a folktale of Aarne-Thompson type 882
D. L. Ashliman
Once there was a wealthy merchant who lived together in a great manor with his many servants and his beautiful and faithful wife. His trust in her loyalty was always a source of comfort to him on his long voyages to the great ports of the seven seas. But one fateful day a discussion with a friend and fellow merchant brought him cause for concern.
"Wives are faithful only until opportunity knocks," claimed the friend, who then added boastfully, "I can charm my way into any woman's bedroom!"
"Certainly not into my wife's chambers," replied the merchant. "Her virtue is beyond question."
"If you are so sure of her, then let us enter into a wager as to her real fidelity," returned the friend, if we may call him that, for in truth he was a deceitful villain and was setting a cruel trap for the merchant and his wife.
The merchant, ever sure of his wife's virtue, struck a wager with the friend. Each placed half his fortune at stake. The friend would win if he could bring evidence that he had seduced the merchant's wife. The merchant would win if the friend's attempts proved fruitless.
The bet having been made, the villain bribed one of the merchant's servants to carry a trunk into the mistress's bedroom for safekeeping. "It would need to be there for only one night," explained the devious schemer. He then procured a large trunk, drilled a peephole into one end, hid himself inside, and had his own servants deliver it to the merchant's manor.
That night he spied on the merchant's wife as she got ready for bed, observing through the peephole that she had a peculiar birthmark on her hip. When the good woman was sound asleep he lifted the trunk's lid and quietly stole the ring that was lying on the table beside her bed. The next morning his servants, as planned, returned for the trunk and carried him back to his own house.
Soon afterward he met with the unsuspecting merchant. "Such a night of lovemaking!" he boasted. "But tell me," doesn't the birthmark on your wife's hip annoy you? It's quite unbecoming of such an otherwise beautiful woman." The merchant was turning red with anger, but the worst was still to come. "As a token of our love," lied the villain further, "your good wife gave me this ring." The merchant, recognizing his wife's wedding ring, stormed from the place with rage.
He burst into his manor with fury, accosted his unsuspecting wife, and told her to prepare to die. Her pleas for an explanation went unheeded, nor did her supplications for mercy divert him from his cruel design.
The merchant charged his most loyal servant with the dreadful task. He was to take the accused woman into the forest and shoot her, then bring back her liver and lungs as evidence that vengeance had been served. With a heavy heart he led his mistress into the forest, but he could not force himself to perform the wicked deed. Instead, he gave her a set of his own clothes, provided her with what rations he could get together, wished her Godspeed, and let her escape into the woods. He then killed a doe, cut out its liver and lungs, and returned to his heartless master with evidence that the terrible act had been performed.
The pitiful woman, dressed in men's clothes, made her way through the forest, arriving at last in the royal city. She applied for a position at the king's court. Her fine manners and elegant speech impressed the officials, and they hired her at once as a clerk.
Days turned to weeks and weeks to months. The falsely accused wife proved herself equal to every task that her new position presented. She quickly advanced from one post to the next until she, still disguised as a man, finally became the highest judge in the kingdom.
One day two merchants appeared before her bench. Embroiled in a dispute over a wager, they were bringing their case before the highest judge, whose justice and wisdom had rapidly found praise throughout the land. The judge recognized them immediately as her heartless husband and his deceitful friend. She listened carefully as her husband related how he had entered into the fateful wager, only to learn later from his servants about the delivery of the overnight trunk. Rightly sensing that he had been tricked, and was now attempting to recover the half of his fortune that he had lost.
The judge heard his story to its end, then arose. Standing proud and tall in her courtly robes she told her own story of cruel betrayal. Her hapless husband, now recognizing the injustice of his wrongful accusation, begged for mercy. The judge, seeking justice, but not revenge, solemnly pronounced her judgment: The two merchants were to be banished from the kingdom forever.
The king, in the meanwhile, had quietly entered the courtroom and had listened intently to the proceedings. The admiration and respect that he had felt toward his highest judge turned to love and devotion, now that he knew he was actually a she. Thus, the king gained not only a wise and prudent judge, but also a faithful and loving wife. And they ruled happily together until the end of their days.
Revised March 25, 2001.