One lovely summer morning, just as the sun rose, two travelers started on a journey. They were both strong young men, but one was a lazy fellow, and the other was a worker.
As the first sunbeams came over the hills, they shone on a great castle standing on the heights, as far away as the eye could see. It was a wonderful and beautiful castle, all glistening towers that gleamed like marble and glancing windows that shone like crystal. The two young men looked at it eagerly and longed to go nearer.
Suddenly, something like a great butterfly of white and gold swept toward them out of the distance. And when it came nearer, they saw a most beautiful lady, robed in floating garments as fine as cobwebs and wearing on her head a crown so bright that no one could tell whether it was of diamonds or dew. She stood, light as air, on a great, shining, golden ball, which rolled along with her, swifter than the wind. She turned her face to them as she passed the travelers and smiled.
“Follow me!” she said.
The lazy man sat down in the grass with a disappointed sigh. “She has an easy time of it!” he said.
But the dynamic man ran after the lovely lady and caught the hem of her floating robe in his grasp. “Who are you, and whither are you going?” he asked.
“I am the Fairy of Fortune,” the beautiful lady said, “and that is my castle. You may reach it today; there is time if you waste none. If you reach it before the last stroke of midnight, I will receive you there and will be your friend. But if you come one second after midnight, it will be too late.”
When she had said this, her robe slipped from the traveler’s hand, and she was gone.
The industrious man hurried back to his friend and told him what the fairy had said.
“The idea!” said the lazy man, and he laughed; “of course, if we had a horse, there would be some chance, but walk all that way? No, thank you!”
“Then goodbye,” said his friend, “I am off.” And he set out, down the road toward the shining castle, with a good steady stride, his eyes straight ahead.
The lazy man lay down in the soft grass and looked rather wistfully at the far-away towers. “If only I had a good horse!” he sighed.
At that moment, he felt something warm nosing about at his shoulder and heard a little whinny. He turned around, and there stood a little horse! It was a dainty creature, gentle-looking and finely built, saddled and bridled.
“Hello!” said the lazy man. “Luck often comes when one isn’t looking for it!” And in an instant, he had leaped on the horse and headed him for the castle of fortune. The little horse started at a good pace, and in a very few minutes, they overtook the other traveler, plodding along on foot.
“How do you like shank’s pony?” laughed the lazy man as he passed his friend.
The industrious man only nodded and kept on with his steady stride, eyes straight ahead.
The horse kept his excellent pace, and by noon the towers of the castle stood out against the sky, much nearer and more beautiful. Precisely at noon, the horse turned aside from the road, into a shady grove on a hill, and stopped.
“Wise beast,” said his rider: “‘haste makes waste,’ and all things are better in moderation. I’ll follow your example and eat and rest a bit.” He dismounted and sat down in the cool moss with his back against a tree. He had a lunch in his traveler’s pouch, and he ate it comfortably. Then he felt exhausted from the heat and the early ride, so he pulled his hat over his eyes and settled himself for a nap. “It will go all the better for a little rest,” he said.
That was asleep! He slept like the seven sleepers, and he dreamed the most beautiful things you could imagine. At last, he dreamed that he had entered the castle of fortune and was being received with grand festivities. Everything he wanted was brought to him, and music played while fireworks were set off in his honor. The music was so loud that he awoke. He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and behold, the fireworks were the very last rays of the setting sun, and the music was the voice of the other traveler, passing the grove on foot!
“Time to be off,” said the lazy man and looked about him for the pretty horse. No horse was to be found. The only living thing near was an old, bony, grey donkey. The man called, whistled, and looked, but no little horse appeared. After a long while, he gave it up, and, since there was nothing better to do, he mounted the old grey donkey and set out again.
The donkey was slow, and he was hard to ride, but he was better than nothing, and gradually the lazy man saw the towers of the castle draw nearer.
Now it began to grow dark; the lights began to show in the castle windows. Then came trouble! Slower and slower went the grey donkey; slower, slower, till, in the middle of a pitch-black wood, he stopped and stood still. Not a step would he budge for all the coaxing and scolding and beating his rider could give. At last, the rider kicked him and beat him, and at that, the donkey felt that he had had enough. Up went his hind heels, down his head, and the lazy man went onto the stony ground.
There he lay groaning for many minutes, for it was not a quiet place, I can assure you. How he wished he were in a soft, warm bed, with his aching bones comfortable in blankets! The very thought of it made him remember the Castle of Fortune, for he knew there must be good beds there. He was even willing to bestir his poor limbs to get to those beds, so he sat up and felt about him for the donkey.
No donkey was to be found.
The lazy man crept round and round the spot where he had fallen, scratched his hands on the stumps, tore his face in the briers, and bumped his knees on the stones. But no donkey was there. He would have laid down to sleep again, but he could hear now the howls of hungry wolves in the woods; it did not sound pleasant. Finally, his hand struck against something that felt like a saddle. He grasped it, thankfully, and started to mount his donkey.
The beast he took hold of seemed very small, and, as he mounted, he felt that its sides were moist and slimy. It gave him a shudder, and he hesitated, but he heard a distant clock strike at that moment. It was striking eleven! There was still time to reach the castle of fortune, but no more than enough, so he mounted his new steed and rode on once more. The animal was more accessible to sit on than the donkey, and the saddle seemed remarkably high behind; it was good to lean against. But even the donkey was not so slow as this; the new steed was slower than he. After a while, however, he pushed his way out of the woods into the open, and there stood the castle, only a little way ahead! All its windows were ablaze with lights. A ray from them fell on the lazy man’s beast, and he saw what he was riding: it was a gigantic snail! A snail as giant as a calf!
A cold shudder ran over the lazy man’s body, and he would have gotten off his horrid animal then and there, but just then, the clock struck once more. It was the first of the long, slow strokes that mark midnight! The man grew frantic when he heard it. He drove his heels into the snail’s sides to make him hurry. Instantly, the snail drew in his head, curled up in his shell, and left the lazy man sitting in a heap on the ground!
The clock struck twice. If the man had run for it, he could still have reached the castle, but, instead, he sat still and shouted for a horse.
“A beast, a beast!” he wailed, “any kind of a beast that will take me to the castle!”
The clock struck three times. And as it struck the third note, something came rustling and rattling out of the darkness, something that sounded like a horse with a harness. The lazy man jumped on its back, a very queer, low back. As he mounted, he saw the castle’s doors open and saw his friend standing on the threshold, waving his cap and beckoning to him.
The clock struck four times, and the new steed began to stir; as it struck five, he moved a pace forward; as it struck six, he stopped; as it struck seven, he turned himself about; as it struck eight, he began to move backward, away from the castle!
The lazy man shouted and beat him, but the beast went slowly backward. And the clock struck nine. The man tried to slide off, then, but great arms came reaching up and held him fast from all sides of his strange animal. And in the next ray of moonlight that broke the dark clouds, he saw that he was mounted on a monster crab!
One by one, the lights went out in the castle windows. The clock struck ten. Backward went the crab. Eleven! Still, the crab went backward. The clock struck twelve! Then the great doors shut with a clang, and the castle of fortune was closed forever to the lazy man.
What became of him and his crab no one knows to this day, and no one cares. But the dynamic man was received by the Fairy of Fortune and made happy in the castle as long as he wanted to stay. And ever afterward, she was his friend, helping him not only to happiness for himself but also showing him how to help others wherever he went.