THERE was once a King who had three sons, and because they were all so good and so handsome, he could not make up his mind to which of them to give his kingdom. For he was growing an old man, and began to think it would soon be time for him to let one of them reign in his place.
So he determined to set them a task to perform, and whichever should be the most successful was to have the kingdom as his reward.
It was some time before he could decide what the task should be. But at last he told them that he had a fancy for a very beautiful little dog, and that they were all to set out to find one for him. They were to have a whole year in which to search, and were all to return to the castle on the same day, and present the various dogs they had chosen at the same hour.
The three Princes were greatly surprised by their father’s sudden fancy for a little dog, but when they heard that whichever of them brought back the prettiest little animal was to succeed his father on the throne, they made no further objection, for it gave the two younger sons a chance they would not otherwise have had of being King.
So they bade their father good-bye, and after agreeing to be back at the castle at the same hour, and on the same day, when a year should have passed away, the three brothers all started together.
A great number of lords and servants accompanied them out of the city, but when they had ridden about a league they sent everyone back, and after hugging one another affectionately, they all set out to try their luck in different directions.
The two eldest met with many adventures on their travels, but the youngest saw the most wonderful sights of all.
He was young and handsome, and as clever as a Prince should be, besides being brave.
Wherever he went he enquired for dogs, and hardly a day passed without his buying several, big and little, greyhounds, spaniels, lap-dogs, and sheep-dogs—in fact, every kind of dog that you could think of, and very soon he had a troop of fifty or sixty trotting along behind him, one of which he thought would surely win the prize.
So he journeyed on from day to day, not knowing where he was going, until one night he lost his way in a thick dark forest, and after wandering many weary miles in the wind and rain he was glad to see at last a bright light shining through the trees. He thought he must be near some woodcutter’s cottage, but what was his surprise when he found himself before the gateway of a splendid castle!
At first he hesitated about entering, for his garments were travel stained, and he was drenched with rain, so that no one could have possibly taken him for a Prince. All the beautiful little dogs he had taken so much trouble to collect had been lost in the forest, and he was thoroughly weary and disheartened.
However, something seemed to bid him enter the castle, so he pulled the bell. Immediately the gateway flew open, and a number of beautiful white hands appeared, and beckoned to him to cross the courtyard and enter the great hall.
Here he found a splendid fire blazing, beside which stood a comfortable arm-chair; the hands pointed invitingly towards it, and as soon as the Prince had seated himself they proceeded to take off his wet, muddy clothes, and dress him in a magnificent suit of silk and velvet.
When he was ready, the hands led him into a brilliantly-lighted room, in which was a table spread for supper. At the end of the room was a raised platform, upon which a number of cats were seated, all playing different musical instruments.
The Prince began to think he must be dreaming, when the door opened, and a lovely little White Cat came in. She wore a long black veil, and was accompanied by a number of cats, dressed in black, and carrying swords.
She came straight up to the Prince, and in a sweet, sad little voice bade him welcome. Then she ordered supper to be served, and the whole company sat down together.
They were waited upon by the mysterious hands, but many of the dishes were not to the Prince’s liking. Stewed rats and mice may be a first-rate meal for a cat, but the Prince did not feel inclined to try them.
However, the White Cat ordered the hands to serve the Prince with the dishes he liked best, and at once, without his even mentioning his favorite food, he was supplied with every dainty he could think of.
After the Prince had satisfied his hunger, he noticed that the Cat wore a bracelet upon her paw, in which was set a miniature of himself; but when he questioned her about it, she sighed, and seemed so sad that, like a well-behaved Prince, he said no more about the matter.
Soon after supper, the hands conducted him to bed, when he at once fell fast asleep, and did not awaken until late the next morning. On looking out of his window, he saw that the White Cat and her attendants were about to start out on a hunting expedition.
As soon as the hands had dressed him in a hunting-suit of green, he hurried down to join his hostess.
The hands led him up to a wooden horse, and seemed to expect him to mount. At first the Prince was inclined to be angry, but the White Cat told him so gently that she had no better horse to offer him, that he at once mounted, feeling very much ashamed of his bad temper.
They had an excellent day’s sport. The White Cat, who rode a monkey, proved herself a clever huntress, climbing the tallest trees with the greatest ease, and without once falling from her steed.
Never was there a pleasanter hunting party, and day after day the time passed so happily away that the Prince forgot all about the little dog he was searching for, and even forgot his own home and his father’s promise.
At length the White Cat reminded him that in three days he must appear at court, and the Prince was terribly upset to think that he had now no chance of winning his father’s kingdom. But the White Cat told him that all would be well, and giving him an acorn, bade him mount the wooden horse and ride away.
