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Katherine Crackernuts

THERE was once a king whose wife died and left him with a dearly loved, only daughter. The little princess's name was Velvet-Cheek, and she was so good, pretty, and kind-hearted that her father's subjects loved her. But as the king was generally engaged in running the state, the poor little maiden had a rather lonely life, and often wished that she had a sister to play with, someone who would be a companion to her.

On hearing this, the king made up his mind to marry a middle-aged countess he had met at a neighbouring court. She had one daughter, named Katherine, who was just a little younger than Princess Velvet-Cheek, and who would make a nice playfellow for her, he thought.

He did so, and in one way the arrangement turned out well, for the two girls loved one another dearly, and had everything in common, just as if they had really been sisters. But in another way it turned out badly, for the new queen was a cruel and ambitious woman, and she wanted her own daughter to do as she had done and make a grand marriage, and perhaps even become a queen. And when she saw that Princess Velvet-Cheek was growing into a very beautiful young woman, more beautiful by far than her own daughter, she began to hate her and wish that in some way she would lose her good looks.

"For," thought the cruel queen, "what suitor will heed my daughter as long as her stepsister is by her side?"

Now, among the servants and retainers at her husband's castle there was an old henwife [1] who was skilled in the knowledge of magical charms and love potions. "Perhaps she could help me to do what I seek to do," said the bad queen; and one night, when it was growing dusk, she wrapped a cloak round her and set out to this old henwife's cottage.

"Send the lassie [2] to me tomorrow morning before she has eaten something," replied the old woman when she heard what her visitor had to say. "I will find out a way to mar her beauty." And the wicked queen went home content.

Next morning she went to the princess's room while she was dressing, and told her to go out before breakfast and get the eggs that the henwife had gathered. "And see," added she, "that you do not eat anything before you go, for there is nothing that makes the roses bloom on a young maiden's cheeks like going out fasting in the fresh morning air."

Princess Velvet-Cheek promised to go and fetch the eggs. But as she was not fond of going out of doors before she had had something to eat, and also suspected that her stepmother had some hidden reason for giving her such an unusual order. Therefore she slipped into the pantry as she went downstairs and helped herself to a large slice of cake. Then, after she had eaten it, she went straight to the henwife's cottage and asked for the eggs.

"Lift the lid of that pot there, and you will see them," said the old woman, pointing to the big pot standing in the corner where she boiled her hens' meat.

The princess did so, and found a heap of eggs lying innside. She lifted them into her basket while the old woman watched her with a curious smile.

"Go home, Honey," she said at last, "and tell your stepmother from me to keep the cupboard door better locked."

The princess went home, and gave this odd message to her stepmother, wondering to herself what it meant.

But if she did not understand the henwife's words, the queen understood them only too well. For from them she gathered that the princess had in some way prevented the old witch's spell doing what she intended it to do.

So next morning, when she sent her stepdaughter once more on the same errand, she accompanied her to the door of the castle herself, so that the girl had no chance of paying a visit to the pantry. But as the girl went along the road that led to the cottage, she felt so hungry that, when she passed a party of country-folk picking peas by the roadside, she asked them to give her a handful.

They did so, and she ate the peas; and so it came about that the same thing happened that had happened yesterday.

The henwife sent her to look for the eggs; but she could work no spell on her, because she had broken her fast. So the old woman bade her go home again and give the same message to the queen.

The queen was very angry when she heard it, for she felt that she was being outwitted by this delicate girl, and she determined that, although she was not fond of getting up early, she would accompany her next day herself, and make sure that she had nothing to eat as she went.

So next morning she walked with the princess to the henwife's cottage, and as had happened twice before, the old woman sent the girl to lift the lid off the pot in the corner in order to get the eggs.

And the moment that the princess did so off jumped her own pretty head, and on jumped that of a sheep. Then the wicked queen thanked the cruel old witch for the service rendered, and went home quite delighted with the success of her scheme. Meanwhile the princess picked up her own head and put it into her basket along with the eggs, and went home crying, keeping behind the hedge all the way, for she felt so ashamed of her sheep's head that she was afraid that anyone saw her.

Now, as I told you, the princess's stepsister Katherine loved her dearly, and when she saw what a cruel deed had been wrought on her, she was so angry that she declared that she would not remain another hour in the castle. "For," said she, "if my mother can order one such deed to be done, who can hinder her ordering another? I think it is much better for us both to be where she cannot reach us."

So she wrapped a fine shawl round her poor stepsister's head so that none could tell what it was like, and putting the real head in the basket, she took her by the hand, and the two set out to seek their fortunes.

They walked and walked till they reached a splendid castle, and when they came to it, Katherine made as though she would go boldly up and knock at the door.

"I may perhaps find work here and earn enough money to keep us both comfortable," she explained,

But the poor princess with a sheep's head and a bad headache from it would rather have pulled her back. "They will have nothing to do with you," she whispered, "when they see that you have a sister with a sheep's head."

