Hello and welcome to Fairy Tale Friday. Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then I’ll begin.
This week we look at a tale from Ireland collected by Patrick Kennedy in his 1870 book The Fireside Stories of Ireland. Kennedy was a folklorist and bookseller from County Wexford, Ireland.
According to Wikipedia:
The tales are told in rusticated English of the Irish peasantry and he is widely credited with preserving Irish idioms in the turn of phrase, sentence structure, Irish words.
This is an interesting tale in that our unnamed protagonist’s widowed mother remarries a terrible man and then dies shortly thereafter. Therefore it is a stepfather (not natural father) who wants to marry her. Which only makes it slightly better.
Despite having no name she is a clever girl who has a way with words and knows how to play the game. She is aided by her filly who is actually a fairy in disguise who advises her (as in other tales) to ask for certain items of clothing before the wedding can take place. Many other tales just have the dresses fit in a walnut shell (something I have always wondered how that was achieved) but this tale actually specifies that they must fit in the walnut shell as part of the requirement. Other tales often do not express how long this takes but this one does—each dress takes at least 6 months or more to complete buying her plenty of time to plan an escape. Her step-father grows exasperated that she did not ask for all three dresses at the same time, but she replies:
"Oh, I'll never ask another, you may depend, till I'm married."
She didn't say till we're married.
I told you she had a way with words.
She escapes with the three walnuts wearing a dress made from top to bottom with cat skins and her skin browned up. She is found sleeping in the woods by the young King and his pack of hunting dogs. He sees her all wild from top to toe and brown as a berry and the story says:
Well that didn't hinder her features from being handsome, and the prince was astonished at her beauty and her colour and her dress.
He finds work for her in his royal household. The other servants laugh at her because of her skin colour and cat skin dress, but she keeps herself to herself. The King, who clearly fancies her, asks for her to come and do many personal tasks for him which are above the rank of scullery maid. He tries to woo her, but she will have none of it. When she is all dressed in her finest at the ball with pale skin (having washed off the brown stain) he tries to woo her there too and she calls him out on it. She tells him she knows he’s been trying it on with his scullery maid. He believes they may be one and the same, but she tests him to be sure he is loyal just as he tests her to see if she is truly a woman of quality in disguise.
The Princess in the Cat-Skins source
There was once a queen that was left a widow with one daughter, who was as good and handsome as any girl could be. But her mother wasn't satisfied to remain without a husband; so she married again, and a very bad choice she made. Her second husband treated her very badly; and she died soon after.
Well, would you ever think of the widower taking it into his head to marry the young princess at the end of a year? She was as shocked as she could be when he made her the offer and burst out a crying.
"I took you too sudden," said he. "Sleep on it, and you can give me an answer tomorrow."
She was in great trouble all the rest of the day, and when the evening came she went out into the paddock, where a beautiful filly she used to ride was grazing. "Oh my poor beast! " said she, "I'm sure if you knew my trouble, you'd pity me."
"I do know your trouble, and I pity you, and I'll help you too," says the filly. "I'm the fairy that watched over you from the time you were born, and I am here near you since your mother married the second time. Your stepfather is an enchanter, but he'll find me too strong for him. Don't seem shocked when he'll ask your consent tomorrow but say you must have first a dress of silk and silver thread that will fit into a walnut shell. He'll promise, and will be able to get it made too, but I'll bother his spinner and his weaver long enough before he'll get it wove, and his seamstress after that, before it's sewed."
The princess done as she was bid, and the enchanter was in great joy; but he was kept in great trouble and anger for a full half year before the dress was ready to go on the princess. At last it was fitted, and he asked her was she ready to be his wife.
"I'll tell you tomorrow," said she.
So she went to consult her filly in the paddock. Well, the next day he put the question to her again, and she said that she couldn't think of marrying anyone till she had another dress of silk and gold thread that would fit in a walnut shell.
"I wish you had mentioned itself and the silver dress together. Both could have been done at the same time. No matter. I'll get it done."
Whatever trouble the spinner and the weaver and the seamstress had with the other dress, they had twice it with this; but at last it was tried on and fitted like a glove.
"Well now," says Fear Dhorrach, "I hope you're satisfied, and won't put off the wedding again."
"Oh, you must forgive me," said she, "for my vanity." She was talking to the filly the evening before.
"I can't do without a dress of silk thread as thick as it can be with diamonds and pearls no larger than the head of a minnikin pin. Three is a lucky number, you know."
"Well, I wish you had mentioned this at first, and the three could be making together. Now this is the very last thing you'll ask, I expect."
"Oh, I'll never ask another, you may depend, till I'm married."
She didn't say till we're married.
