ACERTAIN queen had twin children, a boy and a girl, both as beautiful as the dawn of a summer morning. As the mother was one day hanging over the double cradle, shaped like two silver lilies growing on one stem, an old aunt of hers, who knew a good deal about magic, arrived from the country to see the babies and to spend the day.
The old lady took the Princess Eglantine in her arms, and kissed her, and joggled her, and clucked at her, after the fashion of all good aunties.
"That's a girl to be proud of, my dear!" she said, handing the baby back to her mamma. "And she looks as good as she is pretty, too."
"They are both wonderful children, nurse says," replied the young queen, modestly. "And the doctor thinks them the finest pair he has ever seen. Only the boy is a little high-tempered. He kicks and snaps at his attendants the whole time he is awake; so take care, aunty dear, and don't disturb him for the world. We always let him sleep as long as he will."
"Hoity-toity!" cried aunty, "as if I came out of the woods to be frightened by an owl. I know how to manage all children!" and the boy opening his eyes at that moment, she lifted him from his crib, and laid him on her lap.
Sad to say, he behaved like an infant tiger. Never was there seen such a tempestuous baby. He wriggled, and howled, and fought, and plunged, until the poor mother and nurses turned red with mortification. But the old aunty held on to him bravely, and examined him from top to toe. Nothing could she find, till she came to the sole of the right foot, and there was a tiny red mark like a burning torch. As soon as aunty saw this she sighed, and whispered a word in the baby's ear, when he became as quiet as any lamb.
Aunty sent away the nurses, and told the poor queen there was no doubt about it; her boy was bewitched, and when he grew up he would try to devour his sister. The only thing was to keep them apart, and this the queen told her husband; and he sent for a wise man, who confirmed what aunty had said. The wise man added that all would go well so long as the princess was kept apart from her brother, and as the brother was the heir of the kingdom, there was nothing left but to banish the unfortunate princess. The king built for his daughter, in the remotest corner of his kingdom, an ivory tower. Around the tower was a crystal moat full of gold and silver fish. Around the moat were lovely flower-beds, and around the flower-beds was a thick and thorny hedge. In this tower there was a room lined with tufted blue satin, like the inside of a bonbon box, and all the furniture was made of fine carved ivory. Here the princess was shut up for life, under the care of an old dame, Madame Véloutine by name, who once had kept a boarding-school for duchesses, and was very respectable indeed. Poor Eglantine was gradually forgotten at court, and her cannibal brother grew up without knowing he had ever had a sister.
Like all other captive princesses, past, present, and to come, Eglantine was beautiful and accomplished. She could speak in every language, work in silk and crewels, paint china plaques, make mince-pies, sing like a nightingale, and play anything on the piano at sight with her eyes shut! Her skin was milk-white, with a rosy flush on the cheeks, while her glorious golden hair never came out of crimp, but rippled from the roots to her very feet.
One day a prince, cantering by upon his palfrey, looked up at the tower window, and there saw this lovely creature, surrounded by a flock of pretty white doves. Prince Charming gazed and gazed, and the longer he stood there, the more enraptured he became. When he heard from the country people that no one knew who or what was this mysterious beauty, excepting that once a year, by night, a grand gentleman and lady visited her, and looked at her while asleep, the ardent young prince made a vow to solve the secret without delay. He engaged his old tutor to make love to Eglantine's governess, and this plan succeeded so well that the tutor was, ere long, invited to take a cup of tea at five o'clock, in the ground floor apartment of the tower where Madame Véloutine kept house. Madame Véloutine was very much fluttered by the attentions of the tutor, a gloomy-looking individual with savage dark mustache and deep-sunken eyes. The poor old thing, who had been reading novels without any intermission for eighteen years, was very sentimental, and the idea of a suitor coming to woo at some period of her existence was never wholly absent from her thoughts. She dressed herself in one of the Princess Eglantine's white robes, put a blue sash around her waist, and covering her little red nose with rice powder, sat in a darkened corner with a guitar upon her knees. The tutor flattered her, and soon she grew confidential and told him the story of her charge. When the tutor took his leave, Madame Véloutine sighed deeply, and pitied the poor man who had fallen a victim to her charms. She did not see the fat purse of gold the prince bestowed on him, upon learning the true state of the case about the enchanting captive!
