There was once a King
whose wife died, leaving him with an only daughter, whom he dearly
loved. The little Princess’s name was Velvet-Cheek, and she was so
good, and bonnie, and kind-hearted that all her fathers subjects
loved her. But as the King was generally engaged in transacting the
business of the State, the poor little maiden had rather a lonely
life, and often wished that she had a sister with whom she could
play, and who would be a companion to her.
The King, hearing this, made up his mind to marry a middle-aged
Countess, whom he had met at a neighbouring Court, who had one
daughter, named Katherine, who was just a little younger than the
Princess Velvet-Cheek, and who, he thought, would make a nice
playfellow for her.
He did so, and in one way the arrangement turned out very well, for
the two girls loved one another dearly, and had everything in
common, just as if they had really been sisters.
But in another way it turned out very badly, for the new Queen was a
cruel and ambitious woman, and she wanted her own daughter to do as
she had done, and make a grand marriage, and perhaps even become a
Queen. And when she saw that Princess Yelvet-Cheek was growing into
a very beautiful young woman—more beautiful by far than her own
daughter—she began to hate her, and to wish that in some way she
would lose her good looks.
“For,” thought she, “what suitor will heed my daughter as long as
her step-sister is by her side?”
Now, among the servants and retainers at her husband's Castle there
was an old Hen-wife, who, men said, was in league with the Evil
Spirits of the air, and who was skilled in the knowledge of charms,
and philtres, and love potions.
“Perhaps she could help me to do what I seek to do,” said the wicked
Queen; and one night, when it was growing dusk, she wrapped a cloak
round her, and set out to this old Hen-wife's cottage.
“Send the lassie to me to-morrow morning ere she hath broken her
fast,” replied the old Dame when she heard what her visitor had to
say. “I will find out a way to mar her beauty.” And the wicked Queen
went home content.
Next morning she went to the Princess's room while she was dressing,
and told her to go out before breakfast and get the eggs that the
Hen-wife had gathered. “And see,” added she, “that thou dost not eat
anything ere thou goest, for there is nothing that maketh the roses
bloom on a young maiden's cheeks like going out fasting in the fresh
Princess Yelvet-Cheek promised to do as she was bid, and go and
fetch the eggs; but as she was not fond of going out of doors before
she had had something to eat, and as, moreover, she suspected that
her step-mother had some hidden reason for giving her such an
unusual order, and she did not trust her step-mother's hidden
reasons, she slipped into the pantry as she went downstairs and
helped herself to a large slice of cake. Then, after she had eaten
it, she went straight to the Hen-wife's cottage and asked for the
“Lift the lid of that pot there, your Highness, and you will see
them," said the old woman, pointing to the big pot standing in the
corner in which she boiled her hens' meat.
The Princess did so, and found a heap of eggs lying inside, which
she lifted into her basket, while the old woman watched her with a
"Go home to your Lady Mother, Hinny,” she said at last, “and tell
her from me to keep the press door better snibbit.”
The Princess went home, and gave this extraordinary message to her
step-mother, wondering to herself the while what it meant.
But if she did not understand the Hen-wife's words, the Queen
understood them only too well. For from them she gathered that the
Princess had in some way prevented the old Witch's spell doing what
she intended it to do.
So next morning, when she sent her step-daughter once more on the
same errand, she accompanied her to the door of the Castle herself,
so that the poor girl had no chance of paying a visit to the pantry.
But as she went along the road that led to the cottage, she felt so
hungry that, when she passed a party of country-folk picking peas by
the roadside, she asked them to give her a handful.
They did so, and she ate the peas; and so it came about that the
same thing happened that had happened yesterday.
The Hen-wife sent her to look for the eggs; but she could work no
spell upon her, because she had broken her fast. So the old woman
bade her go home again and give the same message to the Queen.