"And who is to know that you have a sheep's head?" asked Katherine. "If you hold your tongue and keep the shawl well round your face, and leave the rest to me?"

So up she went and knocked at the kitchen door, and when the housekeeper came to answer it she asked her if there was any work that she could give her to do. "For," said she, "I have a sick sister, who is rather troubled with migraine, and I would fain find a quiet lodging for her where she could rest for the night."

"Do you know anything of sickness?" asked the housekeeper, who was greatly struck by Katherine's soft voice and gentle ways.

"Yes, I do," answered Katherine, "for when one's sister is troubled with the migraine, one has to learn to go about softly and not to make a noise."

Now it chanced that the king's eldest son, the crown prince, was lying ill in the castle of a strange disease that seemed to have touched his brain. For he was so restless, especially at nights, that someone had always to be with him to watch that he did himself no harm. This state of things had gone on so long that everyone was quite worn out.

And the old housekeeper thought that it would be a good chance to get a quiet night's sleep if this capable-looking stranger could be trusted to sit up with the prince.

So she left her at the door and went and consulted the king. Soon the king came out and spoke to Katherine, and he, too, was so pleased with her voice and her appearance that he gave orders that a room should be set apart in the castle for her sick sister and herself. He also promised that if she would sit up that night with the prince and see that no harm happened to him, she would have a bag of silver pennies as her reward in the morning.

Katherine agreed to the bargain readily, "for," she thought, "'it will always be a night's lodging for Princess Velvet-Cheek; and besides, a bag of silver pennies is not to be got every day."

So the princess went to bed in the comfortable chamber that was set apart for her, and Katherine went to watch by the sick prince.

He was a handsome, comely young man, who seemed to be in some sort of fever, for his brain was not quite clear, and he tossed and tumbled from side to side, gazing anxiously in front of him and stretching out his hands as if he were in search of something.

At twelve o'clock at night, just when Katherine thought that he was going to fall into a refreshing sleep, she saw him rise from his bed, dress himself hastily, open the door, and slip downstairs, as if he were going to look for somebody.

"There is something strange in this," said the girl to herself. "I think I had better follow him and see what happens."

So she stole out of the room after the prince and followed him safely downstairs, where he put on his hat and riding-coat. Unlocking the door, he crossed the courtyard to the stable, and began to saddle his horse.

When he had done so, he led it out and mounted, and whistling softly to a hound that lay asleep in a corner, he prepared to ride away.

"I must go too, and see the end of this," said Katherine bravely; "for I think he is bewitched. All this are not what a sick man and ordinary sleepwalker would do."

So, just as the horse was about to start, she jumped lightly on its back and settled herself comfortably behind its rider, all unnoticed by him.

The strange pair rode away through the woods, and as they went, Katherine pulled the hazelnuts that nodded in great clusters in her face. "For," said she to herself, "Dear only knows where next I may get anything to eat."

On and on they rode until they left the greenwood far behind them and came out on an open moor. Soon they reached a little hill, and here the prince drew rein, and stooping down, cried in a strange, uncanny whisper, "Open, open, green hill, and let the prince, his horse, and his hound come in."

"And," whispered Katherine quickly, "let his lady enter behind him."

Instantly and to her great astonishment, the top of the round hill seemed to tip up, leaving an opening that was large enough for the little company to enter. Then it closed gently behind them again.

They found themselves in a magnificent hall, brilliantly lighted by hundreds of candles stuck in wall brackets round the walls. In the centre of this apartment was a group of the most beautiful maidens that Katherine had ever seen, all dressed in shimmering ball-gowns, with wreaths of roses and violets in their hair. There were vigorous and lively gallants too. They had danced with these beauteous damsels to the strains of fairy music.

When the maidens saw the prince, they ran to him and led him away to join their revels. And at the touch of their hands all his languor seemed to disappear, and he became the merriest of all the throng, and laughed, and danced, and sang as if he had never known what it was to be ill.

As no one took any notice of Katherine, she sat down quietly on a bit of rock to watch what would happen. And as she watched, she became aware of a tiny, tiny child, playing with a tiny wand, quite close to her feet.

He was a pretty child too, and she was just thinking of trying to make friends with him when one of the beautiful maidens passed, and looking at the wand, said to her partner, in a meaning tone, "Three strokes of that wand would give Katherine's sister back her pretty face."

Here was news indeed! "I could borrow that wand for a while," Katherine thought. Her breath came thick and fast; and with trembling fingers she drew some of the nuts out of her pocket, and began rolling them carelessly towards the child. It looked like he did not get nuts very often, for he dropped his little wand at once and stretched out his tiny hands to pick them up.

This was just what she wanted; and she slipped down from her seat to the ground and drew a little nearer to him. Then she threw one or two more nuts in his way, and when he was picking these up, she lifted up the wand unobserved and hid it under her apron. After this, she crept cautiously back to her seat again. Just then a cock crew at daybreak, and at the sound all the dancers disappeared, all but the prince. He ran to mount his horse, and was in such a hurry that Katherine had much ado to get up behind him before the little hill opened and he rode swiftly into the outer world once more.

