The Little Persian Princess by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman

“And you must spin faster, Dorothy, or you’ll go to bed without your supper,” said Dame Betsy.

“Yes, ma’am,” replied Dorothy. Then she twirled the wheel so fast that the spokes were a blur.

Dorothy was a pretty little girl. She had a small pink-and-white face; her hair was closely cropped and looked like a little golden cap, and her eyes were as blue as had been the flowers of the flax which she was spinning. She wore an indigo-blue frock, and she looked very short and slight beside the wheel.

Dorothy spun, Dame Betsy tended a stew-kettle that was hanging from the crane in the fire-place, and the eldest of Dame Betsy’s six daughters sat on the bench beside the cottage door and ate honey-cakes. The other daughters had arrayed themselves in their best tuckers and plumed hats and farthingales, spread their ruffled parasols, and gone to walk.

Dame Betsy had wished the oldest daughter to go with her sisters; but she was rather indolent, so she dressed herself in her best, and sat down on the bench beside the door, with a plate of honey-cakes of which she was very fond. She held up her parasol to shield her face, and also to display the parasol. It was covered with very bright green satin, and had a wreath of pink roses for a border. The sun shone directly into the cottage, and the row of pewter plates on the dresser glittered; one could see them through the doorway. The front yard of Dame Betsy’s cottage was like a little grove with lemon-color and pink hollyhocks; one had to look directly up the path to see the eldest daughter sitting on the bench eating honey-cakes. She was a very homely girl. All Dame Betsy’s daughters were so plain and ill-tempered that they had no suitors, although they walked abroad every day.

Dame Betsy placed her whole dependence upon the linen chests when she planned to marry her daughters. At the right of her cottage stretched a great field of flax that looked now like a blue sea, and it rippled like a sea when the wind struck it. Dame Betsy and Dorothy made the flax into linen for the daughters’ dowries. They had already two great chests of linen apiece, and they were to have chests filled until there were enough to attract suitors. Every little while Dame Betsy invited all the neighboring housewives to tea; then she opened the chests and unrolled the shining lengths of linen, perfumed with lavender and rosemary. “My dear daughters will have all this, and more also, when they marry,” she would remark. The housewives would go home and mention it to their sons, for they themselves were tempted by the beautiful linen; but there it would end. The sons would not go to woo Dame Betsy’s homely, ill-natured daughters.

Dorothy spun as fast as she was able; Dame Betsy kept a sharp watch upon her as she stirred the stew. Dorothy wanted some of the stew for her supper. It had a delicious odor, and she was very faint and hungry. She did not have a great deal to eat at any time, as she lived principally upon the scraps from the table, and the daughters were all large eaters. She also worked very hard, and never had any time to play. She was a poor child whom Dame Betsy had taken from the almshouse, and she had no relatives but an old grandmother. She had very few kind words said to her during the day, and she used often to cry herself to sleep at night.

Presently Dame Betsy went down to the store to buy some pepper to put in the stew, but as she went out of the door she spoke to the eldest daughter, and told her to go into the house and mend a rent in her apron. “Since you were too lazy to go to walk with your sisters you must go into the house and mend your apron,” said she. The eldest daughter pouted, but she made no reply. Just as soon as her mother was out of hearing she called Dorothy. “Dorothy, come here a minute!” she cried, imperatively. Dorothy left her wheel and went to the door. “Look here,” said the eldest daughter, “I have one honey-cake left, and I have eaten all I want. I will give you this if you will mend my apron for me.”

Dorothy eyed the honey-cake wistfully, but she replied that she did not dare to leave her spinning to mend the apron.

“Why can’t you mend it in the night?” asked the eldest daughter.

