Once on a time, long, long ago, when good people were scarcer, and enchantments more plentiful, there was a Queen who had three beautiful daughters who were renowned far and wide for their handsome looks and gentle ways, and were courted by kings and princes, and many others of high degree, but hadn't yet been won by any. One day a great prince, that no one knew, and who had never been seen in that country before, came, like the others, looking for the hand of one of these beautiful ladies. But the queen approved of him, in case he was able to succeed in winning the willing hand of either of her daughters, and though he tried his very best he couldn't win either of them; for they hadn't yet seen enough of him, and didn't know enough about him to consent, either of them, to be his for life. Then, he was too proud and too haughty to spend time in his courting, like the other great gentlemen who endeavoured to win them, and when he couldn't have his desire granted at once he would not delay, but went away from the queen's court in great wrath, saying angrily that the next time he came for them they would come with him without the asking.
It wasn't long after he went away, when one morning, the queen and her three daughters sitting by a window, chatting, and looking out on the lovely grounds, saw a great black bull tramping among, and rooting up their flower beds. They were greatly annoyed at this, and the eldest daughter jumped up and ran out, seizing a bit of stick by the way to drive the bull from the garden, but when she reached the bull and struck him with the stick, the stick stuck to the bull, and her hand stuck to the stick, so that she couldn't let it go. Then the bull started away, dragging her after him and over high hills, and low hills, grey mountains, and green plains he ran, with the lady still drawn after him, very soon disappearing from view of the queen's castle, and for three days and three nights he never stopped running so, till he reached another great castle, painted the colour of blood. Here the bull changed into the shape of a man, and the frightened young princess saw that he was no other than the haughty prince they had a short time before rejected.
"Now lady," said he, "it was my last warning, when leaving your castle, that the next time I would visit you, you would come with me without being asked. You see, my word was good, whether you will or no. I now make you mistress of my castle. If you obey me you shall want for nothing, and shall be happier than even in your mother's. But if you ever dare to disobey me, your fate will be that of many unfortunate ones who went before you, and whose blood has painted my castle the colour you see it."
The princess resigned herself to her fate, making herself as comfortable as she could that night, and in the morning the prince came to her with a great bunch of keys, which he gave into her possession, saying:
"Now, since you are to be mistress of my castle, I give you charge of all the keys of it. I go away to remain away for a day, and you can pass your time pleasantly going through the castle and seeing all the beautiful rooms in it. Only this—there," said he, pointing out a key, "is one key, and do not use it, nor enter the room it opens. If you dare to do so, you will surely suffer for your idle curiosity."
Then he went away, and the princess at her leisure went through the rooms of the castle one after another, admiring their beauty and gorgeousness, until she had seen all but the forbidden room. And when she came to it she looked long at the door, and,
"Well now," she said, "I wonder what can be in that room, or why he has forbidden me to enter it. I would like to see it; and why mightn't I just turn the key and peep in? Who can know?"
So she put the key in the door and turned it, and seeing the floor covered with some red matter she put her foot in it and found it was blood. Then she was horrified on looking round the walls to see that it was hung all round with the bodies of beautiful ladies, whom she then knew the prince must have murdered. Then she quickly closed the room again, and locked it. She went to wash the blood from her foot, but found that no matter how much she tried, though she rubbed it and scrubbed it in a running stream by the castle, that she could not get even the smallest drop of the blood washed out. But she thought she could easily hide it from her lord, and went about her business unconcerned. In the evening she took bread and a basin of milk into the garden to have supper under the trees. As she drank the milk a cat crept up to lick the drops that fell from the bowl, but the princess struck the cat with her foot.
"Miaow! Miaow!" said the cat. "If you let me drink up only what milk you let drop, I will lick half the blood off your foot."
"Get out," said she, kicking the cat again. "How would you lick it off when I wasn't able to wash it off myself."
Then a robin redbreast came hopping up, picking the crumbs she let fall, and she threw a stick at the robin.
"Toowhit! Toowhit!" said the robin, "If you let me pick up what crumbs you let fall, I'll tell how to take away one half the blood on your foot."
"Get out!" said she, throwing another stick at the robin. "When I couldn't wash it off myself how could you tell me?"
Next day the prince returned and asked for the keys. She gave them to him.
"I hope," he said, "you did not disobey me, and open the room I forbade you?"
"No," she said, "I did not."
"Show me your feet," said he.
She tried to hide the foot that was covered with blood, but it was no use, for the prince insisted on seeing it. And when he saw the blood upon it he had her killed and hung up in the secret room.
