The Story of Zoulvista
In the midst of a sandy desert, somewhere in Asia, the eyes of
travellers are refreshed by the sight of a high mountain covered with
beautiful trees, among which the glitter of foaming waterfalls may be
seen in the sunlight. In that clear, still air it is even possible to
hear the song of the birds, and smell of the flowers; but though the
mountain is plainly inhabited–for here and there a white tent is
visible–none of the kings or princes who pass it on the road to
Babylon or Baalbec ever plunge into its forests–or, if they do, they
never come back. Indeed, so great is the terror caused by the evil
reputation of the mountain that fathers, on their death-beds, pray
their sons never to try to fathom its mysteries. But in spite of its
ill-fame, a certain number of young men every year announce their
intention of visiting it and, as we have said, are never seen again.
* * * * *
Now there was once a powerful king who ruled over a country on the
other side of the desert, and, when dying, gave the usual counsel to
his seven sons. Hardly, however, was he dead than the eldest, who
succeeded to the throne, announced his intention of hunting in the
enchanted mountain. In vain the old men shook their heads and tried to
persuade him to give up his mad scheme. All was useless; he went, but
did not return; and in due time the throne was filled by his next
And so it happened to the other five, but when the youngest became
king, and he also proclaimed a hunt in the mountain, a loud lament was
raised in the city.
‘Who will reign over us when you are dead? For dead you surely will
be,’ cried they. ‘Stay with us, and we will make you happy.’ And for a
while he listened to their prayers, and the land grew rich and
prosperous under his rule. But in a few years the restless fit again
took possession of him, and this time he would hear nothing. Hunt in
that forest he would, and calling his friends and attendants round
him, he set out one morning across the desert.
They were riding through a rocky valley, when a deer sprang up in
front of them and bounded away. The king instantly gave chase,
followed by his attendants; but the animal ran so swiftly that they
never could get up to it, and at length it vanished in the depths of
Then the young man drew rein for the first time, and looked about him.
He had left his companions far behind, and, glancing back, he beheld
them entering some tents, dotted here and there amongst the trees. For
himself, the fresh coolness of the woods was more attractive to him
than any food, however delicious, and for hours he strolled about as
his fancy led him.
By-and-by, however, it began to grow dark, and he thought that the
moment had arrived for them to start for the palace. So, leaving the
forest with a sigh, he made his way down to the tents, but what was
his horror to find his men lying about, some dead, some dying. These
were past speech, but speech was needless. It was as clear as day that
the wine they had drunk contained deadly poison.
‘I am too late to help you, my poor friends,’ he said, gazing at them
sadly; ‘but at least I can avenge you! Those that have set the snare
will certainly return to see to its working. I will hide myself
somewhere, and discover who they are!’
Near the spot where he stood he noticed a large walnut tree, and into
this he climbed. Night soon fell, and nothing broke the stillness of
the place; but with the earliest glimpse of dawn a noise of galloping
hoofs was heard.
Pushing the branches aside the young man beheld a youth approaching,
mounted on a white horse. On reaching the tents the cavalier
dismounted, and closely inspected the dead bodies that lay about them.
Then, one by one, he dragged them to a ravine close by and threw them
into a lake at the bottom. While he was doing this, the servants who
had followed him led away the horses of the ill-fated men, and the
courtiers were ordered to let loose the deer, which was used as a
decoy, and to see that the tables in the tents were covered as before
with food and wine.
Having made these arrangements he strolled slowly through the forest,
but great was his surprise to come upon a beautiful horse hidden in
the depths of a thicket.
‘There was a horse for every dead man,’ he said to himself. ‘Then
whose is this?’
‘Mine!’ answered a voice from a walnut tree close by. ‘Who are you
that lure men into your power and then poison them? But you shall do
so no longer. Return to your house, wherever it may be, and we will
fight before it!’
The cavalier remained speechless with anger at these words; then with
a great effort he replied:
‘I accept your challenge. Mount and follow me. I am Zoulvisia.’ And,
springing on his horse, he was out of sight so quickly that the king
had only time to notice that light seemed to flow from himself and his
steed, and that the hair under his helmet was like liquid gold.
