Once on a time, in the good old times, there lived a cow-herd, who had neither father nor mother. He was called Jonica, that is to say Johnnie, but people had given him the name of Gura Casca(open mouth) because when he led his cows to pasture, he bellowed at every thing which he met on the way. Otherwise he was really a very pretty boy, his face was fair, and his, eyes as blue as a morsel of the sky, with hair curling, and as yellow as the rays of the sun.
The young girls of the village teased him sadly. "Hé! Hé! Jonica, where are you going with your open mouth?"
"What does that matter to you?" he would reply tranquilly, and pass on his way.
Though only a cow-herd, he was sufficiently proud of his good looks, and he knew quite well the difference between beauty and ugliness, so the young peasant girls with their faces and throats tanned by the sun, their large hands red and cracked, their feet shod in "opinci" (a rough sort of sandal) or other common leather, were not at all to his mind. He had heard tell, that, down there, a long way off, in the towns, the young girls were quite different; that they had throats as white as alabaster, pink cheeks, delicate and soft hands, their small feet covered by satin slippers, that in short they were clad in robes of silk and gold, and were called princesses. So that, while his comrades only sought to please some rustic villager, he dreamed, neither more nor less, that he should marry a princess
One noon-day in the middle of August, when the sun was so scorching that even the flies did not know where to put themselves, Jonica sat down under the shadow of an oak to eat his mammaliga(thick Indian meal porridge) and a morsel of sheep's milk cheese; seeing that his flock was lying peaceably about, he stretched himself at full length, and was soon asleep.
He had a charming dream! A zina, a fairy, appeared to him, beautiful as the day, fresh as a rose, and clad in a robe sparkling with diamonds.
She said to him, "There is a country where precious stones grow; go to the court of the emperor who reigns there, and you will marry a princess."
In the evening, when he took his cows back to the stable, Jonica recounted his dream to several of his friends, who freely laughed at him. But the words of the zina had such an influence on him, that he laughed himself at the ridicule of which he was the object.
The next day, at the same hour, and the same place, our cow-herd came to take his siesta. He had the same dream; and the same fairy, more radiant than ever, appeared again to him, and repeated, "There is a country where precious stones grow; go to the court of the emperor who reigns there and you will marry a princess."
Jonica again repeated his dream, and it was again turned into ridicule.
"What does it matter to me," said Jonica, "if they laugh? I know one thing, that if that fairy appears again to me, I'll follow her advice."
On the following day he had the same dream, he got up joyfully, and in the evening they heard him in the village singing, "I quit the cows and calves, or I am going to marry the daughter of an emperor."
His master, who overheard him, became thoughtful, but Jonica said to him, "You may do, and think as you like, but it is decided! I am going away!"
He began to make his preparations, and in the morning he left. The people of the village held their sides with laughing, when they saw him with his little bundle on a stick, slung across his shoulder, descend the hill, traverse the plain, and then slowly disappear, in the dim distance.
In those days, people did say that there was really a country where precious stones grew, as grass, plants, and flowers grow in other places. It was said that the emperor of these parts had twelve daughters: twelve princesses, the one prettier than the other, but all as proud as they were beautiful. It was said also, that they only went to sleep at sunrise, and got up at midday. They lived altogether in one large room of the palace, and slept in beds of gold, encrusted with flowers of diamonds and emeralds.
When the princesses retired in the evening, the nine doors of their apartment were locked outside with nine padlocks. It was impossible for them to get out, and yet each night something very extraordinary took place.
The satin slippers of the twelve princesses, were literally worn out each morning. One might have thought that the daughters of the emperor had danced all night. When they were questioned, they declared that they knew nothing, and could understand nothing about it. No one could explain this strange fact, for, notwithstanding the greatest watchfulness, not the least noise had ever been heard in the chamber of the princesses, after they had retired to rest.
The emperor, their father, was most perplexed, and determined, at any price, to penetrate this mystery. He had a trumpet sounded, and it was published throughout all the country, that if any one succeeded in finding out, by what means his daughters, the princesses, wore out their slippers in a single night, he might choose from amongst them, his wife. At this news, a great number of emperors' sons, and kings' sons, presented themselves to explore this adventure. They hid themselves behind a great curtain in the chamber of the princesses. But once there, no one ever heard any more of them, and they never reappeared.
Our Jonica, who arrived just then at the court of the emperor, heard talk of all these matters, and succeeded in being taken into the service of one of the imperial gardeners, who had been obliged to send away one of his best helps. His new master did not find him very intelligent, but he was convinced that his curling light hair and good looks, would make him acceptable to the princesses.