“I will do that,” replied Dorothy, eagerly, and she held out her hand for the honey-cake. Just as she did so she saw the little boy that lived next door peeping through his fence. His beautiful little face, with his red cheeks and black eyes, looked, through the pickets, like a damask-rose. Dorothy ran swiftly over to him with her honey-cake. “You shall have half of it,” said she, and she quickly broke the cake in halves, and gave one of them to the little boy. He lived with his old grandmother, and they were very poor; it was hard for them to get the coarsest porridge to eat. The little boy often stood looking through the fence and smiling at Dorothy, and the old grandmother spoke kindly to her whenever she had an opportunity.

The little boy stood on one side of the fence and Dorothy on the other, and they ate the honey-cake. Then Dorothy ran back to the house and fell to spinning again. She spun so fast, to make up for the lost time, that one could not see the wheel-spokes at all, and the room hummed like a hive of bees. But, fast as she spun, Dame Betsy, when she returned, discovered that she had been idling, and said that she must go without her supper. Poor Dorothy could not help weeping as she twirled the wheel, she was so hungry, and the honey-cake had been very small.

Dame Betsy dished up the stew and put the spoons and bowls on the table, and soon the five absent daughters came home, rustling their flounces and flirting their parasols.

They all sat down to the table and began to eat, while Dorothy stood at her wheel and sadly spun.

They had eaten all the stew except a little, just about enough for a cat, when a little shadow fell across the floor.

“Why, who’s coming?” whispered Dame Betsy, and directly all the daughters began to smooth their front hair; each thought it might be a suitor.

But everything that they could see entering the door was a beautiful gray cat. She came stepping across the floor with a dainty, velvet tread. She had a tail like a plume, and she trailed it on the floor as she walked; her fur was very soft and long, and caught the light like silver; she had delicate tufted ears, and her shining eyes were like yellow jewels.

“It’s nothing but a cat!” cried the daughters in disgust, and Dame Betsy arose to get the broom; she hated cats. That decided the daughters; they also hated cats, but they liked to oppose their mother. So they insisted on keeping the cat.

There was much wrangling, but the daughters were too much for Dame Betsy; the beautiful cat was allowed to remain on the hearth, and the remnant of the stew was set down there for her. But, to every one’s amazement, she refused to touch it. She sat purring, with her little silvery paws folded, her plumy tail swept gracefully around her, and quite ignored the stew.

“I will take it up and give it to the pig,” said Dame Betsy.

“No, no!” cried the daughters; “leave it, and perhaps she will eat it by-and-by.”

So the stew was left upon the hearth. In the excitement Dorothy had stopped spinning, and nobody had observed it. Suddenly Dame Betsy noticed that the wheel was silent.

“Why are you not spinning, miss?” she asked, sharply. “Are you stopping work to look at a cat?”

But Dorothy made no reply; she paid no attention whatever: she continued to stare at the cat; she was quite pale, and her blue eyes were very large. And no wonder, for she saw, instead of a cat, a beautiful little princess, with eyes like stars, in a trailing robe of gray velvet covered with silver embroidery, and instead of a purr she heard a softly-hummed song. Dame Betsy seized Dorothy by the arm.

“To your work!” she cried.

And Dorothy began to spin; but she was trembling from head to foot, and every now and then she glanced at the princess on the hearth.

The daughters, in their best gowns, sat with their mother around the hearth until nine o’clock; then Dorothy was ordered to leave her wheel, the cottage was locked up, and everybody went to bed.

Dorothy’s bed was a little bundle of straw up in the garret under the eaves. She was very tired when she lay down, but did not dare to sleep, for she remembered her promise to mend the eldest daughter’s apron. So she waited until the house was still; then she arose and crept softly down-stairs.

The fire on the hearth was still burning, and there sat the princess, and the sweet hum of her singing filled the room. But Dorothy could not understand a word of the song, because it was in the Persian language. She stood in the doorway and trembled; she did not know what to do. It seemed to her that she must be losing her wits to see a princess where every one else saw a cat. Still she could not doubt the evidence of her own eyes. Finally she advanced a little way and courtesied very low. The princess stopped singing at once. She arose in a stately fashion, and fastened her bright eyes upon Dorothy.

“So you know me?” said she.

