N OW this is one of the stories that the cat told to the mouse when they lived together in peace and amity—and that shows you just how old it is. Once there was a King and a Queen who had three lovely daughters; the first was as pretty as a meadow daisy, and the second was as beautiful as a sunny marigold, but the third was just like fresh hawthorn buds in May—and if you can think of anything prettier than that, I had best leave off telling this story, and let you go on with it.
The two elder Princesses were brought up with all the care and all the courtly attainments possible; the first could play on the lute and the harpsichord, embroider on silk, walk out of the presence backwards, and dance to the admiration of all beholders. The second could sing to make meadow larks envious, paint the liveliest pictures, execute a court bow without wavering, and make conversation. But as for the third Princess, somehow old Lady Luck had a crick in her back when it came her turn, for she was taught nothing at all. So while the others were dancing and making conversation, she sat at one side and watched the spiders on the wall.
She sat at one side and watched the spiders on the wall.
One day as she sat there, she heard one of them say to another:
"Greet you well, my sister
and the second answered:
"What can you say I would not hear,
Twin, my twin?"
"Yonder sits a Princess fair,
With naught to do but to braid her
"What would you have the Princess
Spin as well as we spiders two,
Twin, my twin?"
"Oh she might spin the finest thread
If we wove a cap for her golden head,
"But she'll be making spider's lace
If she pulls the cap down over her face,
Spin, my twin, spinnn."
And then they scuttled away into the corner, because the first Lord of the Castle Sweepers was coming with a broom. But before he got there, the Princess stood up on a chair and reached the two spiders' webs; and they were woven into a little round cap, that fitted her head as well as her skin fitted her fingers.
After that, she was known as the finest spinner in that land, and all the housewives wanted to take lessons of her, but the Queen said No, that would not do at all, because she was a princess. Nobody in the castle thought very highly of the Princess's accomplishment, however.
Well, one day there was a great to-do in the court; the King was very ill indeed, and he wasn't expected to live, because the only thing that would cure him was a seed from the pomegranate that hung in the garden of the enchanted Prince who lived in the country across three rivers and seven mountains. The whole court sat and looked about with eyes full of blank astonishment, and then they began to get out scissors and thimbles and black stuffs, for there was no time to be lost in preparing for a decent appearance at the funeral. There is everything in getting things done beforehand, as the little pig said when he dropped a millstone on Mr. Wolf, who was coming to pay him a visit. But all the same, the Queen sent off the First Physician to see if he could get the seed. He traveled and traveled and traveled, but after he crossed one river and two mountains, he decided it wasn't worth while ploughing in the gutter, even for a diamond, and so he went home and said that the Prince was out, and wouldn't let anybody in.
So then he was beheaded, and the Second Physician was sent out; his legs went a good bit faster and farther than the First Physician's, let me tell you. But after he had crossed two rivers and five mountains, he sat down and mopped his head, and he thought to himself, "Come! There is mining enough to be done before one reaches the gold, I grant you, but I for one was not born or bred a miner!" And so he went home and said that there wasn't any pomegranate any more.
So he was beheaded, and the Third Physician was sent out. He went faster and farther than the other two, for a good heart goes better than legs or wheels. He crossed the three rivers and the seven mountains without so much as losing his breath by the way, and rapped at the garden gate of the enchanted Prince.
What did he want there? said a voice on the other side of the wall. Oh, a bit of the seed from one of the Prince's famous pomegranates, for a brother ruler who was very ill indeed.
"Yes, yes," said the voice, "that is all very well, but what is the brother ruler ready to pay me for it? Will he let me have my choice of his accomplished daughters?—for that is a fair enough bargain, when all's said."
Well, the physician hemmed and hawed, but he could find no other path out of the woods, so he finally said Yes, the Prince might have his choice of the Princesses.
"Then you must have them here before the wall by the end of the third week from to-morrow," said the voice, and a moment later the physician felt something hard strike him upon the head. It was the pomegranate seed, wrapped in a bit of the pomegranate skin to keep it fresh.
The Third Physician set off full of joy, and gave the seed to the King, who sat up immediately and asked for simnel cakes and custards, so that they knew he was fully recovered. But when the Princesses heard of the payment that must be made, they were as happy as flies in molasses,—that is, the two elder ones were. They made excuses and they made excuses, but all in vain, for a bargain was a bargain—and besides, each one had a chance to come home again. So they set out in a splendid chariot that reflected the sunbeams and dazzled every one's eyes. They completely forgot about the third sister, who sat in her bower and spun.
Finally they arrived at the wall of the Prince's garden, and each one thought privately, "Come! there are not so many flaws in this pitcher after all! And if he is enchanted, he will probably give no trouble to his spouse." And so they rapped at the garden gate, and a voice said, "So here are the accomplished daughters! And what can you do?"
The eldest Princess answered, "I can play on the lute and the harpsichord, embroider on silk, walk out of the presence backward, and dance to the admiration of all beholders." Well, she might go home again; there was no use for such as she to live and cumber the earth. And what could the second sister do?
"Oh," said the second Princess, "I can sing to make meadow larks envious, paint the liveliest pictures, execute a court bow without wavering, and make conversation." Prut! she might go home again too, for sensible people had no use for such stuff as all that.
"And is there no third sister?" asked the voice.
"Oh—yes," answered the two Princesses, somewhat huffed, "but she has no accomplishments whatever!"
"Let her be here before the garden wall at the end of the third week to-morrow," said the voice over the wall, "or it will be the worse for all of you." And not another word could they get out of him.
