Note: The Commentary for this Tale will come at the end of Part Three.
Once upon a time, so long ago that I have quite forgotten the date, there lived a king and queen who had no children. And the king said to himself, “All the queens of my acquaintance have children, some three, some seven, and some as many as twelve; and my queen has not one. I feel ill-used.” So he made up his mind to be cross with his wife about it. But she bore it all like a good patient queen as she was. Then the king grew very cross indeed. But the queen pretended to take it all as a joke, and a very good one too.
“Why don’t you have any daughters, at least?” said he. “I don’t say sons; that might be too much to expect.”
“I am sure, dear king, I am very sorry,” said the queen.
“So you ought to be,” retorted the king; “you are not going to make a virtue of that, surely.”
But he was not an ill-tempered king, and in any matter of less moment would have let the queen have her own way with all his heart. This, however, was an affair of state.
The queen smiled.
“You must have patience with a lady, you know, dear king,” said she.
She was, indeed, a very nice queen, and heartily sorry that she could not oblige the king immediately.
The king tried to have patience, but he succeeded very badly. It was more than he deserved, therefore, when, at last, the queen gave him a daughter — as lovely a little princess as ever cried.
The day drew near when the infant must be christened. The king wrote all the invitations with his own hand. Of course somebody was forgotten.
Now it does not generally matter if somebody is forgotten, only you must mind who. Unfortunately, the king forgot without intending to forget; and so the chance fell upon the Princess Makemnoit, which was awkward. For the princess was the king’s own sister; and he ought not to have forgotten her. But she had made herself so disagreeable to the old king, their father, that he had forgotten her in making his will; and so it was no wonder that her brother forgot her in writing his invitations. But poor relations don’t do anything to keep you in mind of them. Why don’t they? The king could not see in to the garret she lived in, could he?
She was a sour, spiteful creature. The wrinkles of contempt crossed the wrinkles of peevishness, and made her face as full of wrinkles as a pat of butter. If ever a king could be justified in forgetting anybody, this king was justified in forgetting his sister, even at a christening. She looked very odd, too. Her forehead was as large as all the rest of her face, and projected over it like a precipice. When she was angry, her little eyes flashed blue. When she hated anybody, they shone yellow and green. What they looked like when she loved anybody, I do not know; for I never heard of her loving anybody but herself, and I do not think she could have managed that if she had not somehow got used to herself. But what made it highly imprudent in the king to forget her was — that she was awfully clever. In fact, she was a witch; and when she bewitched anybody, he very soon had enough of it; for she beat all the wicked fairies in wickedness, and all the clever ones in cleverness. She despised all the modes we read of in history, in which offended fairies and witches have taken their revenges; and therefore, after waiting and waiting in vain for an invitation, she made up her mind at last to go without one, and make the whole family miserable, like a princess as she was.
So she put on her best gown, went to the palace, was kindly received by the happy monarch, who forgot that he had forgotten her, and took her place in the procession to the royal chapel. When they were all gathered about the font, she contrived to get next to it, and throw something into the water; after which she maintained a very respectful demeanour till the water was applied to the child’s face. But at that moment she turned round in her place three times, and muttered the following words, loud enough for those beside her to hear: —
“Light of spirit, by my charms,
Light of body, every part,
Never weary human arms —
Only crush thy parents’ heart!”
They all thought she had lost her wits, and was repeating some foolish nursery rhyme; but a shudder went through the whole of them notwithstanding. The baby, on the contrary, began to laugh and crow; while the nurse gave a start and a smothered cry, for she thought she was struck with paralysis: she could not feel the baby in her arms. But she clasped it tight and said nothing.
The mischief was done.
Her atrocious aunt had deprived the child of all her gravity. If you ask me how this was effected, I answer, “In the easiest way in the world. She had only to destroy gravitation.” For the princess was a philosopher, and knew all the ins and outs of the laws of gravitation as well as the ins and outs of her boot-lace. And being a witch as well, she could abrogate those laws in a moment; or at least so clog their wheels and rust their bearings, that they would not work at all. But we have more to do with what followed than with how it was done.
The first awkwardness that resulted from this unhappy privation was, that the moment the nurse began to float the baby up and down, she flew from her arms towards the ceiling. Happily, the resistance of the air brought her ascending career to a close within a foot of it. There she remained, horizontal as when she left her nurse’s arms, kicking and laughing amazingly. The nurse in terror flew to the bell, and begged the footman, who answered it, to bring up the house-steps directly. Trembling in every limb, she climbed upon the steps, and had to stand upon the very top, and reach up, before she could catch the floating tail of the baby’s long clothes.
