In a peaceful, pleasantly situated little village, there once lived a poor shepherd youth. Near the village was a valley, a lonely retired spot, whither the youth always guided his flock; and it seemed as though he had selected that quiet valley for his favourite retreat. He never took his noon-day meal, nor lay down to repose in the cool shade, except in that beloved place. Thither was he ever drawn by an irresistible longing.
The place itself was simple enough—a rugged block of stone, beneath which murmured a little rivulet, and a wild cherry-tree which overshadowed the stone with its leafy branches, were all that was to be seen there; but the youth felt happy when he spread his mea upon that stone, and drank from that streamlet. When, after having partaken of his meal, he stretched himself to rest upon the stone, he would fancy he heard a mysterious singing, and sometimes a sighing too, beneath it; he would then listen and watch, but would finally slumber and dream. His spirit seemed to be ever wrapped in mysterious unearthly happiness. On going forth with his flocks in the morning, and returning home with them in the evening, this unaccountable longing seemed always to take possession of him. He liked not to accompany the throng of merry village youths and maidens who went about singing and frolicking on festive evenings, but preferred to walk alone, silent and even melancholy. But when the fair morning dawned again, and he went forth with his lambs over heath and meadow, his spirit grew ever more serene as he drew nearer to the beloved stone and to the shade of the dear cherry-tree. It often happened, too, that whilst he rested there and played upon his flute, a silver-white serpent came out from under the stone, and after wreathing herself caressingly at his feet, would then erect herself and gaze upon the shepherd, until two big tears would roll from her eyes, and then she softly slid back again on these occasions a still more peculiar and strange feeling filled the shepherd’s heart.
At length he altogether ceased to associate with the merry band of youths and maidens; their mirthsome noise was unpleasant to him; whilst, on the contrary, the still solitude became more and more dear to him.
One lovely Sunday in the spring time—it was Trinity Sunday, which the peasants call “Golden Sunday,” and which they always keep with especial festivity—when the youth of the village were to have a merry dance beneath the linden-trees, the pensive shepherd boy, drawn by that inexpressible longing, directed his steps at mid-day to the lonely valley of the stone and cherry-tree. He gazed serenely upon the dear spot, and then sat down and listened musingly to the rustling of the leaves and the mysterious sounds under the stone, when suddenly a bright light shone before his eyes, a pang of terror shot through his heart, and looking up he saw a beauteous form arrayed in white like an angel, standing before him with a soft expression and folded hands, whilst with transported senses he heard a sweet voice thus address him: “O youth, fear not, but hear the supplication of an unhappy maiden, and do not drive me from thee, nor flee from my misfortune. I am a noble princess, and have immense treasures of pearls and gold; but for many hundred years I have languished under enchantment, have been banished beneath this stone, and am doomed to glide about in the form of a serpent. In that shape I have often gazed on thee and conceived the hope that thou mayest release me. Thou art still pure in heart as a child. Only once throughout the whole year, this very hour on Golden Sunday, am I permitted to wander on the earth in my own form; and if I then find a youth with a pure heart, I may implore him for my deliverance. Release me then, thou beloved one! release me, I implore thee by all that is holy!”—The maiden sank at the shepherd’s feet, which she clasped as she looked up to him weeping. The heart of the youth heaved with transport; he raised the angelic maiden and faltered out: “Oh say only what I must do to free thee, thou fair beloved one!”
“Return hither to-morrow at the same hour,” replied she, “and when I appear before thee in my serpent form, and wind myself around thee, and thrice kiss thee, do not, oh! do not shudder, else must I again languish enchanted here for another century!” She vanished, and again a soft sighing and singing issued from beneath the stone.
On the following day, at the hour of noon, the shepherd, not without fear in his heart, waited at the appointed place, and supplicated Heaven for strength and constancy at the trying moment of the serpent’s kiss. Already the silver-white serpent glided from beneath the stone, approached the youth, twined herself round his body, and raised her serpent head, with its bright eyes, to kiss him. He remained steady, and endured the three kisses. A mighty crash was then heard, and dreadful thunders rolled around the youth, who had fallen senseless on the ground. A magic change passed over him, and when he was restored to his senses, he found himself lying on white cushions of silk, in a richly-adorned chamber, with the beautiful maiden kneeling by his couch, holding his hand to her heart. “Oh, thanks be to Heaven!” exclaimed she, when he opened his eyes; “receive my thanks, beloved youth, for my deliverance, and take as thy reward my fair lands, and this palace with all its rich treasures, and take me too as thy faithful wife: thou shalt henceforth be happy, and have plenitude of joy!”
And the shepherd was happy and joyful; that longing of his heart which had so often drawn him towards the stone, was gloriously satisfied. He dwelt, remote from the world, in the bosom of happiness, with his fair spouse; and he never wished himself back on earth, nor amongst his lambs again. But in the village there was great lamentation for the shepherd who had so suddenly vanished: they sought him in the valley, and by the stone under the cherry-tree, whither he had last gone, but neither the shepherd, nor the stone, nor the cherry-tree were to be found any longer; and no human eye ever again beheld any trace of either.