There was once a rich man who when he was dying called his son to his bedside and said:
"Danilo, my son, I am leaving you my riches. The only thing I ask of you is this: close your ears to all reports of an enchanted maiden who is known as Peerless Beauty and when the time comes that you wish to marry choose for wife some quiet sensible girl of your native village."
Now if the father had not mentioned Peerless Beauty all might have been well. Danilo might never have heard of her and after a time he would probably have fallen in love with a girl of his native village and married her. As it was, after his father's death he kept saying to himself:
"Peerless Beauty, the enchanted maiden of whom my father warned me! I wonder is she really as beautiful as all that! I wonder where she lives!"
He thought about her until he could think of nothing else.
"Peerless Beauty! Peerless Beauty! Oh, I must see this enchanted maiden even if it costs me my life!"
His father had a brother, a wise old man, who was supposed to know everything in the world.
"I will go to my uncle," the young man said. "Perhaps he will tell me where I can find Peerless Beauty."
So he went to his uncle and said:
"My dear uncle, my father as he lay dying told me about a wonderful maiden called Peerless Beauty. Can you tell me where she lives because I want to see her for myself and judge whether she is as beautiful as my father said."
His uncle looked at him gravely and shook his head.
"My poor boy, how can I tell you where that enchanted maiden lives when I know it would mean death to you if ever you saw her? Think no more about her but go, find some suitable maid in the village, and marry her like a sensible young man."
But his uncle's words, far from dissuading Danilo, only excited him the more.
"If my uncle knows where Peerless Beauty lives," he thought, "other men also know."
So one by one he went to all the old men in the village and asked them what they knew of Peerless Beauty. One by one they shook their heads and told him that Peerless Beauty was no maiden for him to be thinking about.
"Put her out of your mind," they said. "These enchanted maidens are a snare to young men. What you want to do is marry some quiet industrious girl here in the village and settle down like a sensible young man."
But the oftener Danilo heard this advice, the more firmly convinced he became that it was just what he did not want to do.
"Time enough to settle down after I've seen Peerless Beauty," he told himself. "She must be beautiful indeed, or all these old men would not be so anxious to keep me from seeing her. Well, if they won't tell me where she is, I'll go out in the world and find her for myself."
So he put on rich clothes as befitted his wealth, took a bag of the gold his father had left him, mounted his horse, and rode off into the world. Everywhere he went he made inquiries about Peerless Beauty and everywhere he found old men who knew about the enchanted maiden but would tell him nothing. Every one of them advised him to go home like a sensible young man and think no more about her. But all they said only made him the more determined to see the maiden for himself.
Finally one day as evening approached he came to a little hut in the woods. At the door of the hut sat a poor old woman. She held out her hand as he passed and begged an alms. Danilo, being a kind hearted young man, gave her a gold piece.
"May God reward you!" the old woman said.
"Granny," Danilo asked, "can you tell me the way to Peerless Beauty?"
"Aye, my son, that I can but he is a rash youth who seeks that maiden! It were better for you to turn back than to go on!"
"But I'm not going to turn back!" Danilo declared. "Whatever the outcome I'm going to find Peerless Beauty and see for myself why all men fear her."
When the old woman saw that Danilo was determined, she gave up pleading with him and pointed out a faint trail in the forest which, she told him, would lead him to Peerless Beauty's castle.
He slept that night in the old woman's hut and early next morning set out on the forest trail. By afternoon he reached the castle.
"What do you want?" the guards demanded roughly.
"I want to see Peerless Beauty."
"Have you gold?" they asked him.
Danilo showed them his bag of ducats.
They led him into a hall of the castle and told him to put his gold on a table. If he did so, perhaps Peerless Beauty would show herself and perhaps she wouldn't.
Danilo did as the guards directed and then faced a curtain behind which, they told him, Peerless Beauty was seated. The curtain opened a little, but instead of showing her face Peerless Beauty extended only one finger. However, that finger was so ravishingly beautiful that Danilo almost fainted with delight. He would have stayed gazing on that one enchanting finger for hours if the guards had not taken him roughly by the shoulders and thrown him out of the castle.
"Come again when you've got more gold!" they shouted after him.
Like a man in a dream Danilo rode back to the old woman's hut.
"Now, my son, are you satisfied?" she asked him. "Are you ready now to go home and settle down like a sensible young man?"
"Oh, granny!" Danilo raved. "Such a finger! I must see that finger again if it cost me my whole fortune!"