The Prince thought she must be mocking him, but when she held the acorn to his ear, he heard quite plainly a little dog’s bark.
“Inside this acorn,” she said, “is the prettiest little dog in the world. But be sure you do not open the fruit until you are in the King’s presence.”
The Prince thanked her, and having bidden her a sorrowful farewell, mounted his wooden steed and rode away.
Before he reached the castle, he met his two brothers, who made fine fun of the wooden horse, and also of the big ugly dog which trotted by his side.
They imagined this to be the one their brother had brought back from his travels, hoping that it would gain the prize.
When they reached the palace, everyone was loud in praise of the two lovely little dogs the elder brothers had brought back with them, but when the youngest opened his acorn and showed a tiny dog, lying upon a white satin cushion, they knew that this must be the prettiest little dog in the world.
However, the King did not feel inclined to give up his throne just yet, so he told the brothers that there was one more task they must first perform: they must bring him a piece of muslin so fine that it would pass through the eye of a needle.
So once more the brothers set out upon their travels. As for the youngest, he mounted his wooden horse and rode straight back to his dear White Cat.
She was delighted to welcome him, and when the Prince told her that the King had now ordered him to find a piece of muslin fine enough to go through the eye of a needle, she smiled at him very sweetly, and told him to be of good cheer.
“In my palace I have some very clever spinners,” she said; “and I will set them to work upon the muslin.”
The Prince had begun to suspect by this time that the White Cat was no ordinary pussy, but whenever he begged her to tell him her history, she only shook her head mournfully and sighed.
Well, the second year passed away as quickly as the first, and the night before the day on which the three Princes were expected at their father’s court, the White Cat gave the young Prince a walnut, telling him that it contained the muslin. Then she bade him good-by, and he mounted the wooden horse and rode away.
This time the young Prince was so late that his brothers had already begun to display their pieces of muslin to the King when he arrived at the castle gates. The materials they had brought were of extremely fine texture, and passed easily through the eye of a darning-needle, but through the small needle the King had provided they would not pass. Then the youngest Prince stepped into the great hall and produced his walnut. He cracked it carefully, and found inside a hazel-nut. This when cracked held a cherrystone, inside the cherrystone was a grain of wheat, and in the wheat a millet-seed. The Prince himself began to mistrust the White Cat, but he instantly felt a cat’s claw scratch him gently, so he persevered, opened the millet-seed, and found inside a beautiful piece of soft white muslin that was four hundred arm lengths long at the very least. It passed with the greatest ease through the eye of the smallest needle in the kingdom, and the Prince felt that now the prize must be his.
But the old King was still very reluctant to give up ruling, so he told the Princes that before any one of them could become King he must find a Princess to marry him who would be lovely enough to grace her high station; and whichever of the Princes brought home the most beautiful bride should really have the kingdom for his own.
Of course, the Prince went back to the White Cat, and told her how very unfairly his father had behaved to him. She comforted him as best she could, and told him not to be afraid, for she would introduce him to the loveliest Princess the sun had ever shone upon.
The appointed time passed happily away, and one evening the White Cat reminded the Prince that on the next day he must return home.
“Alas!” said he, “where shall I find a Princess now? The time is so short that I cannot even look for one.”
Then the White Cat told him that if only he would do as she asked him all would be well.
“Take your sword, cut off my head and my tail, and cast them into the flames,” she said.
The Prince declared that on no account would he treat her so cruelly; but she begged him so earnestly to do as she asked that at last he consented.
No sooner had he cast the head and the tail into the fire than a beautiful Princess appeared where the body of the cat had been. The spell that had been cast upon her was broken, and at the same time her courtiers and attendants, who had also been changed into cats, hastened in in their proper forms again, to pay their respects to their mistress.
The Prince at once fell deeply in love with the charming Princess, and begged her to accompany him to his father’s court as his bride.
She consented, and together they rode away. During the journey, the Princess told her husband the story of her enchantment.
She had been brought up by the fairies, who treated her with great kindness until she offended them by falling in love with the young man whose portrait the Prince had seen upon her paw, and who exactly resembled him.
Now, the fairies wished her to marry the King of the Dwarfs, and were so angry when she declared she would marry no one but her own true love, that they changed her into a White Cat as a punishment.
When the Prince and his bride reached the court, all were bound to acknowledge that the Princess was by far the loveliest lady they had ever seen.
So the poor old King felt that now he would be obliged to give up his kingdom. But the Princess knelt by his side, kissed his hand gently, and told him that there was no reason for him to cease ruling, for she was rich enough to give a mighty kingdom to each of his elder sons, and still have three left for herself and her dear husband.
So everyone was pleased, and there was great rejoicing and feasting in the King’s palace, and they all lived happily ever after.