Prince Charming rode, day and night, till he reached the king's palace. "Give me your daughter for my wife," he said. The king turned pale at hearing that the secret was betrayed. "For pity's sake speak lower, young man," said the anxious father. "Only suppose her brother should hear of it." With that he told the whole story to Prince Charming, who forthwith rode to ask a wise man what he should do to set the princess free, with safety to herself.
"Ride as far as you will, and as fast as you will with her, you may not escape the curse," said the wise man.
The prince went off heavy hearted, and visited a witch he knew. She was knitting a stocking, which ravelled every night as fast as it grew by day.
"I have been knitting this stocking for fifty years," said the witch, taking a pinch of snuff out of the soup-tureenful that she always kept beside her. "I could as soon make it whole in one night as keep away the curse from her."
The prince groaned as he rode away. Across his path was a green bough, half covered by a huge cobweb. In this a tiny being, no bigger than a fly, was entangled, and was making desperate struggles to be free. Travelling toward it, with tremendous strides, came an enormous red spider, with white spots and great protruding eyes. The prince, not without a shudder, for, like most of us, he hated the nasty things, killed the spider with a blow, and set free the pretty captive, who proved to be a fairy. She tidied her iridescent frock, and thanked him very nicely.
"You have saved my life, dear prince," she said. "Pray let me do something in return for it."
"Perhaps you can help me," said the prince, eagerly. "If you can't, never mind," he added, politely, when he had finished telling her the sad story of his doomed princess. "I don't expect much of a person of your size, you know; but really it's the greatest relief to talk about the dear darling!"
"A person of my size!" said the little lady, with a shrill sniff. "I'd have you to know, prince, that I'm the fairy Buz-fuz, the discoverer of the celebrated invisibility powder. It is never known to fail, is made from a fern-seed that I alone can pluck, and is not for sale at any druggist's! As to lifting the spell from that poor young creature, the princess, I can't undertake to do it, on any terms; but with the aid of my powder, one pinch of which sprinkled on an object will make it disappear from sight in a moment, I believe you can manage to keep clear of the cannibal brother."
The prince thanked the fairy, took the powder, and galloped off, light-hearted, to his Eglantine. She, poor thing, had thought of nothing but the prince and his beauty, and his kind glances and smiles, since he left her. She wearied of the society of poor old Véloutine, and sighed for change. Véloutine was in despair. To comfort the princess she promised to allow her a single meeting with the prince, should he ever come that way again. "That I am sure he will!" said the princess. "If you had only seen his eyes when he looked at me! They were so kind, so true! Oh! Véloutine! he will come back!"
So Eglantine settled down to her embroidery. This was a gown of white damask with large white satin flowers outlined with real pearls. She had been at work on it for several years, and a few stitches more would finish it. She now wrought busily, until the last stitch was set, and then, with trembling fingers, put it on. Around her neck and waist she wrapped great chains of pearls, and left her long hair rippling to her knees. When her toilet was complete she went to the window. It was the sunset of a summer's day. Around her tower grew vines heavy with deep-red roses; the shining surface of the moat beneath was streaked with color from the western clouds. Along the path beyond the hedge rode a horseman gayly clad in green and gold, who, smiling, doffed a cap with a single long white plume, and bowed to his saddle-bow. Behind him came a splendid cavalcade of courtiers and knights on horseback, surrounding a golden coach in which sat the father and mother of Eglantine, who had given consent to her marriage with the prince. The poor king and queen were dreadfully frightened at the rashness of this proceeding. They had sent the cannibal brother off on a hunting excursion in a distant part of the country, and had come in fear and trembling, bringing with them the most trustworthy of their people. They could not resist Prince Charming, who, in addition to his other attractions, had just lost his father, the old king, and was now the sole owner and ruler of a neighboring kingdom, and just the match for their lovely daughter. He had sworn to them that their child should be kept so securely guarded that her brother could never reach her.
Eglantine came down from her bower, to be introduced to her father, mother, and lover all at once. The marriage took place without delay, and the new king started with his bride for the sea-shore, where they were to embark for his home.
