Many hundreds of years ago there lived in the beautiful city of Palermo
a little prince who was thought, not only by his parents but by everyone
who saw him, to be the handsomest child in the whole world. When he was
four years old, his mother, the queen, made up her mind that it was time
to take him away from his nurses, so she chose out two ladies of the
court who had been friends of her own youth, and to them she entrusted
her little son. He was to be taught to read and write, and to talk
Greek, the language of his mother's country, and Latin, which all
princes ought to know, while the Great Chamberlain would see that he
learned to ride and shoot, and, when he grew bigger, how to wield a
For a while everything went on as well as the king and queen could wish.
Prince William was quick, and, besides, he could not bear to be beaten
in anything he tried to do, whether it was making out the sense of a
roll of parchment written in strange black letters, which was his
reading-book, or mastering a pony which wanted to kick him off. And the
people of Palermo looked on, and whispered to each other:
'Ah! what a king he will make!'
But soon a terrible end came to all these hopes!
William's father, king Embrons, had a brother who would have been the
heir to the throne but for the little prince. He was a wicked man, and
hated his nephew, but when the boy was born he was away at the wars, and
did not return till five years later. Then he lost no time in making
friends with the two ladies who took care of William, and slowly managed
to gain their confidence. By-and-by he worked upon them with his
promises and gifts, till they became as wicked as he was, and even
agreed to kill not only the child, but the king his father.
Now adjoining the palace at Palermo was a large park, planted with
flowering trees and filled with wild beasts. The royal family loved to
roam about the park, and often held jousts and sports on the green
grass, while William played with his dogs or picked flowers.
One day--it was a festival--the whole court went into the park at noon,
after they had finished dining, and the queen and her ladies busied
themselves with embroidering a quilt for the royal bed, while the king
and his courtiers shot at a mark. Suddenly there leapt from a bush a
huge grey wolf with his mouth open and his tongue hanging out. Before
anyone had time to recover from his surprise, the great beast had caught
up the child, and was bounding with him through the park, and over the
wall into the plain by the sea. When the courtiers had regained their
senses, both the wolf and boy were out of sight.
Oh! what weeping and wailing burst forth from the king and queen when
they understood that their little son was gone from them for ever, only,
as they supposed, to die a cruel death! For of course they did not know
that one far worse had awaited him at home.
After the first shock, William did not very much mind what was happening
to him. The wolf jerked him on to his back, and told him to hold fast by
his ears, and the boy sat comfortably among the thick hair, and did not
even get his feet wet as they swam across the Straits of Messina. On the
other side, not far from Rome, was a forest of tall trees, and as by
this time it was getting dark, the wolf placed William on a bed of soft
fern, and broke off a branch of delicious fruits, which he gave him for
supper. Then he scooped out a deep pit with his paws, and lined it
with moss and feathery grasses, and there they both lay down and slept
till morning; in spite of missing his mother, in all his life William
had never been so happy.
For eight days they stayed in the forest, and it seemed to the boy as if
he had never dwelt anywhere else. There was so much to see and to do,
and when he was tired of playing the wolf told him stories.
But one morning, before he was properly awake, he felt himself gently
shaken by a paw, and he sat up, and looked about him. 'Listen to me,'
said the wolf. 'I have to go right over to the other side of the wood,
on some business of a friend's, and I shall not be back till sunset. Be
careful not to stray out of sight of this pit, for you may easily lose
yourself. You will find plenty of fruit and nuts piled up under that
So the wolf went away, and the child curled himself up for another
sleep, and when the sun was high and its beams awakened him, he got up
and had his breakfast. While he was eating, birds with blue and green
feathers came and hopped on his shoulder and pecked at the fruit he was
putting into his mouth, and William made friends with them all, and they
suffered him to stroke their heads.
* * * * *
Now there dwelt in the forest an old cowherd, who happened that morning
to have work to do not far from the pit where William lived with the
wolf. He took with him a big dog, which helped him to collect the cows
when they wandered, and to keep off any strange beasts that threatened
to attack them. On this particular morning there were no cows, so the
dog ran hither and thither as he would, enjoying himself mightily, when
suddenly he set up a loud barking, as if he had found a prey, and the
noise caused the old man to hasten his steps.
