The Grave Prince and the Cat
There once was a king in Tirol. He had three sons. The eldest was grave and thoughtful, He seldom spoke to anyone, took no pleasure in pastimes and lived mostly a withdrawn life. The other two were clever and merry, ready for fun and enjoyment.
Although the eldest son was more likely to make a prudent sovereign, his two lively younger brothers had become much more popular in the country. They were also the favourites of their father. However the eldest was the darling of his mother.
The king was old and stricken in years and would gladly have given up the cares of government and passed his last years in peace, but he could not make up his mind. The queen thought their eldest son would rule well, but the two younger were always saying he was half mad and not fit to govern. They had the people on their side, so the king feared it would come to a civil war if he made his eldest son the next king, so he always put off settling the matter: for a long time he decided to choose the prince to succeed him, "later, later and later".
One day, however, an old counsellor advised the king to appoint his successor while he still lived, to settle the matter and hopefully avoid any disputes about it. The king thought it was a good idea. He could retire now and appoint his eldest son the new king. After all, that was a customary way of handling such things. When the two younger sons, however, heard what he had in mind to do, they came to him and said as they often had done before:
"Our elder brother is not fit to govern. Divide the kingdom between us two instead."
The king was anxious to please them, but he feared to displease the queen by such injustice against their eldest son. Then the old counsellor again and suggested that some task should be set for the three and that whoever succeeded in that should be king beyond dispute.
The king found the counsel good, and the three sons all swore to remain faithful to their father's decision. But what should he set them to do? The queen feared their eldest son should fail in the trial, for he had never trained himself in feats of strength, or in using weapons, so she persuaded her husband to set their three sons as simpler task.
So the king made his people gather and proclaimed aloud that the three brothers should travel for a year and a day. The one who brought him the finest drinking-horn, should be the new king – and the three sons promised to let the winner have the whole country.
The two younger brothers set out with many attendants and spent the greater part of the year on amusing themselves, secure in bringing back the best drinking-horn, whatever they might bring.
The eldest brother set out alone through the forest. During his lonely wanderings he had often seen a beautiful castle on a far-away mountain, but he could not find out anything about it from books, and people he asked, had nothing to add.
He decided to ride there. It was farther away than he had thought, but the last stretch up to the castle was easy and pleasant. Quite near the castle there were only easy slopes of greensward, and there were sparkling flowers; broad-leaved trees throwing delicious shade; and brooks that meandered with a pleasant music. Everywhere luscious fruits were hanging within reach. Birds sang soft melodies among the branches.
The prince thought it would have been lovely to pass the rest of his life in such surroundings, but remembered why he was here - to compete with his brothers by getting a great drinking-horn if possible, and return home with it.
Broad marble stairs led up to the castle. The prince entered the hall, but no one came to meet him; he passed through the long corridors – all were empty; he entered one apartment after another, till at last he came to one charming boudoir filled with beautiful flowers. On a pink satin sofa sat a large cat with soft grey fur and soft grey eyes.
As he entered, the cat rose to meet him, walking on her hind-paws, and, holding out her right front-paw in the most gracious manner. She asked him in a sweet, clear voice if there was anything she could do for him. Then, as if the effort was too great, she let herself down on all fours and rubbed her soft grey head against his boots.
Finding her so friendly, he was going to take her up in his arms, but she would not allow that. Instead she sprang on to a ledge above his head. "And now tell me," said she, "what is it you want me to do for you?"
"To tell you the truth, . . . – "
"You fear that a poor puss cannot be of any use," said the cat, smartly, "and that what you have come here fore is much above her feeble comprehension. But never mind, tell me all the same,. And find out if I can help you or if I cannot. Telling me will do you no harm."
The prince answered: "I am in great distress." He quite forgot it was a cat he was talking to.
"Poor prince!" said the cat, "I'll tell you first what Ithink: that you are not appreciated at home. I saw it in your looks. You look as if you have lived too much alone -" She stopped short and sneezed a great many times.
"There is a great deal of truth in what you say," answered the prince; "they don't care much about me at home - my mother does, but my father and brothers don't. And I live much alone. I don't know how to get out of it."
