George MacDonald.

Adela Cathcart, Volume 1 online

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should never be able to tell whether she was dead or alive. Of course
he made no further inquiries about her.

"One day he lost sight of his retinue in a great forest. These forests
are very useful in delivering princes from their courtiers, like a
sieve that keeps back the bran. Then the princes get away to follow
their fortunes. In this they have the advantage of the princesses, who
are forced to marry before they have had a bit of fun. I wish our
princesses got lost in a forest sometimes.

"One lovely evening, after wandering about for many days, he found
that he was approaching the outskirts of this forest; for the trees
had got so thin that he could see the sunset through them; and he soon
came upon a kind of heath. Next he came upon signs of human
neighbourhood; but by this time it was getting late, and there was
nobody in the fields to direct him.

"After travelling for another hour, his horse, quite worn out with
long labour and lack of food, fell, and was unable to rise again. So
he continued his journey on foot. At length he entered another
wood - not a wild forest, but a civilized wood, through which a
footpath led him to the side of a lake. Along this path the prince
pursued his way through the gathering darkness. Suddenly he paused,
and listened. Strange sounds came across the water. It was, in fact,
the princess laughing. Now, there was something odd in her laugh, as I
have already hinted; for the hatching of a real hearty laugh, requires
the incubation of gravity; and, perhaps, this was how the prince
mistook the laughter for screaming. Looking over the lake, he saw
something white in the water; and, in an instant, he had torn off his
tunic, kicked off his sandals, and plunged in. He soon reached the
white object, and found that it was a woman. There was not light
enough to show that she was a princess, but quite enough to show that
she was a lady, for it does not want much light to see that.

"Now, I cannot tell how it came about; - whether she pretended to be
drowning, or whether he frightened her, or caught her so as to
embarrass her; but certainly he brought her to shore in a fashion
ignominious to a swimmer, and more nearly drowned than she had ever
expected to be; for the water had got into her throat as often as she
had tried to speak.

"At the place to which he bore her, the bank was only a foot or two
above the water; so he gave her a strong lift out of the water, to lay
her on the bank. But, her gravitation ceasing the moment she left the
water, away she went, up into the air, scolding and screaming:

"'You naughty, _naughty_, NAUGHTY, NAUGHTY man!'

"No one had ever succeeded in putting her into a passion before. - When
the prince saw her ascend, he thought he must have been bewitched, and
have mistaken a great swan for a lady. But the princess caught hold of
the topmost cone upon a lofty fir. This came off; but she caught at
another; and, in fact, stopped herself by gathering cones, dropping
them as the stalks gave way. The prince, meantime, stood in the water,
forgetting to get out. But the princess disappearing, he scrambled on
shore, and went in the direction of the tree. He found her climbing
down one of the branches, towards the stem. But in the darkness of the
wood, the prince continued in some bewilderment as to what the
phenomenon could be; until, reaching the ground, and seeing him
standing there, she caught hold of him, and said:

"I'll tell papa.'

"'Oh, no, you won't!' rejoined the prince.

"'Yes, I will,' she persisted. 'What business had you to pull me down
out of the water, and throw me to the bottom of the air? I never did
you any harm.'

"'I am sure I did not mean to hurt you.'

"'I don't believe you have any brains; and that is a worse loss than
your wretched gravity. I pity you.'

"The prince now saw that he had come upon the bewitched princess, and
had already offended her. Before he could think what to say next, the
princess, giving a stamp with her foot that would have sent her aloft
again, but for the hold she had of his arm, said angrily:

"'Put me up directly.'

"'Put you up where, you beauty?' asked the prince. "He had fallen in
love with her, almost, already; for her anger made her more charming
than anyone else had ever beheld her; and, as far as he could see,
which certainly was not far, she had not a single fault about her,
except, of course, that she had no gravity. A prince, however, must be
incapable of judging of a princess by weight. The loveliness of a
foot, for instance, is hardly to be estimated by the depth of the
impression it can make in mud!

"'Put you up where, you beauty?' said the prince.

"'In the water, you stupid!' answered the princess.

"'Come, then,' said the prince.