Dorothy courtesied again.

“Are you positive that I am not a cat?”

Dorothy courtesied.

“Well, I am not a cat,” said the princess. “I am a true princess from Persia, travelling incognita. You are the first person who has pierced my disguise. You must have very extraordinary eyes. Aren’t you hungry?”

Dorothy courtesied.

“Come here and eat the stew,” ordered the princess, in a commanding tone. “Meantime I will cook my own supper.”

With that the princess gave a graceful leap across the floor; her gray velvet robe fluttered like a gray wing. Dorothy saw a little mouse scud before her; then in an instant the princess had him! But the moment the princess lifted the mouse, he became a gray pigeon, all dressed for cooking.

The princess sat down on the hearth and put the pigeon on the coals to broil.

“You had better eat your stew,” said she; “I won’t offer you any of this pigeon, because you could not help suspecting it was mouse.”

So Dorothy timidly took up the stew, and began to eat it; she was in reality nearly starved.

“Now,” said the Persian princess, when she had finished, “you had better do that mending, while I finish cooking and eat my own supper.”

Dorothy obeyed. By the time the apron was neatly mended, the princess had finished cooking and eaten the pigeon. “Now, I wish to talk a little to you,” said she. “I feel as if you deserved my confidence since you have penetrated my disguise. I am a Persian princess, as I said before, and I am travelling incognita to see the world and improve my mind, and also to rescue my brother, who is a Maltese prince and enchanted. My brother, when very young, went on his travels, was shipwrecked on the coast of Malta, and became a prince of that island. But he had enemies, and was enchanted. He is now a Maltese cat. I disguise myself as a cat in order to find him more readily. Now, for what do you most wish?”

Dorothy courtesied; she was really too impressed to speak.

“Answer,” said the princess, imperiously.

“I—want,” stammered Dorothy, “to—take my grandmother out of—the almshouse, and have her sit at the window in the sun in a cushioned chair and knit a silk stocking all day.”

“Anything else?”

“I should like to—have her wear a bombazine gown and a—white lace cap with—lilac ribbons.”

“You are a good girl,” said the princess. “Now, listen. I see that you are not very pleasantly situated here, and I will teach you a way to escape. Take your hood off that peg over there, and come out with me. I want to find my portmanteau that I left under the hedge, a little way down the road.”

Dorothy put on her hood and followed the princess down the road. The little girl could scarcely keep up with her; she seemed to fairly fly through the moonlight, trailing her gray robe after her.

“Here is my portmanteau,” said the princess, when they had reached the hedge. The hedge was all white hawthorn and very sweet. The portmanteau had lain well under it. All Dorothy could see was a tiny leather wallet, that a cat could carry in her mouth. But the princess blew upon it three times, and suddenly a great leather trunk stood on the grass. The princess opened it, and Dorothy gave a little cry, her eyes were so dazzled. It was like a blaze of gold and silver and jewels. “Look at this,” said the princess. And she took out of the trunk the splendid robe that was laid uppermost.

Dorothy looked; she could not say anything. The robe was woven of silk, with gold and silver threads, and embroidered with jewels.

“If you will give this to Dame Betsy for her eldest daughter’s bridal dress, she will let you go,” said the princess. She took a pair of silver shears out of the trunk and cut off a bit of the robe under a flounce. “Show that to Dame Betsy,” said the princess, “and tell her you will give her the dress made of the same material, and she will let you go. Now you had better run home. I shall stay here and sleep under the hedge. I do not like Dame Betsy’s house. Come here in the morning, when you have told her about the dress.”

The princess sat down on the trunk, and it immediately shrunk into the little wallet; then she curled herself up on the grass under the flowery hedge. Dorothy ran home and crept noiselessly up to her bed in the garret.

In the morning, when the daughters came down to breakfast, they missed the cat. “Where is the cat?” they inquired indignantly of their mother. They suspected her of driving the cat away with the broom. They had quite a wrangle over it. Finally, the daughters all put on finery and went out shopping for some needles and pins; then Dorothy showed Dame Betsy the scrap of the splendid robe, and said to her what the princess had directed she should say.

