This was a very disheartening revelation to the king—not that he was unwilling to sacrifice a subject, but that he was hopeless of finding a man willing to sacrifice himself. No time was to be lost however, for the princess was lying motionless on her bed, and taking no nourishment but lake-water, which was now none of the best. Therefore the king caused the contents of the wonderful plate of gold to be published throughout the country.
No one, however, came forward.
The prince, having gone several days' journey into the forest, to consult a hermit whom he had met there on his way to Lagobel, knew nothing of the oracle till his return.
When he had acquainted himself with all the particulars, he sat down and thought:
"She will die if I don't do it, and life would be nothing to me without her; so I shall lose nothing by doing it. And life will be as pleasant to her as ever, for she will soon forget me. And there will be so much more beauty and happiness in the world! To be sure, I shall not see it." (Here the poor prince gave a sigh.) "How lovely the lake will be in the moonlight, with that glorious creature sporting in it like a wild goddess! It is rather hard to be drowned by inches, though. Let me see—that will be seventy inches of me to drown." (Here he tried to laugh, but could not.) "The longer the better, however," he resumed, "for can I not bargain that the princess shall be beside me all the time? So I shall see her once more, kiss her perhaps—who knows? and die looking in her eyes. It will be no death. At least, I shall not feel it. And to see the lake filling for the beauty again! All right! I am ready."
He kissed the princess's boot, laid it down, and hurried to the king's apartment. But feeling, as he went, that anything sentimental would be disagreeable, he resolved to carry off the whole affair with nonchalance. So he knocked at the door of the king's counting-house, where it was all but a capital crime to disturb him.
When the king heard the knock, he started up, and opened the door in a rage. Seeing only the shoeblack, he drew his sword. This, I am sorry to say, was his usual mode of asserting his regality when he thought his dignity was in danger. But the prince was not in the least alarmed.
"Please your majesty, I'm your butler," said he.
"My butler! you lying rascal! What do you mean?"
"I mean, I will cork your big bottle."
"Is the fellow mad?" bawled the king, raising the point of his sword.
"I will put the stopper—plug—what you call it, in your leaky lake, grand monarch," said the prince.
The king was in such a rage that before he could speak he had time to cool, and to reflect that it would be great waste to kill the only man who was willing to be useful in the present emergency, seeing that in the end the insolent fellow would be as dead as if he had died by his majesty's own hand.
"Oh!" said he at last, putting up his sword with difficulty, it was so long; "I am obliged to you, you young fool! Take a glass of wine?"
"No, thank you," replied the prince.
"Very well," said the king. "Would you like to run and see your parents before you make your experiment?"
"No, thank you," said the prince.
"Then we will go and look for the hole at once," said his majesty, and proceeded to call some attendants.
"Stop, please your majesty, I have a condition to make," interposed the prince.
"What!" exclaimed the king, "a condition! and with me! How dare you?"
"As you please," returned the prince, coolly. "I wish your majesty a good morning,"
"You wretch! I will have you put in a sack, and stuck in the hole."
"Very well, your majesty," replied the prince, becoming a little more respectful, lest the wrath of the king should deprive him of the pleasure of dying for the princess. "But what good will that do your majesty? Please to remember that the oracle says the victim must offer himself."
"Well, you have offered yourself," retorted the king.
"Yes, upon one condition."
"Condition again!" roared the king, once more drawing his sword. "Begone! Somebody else will be glad enough to take the honour off your shoulders."
"Your majesty knows it will not be easy to get another to take my place."
"Well, what is your condition?" growled the king, feeling that the prince was right.
"Only this," replied the prince; "that, as I must on no account die before I am fairly drowned, and the waiting will be rather wearisome, the princess, your daughter, shall go with me, feed me with her own hands, and look at me now and then to comfort me; for you must confess it is rather hard. As soon as the water is up to my eyes, she may go and be happy, and forget her poor shoeblack."
Here the prince's voice faltered, and he very nearly grew sentimental, in spite of his resolution.
"Why didn't you tell me before what your condition was? Such a fuss about nothing!" exclaimed the king.
"Do you grant it?" persisted the prince.
"Of course I do," replied the king.
"Very well. I am ready."
"Go and have some dinner, then, while I set my people to find the place."
The king ordered out his guards, and gave directions to the officers to find the hole in the lake at once. So the bed of the lake was marked out in divisions and thoroughly examined, and in an hour or so the hole was discovered. It was in the middle of a stone, near the centre of the lake, in the very pool where the golden plate had been found. It was a three-cornered hole of no great size. There was water all round the stone, but very little was flowing through the hole.
The prince went to dress for the occasion, for he was resolved to die like a prince.
When the princess heard that a man had offered to die for her, she was so transported that she jumped off the bed, feeble as she was, and danced about the room for joy. She did not care who the man was; that was nothing to her. The hole wanted stopping; and if only a man would do, why, take one. In an hour or two more everything was ready. Her maid dressed her in haste, and they carried her to the side of the lake. When she saw it she shrieked, and covered her face with her hands. They bore her across to the stone, where they had already placed a little boat for her. The water was not deep enough to float in, but they hoped it would be, before long. They laid her on cushions, placed in the boat wines and fruits and other nice things, and stretched a canopy over all.
