edited by Italo Calvino
A king of long ago had a son named Fiordinando who never took his nose out of his books. He was always shut up in his room reading. From time to time he would close the book and gaze out the window at the garden and the woods beyond, then resume his reading and musing. Never did he leave his room except for lunch or dinner, or maybe for a rare stroll in the garden.
One day the king’s hunter, a bright young man who as a child had played with the prince, said to the king, “May I call on Fiordinando, Majesty? I’ve not seen him for quite some time.”
The king replied, “By all means. Your visit will be a pleasant diversion for my son.”
So the hunter entered the room of Fiordinando, who looked him over and asked, “What brings you to the court in those hobnailed boots?”
“I am the king’s hunter,” explained the young man, who went on to describe the many kinds of game, the ways of birds and hares, and the different parts of the woods.
Fiordinando’s imagination was kindled. “Listen,” he said to the youth, “I too shall try my luck at hunting. But don’t say anything to my father, so he won’t think it was your idea. I’ll simply ask him to let me go hunting with you one morning.”
“At your service, as always,” replied the young man.
The next day at breakfast, Fiordinando said to the king, “Yesterday I read a book on hunting which was so interesting I’m dying to go out and try my luck. May I?”
“Hunting is a dangerous sport,” replied the king, “for someone who is new to it. But I won’t keep you from something you think you might like. For a companion I’ll let you have my hunter, who is unequaled as a hunting dog. Don’t ever let him out of your sight.”
Next morning at sunrise Fiordinando and the hunter mounted their horses with their guns on shoulder straps and off to the woods they galloped. The hunter aimed at every bird or hare he saw and laid it low. Fiordinando tried his best to keep pace, but missed everything he shot at. At the end of the day the hunter’s game bag was bulging, whereas Fiordinando hadn’t brought down so much as one feather. At dusk Fiordinando spied a small hare hiding under a bush and took aim. But it was so small and frightened he decided he would simply run up and grab it. Just as he reached the bush, the hare darted off, with Fiordinando close behind. Every time he was right upon it, the hare would run far ahead, then stop, as though it were waiting for Fiordinando to catch up, only to elude him again. In the meantime Fiordinando had strayed so far from the hunter that he could no longer find the way back. Again and again he called out, but no one answered. By now it was completely dark, and the hare had disappeared.
Weary and distressed, Fiordinando sat under a tree to rest. It was not long before he saw what seemed to be a light shining through the trees. He therefore got up, made his way through the underbrush, and emerged in a vast clearing, at the end of which stood the most ornate of palaces.
The front door was open, and Fiordinando called out, “Hello! Is anyone at home?” He was answered with dead silence; not even an echo came back to him. Entering, he found a large hall with a fire burning in the fireplace and, nearby, wine and glasses. Fiordinando took a seat to rest and warm up and drink a little wine. Then he rose and passed into another room where a table was set for two persons. The cutlery, plates, and goblets were gold and silver; the curtains, tablecloth, and napkins were pure silk embroidered with pearls and diamonds; from the ceiling hung lamps of solid gold the size of baskets. Since no one was there and he was hungry, Fiordnando sat down to the table.
He had scarcely eaten the first mouthful when he heard a rustle of dresses coming down the steps, and in walked a queen followed by twelve maids of honor. The queen was young and extremely beautiful of figure, but her face was hidden by a heavy veil. Neither she nor the twelve maids of honor said one word during the entire meal. She sat across the table in silence from Fiordinando while the maids quietly served them and poured their wine. The meal thus passed in silence, and the queen carried her food to her mouth under that thick veil. When they had finished, the queen rose, and the maids of honor accompanied her back upstairs. Fiordinando also rose and continued his tour of palace.
Coming to a master bedchamber with a bed all turned down for the night, he undressed and jumped under the covers. Behind the canopy was a secret door: it opened, and in walked the queen, still mute, veiled, and followed by her twelve maids of honor. With Fiordinando leaning on his elbow and gaping, the maids of honor undressed the queen all but for her veil, put her in bed beside Fiordinando, and left the room. Fiordinando was sure she would say something now or unveil her face. But she had already fallen asleep. He watched the veil rising and falling with her breath, thought about it a minute, then he too fell asleep.