Clearly, the cavalier was a woman. But who could she be? Was she queen
of all the queens? Or was she chief of a band of robbers? She was
neither: only a beautiful maiden.
Wrapped in these reflections, he remained standing beneath the
walnut tree, long after horse and rider had vanished from sight. Then
he awoke with a start, to remember that he must find the way to the
house of his enemy, though where it was he had no notion. However, he
took the path down which the rider had come, and walked along it for
many hours till he came to three huts side by side, in each of which
lived an old fairy and her sons.
The poor king was by this time so tired and hungry that he could
hardly speak, but when he had drunk some milk, and rested a little, he
was able to reply to the questions they eagerly put to him.
‘I am going to seek Zoulvisia,’ said he, ‘she has slain my brothers
and many of my subjects, and I mean to avenge them.’
He had only spoken to the inhabitants of one house, but from all three
came an answering murmur.
‘What a pity we did not know! Twice this day has she passed our door,
and we might have kept her prisoner.’
But though their words were brave their hearts were not, for the mere
thought of Zoulvisia made them tremble.
‘Forget Zoulvisia, and stay with us,’ they all said, holding out their
hands; ‘you shall be our big brother, and we will be your little
brothers.’ But the king would not.
Drawing from his pocket a pair of scissors, a razor and a mirror, he
gave one to each of the old fairies, saying:
‘Though I may not give up my vengeance I accept your friendship, and
therefore leave you these three tokens. If blood should appear on the
face of either know that my life is in danger, and, in memory of our
sworn brotherhood, come to my aid.’
‘We will come,’ they answered. And the king mounted his horse and set
out along the road they showed him.
By the light of the moon he presently perceived a splendid palace,
but, though he rode twice round it, he could find no door. He was
considering what he should do next, when he heard the sound of loud
snoring, which seemed to come from his feet. Looking down, he beheld
an old man lying at the bottom of a deep pit, just outside the walls,
with a lantern by his side.
‘Perhaps _he_ may be able to give me some counsel,’ thought the king;
and, with some difficulty, he scrambled into the pit and laid his hand
on the shoulder of the sleeper.
‘Are you a bird or a snake that you can enter here?’ asked the old
man, awakening with a start. But the king answered that he was a mere
mortal, and that he sought Zoulvisia.
‘Zoulvisia? The world’s curse?’ replied he, gnashing his teeth. ‘Out
of all the thousands she has slain I am the only one who has escaped,
though why she spared me only to condemn me to this living death I
‘Help me if you can,’ said the king. And he told the old man his
story, to which he listened intently.
‘Take heed then to my counsel,’ answered the old man. ‘Know that every
day at sunrise Zoulvisia dresses herself in her jacket of pearls, and
mounts the steps of her crystal watch-tower. From there she can see
all over her lands, and behold the entrance of either man or demon. If
so much as one is detected she utters such fearful cries that those
who hear her die of fright. But hide yourself in a cave that lies near
the foot of the tower, and plant a forked stick in front of it; then,
when she has uttered her third cry, go forth boldly, and look up at
the tower. And go without fear, for you will have broken her power.’
Word for word the king did as the old man had bidden him, and when
he stepped forth from the cave, their eyes met.
‘You have conquered me,’ said Zoulvisia, ‘and are worthy to be my
husband, for you are the first man who has not died at the sound of my
voice!’ And letting down her golden hair, she drew up the king to the
summit of the tower as with a rope. Then she led him into the hall of
audience, and presented him to her household.
‘Ask of me what you will, and I will grant it to you,’ whispered
Zoulvisia with a smile, as they sat together on a mossy bank by the
stream. And the king prayed her to set free the old man to whom he
owed his life, and to send him back to his own country.
* * * * *
‘I have finished with hunting, and with riding about my lands,’ said
Zoulvisia, the day that they were married. ‘The care of providing for
us all belongs henceforth to you.’ And turning to her attendants, she
bade them bring the horse of fire before her.
‘This is your master, O my steed of flame,’ cried she; ‘and you will
serve him as you have served me.’ And kissing him between his eyes,
she placed the bridle in the hand of her husband.