Thus his daily duty, then, was each morning to present a bouquet to the daughters of the emperor. Jonica posted himself at their door, at the hour of their awakening, and as each came forth, he presented her with a bouquet. They found the flowers very beautiful, but disdained to cast a look or smile on poor Jonica, who remained there more than ever, Gura Casca, open-mouthed.
Lina, alone, the youngest, the most graceful, and the prettiest of the princesses, let fall by hazard on him, a look as soft as velvet. Ah! my sisters," cried she, "how good looking our young gardener is!"
They burst into mocking laughter, and the eldest remarked to Lina, that it was unbecoming a princess to lower her eyes to a valet. Nevertheless, Jonica intoxicated by the looks and the beauty of Lina, thought of the promise of the emperor, and it entered into his head to try and discover the mystery of the slippers. He did not mention it to any one though, for he was afraid that the emperor might hear of it, be angry, and have him driven away from court, as a punishment for his audacity.
While these thoughts were passing through his brain, Jonica dreamed again of the fairy with the sparkling robe. She held in her right hand two small laurel branches, one was as red as a cherry, and the other like a rose; in her left hand was a little golden spade, a watering can of the same metal, and a silken veil. She gave all these to Jonica, saying, "Plant these two laurels in large boxes, turn over the earth with this spade, water them with this watering can, and wipe them with this silken veil. When they have grown three feet high, say to each separately, 'Beautiful laurels, with a golden spade I have dug you, with a golden watering can I have watered you, and with a silken veil I have wiped you.' This said, you can ask anything you wish, and it will be accorded you."
When Jonica awoke he found the two laurels and the other objects on the table, and fell on his knees to thank the good fairy. He at once began to carry out her instructions.
The shrubs grew rapidly, and when they had attained the necessary height, he went to the cherry laurel, and said, "Beautiful cherry laurel, with a golden spade I have dug you, with a golden can I have watered you, with a silken veil I have wiped you; grant me in exchange, the gift of becoming invisible whenever I desire."
Immediately he saw grow out from the laurel, a beautiful white flower. He gathered it, placed it in his buttonhole, and at once became invisible.
When night arrived, the princesses went up to their bedroom, and Jonica, barefooted, so as to make no noise, glided up behind them, and hid himself underneath one of the twelve beds.
Then, instead of preparing themselves to go to bed, each of the princesses opened a wardrobe, and took out their richest dresses and finest jewels. Each assisting the other, they dressed en grande toilette. Jonica could see nothing from his hiding place, but he heard them laugh, and dance with joy.
The eldest, who seemed to have great authority over them, hurried them, and kept exclaiming, "Be quick, my sisters, our dancers are dying of impatience."
At the end of an hour, the. laughing and talking ceased. Jonica carefully put out his head, and saw that the princesses were dressed like fairies. They wore quite new satin slippers, and held in their hands the bouquets which he had offered to them in the morning.
They placed themselves one behind the other, and the eldest who was at the head, struck three blows in a peculiar manner, on a certain part of the wall. A door quite invisible opened, and the princesses disappeared.
Jonica followed them noiselessly, but by accident he placed his foot on the train of the princess Lina.
"There is someone behind me," she cried. "Someone trod on my dress."
The eldest turned round quickly, but seeing no one, exclaimed, "How foolish you are Lina, you must have caught it against a nail."
The twelve daughters of the emperor, descended, and descended, and descended until they arrived at an underground passage, at the end of which was an iron door with a strong bolt.
The eldest opened this, and then they found themselves in an enchanted bower, where the leaves of the trees were in silver, and sparkled in the moonlight. They walked on until they came to a second bower, and here the trees had golden leaves; still on, and then a third bower, where the leaves were of emeralds and rubies and diamonds, and their rays were so bright that one might have thought it was full daylight. The princesses continued their walk, and (Jonica still following), arrived soon on the borders of a large lake.
On this lake were twelve boats, and in each boat one of the lost sons of an emperor, who, oar in hand, each waited for a princess. Jonica took his place in the boat of the princess Lina. The boat, being more heavily laden, could not float so quickly as the others, and so was always behind.
"I do not know," said Lina to her cavalier, "why we do not go so quickly as at other times, what can be the matter?"
"I do not understand it either," said the emperor's son, "for I row with all my force."
On the other side of the lake the little gardener perceived a beautiful palace, illuminated a giorno, and heard harmonious sounds of violins, trumpets and cymbals. The emperors' sons each having a princess on his arm entered the palace, and after them came Jonica into a saloon lighted by ten lustres.
