Breakfast, dinner, and supper were as savoury as before, and the prince would have been quite content with his quarters had it not been for the difficulty of keeping silence in the presence of the maiden. On the evening of the second day he went, as he had been told, to receive his orders for the following morning.
'I am going to set you something very easy to do to-morrow,' said the old man when his servant entered. 'Take this scythe and cut as much grass as the white horse will want for its day's feed, and clean out its stall. If I come back and find the manger empty it will go ill with you. So beware!'
The prince left the room, rejoicing in his heart, and saying to himself, 'Well, I shall soon get through that! If I have never yet handled either the plough or the scythe, at least I have often watched the country people work them, and know how easy it is.'
He was just going to open his door, when the maiden glided softly past and whispered in his ear: 'What task has he set you?'
'For to-morrow,' answered the prince, 'it is really nothing at all! Just to cut hay for the horse, and to clean out his stall!'
'Oh, luckless being!' sighed the girl; 'how will you ever get through with it. The white horse, who is our master's grandmother, is always hungry: it takes twenty men always mowing to keep it in food for one day, and another twenty to clean out its stall. How, then, do you expect to do it all by yourself? But listen to me, and do what I tell you. It is your only chance. When you have filled the manger as full as it will hold you must weave a strong plait of the rushes which grow among the meadow hay, and cut a thick peg of stout wood, and be sure that the horse sees what you are doing. Then it will ask you what it is for, and you will say, 'With this plait I intend to bind up your mouth so that you cannot eat any more, and with this peg I am going to keep you still in one spot, so that you cannot scatter your corn and water all over the place!' After these words the maiden went away as softly as she had come.
Early the next morning he set to work. His scythe danced through the grass much more easily than he had hoped, and soon he had enough to fill the manger. He put it in the crib, and returned with a second supply, when to his horror he found the crib empty.
Then he knew that without the maiden's advice he would certainly have been lost, and began to put it into practice. He took out the rushes which had somehow got mixed up with the hay, and plaited them quickly.
'My son, what are you doing?' asked the horse wonderingly.
'Oh, nothing!' replied he. 'Just weaving a chin strap to bind your jaws together, in case you might wish to eat any more!'
The white horse sighed deeply when it heard this, and made up its mind to be content with what it had eaten.
The youth next began to clean out the stall, and the horse knew it had found a master; and by mid-day there was still fodder in the manger, and the place was as clean as a new pin. He had barely finished when in walked the old man, who stood astonished at the door.
'Is it really you who have been clever enough to do that?' he asked. 'Or has some one else given you a hint?'
'Oh, I have had no help,' replied the prince, 'except what my poor weak head could give me.'
The old man frowned, and went away, and the prince rejoiced that everything had turned out so well.
In the evening his master said, 'To-morrow I have no special task to set you, but as the girl has a great deal to do in the house you must milk the black cow for her. But take care you milk her dry, or it may be the worse for you.'
'Well,' thought the prince as he went away, 'unless there is some trick behind, this does not sound very hard. I have never milked a cow before, but I have good strong fingers.'
He was very sleepy, and was just going toward his room, when the maiden came to him and asked: 'What is your task to-morrow?'
'I am to help you,' he answered, 'and have nothing to do all day, except to milk the black cow dry.'
'Oh, you are unlucky,' cried she. 'If you were to try from morning till night you couldn't do it. There is only one way of escaping the danger, and that is, when you go to milk her, take with you a pan of burning coals and a pair of tongs. Place the pan on the floor of the stall, and the tongs on the fire, and blow with all your might, till the coals burn brightly. The black cow will ask you what is the meaning of all this, and you must answer what I will whisper to you.' And she stood on tiptoe and whispered something in his ear, and then went away.
The dawn had scarcely reddened the sky when the prince jumped out of bed, and, with the pan of coals in one hand and the milk pail in the other, went straight to the cow's stall, and began to do exactly as the maiden had told him the evening before.
The black cow watched him with surprise for some time, and then said: 'What are you doing, sonny?'
'Oh, nothing,' answered he; 'I am only heating a pair of tongs in case you may not feel inclined to give as much milk as I want.'
The cow sighed deeply, and looked at the milkman with fear, but he took no notice, and milked briskly into the pail, till the cow ran dry.
Just at that moment the old man entered the stable, and sat down to milk the cow himself, but not a drop of milk could he get. 'Have you really managed it all yourself, or did somebody help you?'
'I have nobody to help me,' answered the prince, 'but my own poor head.' The old man got up from his seat and went away.
