In a very remote country there formerly lived a king who had only one child - an exceedingly beautiful daughter. The princess had a great number of suitors, and amongst them were three young noblemen, whom the king loved much. As, however, the king liked the three nobles equally well, he could not decide to which of the three he should give his daughter as a wife. - One day, therefore, he called the three young noblemen to him, and said, "Go, all of you, and travel about the world. The one of you who brings home the most remarkable thing shall become my son-in-law!"
The three suitors started at once on their travels, each of them taking opposite ways, and going in search of remarkable things into distant and different countries.
A long time had not passed before one of the young nobles found a wonderful carpet which would carry rapidly through the air whoever sat upon it.
Another of them found a marvellous telescope, through which he could see everybody and everything in the world, and even the many-coloured sands at the bottom of the great deep sea.
The third found a wonder-working ointment, which could cure every disease in the world, and even bring dead people back to life again.
Now the three noble travellers were far distant from each other when they found these wonderful things. But when the young man who had found the telescope looked through it he saw one of his former friends and present rivals walking with a carpet on his shoulder, and so he set out to join him. As he could always see, by means of his marvellous telescope, where the other nobleman was, he had no great difficulty in finding him, and when the two had met, they sat side by side on the wonderful carpet, and it carried them through the air until they had joined the third traveller.
One day, when each of them had been telling of the remarkable things he had seen in his travels, one of them exclaimed suddenly, "Now let us see what the beautiful princess is doing, and where she is." Then the noble who had found the telescope looked through it and saw, to his great surprise and dismay, that the king's daughter was lying very sick, and at the point of death. He told this to his two friends and rivals, and they, too, were as thunderstruck at the bad news - until the one who had found the wonder-working ointment, remembering it suddenly, exclaimed, "I am sure I could cure her, if I could only reach the palace soon enough!" On hearing this, the noble who had found the wonderful carpet, cried out, "Let us sit down on my carpet, and it will quickly carry us to the king's palace!"
Thereupon the three nobles gently placed themselves on the carpet, which rose instantly in the air, and carried them direct to the king's palace.
The king received them immediately, but said very sadly, "I am sorry for you, for all your travels have been in vain. My daughter is just dying, so she can marry none of you!"
But the nobleman who possessed the wonderworking ointment said respectfully, "Do not fear, sire, the princess will not die!" And on being permitted to enter the apartment where she lay sick, he placed the ointment so that she could smell it. In a few moments the princess revived, and when her waiting-women had rubbed a little of the ointment on her skin she recovered so quickly that in a few days she was better than she had been before she was taken ill.
The king was so glad to have his daughter given back to him, as he thought, from the grave, that he declared that she should marry no one but the young nobleman whose wonderful ointment had cured her.
But now a great dispute arose between the three young nobles; the one who possessed the ointment affirmed that had he not found it the princess would have died, and could not, therefore, have married anyone; the noble who owned the telescope declared that had he not found the wonderful telescope they would never have known that the princess was dying, and so his friend would not have brought the ointment to cure her; whilst the third noble proved to them that had he not found the wonderful carpet, neither the finding of the ointment nor the telescope would have helped the princess, since they could not have travelled such a great distance in time to save her.
The king, overhearing this dispute, called the young noblemen to him, and said to them, "My lords, from what you have said, I see that I cannot, with justice, give my daughter to any of you; therefore, I pray you to give up altogether the idea of marrying her, and that you continue friends as you always were before you became rivals".
The three young nobles saw that the king had decided justly; so they all left their native country, and went into a far-off desert to live like hermits. And the king gave the princess to another of his great nobles.
Many, many years had passed away since the marriage of the princess, when her husband was sent by her father to a distant country with which the king was waging war. The nobleman took his wife, the princess, with him, as he was uncertain how long he might be forced to remain abroad. Now it happened that a violent storm arose just as the vessel, in which the princess and her husband were, was approaching a strange coast, and in the height of the great tempest the ship dashed on some rocks, and went to pieces instantly. All the people on board perished in the waves, excepting only the princess, who clung very fast to a boat, and was carried by the wind and the tide to the sea-shore. There she found what seemed to be an uninhabited country, and, finding a small cave in a rock she lived in it alone three years, feeding on wild herbs and fruits. She searched every day to find some way out of the forest which surrounded her cave, but could find none. One day, however, when she had wandered farther than usual from the cave where she lived, she came suddenly on another cave, which had, to her great astonishment, a small door. She tried over and over again to open the door, thinking she would pass the night in the cave; but all her efforts were unavailing, it was shut so fast. At length, however, a deep voice from within the cave called out, "Who is at the door?"
At this the princess was so surprised that she could not answer for some moments; when, however, she had recovered a little, she said, "Open me the door! " Immediately the door was opened from within, and she saw, with sudden terror, an old man with a thick grey beard reaching below his waist, and long white hair flowing over his shoulders.
What frightened the princess the more was her finding a man living here in the same desert where she had lived herself three years without seeing a single soul.
The hermit and the princess looked at each other long and earnestly without saying a word. At length, however, the old man said, "Tell me, are you an angel or a daughter of this world?"
Then the princess answered, "Old man, let me rest a moment, and then I will tell you all about myself, and what brought me here!" So the hermit brought out some wild pears, and when the princess had taken some of them she began to tell him who she was, and how she came in that desert. She said, "I am a king's daughter, and once, many years ago, three young nobles of my father's court asked the king for my hand in marriage. Now the king had such an equal affection for all these three young men that he was unwilling to give pain to any of them, so he sent them to travel into distant countries, and promised to decide between them when they returned.
"She saw an old man with a thick grey beard and long white hair".
"The three noblemen remained a long time away; and whilst they were still abroad somewhere, I fell dangerously ill. I was just at the point of death, when they all three returned suddenly; one of them bringing a wonderful ointment which cured me at once; the two others brought each equally remarkable things - a carpet that would carry whoever sat on it through the air, and a telescope with which one could see everybody and everything in the world, even to the sands at the bottom of the sea".
The princess had gone on thus far with her story, when the hermit suddenly interrupted her, saying, "All that happened afterwards I know as well as you can tell me. Look at me, my daughter! I am one of those noblemen who sought to win your hand, and here is the wonderful telescope." And the hermit brought out the instrument from a recess in the side of his cave before he continued, "My two friends and rivals came with me to this desert. We parted, however, immediately, and have never met since. I know not whether they are living or dead, but I will look for them".
Then the hermit looked through his telescope, and saw that the other two noblemen were living in caves like his, in different parts of the same desert. Having found this out, he took the princess by the hand, and led her on until they found the other hermits. When all were reunited, the princess related her adventures since the ship, in which her husband was, had gone down, and she alone had been saved.
The three noble hermits were pleased to see her alive once again, but at once decided that they ought to send her back to the king, her father.
Then they made the princess a present of the wonderful telescope, and the wonder-working ointment, and placed her on the wonderful carpet, which carried her and her treasures quickly and safely to her father's palace. As for the three noblemen, they remained, still living like hermits, in the desert, only they visited each other now and then, so that the years seemed no longer so tedious to them, for they had many adventures to relate to each other.
The king was exceedingly glad to receive his only child back safely, and the princess lived with her father many years, but neither the king nor his daughter could entirely forget the three noble friends who, for her sake, lived like hermits in a wild desert in a far-off land.