"The condition of her dress, increasing her usual difficulty in
walking, compelled her to cling to him; and he could hardly persuade
himself that he was not in a delightful dream, notwithstanding the
torrent of musical abuse with which she overwhelmed him. The prince
being in no hurry, they reached the lake at quite another part, where
the bank was twenty-five feet high at least. When they stood at the
edge, the prince, turning towards the princess, said:

"'How am I to put you in?'

"'That is your business,' she answered, quite snappishly. 'You took me
out - put me in again.'

"'Very well,' said the prince; and, catching her up in his arms, he
sprang with her from the rock. The princess had just time to give one
delighted shriek of laughter before the water closed over them. When
they came to the surface, the princess, for a moment or two, could not
even laugh, for she had gone down with such a rush, that it was with
difficulty that she recovered her breath. The moment they reached the
surface -

"'How do you like falling in?' said the prince.

"After a few efforts, the princess panted out:

"'Is that what you call _falling in_?'

"'Yes,' answered the prince, 'I should think it a very tolerable

"'It seemed to me like going up,' rejoined she.

"'My feeling was certainly one of elevation, too,' the prince

"The princess did not appear to understand him, for she retorted his
first question:

'"How do _you_ like falling in?'

"'Beyond everything,' answered he; 'for I have fallen in with the only
perfect creature I ever saw.'

"'No more of that: I am tired of it,' said the princess.

"Perhaps she shared her father's aversion to punning.

"'Don't you like falling in, then?' said the prince.

"'It is the most delightful fun I ever had in my life,' answered
she. 'I never fell before. I wish I could learn. To think I am the
only person in my father's kingdom that can't fall!'

"Here the poor princess looked almost sad.

"'I shall be most happy to fall in with you any time you like.' said
the prince, devotedly.

"'Thank you. I don't know. Perhaps it would not be proper. But I don't
care. At all events, as we have fallen in, let us have a swim

"'With all my heart,' said the prince.

"And away they went, swimming, and diving, and floating, until at last
they heard cries along the shore, and saw lights glancing in all
directions. It was now quite late, and there was no moon.

"'I must go home,' said the princess. 'I am very sorry, for this is

"'So am I,' responded the prince. 'But I am glad I haven't a home to
go to - at least, I don't exactly know where it is.'

"'I wish I hadn't one either,' rejoined the princess; 'it is so
stupid! I have a great mind,' she continued, 'to play them all a
trick. Why couldn't they leave me alone? They won't trust me in the
lake for a single night! You see where that green light is burning?
That is the window of my room. Now if you would just swim there with
me very quietly, and when we are all but under the balcony, give me
such a push - _up_ you call it - as you did a little while ago, I should
be able to catch hold of the balcony, and get in at the window; and
then they may look for me till to-morrow morning!'

"'With more obedience than pleasure,' said the prince, gallantly; and
away they swam, very gently.

"'Will you be in the lake to-morrow-night?' the prince ventured to

"'To be sure I will. I don't think so. Perhaps,' - was the princess's
somewhat strange answer.

"But the prince was intelligent enough not to press her further; and
merely whispered, as he gave her the parting lift: 'Don't tell.' The
only answer the princess returned was a roguish look. She was already
a yard above his head. The look seemed to say: 'Never fear. It is too
good fun to spoil that way.'

"So perfectly like other people had she been in the water, that even
yet the prince could scarcely believe his eyes when he saw her ascend
slowly, grasp the balcony, and disappear through the window. He
turned, almost expecting to see her still by his side. But he was
alone in the water. So he swam away quietly, and watched the lights
roving about the shore for hours after the princess was safe in her
chamber. As soon as they disappeared, he landed in search of his tunic
and sword, and, after some trouble, found them again. Then he made the
best of his way round the lake to the other side. There the wood was
wilder, and the shore steeper - rising more immediately towards the
mountains which surrounded the lake on all sides, and kept sending it
messages of silvery streams from morning to night, and all night
long. He soon found a spot whence he could see the green light in the
princess's room, and where, even in the broad daylight, he would be in
no danger of being discovered from the opposite shore. It was a sort
of cave in the rock, where he provided himself a bed of withered
leaves, and lay down too tired for hunger to keep him awake. All night
long he dreamed that he was swimming with the princess."

