A King had three sons, handsome, brave, and generous. Some persons about the court, however, made him believe, that these sons were eager to have him die, because each wanted to be king. This was not all true, but the King believed it, and made a plan to get them out of the way. He sent for them and said:—
"My dear sons, you must see that I am growing old, and cannot attend to state affairs as I once used to. It is right that I should make one of you king in my stead. But first I should like something to amuse me when I am no longer king. I think I should like best a little dog. Now, the one of you who brings me the most perfect little dog shall be king in my stead."
The princes were much surprised at the fancy of their father to have a little dog, but they all agreed to do as he had asked. They bade him good-by, and promised to come back in a year. They went off together to an old palace three miles away. There they had something to eat, and then set off on separate roads. But they agreed to meet again at the palace at the end of the year.
Now, we will see what happened to the youngest of the three brothers. He went from town to town looking for handsome dogs. He bought one, and then, when he found a handsomer dog, he bought that and gave the other away.
At last he found himself in a wood. Night came on, and it began to rain. There were thunder and lightning, and he lost his way. He groped about and saw a light in the distance. He went toward it, and soon was in front of a fine palace.
The door to the palace was of gold, studded with sapphires, and these shone with bright light. This was the light the Prince had seen. The walls of the palace were of fine china, and there were wonderful paintings upon them. These paintings showed the adventures of all the fairies from the beginning of the world.
The Prince saw a deer's foot hanging by the side of the door. It was hung at the end of a chain of diamonds, and was plainly a bell-pull. He was greatly astonished, for he saw no one, and he wondered that thieves had not long ago stolen the diamonds and the sapphires.
He pulled the deer's foot and heard a bell ring. Soon the golden door opened. He saw nobody, but he saw twelve Hands in the air, each holding a torch. He looked and did not know what to do. Then he felt himself gently pushed from behind, so he walked on into the palace. There he heard a voice singing:—
"Welcome, Prince, no danger fear,
Mirth and love attend you here."
The Hands with torches led him through one door after another, into one room after another. Each room was more splendid than the last. Finally the Hands drew a chair near a fire, and beckoned him to sit down.
The Hands he saw were white and fair. They took away his wet clothes, and brought him new fine linen, and a warm wrapper in which he sat before the fire. Then they placed before him a glass upon a stand, and began to comb and brush his hair gently. They brought a bowl with perfumed water in it, and washed his face and hands.
Now the Prince was fresh and warm, and the Hands gave him a princely suit of clothes. When he was dressed, they led him out of the chamber to a grand hall. Here a table was set with rich and dainty food. Two plates were on the table, and the Prince wondered who was to eat with him.
Just then he looked up and saw a small figure coming toward him. It was covered with a long black veil, and was not more than a foot high. On each side walked a cat dressed in black, and behind him came a great number of cats, some carrying cages full of rats, and others mouse-traps filled with mice.
The Prince did not know what to think. The little figure drew near, and drew aside her veil. It was a cat, a beautiful White Cat, but looking sad and gentle. She said to the Prince:—
"You are welcome, Prince. It makes me glad to have you come."
"Madam," said the Prince, "I thank you for all your goodness to me. I cannot help thinking you must be a wonderful being, to have this beautiful palace, to be able to speak, and yet—to be a cat!"
"That is true," said the Cat, "but I do not like to talk, and I do not like to hear fine things said to me. Let us sit down to supper."
The Hands then placed some dishes on the table, in front of the Prince and the White Cat. The Prince had a pie made of young pigeons, but the White Cat had one made of fat mice. The Prince at first did not like to touch his food. He was not quite sure what it was, but the White Cat told him not to be afraid. The dishes before him had no bit of rat or mouse in them.
When supper was over, the Prince noticed that the White Cat carried a little picture hung by a cord upon one of her feet. He asked to look at it. It was a portrait of a young man. To his great surprise, it was his own likeness.
He did not ask the White Cat to explain this, for she had a look which forbade him. They talked together about many things, and then the White Cat bade the Prince good-night. The Hands, with torches, led him to his chamber, and there he slept.
He was waked in the morning by a noise outside. He got up, and the Hands brought him a handsome hunting-jacket. The noise kept on, and he looked out of the window. There he saw more than five hundred cats in the open space before the palace. They were making ready for a hunt.
The White Cat soon came and asked him to join their sport, and he was given a wooden horse to ride on. The White Cat mounted a monkey. She wore a dragoon's cap, which made her look very bold and fierce.
The horns sounded, and away they went. The cats ran faster than hares and rabbits, and when they caught any, they brought them to the Prince and the White Cat. They chased birds as well as rabbits. Up the trees they went, and the White Cat on the monkey climbed more quickly than any, and mounted the highest trees, to the eagle's nest.
When the chase was over, they all went back to the palace. The White Cat sat down at the table with the Prince, and they had a fine supper. Again the Hands led the Prince to his chamber, and he slept soundly.
