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THE WHITE WITCH[1]

BY E. NESBIT


The Shepherd loved the Princess—that was the beginning of the trouble, for, of course, it was a very wrong, and impossible, and altogether unsuitable thing for the Shepherd to do. He was a very good Shepherd, and, until he saw the Princess, he looked after his sheep on the green sunny hills ail day and brought them safely home every night; and if he ever dreamed dreams as he lay on the short thymey turf and looked up to the deep blue sky, he certainly never told them to any one, so nobody was the worse or the wiser.

But there came a day—a May day—when the Princess went out at sunrise to gather dew for a charm to keep her always beautiful. She had good reason to wish to be always as she was, the Shepherd thought, for she was more beautiful than any man's dearest dream

She had long yellow hair, pale like ripe corn; her eyes were as blue as corn-flowers, her lips just the shape for speaking kindly; her hands were like little white birds to hold, and when she passed, the may-tree opened all its buds to look at her.

The Shepherd, lying behind a furze-bush, saw her kneel down and lay her white hands on the green grass to gather the chill, sweet dew, smelling of the morning and the wild thyme. She rubbed the dew on her face, which grew radiant with a new beauty. The shepherd arose and came slowly toward her. She did not see him till he was quite close to her, and a fold of her long rosy sleeve blew across his arm as he held out his hand to her.

"Will you marry me?" he said; "I shall love you always."

She turned her eyes on him, and the love in his lit a rose-light in her cheeks.

"Who are you?" she asked in a low voice; and if he had been able to say that he was a prince, one does not know what her answer would have been. But he only said:

"I am the King's Shepherd."

"And I," she cried, "am the King's daughter." And then she began to laugh, and ran all the way home, and in a day and a night she had forgotten all about him.

But he thought always of her, so that when, one market day, the heralds went through the town proclaiming that a tournament was to be held in honor of the Princess, and that the bravest knight might hope to win her, he came, wearing a rusty suit of armor he had borrowed from a friend, and riding an old horse that his uncle, the innkeeper, lent to him, to try his fortune with many others. And he looked so handsome and so valiant that no one even noticed the old horse and the shabby armor, and every girl in the assembled crowd wished in her heart that he might win the Princess. Nor did any know him to be the Shepherd. But the Princess knew.

Then, one by one, all the knights who had come to the tournament were overthrown by the Shepherd, for love made him brave and strong beyond the wont of man. But when he rode beneath the gallery where the Princess sat, she turned her eyes away as she gave him her hand to kiss, and the wreath, the prize of the tourney.

"He is only your shepherd," she said to her father, and the King was very much annoyed.

Indeed, it became so tiresome to have a handsome shepherd, and a shepherd in love, always hanging about the palace, that the Princess said to her tutor: "How can I get rid of this young man without hurting his feelings?"

"Tell him you have made a vow never to marry any man whose eyes are not green," suggested the tutor.

"What a capital idea!" cried the Princess, clapping her hands. "He can't be hurt at that, can he?"

The tutor's eyes were green; but the Princess had never noticed that, because she never looked at him.

So next day she sent for the Shepherd. He came gladly, for, whatever she had to say, he would, at least, hear her voice and look into her eyes.

The Princess was sitting in her garden, which has a high wall round it, and trees and flowers, and in the middle a marble basin where the goldfishes live. The Princess and her maidens were feeding the goldfishes when the Shepherd came in. "How do you do?" said the Princess, turning red and speaking very fast. "Do you know I'm very sorry, and I hope you won't mind very much, but I really can't marry any one unless they have green eyes."

"What color are mine?" asked the Shepherd. "I have never noticed"—but his heart ached, for he knew well enough that they were not green.

"They are blue," said the Princess, jumping up and looking at them. "They are blue like mine." She looked at them a long time without speaking. Then she said: "They are blue—a very nice blue you know." She put her hands on his shoulders and looked again—a longer look still.

"No—they're not green," she said, and she sighed. "Good-bye. I hope we shall always be friends. I shall always feel to you like a sister. Good-bye"—and she went on feeding the goldfishes.

"Good-bye," said the Shepherd; "will you give me nothing before I go?"

She held out her hand, and he kissed it.