The horse looked for a moment at the young man, and then bent his
head, while the king patted his neck and smoothed his tail, till they
felt themselves old friends. After this he mounted to do Zoulvisia’s
bidding, but before he started she gave him a case of pearls
containing one of her hairs, which he tucked into the breast of his
He rode along for some time, without seeing any game to bring home for
dinner. Suddenly a fine stag started up almost under his feet, and he
at once gave chase. On they sped, but the stag twisted and turned so
that the king had no chance of a shot till they reached a broad river,
when the animal jumped in and swam across. The king fitted his
cross-bow with a bolt, and took aim, but though he succeeded in
wounding the stag, it contrived to gain the opposite bank, and in his
excitement he never observed that the case of pearls had fallen into
* * * * *
The stream, though deep, was likewise rapid, and the box was swirled
along miles, and miles, and miles, till it was washed up in quite
another country. Here it was picked up by one of the water-carriers
belonging to the palace, who showed it to the king. The workmanship of
the case was so curious, and the pearls so rare, that the king could
not make up his mind to part with it, but he gave the man a good
price, and sent him away. Then, summoning his chamberlain, he bade him
find out its history in three days, or lose his head.
But the answer to the riddle, which puzzled all the magicians and wise
men, was given by an old woman, who came up to the palace and told the
chamberlain that, for two handfuls of gold, she would reveal the
Of course the chamberlain gladly gave her what she asked, and in
return she informed him that the case and the hair belonged to
‘Bring her hither, old crone, and you shall have gold enough to stand
up in,’ said the chamberlain. And the old woman answered that she
would try what she could do.
She went back to her hut in the middle of the forest, and standing in
the doorway, whistled softly. Soon the dead leaves on the ground began
to move and to rustle, and from underneath them there came a long
train of serpents. They wriggled to the feet of the witch, who stooped
down and patted their heads, and gave each one some milk in a red
earthen basin. When they had all finished, she whistled again, and
bade two or three coil themselves round her arms and neck, while she
turned one into a cane and another into a whip. Then she took a
stick, and on the river bank changed it into a raft, and seating
herself comfortably, she pushed off into the centre of the stream.
All that day she floated, and all the next night, and towards sunset
the following evening she found herself close to Zoulvisia’s garden,
just at the moment that the king, on the horse of flame, was returning
‘Who are you?’ he asked in surprise; for old women travelling on rafts
were not common in that country. ‘Who are you, and why have you come
‘I am a poor pilgrim, my son,’ answered she, ‘and having missed the
caravan, I have wandered foodless for many days through the desert,
till at length I reached the river. There I found this tiny raft, and
to it I committed myself, not knowing if I should live or die. But
since you have found me, give me, I pray you, bread to eat, and let me
lie this night by the dog who guards your door!’
This piteous tale touched the heart of the young man, and he promised
that he would bring her food, and that she should pass the night in
‘But mount behind me, good woman,’ cried he, ‘for you have walked far,
and it is still a long way to the palace.’ And as he spoke he bent
down to help her, but the horse swerved on one side.
And so it happened twice and thrice, and the old witch guessed the
reason, though the king did not.
‘I fear to fall off,’ said she; ‘but as your kind heart pities my
sorrows, ride slowly, and lame as I am, I think I can manage to keep
At the door he bade the witch to rest herself, and he would fetch her
all she needed. But Zoulvisia his wife grew pale when she heard whom
he had brought, and besought him to feed the old woman and send her
away, as she would cause mischief to befall them.
The king laughed at her fears, and answered lightly:
‘Why, one would think she was a witch to hear you talk! And even if
she were, what harm could she do to us?’ And calling to the maidens he
bade them carry her food, and to let her sleep in their chamber.
Now the old woman was very cunning, and kept the maidens awake half
the night with all kinds of strange stories. Indeed, the next morning,
while they were dressing their mistress, one of them suddenly broke
into a laugh, in which the others joined her.
‘What is the matter with you?’ asked Zoulvisia. And the maid answered
that she was thinking of a droll adventure told them the evening
before by the new-comer.
‘And, oh, madam!’ cried the girl, ‘it may be that she is a witch, as
they say; but I am sure she never would work a spell to harm a fly!
And as for her tales, they would pass many a dull hour for you, when
my lord was absent!’