So it went on day after day. Every day there was some new pleasure, and the White Cat was so gentle, so sweet, and so thoughtful, that the Prince could not bear to think of leaving the palace.
"How can I go away from you?" he cried one day. "Can you not make me a cat to live here always? or, can you not make yourself a lady?" But the White Cat only smiled, and made no answer.
At last a year had almost gone. The White Cat knew what day the Prince must return to his father, and told him that he had but three days left.
"Alas!" said the Prince. "What shall I do? I have not yet found a dog small enough."
"Never fear," said the White Cat. "I will see that you have a dog, and I will also give you a wooden horse, so that you can ride home in a few hours."
When the day came, the White Cat gave the Prince an acorn, and told him to put it close to his ear. He did so, and could hear a little dog barking inside the acorn. He was delighted, and thanked the White Cat a thousand times.
The Prince mounted his wooden horse, and soon was at the place where he was to meet his brothers. The two eldest told their stories. The youngest kept silence, and showed only a cheap cur. The brothers trod on each other's toes under the table, as much as to say, "We have nothing to fear from this dog."
The next day they all went to the palace. The dogs of the two elder brothers were brought in on soft rugs; they were wrapped about in silk quilts, and it was hard to see anything of them. However, the King looked at each, and could not make up his mind which was the smaller and prettier. So the two princes began to quarrel.
At this the youngest son came forward. Nobody had looked at his cur, but now he showed them his acorn. He broke the shell, and out jumped a little dog. He held his finger ring, and the dog leaped through it. There was no doubt now who had the smallest and the prettiest dog.
The King could not possibly find any fault with the dog, but he could not bear to give up his crown yet. So he thanked his sons for their trouble, and asked them to try once more. He wished them to be gone a year, and at the end of that time to bring him a fine piece of cambric. It must be fine enough to be drawn through the eye of a small needle.
The three princes thought this very hard, but they set off as before. The two eldest took different roads. The youngest mounted his wooden horse, and quickly came to the palace of the White Cat. There he was received with great joy. The Hands helped him to dismount, and the table was spread before him. The best food was given him, and the White Cat sat opposite. He told her what a hard task his father had set.
"Do not be troubled," she said. "I have cats in my palace who can make just such cambric. So be at ease and enjoy yourself."
The Prince knew how to enjoy himself. He talked with the White Cat about all sorts of things, and they hunted together. And when he was alone, he could think about the White Cat, and what she said last. Oh, yes, he knew how to enjoy himself.
Thus another year went by. At the end of the year the White Cat said to the Prince:—
"This time you must go in state."
Then he saw in the yard a splendid carriage, covered with gold and diamonds. Twelve horses as white as snow were harnessed to it, and a troop of horsemen was ready to ride behind and by the side of the carriage. The White Cat bade the Prince good-by, and gave him a walnut.
"In this nut," she said, "is the cambric. But you must not open the nut till you come before the King."
Away went the horses, and carried the Prince in a twinkling to the King's palace. His two brothers were already there. They all went into the King's presence, and the eldest brought out his piece of cambric. No one had ever seen anything so fine. The King took the needle. The tip end of the cambric went through the eye, but the piece could not be pulled further.
The second son tried, but his piece failed also. Then the youngest Prince came forward with an elegant box, covered with jewels. He opened the box and took out the walnut. He smiled, and looked about, and cracked the shell. Then he looked sober. There was no cambric there, only a filbert.
However, he cracked the shell of the filbert. Out came a cherry-stone. He looked more serious still. The brothers and the lords of the court began to laugh. What could be more silly than this Prince with his cherry-stone!
The Prince now cracked the cherry-stone, and took out the kernel. He split it, and found a grain of wheat; he opened the grain of wheat, and there was a grain of millet-seed. All the court was now laughing. The Prince grew red in the face and muttered:—
"O White Cat, White Cat, you have deceived me."
When he said this, he felt a scratch on his arm. He saw nothing, but it was just as if a cat scratched him. That brought him to his senses. He opened the millet-seed very carefully, and drew forth a piece of cambric. It was four hundred yards long, and was so fine that it was easily drawn through the eye of the needle.
The King could ask nothing more. But he was not ready to give up his crown, so he said to his sons:—
"You have done nobly. Now one of you must be king. But it will not do for one to be king without a queen. So go away and find the most beautiful woman in the world. At the end of the year come back. The one who brings the most beautiful woman shall marry her and have my kingdom."
The three brothers set off again on their travels, and the youngest rode straight to the palace of the White Cat. He could not bear to speak or think of his errand. He was so happy, however, with the White Cat that he quite forgot everything for another year. At the end of that time, the White Cat herself reminded him what he had to do.
"You must now go back to your father, but you shall take with you a beautiful princess. Cut off my head and my tail, and throw them into the fire."
"I!" said the Prince. "I cut off your head and tail! How can I, when I love you so?"
"You must. That is the way to prove your love. If you love me, do as I bid you."