The Queen was very angry when she. heard it, for she felt that she
was being outwitted by this slip of a girl, and she determined that,
although she was not fond of getting up early, she would accompany
her next day herself, and make sure that she had nothing to eat as
So next morning she walked with the Princess to the Hen-wife’s
cottage, and, as had happened twice before, the old woman sent the
Royal maiden to lift the lid off the pot in the corner in order to
get the eggs.
And the moment that the Princess did so off jumped her own pretty
head, and on jumped that of a sheep.
Then the wicked Queen thanked the cruel old Witch for the service
that she had rendered to her, and went home quite delighted with the
success of her scheme; while the poor Princess picked up her own
head and put it into her basket along with the eggs, and went home
crying, keeping behind the hedge all the way, for she felt so
ashamed of her sheep’s head that she was afraid that anyone saw her.
Now, as I told you,
the Princess’s step-sister Katherine loved her dearly, and when she
saw what a cruel deed had been wrought on her she was so angry that
she declared that she would not remain another hour in the Castle.
“For,” said she, "if my Lady Mother can order one such deed to be
done, who can hinder her ordering another. So, methinks, ’twere
better for us both to be where she cannot reach us.”
So she wrapped a fine shawl round her poor step-sister’s head, so
that none could tell what it was like, and, putting the real head in
the basket, she took her by the hand, and the two set out to seek
They walked and they walked, till they reached a splendid Palace,
and when they came to it Katherine made as though she would go
boldly up and knock at the door.
“I may perchance find work here,” she explained, “and earn enough
money to keep us both in comfort.”
But the poor Princess would fain have pulled her back. “They will
have nothing to do with thee,” she whispered, “when they see that
thou hast a sister with a sheep’s head.”
“And who is to know that thon hast a sheep’s head?” asked Katherine.
“If thou hold thy tongue, and keep the shawl well round thy face,
and leave the rest to me.” So up she went and knocked at the kitchen
door, and when the housekeeper came to answer it she asked her if
there was any work that she could give her to do. “For,” said she,
“I have a sick sister, who is sore troubled with the migraine in her
head, and I would fain find a quiet lodging for her where she could
rest for the night.”
“Dost thou know aught of sickness?” asked the housekeeper, who was
greatly struck by Katherine’s soft voice and gentle ways.
“Ay, do I,” replied Katherine, “for when one’s sister is troubled
with the migraine, one has to learn to go about softly and not to
make a noise.”
Now it chanced that the King’s eldest son, the Crown Prince, was
lying ill in the Palace of a strange disease, which seemed to have
touched his brain. For he was so restless, especially at nights,
that someone had always to be with him to watch that he did himself
no harm; and this state of things had gone on so long that everyone
was quite worn out.
And the old housekeeper thought that it would be a good chance to
get a quiet night’s sleep if this capable-looking stranger could be
trusted to sit up with the Prince.
So she left her at the door, and went and consulted the King; and
the King came out and spoke to Katherine and he, too, was so pleased
with her voice and her appearance that he gave orders that a room
should be set apart in the Castle for her sick sister and herself,
and he promised that, if she would sit up that night with the
Prince, and see that no harm befell him, she would have, as her
reward, a bag of silver Pennies in the morning.
Katherine agreed to the bargain readily, “for,” thought she, “’twill
always be a night’s lodging for the Princess; and, forbye that, a
bag of silver Pennies is not to be got every day.”
So the Princess went to bed in the comfortable chamber that was set
apart for her, and Katherine went to watch by the sick Prince.
He was a handsome, comely young man, who seemed to be in some sort
of fever, for his brain was not quite clear, and he tossed and
tumbled from side to side, gazing anxiously in front of him, and
stretching out his hands as if he were in search of something.
And at twelve o’clock at night, just when Katherine thought that he
was going to fall into a refreshing sleep, what was her horror to
see him rise from his bed, dress himself hastily, open the door, and
slip downstairs, as if he were going to look for somebody.
“There be something strange in this,” said the girl to herself.
“Methinks I had better follow him and see what happens.”