At the queen's castle there was great grief and great trouble at the loss of the princess, and on a morning about a week after she had been carried off, the queen and her two daughters sat by the window talking of their loss, when once more the black bull appeared in the garden rooting up the beautiful flowers and destroying all before him. The elder of the two daughters said she would go out and drive him away. Her mother tried to persuade her not, but she insisted, and, catching up a rake on her way—in order to stand further from him than her sister did—she went into the garden and struck the bull with it. But the rake stuck to the bull and her hand stuck to the rake, and off the bull started over high hills, low hills, grey mountains, and green plains, running without once stopping for three days and three nights till she at length saw a great castle the colour of blood, and here she stopped, and the bull turned himself into a man, and there she beheld the very prince who had gone away from her mother's castle in wrath not long before.
"Fair princess," said he, "you may remember that when I quitted your mother's castle my last words were that when I came again you would come with me without my asking you. Haven't I kept my word?"
Then he led her into the castle and told her she would be mistress of it; and, if she so willed it, might be as happy as the day was long, for he would permit her the enjoyment of every pleasure, and put every pleasure in her way—only, let her beware not to disobey any of his orders else the fate of many others, whose blood now coloured the walls of his castle, would be hers.
Next morning he called her, and telling her he was going to be absent for two days, gave her the keys of all the rooms in the castle, telling her she might amuse herself looking through them, and beholding their magnificence, till he returned. But he pointed out one and warned her on her peril not to open the room of which that was the key.
The prince departed, and the young princess immediately set about going through the many magnificent rooms which the castle contained, and her amazement at their grandeur was great. She had opened and entered every room but the forbidden one, and coming to that door and examining it she began debating with herself why it was he had ordered her not to enter it, and came to the conclusion that it must contain some wonderful secret when he was so strict in excluding her from it. At length she resolved to just open it and peep in, saying that it would be impossible for the prince ever to find out her disobedience. So she turned the key in the door, and, opening it, she saw something red on the floor, to which she put her foot and found it was blood. Then, looking round the room, she saw the horrible sight of many bodies of beautiful ladies, and her own lost sister amongst them, hung by the walls. She quickly closed the door and locked it. But she found her foot was covered with blood, and when she went to the stream that flowed by the castle to wash it, though she rubbed and rubbed ever so hard, she could not get any of the blood off her foot. Then she gave it up, saying to herself that she would manage to conceal it from her lord.
That evening as she sat under the trees in the garden eating bread and drinking milk for supper, a cat crept up to lick some drops of milk that had fallen on the ground. She kicked away the cat.
"Miaow! Miaow!" said the cat, "if you let me take what milk drops from your bowl, I shall lick one-half the blood off your foot."
"Get out!" said she, making another kick at the cat, "When I couldn't wash it off myself, I'm very sure you couldn't lick it off."
Then a robin redbreast hopped up to pick the crumbs she let fall; but she threw a stick at the robin and hunted it away.
"Toowhit! toowhit!" said the robin from the tree where it alighted. "If you let me pick up what crumbs fall from you I'll tell you how you may take one-half the blood off your foot."
"Get out!" said she, throwing another stick at him. "When I couldn't wash it off myself I'm very sure you couldn't tell me how."
At the end of the two days the prince returned and demanded the keys.
"I trust you haven't gone into the room I forbade you of?" he said. "Show me your feet."
She tried to hide the bloody foot from him, but it was of no use, for he insisted on seeing it; and, finding the blood upon it, he knew she had been in the secret room, and he immediately killed her, and hung up her body beside her sister's.
About a week after the second sister's disappearance, the queen and her only daughter, the youngest, sat in great grief by the window on a morning, trying to console each other for their great loss, when once more the black bull appeared in the garden, rooting up their flowers as before. The young princess said she would go out and drive him off. Her mother endeavoured to persuade her not to attempt it, but she insisted, and seizing a very long pole—in order to keep further from him than her elder sisters—as she went she rushed into the garden, and struck the bull with it. But the pole stuck to the bull, and her hand stuck to the pole; and the bull went off, and she went off, over high hills, low hills, grey mountains, and green plains, running on and on, without once stopping, for three days and three nights, till at length she saw a great red castle, painted all over with blood. Here the bull stopped, and changed his shape into that of a man—the very prince to whom she and her sisters had some time before refused their hands in marriage.
