A long, long time ago, in a valley far away, the giant Trencoss lived in a great castle, surrounded by trees that were always green. The castle had a hundred doors, and every door was guarded by a huge, shaggy hound, with tongue of fire and claws of iron, who tore to pieces anyone who went to the castle without the giant’s leave. Trencoss had made war on the King of the Torrents, and, having killed the king, and slain his people, and burned his palace, he carried off his only daughter, the Princess Eileen, to the castle in the valley. Here he provided her with beautiful rooms, and appointed a hundred dwarfs, dressed in blue and yellow satin, to wait upon her, and harpers to play sweet music for her, and he gave her diamonds without number, brighter than the sun; but he would not allow her to go outside the castle, and told her if she went one step beyond its doors, the hounds, with tongues of fire and claws of iron, would tear her to pieces. A week after her arrival, war broke out between the giant and the king of the islands, and before he set out for battle, the giant sent for the princess, and informed her that on his return he would make her his wife. When the princess heard this she began to cry, for she would rather die than marry the giant who had slain her father.
“Crying will only spoil your bright eyes, my little princess,” said Trencoss, “and you will have to marry me whether you like it or no.”
He then bade her go back to her room, and he ordered the dwarfs to give her everything she asked for while he was away, and the harpers to play the sweetest music for her. When the princess gained her room she cried as if her heart would break. The long day passed slowly, and the night came, but brought no sleep to Eileen, and in the grey light of the morning she rose and opened the window, and looked about in every direction to see if there were any chance of escape. But the window was ever so high above the ground, and below were the hungry and ever watchful hounds. With a heavy heart she was about to close the window when she thought she saw the branches of the tree that was nearest to it moving. She looked again, and she saw a little white cat creeping along one of the branches.
“Mew!” cried the cat.
“Poor little pussy,” said the princess. “Come to me, pussy.”
“Stand back from the window,” said the cat, “and I will.”
The princess stepped back, and the little white cat jumped into the room. The princess took the little cat on her lap and stroked him with her hand, and the cat raised up its back and began to purr.
“Where do you come from, and what is your name?” asked the princess.
“No matter where I come from or what’s my name,” said the cat, “I am a friend of yours, and I come to help you?”
“I never wanted help worse,” said the princess.
“I know that,” said the cat; “and now listen to me. When the giant comes back from battle and asks you to marry him, say to him you will marry him.”
“But I will never marry him,” said the princess.
“Do what I tell you,” said the cat. “When he asks you to marry him, say to him you will if his dwarfs will wind for you three balls from the fairy dew that lies on the bushes on a misty morning as big as these,” said the cat, putting his right forefoot into his ear and taking out three balls––one yellow, one red, and one blue.
“They are very small,” said the princess. “They are not much bigger than peas, and the dwarfs will not be long at their work.”
“Won’t they,” said the cat. “It will take them a month and a day to make one, so that it will take three months and three days before the balls are wound; but the giant, like you, will think they can be made in a few days, and so he will readily promise to do what you ask. He will soon find out his mistake, but he will keep his word, and will not press you to marry him until the balls are wound.”
“When will the giant come back?” asked Eileen.
“He will return to-morrow afternoon,” said the cat.
“Will you stay with me until then?” said the princess. “I am very lonely.”
“I cannot stay,” said the cat. “I have to go away to my palace on the island on which no man ever placed his foot, and where no man but one shall ever come.”
“And where is that island?” asked the princess, “and who is the man?”
“The island is in the far-off seas where vessel never sailed; the man you will see before many days are over; and if all goes well, he will one day slay the giant Trencoss, and free you from his power.”
“Ah!” sighed the princess, “that can never be, for no weapon can wound the hundred hounds that guard the castle, and no sword can kill the giant Trencoss.”
“There is a sword that will kill him,” said the cat; “but I must go now. Remember what you are to say to the giant when he comes home, and every morning watch the tree on which you saw me, and if you see in the branches anyone you like better than yourself,” said the cat, winking at the princess, “throw him these three balls and leave the rest to me; but take care not to speak a single word to him, for if you do all will be lost.”
“Shall I ever see you again?” asked the princess.
“Time will tell,” answered the cat, and, without saying so much as good-bye, he jumped through the window on to the tree, and in a second was out of sight.