So, in an evil hour, Zoulvisia consented that the crone should be
brought to her, and from that moment the two were hardly ever apart.
* * * * *
One day the witch began to talk about the young king, and to declare
that in all the lands she had visited she had seen none like him.
‘It was so clever of him to guess your secret so as to win your
heart,’ said she. ‘And of course he told you his, in return?’
‘No, I don’t think he has got any,’ returned Zoulvisia.
‘Not got any secrets?’ cried the old woman scornfully. ‘That is
nonsense! Every man has a secret, which he always tells to the woman
he loves. And if he has not told it to _you_, it is that he does not
[Illustration: THE WITCH AND HER SNAKES]
These words troubled Zoulvisia mightily, though she would not confess
it to the witch. But the next time she found herself alone with her
husband, she began to coax him to tell her in what lay the secret of
his strength. For a long while he put her off with caresses, but when
she would be no longer denied, he answered:
‘It is my sabre that gives me strength, and day and night it lies by
my side. But now that I have told you, swear upon this ring, that I
will give you in exchange for yours, that you will reveal it to
nobody.’ And Zoulvisia swore; and instantly hastened to betray the
great news to the old woman.
Four nights later, when all the world was asleep, the witch softly
crept into the king’s chamber and took the sabre from his side as he
lay sleeping. Then, opening her lattice, she flew on to the terrace
and dropped the sword into the river.
The next morning everyone was surprised because the king did not, as
usual, rise early and go off to hunt. The attendants listened at the
keyhole and heard the sound of heavy breathing, but none dared enter,
till Zoulvisia pushed past. And what a sight met their gaze! There lay
the king almost dead, with foam on his mouth, and eyes that were
already closed. They wept, and they cried to him, but no answer came.
Suddenly a shriek broke from those who stood hindmost, and in strode
the witch, with serpents round her neck and arms and hair. At a sign
from her they flung themselves with a hiss upon the maidens, whose
flesh was pierced with their poisonous fangs. Then turning to
Zoulvisia, she said:
‘I give you your choice–will you come with me, or shall the serpents
slay you also?’ And as the terrified girl stared at her, unable to
utter one word, she seized her by the arm and led her to the place
where the raft was hidden among the rushes. When they were both on
board she took the oars, and they floated down the stream till they
had reached the neighbouring country, where Zoulvisia was sold for a
sack of gold to the king.
Now, since the young man had entered the three huts on his way
through the forest, not a morning had passed without the sons of the
three fairies examining the scissors, the razor and the mirror, which
the young king had left them. Hitherto the surfaces of all three
things had been bright and undimmed, but on this particular morning,
when they took them out as usual, drops of blood stood on the razor
and the scissors, while the little mirror was clouded over.
‘Something terrible must have happened to our little brother,’ they
whispered to each other, with awestruck faces; ‘we must hasten to his
rescue ere it be too late.’ And putting on their magic slippers they
started for the palace.
The servants greeted them eagerly, ready to pour forth all they knew,
but that was not much; only that the sabre had vanished, none knew
where. The new-comers passed the whole of the day in searching for it,
but it could not be found, and when night closed in, they were very
tired and hungry. But how were they to get food? The king had not
hunted that day, and there was nothing for them to eat. The little men
were in despair, when a ray of the moon suddenly lit up the river
beneath the walls.
‘How stupid! Of course there are fish to catch,’ cried they; and
running down to the bank they soon succeeded in landing some fine
fish, which they cooked on the spot. Then they felt better, and began
to look about them.
Further out, in the middle of the stream, there was a strange
splashing, and by-and-by the body of a huge fish appeared, turning and
twisting as if in pain. The eyes of all the brothers were fixed on the
spot, when the fish leapt in the air, and a bright gleam flashed
through the night. ‘The sabre!’ they shouted, and plunged into the
stream, and with a sharp tug, pulled out the sword, while the fish lay
on the water, exhausted by its struggles. Swimming back with the
sabre to land, they carefully dried it in their coats, and then
carried it to the palace and placed it on the king’s pillow. In an
instant colour came back to the waxen face, and the hollow cheeks
filled out. The king sat up, and opening his eyes he said:
‘Where is Zoulvisia?’