When the strange fact came to be known, there was a terrible commotion in the palace. The occasion of its discovery by the king was naturally a repetition of the nurse’s experience. Astonished that he felt no weight when the child was laid in his arms, he began to wave her up and — not down, for she slowly ascended to the ceiling as before, and there remained floating in perfect comfort and satisfaction, as was testified by her peals of tiny laughter. The king stood staring up in speechless amazement, and trembled so that his beard shook like grass in the wind. At last, turning to the queen, who was just as horror-struck as himself, he said, gasping, staring, and stammering, —
“She can’t be ours, queen!”
Now the queen was much cleverer than the king, and had begun already to suspect that “this effect defective came by cause.”
“I am sure she is ours,” answered she. “But we ought to have taken better care of her at the christening. People who were never invited ought not to have been present.”
“Oh, ho!” said the king, tapping his forehead with his forefinger, “I have it all. I’ve found her out. Don’t you see it, queen? Princess Makemnoit has bewitched her.”
“That’s just what I say,” answered the queen.
“I beg your pardon, my love; I did not hear you. — John! bring the steps I get on my throne with.”
For he was a little king with a great throne, like many other kings.
The throne-steps were brought, and set upon the dining-table, and John got upon the top of them. But he could not reach the little princess, who lay like a baby-laughter-cloud in the air, exploding continuously.
“Take the tongs, John,” said his Majesty; and getting up on the table, he handed them to him.
John could reach the baby now, and the little princess was handed down by the tongs.
One fine summer day, a month after these her first adventures, during which time she had been very carefully watched, the princess was lying on the bed in the queen’s own chamber, fast asleep. One of the windows was open, for it was noon, and the day was so sultry that the little girl was wrapped in nothing less ethereal than slumber itself. The queen came into the room, and not observing that the baby was on the bed, opened another window. A frolicsome fairy wind, which had been watching for a chance of mischief, rushed in at the one window, and taking its way over the bed where the child was lying, caught her up, and rolling and floating her along like a piece of flue, or dandelion seed, carried her with it through the opposite window, and away. The queen went downstairs, quite ignorant of the loss she had herself occasioned.
When the nurse returned, she supposed that her Majesty had carried her off, and dreading a scolding, delayed making inquiry about her. But hearing nothing, she grew uneasy, and went at length to the queen’s boudoir, where she found her Majesty.
“Please, your Majesty, shall I take the baby?” said she.
“Where is she?” asked the queen.
“Please forgive me, I know it was wrong.”
“What do you mean?” said the queen, looking grave.
“Oh, don’t frighten me, your Majesty!” exclaimed the nurse, clasping her hands.
The queen saw that something was amiss, and fell down in a faint. The nurse rushed about the palace, screaming, “My baby! my baby!”
Every one ran to the queen’s room. But the queen could give no orders. They soon found out, however, that the princess was missing, and in a moment the palace was like a beehive in a garden; and in one minute more the queen was brought to herself by a great shout and clapping of hands. They had found the princess fast asleep under a rose-bush, to which the elvish little wind-puff had carried her, finishing its mischief by shaking a shower of red rose-leaves all over the little white sleeper. Startled by the noise the servants made, she woke, and, furious with glee, scattered the rose-leaves in all directions, like a shower of spray in the sunset.
She was watched more carefully after this, no doubt; yet it would be endless to relate all the odd incidents resulting from this peculiarity of the young princess. But there never was a baby in a house, not to say a palace, that kept the household in such constant good humour, at least belowstairs. If it was not easy for her nurses to hold her, at least she made neither their arms nor their hearts ache. And she was so nice to play at ball with! There was positively no danger of letting her fall. They might throw her down, or knock her down, or push her down, but couldn’t let her down. It is true, they might let her fly into the fire or the coal hole, or through the window; but none of these accidents had happened as yet. If you heard peals of laughter resounding from some unknown region, you might be sure enough of the cause. Going down into the kitchen, or the room, you would find Jane and Thomas, and Robert and Susan, all and sum, playing at ball with the little princess. She was the ball herself, and did not enjoy it the less for that. Away she went, flying from one to another, screeching with laughter. And the servants loved the ball itself better even than the game. But they had to take some care how they threw her, for if she received an upward direction, she would never come down again without being fetched.
