★ The Twelve Dancing Princesses Story :
Once upon a time there was a King who had twelve daughters, each more beautiful than the other. The twelve princesses slept in a large hall, each in a little bed of her own. After they were snugly settled for the night, their father, the King, used to bolt the door on the outside. He then felt sure that his daughters would be safe until he withdrew the bolt next morning.
But one day when the King unbolted the hall door, and peeped in as usual, he saw twelve worn-out pairs of little slippers lying about the floor.
“What! shoes wanted again,” he exclaimed, and after breakfast a messenger was sent to order a new pair for each of the princesses.
But the next morning the new shoes were worn out, how no one knew.
This went on and on until the King made up his mind to put an end to the mystery. The shoes, he felt sure, were danced to pieces, and he sent a herald to offer a reward to any one who should discover where the princesses held their night-frolic.
“He who succeeds, shall choose one of my daughters to be his wife,” said the King, “and he shall reign after my death; but he who fails, after three nights’ trial, shall be put to death.”
Soon a prince arrived at the palace, and said he was willing to risk his life in the attempt to win one of the beautiful princesses.
When night came, he was given a bedroom next the hall in which the royal sisters slept. His door was left ajar and his bed placed so that from it he could watch the door of the hall. The escape of the princesses he would also watch, and he would follow them in their flight, discover their secret haunt, and marry the fairest.
This is what the prince meant to do, but before long he was fast asleep. And while he slept, the princesses danced and danced, for, in the morning, the soles of their slippers were once more riddled with holes.
The next night the prince made up his mind that stay awake he would, but again he must have fallen fast asleep, for in the morning twelve pairs of little worn-out slippers lay scattered about the floor of the hall.
The third night, in fear and trembling, the prince began his night watch. But try as he might, he could not keep his eyes open, and when in the morning the little slippers were as usual found riddled with holes, the King had no mercy on the prince who could not keep awake, and his head was at once cut off.
After his death, many princes came from far and near, each willing to risk everything in the attempt to win the fairest of these fair princesses. But each failed, and each in his turn was beheaded.
Now a poor soldier, who had been wounded in the wars, was on his way home to the town where the twelve princesses lived. One morning he met an old witch.
“You can no longer serve your country,” she said. “What will you do?”
“With your help, good mother, I mean to rule it,” replied the soldier; for he had heard of the mystery at the palace, and of the reward the King offered to him who should solve it.
“That need not be difficult,” said the witch. “Listen to me. Go straightway to the palace. There you will be led before the throne. Tell the King that you would win the fairest of his fair daughters for your wife. His Majesty will welcome you gladly, and when night falls, you will be shown to a little bedroom. From the time you enter it, remember these three things. Firstly, refuse to drink the wine which will be offered you; secondly, pretend to fall fast asleep; thirdly, wear this when you wish to be invisible.” So saying, the old dame gave him a cloak and disappeared.
Straightway, the soldier went to the palace, and was led before the throne. “I would win the fairest of your fair daughters for my wife,” said he, bowing low before the King.
So anxious was his Majesty to discover the secret haunt of his daughters, that he gladly welcomed the poor soldier, and ordered that he should be dressed in scarlet and gold.
When bedtime came, the soldier was shown his little room, from which he could see the door of the sleeping-hall. No sooner had he been left alone than in glided a fair princess bearing in her hand a silver goblet.
“I bring you sweet wine. Drink,” she said. The soldier took the cup and pretended to swallow, but he really let the wine trickle down into a sponge which he had fastened beneath his chin.
The princess then left him, and he went to bed and pretended to fall asleep. So well did he pretend, that before long his snores were heard by the princesses in their sleeping-hall.
“Listen,” said the eldest, and they all sat up in bed and laughed and laughed till the room shook.
“If ever we were safe, we are safe to-night,” they thought, as they sprang from their little white beds, and ran to and fro, opening cupboards, boxes, and cases, and taking from them dainty dresses, and ribbons, and laces and jewels.
Gaily they decked themselves before the mirror, bubbling over with mischief and merriment at the thought that once more they should enjoy their night-frolic. Only the youngest sister was quiet.
“I don’t know why,” she said, “but I feel so strange–as if something were going to happen.”
“You are a little goose,” answered the eldest, “you are always afraid. Why! I need not have put a sleeping powder in the soldier’s wine. He would have slept without it. Now, are you all ready?”
The twelve princesses then stood on tiptoe at the hall door, and peered into the little room where the soldier lay, seemingly sound asleep. Yes, they were quite safe once more.
Back they went into the hall. The eldest princess tapped upon her bed. Immediately it sank into the earth, and, through the opening it had made, the princesses went down one by one.