"All that is very improper - to my mind," said Mrs. Cathcart. And she
glanced towards the place where Percy had deposited himself, as if she
were afraid of her boy's morals.

But if she was anxious on that score, her fears must have been
dispersed the same moment by an indubitable snore from the youth, who
was in his favourite position - lying at full length on a couch.

"You must remember all this is in Fairyland, aunt," said Adela, with a
smile. "Nobody does what papa and mamma would not like here. We must
not judge the people in fairy tales by precisely the same
conventionalities we have. They must be good after their own fashion."

"Conventionalities! Humph!" said Mrs. Cathcart.

"Besides, I don't think the princess was quite accountable," said I.

"You should have made her so, then," rejoined my critic.

"Oh! wait a little, madam," I replied.

"I think," said the clergyman, "that Miss Cathcart's defence is very
tolerably sufficient; and, in my character of Master of the
Ceremonies, I order Mr. Smith to proceed."

I made haste to do so, before Mrs. Cathcart should open a new battery.

* * * * *


"Early the next morning, the prince set out to look for something to
eat, which he soon found at a forester's hut, where for many following
days he was supplied with all that a brave prince could consider
necessary. And having plenty to keep him alive for the present, he
would not think of wants not yet in existence. Whenever Care intruded,
this prince always bowed him out in the most princely manner.

"When he returned from his breakfast to his watch-cave, he saw the
princess already floating about in the lake, attended by the king and
queen - whom he knew by their crowns - and a great company in lovely
little boats, with canopies of all the colours of the rainbow, and
flags and streamers of a great many more. It was a very bright day,
and soon the prince, burned up with the heat, began to long for the
water and the cool princess. But he had to endure till the twilight;
for the boats had provisions on board, and it was not till the sun
went down, that the gay party began to vanish. Boat after boat drew
away to the shore, following that of the king and queen, till only
one, apparently the princess's own boat, remained. But she did not
want to go home even yet, and the prince thought he saw her order the
boat to the shore without her. At all events, it rowed away; and now,
of all the radiant company, only one white speck remained. Then the
prince began to sing.

"And this was what he sang:

"'Lady fair,
Lift thine eyes,
Banish night
By the might
Of thine eyes.

Snowy arms,
Oars of snow,
Oar her hither,
Plashing low
Soft and slow,
Oar her hither.

Stream behind her
O'er the lake,
Radiant whiteness!
In her wake
Following, following for her sake,
Radiant whiteness!

Cling about her,
Waters blue;
Part not from her,
But renew
Cold and true
Kisses round her.

Lap me round,
Waters sad
That have left her;
Make me glad,
For ye had
Kissed her ere ye left her.'

"Before he had finished his song, the princess was just under the
place where he sat, and looking up to find him. Her ears had led her

"'Would you like a fall, princess?' said the prince, looking down.

"'Ah! there you are! Yes, if you please, prince,' said the princess,
looking up.

"'How do you know I am a prince, princess?' said the prince.

"'Because you are a very nice young man, prince,' said the princess.

"'Come up then, princess.'

"'Fetch me, prince.'

"The prince took off his scarf, then his sword-belt, then his tunic,
and tied them all together, and let them down. But the line was far
too short. He unwound his turban, and added it to the rest, when it
was all but long enough; and his purse completed it. The princess just
managed to lay hold of the knot of money, and was beside him in a
moment. This rock was much higher than the other, and the splash and
the dive were tremendous. The princess was in ecstasies of delight,
and their swim was delicious.

"Night after night they met, and swam about in the dark clear lake;
where such was the prince's delight, that (whether the princess's way
of looking at things infected him, or he was actually getting
light-headed,) he often fancied that he was swimming in the sky
instead of the lake. But when he talked about being in heaven, the
princess laughed at him dreadfully.