"You want someone to pet you and pamper you and make you very happy; and then you could say to yourself, I'll show them - " and she stopped short, as before.
"But who should care to pamper and pet me?" cried the prince..
"Why, a nice little wife, to be sure!" answered the cat.
"A wife!" exclaimed the prince; "oh yes, my father's grey-bearded counsellors will find me some young, unmarried woman I should marry for the peace of the kingdom. If so, my feelings would not count for much. I would rather choose one on my own, someone I love."
"You seem to say," said the cat, "that if you found a nice little princess who cared very much for you and you for her and she made you very happy, so much that you wanted to marry her, then you wouldn't be man enough to say to your father and all his counsellors, 'Here is the princess I want to marry. Basta, enough said!"
The eyes of the young prince flashed and he reddened: "I would."
The cat purred: "Now you look a lot better. Now, please tell me why you came here."
"Ah!" said the prince, and told her what had brought him there.
"Your mother understands you better than all the rest at home" said the cat. "She knew you could be trusted although your brothers hope you may fail. However, I can give you a drinking-horn that your haughty brothers cannot match!"
With that she sprang lightly onto the soft carpet and ran out of the room, beckoning to him to follow her. She led him through a long suite of rooms till they came to a large dining-hall. It was all panelled with oak and filled with dark carved-oak furniture. In the centre of one end of this hall, high up in the panelling, was an inlaid safe. Puss sprang to the top of this cabinet, opened its folding-doors gently with her paw, and showed him a white drinking-horn that looked expensive. It had a rim, stand and handle of gold and was adorned with rows of pearls and diamonds.
"How can I ever thank you?" exclaimed the prince. "If I give my father this drinking-horn and win the contest, I would owe it all to you."
"You would owe a little to your own discernment too," said the cat.
"But when shall I see you again? May I come back and see you again?" asked the prince.
She said: "It will not be long before you will have to come back to me."
The prince turned to leave. The cat ran by his side for a while, purring. But when he came to the boundary-wall they had to part.
When he reached home he found the day of trial had arrived. All the people were gathered in the palace to see the drinking-horns his brothers had brought. They didn't consider what he would bring, or whether he would come back at all. Just then one good woman, wiping the soap-suds from her hands as she turned from her washing at the river to join the throng, exclaimed, "Hoity toity! You and your laughing princes – a grave one for me, say I! Laughing may lead a man to throw away his money, but what about to feed the poor, or govern a kingdom? I like one who keeps his head clear for his business," said the good wife.
All the rest disagreed. He trod sadly and secretly up to his mother's chamber, where she sat her window and watched the people.
"What do you here, son?" she asked when he entered; "you have but one short half-hour to show up with what you have got. Hurry to the council-hall!"
She pulled off the wrapper around the drinking-horn and looked at it.
"My son, this is a priceless work!" She led him along.
It was dark in the council-hall too; but when the queen had dragged her son up to the throne where the king sat, she uncovered the flagon with its sparkling stones.
Then everyone owned that the grave prince had won the trial.
The king declared it was too late for any more business that night. The next morning he would proclaim who was to be the new king. With that the people all went to rest.
But in the silent night the two young brothers came to the king and complained that they had been circumvented. If their father would but allow another trial . . .
So the next day the king announced that he had determined there should be a fresh trial of skill; the prince who could bring him the best hunting-whip within a year, should have the crown.
The princes set off next day. The eldest son sped on towards the cat's castle. She sat looking out for him.
"I told you it would not be long before you came back to me," she said. "Can I help you this time?"
"My brothers made our father decide on another trial. He sent us in quest of a hunting-whip."
"Well, I can suit you with one!" She frisked merrily along the path before him till they came to the stables. There she took him into a room where all sorts of saddles, horse-gear and hunting-horns were stored. On a high ledge was a dusty hunting-whip. It did not look like much.
"It is not much to look at," she said. "But you have but to crack this whip and your horse will jump over anything you put him at. Saddle a horse and see for yourself."
When the prince did it, his horse jumped over hills and valleys.
"This is really a whip!" exclaimed the prince.