‘That is what we do not know,’ answered the little men; ‘but now that
you are saved you will soon find out.’ And they told him what had
happened since Zoulvisia had betrayed his secret to the witch.
‘Let me go to my horse,’ was all he said. But when he entered the
stable he could have wept at the sight of his favourite steed, which
was nearly in as sad a plight as his master had been. Languidly he
turned his head as the door swung back on its hinges, but when he
beheld the king he rose up, and rubbed his head against him.
‘Oh, my poor horse! How much cleverer were you than I! If I had acted
like you I should never have lost Zoulvisia; but we will seek her
together, you and I.’
* * * * *
For a long while the king and his horse followed the course of the
stream, but nowhere could he learn anything of Zoulvisia. At length,
one evening, they both stopped to rest by a cottage not far from a
great city, and as the king was lying outstretched on the grass,
lazily watching his horse cropping the short turf, an old woman came
out with a wooden bowl of fresh milk, which she offered him.
He drank it eagerly, for he was very thirsty, and then laying down the
bowl, began to talk to the woman, who was delighted to have someone to
listen to her conversation.
‘You are in luck to have passed this way just now,’ said she, ‘for in
five days the king holds his wedding banquet. Ah! but the bride is
unwilling, for all her blue eyes and her golden hair! And she keeps by
her side a cup of poison, and declares that she will swallow it
rather than become his wife. Yet he is a handsome man too, and a
proper husband for her–more than she could have looked for, having
come no one knows whither, and bought from a witch—-‘
The king started. Had he found her after all? His heart beat
violently, as if it would choke him; but he gasped out:
‘Is her name Zoulvisia?’
‘Ay, so she says, though the old witch—- But what ails you?’ she
broke off, as the young man sprang to his feet and seized her wrists.
‘Listen to me,’ he said. ‘Can you keep a secret?’
‘Ay,’ answered the old woman again, ‘if I am paid for it.’
‘Oh, you shall be paid, never fear–as much as your heart can desire!
Here is a handful of gold: you shall have as much again if you will do
my bidding.’ The old crone nodded her head.
‘Then go and buy a dress such as ladies wear at court, and manage to
get admitted into the palace, and into the presence of Zoulvisia. When
there, show her this ring, and after that she will tell you what to
So the old woman set off, and clothed herself in a garment of yellow
silk, and wrapped a veil closely round her head. In this dress she
walked boldly up the palace steps behind some merchants whom the king
had sent for to bring presents for Zoulvisia.
At first the bride would have nothing to say to any of them; but on
perceiving the ring, she suddenly grew as meek as a lamb. And thanking
the merchants for their trouble, she sent them away, and remained
alone with her visitor.
‘Grandmother,’ asked Zoulvisia, as soon as the door was safely shut,
‘where is the owner of this ring?’
‘In my cottage,’ answered the old woman, ‘waiting for orders from
‘Tell him to remain there for three days; and now go to the king of
this country, and say that you have succeeded in bringing me to
reason. Then he will let me alone and will cease to watch me. On the
third day from this I shall be wandering about the garden near the
river, and there your guest will find me. The rest concerns myself
* * * * *
The morning of the third day dawned, and with the first rays of the
sun a bustle began in the palace; for that evening the king was to
marry Zoulvisia. Tents were being erected of fine scarlet cloth,
decked with wreaths of sweet-smelling white flowers, and in them the
banquet was spread. When all was ready a procession was formed to
fetch the bride, who had been wandering in the palace gardens since
daylight, and crowds lined the way to see her pass. A glimpse of her
dress of golden gauze might be caught, as she passed from one flowery
thicket to another; then suddenly the multitude swayed, and shrank
back, as a thunderbolt seemed to flash out of the sky to the place
where Zoulvisia was standing. Ah! but it was no thunderbolt, only the
horse of fire! And when the people looked again, it was bounding away
with two persons on its back.
* * * * *
Zoulvisia and her husband both learnt how to keep happiness when they
had got it; and _that_ is a lesson that many men and woman never learn
at all. And besides, it is a lesson which nobody can teach, and that
every boy and girl must learn for themselves.