Three tasks set by the King, a court of hands, and a beautiful white cat.
The White Cat
– A Brothers Grimm Tale –
There was once a King who had three sons, all handsome and brave, but it came to his ears that they wished to reign now instead of waiting until he died, he therefore determined to divert their minds by making promises the fulfilment of which he would always be able to evade. So he called them to his room and spoke: “You must agree with me, my dear children, that at my great age I cannot manage the business of my kingdom as I used to do, and as I am intending retiring into the country, it seems to me that a clever, faithful dog would be very good company, and I promise you that whichever brings me the most beautiful little dog at once succeeds to the kingdom.”
The Princes were much surprised to hear their father’s wish for a little dog, but agreed with pleasure to go in search of one. They said good bye to the King, who gave them money and jewels, announcing that in a year he should expect them to return, all on the same day and at the same hour, bringing to him their little dogs.
Then the Princes set out, each by a different road, agreeing in a year’s time to meet at a certain place a short distance from their home.
The two elder met with many adventures, but it is only the youngest that we shall follow.
This youngest Prince was very courteous, merry, clever and accomplished, he was tall, handsome, and all that a prince should be.
Very seldom a day passed without his buying dogs, little dogs, big dogs, sporting dogs, spaniels, hounds, dogs of all sorts. When he found a beautiful one and then came across a still better, he let the first one go, for being alone—the Princes had declined to take any attendants—he could not take charge of thirty or forty thousand dogs.
He travelled on, keeping to one road, until on a certain night, during a storm of thunder and rain, he lost his way, and after some wandering arrived at a most superb castle where nobody was to be seen but about a dozen hands all holding torches. Other hands pushed him forwards, and guided him through one apartment after another, all so rich in precious stones and beautiful paintings, that it was like enchantment.
After passing through sixty rooms, the hands stopped him, and here the wet garments of the Prince were taken away, and he was clad in raiment of the most exquisite description. The hands then conducted him into a banqueting hall, where entered a little figure, not two feet high, covered with a long black crepe veil, followed by a great procession of cats.
The Prince was too much astonished to move. The little figure approached him, raising the veil, and he saw the most beautiful White Cat he had ever beheld.
Addressing the Prince she said:
“King’s son! welcome! my Feline Majesty sees you with pleasure!”
“Madame Cat,” replied the Prince, “it is very good of you to receive me thus, but you are not an ordinary cat; being able to speak, and possessing this superb castle, are proof of that.”
After they had conversed a little while, supper was served to them, during which the Prince entertained the Cat by telling her all sorts of news, and he discovered that she was well informed as to what was taking place in the world.
Supper over, various cats came in, dressed in fancy costumes, and danced a ballet, then the White Cat bid her visitor good-night, and the hands which had conducted him before, led him to a bedchamber.
Early the next morning the hands awoke him, and dressing him in a handsome hunting costume, led him to the courtyard, where he found the White Cat upon a splendid monkey, with about five hundred other cats assembled, all ready for the chase; and never had the Prince enjoyed anything so much, for although mounted only upon a wooden horse, he rode at a great pace.
Day after day passed in such delights as made the Prince almost forget his own country.
“Alas!” said he to the White Cat again and again, “how sad I shall be to leave you! I love you so dearly! Either become a woman, or change me into a cat!”
A year passes very quickly when one has no care or trouble, and is enjoying life. But the White Cat knew when the Prince should return home, and reminded him, saying, “Don’t you know you have only three days to look for the little dog for your father, and that your brothers will have found the most beautiful?”
Then the Prince came to himself, and cried, “By what charm have you made me forget what is so important? Where shall I find the dog, and a horse swift enough for such a journey?” And he was in great distress.
The White Cat comforted him, however, saying that the wooden horse would take him to his journey’s end sufficiently quickly, and that she would herself also provide the little dog; then she handed to him a walnut, saying, “Put your ear to this shell and you will hear him barking.”
So the Prince met his brothers, and they came into the King’s presence.
The two elder sons had brought little dogs so delicate and small that one hardly dared to touch them, and none could decide which should have the kingdom. Then the youngest took from his pocket the nut the Cat had given to him, and there was seen a little dog so tiny that it could go through a ring without touching it; he was also able to dance, and play the castanets, while his ears touched the ground. The King was embarassed, for it was impossible to find a flaw in this lovely little creature.
However as he did not desire to part with his crown, he declared that they had succeeded so well in their first quest that now he should like them to search, by land and sea, for a piece of linen so fine that it would pass through the eye of a very small needle.
Then the three Princes set out once more, but the youngest mounted his wooden horse and repaired at once to the White Cat, who was rejoiced to see him, and the second year passed by as the first had done.
When the day came round appointed by the King for the return of his sons, the two elder appeared before him, and, without awaiting the arrival of their brother, displayed their pieces of linen, which were of a fineness quite astonishing. But although they would pass through the eye of a large needle, through the small needle the King had selected they would not go.
There was much murmuring at this, and while the brothers were disputing the King’s decision, a charming sound was heard of trumpets and other musical instruments.