The walls were immense mirrors, in gold frames set with precious stones. On a centre table a massive golden vase contained an enormous bouquet of flowers which gave forth an exquisite perfume. Poor Jonica was literally dazed and petrified by the sight of so much splendor. When able to look at, and admire the princesses in the midst of this dazzling light, he lost his wits completely, and looked so ardently with his eyes, that one would have thought that he wished to taste them also with his mouth. Some were fair, some were brown, and nearly all of them had let fall their beautiful hair down their pretty white shoulders. Never, even in his dreams, had the poor boy seen such enchantresses.
But amongst them all, and above all, it was Lina, who seemed to him the most graceful, the most beautiful, the most intoxicating, with her dark eyes and long hair -- the shade of a raven's wing. And with what fire she danced! Leaning on the shoulder of her cavalier, Lina turned as light as a spindle. Her face was flushed, her eyes shone like two stars, and it was evident that dancing was her great delight.
Poor Jonica let fall envious looks on the emperors' sons, and heartily regretted not to be on the same footing, so that he also might have had the right to be cavalier to such beautiful young creatures. All these dancers, to the number of fifty, were emperors' sons who had tried to discover the secret of the princesses. These latter had enticed them to a midnight expedition, and had given them to drink at table, an enchanted beverage, which had frozen their blood, killed in them every sentiment of love, every remembrance, or worldly desire, leaving them only the ardent pleasure of the dance, in the bosom of this splendid palace, become henceforth their eternal habitation.
The princesses danced until their white satin slippers were in holes, until the cock had crowed three times. Then the music ceased, black slaves arranged a princely table, which was instantaneously filled with the most succulent meats, and the rarest and most exquisite wines. Each one took his place, and ate and drank at his ease, excepting our poor Gura Casca, who had to content himself with feasting his eyes alone. When the repast was over, the princesses reentered their boat, and Jonica who followed them step by step, arrived with them in the wood with the silver leaves.
There, to prove to himself, and to prove also to others, that what he had seen was no dream, Jonica broke off a branch of the tree with the beautiful leaves. The noise which he made, caused Lina to turn round.
"What can that be?" said she to her sisters.
"Probably," said the eldest, "it is the rustling amongst the branches of some bird, that has its nest in one of the towers of the palace."
Jonica then got in advance of the princesses, and mounted rapidly to their chamber, opened the window, and glided silently along the trellis which covered the wall, and began his daily work.
While preparing the flowers for the princesses, he hid the branch of silver leaves in the bouquet destined for Lina.
Great was the astonishment of the young girl, who asked herself, in vain, how it was possible that the branch could have come there. Without saying anything to her sisters, she went down into the garden, and there, under the shade of a large chestnut tree, she found the gardener. She had for the moment, a great mind to speak to him, but on reflection, thought it better to wait a little, and so passed on her way.
When evening arrived, the princesses again returned to the ball, Jonica followed them, and a second time entered Lina's boat. Again the emperor's son complained of the labor required in rowing.
"No doubt it is the heat which you feel," replied Lina.
All passed as on the previous evening, but this time, on returning, Jonica broke off a branch of the golden leaves. When the daily bouquets were distributed, the princess Lina found, concealed in hers, the golden branch.
Remaining a little behind her sisters, and showing the golden branch to Jonica, she asked, "From whence, hadst thou these leaves?"
"Your highness knows quite well."
"So thou hast followed us?"
"And how didst thou manage that?"
"It is a secret."
"We did not see thee."
"I was invisible."
"At any rate, I see that thou hast penetrated the mystery. Speak of it to no one, and take this purse as the price of thy silence," and she threw to the poor boy, a purse of gold.
"I do not sell my silence," said Jonica, with a haughtiness which astonished the princess.
"I know how to hold my tongue, without being paid for it." And he walked away, leaving the purse on the ground.
The three succeeding days, Lina neither saw nor heard anything particular, during their nocturnal excursions; but the fourth night, there was a distinct rustling in the wood of diamond leaves, and the next morning she found a diamond branch, hidden in her bouquet.
Then she was fully convinced that the young gardener knew all their escapades, and calling him to her, she asked "Dost thou know the price, which the emperor, our father, offers for the discovery of our secret?"
"I know it, highness."
"Then why dost thou not go to him, and betray it?"
"I do not wish."
"Art thou afraid?"
"Then, why wilt thou not speak?"
Jonica looked up at her, his eyes full of expression, but did not reply.
While Lina was talking with the youth, her sisters were laughing at her, and when she came back they still went on with their ridicule, until she became quite red with anger.