The Prince looked at the White Cat. Her eyes said the same thing to him. He took his sword, and did as she bade him. No sooner had he done this than the White Cat was gone, and a beautiful princess stood before him. At the same moment the room was full of maids and gentlemen. All the cats were gone. The Prince was astonished. The beautiful princess sent away all the people, and then told the story of her life to the Prince.
"Do not think I have always been a cat. My father was a king, and had six kingdoms. He loved my mother dearly, and let her do just as she wished. She liked best to travel and to see new sights. One day she heard of a distant country where the fairies had a garden, and in this garden was the most delicious fruit ever eaten.
"She wished at once to taste this fruit, and so she set off for the country. She came to a noble palace and knocked at the gate. No one came out. She waited. No one appeared anywhere in sight. But over the garden wall she saw the fruit.
"My mother bade her servants pitch her tent close by the gate. There she stayed six weeks. Yet she saw no one go in or out. She was so vexed and so disappointed that at the end of six weeks she fell sick.
"One night, when she was almost dead, she opened her eyes and saw an old woman, small and ugly. It was one of the fairies who owned the garden. This old woman was sitting in a chair by the bed, and spoke to my mother.
" 'Why do you come here for our fruit?' she asked. 'My sisters and I do not like it at all. We did not mean you should have any. But now you are very ill, and we do not want you to die here; you may have all you want, if you will give us what we ask and then go away.'
" 'Oh,' said my mother, 'I will give you everything I have, to the half of my kingdom, if you will only give me the fruit.'
" 'Very well. You will have a child. When the child is born, give her to us. We will take care of her, and she shall be a beautiful princess.'
" 'That is pretty hard,' said my mother, 'but I must have the fruit, or I shall die. So the child shall be yours.'
"Then my mother rose and dressed, and went into the garden. Here she ate her fill. Besides, she ordered four thousand mules to be loaded with the fruit, for it was of a kind that would never spoil. Thus she traveled back to my father. He was overjoyed to see her, and she said nothing of the promise she had given.
"By and by, however, she grew sad, and my father asked her what troubled her. Then she told him the whole story. At first he was greatly troubled, but he began to think how he should prevent the fairies from getting his child.
"As soon as I was born he had me taken to the top of a high tower. There were twenty flights of stairs leading up to the room in which I was placed. A door was at the foot of each flight, and was locked, and my father kept the key. He did not mean that any one should get at me.
"When the fairies heard of this, they were very angry. They sent forth a great dragon, and the dragon breathed forth fire, and burnt up the grass and the trees. It was very fierce, too, and killed men, women, and children. So my father was filled with dismay, and sent word that the fairies should have me."
"I was placed in a cradle of mother-of-pearl, and carried to the palace by the garden where my mother had eaten the fruit. The dragon at once disappeared, and all went well in my father's kingdom.
"The fairies gave me a room in a tower, and I had everything I could ask. Here I grew up. I knew nothing of my father or mother. The fairies came to see me, but they rode the dragon, and flew in at the window. You must know there was no door to the tower. There were windows, high up from the ground, and there was a garden upon the top of the tower.
"The fairies were very kind to me, and all went well. I played in the garden on the tower, and I had my birds and flowers. But one day I was sitting at one of the windows talking with my parrot, when I saw a fine-looking man below. He stood listening to the parrot and me.
"I have never seen a man except in pictures, and I was very glad to see this one. We spoke to each other through the window and so it went on day after day. At last I thought I could not bear to live alone in the tower, and I planned to escape.
"I begged the fairies to bring me some cord and needles, to make net with. There were birds flying about, and if had a net I could catch one. They gave me these things, and I made a ladder which reached from my window to the ground.
"I meant to climb down the ladder, but before I could do so my lover had climbed up. He leaped in at my window. At first I was frightened, but then I was glad to have him with me. He gave me a picture of himself, but while we were talking the fairy Violent flew in at the window on the back of the dragon. She was in a great rage, and bade the dragon at once devour my lover.
"I tried to cast myself into the mouth of the dragon, for I no longer cared to live. But the fairy held me back, and said she had another punishment for me. She touched me with her wand, and I became at once a White Cat.
"She brought me to this palace, and gave me a troop of cats to wait on me. They were lords and ladies who had been turned into cats. The Hands were the hands of servants who could not be seen. Here I was to stay a cat until a prince should come who looked exactly like my lover, and who should cut off my head and my tail.
"My Prince, look at this picture. It is your exact image. You have saved me from the fairies, and I love you with all my heart."
The Prince was overjoyed. He made haste to set out for his father's palace with the beautiful princess. Again the brothers stood before the King, each with a beautiful princess. The King was now at his wit's end, but the princess, who had lately been a White Cat, came forward and said:—
"O King, it is a thousand pities that you should give up your kingdom. You are not old. You are very wise, and ought to reign many years. I have six kingdoms. Let me give one to each of your two eldest sons. Then the youngest son and I will still have four kingdoms. More than all, you will not have to decide which of us three princesses is the most beautiful."
Everybody set up a shout. The three weddings took place at once, and the kingdoms were divided among the princes.