The Royal Herd-Boy

An Estonian folktale, this version is taken from The Hero of Esthonia, compiled by W. F. Kirby and published in 1895.

Once upon a time there lived a king who was so mild and good to his subjects that there was no one who did not bless him, and pray to the Heavenly Father to grant him a long life.

The king had lived happily with his wife for many years, but as yet no child had blessed his marriage. Great was the rejoicing of the king and all his subjects when at length the queen brought a fair child into the world. But their happiness was short-lived, for three days after the birth of the prince, the mother closed her eyes for ever, leaving her child an orphan and her husband a widower. The king mourned grievously for the loss of his dear consort, and his subjects mourned with him, and there was not a cheerful face to be seen anywhere. Three years afterwards the king married again, in deference to the wishes of his subjects, but he was unfortunate in his second choice. He had buried a dove and married a hawk in her place, and unfortunately it goes thus with many widowers. The new consort was a wicked, hard-hearted woman, who never showed any good-will towards the king and his subjects. She could not bear the sight of the former queen’s son, as she feared that the succession would fall to him, for the people loved him greatly for his mother’s sake. The crafty queen conceived the wicked design of sending the boy to some place where the king would be unable to discover him, for she had not courage to murder him. She paid a wicked old woman a large sum to help her to carry out her infamous design. The child was handed over to the old woman at night, and she carried it far away along unfrequented paths, and delivered it to some poor people to adopt as their child. On the way, the old woman stripped off the child’s good clothes, and wrapped it in rags, so that no one should discover the deceit. The queen had bound her by a solemn oath never to reveal to any one the place to which she had carried the prince. The child-stealer did not venture to travel by day, because she feared pursuit, so that it was a long time before she found a sufficiently retired spot. At last she reached a lonely house in a wood, where the feet of strangers rarely penetrated, and she thought this a suitable abode for the prince, and paid the peasant a hundred roubles for the expense of bringing up the child. It was lucky for the prince that he had fallen among good people, who cared for him as if he had been their own dear child. The lively boy often made them laugh, especially when he called himself a prince. They saw from the liberal payment that they had received that the boy could be from no common stock, and that he must be of noble birth on either the father’s or the mother’s side, but their ideas never soared high enough to fancy the boy’s sallies to be actual truth.

It can easily be imagined how great was the consternation at the palace when it was discovered in the morning that the prince had been stolen during the night, and in so strange a manner that no one had heard anything, and that not the slightest trace of the thief was left behind. The king wept bitterly for days for his son, whom he loved so tenderly in remembrance of his mother, and all the more because he was so unhappy with his new consort. Every place was searched thoroughly for a long time for some trace of the vanished child, and a great reward was offered to any one who could give any information; but every effort was vain, and it seemed as if the boy had been blown away. None of the searchers found his way to the lonely cottage in the wood where the prince lived, and no one brought the news to the inhabitants. No one could discover the secret, and many people thought that the prince had been carried away by an evil spirit or by witchcraft. But while the prince was wept for at home as if he was dead, he grew up in the lonely forest, and prospered wonderfully, till he grew to such an age that he was fit for work. Meantime he developed such wonderful intelligence, that his foster-parents were often obliged to admit that the egg was much cleverer than the hen.

The prince had lived thus for more than ten years, when he became anxious to associate with  other people. He begged his foster-parents to allow him to earn his bread with his own hands, and said, “I have strength and understanding enough to keep myself without your help. I find the time very long during this lonely life here.” His foster-parents opposed the plan at first, but were at length obliged to consent and to gratify the young fellow’s wish. The peasant himself accompanied him in search of suitable employment. He found a rich farmer in a village who wanted a herd-boy, and as his foster-son wanted just such a post, they soon came to an agreement. The arrangement was made for a year, but it was settled that the boy might leave his employment at any time and return to his foster-parents. It was also settled that if the farmer was dissatisfied with the boy, he might send him away during the course of the year, but not without informing his foster-parents.

