Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  One of these grandees went to Spain, where the first thing he did was stop and talk with a chemist. In the course of the conversation they became friends.

  “Wherefore does Your Worship come to us?” asked the chemist.

  “We come,” replied the grandee, “in search of a maiden as white as ricotta and rosy as a rose. Would there be one in these parts?”

  “Oh, if that is all you are after, we have a rare beauty here—a young lady who is truly as white as a mold of ricotta and rosy as a rosebud. But to get a look at her is no easy matter: she never appears in public. I’ve not seen her myself, and what I tell you is pure hearsay. She’s the daughter of people who’ve gone down in the world, so you never see her out in public.”

  “How can we manage to see her?”

  “I’ll think of a way.” The chemist went to the girl’s mother. “Madam,” he said, “in my shop there’s a painter who’s traveling about painting portraits of the most beautiful faces in the world. Wanting is the portrait of your daughter. If you allow him to paint it, you will be paid forty gold crowns for the favor.”

  The mother, who was in dire straits, spoke to her daughter and persuaded her to accept. The painter entered, followed by the grandee and the chemist. Seeing the maiden, they all three exclaimed, “How lovely she is!”

  The painter did the portrait, put the finishing touches on it at the chemist’s shop, and the grandee had it framed in gold. Thus with the painting hanging by a cord around his neck, he presented himself to the king.

  It was the time appointed for the return of all the grandees who had gone around the world, and they all gathered in the audience hall, each with a portrait hanging from his neck. The prince viewed them all and, stopping before the maiden from Spain, said, “If the face itself is like the portrait, it is truly a perfect face.”

  “Majesty,” replied the grandee, “if this face does not please you, none ever will.”

  The grandee was sent from the court back to Spain to fetch the maiden. First, however, she spent four months at a palace learning to be a queen and, once she had learned, being quite intelligent, she was married by proxy, then departed in a carriage for the prince’s realm. Her mother was highly commended for the pious upbringing she had given her daughter, and the chemist was handsomely rewarded for his role in the affair. The prince rode on horseback to meet his bride. When they met, he dismounted and entered her carriage. Just imagine how happy they were.

  Her queen mother-in-law also liked her. She whispered in her son’s ear, “You’ve found just the wife for you. I like the purity her eyes bespeak.”

  No doubt about it, the princess led the life of a saint, keeping to her quarters all the time and never sticking her head outside. She and her mother-in-law got along with one another like a pair of pigeons—a rarity, since mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law have quarreled from the beginning of time. But Beelzebub, as you know, is always on the lookout for a way in, and one day mother-in-law said to daughter-in-law, “My daughter, why do you stay shut up like this all the time? Go out on the balcony and get a little fresh air.”

  Obediently, the young lady stepped onto the balcony.

  At that instant, an English milord happened by, looked up, and thought no more of looking down. The young lady saw him and went back inside, closing the window behind her. But there was no stopping the lord now, and he began walking all around the palace in an effort to see the lady again.

  One day a bent old woman asked him for alms, and he replied, “Let me alone, you old hag!”

  “What’s the matter with Your Lordship?”

  “Be off with you, it’s none of your business!”

  “Do tell me your trouble all the same. Who knows but what I can help.”

  “The trouble? I long to see the princess, but can’t see her.”

  “That’s all? Just give me a ring set with a single diamond and leave everything to me.”

  The milord had faith in her and bought her the ring. She hastened to the palace.

  “Where do you think you’re going?” asked the guard.

  “To see the princess. I have a ring for sale that she alone can afford.” The message was relayed, and the princess invited her in. At the sight of the ring, she asked, “How much do you want for it?”

  “Three hundred crowns, Majesty.”

  “Give this little old woman three hundred crowns immediately, and ten crowns more for her pains.”

  Rubbing her hands, the old woman returned to the nobleman, who asked, “What did the princess say to you?”

  “She promised me an answer within the next ten days.” And without a word to anyone, she tucked the three hundred crowns away in her own coffers.

  Ten days later she returned to the milord. “I am to go back to the princess, but do you want me to go empty-handed? Know what you should do? Send her a costly necklace.”

  Lords, as you know, are kings without crowns. So the old woman received a priceless necklace and went off to sell it to the princess.

  “It is beautiful,” admitted the princess. “How much is it?”

  “For you, Majesty, one thousand crowns.”

  “Let one thousand crowns be paid her immediately, plus forty crowns for her pains!”

  The old woman grabbed the money and ran off to the milord.

  “What did the princess tell you?”

  “Would you believe it, her mother-in-law was there, and she couldn’t talk to me. But she took the gift, and next week for sure she’ll have an answer.”

  “And what will you be wanting to take her next week as a gift?”

  “Listen: we’ve given her a ring, and also a necklace. Next time let’s give her a fine gown.”

  For the coming week, the milord ordered the most beautiful gown you ever saw and handed it to the old woman.

  “Majesty,” said the old woman to the princess, “this gown is for sale. Do you want to buy it?”

  “Exquisite! Magnificent! How much do you want for it?”

  “Five hundred crowns.”

  “Give her five hundred crowns, plus twenty more for her pains.”