But she managed to do so, and as they rode homewards in the grey morning light, she sat and cracked her nuts and ate them as fast as she could, for her adventures had made her very, very hungry.

When she and her strange patient had once more reached the castle, she just waited to see him go back to bed and begin to toss and tumble as he had done before. Then she ran to her stepsister's room and found her asleep with her poor misshapen head lying peacefully on the pillow. Now Katherine he gave it three sharp little strokes with the fairy wand and suddenly the sheep's head disappeared and the princess's own pretty head took its place.

In the morning the king and the old housekeeper came to ask what kind of night the prince had had. Katherine answered that he had had a very good night; for she was very anxious to stay with him longer, now that she knew that the fairy girls who lived in the green hill had thrown a spell over him. She was resolved to find out also how that spell could be lifted away.

The king was pleased to think that they had found a suitable nurse for the prince. He was also charmed with the looks of her stepsister who came out of her chamber as bright and pretty as in the old days. She said that her migraine was all gone and that she was now able to do any work that the housekeeper might find for her. The king therefore begged Katherine to stay with his son a little longer, adding that if she would do so, he would give her a bag of gold pieces.

Katherine agreed readily, and that night she watched by the prince as she had done the night before. And at twelve o'clock he rose and dressed himself, and rode to the fairy hill as she had expected him to do, for she was quite certain that the poor young man was bewitched and not suffering from a fever.

Then she accompanied him, bringing with her the wand to return it to the child. She was riding behind the prince all unnoticed and filling her pockets with nuts as she rode.

When they reached the fairy hill, he spoke the same words that he had spoken the night before. "Open, open, green hill, and let the young prince in with his horse and his hound." And when the green hill opened, Katherine added softly, "And his lady behind him." So they all passed in together.

Katherine seated herself on a stone and looked around her. The same revels were going on as yesternight, and the prince was soon in the thick of them, dancing and laughing madly. The girl watched him narrowly, wondering if she would ever be able to find out what would restore him to his right mind. As she was watching him, the same little child who had played with the magic wand came up to her again. Only this time he was playing with a little bird.

And as he played, she found an occasion to give him back the wand. He had not missed it. Then one of the dancers passed by while she turned to her partner and said lightly, "Three bites of that birdie would lift the prince's sickness and make him as well as he ever was." Then she joined in the dance again, leaving Katherine sitting upright on her stone, quivering with excitement.

If only she could catch that bird, the prince might be cured! Very carefully she began to shake some nuts out of her pocket and roll them across the floor towards the child. He picked them up eagerly, letting go the bird as he did the wand the night before; and in an instant Katherine caught it and hid it under her apron.

Soon afterwards the cock crew, and the prince and she set out on their homeward ride. But this morning, instead of cracking nuts, she killed and plucked the bird, scattering its feathers along the road. And the instant she came back to the prince's room and had seen him safely into bed, she put it on a spit in front of the fire and began to roast it.

Soon it began to frizzle and get brown and smell deliciously, and in his bed in the corner the prince opened his eyes and murmured faintly, "How I wish I had a bite of that birdie."

When she heard the words, Katherine's heart jumped for joy, and as soon as the bird was roasted she cut a little piece from its breast and popped it into the prince's mouth.

When he had eaten it, his strength seemed to come back somewhat, for he rose on his elbow and looked at his nurse. "Oh, if I had but another bite of that birdie!" he said. And his voice was certainly stronger.

So Katherine gave him another piece, and when he had eaten that, he sat right up in bed.

"Oh, if I had but a third bite of that birdie!" he cried. And now the colour was coming back into his face, and his eyes were shining.

This time Katherine brought him the whole of the rest of the bird. He ate it up greedily, picking the bones quite clean with his fingers; and when it was finished, he sprang out of bed, dressed himself, and sat down by the fire.

When the king came in the morning with his old housekeeper at his back to see how the prince was, he found him sitting cracking nuts with his nurse, for Katherine had brought home quite a lot in her apron pocket.

The king was so delighted to find his son cured that he gave all the credit to Katherine Crackernuts, as he called her, and he gave orders at once that the prince should marry her. "For," said he, "a maiden who is such a good nurse is sure to make a good queen."

The prince was quite willing to do as his father bade him, and while they were talking together, his younger brother came in. He was leading Princess Velvet-Cheek by the hand. they had got to know each other only yesterday, but now he was declaring that he had fallen in love with her, and that he wanted to marry her at once.

So it all fell out very well, and everybody was quite pleased. The two weddings took place at once, and unless they are dead since then, the young couples are living yet.

[Adapted from Grierson 253-68]

  1. henwife: a sort of witch
  2. lassie: girl


Scottish folktales, legends, fairy tales of Scotland, Literature  

Grierson, Elizabeth Wilson. The Scottish Fairy Book. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1910.

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