He slept that night in the old woman's hut and the next day returned to his native village. There he got another bag of the golden ducats which his father had left him and at once started back to the castle of Peerless Beauty.
This time that heartless maiden stripped him again of his gold, showed him two of her enchanting fingers, and as before had her guards throw him out of the castle.
"Come again when you've got more gold!" they shouted after him.
That's exactly what the poor young man did. He went back and back until the fortune that his father had left him was entirely squandered. And all he had seen of Peerless Beauty up to that time were the fingers of one hand! Shouldn't you suppose that now with all his wealth lost he would get over his foolish infatuation? Well, he didn't.
"I must go back again!" he kept telling himself.
His gold was gone but he still had his father's house. It was a big old house with garrets and cellars.
"Perhaps if I hunt I shall find some treasures hidden away in odd corners," Danilo said.
So he hunted upstairs and down. He opened old boxes and rummaged about among the dark rafters. One day he came upon a funny looking little cap.
"I wonder whose this was," he thought to himself.
He went to a mirror and tried the cap on. Then a strange thing happened. The moment the cap touched his head, Danilo disappeared.
"Ah!" he cried, "it's a magic cap and the moment I put it on I become invisible! Now I can slip into Peerless Beauty's chamber and see her lovely face!"
With his magic cap pulled tightly down over his forehead, he set off once more for Peerless Beauty's castle. Sure enough he was able to pass unseen the guards at the gate, he was able to go boldly into the great hall, and beyond it through the curtain into Peerless Beauty's own chamber.
The Beauty was seated with her back to the curtain and a serving maid was combing out her hair for the night. It was lovely hair and it fell down over Beauty's shoulders like a mantle of gold. At mere sight of it Danilo was so overcome with emotion that he sighed.
"What's that?" Beauty cried. "There's some one in my chamber!"
The serving maid looked under the bed and behind the chairs and in the corners.
"There's no one here, my lady."
"That's strange!" Beauty said. "I feel as though some one were looking at me."
When Danilo saw the actual face of the enchanted maiden, it was all he could do to keep from crying aloud. She was so unutterably beautiful that he almost swooned away in ecstacy.
Presently the maiden went to bed and fell into an uneasy sleep. The light of a single candle shed a faint radiance over her face making it lovelier than ever. Through all the long hours of night Danilo stood perfectly still, gazing at her, afraid almost to breathe lest he should disturb her.
"Unless I win her for wife," he thought to himself, "I shall nevermore be happy!"
When morning came the maiden awoke with a start and said:
"There's some one looking at me! Who is it? Who is it?"
"It's only your poor Danilo," a voice answered.
"Danilo? Who is Danilo?"
"The youth whom you have been treating so cruelly. But though you have treated me cruelly, I love you still!"
"If you love me still," the maiden said, "let me see you."
Danilo took off the magic cap and there he stood, a handsome youth, at the foot of her bed. Then the crafty maiden spoke him fair and Danilo told her about the magic cap, and when she said to him that she repented having treated him so cruelly and asked him to let her see the cap, the poor young man was so dazzled by her beauty and her seeming kindness that he handed it to her at once.
Instantly she clapped it on her head and disappeared. Then she laughed in derision and called out loudly to the guards:
"Ho, there! Take out this young man and drive him forth! Let him return when he has another treasure to offer me!"
So the guards dragged Danilo out and drove him away.
With no more gold, with no more magic cap, Danilo returned to his father's house.
"Perhaps there are other treasures hidden away," he thought. "I'll search further."
In his search he came upon an old pitcher and thinking it might be silver he began rubbing it. Instantly there was a clap of thunder and a company of soldiers appeared. Their captain saluted Danilo respectfully and said:
"We are the servants of that magic pitcher. What does our master wish?"
"Magic pitcher?" stammered Danilo. "And am I your master?"
"Yes," said the captain, "you are our master as long as you hold the magic pitcher in your hands."
"You may disappear now," Danilo said. "I will rub the pitcher when I need you."
Delighted with this unexpected good fortune, he hurried off to the woods to the hut of the old woman who had befriended him before. He showed her the pitcher and demonstrated for her how it worked. Then he asked her to carry a message to Peerless Beauty.
"Tell her," he said, "that unless she consents to marry me at once I'll lead a mighty army against her, take her captive, and then send her off in exile to that howling wilderness which people call the Donkeys' Paradise."
