The True Bride
Once upon a time there was a girl who was young and beautiful, but who had lost her mother when she was still a child. Now she lived with her stepmother, who did all she could to make the girl’s life miserable. Whenever this woman gave her something to do, she worked at it tirelessly, and did everything she could to finish it. Even so, the girl could not touch the heart of the wicked woman, who was never satisfied. Nothing was ever enough for her. The harder the girl worked, the more work she was given, and the only thing her stepmother thought about was how to make her life even more miserable.
One day her stepmother said to her, “Here are twelve pounds of feathers which you must pick. If they are not done by this evening, you can expect a good beating.” The poor girl sat down to work, but tears ran down her cheeks as she did so, because she knew that it was quite impossible to finish the work in one day. Whenever she had a little heap of feathers lying before her, she sighed and they flew away, and she had to begin her work again. Then she put her elbows on the table, laid her face in her two hands, and cried, “Does no one on God’s earth have pity on me?”
Then she heard a low voice which said, “Be comforted, my child, I have come to help you.” The girl looked up, and an old woman was by her side. She took the girl kindly by the hand, and said, “Tell me what is troubling you.” As she spoke so kindly, the girl told her of her miserable life, and how she never could get to the end of the work which was given to her. “If I have not done these feathers by this evening, my stepmother will beat me. She has threatened me, and I know she keeps her word.”
Her tears began to flow again, but the good old woman said, “Do not be afraid, my child. Rest a while, and in the meantime I will do your work.” The girl lay down on her bed, and soon fell asleep. The old woman seated herself at the table with the feathers, and started picking them. How quickly they flew off the quills! How quickly her hands moved! The twelve pounds were soon finished, and when the girl awoke, great snow-white heaps were lying, piled up, and everything in the room was neatly cleared away, but the old woman had vanished. The maiden thanked God, and sat still till evening came, when the stepmother came in and was amazed to see the work completed.
“Just look, you horrible creature,” she said, “what can be done when people are hardworking. Why couldn’t you do something else as well? You are sitting there with your hands crossed!”
When she left the room, she said to herself, “This creature is impressive. I must give her some work that is even harder.”
Next morning she called the girl, and said, “There is a spoon for you. Use it to empty out for me the great pond which is beside the garden. If it is not done by night, you know what will happen!”
The girl took the spoon, and saw that it was full of holes, but even if it had not been, she never could have emptied the pond with it. She got to work at once, knelt down by the water, into which her tears were falling, and began to empty it. But the good old woman appeared again, and when she learnt why the girl was crying, she said, “Cheer up, my child. Go into the bushes and lie down and sleep. I will soon do your work.”
As soon as the old woman was alone, she touched the pond, and a vapour rose high up from the water, and mingled itself with the clouds. Gradually the pond was emptied, and when the girl woke up at sunset, she saw nothing but the fish that were struggling in the mud. She went to her stepmother, and showed her that the work was done. “You should have finished it much earlier,” she said and she grew white with anger.
On the third morning she said to the girl, “You must build me a castle in the valley over there, and it must be ready by the evening.”
The girl was shocked, and said, “How can I complete such a great work?”
“I will not listen to any opposition,” screamed the stepmother. “If you can empty a pond with a spoon that is full of holes, you can build a castle, too. I will move in to it later today, and if any little thing is missing, even a small thing in the kitchen or cellar, you know what will happen to you!”
She sent the girl out, and when she entered the valley, she saw many rocks, piled up one above the other. With all her strength she would not have been able to move even the very smallest of them. She sat down and wept, and still she hoped the old woman would help her. The old woman was not long in coming. She comforted her and said, “Lie down there in the shade and sleep, and I will soon build the castle for you. If you like, you can live there yourself.”
When the girl had gone away, the old woman touched the gray rocks. They began to rise, and immediately moved together as if giants were building walls. The castle rose up, and it seemed as if countless hands were working invisibly, and placing one stone upon another. The tiles laid themselves in order on the roof, and when noon came, a flag was already flying from the tallest tower. The inside of the castle was being finished while evening was drawing near. How the old woman managed it, I do not know, but silk and velvet was hanging from the walls, and there were embroidered armchairs, marble tables and soft carpets. Crystal chandeliers hung down from the ceilings, green parrots sang in golden cages and there was so much magnificence that it looked as if it were the castle of a king.
The sun was just setting when the girl awoke, and the brightness of a thousand lights flashed in her face. She hurried to the castle, and entered by the open door. There was red carpet spread on the steps and gold and silver everywhere. When she saw how beautiful it was she stood as if turned to stone. She would have stayed standing there for hours if she had not remembered her stepmother.
“If only she could be satisfied at last, and would give up making my life a misery,” she said to herself. The girl went and told her that the castle was ready.
“I will move into it at once,” said her stepmother, and rose from her seat. When they entered the castle, she was forced to hold her hand before her eyes, because everything was so dazzling.
“You see,” said she to the girl, “how easy it has been for you to do this. I ought to have given you something harder.” She went through all the rooms, and examined every corner to see if anything was missing or defective, but she could discover nothing.
