The Serpent Prince (Italian Folk Tale)

Once, a very long time ago, before aeroplanes emulated eagles and motor cars ran along swifter than the foxes, there lived on the outskirts of a great forest an old couple who were poor and childless and lonely.

Matteo was the name of this worthy pair, and the old man was called Cola and his wife was known as Sapatella. Now Matteo was a forester, and, because his duties kept him roaming from early morn until late in the evening through the deep dark glades of the forest, his wife, who had to stay at home and mind the cottage and prepare the meals, and never go out, not even to see the pictures on Saturday evenings, was very lonely indeed and wished more than ever that she had a son, so that he could go to the pictures and tell her all about them when he came home.

But wishes do not make horses or sons, nor even daughters, and so this poor old woman had to live a very lonely life indeed, which gave her a great deal of time to think and to envy

The old woman who lived in a shoe,

Who had so many children she didn”t know what to do,

who lived about the same time in another part of the country.

One evening, when the days were growing short and the nights were correspondingly long and chilly, Matteo was on his way back to the cottage, when he remembered that Sapatella had asked him to bring home some faggots with him to cook with and to keep them warm, because, of course, when you are a forester and live in a forest, you cannot expect to have coal to burn in your grates, like those who live in towns and villages.

There was plenty of brushwood, and heaps of twigs and fallen boughs lying about, and, as he had his axe with him, which all good foresters carry to clear a path for themselves through the dense undergrowths, it was not long before Matteo had collected a great bundle of faggots which was just as much as he could carry on his back.

But Matteo carried home with him on his back more than a mere bundle of dry boughs and twigs, although he did not know it. Neither did Sapatella, not until the next morning after Matteo had gone off to his work, when she went to the wood pile to get some sticks to put under her pot to boil the nice rabbit which Matteo had shot for her the day before. She picked up a bundle and was about to place it on the fire when a tiny serpent, oh, ever so tiny! slithered and wriggled its way out of the twigs and coiled itself up on the rug.

Being a forester”s wife, Sapatella was not the least bit frightened of serpents or mice or beetles or other dreadful beasts; besides, it was such a tiny serpent, all yellow as can be; and, when the firelight danced on it, it shone bright and gleaming like gold.

“Ah me, said the good woman with a sigh, “even the serpents have their young ones, but I have no one.”

Then the serpent uncoiled and stretched itself out towards her and spoke. All kinds of animals spoke in those days, as you will notice if you read the story through, though not so frequently but that the good woman was surprised and startled to hear it.

“You may have me for your child if you will,” it said.

“Keep me warm and feed me well,

And fortune will upon you dwell.”

Sapatella was, as I have already said, considerably startled to hear a baby serpent talk like that; but she was a kind-hearted woman and very, very lonely, and she quickly made up her mind to adopt the little serpent and bring it up as her own.

The forester, her husband, who was also kind-hearted, agreed to let her have her own way in the matter, and so the little serpent found a home and care and affection.

They kept him warm and fed him well,
And fortune did upon them dwell.

From that time on, peace and contentment and prosperity brightened the little cottage. Everything went smoothly and comfortably, though whether the little serpent had really anything to do with it or not, I cannot say.

Serpents grow up very quickly, and, what with the warmth and the good food and the affection, the little serpent soon grew to be a big one, oh, monstrous big! so that when he lay in front of the fire he took up the whole of the rug, and Sapatella had to scold him in order to make room so that she could attend to her cooking.

One day when she had nearly tripped over his tail and fallen with a pot of boiling water in her hands, Sapatella said to it: “You are grown too big to be lying about before the fire all day. You must get up and do something.”

“Very well, mother,” said the serpent–it always called her mother, and Cola it called father, just as a son would. “Find me a wife and I will get married and settle down.”

Sapatella did not very well know how to set about finding a wife for a serpent, even an adopted one; but she agreed to speak to Matteo her husband about the matter when he came home that night.

After supper, accordingly, she put the serpent”s request to the forester.

“Our serpent wants to get married, Cola,” she said; “so you must find him a wife.”

“Very well,” said Matteo. “I will hunt through the forest when I am out, and try and find another serpent for him to mate with.”

“Oh, that will not do at all,” said the serpent, who had been listening very intently to its adopted parents” conversation, though it seemed to be sleeping peacefully all over the floor in front of the fire. “I do not mate with serpents. You must get the King”s daughter for me. To-morrow you must set out to the palace, and tell the King that I require his daughter in marriage.”

Naturally Matteo did not at all care about his errand; but his wife entreated him to go, and so on the morrow the good man set forth, the serpent watching him depart from the cottage door, chanting all the while:

“To the King my message tell,
And fortune will upon you dwell.”

Well, Matteo walked along through the forest on his way to the King”s palace, and the nearer he got to his journey”s end the more difficult and dangerous his errand seemed to grow. He thought the King would be sure to be very angry, and he might even order him to be hanged for a knave, or beaten off the palace grounds for a fool.

But he kept thinking of what the serpent had said, and, as good fortune dwelling upon us is something we all like to have, the forester kept on his way and resolved faithfully to carry out his errand.

He came at last to the palace gates, and as, in those days, in that country, any one who wanted to could walk in and speak to the King, this simple old fellow passed in with the crowd who were going to seek help or justice, and in due time he came before the King.

“O great King!” he said, “a serpent who is my adopted son has sent me to ask your daughter”s hand in marriage.”

The King stared, and then he frowned, and then he stared again. Kings are accustomed to receiving strange requests; but never anything so strange as this.

Fortunately for Cola, the King was a good-humoured, easy-going man, and, thinking that he had to do with some harmless old lunatic, he only laughed, as did all the courtiers and people who stood about him.

“Very well,” he said. “I will grant your request, only your adopted son must first of all turn all the fruit in my orchard into gold. Then will I give him my daughter in marriage.”

Matteo thanked the King for his great clemency and kindness in not having him hanged or beaten out of the palace, and then started off home again.

“I am well out of that,” he thought to himself; “but my adopted son will have to be contented with a wife of less degree. Who ever heard of turning apples and flowers and cherries into gold? Why, they can only make copper and silver of them in Covent Garden.”

But the serpent didn”t seem in the least bit concerned when the forester told him the result of his errand.

“That is a small matter,” it said. “To-morrow morning you must go into the city with a basket, and gather up all the fruit-stones you can find, and take them and scatter them in the orchard.

“Do this thing and do it well,