The morrow afternoon came, and the giant Trencoss returned from battle. Eileen knew of his coming by the furious barking of the hounds, and her heart sank, for she knew that in a few moments she would be summoned to his presence. Indeed, he had hardly entered the castle when he sent for her, and told her to get ready for the wedding. The princess tried to look cheerful, as she answered:
“I will be ready as soon as you wish; but you must first promise me something.”
“Ask anything you like, little princess,” said Trencoss.
“Well, then,” said Eileen, “before I marry you, you must make your dwarfs wind three balls as big as these from the fairy dew that lies on the bushes on a misty morning in summer.”
“Is that all?” said Trencoss, laughing. “I shall give the dwarfs orders at once, and by this time to-morrow the balls will be wound, and our wedding can take place in the evening.”
“And will you leave me to myself until then?”
“I will,” said Trencoss.
“On your honour as a giant?” said Eileen.
“On my honour as a giant,” replied Trencoss.
The princess returned to her rooms, and the giant summoned all his dwarfs, and he ordered them to go forth in the dawning of the morn and to gather all the fairy dew lying on the bushes, and to wind three balls––one yellow, one red, and one blue. The next morning, and the next, and the next, the dwarfs went out into the fields and searched all the hedgerows, but they could gather only as much fairy dew as would make a thread as long as a wee girl’s eyelash; and so they had to go out morning after morning, and the giant fumed and threatened, but all to no purpose. He was very angry with the princess, and he was vexed with himself that she was so much cleverer than he was, and, moreover, he saw now that the wedding could not take place as soon as he expected.
When the little white cat went away from the castle he ran as fast as he could up hill and down dale, and never stopped until he came to the Prince of the Silver River. The prince was alone, and very sad and sorrowful he was, for he was thinking of the Princess Eileen, and wondering where she could be.
“Mew,” said the cat, as he sprang softly into the room; but the prince did not heed him. “Mew,” again said the cat; but again the prince did not heed him. “Mew,” said the cat the third time, and he jumped up on the prince’s knee.
“Where do you come from, and what do you want?” asked the prince.
“I come from where you would like to be,” said the cat.
“And where is that?” said the prince.
“Oh, where is that, indeed! as if I didn’t know what you are thinking of, and of whom you are thinking,” said the cat; “and it would be far better for you to try and save her.”
“I would give my life a thousand times over for her,” said the prince.
“For whom?” said the cat, with a wink. “I named no name, your highness,” said he.
“You know very well who she is,” said the prince, “if you knew what I was thinking of; but do you know where she is?”
“She is in danger,” said the cat. “She is in the castle of the giant Trencoss, in the valley beyond the mountains.”
“I will set out there at once,” said the prince “and I will challenge the giant to battle, and will slay him.”
“Easier said than done,” said the cat. “There is no sword made by the hands of man can kill him, and even if you could kill him, his hundred hounds, with tongues of fire and claws of iron, would tear you to pieces.”
“Then, what am I to do?” asked the prince.
“Be said by me,” said the cat. “Go to the wood that surrounds the giant’s castle, and climb the high tree that’s nearest to the window that looks towards the sunset, and shake the branches, and you will see what you will see. Then hold out your hat with the silver plumes, and three balls––one yellow, one red, and one blue––will be thrown into it. And then come back here as fast as you can; but speak no word, for if you utter a single word the hounds will hear you, and you shall be torn to pieces.”
Well, the prince set off at once, and after two days’ journey he came to the wood around the castle, and he climbed the tree that was nearest to the window that looked towards the sunset, and he shook the branches. As soon as he did so, the window opened and he saw the Princess Eileen, looking lovelier than ever. He was going to call out her name, but she placed her fingers on her lips, and he remembered what the cat had told him, that he was to speak no word. In silence he held out the hat with the silver plumes, and the princess threw into it the three balls, one after another, and, blowing him a kiss, she shut the window. And well it was she did so, for at that very moment she heard the voice of the giant, who was coming back from hunting.
The prince waited until the giant had entered the castle before he descended the tree. He set off as fast as he could. He went up hill and down dale, and never stopped until he arrived at his own palace, and there waiting for him was the little white cat.
“Have you brought the three balls?” said he.
“I have,” said the prince.
“Then follow me,” said the cat.
On they went until they left the palace far behind and came to the edge of the sea.
“Now,” said the cat, “unravel a thread of the red ball, hold the thread in your right hand, drop the ball into the water, and you shall see what you shall see.”
The prince did as he was told, and the ball floated out to sea, unravelling as it went, and it went on until it was out of sight.
“Pull now,” said the cat.