When he reached the spot from which the noise came, the dog was standing
at the edge of a pit, out of which came a frightened cry. The old man
looked in, and there he saw a child clad in garments that shone like
gold, shrinking timidly into the farthest corner.
'Fear nothing, my boy,' said the cowherd; 'he will never hurt you, and
even if he wished I would not let him;' and as he spoke he held out his
hand. At this William took courage. He was not really a coward, but he
felt lonely and it seemed a long time since the wolf had gone away.
Would he _really_ ever come back? This old man looked kind, and there
could be no harm in speaking to him. So he took the outstretched hand
and scrambled out of the pit, and the cowherd gathered apples for him,
and other fruits that grew on the tops of trees too high for the wolf to
reach. And all the day they wandered on and on, till they came to the
cowherd's cottage, before which an old woman was standing.
'I have brought you a little boy,' he said, 'whom I found in the
'Ah, a lucky star was shining when you got up to-day,' answered she.
'And what is your name, my little man? And will you stay and live with
'My name is William, and you look kind like my grandmother, and I will
stay with you,' said the boy; and the old people were very glad, and
they milked a cow, and gave him warm milk for his supper.
When the wolf returned--he was not a wolf at all, but the son of the
king of Spain, who had been enchanted by his stepmother--he was very
unhappy at finding the pit empty. Indeed, his first thought was that a
lion must have carried off the boy and eaten him, or that an eagle must
have pounced on him from the sky, and borne him away to his young ones
for supper. But after he had cried till he could cry no more, it
occurred to him that before he gave up the boy for dead it would be well
to make a search, as perchance there might be some sign of his
whereabouts. So he dried his eyes with his tail and jumped up quite
He began by looking to see if the bushes round about were broken and
torn as if some great beast had crashed through them. But they were all
just as he had left them in the morning, with the creepers still
knotting tree to tree. No, it was clear that no lion had been near the
spot. Then he examined the ground carefully for a bird's feather or a
shred of a child's dress; he did not find these either, but the marks
of a man's foot were quite plain, and these he followed.
The track turned and twisted for about two miles, and then stopped at a
little cottage with roses climbing up the walls. The wolf did not want
to show himself, so he crept quietly round to the back, where there was
a hole in the door just big enough for the cats to come in and out of.
The wolf peeped through this hole and saw William eating his supper, and
chattering away to the old woman as if he had known her all his life,
for he was a friendly little boy, and purred like a pussy-cat when he
was pleased. And when the wolf saw that all was well with the child, he
was glad and went his way.
'William will be safer with them than with me,' he said to himself.
Many years went by, and William had grown a big boy, and was very useful
to the cowherd and his wife. He could shoot now with his bow and arrow
in a manner which would have pleased his first teacher, and he and his
playfellows--the sons of charcoal-burners and woodmen--were wont to keep
the pots supplied at home with the game they found in the forest.
Besides this, he filled the pails full of water from the stream, and
chopped wood for the fire, and, sometimes, was even trusted to cook the
dinner. And when _this_ happened William was a very proud boy indeed.
One day the emperor planned a great hunt to take place in the forest,
and, while following a wild boar, he outstripped all his courtiers and
lost his way. Turning first down one path and then the other, he came
upon a boy gathering fruit, and so beautiful was he that the emperor
thought that he must be of a fairy race.
'What is your name, my child?' asked the emperor; 'and where do you
The boy looked round at the sound of his voice, and, taking off his cap,
'I am called William, noble sir,' he answered, 'and I live with a
cowherd, my father, in a cottage near by. Other kindred have I none that
ever I heard of;' for the gardens of Palermo and the life of the palace
had now faded into dreams in the memory of the child.
'Bid your father come hither and speak to me,' said the emperor, but
William did not move.
'I fear lest harm should befall him through me,' he answered, 'and that
shall never be.' But the emperor smiled as he heard him.
'Not harm, but good,' he said; and William took courage and hastened
down the path to the cottage.
'I am the emperor,' said the stranger, when the boy and the cowherd
returned together. 'Tell me truly, is this your son?'
Then the cowherd, trembling all over, told the whole story, and when he
had finished the emperor said quietly:
'You have done well, but from to-day the boy shall be mine, and shall
grow up with my daughter.'