They set sail in a ship of which the sides were plated with beaten gold. The sails were of pink satin, and the ropes golden threads plaited together. The young king and queen sat upon cushions of velvet on the deck, and talked of their happy future, when suddenly the sky was darkened as by a cloud, and, riding upon a vulture, the cannibal brother came after them. He had been hunting, and a wandering breeze carried to him the story of his sister's escape. Although he had never before heard he possessed a sister, the first whisper of such a thing was sufficient to rouse in him the dreadful cannibal instinct to drink her blood. From where the king and queen sat they could distinctly hear him smacking his lips with joy at the prospect of his horrible meal. Queen Eglantine, fearing she knew not what, shuddered from head to foot, and closing her eyes cast herself upon the king's breast for protection.
The king, bidding her be calm, sprinkled the deck of the ship with one of the fairy's powders, which he carried in a little crystal box. At the moment the huge foul bird of prey hovered above them and gave a fierce swoop downward, the ship and all its contents vanished utterly from sight, while the vulture with his rider plunged into the sea.
The cannibal prince was a good swimmer, and although his vulture was immediately drowned, managed to keep up, until he found a dolphin and got astride its back.
"Now, carry me in pursuit of yonder ship, and mind you swim fast and well," he exclaimed.
"Master, I obey," said the dolphin, who recognized in him a magician. "But, look for yourself—blue sky above, blue water below, and not a sail upon the sea."
The prince looked, and in truth there was no ship to be seen; so, ordering the dolphin to convey him to the nearest landing-place, he soon reached the shores of a beautiful country, where flags were flying, and all the inhabitants were dressed in holiday clothes. Over the wharf was an arch of most lovely flowers, and five hundred little girls were strewing the roads with orange blossoms.
"What is taking place?" asked the cannibal brother of the people around the wharf.
"Where have you been, pray?" said they scornfully, "not to know that our king brings home his bride to-day!"
Then the ship came in sight and the rejoicings began. The cannibal brother had no sooner laid eyes upon his sister than a new longing to drink her blood came over him; and he set about plotting how he could get hold of her, no easy matter, since the palace was guarded night and day by twenty white bull-dogs of the fiercest sort, besides the usual soldiers and attendants. So he took service with a butcher near the town, and made a bag full of little meat-balls, each one containing a drop of deadly poison. One day his master sent him to the palace to carry Queen Eglantine's sweetbreads and mutton-chops. "Now," thought the brother, "I shall get inside;" but he was mistaken, for the sweetbreads and mutton-chops were taken from him at the gate, and passed on through twenty different hands till they reached the cook. As no outsider whatever was allowed to penetrate the inner palace walls, behind which the new queen lived surrounded by every luxury, the cannibal brother had to wait many days for an opportunity to get a sight of her. Meantime his appetite was gaining terribly, and he went to the blacksmith and had all his teeth framed in iron, the better to enjoy his horrid meal.
At last King Charming was summoned to meet a neighboring monarch about a right of way for his armies across a certain peninsula; and, with many injunctions to the queen not to admit any stranger during his absence, he reluctantly set out. No sooner was he out of sight than the pretended butcher's boy hastened to assume his own princely clothing, and, ringing boldly at the castle gate, told the servants to announce to the queen that her brother had arrived, bearing messages from her father and mother. He sent in a golden locket containing likenesses of both the king and queen, his parents, which convinced Queen Eglantine that his tale was true. So, joyfully, she ran forth to meet him, and would have cast herself upon his neck, but that the trained bull-dogs rushed between, growling most horribly.
"Come here, pretty fellow, nice fellow," said the cannibal brother, coaxingly; but the dogs only opened their jaws wider than before and growled defiance.
"Give them these little dainties, sister," said the wily prince, producing his poisoned meat-balls. "They are some that I always carry for my own pets."
The innocent queen called the dogs one after another to her side, and fed them with the fatal balls, which they ate, licking her white hand gratefully. At once, as the poison began to work, they all lay down in a row, and became as quiet as they had been before ferocious. The queen led her brother into an inner room, and bade him sit upon her silken couch. The prince laughed to himself, for now, thought he, the hour has come for my coveted meal. But he was seized with the notion to go into another room in order to file his teeth, which were becoming rather dull.
"Will you not play for me upon the piano, sister?" he asked lovingly.
The amiable queen, who never waited to be asked twice, sat down to play, while her brother hid within a closet and began to file his teeth. Up jumped the queen's cat, in great excitement, and sat on her mistress' lap.
