In the middle of a great forest there lived a long time ago a charcoal-burner and his wife. They were both young and handsome and strong, and when they got married, they thought work would never fail them. But bad times came, and they grew poorer and poorer, and the nights in which they went hungry to bed became more and more frequent.
Now one evening the king of that country was hunting near the charcoal-burner’s hut. As he passed the door, he heard a sound of sobbing, and being a good-natured man he stopped to listen, thinking that perhaps he might be able to give some help.
‘Were there ever two people so unhappy!’ said a woman’s voice. ‘Here we are, ready to work like slaves the whole day long, and no work can we get. And it is all because of the curiosity of old mother Eve! If she had only been like me, who never want to know anything, we should all have been as happy as kings to-day, with plenty to eat, and warm clothes to wear. Why–‘ but at this point a loud knock interrupted her lamentations.
‘Who is there?’ asked she.
‘I!’ replied somebody.
‘And who is “I”?’
‘The king. Let me in.’
Full of surprise the woman jumped up and pulled the bar away from the door. As the king entered, he noticed that there was no furniture in the room at all, not even a chair, so he pretended to be in too great a hurry to see anything around him, and only said ‘You must not let me disturb you. I have no time to stay, but you seemed to be in trouble. Tell me; are you very unhappy?’
‘Oh, my lord, we can find no work and have eaten nothing for two days!’ answered she. ‘Nothing remains for us but to die of hunger.’
‘No, no, you shan’t do that,’ cried the king, ‘or if you do, it will be your own fault. You shall come with me into my palace, and you will feel as if you were in Paradise, I promise you. In return, I only ask one thing of you, that you shall obey my orders exactly.’
The charcoal-burner and his wife both stared at him for a moment, as if they could hardly believe their ears; and, indeed, it was not to be wondered at! Then they found their tongues, and exclaimed together:
‘Oh, yes, yes, my lord! we will do everything you tell us. How could we be so ungrateful as to disobey you, when you are so kind?’
The king smiled, and his eyes twinkled.
‘Well, let us start at once,’ said he. ‘Lock your door, and put the key in your pocket.’
The woman looked as if she thought this was needless, seeing it was quite, quite certain they would never come back. But she dared not say so, and did as the king told her.
After walking through the forest for a couple of miles, they all three reached the palace, and by the king’s orders servants led the charcoal-burner and his wife into rooms filled with beautiful things such as they had never even dreamed of. First they bathed in green marble baths where the water looked like the sea, and then they put on silken clothes that felt soft and pleasant. When they were ready, one of the king’s special servants entered, and took them into a small hall, where dinner was laid, and this pleased them better than anything else.
They were just about to sit down to the table when the king walked in.
‘I hope you have been attended to properly,’ said he, ‘and that you will enjoy your dinner. My steward will take care you have all you want, and I wish you to do exactly as you please. Oh, by the bye, there is one thing! You notice that soup-tureen in the middle of the table? Well, be careful on no account to lift the lid. If once you take off the cover, there is an end of your good fortune.’ Then, bowing to his guests, he left the room.