The village where the prince had thus taken service was not far from a great highway, along which many people passed daily, both high and low. The royal herd-boy often sat close to the road, and talked to the passers-by, from whom he learned many things which would otherwise have remained unknown to him. So it happened one day that an old man with grey hair and a long white beard passed that way when the prince was sitting on a stone and playing the flute while the animals were grazing, and if one of them strayed too far from the others, the boy’s dog drove it back. The old man gazed awhile at the boy and his flock, and then he went a few paces nearer and said, “You don’t seem to have been born a herd-boy.” The boy answered, “It may be so; I only know that I was born to be a ruler, and first learned the business of a ruler. If it goes well with the quadrupeds, I will perhaps try my fortune later on with the bipeds.” The old man shook his head in wonder and went his way. Another time a handsome coach passed by, in which sat a lady and two children. There was a coach man on the box and a footman behind. The prince happened to have a basket of freshly-plucked strawberries in his hand, which attracted the notice of the proud Saxon lady.1 She ordered the coach man to stop, and called out from the coach-window, “Come here, you lout, and bring me the strawberries. I will give you a few copecks for them, to buy wheaten bread.” The royal herd-boy did as if he had heard nothing, and did not imagine that the order was addressed to him, while the lady called out a second and a third time; but it was as if she had spoken to the wind. Then she called to the footman behind, “Go and give that vagabond a box on the ear, to teach him to listen.” The footman jumped down to execute the order. But before he reached him, the herd-boy jumped up, seized a thick stick, and called out to the footman, “If you don’t want a broken head, don’t come a step nearer, or I’ll smash your face.” The footman went back and reported the occurrence. Then the lady cried out angrily, “What, you rascal, are you afraid of this lout of a boy? Go and take away his basket by force. I’ll show him who I am, and I’ll punish his parents too, for not bringing him up better.”

 “Oho!” cried the herd-boy, who heard the order. “As long as there is any life in my limbs, nobody shall deprive me of my rightful property by force. I’ll stamp anybody to broth who tries to rob me of my strawberries.” As he spoke, he spat on his hands, and whirled his cudgel round his head till it whistled. When the footman saw it, he had not the least desire to attempt it, but the lady drove away with violent threats, declaring that she would not permit this insult to remain unpunished. Other herd-boys who had seen and heard the affair from a distance related it to their companions in the evening. The people were all frightened, for they thought it would fare ill with them also if the great lady complained to the authorities about the boy’s stupid obstinacy and an inquiry was ordered. The prince’s master scolded him, and said, “I can’t say anything in your favour, and what you’ve cooked you must eat yourself.” The boy replied, “I shall come off scatheless; that’s my affair. God has put a mouth in my head and a tongue in my mouth, and I can speak for myself if necessary, and I won’t ask you to be my advocate. If the lady had asked for the strawberries in a proper way, I would have given them to her; but how dared she call me a lout? My nose1 is just as clean as hers.”

Meantime the lady drove to the royal city, where she had nothing more pressing to do than to complain to the authorities of the insolent behaviour of the herd-boy. An investigation was ordered at once, and the youth and his master were ordered to appear before the authorities. When the messenger entered the village to enforce the order, the prince said, “My master has nothing to do with this affair, and I myself must answer for what I did yesterday.” They wanted to bind his hands behind his back, and to lead him before the court as a prisoner, but he drew a sharp knife from his pocket, stepped some paces back, turned the point against his breast, and cried out, “No one shall bind me while I live! Rather than let you bind me, I will thrust the knife into my heart. You may then bind my corpse, or do whatever you please with it, but no man shall lay a cord or fetter on me while I live. I am quite ready to appear before the court and give evidence, but I will never go there as a prisoner.” His boldness frightened the messengers, and they were afraid to approach him, for they feared that the blame would fall on them if the boy carried out his threat; and as he was ready to go with them of his own accord, they were obliged to be content. On the way, the messengers wondered more and more at the understanding and cleverness of their prisoner, for he knew everything better than they did themselves. But much greater was the astonishment of the judges when they heard the account of the affair from the boy’s own mouth. He spoke so clearly and reasonably that they gave judgment in his favour, and acquitted him of all blame. The great lady then applied to the king, who promised to investigate the whole affair himself; but he also was forced to agree with the judges and to pronounce the youth innocent. The lady was now ready to burst with rage at the thought that a peasant boy should have gained a verdict in her despite. She complained to the queen, knowing that she was very much harsher than the king. “My consort,” said the queen, “is an old idiot, and his judges are all fools. It is a pity that you brought the matter before the court, instead of coming to me, for I would have managed the affair differently, and would have done you justice. Now that the matter has passed through the court, and the judgment is confirmed by the king, I am no longer in a position to put a better face on it openly, but we must see how we can arrange to punish the youth without attracting attention.” It occurred to the lady that there lived a very ill-tempered peasant woman on her estate, with whom no servant would stay, while her husband said that his life with her was more uncomfortable than if he was in hell. If the impudent boy could be induced to go to her as herd-boy, she thought the woman would give him a severer punishment than any judge could inflict upon him. “I’ll arrange the matter just as you wish,” said the queen. So she summoned a trustworthy messenger, and instructed him what to do. If she had had the least idea that the herd-boy was the exiled prince, she would have had him put to death at once, without troubling herself about the king or the judges’ decision.