  When the old woman returned, the lord asked, “What did she tell you?”

  “She told me that you are to give a grand ball at your palace and invite the prince and princess, and everything will be settled there.”

  Overjoyed, milord made the grandest of preparations, then sent out an invitation to the prince. The princess exclaimed, “How splendid! A grand ball! I will wear the gown I bought from that old woman!” She also put on the ring and the necklace, and they were off to the ball.

  For the first waltz, milord went up and invited the princess to dance with him and, convinced that everything was all set now, he winked at her. At that, the princess wheeled about and returned to her seat beside the prince. Assuming that she merely wanted to put on a few airs, the nobleman went up and invited her to dance with him again, and once more he winked at her. What did she do then but sit back down beside the prince. Milord invited her a third time, again winking at her, and the princess turned her back on him. When the ball was over, prince and princess said farewell and departed, leaving the nobleman very much out of sorts.

  “Although she wore gown, ring, and necklace, she refused to dance with me. What is the meaning of that?”

  In those days, monarchs followed the practice of disguising themselves as peasants and going around to cafés to hear what the people were saying. In one such café, the prince came face to face with milord. Talking about first one thing and then another, the lord, who failed to recognize the prince in his disguise, said, “Just look at that slut of a princess. I sent her a ring, which she accepted. I sent her a necklace, which she accepted. I sent her a gown, which she also accepted. If you only knew what all that cost me! She promised me heaven and earth, directing me to give a grand ball expressly for that, and then she didn’t say one word to me the whole evening long!”

  When he heard this account, the king turned crimson. He rus
hed back to the palace, drew his sword, and lunged for his wife. His mother was standing by and jumped between the couple to shield her daughter-in-law. Angry, the prince summoned a ship captain. “Captain, carry aboard your ship this slut”—from that time on, the princess had no other name—“sail out to sea and then kill her, cut out her tongue, pickle it, and bring it home to me. Throw everything else overboard!”

  The captain took the unfortunate girl and left. Her mother-in-law was too broken-hearted for words, and they separated in silence. All around them people did nothing but weep.

  The captain had a dog on board with him, so he killed the dog and pickled its tongue. When the boat came in sight of land after days and days of sailing, the captain had the poor princess put ashore with an abundant supply of food and clothing. The ship sailed away again, leaving the princess there all by herself.

  She took refuge in a cave, where her provisions slowly dwindled. She was almost out of food, when a frigate appeared on the horizon. The princess signaled to it, and the captain saw her. “Land!” he ordered, and they landed.

  “What are you doing here, my lady?” asked the captain, bowing to her.

  “I was on a vessel. It was shipwrecked, and I alone survived.”

  “Where would you like me to take you?”

  “To Brazil,” promptly replied the young lady, recalling that the prince had an older brother who was emperor of Brazil and that the queen mother always spoke of him with deep affection. “I have relatives in Brazil.”

  The captain took her on board and set sail for Brazil. Before arriving, she said to him, “Captain, I should like to ask another favor of you: so as not to be recognized by my relatives, I should like to be dressed as a man.”

  The captain had her disguised and her hair shortened. With her beauty, she now looked like a handsome page.

  After disembarking she strolled through the streets looking all about her. Seeing a lawyer’s office, she entered and asked, “Sir, could you use me as a clerk?”

  “Yes, indeed, I could”—and he engaged her as a clerk. He gave her a piece of work, which she completed in the twinkling of an eye. The lawyer couldn’t believe it! He assigned her a more intricate task, which she took care of in less than no time, thus capturing the lawyer’s admiration once and for all. For starting wages, he paid the clever clerk twelve crowns a day.

  Now the lawyer had a daughter, and he thought to himself, I shall marry her to the young clerk, whom he informed of his plan.

  “Please, sir,” replied the clerk, “let’s put that off for the time being. Let me first get ahead in my profession, and then I’ll propose.”

  The fame of the lawyer’s young clerk spread, and he was summoned by the royal secretariat. The youth presented himself, and the secretary gave him a document to copy. In no time the task was completed. Word of this youth who exquisitely copied every kind of document reached the emperor—the clerk’s own brother-in-law—and the emperor said, “Bring this young man hither!”

  The emperor liked him at first sight, retained him at the palace, and engaged him as his squire.

  Let us leave them and return to the prince. His anger subsided, and he began to repent of his rashness. “Maybe she was innocent Oh dear wife, how foolish I was! Now what is left of you? Oh wife, I murdered you!” Constantly plagued by such thoughts, he lost his mind.

  At that, the queen sat down and wrote her son, the emperor of Brazil, that his brother had gone crazy and the people were on the verge of rebellion. “Come to us for a while,” concluded the letter. The emperor read it and burst into tears. “Squire,” he said, “will you go to my brother? I appoint you viceroy and give you carte blanche.”

  The squire accepted. He assembled a large retinue and two beautiful ships and sailed off. The distance was great, but in due time he arrived. “Here comes the viceroy!” exclaimed all the people. “Here comes the viceroy!” The cannons fired a salvo, and the viceroy disembarked. The queen came forward and received him with as many honors as if he had been her son in person. “Welcome, Viceroy!”