The prince pulled, and, as he did, he saw far away something on the sea shining like silver. It came nearer and nearer, and he saw it was a little silver boat. At last it touched the strand.
“Now,” said the cat, “step into this boat and it will bear you to the palace on the island on which no man has ever placed his foot––the island in the unknown seas that were never sailed by vessels made of human hands. In that palace there is a sword with a diamond hilt, and by that sword alone the giant Trencoss can be killed. There also are a hundred cakes, and it is only on eating these the hundred hounds can die. But mind what I say to you: if you eat or drink until you reach the palace of the little cat in the island in the unknown seas, you will forget the Princess Eileen.”
“I will forget myself first,” said the prince, as he stepped into the silver boat, which floated away so quickly that it was soon out of sight of land.
The day passed and the night fell, and the stars shone down upon the waters, but the boat never stopped. On she went for two whole days and nights, and on the third morning the prince saw an island in the distance, and very glad he was; for he thought it was his journey’s end, and he was almost fainting with thirst and hunger. But the day passed and the island was still before him.
At long last, on the following day, he saw by the first light of the morning that he was quite close to it, and that trees laden with fruit of every kind were bending down over the water. The boat sailed round and round the island, going closer and closer every round, until, at last, the drooping branches almost touched it. The sight of the fruit within his reach made the prince hungrier and thirstier than he was before, and forgetting his promise to the little cat––not to eat anything until he entered the palace in the unknown seas––he caught one of the branches, and, in a moment, was in the tree eating the delicious fruit. While he was doing so the boat floated out to sea and soon was lost to sight; but the prince, having eaten, forgot all about it, and, worse still, forgot all about the princess in the giant’s castle. When he had eaten enough he descended the tree, and, turning his back on the sea, set out straight before him. He had not gone far when he heard the sound of music, and soon after he saw a number of maidens playing on silver harps coming towards him. When they saw him they ceased playing, and cried out:
“Welcome! welcome! Prince of the Silver River, welcome to the island of fruits and flowers. Our king and queen saw you coming over the sea, and they sent us to bring you to the palace.”
The prince went with them, and at the palace gates the king and queen and their daughter Kathleen received him, and gave him welcome. He hardly saw the king and queen, for his eyes were fixed on the princess Kathleen, who looked more beautiful than a flower. He thought he had never seen anyone so lovely, for, of course, he had forgotten all about poor Eileen pining away in her castle prison in the lonely valley. When the king and queen had given welcome to the prince a great feast was spread, and all the lords and ladies of the court sat down to it, and the prince sat between the queen and the princess Kathleen, and long before the feast was finished he was over head and ears in love with her. When the feast was ended the queen ordered the ballroom to be made ready, and when night fell the dancing began, and was kept up until the morning star, and the prince danced all night with the princess, falling deeper and deeper in love with her every minute. Between dancing by night and feasting by day weeks went by. All the time poor Eileen in the giant’s castle was counting the hours, and all this time the dwarfs were winding the balls, and a ball and a half were already wound. At last the prince asked the king and queen for their daughter in marriage, and they were delighted to be able to say yes, and the day was fixed for the wedding. But on the evening before the day on which it was to take place the prince was in his room, getting ready for a dance, when he felt something rubbing against his leg, and, looking down, who should he see but the little white cat. At the sight of him the prince remembered everything, and sad and sorry he was when he thought of Eileen watching and waiting and counting the days until he returned to save her. But he was very fond of the princess Kathleen, and so he did not know what to do.
“You can’t do anything to-night,” said the cat, for he knew what the prince was thinking of, “but when morning comes go down to the sea, and look not to the right or the left, and let no living thing touch you, for if you do you shall never leave the island. Drop the second ball into the water, as you did the first, and when the boat comes step in at once. Then you may look behind you, and you shall see what you shall see, and you’ll know which you love best, the Princess Eileen or the Princess Kathleen, and you can either go or stay.”
The prince didn’t sleep a wink that night, and at the first glimpse of the morning he stole from the palace. When he reached the sea he threw out the ball, and when it had floated out of sight, he saw the little boat sparkling on the horizon like a newly-risen star. The prince had scarcely passed through the palace doors when he was missed, and the king and queen and the princess, and all the lords and ladies of the court, went in search of him, taking the quickest way to the sea. While the maidens with the silver harps played sweetest music, the princess, whose voice was sweeter than any music, called on the prince by his name, and so moved his heart that he was about to look behind, when he remembered how the cat had told him he should not do so until he was in the boat. Just as it touched the shore the princess put out her hand and almost caught the prince’s arm, but he stepped into the boat in time to save himself, and it sped away like a receding wave. A loud scream caused the prince to look round suddenly, and when he did he saw no sign of king or queen, or princess, or lords or ladies, but only big green serpents, with red eyes and tongues, that hissed out fire and poison as they writhed in a hundred horrible coils.