So she stole out of the room after the Prince and followed him
safely downstairs; and what was her astonishment to find that
apparently he was going some distance, for he put on his hat and
riding-coat, and, unlocking the door crossed the courtyard to the
stable, and began to saddle his horse.
When he had done so, he led it out, and mounted, and whistling
softly to a hound which lay asleep in a corner, he prepared to ride
“I must go too, and see the end of this,” said Katherine bravely;
“for methinks he is bewitched. These be not the actions of a sick
So, just as the horse was about to start, she jumped lightly on its
back, and settled herself comfortably behind its rider, all
unnoticed by him.
Then this strange pair rode away through the woods, and, as they
went, Katherine pulled the hazel-nuts that nodded in great clusters
in her face. “For,” said she to herself, “Dear only knows where next
I may get anything to eat.”
On and on they rode, till they left the greenwood far behind them
and came out on an open moor. Soon they reached a hillock, and here
the Prince drew rein, and, stooping down, cried in a strange,
uncanny whisper, “Open, open, Green Hill, and let the Prince, and
his horse, and his hound enter.”
“And,” whispered Katherine quickly, “let his lady enter behind him.”
Instantly, to her great astonishment, the top of the knowe seemed to
tip up, leaving an aperture large enough for the little company to
enter; then it closed gently behind them again.
They found themselves in a magnificent hall, brilliantly lighted by
hundreds of candles stuck in sconces round the walls. In the centre
of this apartment was a group of the most beautiful maidens that
Katherine had ever seen, all dressed in shimmering ball-gowns, with
wreaths of roses and violets in their hair. And there were sprightly
gallants also, who had been treading a measure with these beauteous
damsels to the strains of fairy music.
When the maidens saw the Prince, they ran to him, and led him away
to join their revels. And at the touch of their hands all his
languor seemed to disappear, and he became the gayest of all the
throng, and laughed, and danced, and sang as if he had never known
what it was to be ill.
As no one took any notice of Katherine, she sat down quietly on a
bit of rock to watch what would befall. And as she watched, she
became aware of a wee, wee bairnie, playing with a tiny wand, quite
close to her feet.
He was a bonnie bit bairn, and she was just thinking of trying to
make friends with him when one of the beautiful maidens passed, and,
looking at the wand, said to her partner, in a meaning tone, “Three
strokes of that wand would give Katherine’s sister back her pretty
Here was news indeed! Katherine’s breath came thick and fast; and
with trembling fingers she drew some of the nuts out of her pocket,
and began rolling them carelessly towards the child. Apparently he
did not get nuts very often, for he dropped his little wand at once,
and stretched out his tiny hands to pick them up.
This was just what she wanted; and she slipped down from her seat to
the ground, and drew a little nearer to him. Then she threw one or
two more nuts in his way, and, when he was picking these up, she
managed to lift the wand unobserved, and to hide it under her apron.
After this, she crept cautiously back to her seat again; and not a
moment too soon, for just then a cock crew, and at the sound the
whole of the dancers vanished—all but the Prince, who ran to mount
his horse, and was in such a hurry to be gone that Katherine had
much ado to get up behind him before the hillock opened, and he rode
swiftly into the outer world once more.
But she managed it, and, as they rode homewards in the grey morning
light, she sat and cracked her nuts and ate them as fast as she
could, for her adventures had made her marvellously hungry.
When she and her strange patient had once more reached the Castle?
she just waited to see him go back to bed, and begin to toss and
tumble as he had done before; then she ran to her step-sister’s
room, and, finding her asleep, with her poor mis-shapen head lying
peacefully on the pillow, she gave it three sharp little strokes
with the fairy wand and, lo and behold! the sheep’s head vanished,
and the Princess’s own pretty one took its place.
In the morning the King and the old housekeeper came to inquire what
kind of night the Prince had had. Katherine answered that he had had
a very good night; for she was very anxious to stay with him longer,
for now that she had found out that the Elfin Maidens who dwelt in
the Green Knowe had thrown a spell over him, she was resolved to
find out also how that spell could be loosed.
