There was a poor woman who ran a poor shop in a very poor, small village, far from anything. She lived alone with her young son, John, who was strong and eager. When John came of age, his mother, who had grown thin and feeble with little enough to eat, sat him down and said to him, “It is time for you to set off and seek your fortune in this wide world, for there is nothing in this poor village fit for a fine lad like you.”
So although he felt sorry to leave his home, and though he had not even a few coins to see him on his way, the boy did as he was told. He set off alone, promising to return with wealth enough to see his mother through her old age in comfort. He meant to come, after some days on the road, to the swollen river where the big barges came and went, and where he might gain passage– whither he knew not– for his labor.
On the first day of his journey John passed by a great manor on which a good many slaves and peasants were working to sow the season’s corn. As the sun sank low, he stopped to greet a man who was wiping the sweat from his brow.
“Good day,” said John. “Do you know of any house where I might spend the night?”
“Aye,” said the man, and pointed to the small shack at the end of the field. “My wife will give you a bed, and a good meal, what’s more.”
“But how can I repay your kindness?” asked John.
“Work with me tomorrow,” said the man. “My wife and eldest son would work beside me, but he is laid up ill and shivering and she must tend to him. Without help I won’t sow our fields to feed our lord and little ones come harvest.”
John agreed to this, and for seven days he stayed and slept and ate with the virgater’s family and worked beside him in the fields. It was hard work in the hot sun, and at the end of the seven days, when the seeds were sown, John was brown and tough as a piece of dried meat. He thanked the virgater and his wife kindly, tipped his hat to them, and set off toward the river.
That evening John was passing through a woodland and, as darkness approached, he came to the hovel of a hunter. He knocked on the low, crooked door, and was answered by a man with a grizzled beard. “Good day,” said John. “I am passing by on my way to the river. Might I spend this night with you?”
“Aye, said the man. “Come in and share my dinner, though I have but little to give.”
“But how can I repay your kindness?” asked John.
“Hunt with me tomorrow,” said the man. “I am old and can not carry so much or shoot so well as I once could.”
John agreed to this, and for seven days he stayed and slept and ate with the old hunter, and hunted by his side in the wood. It was hard work, but at the end of the seven days he could fell a bird with one arrow as it flew. The hunter gave John a stout short bow and a quiver of arrows, saying, “Welcome though your company may be, you cannot linger here longer. You have your own journey to attend to. May these be of use to you.”
John thanked the man kindly, tipped his hat to him, and set off again toward the river.
That evening, in a quiet meadow, John met a beautiful, wistful old woman plucking ripe berries from a thorny bramble patch. “Good evening,” he said. “Good lady”– for such he called her, though she was dressed in rags, out of politeness– “is there a village near where I might spend the night?”
“There is no village you might reach tonight,” she answered, “nor any home but mine. But you are welcome to share my hearth and floor.”
“But how can I repay your kindness?” asked John.
“Speak not of that,” she said, “for it is a kindness to me that I should have your company. No soul has passed this way in many a year. Stay as long as you can.”
So John stayed with the old woman for seven days, and they ate and drank the good things of the meadow and the forest. At the end of the seven days, John said to the old woman, “I must be on my way, good lady, for I have my own fortune to seek, for the sake of my old mother.”
“I see that,” she said. “I have a gift for you before you go, if you will accept it. Show me your hand.” She traced over and over the deep creases on the palms. At last she sighed and smiled sadly. “You will find what you seek on the water. You will find great treasure and at last you will return to your mother and your home; but before that, a great love will enter your heart, that you cannot deny and that will remain til the end of your days.”
Pleased with this, John thannked the old woman kindly and went on his way, and the very next day he came to the wide, yellow river, with boats and barges going always up and down it and people of all sorts teeming at its banks. As he walked along the bank, a big hearty fellow called out to him, “You! Boy! Looking for work?”
“I am John,” said John, stopping to greet the man. “My mother has sent me to seek my fortune. I will take what work you will offer me.”
“I serve Prince Hewlett, of whom I am sure you have heard much,” said the man. John had not, so was silent, but the man went on anyway. “I am the captain of his boat. The prince is seeking a trusty valet for his journey north to the Summer Palace. Have you done such work before?”
“Never,” said John truthfully, “but once shown I learn quickly and work hard.”
As he spoke another man stepped up beside him. He was little older than John himself, but tall, and he smelled of flowers John had never smelled before, and he was bedecked in full, flowing robes that shimmered softly in the watery sun. This, John realized, was Prince Hewlett.
