Now it happened that a poor soldier, who had been wounded and could no longer serve, found himself on the road to the town where the King lived. There he fell in with an old woman who asked him where he was going. "I really don't know myself," he said. And he added in fun, " I should like to discover where the King's daughters dance their shoes into holes, and after that I should like to become king.
"That is not so difficult," said the old woman. "You must not drink the wine which will be brought to you in the evening, but must pretend to be fast asleep." Whereupon she gave him a short cloak, saying, "When you wear this you will be invisible, and then you can slip out after the twelve princesses.
When the soldier heard this good advice he considered it seriously, plucked up the courage to appear before the King, and offered himself as a suitor. He was as well received as the others and was dressed in royal garments.
In the evening, when bedtime came, he was conducted to the anteroom. As he was about to go to bed the eldest princess appeared, bringing him a cup of wine. But he had fastened a sponge under his chin and let the wine run down into it, so that he did not drink one drop. Then he lay down, and when he had been quiet a little while he began to snore as though in the deepest sleep.
The twelve princesses heard him and laughed. The eldest said, "He too must forfeit his life."
Then they got up, opened cuboards, chests, and cases, and brought out their beautiful dresses. They decked themselves before the glass, skipping about and reveling in the prospect of the dance.
Only the youngest sister said, "I don't know what it is. You may rejoice, but I feel so strange. A misfortune is certainly hanging over us."
When they were all ready they looked at the soldier, but his eyes wer shut and he did not stir. So they thought they would soon be quite safe. Then the eldest went up to one of the beds and knocked on it. It sank into the earth and they decended throughrt the opening one after another, the eldest first.
The soldier, who had noticed everything, did not hesitate long, but threw on the cloak and went down behind the youngest. Halfway down he trod on her dress.
She was frightened and said, "What was that? Who is holding on to my dress?"
Then they went right down, and when they got quite underground they stood in a marvelously beautiful avenue of trees. All the leaves were silver, and glittered and shone.
The soldier thought, "I must take away some token with me." And as he broke off a twig, a sharp crack came from the tree.
Next they came to an avenue where all the leaves were of gold, and at last into a third where they were shining diamonds. From both these the soldier broke off a twig, and there was a crack each time which made the youngest princess start in terror. But the eldest maintained that the sounds were only triumphal salutes. They went faster and came to a great lake. Close to the bank lay twelve little boats and in every boat sat a handsome prince. They had expected the twelve princesses and each took one with him, but the soldier seated himself by the youngest.
On the opposite side of the lake stood a splendid brightly lighted castle from which came the sound of the joyous music of trumpets and drums. They rowed across, and every prince danced with his love. And the soldier danced too, unseen. If one of the princesses held a cup of wine he drank out of it, so that it was empty when she lifted it to her lips. This frightened the youngestone, but the eldest always silenced her.
They danced till three next morning, when their shoes were danced into holes and they were obliged to stop. The princes took them back across the lake, and this time the soldier took his seat beside the eldest. On the bank they said farewell to their princes and promised to come again the next night.
When they got to the steps the soldier ran on ahead, lay down in bed. and when the twelve came lagging by, slowly and wearily, he began to snore again very loud, so that they said, "We are quite safe so far as he is concerned." Then they took off their beautiful dresses, put them away, placed the worn out shoes under their beds , and lay down.
The next morning the soldier determined to say nothing, but to see the wonderful doings again. So he went with them the second and third nights. Everything was just the same as the first time, and they danced each time till their shoes were in holes. The third time the soldier took away a wine cup as a token.
When the appointed hour came for his answer, he took the three twigs and the cup with him and went before the King. The twelve princesses stood behind the door listening to hear what he would say.
When the King put the question, "Where did my daughters dance their shoes to pieces in the night?" he answered, "With the twelve princes in an underground castle." Then he produced the tokens.
The King sent for his daughters and asked them whether the soldier had spoken the truth. As they saw that they were betrayed and would gain nothing by lies, they were obliged to admit all.
Thereupon the King asked the soldier which one he would choose for his wife. He answered, "I am no longer young. Give me the eldest."
So the wedding was celebrated that very day, and the kingdom was promised to him on the King's death. But for every night which the underground princes had spent in dancing with the princesses, a day was added to their time of enchantment.