Gateway to the Classics: Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers by Mary E. Burt
Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers by  Mary E. Burt


Prince Red Cap

There was once a prince who wore a red cap, and he was a famous drummer. He drummed on trees and on stones, or most anything, and made music come out of any sort of a stick or grass-blade or stump or knot-hole.

He was so beautiful that everything loved him. The wood-nymphs whispered to him through the reeds and pine-needles, the willows bent down and murmured their complaints to him, the water-nymphs sang to him from streams and fountains, and he was as popular as a gold dollar.

But Prince Red Cap was deaf to all the voices in the woods. He had heard the voice of a singer who lived on the Hill of the Palaces, and he said, "This maiden has gathered all the sweet sounds into her own voice, all the music of the leaves and the branches and of the streams that babble."

Wonderful, indeed, as she was in her beauty, she was yet more wonderful in her singing, and so she was called Canens. At the sound of her voice the trees would leap from the ground and the rocks dance with gladness. Long rivers stopped running that they might hear her magical notes, and the wild beasts became tame in order to listen to her singing.

One day. as Canens was singing in her home, Prince Red Cap mounted his horse and rode out to hunt the wild boars that lived in the forests and fields all around the Hill of the Palaces. He wore a purple cloak fastened with yellow clasps, and he carried two javelins in his left hand. As he went along he kept drumming on everything with his javelins to please himself.

Now, it happened that same day that a golden-haired princess, who was the daughter of the Sun and Ocean, had come out into a field that she might gather some fresh flowers. She was standing just back of a shrub as Prince Red Cap came riding along, and she was so astonished at his beauty that all the flowers she had gathered fell out of her hands.

Before she could pick them up Prince Red Cap had been borne far away by his swift horse, and he stood surrounded by his guards, talking about the boar he wanted to kill, and wondering where to find him. Then the sunny-faced princess, who was something of a witch, too, plucked a magic blossom, which she turned into the image of a wild boar, and she commanded it to run through the fields right in front of Prince Red Cap, and to seem to come back to a forest close by. This forest was so packed with shrubs that no horse could enter it.

So the little phantom boar ran more swiftly than the winds right in front of Prince Red Cap, and when he saw it he gave chase and rode full tilt after it, until he came to the edge of the forest. When he found he could not enter on horseback he left his horse and ran after the phantom. And as he ran he came close to the witch, the daughter of the Sun.


Then she said to him, "O Beautiful Prince, cease to chase that boar, and sit down and let me admire you. You are running after a phantom. Leave the phantom and help me gather flowers. I will take you to my father, the Sun. He is the source of Light. He will admire you, too, and love you, and teach you great mysteries. He will show you how to see into all secret things, and how to find everything that is hidden. You shall live in his palace, and be a king in his golden halls, and he may even fancy you for a son-in-law."

Prince Red Cap bowed politely and said, "Really, I beg your pardon, but I don't remember your name. Your face is bright and sunny. One would live in summer-land all the time if he married you. But I have promised to return to Canens, the daughter of Winter. She is a sweet singer and her voice calls me. She is waiting for me, and she has promised to be my wife."

The daughter of the Sun turned herself to the West, and her face looked like a golden cloud at the setting of the sun. And she turned herself to the East, and she looked like the rosy morning. She touched Prince Red Cap with her wand, and said: "Beautiful Prince, you shall never return to Canens. You shall be my bird, and live in my fields, where your beauty may delight my father's heart and mine also."

Then Prince Red Cap turned and fled, but he did not get on very fast, and he wondered what was the matter. He looked down and saw that he had wings, and he soon found that he was changed into a strange bird with a red head. He had become a woodpecker. He was very angry, and perched on an old dead limb and began to drum for his guards. Then he flew to a fine live branch and struck the bark so hard that he wounded the branch. His wings took on the color of the purple robe he had worn. His bright golden buckle became a band of yellow feathers, and nothing remained to him of his former self except his name, and there was not much in that.

In the meantime his companions went searching through the forest, calling, "Picus! Picus! Red Cap! Red Cap!" but they could not find him. They found his horse standing where he had left it, near the shining goddess, and they accused her of changing their prince into some monster and hiding him, and they attacked her with spears.

Then the daughter of the Sun gathered together the gods of Night. From the depths of black darkness she called them, and she howled at the moon and it came to aid her, and there was a great storm. The trees leapt out from the forests, the ground uttered groans, the grass was sprinkled with blood, the stones seemed to speak in tones like the lowing of cattle, the dogs barked, the ground was covered with crawling things, and phantoms flitted about. The people were astonished and trembled. Then the goddess touched some of the young men with her wand and the forms of wild beasts came upon them.

That night, when the sun was going down, Canens, the sweet singer, looked in vain for her prince to return. So she summoned her people and they went forth with lanterns and torches to meet him. But they could not find him. Then Canens wandered over the fields for six days and six nights searching for Prince Red Cap, going, without food and without sleep, over hills and valleys, wherever chance led her. At last she came to a river and sat down upon its banks. And she sang a low, sweet song, such as the swan sings when it is about to die. She poured forth her heart in this melody, growing weaker and weaker, until by degrees she was changed into the thin blue air which is heard in the music of the pine leaves and supports the bird in its flight.

And it is quite certain that Prince Red Cap still remembers her sweet voice as he hears the zephyrs whispering to him while he hammers away in the oak trees and the apple trees. He is very cross to Mrs. Woodpecker and drives her away. When he builds a new house he lets Mrs. Woodpecker live in the old one. In the spring he sits and drums and drums for a mate, and when one comes he keeps on drumming, and it is more than likely that he believes that Canens will come if he only drums long enough.

This story teaches that a gold belt and a red cap and a purple cloak and other kinds of fine clothes may make a fine bird, but they do not make a fine man. And I am sure we all pity poor Picus and wish he had left his gay clothes at home and had had the good sense to wear plain ones, for he had a good heart and deserved a better fate. And the story teaches another lesson about little phantom boars that run along as if they were real boars. It is better to keep right at one's own work than to try to kill them.

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