In a few minutes the prince appeared. The princess recognised him at once, but did not think it worth while to acknowledge him.
"Here I am," said the prince. "Put me in."
"They told me it was a shoeblack," said the princess.
"So I am," said the prince. "I blacked your little boots three times a day, because they were all I could get of you. Put me in."
The courtiers did not resent his bluntness, except by saying to each other that he was taking it out in impudence.
But how was he to be put in? The golden plate contained no instructions on this point. The prince looked at the hole, and saw but one way. He put both his legs into it, sitting on the stone, and, stooping forward, covered the corner that remained open with his two hands. In this uncomfortable position he resolved to abide his fate, and turning to the people, said:
"Now you can go."
The king had already gone home to dinner.
"Now you can go," repeated the princess after him, like a parrot.
The people obeyed her and went.
Presently a little wave flowed over the stone, and wetted one of the prince's knees. But he did not mind it much. He began to sing, and the song he sang was this:
"As a world that has no well,
Darkly bright in forest dell;
As a world without the gleam
Of the downward-going stream;
As a world without the glance
Of the ocean's fair expanse;
As a world where never rain
Glittered on the sunny plain;—
Such, my heart, thy world would be,
If no love did flow in thee.
"As a world without the sound
Of the rivulets underground;
Or the bubbling of the spring
Out of darkness wandering;
Or the mighty rush and flowing
Of the river's downward going;
Or the music-showers that drop
On the outspread beech's top;
Or the ocean's mighty voice,
When his lifted waves rejoice;—Such,
my soul, thy world would be,
If no love did sing in thee.
"Lady, keep thy world's delight,
Keep the waters in thy sight
Love hath made me strong to go,
For thy sake, to realms below,
Where the water's shine and hum
Through the darkness never come.
Let, I pray, one thought of me
Spring, a little well, in thee;
Lest thy loveless soul be found
Like a dry and thirsty ground."
"Sing again, prince. It makes it less tedious," said the princess.
But the prince was too much overcome to sing any more, and a long pause followed.
"This is very kind of you, prince," said the princess at last, quite coolly, as she lay in the boat with her eyes shut.
"I am sorry I can't return the compliment," thought the prince, "but you are worth dying for, after all."
Again a wavelet, and another, and another flowed over the stone, and wetted both the prince's knees; but he did not speak or move. Two—three—four hours passed in this way, the princess apparently asleep, and the prince very patient. But he was much disappointed in his position, for he had none of the consolation he had hoped for.
At last he could bear it no longer.
"Princess!" said he.
But at the moment up started the princess, crying:
"I'm afloat! I'm afloat!"
And the little boat bumped against the stone.
"Princess!" repeated the prince, encouraged by seeing her wide awake and looking eagerly at the water.
"Well?" said she, without looking round.
"Your papa promised that you should look at me, and you haven't looked at me once."
"Did he? Then I suppose I must. But I am so sleepy!"
"Sleep, then, darling, and don't mind me," said the poor prince.
"Really, you are very good," replied the princess. "I think I will go to sleep again."
"Just give me a glass of wine and a biscuit first," said the prince, very humbly.
"With all my heart," said the princess, and yawned as she said it.
She got the wine and the biscuit, however, and leaning over the side of the boat towards him, was compelled to look at him.
"Why, prince," she said, "you don't look well! Are you sure you don't mind it?"
"Not a bit," answered he, feeling very faint indeed. "Only I shall die before it is of any use to you, unless I have something to eat,"
"There, then," said she, holding out the wine to him.
"Ah! you must feed me. I dare not move my hands. The water would run away directly."
"Good gracious!" said the princess; and she began at once to feed him with bits of biscuit and sips of wine.
As she fed him, he contrived to kiss the tips of her fingers now and then. She did not seem to mind it, one way or the other. But the prince felt better.
"Now, for your own sake, princess," said he, "I cannot let you go to sleep. You must sit and look at me, else I shall not be able to keep up."
"Well, I will do anything to oblige you," answered she, with condescension; and, sitting down, she did look at him, and kept looking at him with wonderful steadiness, considering all things.
The sun went down, and the moon rose, and, gush after gush, the waters were rising up the prince's body. They were up to his waist now.
"Why can't we go and have a swim?" said the princess. "There seems to be water enough just about here."
"I shall never swim more," said the prince.
"Oh, I forgot," said the princess, and was silent.
So the water grew and grew, and rose up and up on the prince. And the princess sat and looked at him. She fed him now and then. The night wore on. The waters rose and rose. The moon rose likewise higher and higher, and shone full on the face of the dying prince. The water was up to his neck.
"Will you kiss me, princess?" said he, feebly. The nonchalance was all gone now.
"Yes, I will," answered the princess, and kissed him with a long, sweet, cold kiss.
"Now," said he, with a sigh of content, "I die happy."