The cat invited him into the next room, where an elegant dinner was laid out by unseen servants. When the two had finished their meal, the cat reminded him that he must be thinking of going home, if he would not that his brothers should win because he did not reach there in time.
"With the hunting-whip I have given you, you will win the trial. But there will be yet another trial for you and you will have to come back again to me. At that time you cannot say a word to me all that time."
He would try to, he said.
"There is one more thing: you have to do whatever I command at that time, however dreadful it may be. Agree?
He said yes.
"This is what you must do next time. When you come in, you will find me sitting on the kitchen stove. Dash me upon the hearthstone till there is nothing left of me but the fur! It is the thing to be done. Respect your promise to me."
He rose to leave; and she followed him down the path, purring by his side till they came to the boundary-wall and parted.
When the prince reached the council-hall, everyone seemed to have decided that his two brothers had won the day. When they saw him come in with the shabby old whip the beneficent cat had given him, they laughed scornfully. The king ordered him to leave the hall for venturing to insult him by bringing such a present. No one would listen to a word he had to say.
At last the noise rose to such heights that the queen heard it in her chamber. When she had learnt what was the matter, she insisted that he should have a hearing allowed him.
When silence had been proclaimed the grave prince said:
"This whip does not look so special, but a jewel-studded handle is out of place on a hunting-whip. The handle needs to be even so that the hand may take a firm grip of it, for the merit of a whip is not in the decor of the handle, it is in the lash. As for this whip, I have but to crack it and my horse will at once jump over anything that may be in my way, wheter it is a house or a mountain, or what you will. Let me show you."
In front of the council-hall where was a fine avenue of lofty cypresses. The queen ordered a horse to be brought to her eldest son from the stables. When he sat firmly in the saddle, the prince cracked his whip. Away went the horse over the tops of the high trees. No one had ever seen such a jump before.
When the prince came back, without a word of boasting or reproach he laid the magic whip at his father's feet.
The king said to the people that it was this whip that had won the trial, but since it had become late, he would proclaim which prince was to be the new king the next morrow.
All went home for the night and the old king also went to bed. In the night his two youngest sons came to him again and wanted another trial. So persisent were their urges that the king, who was now very old and weak, agreed to let them have their way.
Accordingly, next morning he said that the son who brought back the best princess for his wife should have the crown.
The three princes set out again. The eldest walked off alone with a heavy heart towards the cat's castle. As he got nearer the castle, he grew more and more sad. "Why did the cat make me promise? Now I am bound by my word." He trudged on.
At last he came to the kitchen; and there was the cat cosily curled round, her soft grey head buried in her long grey fur. He sneaked up to her on tiptoe, and then seized her and did as she had told himto do, till he he had nothing left in his hand but the soft, limp, grey fur.
He sank to the ground in tears. But suddenly a most beautiful, fairy-like princess stood before him!
"You kept your word. And now I have a form that may fit the new queen in your country! I owe you all. But for you I should still be a grey cat."
Her attendants were no longer invisible. They too had come to life. The halls and rooms were filled with her people, and they were bustling to serve her.
A banquet was prepared in the dining-hall. Afterwards the cat-princess reminded the prince that it was time for them to go back to his father. A great train of carriages and horses were brought round, with guards and footmen and all the retinue needed for a princess.
The princess was carried in a litter, and her ladies with her; and the prince rode on horseback, close by her side.
This time his brothers had not appeared when he reached the council-hall. The king and the queen received the princess cordially. The queen said:
"Your brothers cannot demand another trial this time."
Before she had done speaking, a messenger came from the two younger princes and had a sad tale to tell. The two had tried to get the princesses of the neighbouring kingdom, but the king had seen through them - how envious and selfish they were -, and refused it. Then the two had tried to carry off the princesses by force; but the king had caught them in the act and shut them up as robbers.
The old king realised that his two youngest sons had been taken in the middle of wrongdoing and that he could neither defend what they had done nor avenge their shame.
So the old king proclaimed the grave prince was his successor and married him to the cat-princess in the middle of great rejoicing of all the people. Then at last the queen had the happiness of seeing her wisest son acknowledged as the next ruler. What is more, he had got a lovely and devoted wife too.
The woman who gets married has to adapt. (Proverb from Trentino)