But above-stairs it was different. One day, for instance, after breakfast, the king went into his counting-house, and counted out his money.
The operation gave him no pleasure.
“To think,” said he to himself, “that every one of these gold sovereigns weighs a quarter of an ounce, and my real, live, flesh-and-blood princess weighs nothing at all!”
And he hated his gold sovereigns, as they lay with a broad smile of self-satisfaction all over their yellow faces.
The queen was in the parlour, eating bread and honey. But at the second mouthful she burst out crying, and could not swallow it.
The king heard her sobbing. Glad of anybody, but especially of his queen, to quarrel with, he clashed his gold sovereigns into his money-box, clapped his crown on his head, and rushed into the parlour.
“What is all this about?” exclaimed he. “What are you crying for, queen?”
“I can’t eat it,” said the queen, looking ruefully at the honey-pot.
“No wonder!” retorted the king. “You’ve just eaten your breakfast — two turkey eggs, and three anchovies.”
“Oh, that’s not it!” sobbed her Majesty. “It’s my child, my child!”
“Well, what’s the matter with your child? She’s neither up the chimney nor down the draw-well. Just hear her laughing.”
Yet the king could not help a sigh, which he tried to turn into a cough, saying —
“It is a good thing to be light-hearted, I am sure, whether she be ours or not.”
“It is a bad thing to be light-headed,” answered the queen, looking with prophetic soul far into the future.
“’Tis a good thing to be light-handed,” said the king.
“’Tis a bad thing to be light-fingered,” answered the queen.
“’Tis a good thing to be light-footed,” said the king.
“’Tis a bad thing — ” began the queen; but the king interrupted her.
“In fact,” said he, with the tone of one who concludes an argument in which he has had only imaginary opponents, and in which, therefore, he has come off triumphant — “in fact, it is a good thing altogether to be light-bodied.”
“But it is a bad thing altogether to be light-minded,” retorted the queen, who was beginning to lose her temper.
This last answer quite discomfited his Majesty, who turned on his heel, and betook himself to his counting house again. But he was not half-way towards it, when the voice of his queen overtook him.
“And it’s a bad thing to be light-haired,” screamed she, determined to have more last words, now that her spirit was roused.
The queen’s hair was black as night; and the king’s had been, and his daughter’s was, golden as morning. But it was not this reflection on his hair that arrested him; it was the double use of the word light. For the king hated all witticisms, and punning especially. And besides, he could not tell whether the queen meant light-haired or light-heired; for why might she not aspirate her vowels when she was exasperated herself?
He turned upon his other heel, and rejoined her. She looked angry still, because she knew that she was guilty, or, what was much the same, knew that he thought so.
“My dear queen,” said he, “duplicity of any sort is exceedingly objectionable between married people of any rank, not to say kings and queens; and the most objectionable form duplicity can assume is that of punning.”
“There!” said the queen, “I never made a jest, but I broke it in the making. I am the most unfortunate woman in the world!”
She looked so rueful, that the king took her in his arms; and they sat down to consult.
“Can you bear this?” said the king.
“No, I can’t,” said the queen.
“Well, what’s to be done?” said the king.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” said the queen. “But might you not try an apology?”
“To my old sister, I suppose you mean?” said the king.
“Yes,” said the queen.
“Well, I don’t mind,” said the king.
So he went the next morning to the house of the princess, and, making a very humble apology, begged her to undo the spell. But the princess declared, with a grave face, that she knew nothing at all about it. Her eyes, however, shone pink, which was a sign that she was happy. She advised the king and queen to have patience, and to mend their ways. The king returned disconsolate. The queen tried to comfort him.
“We will wait till she is older. She may then be able to suggest something herself. She will know at least how she feels, and explain things to us.”
“But what if she should marry?” exclaimed the king, in sudden consternation at the idea.
“Well, what of that?” rejoined the queen.
“Just think! If she were to have children! In the course of a hundred years the air might be as full of floating children as of gossamers in autumn.”
“That is no business of ours,” replied the queen. “Besides, by that time they will have learned to take care of themselves.”
A sigh was the king’s only answer.
He would have consulted the court physicians; but he was afraid they would try experiments upon her.
End of Part One
Click here for Part 2
This text taken from Project Gutenberg. Original text published in 1864.
Public Domain. Not copyrighted in the United States.