“Now we will go down below,” she said, looking at the girl with malicious eyes. “I still have to examine the kitchen and the cellar, and if you have forgotten anything you will not escape punishment.” But the fire was burning on the hearth, and the meat was cooking in the pans, the shovel was leaning against the wall, and the shining utensils were all arranged carefully. Nothing was missing, not even a bucket of water.
“Which is the way to the cellar?” she cried. “If that is not perfect, things will be bad for you.” She herself lifted up the trap-door and descended, but she had hardly made two steps before the heavy trap-door fell down on her. The girl heard a scream, lifted up the door very quickly to go to her aid, but her stepmother had fallen down, and the girl found her lying lifeless at the bottom.
And now the magnificent castle belonged to the girl alone. She at first did not know how to accept her good fortune. Beautiful dresses were hanging in the wardrobes, the chests were filled with gold or silver, or with pearls and jewels, and she never felt a desire that she was not able to gratify. And soon the fame of the beauty and riches of the girl travelled over all the world. Suitors presented themselves daily, but none pleased her. Finally the son of the King came and he knew how to touch her heart, and she agreed to get engaged to him. One day they were sitting together in the castle garden under a lime tree, when he said to her, “I will go home and obtain my father’s consent to our marriage. Please wait for me here under this lime tree, I will be back in a few hours.” The girl kissed him on his left cheek, and said, “Stay true to me, and never let anyone else kiss you on this cheek. I will wait here under the lime tree until you return.”
She stayed beneath the lime tree until sunset, but he did not return. She sat for three days from morning till evening, waiting for him, but in vain. As he still was not there by the fourth day, she said, “He must have had some accident. I will go out and search for him, and will not come back until I have found him.” She packed up three of her most beautiful dresses, one embroidered with bright stars, the second with silver moons, the third with golden suns, tied up a handful of jewels in her handkerchief, and set out. She inquired everywhere for her beloved, but no one had seen him. In fact no one knew anything about him. Far and wide she wandered through the world, but she could not find him. Finally she found work from a farmer as a cowherd, and buried her dresses and jewels beneath a stone.
And now she lived as a herdswoman, guarded her herd, and was very sad and full of longing for her beloved. She had a little calf that she took special care of, and fed it out of her own hand. When she said to herself some poeticl words, the little calf knelt down, and she stroked it.
“Little calf, little calf, kneel by my side,
And do not forget your shepherd-maid,
Like the prince forgot his future bride,
Who waited for him in the lime tree’s shade.”
After she had lived for a couple of years alone and full of sorrow, a report was spread over all the land that the King’s daughter was about to celebrate her marriage.
The road to the town passed through the village where the girl was living. One day, when the girl was walking with her herd, her bridegroom travelled by. He was sitting proudly on his horse, and never looked round, but when she saw him she recognized her beloved, and it was just as if a sharp knife had pierced her heart.
“Oh, I believed him true to me, but he has forgotten me” she said to herself.
Next day he again came along the road. When he was near her she said to the little calf,
“Little calf, little calf, kneel by my side,
And do not forget your shepherd-maid,
Like the prince forgot his future bride,
Who waited for him in the lime-tree’s shade.”
When the prince heard this voice, he looked down and stopped his horse. He looked into the girl’s face, and then put his hands before his eyes as if he were trying to remember something, but he soon rode onwards and was out of sight. “Oh, he no longer knows me,” she said and her sorrow was ever greater.
Soon after this a great three-day festival to was to be held at the King’s court, and the whole country was invited to it. “Now is my last chance,” thought the girl, and when evening came she went to the stone under which she had buried her treasures. She took out the dress with the golden suns, put it on, and also decorated herself with the jewels. She let down her hair, which she had tied up under a handkerchief, and it fell down in long curls about her. Looking beautiful, she walked into the town, and in the darkness was observed by no one. When she entered the brightly-lit hall, everyone moved back in amazement, but no one knew who she was. The Prince went to meet her, but he did not recognize her. He led her out to dance, and was so enchanted with her beauty, that he thought no more of the other bride. When the feast was over, she vanished in the crowd, and hurried back to the village before sunrise, where she once more put on her cowherd’s dress.
Next evening she took out the dress with the silver moons, and put a half-moon made of precious stones in her hair. When she appeared at the festival, all eyes were turned upon her, but the Prince hurried to meet her, and filled with love for her, danced with her alone, and no longer so much as glanced at anyone else. Before she went away he made her promise him to come again to the festival on the last evening.
When she appeared for the third time, she wore the star-dress which sparkled at every step she took, and her hair-ribbon and belt were starred with jewels. The prince had already been waiting for her for a long time, and forced his way up to her.
“Do tell who you are,” he said. “I feel just as if I had already known you a long time.”
“Don’t you know what I did when you left me?”
Then she stepped up to him, and kissed him on his left cheek, and in a moment it was as if scales fell from his eyes, and he recognized the true bride.
“Come,” he said to her, “I do not want to stay here any longer.” He gave her his hand, and led her down to the carriage. The horses hurried away to the magic castle as if the wind had been harnessed to the carriage. The castle windows already shone brightly in the distance. When they drove past the lime-tree, many glow-worms were flying around it. It shook its branches, sending out a beautiful fragrance. On the steps flowers were blooming, and the room echoed with the song of strange birds. In the hall the entire court was assembled, and the priest was waiting to marry the bridegroom to the true bride.