poor prince, and that no remedy can be found for his malady? Bid physic then creep into the oven—bid the doctors put a halter round their necks—bid Galen and Mesue[2] return the money to their pupils, since they cannot find any effectual recipe to restore health to the prince."

"Hark-ye, Granny," replied the ogre, "the doctors are not called upon to find remedies that may pass the bounds of nature. This is no common cholic that an oil-bath might remove; it is not a boil to be cured with fig-poultices, nor a fever that will yield to medicine and diet; much less are these ordinary wounds which require pledgets of lint and oil of hypericon; for the charm that was on the broken glass produces the same effect as onion-juice does on the iron heads of arrows, which makes the wound incurable. There is one thing only that could save his life; but don't ask me to tell it you, for it is a thing of importance." "Do tell me, dear old Long-tusk!" cried the ogress; "tell me, if you would not see me die." "Well then," said the ogre, "I will tell you, provided you promise me not to confide it to any living soul; for it would be the ruin of our house and the destruction of our lives." "Fear nothing, my dear sweet little husband," replied the ogress; "for you shall sooner see pigs with horns, apes with tails, moles with eyes, than a single word shall pass my lips." And so saying she put one hand upon the other and swore to it. "You must know then," said the ogre, "that there is nothing under the sky nor above the ground that can save the prince from the snares of death but our fat: if his wounds are anointed with this, his soul will be arrested which is just on the point of leaving the dwelling of his body."

Nella, who overheard all that passed, gave time to Time, to let them finish their chat; and then getting down from the tree, and taking heart, she knocked at the ogre's door, crying, "Ah! my good ogrish masters, I pray you for charity, alms, some sign of compassion! have a little pity on a poor, miserable, wretched creature, who is banished by fate far from her own country and deprived of all human aid, who has been overtaken by night in this wood and is dying of cold and hunger." And crying thus, she went on knocking and knocking at the door.

Upon hearing this deafening noise, the ogress was going to throw her half a loaf and send her away; but the ogre, who was more greedy of christian flesh than the squirrel is of nuts, the bear of honey, the cat of fish, the sheep of salt, or the ass of bran, said to his wife, "Let the poor creature come in; for if she sleeps in the fields, who knows but she may be eaten up by some wolf." In short he talked and talked so much that his wife at length opened the door for Nella; whilst, with all his pretended charity, he was all the time reckoning on making four mouthfuls of her. But the glutton counts one way and the host another; for the ogre and his wife having drunk till they were fairly tipsy and lain down to sleep, Nella took a knife from a cupboard and made a hash of them in a trice; then she put all the fat into a phial, and went straight to the court, where presenting herself before the king she offered to cure the prince. At this the king was overjoyed, and led her to the chamber of his son; and no sooner had she anointed him well with the fat, than the wound closed in a moment, just as if she had thrown water on a fire, and he became as sound as a fish.

When the king saw this, he said to his son, "This good woman deserves the reward promised by the proclamation, and that you should take her to wife." But the prince replied, "It is hopeless, for I have no storeroom full of hearts in my body to share among so many; my heart is already disposed of, and another woman is the mistress of it." Nella, hearing this, replied, "You should no longer think of her who has been the cause of all your misfortune."—"My misfortune has been brought on me by her sisters," answered the prince, "and they shall repent it."—"Then do you really love her?" said Nella: and the prince replied, "More than my own life." "Embrace me then," said Nella, "for I am the fire of your heart." But the prince, seeing the dark hue of her face, answered, "I should sooner take you for the coal than the fire; so keep off—don't blacken me." Whereupon Nella, perceiving that he did not know her, called for a basin of clean water and washed her face; and as soon as the cloud of soot was removed, the sun shone forth; and the prince recognizing her, pressed her to his heart like a polype, and took her for his wife. Then he had her sisters thrown into an oven, that like leeches they might discharge in the ashes their blood, that was corrupted by envy, thus proving the truth of the old saying,

"No evil ever went without punishment."

This story went to the hearts of all who heard it, and they praised the prince a thousand times for his conduct to Nella's sisters, and his taking the measure of their jacket; while they lauded to the stars the deep love of the maiden, who had with such pains cured the prince's wounds. But Taddeo, making a sign for all to be silent, now commanded Meneca to do her part, and she consequently paid the debt in the following manner.

  1. The title of this story is "Verde Prato,"—Green Meadow; but as this name seems to have no connection with the story, I have changed it.
  2. There were two famous physicians of this name; one physician to the Khalif Haroun al Raschid in the ninth century; the other lived at Cahira in the eleventh century.—L.