At dawn the maids of honor returned, put the queen’s clothes back on her, and led her away. Fiordinando also got up, ate the hearty breakfast he found waiting for him, and went down to the stables.
His horse was there eating oats. Fiordinando climed into the saddle and galloped off to the woods. The whole day long he looked for a road that would take him back home, or for some trace of his hunting companion, but he only got lost anew, and when night fell, there stood the clearing and palace once more.
He went inside, and the same things happened as the evening before. But the next day as he was galloping through the woods he met the hunter, who’d been looking for him for the last three days, and together they returned to the city. When the hunter questioned him, Fiordinando made up a tale about a lot of complicated mishaps, but said nothing abut what had really happened.
Back at the royal palace Fiordinando was like a changed person. His eyes wandered constantly from the pages of his book to the woods beyond the garden. Seeing him so moody, listless, and absorbed, his mother began pestering him to tell her what he was brooding over. She kept nagging until Fiordinando finally told her from beginning to end what had happened to him in the woods. He made no bones about being in love with the beautiful queen and wondering how to marry her when she neither spoke nor showed her face.
“I’ll tell you what to do,” replied his mother. “Sup with her one more time. When the two of you are seated, accidentally knock her fork off the table. When she bends over to pick it up, pull off her veil. You can be sure she’ll say something then.”
No sooner had he received that advice than Fiordinando saddled his horse and raced off to the palace in the woods, where he was welcomed in the usual manner. At supper he knocked the queen’s fork off the table with his elbow. She bent over, and he tore off her veil. At that, the queen rose, as beautiful as a moonbeam and as fiery as a ray of sun. “Rash youth!” she screamed. “You have betrayed me. Had I been able to sleep one more night beside you without speaking or unveiling my face, I would have been free from the spell and you would have become my husband. Now I’ll have to go off to Paris for a week and from there to Peterborough, where I’ll be given in prize at a tournament, and heaven knows who will win me. Farewell! And note that I am the queen of Portugal!”
In the same instant she vanished, along with the entire palace, and Fiordinando found himself alone and abandoned in the thickest part of the underbrush. It was no easy task to find his way home, but once he got there, he didn’t waste a minute. He filled a purse with money, summoned his faithful hunter, and departed on horseback for Paris. They wore themselves out riding, but didn’t dismount until they reached an inn in that famous city.
Nor did he spend long resting up, for he wished to learn if the queen of Portugal really was there in Paris. He began pumping the innkeeper. “What’s the news around here?”
The innkeeper replied, “None to speak of. What sort of news do you expect?”
“There’s all kinds of news,” replied Fiordinando. “News about wars, feast days, famous people passing through the city…”
“Oh!” exclaimed the innkeeper, “come to think about it, there is a piece of interesting news: five days ago the queen of Portugal arrived in Paris. In three more days she’ll leave for Peterborough. She’s a very beautiful lady and highly educated. She enjoys exploring unusual spots, and strolls outside the city gate near here every afternoon with twelve maids of honor.”
“And it’s possible to get a look at her?” asked Fiordinando.
“Why not? When she walks in public, any passer-by can see her.”
“Wonderful!” said Fiordinando. “In the meantime get dinner for us and serve it with a bottle of red wine.”
Now the innkeeper had a daughter who rejected all wooers, mind you, because none of them suited her. But the instant she laid eyes on Fiordinando getting out of his saddle, she told herself he would be the only one she would ever consider. She went to her father at once to say she had fallen in love and to ask him to find a way for her to marry the stranger. So the innkeeper said to Fiordinando, “I hope you’ll like Paris and have the good fortune to find yourself a lovely bride here.”
“My bride,” replied Fiordinando, “is the most beautiful queen in the world, and I am trailing her all over the globe.”
The innkeeper’s daughter, who was eavesdropping, was seized with rage. When her father sent her to the cellar after the wine, she thrust a handful of opium into the bottle. Fiordinando and the hunter went outside the city after dinner to await the queen of Portugal, but suddenly, they became so drowsy that they sank to the ground and slept like logs. Shortly threafter the queen came by, recognized Fiordinando, bent over him, called his name, caressed him, shook him, and rolled him over and over; but there was no waking him. Then she slipped a diamond ring from her finger and placed it on his brow.