And Fortune favoured her; for the King was so pleased to think that
such a suitable nurse had been found for the Prince, and he was also
so charmed with the looks of her step-sister, who came out of her
chamber as bright and bonnie as in the old days, declaring that her
migraine was all gone, and that she was now able to do any work that
the housekeeper might find for her, that he begged Katherine to stay
with his son a little longer, adding that if she would do so, he
would give, her a bag of gold Bonnet Pieces.
So Katherine agreed readily; and that night she watched by the
Prince as she had done the night before. And at twelve o’clock he
rose and dressed himself, and rode to the Fairy Knowe, just as she
had expected him to do, for she was quite certain that the poor
young man was bewitched, and not suffering from a fever, as everyone
thought he was.
And you may be sure that she accompanied him, riding behind him all
unnoticed, and filling her pockets with nuts as she rode.
When they reached the Fairy Knowe, he spoke the same words that he
had spoken the night before. “Open, open, Green Hill, and let the
young Prince in with his horse and his hound.” And when the Green
Hill opened, Katherine added softly, “And his lady behind him.” So
they all passed in together.
Katherine seated herself on a stone, and looked around her. The same
revels were going on as yesternight, and the Prince was soon in the
thick of them, dancing and laughing madly. The girl watched him
narrowly, wondering if she would ever be able to find out what would
restore him to his right mind; and, as she was watching him, the
same little bairn who had played with the magic wand came up to her
again. Only this time he was playing with a little bird.
And as he played, one of the dancers passed by, and, turning to her
partner, said lightly, “Three bites of that birdie would lift the
Prince’s sickness, and make him as well as he ever was.” Then she
joined in the dance again, leaving Katherine sitting upright on her
stone quivering with excitement.
If only she could get that bird the Prince might be cured! Very
carefully she began to shake some nuts out of her pocket, and roll
them across the floor towards the child.
He picked them up eagerly, letting go the bird as he did so; and, in
an instant, Katherine caught it, and hid it under her apron.
In no long time after that the cock crew, and the Prince and she set
out on their homeward ride. But this morning, instead of cracking
nuts, she killed and plucked the bird, scattering its feathers all
along the road; and the instant she gained the Prince's room, and
had seen him safely into bed, she put it on a spit in front of the
fire and began to roast it.
And soon it began to frizzle, and get brown, and smell deliciously,
and the Prince, in his bed in the corner, opened his eyes and
murmured faintly, “How I wish I had a bite of that birdie."
When she heard the words Katherine's heart jumped for joy, and as
soon as the bird was roasted she cut a little piece from its breast
and popped it into the Prince's mouth.
When he had eaten it his strength seemed to come back somewhat, for
he rose on his elbow and looked at his nurse. “Oh! if I had but
another bite of that birdie!" he said. And his voice was certainly
So Katherine gave him another piece, and when he had eaten that he
sat right up in bed.
"Oh! if I had but a third bite o' that birdie!" he cried. And now
the colour was coming back into his face, and his eyes were shining.
This time Katherine brought him the whole of the rest of the bird;
and he ate it up greedily, picking the bones quite clean with his
fingers; and when it was finished, he sprang out of bed and dressed
himself, and sat down by the fire.
And when the King came in the morning, with his old housekeeper at
his back, to see how the Prince was, he found him sitting cracking
nuts with his nurse, for Katherine had brought home quite a lot in
her apron pocket.
The King was so delighted to find his son cured that he gave all the
credit to Katherine Crackernuts, as he called her, and he gave
orders at once that the Prince should marry her. “For," said he, “a
maiden who is such a good nurse is sure to make a good Queen."
The Prince was quite willing to do as his father bade him; and,
while they were talking together, his younger brother came in,
leading Princess Velvet-Cheek by the hand, whose acquaintance he had
made but yesterday, declaring that he had fallen in love with her,
and that he wanted to marry her immediately.
So it all fell out very well, and everybody was quite pleased; and
the two weddings took place at once, and, unless they be dead
sinsyne, the young couples are living yet.