(This fairy tale takes place on Lake Leman in Switzerland, which is more widely known as Lake Geneva.)
At the mouth of the beautiful and enormous Lake Leman, the snow-capped ridges of the Savoy mountain range are reflected. Here lies the city of Geneva, today often referred to as the Republic of Geneva by proud citizens. In ancient times the Dukes of Savoy wanted to conquer the populace of Geneva. Under the cover of darkness they scaled the city walls only to be discovered in the nick of time. Although they had already penetrated the city, they were driven out and soundly defeated. At Fortress Escalade, the youths of Geneva still sing a song about this siege. They sing: “A la belle escalade, Savoyard, garde, garde!”
In those ancient times a phantom ship was often seen from the beautiful terraces of the city and the small villages dotting the strand. Villagers reported that the ship glimmered brightly under a full moon and the soft strumming of a harp could often be heard floating gently across the waters. When the vessel approached shore you could see a beautiful woman in white surrounded by numerous small children; more like angels or gentle butterflies they danced a roundelay. The maiden was so beautiful that the townspeople could only think her beauty was conjured up by witches or devilry. Wherever the ship touched land, the most wonderful flowers sprouted up and you could not find these flowers anywhere else. Whoever saw the ship of fortune, for that is what the people called it, that person’s last wish was fulfilled. Many a stingy or depraved person strolled the shoreline by night and day … searching for a glimpse of the ship, but all in vain. It never revealed itself to them. It only brought luck to persons like the small maid, who stared longingly out of her window and had a secret wish deep in her heart.
Once an orphan by the name of Johann from Brogny tended his herd of pigs in a small village outside Geneva. He spent the entire day with them in the field but at night he drove them back to the village. One day it seemed to him that darkness fell much earlier. The moon soon rose over Mount Saleff and formed a golden path down to the lake and the city of Geneva. Johann could see the dome of the cathedral outlined in the eerie glow. Suddenly he heard the sound of horses galloping in his direction. A troop of soldiers rode by and frightened his pigs so they ran off into every direction. Behind the soldiers, the Bishop of Geneva could be seen riding in pomp and circumstance.
Soon the sound of the horses’ hooves echoed in the distance and only the little wavelets could be heard beating the sand. The boy said “If only I could be such a fine gentleman!” In that moment he was startled by the wonderful playing of a harp and when he looked around he saw the phantom ship illuminated as it sailed by. A woman in white stood in the ship surrounded by the children dancing their roundelay, singing and laughing. His heart pounded and he was blinded by the intensity of the ship’s glow. He covered his eyes with his hands but when he took them away, the phantom ship had vanished. He thought it had all been a dream, gathered his spooked piglets and drove them back to the village.
As he entered the village he saw a light burning in the shop of the shoemaker. He had ordered a pair of fine shoes but didn’t have the money to pay for them. He stammered out his apologies to the man, but the shoemaker pulled out a fine pair of leather shoes from under his three-legged stool. He held them up and said laughingly “Take them, they are finished. You can pay me when you become a rich man!”
Small Johann from Brogny beamed with joy and took the fine pair of shoes gratefully. He thought to himself how his wish had been fulfilled because the woman in white had heard his yearning and answered his prayers. He had long forgotten his other wish of becoming a fine gentleman.
But God did not forget and his ways are perhaps strange to men. When Johann put on his new pair of shoes, they glimmered and shone in the bright sunlight. This drew the attention of a wealthy nobleman in the city, who noticed Johann’s diligence and honesty. He soon adopted the orphan boy and when he grew to manhood, Johann married the duke’s beautiful daughter. It is said that a pair golden shoes still figure prominently in the crest of an ancient Geneva family. Their shield and coat of arms are engraved over a doorway in a castle near Lake Leman. Below the shoes the words can be read “A la belle escalade, Savoyard, garde, garde!”
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