"Now, fair young princess," said he, "when you refused me and I quitted your mother's castle, I said that the next time I went for you, you might come without asking. Has not my word been kept?"
Then he told her that he would make her the mistress of that great castle, and that she would want for nothing to make her happiness perfect. Only, he told her, she would have to obey him in all things; otherwise, the fate of those whose blood had painted his castle, would also be hers.
On the next morning the prince told her he was going away, to remain for three days, and he gave her a great bunch of keys which opened every room in the castle, and told her whilst he would be absent to amuse herself as best she could going through them, seeing their richness and beauty. But he showed her one key, and told her on no account to dare enter or open the room of which that was the key.
The prince bade her good-bye and departed, and the princess, taking the great bunch of keys, went through the castle, gazing at the beauty of the many rooms in amazement and wonder, until she had seen them all but the one he had ordered her not to open. She stood a long time before the door of this room, wondering why it was he had forbidden her to enter it and what secret could it contain that he was so anxious to keep from her. At length she resolved to open it and peep in anyhow, for how should he know whether she had disobeyed him or not. So she opened the door, and seeing the floor covered with something red, she put her foot to it to find what it was, and discovered it was blood. Then she saw a very great number of bodies of beautiful ladies who had been murdered, and hung by their long hair from hooks round the walls. Horrified by this, she hastily closed the door, and locked it. But she found her foot was covered with blood, and she went at once to the stream that flowed by the castle for the purpose of washing it. Yet, though she washed and washed, and scrubbed and rubbed for hours together, she was unable to take a single trace of blood off the foot. Then she left, saying to herself that she would be able to conceal it from the prince anyhow.
In the evening, as she ate her bread and drank her milk for supper, under the trees in the garden, a cat came creeping up to lick the drops of milk that fell from the basin.
"Oh, poor puss!" said she, "you're thirsty and that's not much milk for you. Here," said she, giving the half-finished basin to the creature—"Here is a drop for you, for you're thirstier than me, and I can easily do without it."
When the cat had finished the milk, "Miaow! Miaow!" it said, "put out your foot fair lady, till I lick half the blood off it."
"There it is, good cat," said she, putting it out, "but when I couldn't wash it off myself, I fear you won't be able."
But in a few moments the cat licked off half the blood. She thanked it very much and it went away, leaving her eating her bread.
Soon the robin redbreast came hopping up to pick the crumbs that fell from her.
"Poor robin," she said, "you are hungry and more in need of this bread than me, for I can easily do without it," and she laid down her bread till the robin had pecked to satisfaction of it.
"Toowhit! toowhit!" said the robin then—"I can tell you, kind lady, how to take the other half of the blood off your foot, if you do it."
"Very well, then, good robin," she said, "I'll try. But when I wasn't able to wash it off myself I fear you won't be able to help me."
"Pluck ten leaves of the yarrow to-night at midnight," said the robin. "Throw the tenth away and boil the other nine. Then wash your foot in the boiled juice and the blood will wash off."
She thanked the little robin, who flew away, and at midnight she went into the garden and plucked ten leaves of the yarrow, throwing the tenth away, and boiling the other nine. In the juice she washed her foot, and every trace of the blood was gone.
When, at the end of the three days, the prince returned, he demanded the keys.
"I hope," said he, "you haven't disobeyed me, and opened the forbidden room. Show me your feet."
She showed him her feet which would shame snow in whiteness.
"I see you have not disobeyed me," he said, "and I am glad, for I would not like to kill so beautiful a lady. Your two sisters whom I took away, and many other beautiful ladies before that, when put to the test, disobeyed me, and I killed them and hung them up by the hair in that very room. You have not disobeyed me, and I will make you my wife, for you have nothing more to fear now that I have found you are without that curiosity which is the great blemish on most women. Here," he said, handing her a white rod, "is a wand. Go to the secret room, open it, and going in, strike the bodies of your sisters with it."
She did this, and lo! her sisters came to life once more. The prince then allowed her to bring to life in the same way all the other young ladies who had been killed and hung up in the room, and they were sent to their homes again.
The young princess found herself very much in love with the prince, for he was a most handsome man; and she now gladly agreed to become his wife. Her mother was soon made acquainted with what had happened, and her joy was great at finding her beautiful daughters still alive. She came to the marriage, as did all the other nobility; and it was allowed on all hands that a more beautiful or a happier pair had never before been united. The marriage lasted nine days and nine nights; the last day and night was as good as the first, and the first as good as the last; and the handsome prince and his beautiful princess lived happily ever.