The soldier who, peeping, had seen twelve little heads peer out of the hall door, at once threw his invisible cloak around him, and followed the princesses into the hall, unseen. He was just in time to reach the youngest, as she disappeared through the opening in the floor. Halfway down he trod upon her frock.
“Oh, what was that?” screamed the little princess, terrified. “Some one is tramping on my dress.”
“Nonsense, be quiet,” said the eldest, “it must have caught on a hook.” Then they all went down, down, until they reached a beautiful avenue of silver trees.
Thought the soldier, “I must take away a remembrance of the place to show the King,” and he broke off a twig.
“Oh, did you hear that crackling sound?” cried the youngest princess. “I told you something was going to happen.”
“Baby!” replied the eldest. “The sound was a salute.”
Next they came to an avenue where the trees were golden. Here the soldier again broke off a twig, and again was heard the crackling sound.
“A salute, I told you,” said the eldest princess to her terrified little sister.
Further on they reached an avenue of trees that glittered with diamonds. When the soldier once more broke off a twig, the youngest princess screamed with fright, but her sisters only went on faster and faster, and she had to follow in fear and trembling.
At last they came to a great lake. Close to the shore lay twelve little boats, and in each boat stood a handsome prince, one hand upon an oar, the other outstretched to welcome a princess.
Soon the little boats rowed off, a prince and a princess in each, the soldier, still wearing his invisible cloak, sitting by the youngest sister.
“I wonder,” said the prince who rowed her, “why the boat is so heavy to-day. I have to pull with all my strength, and yet can hardly get along.”
“I am sure I do not know,” answered the princess. “I dare say it is the hot weather.”
On the opposite shore of the lake stood a castle. Its bright lights beckoned to the twelve little boats that rowed toward it. Drums beat, and trumpets sounded a welcome. Very merrily did the sisters reach the little pier. They sprang from the boats, and ran up the castle steps and into the gay ballroom. And there they danced and danced, but never saw or guessed that the soldier with the invisible cloak danced among them. When a princess lifted a wine-cup to her lips and found it empty, she felt frightened, but she little thought that the unseen soldier had drained it. On and on they danced, until three o’clock, but then the sisters had to stop, for all their little slippers were riddled with holes. And in the early gray morning the princes rowed them back across the lake, while the soldier seated himself this time beside the eldest princess.
When they reached the bank, the sisters wandered up the sloping shore, while the princes called after them, “Good-by, fair daughters of the King, to-night once more shall we await you here.”
And all the princesses turned, and, waving their white hands, cried sleepily, “Farewell, farewell.”
Little did the sisters dream as they loitered homeward, that the soldier ran past them, reached the castle, and climbed the staircase that led to his little bedroom. When, slowly and wearily, they reached the door of the hall where they slept, they heard loud snores coming from his room. “Ah, safe once more!” they exclaimed, and they undid their silk gowns, and their ribbons and jewels, and kicked off their little worn-out shoes. Then each went to her white bed, and in less than a minute was sound asleep.
The next morning the soldier told nothing of his wonderful adventure, for he thought he would like again to follow the princesses in their wanderings. And this he did a second and a third time, and each night the twelve sisters danced until their slippers were riddled with holes. The third night the soldier carried off a goblet, as a sign that he had visited the castle across the lake.
When next day he was brought before the King, to tell where the twelve dancing princesses held their night-frolic, the soldier took with him the twig with its silver leaves, the twig with its leaves of gold, and the twig whose leaves were of diamonds. He took, too, the goblet.
“If you would live, young man,” said the King, “answer me this: How comes it that my daughters’ slippers, morning after morning are danced into holes? Tell me, where have the princesses spent the three last nights?”
“With twelve princes in an underground castle,” was the unexpected reply.
And when the soldier told his story, and held up the three twigs and the goblet to prove the truth of what he said, the King sent for his daughters.
In the twelve sisters tripped, with no pity in their hearts for “the old snorer,” as they called the soldier; but when their eyes fell upon the twigs and the goblet they all turned white as lilies, for they knew that their secret night-frolics were now at an end for ever.
“Tell your tale,” said the King to the soldier. But before he could speak, the princesses wrung their hands, crying, “Alack! alack!” and their father knew that at last he had discovered their secret.
Then turning to the soldier, the King said: “You have indeed won your prize. Which of my daughters do you choose as your wife?”
“I am no longer young,” replied the soldier. “Let me marry the eldest princess.”
So that very day the wedding bells pealed loud and far, and a few years later the old soldier and his bride were proclaimed King and Queen.
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