"That is the second time," he said; "the third time my eyes will be green!"

The Princess looked after him till he had passed out of the garden. Then she looked at the hand he had kissed. Then she sighed again; and when the tutor came to ask her to read classic poetry with him she said she had a headache. After that she used to spend most of her time in the garden, and when her father pressed her to choose a husband from among her many suitors, she answered that she thought marriage was rather a serious thing, and, perhaps, it would be better for her to stay at home and feed the goldfishes a little longer. The next morning she said, carelessly, to her maidens, as they combed out her golden hair: "I suppose nothing more has been heard of that Shepherd?"

"No, your Royal Highness. Nothing at all."

And the next day she said, musingly, as the golden comb went through her hair: "I wonder what has become of that Shepherd!"

"I wonder, indeed, your Royal Highness, " said the maidens. The third morning, as they braided her tresses, she spoke again: "I suppose that Shepherd has not come back?"

"No," they said, "he has not come back."

The Princess sighed and was silent; but she put the same question the next morning, and the next, and every morning, and there was never any other answer.

But the Shepherd fared forth into the world. Somewhere, he knew, must be that which would turn blue eyes to green. He asked every one he met; most laughed at him for a madman, and those who understood and were sorry for him could not help him. And so he fared on for the half of a year, and his eyes grew bluer than ever with unshed tears.

He had left far behind the mountain country where his Princess dwelt, and had come to a land of elms and meadows, green lanes, dim woods, and blossoming may-trees. Walking through this land one golden May morning, just a year after his first sight of his Princess, he passed into a wood, where everything was alive with Spring's greenest green. The moss was green under foot; the chestnuts, and oaks, and hazels were green overhead.

All through his long, weary quest of the charm that should win him his Princess, his faith in his finding of it had never faltered. He loved her so much, and love, he knew, works miracles. Now, looking on the green leaves and the green moss, he said: "Oh, wood! Have you no color to spare for me? Just a ray—enough to color a lover's eyes!"

And, as he spoke, he was aware of a White Lady, who lay on the moss under the shade of a hawthorn-bush. He paused to put his eternal question: "Can you tell me how to make blue eyes green?" and stood there ready to go on when he had heard the accustomed "No"; but, instead, the White Lady rose and came toward him, saying "Yes."

As she came near him, he saw that her hair was red, like the gold of sunset. Her arms were long and white. He had never seen any mouth like hers. She was gowned in white, about her was a girdle of may-blossoms; she wore a wreath of may-blossoms on her hair, and her eyes were green as the sea is green, and they shone like young lime-leaves when the sun kisses them after rain.

"I can help you," she said.

"And will you?"

"Yes; but the price is a heavy one."

"I will not," answered the Shepherd, "shrink from any price, how heavy soever it may be."

"Think well," said the White Lady; "the bargain once struck may not be undone."

"You would not," cried th6 Shepherd in sudden fear, "you would not—you will not kill love in my heart?"

"I will leave love in your heart?"

"You will not make my Princess turn from me when I am come to her again?"

"Your Princess shall not turn from you when you are come to her again."

"Then," cried the Shepherd, "I will pay the price."

The White Lady took him by the hands and drew him under the green hawthorn boughs, he wondering, yet glad at heart, because he should now, at last, win his Princess.

"You do not repent?"

"No!"

"Think yet again. It is not yet too late."

"I have only one thought—quick! say the spell!"

She laid her white arms round his neck as he stood under the may-tree. "Already," she said, "your eyes grow green!"

She kissed him thrice—upon the brow, and upon the eyes, and upon the lips.

"Now go!" she said, "go to your Princess—who loves you."

He threw up his hands and fell at her feet

"But I do not want the Princess any more!" he cried. "There is no Princess, there is only you. Kiss me again! Kiss me again!"

The White Lady leaned against the tree and laughed.


And far away in her palace the Princess was saying, for the hundred and eighty-third time, as the golden comb went through her hair: "I suppose the Shepherd has not come back?"

And for the hundred and eighty-third time her maidens answered: "No; and we do not think, your Royal Highness, that he will ever come back any more."


  1. The story of a shepherd's love. From "The Argonaut.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1924, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.