The dress came home at last. Well, the same evening she found on her bed another made from bottom to top of cat-skins, and this she put on. She put her three walnut shells in her pocket, and then stole out to the stable, where she found her filly with a bridle in her mouth, and the nicest side-saddle ever you saw on her back. Away they went, and when the light first appeared in the sky, they were a hundred miles away.
They stopped at the edge of a wood, and the princess was very glad to rest herself on a bunch of dry grass at the foot of a tree. She wasn't a minute there when she fell asleep; and soundly she did sleep, till she was woke up by the blowing of bugles and the yelping of beagles. She jumped up in a fright.
There was no filly near her, but half a hundred spotted hounds were within forty perches of her, yelling out of them like vengeance.
I needn't tell you she was frightened. She had hardly power to put one foot past the other, and she'd be soon tore into giblets by the dogs on account of her dress, but a fine young hunter leaped over their heads, and they all fell back when he shook his whip and shouted at them. So he came to the princess, and there she was as wild looking as you please, with her cat-skins hanging round her, and her face and hands and arms as brown as a berry, from a wash she put on herself before she left home. Well that didn't hinder her features from being handsome, and the prince was astonished at her beauty and her colour and her dress, when he found she was a stranger, and alone in the world. He got off his horse and walked side by side with her to his palace, for he was the young king of that country.
He sent for his housekeeper when he came to the hall door and bid her employ the young girl about whatever she was fit for, and then set off to follow the hounds again.
Well, there was great tittering in the servants' hall among the maids at her colour and her dress, and the ganders of footmen would like to be joking with her, but she made no freedom with one or the other, and when the butler thought to give her a kiss, she gave him a light slap on the jaw that wouldn't kill a fly, but he felt as if a toothache was at him for eight and forty hours. By my word, the other buckeens did not give her an excuse to raise her hand to them. Well, she was so silent and kept herself to herself so much, that she was no favourite, and they gave her nothing better to do than help the scullery maid, and at night she had to put up with a little box of a place under the stairs for a bedroom.
The next day, when the prince returned from hunting, he sent word to the housekeeper by the whipper-in to let the new servant bring him up a basin and towel till he'd wash before dinner.
"Oh, ho!" says the cook, "there's an honour for Cat-Skin. I'm here for forty years and never was asked to do such a thing; how grand we are! purshuin to all impedent people!"
The princess didn't mind their jibes and their jeers. She took up the things, and the prince delayed her ever so long with remarks and questions, striving to get out of her what rank of life she was born in. As little as she said he guessed her to be a lady. I suppose it is as hard for a lady or gentleman to pass for a vulgarian, as for one of us to act like one of the quality.
Well to be sure! all the cold and scornful noses that were in the big kitchen before her; and it was,
"Cat-Skin, will you hand me this? Cat-Skin, will you grease my shoes? Cat-Skin, will you draw a jug of beer for me?" And she done everything she was asked without a word or a sour look.
Next night the prince was at a ball about three miles away, and the princess got leave from the housekeeper to go early to bed. Well, she couldn't get herself to lie down. She was in a fever like; she threw off her outside dress, and she stepped out into the lawn to get a little fresh air. There what did she behold but her dear filly under a tree. She ran over, and threw her arms round her neck, and kissed her face, and began to cry.
"No time for crying!" says the filly. "Take out the first walnut shell you got."
She did so and opened it.
"Hold what's inside over your head," said the other, and in a moment the silk and silver dress wrapped her round as if a dozen manty-makers were after spending an hour about it.
"Get on that stump," says the filly, "and jump into the side-saddle."
She did so, and in a few minutes, they were at the hall door of the castle where the ball was. There she sprung from her saddle and walked into the hall. Lights were in the hall and everywhere, and nothing could equal the glitter of the princess's robes and the accoutrements of her steed. It was like the curling of a stream in the sun.
You may believe that the quality were taken by surprise, when the princess walked in among them as if they were the lords and ladies in her father's court. The young king came forward as he saw the rest were a little cowed, and bade her good evening and welcome; and they talked whatever way kings and queens and princesses do, and he made her sit on his own seat of honour, and took a stool or a chair near her, and if he wasn't delighted and surprised, her features were so like the scullery maid's, leave it till again.
They had a fine supper and a dance, and the prince and she danced, and every minute his love for her was increasing, but at last she said she should go. Everyone was sorry, and the prince more than anyone, and he came with her to the hall, and asked might he see her safe home. But she showed him her filly and excused herself.
Said he, "I'll have my brown horse brought, and myself and my servants will attend you."
"Hand me up on my filly," says she, " first of all," and, be the laws, I don't know how princes put princesses on horseback. Maybe one of the servants stoops his back, and the prince goes on one knee, and she steps first on his knee and then on the servant's back, and then sits in the saddle. Anyhow she was safe up, and she took the prince's hand, and bid him good night, and the filly and herself were away like a flash of lightning in the dark night.