The prince, having escaped from the enchanted island, sailed away for three days and three nights, and every night he hoped the coming morning would show him the island he was in search of. He was faint with hunger and beginning to despair, when on the fourth morning he saw in the distance an island that, in the first rays of the sun, gleamed like fire. On coming closer to it he saw that it was clad with trees, so covered with bright red berries that hardly a leaf was to be seen. Soon the boat was almost within a stone’s cast of the island, and it began to sail round and round until it was well under the bending branches. The scent of the berries was so sweet that it sharpened the prince’s hunger, and he longed to pluck them; but, remembering what had happened to him on the enchanted island, he was afraid to touch them. But the boat kept on sailing round and round, and at last a great wind rose from the sea and shook the branches, and the bright, sweet berries fell into the boat until it was filled with them, and they fell upon the prince’s hands, and he took up some to look at them, and as he looked the desire to eat them grew stronger, and he said to himself it would be no harm to taste one; but when he tasted it the flavour was so delicious he swallowed it, and, of course, at once he forgot all about Eileen, and the boat drifted away from him and left him standing in the water.
He climbed on to the island, and having eaten enough of the berries, he set out to see what might be before him, and it was not long until he heard a great noise, and a huge iron ball knocked down one of the trees in front of him, and before he knew where he was a hundred giants came running after it. When they saw the prince they turned towards him, and one of them caught him up in his hand and held him up that all might see him. The prince was nearly squeezed to death, and seeing this the giant put him on the ground again.
“Who are you, my little man?” asked the giant.
“I am a prince,” replied the prince.
“Oh, you are a prince, are you?” said the giant. “And what are you good for?” said he.
The prince did not know, for nobody had asked him that question before.
“I know what he’s good for,” said an old giantess, with one eye in her forehead and one in her chin. “I know what he’s good for. He’s good to eat.”
When the giants heard this they laughed so loud that the prince was frightened almost to death.
“Why,” said one, “he wouldn’t make a mouthful.”
“Oh, leave him to me,” said the giantess, “and I’ll fatten him up; and when he is cooked and dressed he will be a nice dainty dish for the king.”
The giants, on this, gave the prince into the hands of the old giantess. She took him home with her to the kitchen, and fed him on sugar and spice and all things nice, so that he should be a sweet morsel for the king of the giants when he returned to the island. The poor prince would not eat anything at first, but the giantess held him over the fire until his feet were scorched, and then he said to himself it was better to eat than to be burnt alive.
Well, day after day passed, and the prince grew sadder and sadder, thinking that he would soon be cooked and dressed for the king; but sad as the prince was, he was not half as sad as the Princess Eileen in the giant’s castle, watching and waiting for the prince to return and save her.
And the dwarfs had wound two balls, and were winding a third.
At last the prince heard from the old giantess that the king of the giants was to return on the following day, and she said to him:
“As this is the last night you have to live, tell me if you wish for anything, for if you do your wish will be granted.”
“I don’t wish for anything,” said the prince, whose heart was dead within him.
“Well, I’ll come back again,” said the giantess, and she went away.
The prince sat down in a corner, thinking and thinking, until he heard close to his ear a sound like “purr, purr!” He looked around, and there before him was the little white cat.
“I ought not to come to you,” said the cat; “but, indeed, it is not for your sake I come. I come for the sake of the Princess Eileen. Of course, you forgot all about her, and, of course, she is always thinking of you. It’s always the way––
“Favoured lovers may forget, Slighted lovers never yet.”
The prince blushed with shame when he heard the name of the princess.
“’Tis you that ought to blush,” said the cat; “but listen to me now, and remember, if you don’t obey my directions this time you’ll never see me again, and you’ll never set your eyes on the Princess Eileen. When the old giantess comes back tell her you wish, when the morning comes, to go down to the sea to look at it for the last time. When you reach the sea you will know what to do. But I must go now, as I hear the giantess coming.” And the cat jumped out of the window and disappeared.
“Well,” said the giantess, when she came in, “is there anything you wish?”
