A ROUMANIAN TALE
LONG, long ago, in the days when the mice ate cats, and in a kingdom not so near and not so far, there lived a King who had no Queen, but had to make his own self glad. Sometimes he would cut off his Majordomo's head, when the Majordomo did not do as told. Then he would get a new Majordomo. Perhaps he would not have had so many new Majordomos if he had had a Queen.
Now I do not lie, but I tell things that are wonderful. One day this King said to his new Majordomo:
"Take thou a thousand sheep to market, sell them, and bring them all back to me with all the money."
It was as much as the Majordomo's head was worth to ask the King how he could sell the sheep and still bring sheep and money back. So he did not ask. He began trying to make his head think how he could do such a hopeless thing, and by the time he got to his house his head ached so that he would just as soon have lost it.
Here at home he had a daughter that for all I know was the prettiest maiden in the world. Her eyes were like stars in blue heaven and her hair all strands of gold. When she walked the young men sighed, while the old heads whistled and lifted their eyebrows up. I can tell you she was no long skirt short mind, as the saying goes.
"What grieveth thee so deep, dear Father?" cried the maiden when the Majordomo stumbled wailing over his threshold. "Why knit thy brow, and weep, and hold thy head so tight?"
"Woe is me!" he moaned. "The King has said that I must sell a thousand sheep and bring him back the money and the sheep!"
"Then laugh," said she. ""Go sell the sheep, dear Father, for all their wool is worth, see them shorn, and come back with the money and the naked sheep."
Next day the Majordomo drove the thousand sheep to market, sold them for their wool, and brought them back to the King, with the money.
Now the King never had had a Majordomo who was as shrewd as that, so he wondered if it was by his own wit that this one had kept his head between his shoulders.
"Who told thee how this could be done?" he asked, and the Majordomo had to answer that it was his daughter.
"Then must I see the daughter that is so clever," said the King. "Tell her that she shall come to my palace on the morrow, and that she shall neither ride or walk, nor come by the roadway nor by the footway, nor be naked nor be clad, nor be without game nor without, nor have a gimp nor not have a gimp."
The poor Majordomo was almost ready to let his head be cut off where he stood, for the King was sure to put it where his feet now were unless his daughter did things that nobody could do.
"Alack and alas," he wept when he got home. "The King now will have my head for sure, and my daughter's head to boot."
"Neither mine nor thine," she laughed, when she heard what the King wanted. "Wait until the morrow and thou shalt see. Only get me the things I need."
When morning came she had all the things she needed, two wild hares, a fishing net, and a little ass. First she got upon the ass, but sitting side-saddle and not astraddle, so that as she went she could push along with one foot while the little ass carried the other. Then she put the fishing net around her, for otherwise she would have been undressed. She tied the rabbits at her side, and instead of putting on a gimp she held one in her lap and sewed it as she went. Then she did not go by the roadway and did not go by the footway, but went between them.
As she drew near the palace the King looked out of his tower-room and saw how clever the Majordomo's daughter was, that she was neither riding nor walking, for if she pushed along with one foot she was not riding, and if she was on an ass she was not walking; coming neither on the roadway nor on the footway, for if she came between the two she came not on either; neither naked nor clad, for if she was in a net she was not naked, and if she wore no clothes she was not clad; neither with nor without a gimp, for if she was sewing a gimp she was not without one, nor was she with a gimp if only sewing it.
"But, ah!" said the King when he saw the two hares, "she has game."
Just then the hunting dogs ran from the King's kennels and when they began barking to the Majordomo's daughter for the game, she let loose the two hares and they leaped across the field with the dogs after them, so that now the maiden was coming to the King without game, but surely with the game that the dogs in a trice were bringing back. The King knew that she had outwitted him.
"Good morrow to thy Majesty," she said, curtsying at the palace gate.
"Good morrow, sweet maid," said he, and he saw that she was not only clever enough to be a Queen, but also more beautiful than any Queen that he had ever seen.
"Such a maid," he said, "so clever and so beautiful, should marry me."
"That I would gladly do," said she.
"But one promise thou must make," the King said. "Whatever I shall judge among the people, thou shalt not meddle, nor judge otherwise." To this she gave her promise, and on the next day they were married. All the boyars and voivodes were there for wine and cakes and merrymaking, and I too was there but I had to stand up to eat, for I had come without being asked.
Soon after this a poor countryman with his cow and calf was set upon by Turks who said the calf was a foal of their mare's and belonged to them. The King was going the same way and when he came upon them he heard their case and said that if the calf was the foal of the Turks' mare then it was their calf, and so they drove away with the calf.
The countryman started home weeping, and when he passed the palace gates the Queen saw him and called:
"Why weepest thou, good man?"
"Alas," he said, "the King has given the Turks my calf for the foal of their mare." He told her all that had happened.
"Come, come, good man," she cheered him, "that is a matter soon mended. Come to the King's throne-room tomorrow, and say as I shall tell you."
Then she told him how he should speak; the next morning the country man came to the King and the King asked him his business.
"Oh, good King," he said, "I was feeding my sheep on the river bank, and lo a fish came out of the water and ate them all."
"What!" frowned the King, "now who ever heard of a fish coming out of the river to eat sheep?"
"Right thou art, most gracious King," answered the countryman, "but who ever heard of a calf that was a Turk's mare's colt?"
The King was then very angry, for he knew that the countryman was too stupid to make that speech, so at last he made him own that the Queen had taught it to him, and then he turned on the Queen and told her:
"Get thee from my palace. For thou hadst promised not to meddle when I judged."
The Queen said she would leave, but begged the King to give a great feast before she left, which he did. When all the guests had come and all had eaten and had taken much wine, the Queen arose and said to the King before all his voivodes:
"Oh, too cruel King! Canst thy Majesty grant me yet one favor? That I may take with me from beneath thy roof whatever thing is dearest to me?"
"Aye," said the King, "but one only thing, whatever is dearest to thee."
The feast went on and the King drank much wine, and the Queen saw to it that he drank much and much more, until at last his head was heavy, and his feet could not hold it up, and he fell helpless and asleep.
Now that he could not know what she was doing, she had him carried on the highway to her father's house, and there she made him as cozy as if he had been in his own palace bed. When morning came he awoke and looked around, and could not remember how he came where he was, nor the place he was in, and he called:
"Where am I?"
"Where art thou?" laughed the Queen. "Why thou art only where thou dost belong. Didst thou not tell thy Queen that she might take out of thy palace whatever thing was dearest to her? Thou art that dearest thing, and in my father's house."
I have told you this story, and you may believe. it if you wish, that the King was glad, and kissed her, and brought her back into the palace, and let her sit with him after that time, and pass judgments with him.