"I will deliver your message," the old woman said, "on condition that you promise me to be on your guard this time. Don't let the maiden trick you again. She is under an enchantment that makes her cruel and crafty and the enchantment will never be broken until she meets a man upon whom her wiles have no effect."
"Trust me this time," Danilo said. "I've had my lesson."
So the old woman delivered the message and when Peerless Beauty received it with scorn, Danilo at once set out for the castle with the magic pitcher in his hand. He began rubbing and every time he rubbed a company of soldiers appeared. Soon the castle was surrounded by a great army and in fright and dismay Peerless Beauty sent out word that she was ready to make an unconditional surrender.
When Danilo entered the castle he found her humble and meek.
"I have treated you cruelly," she said. "Now I am in your power, do with me what you will." And she began weeping softly until the sight of her tears drove Danilo distracted.
"Weep no more, dear lady!" he cried. "You have nothing to fear from me! I love you! I am your slave!"
The Peerless one slowly dried her tears.
"If you love me as you say you do, you will tell me by what magic you have raised this great army."
Then Danilo, forgetting the old woman's warning, took the magic pitcher out of his shirt and showed the maiden how it worked.
"Ah!" she murmured wonderingly. "It looks like any old pitcher! Please, Danilo, let me see it in my own hands."
Danilo handed her the pitcher and, quick as a flash, she rubbed it. There was a clap of thunder, a company of soldiers appeared, and their captain saluting her respectfully said:
"What does the mistress of the pitcher want?"
"Nay!" cried Danilo, "it is I who own the pitcher, not she!"
"We are the servants," the captain said, "of whoever holds the pitcher."
At that Peerless Beauty laughed loud and scornfully until the castle rang with her merriment.
"Seize that wretch!" she said, pointing to Danilo. "Tie his hands and drive him out in exile to the Donkeys' Paradise! Let him stay there until he has another treasure to present me!"
So they drove Danilo out to the wilderness and left him there.
He wandered about for many days hungry and thirsty, subsisting on roots and berries, and having for drink only the water that collected in the hoof prints of the wild beasts.
"See what I've come to!" he cried aloud. "Why didn't I heed the old woman's warning! If I had, I should have broken the evil enchantment that binds my Peerless Beauty and all would have been well!"
One day as he wandered about he came upon a vine that was laden with great clusters of luscious red grapes. He fell upon them ravenously and ate bunch after bunch. Suddenly he felt something in his hair and lifting his hands he found that horns had grown out all over his head.
"Fine grapes these are!" he exclaimed, "to bring out horns on a person's head!"
However, he was so hungry that he kept on eating until his head was one mass of horns.
The next day he found a vine that had clusters of white grapes. He began eating the white grapes and he hadn't finished a bunch before the horns all fell off his head.
"Ha!" he said. "The red grapes put horns on and the white grapes take them off! That's a trick worth knowing!"
He took some reeds and fashioned two baskets one of which he filled with red grapes and the other with white grapes. Then staining his face with the dark juice of a leaf until he looked brown and sunburned like a countryman, he went back to Peerless Beauty's castle. There he marched up and down below the Peerless one's window crying his wares like a huckster:
"Sweet grapes for sale! Who wants my fresh sweet grapes!"
Now it was not the season for grapes, so Peerless Beauty when she heard the cry was surprised and said to her serving maid:
"Go quickly and buy me some grapes from that huckster and mind you don't eat one yourself!"
The serving maid hurried out to Danilo and he sold her some of the red grapes. As she carried them in, she couldn't resist the temptation of slipping a few into her mouth. Instantly some horns grew out on her head.
"That's to punish me for disobeying my mistress!" the poor girl cried. "Oh, dear, what shall I do?"
She was afraid to show herself to Peerless Beauty, so she pretended she was taken sick and she went to bed and pulled the sheet over her head and sent in the grapes by another serving maid.
Peerless Beauty ate them all before she discovered their frightful property. Then there was a great to-do, and cries of anger and of fright, and a quick sending out of the guards to find the huckster. But the huckster had disappeared.
What could Peerless Beauty do now? She tried to pull the horns out but they wouldn't come. She tried to cut them off but they resisted the edge of the sharpest knife. She was too proud to show herself with horns, so she swathed her head with jewels and ribbons and pretended she was wearing an elaborate head-dress.
Then she sent heralds through the land offering a huge reward to any one who could cure her serving maid of some strange horns that had grown out on her head. You see she thought if she could get hold of some one who would cure the maid, then she could make him cure her, too.