So back the two Princesses had to pack, and in no very happy frame of mind, I can tell you; and they told the youngest Princess to make ready to be eaten up by a ferocious ogre, for they thought that would frighten her, so that they could take out their spite on the Prince.
But the youngest Princess was not to be turned away from the middle of the path that too few people tread; she made a bundle of her clothes and a little provision, and put her gossamer cap on her head, and set off on foot. When she come to the three rivers, she tucked up her petticoats and swam; and when she came to the seven mountains, she bent her back and climbed; and on the very last day of the allotted time, she finally came to the gate in the garden wall. She rapped at the gate, and the voice answered, "What have you there?"
"Two weary feet and a heavy heart," that was what the Princess had. And had she any accomplishments? That was what the voice really wanted to know.
"Alas," said the Princess, "I have only one accomplishment, if you can call it so; I can do nothing but spin."
"Then come in," said the voice, "for I have been waiting for you these many years." So the gate was opened wide, and the youngest Princess went in to a green and fragrant garden, where she found that the voice belonged to the most beautiful young man she had ever seen.
He took her hand and led her into the castle at the end of the garden; and she and the Prince sat down to supper together. He was as gentle as charity, and as for her, she could not take her eyes from him, not only because he was as handsome as sunlight, but because she could observe none of the common signs of enchantment about him.
After supper he made her sit before the fire in the great hearth, upon a great couch that was hung with velvet and gold embroideries, and the Prince took her hands in his. Listen! he had a good bit to tell her.
During the day, he was left in his own shape, without a mark nor mar upon him; but as soon as twelve o'clock struck, he passed with fearful agonies from his own person into that of a great gray wolf without any soul, that ravaged the country and howled at the moon until the sun came over the hills to release him, and allow him to resume his own shape with the same travail in which he had left it. Now there was but one thing which could redeem him from the evil spirit; if a maid could spin a thread stronger than iron and finer than silk, and bind it about him just after he had passed from his own form into that of the werewolf, no ugly spell would have power to harm him thereafter. After he had told her all this, he suddenly became as pale as whey, and said, "Now I must leave you, for it is a quarter to twelve, and the change is beginning."
The Princess sat very still until the clock struck twelve long strokes; then there was a rush of heavy feet outside, and the scratch of claws, and a doleful howl that shook the house. Off went the Princess up the broad stairs; out of her little bundle she took some of the finest flax, and ordered a wheel to be brought to her. Then she put on her little cap more firmly, and began to spin; she worked all night and all the next day, and when she had the thread done, it was as stout as thread can be, and light as thistledown.
So that night she hid behind the door in the Prince's chamber, and at twelve o'clock, after a mortal struggle, he disappeared, and there was a great gray wolf with red jaws and dripping tongue. At the sound of the first howl, the Princess flung the thread about him, but he passed quite through it, and rushed through the door so fast that the wind had much ado to catch up with him.
The next day, the Princess took the finest down from the thistles in the garden; she worked all day, and at night she had a thread as much finer than the first one as silk is finer than hemp. But all in vain; for the werewolf escaped as he had the first night.
So then the Princess went back to her own apartment, and did not work at all. She just sat at the window with her cheek on her hand, and looked out at the good sunshine and the green growing things, and the birds that flitted by the castle walls.
That night, just before twelve o'clock, she hid herself once more behind the oaken door of the Prince's chamber, but this time she pulled the spider's little cap over her face,—and before you could blink, there she was, changed into a little gray spider running about the floor.
Presently the poor young Prince came in, and the little gray spider ran up his arm. The clock struck twelve long strokes; and after a dreadful struggle the Prince disappeared, and there stood the great gray werewolf, with red jaws and dripping tongue. The little spider ran about his paws and about his paws, and spun a thread and spun a thread; the thread was spun out of the Princess's heart, and in every inch of it was a drop of the blood of her. So it was of no use for the wolf to snap and snarl and bite and tear, for although the thread was finer than silk, it was stronger than steel, and he could no more have broken it than he could have bent my ancestor's two-handed sword. A strong heart is stronger than anything else in the world, as anybody can tell you without consulting the wise man.
By and by the spell was quite broken. The werewolf was gone forevermore, and the Prince lay on the floor, panting a little, but as happy as the river rushes in spring floods, enjoying the taste of his unencumbered soul. The first thing he did, of course, was to look for the Princess, but there wasn't a sign of her about. The only living thing in the room beside himself was a little gray spider than ran suddenly across his lips. He brushed it away with his hand so that it fell against the wall,—and behold!—there was the Princess, lying mighty pale and still, for there was but little blood left in her by this time, I can tell you.
Well, the Prince called himself all kinds of things, but he was not one to let words do all of his deeds for him. He ran hot-foot into the garden, to the pomegranate tree; and seizing a few seeds from the fruit that had been broken for the King, he hastened back and slipped them between the Princess's lips.
In less time than it takes me to tell you, she opened her eyes and looked at him; whereupon the Prince kissed her upon both cheeks. And would she marry him? Because if she would, the Prince would send for her father and mother and her two sisters and the good physician, and by the end of the third week from to-morrow, they would be married.
And so they were, with a very joyful noise of bells and cannon and other things. But the two sisters lived at home after that, playing on the lute and the harpsichord, embroidering on silk, walking out of the presence backwards, dancing to the admiration of all beholders, singing to make the meadow larks envious, painting the liveliest pictures, executing court bows without wavering, and making conversation,—until they reached a very advanced age, and everybody was quite tired of their accomplishments.
You see it is not the singers and the dancers who get everything,—as the ant once remarked to the grasshopper.