"Mistress dear," said the affectionate creature, "fly, fly, as fast as your feet will carry you. Your brother is at this moment getting ready to make a meal of you, and as he is a magician no one in the castle is strong enough to defend you from him. In the stable you will find the king's gray steed. Jump upon his back, and be off, while I play the piano in your stead."
The terrified queen took to her royal heels, weeping as she stumbled over the dead bodies of her faithful dogs, and the clever cat sat playing beautifully so many runs and trills that the prince, admiring his sister's brilliant execution, made no haste to leave his task until it was finished to his entire satisfaction.
And now, mounted upon the good gray steed, away flew Queen Eglantine in search of her beloved spouse. Pretty soon she heard footsteps, and there, swifter than any horse, swifter than wind, on flew the cannibal brother after her.
"What shall I do, dear steed?" said the alarmed queen.
"Drop your cloak into the road," said the gray horse, who was the cat's own cousin.
The queen obeyed, and the cloak became a broad lake, across which the cannibal brother took a long time to swim. The gray horse got a good start, but presently the prince came nearly up with him.
"What shall I do now, dear steed?" said the queen, almost ready to fall fainting from his back.
"Drop the veil from your head," said the horse.
This was done, and the veil became a thick fog, causing the cannibal brother to lose his way and stumble dreadfully. But he got out of it at last, and came nearly up with them.
"What shall I do next, dear steed?" said the queen, trembling in every limb.
"Take your scissors and cut a long lock from your hair, and throw that behind you."
The queen lifted the scissors that hung at her girdle, and in a moment, snip! they went into her beautiful golden hair. The hair became a jungle of tall reeds, and through it the cannibal brother had work indeed to travel. While he was puffing and blowing and struggling in the reeds, oh, joy! the queen saw her king riding swiftly to meet her.
Just as the cannibal brother, by a desperate effort of magic strength had freed himself from the jungle, and emerged in swift pursuit, he had the mortification of seeing the queen rush into her husband's arms. His dreadful hunger was now increased until it drove him to desperation. With a roar of baffled rage he darted toward the royal couple, swearing that both of them should be his victims; and this no doubt would have been the case—since the monster was endowed with the strength of fifty men—but that the king, bidding his queen have no fear, quickly sprinkled them both, and their steeds, with a pinch of the fairy fern-seed. Immediately they disappeared from sight, and the cannibal brother, coming with full force upon the spot where they had been, beheld only empty space. This disappointment, combined with his now really appalling appetite, made the miserable wretch fall in a fit upon the ground.
The king would have killed him where he lay, but the queen pleaded for her brother's life, so the attendants bore him, insensible, back to the palace. There, the queen's clever cat advised that he should be left to her to deal with. She shut herself up with the patient in a tower bedroom, and during sixty days and nights not a morsel of food passed the sufferer's lips, except the cat's magic castor-oil—a cupful every ten minutes—each tasting more nauseous than the one before! In the morning he was lifted from bed, and put into an ice-cold bath, and then whipped soundly until his circulation was restored. At the end of the second month the cat stopped his bath, whipping, and medicines, offering him instead a handful of parched peas and a dry crust. This diet seemed to him so delicious that never again could he be tempted to vary it. Until he reached a green and virtuous old age this prince was never known to look upon so much as a rare beefsteak without shuddering! His father, mother, sister, and brother-in-law united their tears of joy at this happy reform, and who should the clever cat turn out to be, but aunty, who had taken this means of watching over her favorite Eglantine! The gray steed was aunty's first cousin upon the mother's side; but when peace was restored he preferred to go back to his own country to live, although the grateful King Charming offered him every inducement to remain, in the way of marble stalls and silver mangers, rose-water to quench his thirst, and golden oats to eat. Aunty, too, retired to her own distant castle, and the reformed cannibal lived quiet and happy until the time came to reign in his good father's stead.
As for Eglantine and King Charming, they never again found use for the fern-seed powder. Even the faults of one were invisible to the other.
Nothing occurred to disturb the serenity of their entire reign but a suit for breach-of-promise of marriage, brought against the king's former tutor by the queen's former governess, Madame Véloutine; and this was settled speedily by the tutor announcing that, rather than make any fuss about the matter, he would marry the old lady and be done with it, although he really could not imagine what there had been in his past conduct to put such an idea into her venerable head. So at last Véloutine got a husband, and nobody could be surprised at anything after that.