HERE WERE ONCE a king and queen who had twelve children—all boys. Now, one day the king told his wife that if a daughter should be born, all the sons must die—that their sister alone might inherit his kingdom and riches.
So the king had twelve coffins made, which were filled with shavings, and in each was the little pillow for the dead. He had them locked up in a private room, the key of which he gave to the queen, praying her not to speak of it to anyone. But the poor mother was so unhappy that she wept for a whole day, and looked so sad that her youngest son noticed it.
He had the Bible name of Benjamin, and was always with his mother.
"Dear mother," he said, "why are you so sorrowful?"
"My child, I may not tell you," she replied; but the boy allowed her no rest till she unlocked the door of the private room, and showed him the twelve coffins filled with shavings.
"Dearest Benjamin," she said, "these coffins are for you and your brothers; for if you should ever have a little sister, you will all die, and be buried in them."
She wept bitterly as she told him, but her son comforted her, and said, "Do not weep, dear mother. We will take care of ourselves, and go far away."
Then she took courage, and said, "Yes, go away with your eleven brothers, and remain in the forest; and let one climb a tree, from whence he will be able to see the tower of the castle; If I should have a son, a white flag shall be hoisted, and then you may return home; but if you see a red flag, you will know it is a girl, and then hasten away as fast as you can, and may Heaven protect you! Every night I will pray for you, that you may not suffer from the cold in winter or the heat in summer."
Then she blessed all her sons, and they went away into the forest, while each in turn mounted a high tree daily, to watch for the flag on the tower.
Eleven days passed, and it was Benjamin's turn to watch. He saw the flag hoisted, and it was red—the signal that they must die. The brothers were angry, and said, "Shall we suffer death on account of a maiden? When we find one we will kill her, to avenge ourselves."
They went still farther into the forest, and came upon a most pleasant little cottage, which was uninhabited. "We will make this our home," they said; "and Benjamin, as you are the youngest and weakest, you shall stay at home and keep house, while we go out and procure food."
So they wandered about the forest, shooting hares, wild rabbits, pigeons and other birds, which they brought to Benjamin to prepare for food. In this cottage they lived for ten years happily together, so that the time passed quickly.
Their little sister was growing a great girl. She had a sweet disposition, and was very beautiful to look upon. She wore rich clothes, and a golden star on her forehead.
One day, when she was about ten years old, she discovered in her mother's wardrobe twelve shirts. "Mother," she exclaimed, "whose shirts are these? They are much too small for my father."
The queen sighed as she replied, "Dear child, these shirts belong to your twelve brothers."
"Twelve brothers!" cried the little maiden. "Where are they? I have not even heard of them."
"Heaven knows where they are," was the reply; "but they are wandering about the world somewhere." Then the queen took her little daughter to the private room in the castle, and showed her the twelve coffins which had been prepared for her brothers, and related to her, with many tears, why they had left home.
"Dear mother," said the child, "do not weep. I will go and seek my brothers." So she took the twelve shirts with her, and wandered away into the forest.
She walked for a whole day, and in the evening came to a cottage, stepped in, and found a young boy, who stared with astonishment at seeing a beautiful little girl dressed in rich clothing and wearing a golden star on her forehead.
At last he said, "Who are you, and what do you want?"
"I am a king's daughter," she said, "and I seek my twelve brothers, and I intend to search for them till I find them;" and she showed him their shirts.
Then Benjamin knew that she was his sister, and said, "I am your youngest brother, Benjamin." Then she wept for joy. They kissed each other with deep affection, and were for a time very happy.
At last Benjamin said, "Dear sister, we have made a vow that the first young maiden we meet should die, because through a maiden we have lost our kingly rights."
"I would willingly die," she said, "if by so doing I could restore my brothers to their rightful possessions."
"No, you shall not die," he replied. "Hide yourself behind this tub until our eleven brothers come home; then I will make an agreement with them."