HE 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.