Well, everything appeared dismal enough when he went back to where a hundred tongues were going hard and fast about the lady in the dazzling dress.
Next morning he bid his footman ask the girl in the cat-skin to bring him hot water and a towel for him, to shave. She came in as modest and backward as you please; but whenever the prince got a peep at her face, there were the beautiful eyes and nose and mouth of the lady in the glittering dress, but all as brown as a bit of bogwood. He thought to get a little talk out of her, but dickens a word would come out of her mouth but yes or no.
And when he asked her was she of high birth, she turned off the discourse and wouldn't say one thing or the other; and when he asked would she like to put on nice clothes and be about his mother, she refused just as if he asked her to drown herself. So he found he could make nothing of her and let her go downstairs.
There was another great ball in a week's time, and the very same thing took place again. There was the princess, and the dress she had on was of silk and gold thread, and the darlintest little gold crown in the world over her purty curling hair.
If the prince was in love before, he was up to his eyes in it this time; but while they were going on with the nicest sweet talk, says she, "I'm afraid, prince, that you are in the habit of talking lovingly to every girl you meet."
Well, he was very eager to prove he was not.
"Then," said she, "a little bird belied you as I was coming through the wood. He said that you weren't above talking soft even to a young servant girl with her skin as brown as a berry, and her dress no better than cat-skin.''
"I declare to you, princess," said he, "there is such a girl at home, and if her skin was as white as yours, and her dress the same, no eye could see a bit of differ between you."
"Oh, thankee, prince!" says she, "for the compliment; it's time for me to be going."
Well, he thought to mollify her, but she curled her upper lip and cocked her nose, and wasn't long till she left, the way she did before. While she was getting on her filly, he almost went down on his knees to her to make it up.
So at last she smiled, and said, "If I can make up my mind to forgive you, I'll come to the next ball without invitation."
So she was away, and when they came under the tree in the lawn she took the upper hem of her dress in her fingers and it came off like a glove, and she made her way in at the hack door, and into her crib at the stair-foot.
The prince slept little that night, and in the morning he sent his footman to ask the girl in the cat-skins to bring up a needle and thread to sew a button on his shirt sleeve. He watched her fingers, and saw they were small and of a lovely shape; and when one of them touched his wrist, it felt as soft and delicate as silk.
All he could say got nothing out of her only, "It wasn't a nice thing for a prince to speak in that way to a girl of low degree, and he boasting of it after to princesses and great ladies."
Well, how he did begin to deny anything so ungenteel, but the button was sewed, and she skipped away downstairs.
The third night came, and she shook the dress of silk and pearls and diamonds over her, and the nicest crown of the same on her head. As grand and beautiful as she was before, she was twice as grand now; and the lords and ladies hardly dared to speak above their breaths, and the prince thought he was in heaven. He asked her at last would she be his queen, and not keep him in misery any longer, and she said she would, if she was sure he wouldn't ask Miss Cat-Skin the same question next day.
Oh, how he spoke, and how he promised! He asked leave to see her safe home, but she wouldn't agree.
"But don't be downcast," said she. "You will see me again sooner than you think; and if you know me when you meet me next, we'll part no more."
Just as she was sitting in her saddle, and the prince was holding her hand, he slipped a dawny limber ring of gold on one finger. It was so small and so nice to the touch he thought she wouldn't feel it.
"And now, my princess," says he to himself, "I think I'll know you when I meet you."
Next morning he sent again for the scullery girl, and she came and made a curtchy.
"What does your majesty want me to do?" said she.
"Only to advise me which of these two suits of clothes would look best on me; I'm going to be married."
"Ah, how could the likes of me be able to advise you? Is the rich dressed lady, that I heard the footmen talking about, to be your queen?"
"Yourself is as likely to be my wife as that young lady."
"Then who is it?"
"Yourself, I tell you."
" Myself! How can your majesty joke that way on a poor girl? They say you're promised to the lady of the three rich dresses."
"I'm promised to no one but yourself. I asked you twice already to be my queen; I ask you now the third time."
"Yes, and maybe after all, you'll marry the lady of the dresses."
"You promised you'd have me if I knew you the next time we'd meet. This is the next time. If I don't know you, I know my ring on your fourth finger."
She looked, and there it was sure enough. Maybe she didn't blush.
"Will your majesty step into the next room for a minute," said she, "and leave me by myself?"
He did so, and when she opened the door for him again, there she was with the brown stain off her face and hands, and her dazzling dress of silk and jewels on her.
Wasn't he the happy prince, and she the happy princess? And weren't the noisy servants lewd of themselves when they saw poor Cat-Skin in her royal dress saying the words before the priest? They didn't put off their marriage, and there was the fairy now in the appearance of a beautiful woman; and if I was to tell you about the happy life they led, I'd only be tiring you.
That’s all for this week. Stay tuned next week for a poem about Catskin.