  “Your Majesty’s humble servant! Allow me, Majesty, before all else, to see to the affairs of your people.” He proceeded to settle the mountain of unfinished public business, and the people found it almost too good to be true that such a viceroy had come to govern them.

  One day at last, the viceroy said to the queen, “Now, Majesty, tell me a little about this matter of your lost daughter-in-law.”

  The queen told him the whole story from beginning to end—about the lord, the conversation in the café, her daughter-in-law’s departure, everything—and relating it, her eyes filled with tears.

  “Very well. Now let’s see,” answered the viceroy. “Send for this lord who was the cause of all your misfortune.”

  The lord arrived, and an audience was granted him. “Milord, this is a matter of life and death. What is your version of the story concerning the princess?” asked the viceroy.

  The lord gave as truthful an account as he could, without omissions or additions.

  “But, Milord, did you ever talk to her yourself?”

  “I never did.”

  “Did you give her those gifts directly?”

  “No, the old woman did.” (Meanwhile the queen mother eavesdropped, and with her the prince, who was still half out of his mind.)

  “Is the old woman who performed those services for you living or dead?”

  “She may still be living.”

  “Well, lock this lord up in a room,” ordered the viceroy, “and send for the old woman.”

  By order of the viceroy, the old woman was produced.

  “Tell me, good old woman, about those sales of yours to the princess.” And the old biddy unbosomed herself.

  “But tell me, dear, did you ever carry the princess any message?”

  “Never, Viceroy.”

  At that, the king regained his senses. “Oh, my wife, you were innocent!” he began crying. “Oh, dear wife, I killed you without cause!”

  “Please calm down, Majesty,” said the viceroy. “We may yet find a remedy.”

  “How can matters be remedied, now that she is dead? Oh, my wife, my wife, I’ve lost you forever.”

  The viceroy went behind a screen, dressed up like the princess she actually was, put back her hair that had been cut off, and reappeared before mother-in-law, prince, and court.

  “Who are you?” cried the queen.

  “Your daughter-in-law! Don’t you recognize me?” But the prince already had his wife in his arms, hugging and kissing her.

  The sentence had been delivered while she was still disguised as the viceroy: the old woman was to be burned at the stake, and the English lord guillotined. No time was lost in executing the order.

  The great queen wrote her son, the emperor of Brazil, about the episode, and he still marvels to this day. “Children, children, just fancy: my secretary was my sister-in-law, and I never suspected it!”

  The two captains—the one who killed a dog instead of the princess, and the one who rescued her and took her to Brazil—were elevated to the rank of court grandees. And all the sailors were awarded red pompons for their berets.

  (Palermo)

  159

  The Bejeweled Boot

  The son of a merchant became an orphan at an early age along with his sister, who was the apple of her brother’s eye. He got his education, then put his services at the disposal of the king of Portugal. His penmanship so delighted the eye that the king engaged him as his secretary. Now it happened that certain letters written by him went to the king of Spain, who exclaimed, “What exquisite handwriting! This scribe would make me an excellent secretary.” So he wrote to the king of Portugal:

  I have read your letter, and I am full of admiration for the beautiful hand your secretary writes. In the name of the friendship that binds us, I beseech you to let me have him to be my secretary, since there is no one in Spain who writes so handsomely.

  These kings always made a point o
f showing one another the utmost courtesy. Therefore the king of Portugal, however much he hated to lose his secretary, told the young man to go to his colleague.

  “Majesty,” inquired the youth, “what am I to do about my sister? I can’t just walk off and leave her.”

  “Don Giuseppe,” answered the king, “I have no idea. All I know is that you must go. Your sister is a good maiden, and stays to herself. Tell your maidservant to keep an eye on her, and you will have nothing to worry about.”

  The youth had no choice but inform his sister of the situation. “Dear little sister, here’s how matters stand: I am obliged to go away, the king of Spain wants me as his secretary. You will remain behind with our maidservant. When I am all settled, I’ll send for you to come to Spain too.” The sister burst into tears. “So we won’t feel so far apart,” he continued, “let’s have our portraits painted. I’ll take yours with me, and you’ll keep mine here with you.” That they did.

  The king of Spain heartily welcomed Don Giuseppe and immediately put him to writing, while he stood by admiring the beautiful script. He became so fond of this new secretary that he would say, no matter what problem arose in the kingdom, “Don Giuseppe, you take care of that . . . Use your own judgment, in which I have complete confidence. Whatever you do is well done!”

  As a result, intense jealousy spread among all the highest placed men at the court—the squire, the original secretary, the knight—and they sought some way to tarnish Don Giuseppe’s reputation.

  The squire went to the king and said, “Good for you, Majesty! You certainly found the right man! I’m referring to Don Giuseppe whose praises Your Majesty is always singing! Goodness knows what he is secretly about while all your trust is in him!”

  “What are you saying? What is the matter?”

  “What’s the matter? Every day in his room he takes out a portrait, contemplates it, kisses it, and weeps. And then he hides it!”

  So the king went and surprised Don Giuseppe kissing the portrait. “May one ask whom you are kissing, Don Giuseppe?”

 
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