As soon as the prince’s master heard the queen’s desire, he at once released the herd-boy from his service. He thanked his stars that he had got out of the scrape so easily. The queen’s messenger now took the lad to the farm to which she had consigned him without his consent. The wicked old woman shouted for joy when she heard that the queen had found her a herd-boy, and sent word that she might treat him as she pleased, because the youth was very perverse, and nothing good was to be got out of him. She did not know how hard the new millstone was, and hoped to treat him in her usual fashion; but she was soon to discover that this fence was too high to jump over, and that the youth would not sacrifice a hair’s-breadth of his rights. lf she gave him a single bad word without cause, he gave her a dozen back; and if she lifted her hand against him, he caught up a stone or a log of wood, or anything else which happened to come to hand, and cried out, “Don’t dare to come a step nearer, or I’ll split your skull and mash you to soup.” The woman had never heard such language from anybody, least of all from her servants; but her husband rejoiced in secret when he heard her quarrelling, and he did not stand by his wife, for the boy did not neglect his duty. The woman tried to break the boy’s spirit with hunger, and refused him food, but the boy helped himself by force to whatever he could find, and helped himself to milk from the cow besides, so that he was never hungry. The more difficult she found it to manage the boy, the more she vented her rage on her husband and others about her. When the prince had led this vexatious life for some weeks, and found that each day was like the other, he determined to pay the old woman out for her wickedness in such a fashion that the world should be quite rid of such a monster. In order to carry out his design, he caught a dozen wolves and shut them up in a cave, and he threw them a beast from his flock every day, so that they should not starve. Who can describe the woman’s rage when she saw her property gradually dwindling, for every day the boy brought home an animal less than he had taken to pasture in the morning, and his only answer when questioned was, “The wolves have devoured it.” She screamed like a maniac, and threatened to throw the boy to the wild beasts to devour, but he answered, laughing, “Wouldn’t your own savage meat be better for them?” Then he left the wolves for three days without food in the cave, and at night, when every one was asleep, he drove the herd from their stall, and put the twelve wolves in instead, fastening the door securely, so that the wild beasts should not escape. When he had thus arranged everything, he turned his back on the farm, for he had long been tired of playing herd-boy, and now felt strong enough for greater undertakings.

But what horrors happened next morning, when the woman went into the stall to let out the animals and to milk the cows! The wolves, maddened with hunger, rushed upon her, pulled her down, and devoured the whole of her, clothes and skin, and hair and all, so that nothing remained but her tongue and heart, which were too poisonous for even the wild beasts to touch. Neither her husband nor her servants lamented the misfortune, for every one was delighted to be rid of such an infernal woman.

The prince wandered about the world for some years, trying his hand first at one trade and then at another, but he never stayed long in one place, for the recollections of his childhood, which hovered about him like vivid dreams, always warned him that he was born to a higher condition. From time to time he encountered the old man again, who had read this in his eyes while he was still a herd-boy. When the prince was eighteen years old, he engaged himself to a gardener to learn gardening. Just at this time an event happened which changed the course of his life. The wicked old woman who had taken him away by the queen’s orders, and had given him into the charge of the people at the forest-farm, confessed her crime to the priest on her death-bed, for her soul was burdened with the weight of her sins, and could not find rest till she had revealed it. She indicated the farmhouse to which she had brought the child, but could not tell whether the prince was now living or dead. The priest hastened to the king with the joyful tidings that a trace of his lost son was found at last. The king informed no one of what he had heard, but immediately ordered his horse to be saddled, and set out on his way with three faithful attendants. In a few days they reached the farm in the wood. Both the farmer and his wife confirmed the fact that at such and such a time a male child had been given into their charge to rear, and that they had received one hundred roubles at the same time for their expenses. They had concluded from this circumstance that the child was probably of high birth, but they had never supposed that he was of royal descent, and had thought that the boy was only jesting when he had called himself a prince. Then the farmer himself attended the king to the village where he had taken the youth as herd-boy, not, indeed, by his own wish, but at the request of the boy, who could not live longer in that lonely place. But how shocked was the farmer, and still more the king, when they did not find the boy, who must now be grown to a young man, in the village, and could learn no further tidings of him! All that the people could tell them was that the boy was summoned before the court at the suit of a noble lady, and that he had been acquitted and set at liberty, but after this one of the queen’s servants had taken the boy away and put him to service at another farm. The king hastened thither, and found that his son had indeed been there for a few weeks, but he had fled, and nothing more had been heard of him. Where should they now seek for advice, and who was able to direct their search aright?