It was the youngest Prince who arrived in a chariot with outriders and numerous attendants, all of which had been provided for him by the White Cat.
After respectfully greeting his father and embracing his brothers, he took out of a jewelled box a nut which he broke. On breaking the nut he found a cherry stone, the stone was broken and there was the kernel, in the kernel was a grain of corn, in the grain of corn a millet seed, and within that a piece of linen so fine that it passed six times through the smallest needle’s eye, and moreover on it were exquisite paintings of people and places without number.
It is very good of you to receive me thus, but you are not an ordinary cat…”
The King heaved a deep sigh, and turning to his children said, “Nothing pleases me, in my old age, so much as your deference to my desires, and I wish to prove you once more. Travel for a year, and he who at the end of the year brings home the most beautiful girl shall marry her, and be crowned king on his marriage. I promise you that I will not defer this reward any longer.”
Our Prince saw the injustice of all this; his little dog and piece of linen were worth ten kingdoms, not only one; but he was too well brought up to go against his father’s wishes, and, mounting into his chariot, with his retinue, he returned to the White Cat’s Castle.
“Well! King’s son!” said the White Cat, “you have returned once more without your crown?”
“Madam,” answered the Prince, “your gifts should have gained it for me, but I am convinced that the King would have more pain in giving it up than I should have pleasure in possessing it!”
“Never mind,” she replied, “you shall not neglect anything that may deserve it; and if you must conduct a beautiful girl to your father’s court, I will look for one so that you may gain the prize. Meanwhile let us be happy.”
If the Cat had not taken pains to remember the time when he must return to the court, the Prince would surely have forgotten it. On the evening before, she told him that she would bring him to one of the most beautiful Princesses in the world, that at last the hour had arrived to destroy the fatal work of an evil fairy, and to do this he must make up his mind to cut off her head and tail, which he was at once to throw into the fire.
“I,” cried the Prince, “Blanchette that I love: do you think I should be cruel enough to kill you? No doubt, you wish to prove my heart which will certainly never forget what I owe to you for your kindness.”
“No! King’s son,” she continued, “I don’t think you are ungrateful. Do this that I beseech you, and then we shall begin to be happy with one another, by the faith and honour of a cat, believe that I am truly your friend.”
Tears flowed from the Prince’s eyes even at the thought, and he said all that he could to avoid it, but she urged him so vehemently that at last he took his sword and tremblingly cut off the head and tail of his dear friend the Cat.
In the same moment took place the most marvellous change imaginable.
The body of the White Cat grew large, and was transformed into that of a girl; how, one could not say; one only knew it was so. Her figure was majestic, her manners charming, her whole appearance beautiful beyond words.
Then there entered an immense number of lords and ladies, who carrying their cats’ skins, or with them thrown across their shoulders, came and cast themselves at the feet of the Queen, expressing their joy at seeing her again in her rightful form.
She received them all with a kindness which showed the goodness of her heart, and then turning to the Prince she told the story of her life, and how by a wicked enchantment she had been transformed into a White Cat.
“But it is you, my Prince, who have freed me,” she concluded; “as soon as I saw you I knew my troubles were at an end.”
They set out forthwith in a splendid carriage. As they drew near the castle, at the place where the three brothers were to meet, the Queen entered into a little crystal rock ornamented with precious stones, and this was carried by richly dressed young men.
The Prince who had remained in the carriage, saw his brothers approaching with wondrously beautiful ladies.
On being questioned he told them that all he had brought was a little White Cat.
They began to laugh at him, and drove on followed by the young Prince, while after him was brought the crystal rock.
Arrived at the Palace the two elder Princes dismounted with their marvellous Princesses.
The King received them graciously, and did not know to which to award the prize.
He looked at his youngest son and said, “This time, then, you have come alone.” “Your Majesty will see in this rock a little White Cat who mews sweetly and has soft little velvet paws,” answered the Prince.
The King smiled, and himself went to open the rock. But, as he came near, the Queen, with a touch, made it shatter to pieces, and from out of it she appeared like the sun that has been hidden by clouds; her fair hair was spread over her shoulders, and fell in waves to her feet, and she was robed in a gown of white and rose-colour.
She made a deep curtsey to the King who, struck with admiration, could not help exclaiming,
“Here is one who is matchless, and she deserves my crown.”
“Sire,” she answered, “I have not come to take away the throne that you fill with such dignity; I was born heir to six kingdoms, allow me to offer you one, and one of them I give to each of your sons. In return all I ask of you is this young Prince for my husband. We shall still have three kingdoms.”
The King and all the Court uttered loud cries of joy. The marriage was at once celebrated, also that of the other two Princes; and in such a manner that the Court spent several months in fetes of all sorts.
Then each one of them departed to govern his kingdom, the White Cat making herself ever remembered as much by her kindness and generosity as by her rare merit and beauty.
My Book of Favourite Fairy Tales is a wonderful collection of classic fairy tales such as ‘Cinderella’, ‘Little Snow White’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Bluebeard’, ‘Thumbelina’, and ‘Beauty and the Beast’. These much-loved stories are accompanied by the magnificent colour and black-and-white illustrations of Jennie Harbour.
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