“Is it true I must die to-morrow?” asked the prince.
“Then,” said he, “I should like to go down to the sea to look at it for the last time.”
“You may do that,” said the giantess, “if you get up early.”
“I’ll be up with the lark in the light of the morning,” said the prince.
“Very well,” said the giantess, and, saying “good night,” she went away.
The prince thought the night would never pass, but at last it faded away before the grey light of the dawn, and he sped down to the sea. He threw out the third ball, and before long he saw the little boat coming towards him swifter than the wind. He threw himself into it the moment it touched the shore. Swifter than the wind it bore him out to sea, and before he had time to look behind him the island of the giantess was like a faint red speck in the distance. The day passed and the night fell, and the stars looked down, and the boat sailed on, and just as the sun rose above the sea it pushed its silver prow on the golden strand of an island greener than the leaves in summer. The prince jumped out, and went on and on until he entered a pleasant valley, at the head of which he saw a palace white as snow.
As he approached the central door it opened for him. On entering the hall he passed into several rooms without meeting with anyone; but, when he reached the principal apartment, he found himself in a circular room, in which were a thousand pillars, and every pillar was of marble, and on every pillar save one, which stood in the centre of the room, was a little white cat with black eyes. Ranged round the wall, from one door-jamb to the other, were three rows of precious jewels. The first was a row of brooches of gold and silver, with their pins fixed in the wall and their heads outwards; the second a row of torques of gold and silver; and the third a row of great swords, with hilts of gold and silver. And on many tables was food of all kinds, and drinking horns filled with foaming ale.
While the prince was looking about him the cats kept on jumping from pillar to pillar; but seeing that none of them jumped on to the pillar in the centre of the room, he began to wonder why this was so, when, all of a sudden, and before he could guess how it came about, there right before him on the centre pillar was the little white cat.
“Don’t you know me?” said he.
“I do,” said the prince.
“Ah, but you don’t know who I am. This is the palace of the Little White Cat, and I am the King of the Cats. But you must be hungry, and the feast is spread.”
Well, when the feast was ended, the king of the cats called for the sword that would kill the giant Trencoss, and the hundred cakes for the hundred watch-dogs.
The cats brought the sword and the cakes and laid them before the king.
“Now,” said the king, “take these; you have no time to lose. To-morrow the dwarfs will wind the last ball, and to-morrow the giant will claim the princess for his bride. So you should go at once; but before you go take this from me to your little girl.”
And the king gave him a brooch lovelier than any on the palace walls.
The king and the prince, followed by the cats, went down to the strand, and when the prince stepped into the boat all the cats “mewed” three times for good luck, and the prince waved his hat three times, and the little boat sped over the waters all through the night as brightly and as swiftly as a shooting star. In the first flush of the morning it touched the strand. The prince jumped out and went on and on, up hill and down dale, until he came to the giant’s castle. When the hounds saw him they barked furiously, and bounded towards him to tear him to pieces. The prince flung the cakes to them, and as each hound swallowed his cake he fell dead. The prince then struck his shield three times with the sword which he had brought from the palace of the little white cat.
When the giant heard the sound he cried out: “Who comes to challenge me on my wedding-day?”
The dwarfs went out to see, and, returning, told him it was a prince who challenged him to battle.
The giant, foaming with rage, seized his heaviest iron club, and rushed out to the fight. The fight lasted the whole day, and when the sun went down the giant said:
“We have had enough of fighting for the day. We can begin at sunrise to-morrow.”
“Not so,” said the prince. “Now or never; win or die.”
“Then take this,” cried the giant, as he aimed a blow with all his force at the prince’s head; but the prince, darting forward like a flash of lightning, drove his sword into the giant’s heart, and, with a groan, he fell over the bodies of the poisoned hounds.
When the dwarfs saw the giant dead they began to cry and tear their hair. But the prince told them they had nothing to fear, and he bade them go and tell the princess Eileen he wished to speak with her. But the princess had watched the battle from her window, and when she saw the giant fall she rushed out to greet the prince, and that very night he and she and all the dwarfs and harpers set out for the Palace of the Silver River, which they reached the next morning, and from that day to this there never has been a gayer wedding than the wedding of the Prince of the Silver River and the Princess Eileen; and though she had diamonds and pearls to spare, the only jewel she wore on her wedding-day was the brooch which the prince had brought her from the Palace of the Little White Cat in the far-off seas.
The Little White Cat – Irish Fairy Tales