"When the moon came, she brought them fresh pleasure. Everything
looked strange and new in her light, with an old, withered, yet
unfading newness. When the moon was nearly full, one of their great
delights was, to dive deep in the water, and then, turning round, look
up through it at the great blot of light close above them, shimmering
and trembling and wavering, spreading and contracting, seeming to melt
away, and again grow solid. Then they would shoot up through it; and
lo! there was the moon, far off, clear and steady and cold, and very
lovely, at the bottom of a deeper and bluer lake than theirs, as the
princess said.

"The prince soon found out that while in the water the princess was
very like other people. And besides this, she was not so forward in
her questions, or pert in her replies at sea as on shore. Neither did
she laugh so much; and when she did laugh, it was more gently. She
seemed altogether more modest and maidenly in the water than out of
it. But when the prince, who had really fallen in love when he fell in
the lake, began to talk to her about love, she always turned her head
towards him and laughed. After a while she began to look puzzled, as
if she were trying to understand what he meant, but could
not - revealing a notion that he meant something. But as soon as ever
she left the lake, she was so altered, that the prince said to
himself: 'If I marry her, I see no help for it; we must turn merman
and mermaid, and go out to sea at once.'

* * * * *


"The princess's pleasure in the lake had grown to a passion, and she
could scarcely bear to be out of it for an hour. Imagine then her
consternation, when, diving with the prince one night, a sudden
suspicion seized her, that the lake was not so deep as it used to
be. The prince could not imagine what had happened. She shot to the
surface, and, without a word, swam at full speed towards the higher
side of the lake. He followed, begging to know if she was ill, or what
was the matter. She never turned her head, or took the smallest notice
of his question. Arrived at the shore, she coasted the rocks, with
minute inspection. But she was not able to come to a conclusion, for
the moon was very small, and so she could not see well. She turned
therefore and swam home, without saying a word to explain her conduct
to the prince, of whose presence she seemed no longer conscious. He
withdrew to his cave, in great perplexity and distress.

"Next day she made many observations, which, alas! strengthened her
fears. She saw that the banks were too dry; and that the grass on the
shore, and the trailing plants on the rocks, were withering away. She
caused marks to be made along the borders, and examined them, day
after day, in all directions of the wind; till at last the horrible
idea became a certain fact - that the surface of the lake was slowly

"The poor princess nearly went out of the little mind she had. It was
awful to her, to see the lake which she loved more than any living
thing, lie dying before her eyes. It sank away, slowly vanishing. The
tops of rocks that had never been seen before, began to appear far
down in the clear water. Before long, they were dry in the sun. It was
fearful to think of the mud that would lie baking and festering, full
of lovely creatures dying, and ugly creatures coming to life, like the
unmaking of a world. And how hot the sun would be without any lake!
She could not bear to swim in it, and began to pine away. Her life
seemed bound up with it; and ever as the lake sank, she pined. People
said she would not live an hour after the lake was gone. - But she
never cried.

"Proclamation was made to all the kingdom, that whosoever should
discover the cause of the lake's decrease, would be rewarded after a
princely fashion. Hum-Drum and Kopy-Keck applied themselves to their
physics and metaphysics; but in vain. No one came forward to suggest a

"Now the fact was, that the old princess was at the root of the
mischief. When she heard that her niece found more pleasure in the
water, than any one else had out of it, she went into a rage, and
cursed herself for her want of foresight.

"'But,' said she, 'I will soon set all right. The king and the people
shall die of thirst; their brains shall boil and frizzle in their
skulls, before I shall lose my revenge.'

"And she laughed a ferocious laugh, that made the hairs on the back of
her black cat stand erect with terror.

"Then she went to an old chest in the room, and opening it, took out
what looked like a piece of dried sea-weed. This she threw into a tub
of water. Then she threw some powder into the water, and stirred it
with her bare arm, muttering over it words of hideous sound, and yet
more hideous import. Then she set the tub aside, and took from the
chest a huge bunch of a hundred rusty keys, that clattered in her
shaking hands. Then she sat down and proceeded to oil them all. Before
she had finished, out from the tub, the water of which had kept on a
slow motion ever since she had ceased stirring it, came the head and
half the body of a huge grey snake. But the witch did not look
round. It grew out of the tub, waving itself backwards and forwards
with a slow horizontal motion, till it reached the princess, when it
laid its head upon her shoulder, and gave a low hiss in her ear. She
started - but with joy; and seeing the head resting on her shoulder,
drew it towards her and kissed it. Then she drew it all out of the
tub, and wound it round her body. It was one of those dreadful
creatures which few have ever beheld - the White Snakes of Darkness.