He did not speak again. The princess gave him some wine for the last time: he was past eating. Then she sat down again, and looked at him. The water rose and rose. It touched his chin. It touched his lower lip. It touched between his lips. He shut them hard to keep it out. The princess began to feel strange. It touched his upper lip. He breathed through his nostrils. The princess looked wild. It covered his nostrils. Her eyes looked scared, and shone strange in the moonlight. His head fell back; the water closed over it, and the bubbles of his last breath bubbled up through the water. The princess gave a shriek, and sprang into the lake.
She laid hold first of one leg, and then of the other, and pulled and tugged, but she could not move either. She stopped to take breath, and that made her think that he could not get any breath. She was frantic. She got hold of him, and held his head above the water, which was possible now his hands were no longer on the hole. But it was of no use, for he was past breathing.
Love and water brought back all her strength. She got under the water, and pulled and pulled with her whole might, till at last she got one leg out. The other easily followed. How she got him into the boat she never could tell; but when she did, she fainted away. Coming to herself, she seized the oars, kept herself steady as best she could, and rowed and rowed, though she had never rowed before. Round rocks, and over shallows, and through mud she rowed, till she got to the landing-stairs of the palace. By this time her people were on the shore, for they had heard her shriek. She made them carry the prince to her own room, and lay him in her bed, and light a fire, and send for the doctors.
"But the lake, your highness!" said the chamberlain, who, roused by the noise, came in, in his nightcap.
"Go and drown yourself in it!" she said.
This was the last rudeness of which the princess was ever guilty; and one must allow that she had good cause to feel provoked with the lord chamberlain.
Had it been the king himself, he would have fared no better. But both he and the queen were fast asleep. And the chamberlain went back to his bed. Somehow, the doctors never came. So the princess and her old nurse were left with the prince. But the old nurse was a wise woman, and knew what to do.
They tried everything for a long time without success. The princess was nearly distracted between hope and fear, but she tried on and on, one thing after another, and everything over and over again.
At last, when they had all but given it up, just as the sun rose, the prince opened his eyes.
The princess burst into a passion of tears and fell on the floor. There she lay for an hour, and her tears never ceased. All the pent-up crying of her life was spent now. And a rain came on, such as had never been seen in that country. The sun shone all the time, and the great drops, which fell straight to the earth, shone likewise. The palace was in the heart of a rainbow. It was a rain of rubies, and sapphires, and emeralds, and topazes. The torrents poured from the mountains like molten gold; and if it had not been for its subterraneous outlet, the lake would have overflowed and inundated the country. It was full from shore to shore.
But the princess did not heed the lake. She lay on the floor and wept. And this rain within doors was far more wonderful than the rain out of doors. For when it abated a little, and she proceeded to rise, she found, to her astonishment, that she could not. At length, after many efforts, she succeeded in getting upon her feet. But she tumbled down again directly. Hearing her fall, her old nurse uttered a yell of delight, and ran to her, screaming:
"My darling child! she's found her gravity!"
"Oh, that's it! is it?" said the princess, rubbing her shoulder and her knee alternately. "I consider it very unpleasant. I feel as if I should be crushed to pieces."
"Hurrah!" cried the prince from the bed. "If you've come round, princess, so have I. How's the lake?"
"Brimful," answered the nurse.
"Then we're all happy."
"That we are indeed!" answered the princess, sobbing.
And there was rejoicing all over the country that rainy day. Even the babies forgot their past troubles, and danced and crowed amazingly. And the king told stories, and the queen listened to them. And he divided the money in his box, and she the honey in her pot, among all the children. And there was such jubilation as was never heard of before.
Of course the prince and princess were betrothed at once. But the princess had to learn to walk, before they could be married with any propriety. And this was not so easy at her time of life, for she could walk no more than a baby. She was always falling down and hurting herself.
"Is this the gravity you used to make so much of?" said she one day to the prince, as he raised her from the floor. "For my part, I was a great deal more comfortable without it."
"No, no, that's not it. This is it," replied the prince, as he took her up, and carried her about like a baby, kissing her all the time. "This is gravity."
"That's better," said she. "I don't mind that so much."
And she smiled the sweetest, loveliest smile in the prince's face. And she gave him one little kiss in return for all his; and he thought them overpaid, for he was beside himself with delight. I fear she complained of her gravity more than once after this, notwithstanding.
It was a long time before she got reconciled to walking. But the pain of learning it was quite counterbalanced by two things, either of which would have been sufficient consolation. The first was, that the prince himself was her teacher; and the second, that she could tumble into the lake as often as she pleased. Still, she preferred to have the prince jump in with her; and the splash they made before was nothing to the splash they made now.
The lake never sank again. In process of time it wore the roof of the cavern quite through, and was twice as deep as before.
The only revenge the princess took upon her aunt was to tread pretty hard on her gouty toe the next time she saw her. But she was sorry for it the very next day, when she heard that the water had undermined her house, and that it had fallen in the night, burying her in its ruins; whence no one ever ventured to dig up her body. There she lies to this day.
So the prince and princess lived and were happy; and had crowns of gold, and clothes of cloth, and shoes of leather, and children of boys and girls, not one of whom was ever known, on the most critical occasion, to lose the smallest atom of his or her due proportion of gravity.