From "The Goldenrod Fairy Book" selected and translated by Esther Singleton; Dodd, Mead & Company; New York; pp. 25-33.
No one could imagine how it happened, for the Princesses could not possibly get out of the bolted and barred doors and windows. It occurred so often, and so many shoes were worn out, that the King at last made known his determination, that whoever would discover where his daughters went in the night to dance, and how they got out of the room, should have one of them for a wife, whichever he liked best, and the kingdom after the King’s death.
But he also announced that whoever did not succeed after trying for three nights should 26 forfeit his life. Notwithstanding this, it was not long before a king’s son presented himself, and begged to be allowed to take his chance. He was well received, and placed in a chamber adjoining the sleeping-hall, to enable him to see all that took place, and whether they went out to dance, and, if they did go, to follow them. The door leading into the sleeping-hall was left open, and his bed was placed opposite to it.
But, when he laid down, it was as if lead had been placed on his eyelids; he could not keep awake, and in the morning the dancing-shoes were found more worn than ever; they had even holes in the soles, proving that they had been to a dance somewhere. The second and the third night it was the same, and then the head of the poor Prince was cut off without the least pity.
Even this did not prevent others from trying, and they all lost their lives.
Now, it happened that a poor soldier who had been wounded, and could not serve any more in the army, was passing on his way to the town in which this king dwelt, and an old woman met him.
“Why are you going to this town?” she asked.27
“I hardly know myself,” he replied, and then adding in joke, “unless I felt inclined to find out where the King’s daughters go to wear out their dancing-shoes, and then become the future King!”
“That is not so very difficult, after all,” said the old woman. “All you have to do is to keep awake, and therefore on no account drink the wine that is brought to you in the evening, or you will sleep without waking.” She then gave him a little cloak, and said: “When you wear that you will be invisible, and can slip after the twelve dancers easily.”
As she gave the soldier this good advice, she was so earnest with him that he took courage, and determined to go before the King and present himself as a suitor. He was as well received as the others had been, and royal robes were given to him to wear.
In the evening, when sleeping-time arrived, he was led to the little ante-chamber, and when the Princesses came to bed the eldest brought him a goblet of wine: but he had fastened a piece of sponge under his chin, so that as he put the cup to his lips he let it all run into the sponge, and 28 drank not a drop. Then he laid himself down, and after a while while began to snore as if he were fast asleep.
When the twelve Princesses heard this they began to laugh, and the eldest said: “There is another that does not care for his life!”
Thereupon they all got up, opened wardrobes, and drawers, and boxes, and took out the most elegant dresses, in which they arrayed themselves before the glass, and jumped and danced about for joy, except the youngest, who said: “I don’t know how it is, but I feel quite miserable, as if something were going to happen.”
“What a goose you are!” cried the eldest; “you always fear without a cause. Do you forget how I have always managed the Kings’ sons already? The soldier has his sleeping-draught, and such a clown as he is not likely to wake!”
When they were all ready, they came in and looked at the soldier; but he had his eyes fast closed, and neither moved nor stirred; so they believed he was quite sound asleep.
The eldest, on this, went up to her own bed, and struck it gently. Immediately it sank down 29 to the earth, and through the opening the Princesses disappeared one after the other, the eldest leading the way.
On seeing this, the soldier sprang out of bed, threw on his invisible cloak, and followed the youngest, who went last, unseen. About half-way down he trod lightly on her dress, which so frightened her that she screamed out: “What was that? Who is pulling my dress?”
“Don’t be so silly,” cried the eldest; “I dare say you have a hook hanging down, which has caught in something.”
When they all arrived at the lowest step, the soldier saw before him a most beautiful avenue of trees with silver leaves, which shone and glittered in the light of many lamps.
“Well,” thought the soldier, “it will be a proof that I have really followed the King’s daughters if I take a branch with me.”
So he broke one off and put it in his pocket; but the branch made such a crack that the youngest again cried out: “I’m sure there is something wrong; did you not hear that crack?”
“It is the first salute-gun from the Princes 30 for joy that we are coming,” said the eldest sister.
They went on till they came to another avenue, where all the leaves were golden, and at last to a third on which sparkled diamonds. From each of these trees the soldier broke off branches, and the youngest, when she heard them crack, seemed terribly afraid, although her eldest sister persisted in calling them salute-guns.
After a while they reached the borders of a large lake, to which lay twelve pretty little boats, and in the boats sat twelve handsome young Princes, who were waiting for the King’s daughters. Each of them took one in his boat, and the soldier, unseen, seated himself with the youngest.
As this Prince rowed away, he said: “I cannot tell how it is, but the boat seems heavier to-day than it has ever been before. I am obliged to use all my strength to keep up with the rest.”
“It cannot really be heavier,” she replied; “it must be the heat which makes you weaker; it is most oppressive weather.”
On the opposite shore stood a noble castle brilliantly lighted up, and from the rooms came 31 sounds of soul-stirring music from fife and drum. The boats were rowed towards it, and the Princes, assisting their companions to land, led them to the ball-room of the castle, and they were all very soon joining in the dance with great spirit.
The soldier danced among them unseen, and often when a glass of wine was brought and placed on the table he would empty it while they turned their heads, and by so doing greatly alarm the younger sister, whose fears, however, were always silenced by the eldest.
They danced till three o’clock in the morning, when all their shoes were completely worn out. The Princes accompanied the King’s daughters to the boats, and rowed them back again over the lake, and this time the invisible soldier seated himself in the boat with the eldest.
On reaching the shore they said farewell to each other, and promised to be there on the following night. As soon as they reached the steps, the soldier ran on before them and laid himself on his bed, so that when the twelve Princesses, tired and sleepy, came slowly tripping back, he snored so loudly that they all heard him, and said: “From him we are quite safe.” Then 32 they took off their beautiful clothes, put them away, and, after placing their dancing-shoes under the bed, laid themselves down and slept.
The soldier next morning, however, said not a word of what he had seen; he wished to go again to those wonderful places, and so he went with the Princesses on the second and third nights. Everything happened as on the first night, and they danced till their shoes were worn out. On the third night, however, he took away with him a goblet as another proof of his visit.
When the hour arrived in which he was expected to give his answer, he took the three branches which he had broken off, and the goblet, and appeared before the King. The twelve Princesses placed themselves secretly behind the door to listen and hear what he would say.
The King asked the question: “Where have my twelve daughters worn out their dancing-shoes during each night?”
“By dancing with twelve Princes,” replied the soldier, “in a subterranean castle.” And then he described all that he had seen, and pointed to the proofs he had brought with him.
On hearing this, the King sent for his daughters, 33 and asked them if what the soldier had said was true. They saw at once that all was discovered, they could deny nothing, and must therefore take the consequences of their conduct. Thereupon the King asked the soldier which of them he would have for a wife, so he replied: “I am no longer young, so give me the eldest.”
On that very day the marriage was celebrated, and the kingdom promised to the soldier after the King’s death. The Princes were placed under the spell of enchantment for as many days as they had danced nights with the Princesses in the enchanted castle.