"Then she took the keys and went down into her cellar; and as she
unlocked the door, she said to herself,

"'This _is_ worth living for!'

"Locking the door behind her, she descended a few steps into the
cellar, and crossing it, unlocked another door into a dark, narrow
passage. This also she locked behind her, and descended a few more
steps. If any one had followed the witch-princess, he would have heard
her unlock exactly one hundred doors, and descend a few steps after
unlocking each. When she had unlocked the last, she entered a vast
cave, the roof of which was supported by huge natural pillars of
rock. Now this roof was the underside of the bottom of the lake.

"She then untwined the snake from her body, and held it by the tail,
high above her. The hideous creature stretched up its head towards the
roof of the cavern, which it was just able to reach. It then began to
move its head backwards and forwards, with a slow oscillating motion,
as if looking for something. At the same moment, the witch began to
walk round and round the cavern, coming nearer to the centre every
circuit; while the head of the snake described the same path over the
roof that she did over the floor, for she held it up still. And still
it kept slowly oscillating. Round and round the cavern they went thus,
ever lessening the circuit, till, at last, the snake made a sudden
dart, and clung fast to the roof with its mouth. 'That's right, my
beauty!' cried the princess; 'drain it dry.'

"She let it go, left it hanging, and sat down on a great stone, with
her black cat, who had followed her all round the cave, by her
side. Then she began to knit, and mutter awful words. The snake hung
like a huge leech, sucking at the stone; the cat stood with his back
arched, and his tail like a piece of cable, looking up at the snake;
and the old woman sat and knitted and muttered. Seven days and seven
nights they sat thus; when suddenly the serpent dropped from the roof,
as if exhausted, and shrivelled up like a piece of dried sea-weed on
the floor. The witch started to her feet, picked it up, put it in her
pocket, and looked up at the roof. One drop of water was trembling on
the spot where the snake had been sucking. As soon as she saw that,
she turned and fled, followed by her cat. She shut the door in a
terrible hurry, locked it, and having muttered some frightful words,
sped to the next, which also she locked and muttered over; and so with
all the hundred doors, till she arrived in her own cellar. There she
sat down on the floor ready to faint, but listening with malicious
delight to the rushing of the water, which she could hear distinctly
through all the hundred doors.

"But this was not enough. Now that she had tasted revenge, she lost
her patience. Without further measures, the lake would be too long in
disappearing. So the next night, with the last shred of the dying old
moon rising, she took some of the water in which she had revived the
snake, put it in a bottle, and set out, accompanied by her cat. Ere
she returned, she had made the entire circuit of the lake, muttering
fearful words as she crossed every stream, and casting into it some of
the water out of her bottle. When she had finished the circuit, she
muttered yet again, and flung a handful of the water towards the
moon. Every spring in the country ceased to throb and bubble, dying
away like the pulse of a dying man. The next day there was no sound of
falling water to be heard along the borders of the lake. The very
courses were dry; and the mountains showed no silvery streaks down
their dark sides. And not alone had the fountains of mother Earth
ceased to flow; for all the babies throughout the country were crying
dreadfully - only without tears.

* * * * *


"Never since the night when the princess left him so abruptly, had the
prince had a single interview with her. He had seen her once or twice
in the lake; but as far as he could discover, she had not been in it
any more at night. He had sat and sung, and looked in vain for his
Nereid; while she, like a true Nereid, was wasting away with her lake,
sinking as it sank, withering as it dried. When at length he
discovered the change that was taking place in the level of the water,
he was in great alarm and perplexity. He could not tell whether the
lake was dying because the lady had forsaken it; or whether the lady

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Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldAdela Cathcart, Volume 1 → online text (page 7 of 12)