Once upon a time, a long long time ago, when fleas were shod with ninety and nine pieces of iron, and flew up into the blue sky to fetch us down fairytales, there lived an Emperor who had three daughters. One day, when he was going to battle, he called these daughters to him and said to them:
"Look now, my darlings! Needs must that I go to the wars. My foe is advancing against me with a huge host. 'Tis with great bitterness of heart that I part from you. In my absence, take care that you have your wits about you, behave well, and look after the affairs of the household. You have my leave to walk in the garden and enter all the rooms of my house, only in the chamber at the bottom of the corridor on the right-hand side you must not enter, or it will not be well with you."
"Depart in peace, papa!" cried they. "Never yet have we disobeyed the words of thy commands.
Go without any fear of us, and God give thee victory-over all thine enemies! "
So when he was quite ready to depart, the Emperor gave them the keys of all his chambers; but once more he put them in mind of his command, and then he bade them good-bye and departed.
The daughters of the Emperor kissed his hand with tears in their eyes, and wished him victory once more, and then the eldest of the three daughters received the keys from the hands of the Emperor.
When the daughters of the Emperor found themselves all alone they knew not what to do with themselves, the time hung so heavily. At last they agreed to work a part of the day, and to read another part of the day, and spend the rest of the day walking in the garden. This they did, and things went well with them.
But the Deceiver of mankind was vexed at the tranquillity of the maidens, so he must needs twist his tail in their affairs.
"My sisters," said the eldest of the three damsels one day, " why do we spend the live-long day in sewing and knitting and reading? I am sick and tired of it all. It is ever so many days now since we were left to ourselves, and there's not a corner of the garden that we have not walked in over and over again. We have also been through all the rooms of our father's palace, and looked at all the ornaments there till we know them by heart. Let us now enter into that chamber which our father told us not to enter."
"Woe is me, dear sister!" said the youngest damsel. "I wonder that thou shouldst persuade us to tread underfoot the precepts of our father. When our father told us not to enter there, he must needs have known what he was saying, and why he told us so to do."
"Dost thou fancy, silly, that there's some evil serpent there that will eat us, or some other foul beast perhaps?" cried the middle sister. "Besides, how is papa to know whether we were there or not?"
Talking and arguing thus, they had reached the door of the chamber, and the eldest sister, who was the guardian of the keys, popped the key into the key-hole, and turning it round - crack-rack! - the door flew wide open.
The damsels entered.
What do you think they saw there? The room was bare of furniture, but in the middle of it stood a large table covered with a beautiful cloth, and on the top of it was a wide-open book.
The girls, all full of impatience, wanted to find out what was written in this book, and the eldest went up to it and read these words: "The eldest daughter of the Emperor will marry a son of the Emperor of the East."
Then the second daughter went up to the book, and turning over the leaf, read these words: "The second daughter of the Emperor will marry a son of the Emperor of the West."
The girls laughed and made merry at these words, and giggled and joked among themselves. But the youngest daughter would not go up to the book.
But the elder ones would not leave her in peace, but dragged her up to the long table, and then, though very unwillingly, she turned over the leaf and read these words -
"The youngest daughter of the Emperor will have a pig for her spouse."
A thunderbolt falling from the sky could not have hurt her more than the reading of these words. She was like to have died of horror, and if her sisters had not held her she would have dashed her head to pieces against the ground.
When she had come to herself again, her sisters began to try to comfort her. "How canst thou believe all that nonsense?" said they. "When didst thou ever hear of the daughter of an Emperor marrying a pig?"
"What a baby thou art!" added the eldest, "as if papa hadn't armies enough to save thee, even if so loathsome a monster as that did come and try and make thee his wife!"
The youngest daughter of the Emperor would very much have liked to believe what her sisters said, but her heart would not allow it. She thought continually of the book which promised her sisters such handsome bridegrooms, while it foretold that that should happen to her which had never yet happened since the world began. Then she reflected how she had transgressed the commands of her father, and her heart smote her. She began to grow thin, and ere a few days had passed she had so changed that none could recognize her. She became sad and sallow, instead of rosy and rollicking, and could take part in nothing at all. She ceased to play with her sisters in the garden; she ceased to cull posies and make garlands of them for her head, and when her sisters sang over their distaffs and embroideries her voice was dumb.
Meanwhile the Emperor, the father of these girls, succeeded beyond even the wishes of his dearest friends, and vanquished and dispersed his enemies. As his thoughts were continually with his daughters, he did what he had to do quickly and returned home. Crowds and crowds of people turned out to meet him with fifes and drums and trumpets, and great was their joy at the sight of their victorious Emperor.
When he reached his capital, before going home, he gave thanks to God for aiding him against the enemies who had tried to do him evil. Then he went to his own house, and his daughters came out to meet him. His joy was great when he saw how well they were, for his youngest daughter did her best to appear as gay and happy as the others.