The heart of the cowherd sank as he thought how sorely he and his wife
would miss William, but he kept silence. Not so William, who broke into
sobs and wails.
'I should have fared ill if this good man and his wife had not taken me
and nourished me. I know not whence I came or whither I shall go! None
can be so kind as they have been.'
'Cease weeping, fair child,' said the emperor, 'some day you shall be
able to reward the good that they have done you;' and then the cowherd
spoke and gave him wise counsel how to behave himself at court.
'Be no teller of tales, and let your words be few. Be true to your lord,
and fair of speech to all men; and seek to help the poor when you may.'
'Set him on my horse,' said the emperor, and, though William wept still
as he bade farewell to the cowherd, and sent a sorrowful greeting to his
wife and to his playfellows Hugonet, and Abelot, and Akarin, yet he was
pleased to be riding in such royal fashion, and soon dried his tears.
They reached the palace at last, and the emperor led William into the
hall, and sent a messenger for Melior, his daughter.
'I have brought home a present for you,' he cried, as she entered; 'and
be sure to treat him as you would your brother, for he has come of
goodly kindred, though now he does not know where he was born, or who
was his father.' And with that he told her the tale of how he had found
the boy in the wood.
'I shall care for him willingly,' answered Melior, and she took him
away, and saw that supper was set before him, and clothes provided for
him, and made him ready for his duties as page to the emperor.
So the boy and girl grew up together, and everyone loved William, who
was gentle and pleasant to all, and was skilled in what a gentleman
should know. Wise he was too, beyond his years, and the emperor kept him
ever at his side, and took counsel with him on many subjects touching
his honour and the welfare of his people.
And if the people loved him, how much more Melior, who saw him about the
court all day long, and knew the store her father set on him? Yet she
remembered with sadness certain whispers she had heard of a match
between herself and a foreign prince, and if her father had promised her
hand nought would make him break his word.
So she sighed and bewailed herself in secret, till her cousin
Alexandrine marked that something was amiss.
'Tell me all your sickness,' said Alexandrine one day, 'and what grieves
you so sorely. You know that you can trust me, for I have served you
truly, and perhaps I may be able to help you in this strait!'
Then Melior told her, and Alexandrine listened in amaze. From his
childhood William and the two girls had played together, and well
Alexandrine knew that the emperor had cast his eyes upon another
son-in-law. Still, she loved her cousin, and she loved William too, so
'Mourn no longer, madam; I am skilled in magic, and can heal you. So
weep no more.' And Melior took heart and was comforted.
That night Alexandrine caused William to dream a dream in which the
whole world vanished away, and only he and Melior were left. In a moment
he felt that as long as she was there the rest might go, and that she
was the princess that was waiting for every prince. But who was he that
he should dare to ask for the emperor's daughter? and what chance had he
amongst the noble suitors who now began to throng the palace? These
thoughts made him very sad, and he went about his duties with a face as
long as Melior's was now.
Alexandrine paid no heed to his gloomy looks. She was very wise, and for
some days left her magic to work. At last one morning she thought the
time had come to heal the wounds she had caused, and planned a meeting
between them. After this they had no more need of her, neither did
Melior weep any longer.
For a while they were content, and asked nothing more than to see each
other every day, as they had always done. But soon a fresh source of
grief came. A war broke out, in which William, now a knight, had to
follow the emperor, and more than once saved the life of his master. On
their return, when the enemy was put to flight, the expected ambassadors
from Greece arrived at court, to seek the hand of Melior, which was
readily granted by her father. This news made William sick almost unto
death, and Melior, who was resolved not to marry the stranger, hastened
to Alexandrine in order to implore her help.
But Alexandrine only shook her head.
'It is true,' said she, 'that, unless you manage to escape, you will be
forced to wed the prince; but how are you to get away when there are
guards before every door of the palace, except by the little gate, and
to reach that you will have first to pass by the sentries, who know
'O dear Alexandrine,' cried Melior, clasping her hands in despair. 'Do
try to think of some way to save us! I am sure you can; you are always
clever, and there is nobody else.'
And Alexandrine did think of a way, but what it was must be told in the