While the king was thus greatly troubled at losing all traces of his son, the old man who had several times encountered the prince presented himself and said that he knew such a young man as they sought for, who had first served as a herdsman, and had afterwards worked at several other occupations, and that he hoped to be able to discover him. The king promised the old man a rich reward if he could help him to find his son, and he ordered one of his attendants to dismount from his horse, and pressed the old man to mount, so that they could travel quicker; but he said, smiling, “No matter how fast a horse can run, my legs can run as fast, for they have traversed larger districts of the world than any horse.” In fact, in a week’s time they came upon the traces of the prince, and found him in the grounds of a magnificent mansion, where he was engaged as gardener. The king’s joy was unbounded when he recovered his son, whom he had mourned for so many years as dead. Tears of joy streamed down his cheeks as he strained his son to his breast and kissed him. But he heard tidings from his son’s mouth which damped the joy of their meeting, and caused him fresh trouble. The gardener had a young and beautiful daughter, fairer than all the flowers in this splendid garden, and as pure and good as an angel. The prince had lost his heart to this maiden, and he told his father plainly that he would never marry a lady of higher rank, but would take the gardener’s daughter as his consort, even if he should be forced to abandon his kingdom for her. “Come home first,” said the king, “and afterwards we will talk the matter over.” Then the prince asked his father for a costly gold ring, and put it on the maiden’s finger before the eyes of all, saying, “With this ring I betroth thee, and I will return, whether the time be long or short, to claim thee as my bride.” But the king answered, “No, not so; the affair shall be arranged otherwise.” He took the ring from the maiden’s finger and clove it in twain with his sword. One half he gave to his son, and the other to the gardener’s daughter, and said, “If God has created you for one another, the two halves of the ring will grow together of themselves at the proper time, so that the point at which the ring was divided cannot be detected. Let each keep their half till the time shall be fulfilled.”

The queen was ready to burst with rage when she saw her stepson, whom she thought had disappeared for ever, suddenly return as the undisputed heir to the throne, for the king had only two daughters by his second marriage. A few years afterwards the king closed his eyes in death, and his son became king. Notwithstanding the great wrongs which he had received from his stepmother, he would not return evil for evil, but left her to the justice of God. Although she no longer hoped to set one of her daughters on the throne in his place, she hoped at least to wed him to a noble lady of her own family; but he answered, “I will not consent, for I have chosen my bride long since.” When the queen-dowager learned that the young king was resolved to marry a maiden of low birth, she incited the highest councillors of the kingdom to attempt unanimously to prevent it. But the king remained firm, and would not yield. After the matter had been discussed for a long time, the king announced his final decision. “We will give a great feast, and invite all the princesses and all the other unmarried ladies of high birth; and if I find one among them who surpasses my chosen bride in grace and beauty, I will marry her. But if this is not the case, my betrothed shall become my consort.”