Well, doctors and quacks and all sorts of people came and tried every kind of remedy, but all in vain. The horns stayed firmly rooted.
A whole week went by and when the last of the quacks had come and gone, Danilo, disguised as an old physician, presented himself and craved audience with the Peerless one. He carried two small jars in his hands one of which was filled with a conserve made from the white grapes and the other with a conserve made from the red grapes.
Peerless Beauty, her horns swathed in silk and gleaming with jewels, received him coldly.
"Are you one more quack?" she asked.
"Not a quack," he said, bowing low, "but a man who has happened upon a strange secret of nature. I can cure your serving maid of her horns provided she confess to me all her misdeeds and hand over to me anything she has that does not belong to her."
Peerless Beauty had him shown to the room where the serving maid lay in bed. The poor frightened girl at once confessed that she had stolen a few of her mistress's grapes and eaten them. Danilo spoke kindly to her, gave her some of the white grape conserve, and as soon as she had tasted it the horns of course dropped off.
Thereupon Peerless Beauty led Danilo to her own chamber, ordered all her people out, and then acknowledged that she, too, was suffering from horns.
"I am sure I can cure you," Danilo told her, "provided you confess to me all your misdeeds and hand over to me whatever you have that belongs to some one else."
"I cheated a foolish young man out of five bags of gold," Peerless Beauty said. "Here they are in this chest. Take them."
Danilo opened the chest and took out his own five bags of gold.
"Is that all?" he asked.
"Yes, that is all."
Danilo gave her some of the red grape conserve and of course, instead of the horns already on her head falling off, more grew on.
"You're not telling me the truth," Danilo said, "and I can't cure you. There's no use my treating you further."
He turned to go and Peerless Beauty, in great fright, begged him to stay.
"I do remember another misdeed," she confessed. "I took by trickery a magic pitcher from the same foolish young man."
She gave Danilo the pitcher and he hid it in his shirt.
"Is that all?"
"Yes, that is all."
Danilo gave her some more of the red grape conserve and, of course, more horns grew out on her head. Then he pretended to get angry.
"How can you expect to be cured when you don't tell me the truth? I told you I could not cure you unless you confessed all!"
Peerless Beauty wanted much to keep the magic cap but when the strange physician thundered and scowled and threatened again to leave her, more horned than ever, she acknowledged that she had taken the cap, too, and handed it over.
This time Danilo gave her some of the white grape conserve and as soon as she had eaten it all the horns fell off and her head shimmered and shone as of old with her beautiful hair.
Then Danilo told her who he was and at once the maiden sought to ensnare him again with her wiles.
"What a wonderful man you are, Danilo! I could love you now if you loved me, but I know of course that you will never love me again after the cruel way I have treated you!"
"But I do love you!" Danilo cried. "I do love you!"
"No, you don't!" she said, and she pretended to weep. "If you did love me, you'd tell me where you found those red grapes and what this magic conserve is made of. But of course you don't love me enough to tell me."
Because she looked more beautiful than ever with the tears on her lovely cheeks, Danilo was about to tell her what she wanted to know when he remembered the old woman's warning. That was enough. He hardened his heart and declared:
"No! I'll never tell you! Do you hear me: I'll never tell you!"
She wept and implored him and used all her wiles, but Danilo remembering the past was firm. And presently he had the reward that a man always has when he's firm, for as soon as it was evident that she could no longer befool him, the evil enchantment that bound her broke with a snap and Peerless Beauty became a human maiden as gentle and sweet and loving as she was beautiful.
She knelt at Danilo's feet and humbly begged his pardon and promised, if he would still marry her, to make him the most dutiful wife in the world.
So Danilo married Peerless Beauty and with the servants of the magic pitcher transported her and her castle and her riches together with the old woman who had befriended them both to his own native village. There he still lives happy and prosperous.
His uncle and all the old men in the village take credit to themselves for the success of his adventures.
"It is due entirely to us," they tell any one who will listen to them, "that Danilo went out in search of Peerless Beauty in the first place. When he came to us and asked our advice we said to him: 'Go, by all means! You're young and brave and of course you'll win her!' If we hadn't urged him to go, he would probably have settled down here at home, married some quiet village girl, and never be heard of again!"
That's how the old men talk now, but we know what they really did say at the time!
Yet after all that doesn't matter. All that matters is that Danilo and Peerless Beauty love each other and are happy.