"Thou canst marry him," said her sisters, "there is nothing to prevent; thou wilt be the gardener's wife, and thou wilt live in the cottage at the bottom of the garden. Thou canst help thy husband to draw the water from the fountain, and thou canst offer us our daily nosegays."
Lina became still more angry, and the weight of her anger fell on poor Jonica. When he again presented her with flowers, she took them with supreme indifference, and treated him with the greatest disdain. The poor fellow could not understand it, for he was always most respectful. He never dared to look her full in the face, and yet she felt he was present with her all day long. At length, she came to the resolution to confide to her sisters all that she knew.
"What!" cried they, "this stupid boy has learned our secret, and thou hast kept it from us! We must, at once, absolutely get rid of him."
"By what means?"
"Have him stabbed, and thrown into a cave."
This was the usual way by which troublesome people were disposed of. But Lina would not hear of this, saying that the poor boy had committed no fault.
"If you touch a hair of his head," she said, "I will go and confess all to our father the emperor."
To tranquilize Lina, it was decided to get Jonica to go again to the ball, and to make him drink the enchanted beverage, which would put him in the same state as the other cavaliers.
So they called the young gardener to them, and the eldest sister asked him by what means he had discovered their secret? but he would give them no answer. Then they informed him of the decision which they had come to respecting him. He replied, that he accepted it, and that he would drink willingly the enchanted beverage, so as to become the cavalier of her whom he loved.
On the day fixed, wishing to have as fine clothes, and to be able to make as handsome presents as the emperors' sons, Jonica went to the rose laurel, and said "my beautiful laurel, I have dug you with a golden spade, I have watered you with a golden watering can, I have wiped you with a silken veil, grant that, in one moment, I may be as richly dressed as an emperor's son."
Immediately he saw a beautiful flower expand, and gathering it, he was at once clad in velvet as dark and soft as Lina's eyes, a toque to match, with an agraffe of diamonds, and a flower in his buttonhole. From being tanned and brown, his complexion became fair and fresh as an infant's and his beauty was marvelous. Even his common, vulgar manner changed completely, and any one might have thought him really an emperor's son.
Thus metamorphosed, he presented himself before the emperor, to ask his authority to try in his turn, to unravel the secret of the princesses. He was so changed that the emperor did not recognize him.
When the princesses went back to their bedroom, Jonica was waiting for them behind the door After their usual excursion, Jonica gave his arm to the eldest princess, and afterwards danced with each of the sisters successively, and with so much dignity and grace, that they were all enchanted. When it was Lina's turn, he was in raptures; but he did not address a single word to her.
While conducting her to her place, the princess said to him, jokingly, "Being treated like an emperor's son, thou must be in blissful happiness."
"Never fear, princess," replied he, "you shall not be a gardener's wife."
Lina looked at him, half frightened, but he walked away, without waiting for her answer.
When the princesses had once more danced until their slippers were in holes, the music ceased, the black slaves prepared the table as usual, and Jonica was placed at the right hand of the eldest princess, and facing Lina. He was served with the most delicate meats, the choicest wines; compliments and praises were showered on him, but he was neither intoxicated by their wines, nor by their flatteries. Presently the eldest princess made a sign, and one of the slaves came forward bearing a massive golden cup.
"This enchanted palace has no longer any secrets for thee," cried the princess to Jonica. "Let us drink to your triumph!"
The young man casting a tender glance at Lina, raised the cup to his lips.
"Do not drink it," she cried impetuously. "Do not drink it, I would rather be a gardener's wife," and she began to weep. Jonica threw the enchanted beverage over his shoulder, cleared the table, and fell on his knees at the feet of the princess Lina. All the other emperors' sons fell each at the feet of their respective princesses, who choosing them for their husbands, held out their hands and raised them from the ground.
The charm was broken! The twelve couples crossed the lake in boats, traversed the forests, passed through the cellar, and arrived at the emperor's chamber. Jonica, with the golden cup in his hand, explained to him the mystery of the worn-out slippers.
"God give thee life, young man," said the emperor. "Take thy choice from amongst my daughters."
"My choice has been made for a long time," said he, taking by the hand the princess Lina, who blushed and could not look up.
The princess Lina did not become a gardener's wife, for Jonica became a prince. Before their marriage took place, Lina enquired of him, how he had discovered their secret. Jonica showed her the two laurels. Lina, like an intelligent woman, thought that Jonica would have too great an advantage over her, if he enjoyed the power which was given to him by possessing these shrubs, so she tore the laurels up by their roots and flung them into the fire.
A short time afterwards, the marriage took place with imperial splendor. It was followed by festivities which lasted three days and three nights, and the young people lived very happily together, to a good old age.