Dame Betsy was very much surprised and disturbed. She did not wish to lose Dorothy, who was a great help to her; still, she had no doubt that a suitor would soon appear for her eldest daughter, if arrayed in so beautiful a bridal gown as that. She reflected how she might have a tea-party and invite all the neighbors, and display the robe, and how all the sons would come flocking to the door. Finally she consented, and Dorothy, as soon as her mistress’s back was turned, ran out and away to the hedge, under which she knew the Persian princess to be concealed.

The princess looked up and rubbed her eyes. She had slept late, although the birds were singing loudly all around her. Dorothy courtesied and said that she had come for the robe. “Very well,” replied the princess, “I will give it to you; then you must carry it and hang it over Dame Betsy’s gate, and run back to me as fast as you are able.”

Then the princess blew on the wallet until it became a trunk, and she took out the splendid robe and gave it to Dorothy, who carried it and hung it over Dame Betsy’s gate just as she had been bidden. But as she was about to run away, she saw the little boy who lived next door peeping through his fence, so she stopped to bid him good-bye. He felt so sad that he wept, and Dorothy herself had tears in her eyes when she ran to join the princess.

Dorothy and the princess then set off on their travels; but nobody except Dorothy herself knew that there was a princess. Every one who met them saw simply a little girl and a beautiful gray cat. Finally they stopped at a pretty little village. “Here,” said the princess, “we will rent a cottage.”

They looked about until they found a charming cottage with a grape-vine over the door, and roses and marigolds in the yard; then Dorothy, at the princess’s direction, went to the landlord and bargained for it.

Then they went to live in the cottage, and the princess taught Dorothy how to make lovely tidies and cushions and aprons out of the beautiful dresses in her trunk. She had a great store of them, but they were all made in the Persian fashion and were of no use in this country.

When Dorothy had made the pretty articles out of the rich dresses, she went out and sold them to wealthy ladies for high prices. She soon earned quite a sum of money, which she placed at interest in the bank, and she was then able to take her grandmother out of the almshouse. She bought a beautiful chair with a canary-colored velvet cushion, and she placed it at the window in the sun. She bought a bombazine dress and a white cap with lilac ribbons, and she had the silk stocking with the needles all ready.

But the day before the old grandmother came the princess bade Dorothy good-bye. “I am going out again on my travels,” said she; “I wish to see more of the country, and I must continue my search for my brother, the Maltese prince.”

So the princess kissed Dorothy, who wept; then she set forth on her travels. Dorothy gazed sorrowfully after her as she went. She saw a dainty little princess, trailing her gray velvets; but everybody else saw only a lovely gray cat hurrying down the road.

Dorothy’s grandmother came to live with her. She sat in her cushioned chair, in the sunny window and knitted her silk stocking, and was a very happy old woman. Dorothy continued to make beautiful things out of the princess’s dresses. It seemed as if there would never be any end to them. She had cut up many dresses, but there were apparently as many now as when she began. She saw no more of the princess, although she thought of her daily, until she was quite grown up and was a beautiful maiden with many suitors. Then, one day, she went to the city to deliver a beautiful cushion that she had made for some wealthy ladies, and there, in the drawing-room, she saw the Persian princess.

Dorothy was left in the room until the ladies came down, and as she sat there holding her cushion, she heard a little velvet rustle and a softly-hummed song in the Persian language. She looked, and there was the princess stepping across the floor, trailing her gray velvets.

“So you have come, dear Dorothy,” said the princess.

Dorothy arose and courtesied, but the princess came close and kissed her. “What have you there?” she inquired.

Dorothy displayed the cushion; the princess laughed.

“It is quite a joke, is it not?” said she. “That cushion is for me to sleep on, and it is made out of one of my own dresses. The ladies have bought it for me. I have heard them talking about it. How do you fare, Dorothy, and how is your grandmother?”

