Translator: Emily J. Harding
Can this be a true story? It is said that once there was a king who was exceedingly fond of hunting the wild beasts in his forests. One day he followed a stag so far and so long that he lost his way. Alone and overtaken by night, he was glad to find himself near a small thatched cottage in which lived a charcoal-burner.
“Will you kindly show me the way to the high-road? You shall be handsomely rewarded.”
“I would willingly,” said the charcoal-burner, “but God is going to send my wife a little child, and I cannot leave her alone. Will you pass the night under our roof? There is a truss of sweet hay in the loft where you may rest, and to-morrow morning I will be your guide.”
The king accepted the invitation and went to bed in the loft. Shortly after a son was born to the charcoal-burner’s wife. But the king could not sleep. At midnight he heard noises in the house, and looking through a crack in the flooring he saw the charcoal-burner asleep, his wife almost in a faint, and by the side of the newly-born babe three old women dressed in white, each holding a lighted taper in her hand, and all talking together. Now these were the three Soudiche or Fates, you must know.
The first said, “On this boy I bestow the gift of confronting great dangers.”
The second said, “I bestow the power of happily escaping all these dangers, and of living to a good old age.”
The third said, “I bestow upon him for wife the princess born at the selfsame hour as he, and daughter of the very king sleeping above in the loft.”
At these words the lights went out and silence reigned around.
Now the king was greatly troubled, and wondered exceedingly; he felt as if he had received a sword-thrust in the chest. He lay awake all night thinking how to prevent the words of the Fates from coming true.
With the first glimmer of morning light the baby began to cry. The charcoal-burner, on going over to it, found that his wife was dead.
“Poor little orphan,” he said sadly, “what will become of thee without a mother’s care?”
“Confide this child to me,” said the king, “I will look after it. He shall be well provided for. You shall be given a sum of money large enough to keep you without having to burn charcoal.”
The poor man gladly agreed, and the king went away promising to send some one for the child. The queen and courtiers thought it would be an agreeable surprise for the king to hear that a charming little princess had been born on the night he was away. But instead of being pleased he frowned, and calling one of his servants, said to him, “Go to the charcoal-burner’s cottage in the forest, and give the man this purse in exchange for a new-born infant. On your way back drown the child. See well that he is drowned, for if he should in any way escape, you yourself shall suffer in his place.”
The servant was given the child in a basket, and on reaching the centre of a narrow bridge that stretched across a wide and deep river, he threw both basket and baby into the water.
“A prosperous journey to you, Mr. Son-in-Law,” said the king, on hearing the servant’s story: for he fully believed the child was drowned. But it was far from being the case; the little one was floating happily along in its basket cradle, and slumbering as sweetly as if his mother had sung him to sleep. Now it happened that a fisherman, who was mending his nets before his cottage door, saw the basket floating down the river. He jumped at once into his boat, picked it up, and ran to tell his wife the good news.