THE GOLDEN BRANCH
The Prince thanked her heartily and set out. As he met with no hindrance, he soon reached the enchanted wood which surrounded the castle, and there he thought he saw the Princess Sunbeam gliding before him among the trees. Prince Peerless hastened after her at the top of his speed, but could not get any nearer; then he called to her :
| Sunbeam, my darling—only wait for me a moment.'
But the phantom did but fly the faster, and the Prince spent the whole day in this vain pursuit. When night came he saw the castle before him all lighted up, and as he imagined that the Princess must be in it, he made haste to get there too. He entered without difficulty, and in the hall the terrible old Fairy met him. She was so thin that the light shone through her, and her eyes glowed like lamps; her skin was like a shark's, her arms were thin as laths, and her fingers like spindles. Nevertheless she wore rouge and patches, a mantle of silver brocade and a crown of diamonds, and her dress was covered with jewels, and green and pink ribbons.
' At last you have come to see me, Prince,' said she. ' Don't waste another thought upon that little shepherdess, who is unworthy of your notice. I am the Queen of the Comets, and can bring you to great honour if you will marry me.'
' Marry you, Madam,' cried the Prince, in horror. ' No, I will never consent to that.'
Thereupon the Fairy, in a rage, gave two strokes of her wand and tilled the gallery with horrible goblins, against whom the Prince had to fight for his life. Though he had only his dagger, he defended himself so well that he escaped without any harm, and presently the old Fairy stopped the fray and asked the Prince if he was still of the same mind. When he answered firmly that he was, she called up the appearance of the Princess Sunbeam to the other end of the gallery, and said :
' You see your beloved there ? Take care what you are about, for if you again refuse to marry me she shall be torn in pieces by two tigers.'
The Prince was distracted, for he fancied he heard his dear shepherdess weeping and begging him to save her. In despair he cried :
' Oh, Fairy Douceline, have you abandoned me after so many promises of friendship ? Help, help us now ! '
Immediately a soft voice said in his ear ;