Then Dorothy told the princess how the grandmother sat in the cushioned chair in the sunny window and knitted the silk stocking, and how she herself was to be married the next week to the little boy who had lived next door, but was now grown up and come a-wooing.

“Where is his grandmother?” asked the princess.

Dorothy replied that she was to live with them, and that there was already another cushioned chair in a sunny window, another bombazine dress and lace cap, and a silk stocking, in readiness, and that both grandmothers were to sit and knit in peace during the rest of their lives.

“Ah, well,” said the princess, with a sigh, “if I were only back in Persia I would buy you a wedding present, but I do not know when that will be—the ladies are so kind.”

Dorothy ventured to inquire if the princess had found her brother, the Maltese prince.

“Dear me, yes,” replied the princess. “Why, he lives in this very house. He is out in the back parlor asleep on the sofa, this minute. Brother, dear brother, come here a second, I pray!”

With that a Maltese prince, with a long, aristocratic face, and beautiful, serious eyes, entered with a slow and stately tread. He was dressed in gray velvet, like his sister, and he wore white velvet mittens. Dorothy courtesied very low.

“Yes, I found my brother here, some time ago,” said the princess; “but I have very little hope of freeing him from his enchantment. You see, there is only one thing that can break the spell: one of his mistresses must drive him out of the house with the broom, and I do not believe that either of them ever will—they are so exceedingly gracious and kind. I have tried to induce my brother to commit some little sin—to steal some cream or some meat, or to fly around the room as if he were in a fit (I myself have shown him how to do that), but he will not consent. He has too much dignity, and he is too fond of these ladies. And, if he should, I doubt if he would be driven out with the broom—they are so kind.”

The princess sighed. The prince stood looking in a grave and stately manner at Dorothy, but he did not speak. “However,” the princess continued, cheerfully, “we do very well here, and in some respects this is a more enlightened country than either Persia or Malta, and it is a privilege to live here. The ladies are very kind to us, and we are very fond of them; then, too, we see very fine company. And there are also Persian hangings and rugs which make it seem home-like. We are very well contented. I don’t know, on the whole, that we are in any hurry to go away. But should either of the ladies ever take it into her head to drive my brother out of the house with the broom, we shall at once leave the country for Persia and Malta; for, after all, one’s native land is dear.”

The princess stopped talking, and began to hum her Persian song, and then the ladies entered the room. They greeted Dorothy kindly; then they began to call, “Vashti, Vashti, come here, pretty Vashti,” and, “Muff, Muff, come here, pretty Muff.” For they did not see the Persian princess and the Maltese prince, but two beautiful cats, whose names were Vashti and Muff.

“Just hear Vashti purr,” said one of the ladies. “Come here, pretty Vashti, and try your new cushion.”

And the ladies saw a cat sitting on the rich cushion, and another cat looking at her gravely, while Dorothy saw a Persian princess and a Maltese prince.

However, the ladies knew that there was something uncommon about their cats, and they sometimes suspected the truth themselves, but they thought it must be a fancy.

Dorothy left her cushion and went away, and that was the last time she ever saw the Persian princess. As she went out the door the princess pressed close to her. The ladies thought she mewed, but in reality she was talking.

“Good-bye, Dorothy,” said she, “I hope you will live happily ever after. And as for my brother and I, we really enjoy ourselves; we are seeing the country and improving our minds, and we love the ladies. If one of them should drive him out with the broom, he will become a prince again, and we shall leave; but I do not know that it is desirable. A cat has a more peaceful life than a prince. Good-bye, dear Dorothy.”

The princess was going closer to embrace Dorothy, but the ladies became alarmed; they thought that their beautiful cat was going to steal out of the house. So they called, and a maid with a white cap ran and caught the Persian princess, and carried her back to the drawing-room. The ladies thought she mewed as she was being carried in, but in reality she was calling back merrily, “Good-bye, and live happily ever after, dear Dorothy!”