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The light princess.
Start of Story
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 sinking.
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 till now, 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 soon lie there 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 any more, 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. Not even they could suggest a cause.
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 will 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 seaweed. 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 gray 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 to 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. She
locked this also 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
under side 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 kept holding it up. And still it kept slowly
osculating. Round and round the cavern they went, ever lessening the
circuit, till at last the snake made a sudden dart, and clung 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, which 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 remained
thus; when suddenly the serpent dropped from the roof as if exhausted,
and shrivelled up till it was again like a piece of dried seaweed. 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. Shutting the door in a terrible hurry, she
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. Then 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