Now in a cave nearby lived a hermit who had witnessed the whole scene from behind a tree. As soon as the queen left, he tiptoed out, picked up the ring from Fiordinando’s brow, and retreated with it to his cave.
When Fiordinando awakened, it was already dark, and it took him a while to recall where he was. He shook the hunter awake, and together they cursed the red wine for being too strong and lamented over missing the queen.
The second day they said to the innkeeper, “Give us white white, but make sure it’s not too strong.” The daughter, however, drugged the white wine too, and the young men went back only to end up snoring in the middle of the meadow.
At a loss to awaken Fiordinando, the queen of Portugal placed a lock of her hair on his brow and fled. The hermit emerged from the grove of trees and made off with the lock. When Fiordinando and the hunter awakened in the middle of the night, they had no idea what had taken place.
Fiordinando became suspicious of the sleep that came over him every afternoon. It was now the last day before the queen would be leaving for Peterborough, and he intended to see her at all costs. He thus told the innkeeper to bring him no more wine. But the daughter now drugged the soup. So, upon arriving in the meadow, Fiordinando felt his head drooping already. He pulled out two pistols and showed them to the hunter. “I know you’re loyal,” he said, “but I warn you that if you don’t stay awake today and keep me awake, you are going to get it. I’ll unload both of these into your head, and I dont’ mean maybe.”
At that, Fiordinando stretched out and began to snore. To stay awake, the hunter tried pinching himself repeatedly, but between one pinch and the next his eyes would close, and the pinches became rarer and rarer until he too was snoring.
The queen arrived. With cries, embraces, slaps in the face, kisses, and shakes, she did her best to awaken Fiordinando. But realizing she would not succeed, she began weeping so violently that instead of tears a few drops of blood trickled down her cheeks. She wiped the blood off with her handkerchief, which she placed over Fiordinando’s face. Then she got back into her carriage and sped straight to Peterborough. Meanwhile the hermit came out of the cave, picked up the handkerchief, and stood by to see exactly what would happen.
When Firodinando woke up at night and realized he’d missed his last chance to see the queen, he was fit to be tied. He pulled out the pistols and was about to carry out his threat of unloading them in the sleeping hunter’s head, when the hermit grabbed him by the wrists and said, “That poor fellow is blameless. The culprit is the innkeeper’s daughter who drugged the red wine, the white wine, and the soup.”
“Why would she do a thing like that?” asked Fiordinando. “And how do you know so much about it?”
“She’s in love with you and gave you opium. I know all about it from peeping through the trees at everything that goes on here. For the last three days the queen of Portugal has come by and tried to awaken you, leaving on your brow a diamond, a lock of her hair, and a handkerchief moist with tears of blood.”
“And where are these things now?”
“I took them away for safekeeping, since there are many thieves around here who would have stolen them before you ever got to see them. Here they are. Look after them, because if you act sensibly, they will bring you luck.”
“What am I to do?”
“The queen of Portugal,” explained the hermit, “has gone to Peterborough where she will be given in prize at a tournament. The knight who jousts with this ring, this lock of hair, and this handkerchief on the tip of his lance will be invincible and wed the queen.”
Fiordinando didn’t have to be told twice. He sped from Paris to Peterborough, where he arrived in time to enter the list of jousters, but under a false name. Illustrious warriors had arrived from all over the world with wagonloads of luggage, servants, and arms as shiny as the sun. In the heart of the city a large arena had been surrounded with viewing stands, and there the knights were to contend on horseback for the queen of Portugal.
With his visor lowered, Fiordinando won the first day, thanks to the diamond on the tip of his lance. He won the second with the lock of hair. He won the third with the handkerchief. Horses and men fell by the dozens until not a one was left standing. Fiordinando was proclaimed victor and the queen’s bridegroom. Only then did he open his helmet. The queen recognized him and swooned for joy.
There was a grand wedding, and Fiordinando sent for his mother and father, who had alrady given him up for dead and gone into mourning. He introduced his bride to them, saying, “this is none other than the little hare I pursued, the veiled lady, and the queen of Portugal whom I have freed from an awful spell.”