That night, when the prince went to his master to hear what his next day's work was to be, the old man said: 'I have a little haystack out in the meadow which must be brought in to dry. To-morrow you will have to stack it all in the shed, and, as you value your life, be careful not to leave the smallest strand behind.' The prince was overjoyed to hear he had nothing worse to do.
'To carry a little hay-rick requires no great skill,' thought he, 'and it will give me no trouble, for the horse will have to draw it in. I am certainly not going to spare the old grandmother.'
By-and-by the maiden stole up to ask what task he had for the next day.
The young man laughed, and said: 'It appears that I have got to learn all kinds of farmer's work. To-morrow I have to carry a hayrick, and leave not a stalk in the meadow, and that is my whole day's work!'
'Oh, you unlucky creature!' cried she; 'and how do you think you are to do it. If you had all the men in the world to help you, you could not clear off this one little hay-rick in a week. The instant you have thrown down the hay at the top, it will take root again from below. But listen to what I say. You must steal out at daybreak to-morrow and bring out the white horse and some good strong ropes. Then get on the hay-stack, put the ropes round it, and harness the horse to the ropes. When you are ready, climb up the hay-stack and begin to count one, two, three.
The horse will ask you what you are counting, and you must be sure to answer what I whisper to you.'
So the maiden whispered something in his ear, and left the room. And the prince knew nothing better to do than to get into bed.
He slept soundly, and it was still almost dark when he got up and proceeded to carry out the instructions given him by the girl. First he chose some stout ropes, and then he led the horse out of the stable and rode it to the hay-stack, which was made up of fifty cartloads, so that it could hardly be called 'a little one.' The prince did all that the maiden had told him, and when at last he was seated on top of the rick, and had counted up to twenty, he heard the horse ask in amazement: 'What are you counting up there, my son?'
'Oh, nothing,' said he, 'I was just amusing myself with counting the packs of wolves in the forest, but there are really so many of them that I don't think I should ever be done.'
The word 'wolf' was hardly out of his mouth than the white horse was off like the wind, so that in the twinkling of an eye it had reached the shed, dragging the hay-stack behind it. The master was dumb with surprise as he came in after breakfast and found his man's day's work quite done.
'Was it really you who were so clever?' asked he. 'Or did some one give you good advice?'
'Oh, I have only myself to take counsel with,' said the prince, and the old man went away, shaking his head.
Late in the evening the prince went to his master to learn what he was to do next day.
'To-morrow,' said the old man, 'you must bring the white-headed calf to the meadow, and, as you value your life, take care it does not escape from you.'
The prince answered nothing, but thought, 'Well, most peasants of nineteen have got a whole herd to look after, so surely I can manage one.' And he went towards his room, where the maiden met him.
'To morrow I have got an idiot's work,' said he; 'nothing but to take the white-headed calf to the meadow.'
'Oh, you unlucky being!' sighed she. 'Do you know that this calf is so swift that in a single day he can run three times round the world? Take heed to what I tell you. Bind one end of this silk thread to the left foreleg of the calf, and the other end to the little toe of your left foot, so that the calf will never be able to leave your side, whether you walk, stand, or lie.' After this the prince went to bed and slept soundly.
The next morning he did exactly what the maiden had told him, and led the calf with the silken thread to the meadow, where it stuck to his side like a faithful dog.
By sunset, it was back again in its stall, and then came the master and said, with a frown, 'Were you really so clever yourself, or did somebody tell you what to do?'
'Oh, I have only my own poor head,' answered the prince, and the old man went away growling, 'I don't believe a word of it! I am sure you have found some clever friend!'
In the evening he called the prince and said: 'To-morrow I have no work for you, but when I wake you must come before my bed, and give me your hand in greeting.'
The young man wondered at this strange freak, and went laughing in search of the maiden.
'Ah, it is no laughing matter,' sighed she. 'He means to eat you, and there is only one way in which I can help you. You must heat an iron shovel red hot, and hold it out to him instead of your hand.'
So next morning he wakened very early, and had heated the shovel before the old man was awake. At length he heard him calling, 'You lazy fellow, where are you? Come and wish me good morning.'
But when the prince entered with the red-hot shovel his master only said, 'I am very ill to-day, and too weak even to touch your hand. You must return this evening, when I may be better.'
The prince loitered about all day, and in the evening went back to the old man's room. He was received in the most; friendly manner, and, to his surprise, his master exclaimed, 'I am very well satisfied with you. Come to me at dawn and bring the maiden with you. I know you have long loved each other, and I wish to make you man and wife.'
The young man nearly jumped into the air for joy, but, remembering the rules of the house, he managed to keep still. When he told the maiden, he saw to his astonishment that she had become as white as a sheet, and she was quite dumb.
The Grateful Prince
The Grateful Prince: Part Three