Thereupon a magnificent feast was prepared in the royal palace, which was to last a fortnight, that the king might have full opportunity of considering whether any of the ladies surpassed the gardener’s daughter. All the great ladies in the neighbourhood were invited to bring their daughters to the feast, and as the object of the gathering was generally known, every maiden hoped that the great prize would fall to her. The feast drew to a close, and yet the king had not met with one who pleased his fancy. On the last day of the feast the highest councillors of the kingdom again presented themselves before the king, and said, as the queen had instructed them, that if the king did not make his choice before evening, an insurrection might break out, for all his subjects wished the king to marry. The king replied, “I will accede to the wish of my subjects, and will announce my choice this evening.” Then, unknown to the others, he sent a trustworthy messenger to bring the gardener’s daughter away secretly, and to keep her in concealment till evening. In the evening the royal palace was ablaze with light, and all the great ladies were robed in their most elegant attire, expecting the moment which should bring them good fortune or the reverse. But the king advanced to a young lady in the hall who was so muffled up that you could hardly see the tip of her nose. All were struck with the simple dress of the stranger. She was clothed in fine white linen, and wore neither silk, satin, nor gold, while all the other ladies were robed from head to foot in silks and satins. Some curled their lips, and others turned up their noses, but the king took no notice, but loosed the maiden’s head-gear, and led her to the queen-dowager, saying, “Here is my chosen bride, whom I will take as my consort, and I invite all who are here assembled to my wedding.” The queen-dowager cried out angrily, “What better could be expected of a man who was reared as a herd-boy? If you want to go back to your business, take the maid with you, who may perhaps understand tending swine, but is quite unfit for a king’s consort. Such a peasant girl can only disgrace the throne of a king.” These words moved the king to anger, and he answered sternly, “I am king, and can do what I will, but woe to you who have brought my former condition to my remembrance; and you have also reminded me who reduced me to this. However, as no sensible man buys a cat in a sack, I will show you all before we separate that I could nowhere have found a more suitable bride than this very maiden, who is as pure and good as an angel from heaven.” As he spoke, he left the room, but soon returned with the old man whom he had known ever since he was a herd-boy, and who had afterwards put the king on the track of his son. The old man was a famous sorcerer from Finland, who knew many secret arts. The king said, “Mighty sorcerer, show us by your art the inmost character of the maidens here present, that we may know which of them is most worthy to become my bride.” The sorcerer took a bottle filled with a liquid that looked like wine, muttered a spell over it, and directed the maidens to gather in the midst of the hall. He then sprinkled a few drops on the head of each, and they all fell asleep as they stood. But what a wonderful thing now happened! In a short time they were all so transformed that none retained her human shape, but some were changed into snakes, wolves, bears, toads, swine, or cats, and others became hawks or other birds of prey. But among all these bestial forms was a beautiful rose-bush, covered with flowers, and with two doves nestling on its branches. And this was the gardener’s daughter whom the king had chosen as his consort. Then said the king, “We have now seen the inmost kernel of each, and I am not going to let myself be dazzled by the outer shell.” The queen-dowager could not contain herself for rage, but the matter was so clear that she was unable to help herself. Then the sorcerer fumigated all the maidens with magic herbs, which roused them from their sleep and restored them to their human shapes. The king received his beloved from the rose-bush, and asked for her half-ring, and when the maiden drew it from her bosom, he took his own half-ring, and laid them together on the palm of his hand, when the two halves immediately united, and no eye could perceive a crack or any indication of the spot where the sword-stroke had cleft the ring. “Now my honoured father’s wish has come to pass,” said the young king, and celebrated his union with the gardener’s daughter on the same evening. He invited all those present to a wedding-feast, but the noble ladies had learned what wonders had taken place during their sleep, and they returned home full of shame. But so much the greater was the joy of the king’s subjects that their queen was a perfect woman both in form and character.

When the wedding festivities were ended, the king assembled all the leading judges of the kingdom and asked them what punishment was fitting for a criminal who had secretly stolen away the king’s son, and had him brought up in a peasant’s cot as a herd-boy, and had afterwards treated the youth with insolent contempt after he had recovered his former position. All the judges answered with one accord, “Such a criminal is worthy to die on the gallows.” Then said the king, “Good! let the queen-dowager be brought to trial.” The queen-dowager was summoned, and the sentence was announced to her. When she heard it, she turned as white as the wall, and fell on her knees before the young king pleading for mercy. The king said, “I give you your life, and I should never have brought you before the court if it had not happened that you lately insulted me respecting the misfortunes which I endured through your crime; but you cannot remain in my kingdom any longer. You must pack up your goods this very day, and quit my city before sundown. An escort will accompany you to the frontier. But beware lest you ever set foot again in my territories, for any man, even the meanest, has leave to kill you like a mad dog. Your daughters, who are also the daughters of my honoured father, may remain here, for they are innocent of the crimes which rest upon your soul.”

Now that the queen-dowager was banished, the young king built two pretty houses near his city, one of which he assigned to the parents of his bride, and the other to his own foster-father, who had so carefully brought up the helpless prince. The prince who had grown up as a herd-boy and his low-born bride lived happily to the end, and ruled their subjects with as much affection as parents their children.

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