“Show me your hands,” said the prince to John, and his voice was like the wind in the top branches of the forest or the rain on the golden manor fields.
Speechless, John complied, holding out both hands palms up, bashful of their cracks, scrapes and calluses earned in his journey. But the prince smiled and took John’s hands in his own white, many-ringed ones. “Good honest hands,” he said. “Here is a boy who will work hard and ask for little, and knows nothing of intrigue. You will be my valet. Come.”
The prince and the captain led John aboard the largest, most beautiful boat at the pier. “You will sleep here, at the foot of my bed,” said the prince, showing John a cabin as well-dressed as any palace chamber. “You will bathe and dress me in the morning and the evening, and taste my food before me. You will serve me as I need at any hour of day or night. At the end of our journey, if you have served me well you may stay on in my palace and journey home with me to my Capital when autumn comes. If instead you must away, I will send you with a bag of gold on each arm. But if you should betray me, the worst will befall you. What say you?”
John readily assented. “I will serve you well, dear Prince, wherever you fare,” and he bowed so low that his nose nearly touched his knees; for poor boy though he might be his mother had taught him well.
So that night he helped the prince undress. He marveled at the touch of the silken robes as light as moonlight, and still more at the skin of the prince, as supple and fragrant as a woman’s breast, against which his own hands felt coarse and rough; but the prince did not complain. Then John bathed him all over in rosewater and rubbed him with the oil that smelled of flowers he had never smelled before, not daring to ask what it was, and he dressed him in his nightclothes, and curled up by the foot of the prince’s bed.
Although summer was nearing, it was cold at night in the high hills where the river wound its way north, and after midnight the prince called out to John. John woke right away. “What is it, Prince?” he asked.
“I am cold,” said the prince, “and these blankets do not warm me. Come into my bed and lend me the heat of your body.”
John did as the prince asked, and all that night and each night after he slept against the prince in his downy bed. And every day he dressed and bathed the prince, and at every mealtime he tasted the prince’s food lest it should harm him.
But one day the captain of the boat brought a bottle of golden liquor from his own stuff, and told John, “This is for the prince alone. It is too rich for your simple mouth.” John told the prince what the captain had said, and the prince saw wisdom in it and took a dram of the golden liquor. But as soon as he had done so, he spit it out and threw the glass on the floor where it shattered. “Do you think one such as me does not know the bitterness of betrayal?” he cried. “Boy, chain up this rogue who has tried to poison your prince and master!”
John tried to do as he was told, but the captain was too quick for him, and leapt behind the prince, holding his blade to the soft white throat so that a single drop of blood ran down it. “You’re a good lad, John,” growled the captain, “but you know not who you serve. Go now with no enmity between us, and let be what is too large for you to fathom.”
So John made as if to do that captain’s bidding, but quick as a wink he grasped the bow that the hunter had given him, which he carried on his back at all times, and he shot the captain square in the left eyeball, for that was how well he had learned to shoot.
Needless to say, the prince thanked John greatly for his service, and filled John’s pockets with gold and silver coins that had been owed the boat captain, until they clanked and chaffed against John’s legs. The crew took the boat onward, and that night John slept in the prince’s bed as always. But that night he found he could not sleep.
“O Prince,” he whispered, “are you awake?”
“What is it, John?” asked the prince, alarmed. “Is something the matter?”
“Nothing,” said John. “Only, I wonder if you still wish me to serve on as your valet at your journey’s end.”
“Certainly,” said the prince. “Is that not what I promised, and do I not keep my word?”
“Then I am glad,” said John, “for I was frightened today lest I lose you.” And all of a sudden without meaning to he kissed the prince on his lips.
Then the prince rose up in anger, and threw off the covers from his bed. “What devilry is this,” he shrieked, “that from all quarters I am taken unawares? Leave me, foul fiend, or I will kill you with my own blade!” And he drew a gleaming dagger from beneath his pillow, which John had never seen before.
John wept and begged his pardon, but the prince would hear none of it, and he called his crew and they threw John over the side of the boat with curses aplenty.
Weighed down by the gold and silver still in his pockets, John sank a while in the muddy yellow water, and at last he pulled himself, dripping and reeking, onto the black shore. He began to walk slowly back as he had come, down the shore of the river and back across the forest and the meadow and the fields, and he met a beggar to whom he gave all the coins. Then he came home to his mother, and there I daresay he lives still, now that she has passed away, alone, a small farmer in a small village, far from the palace and the river.