Once upon a time there lived a beautiful princess. Every day suitors from around the world came to court her, each proclaiming her beauty and grace. And every evening, after dinner, the princess would go to her room, remove her makeup, change into rags, and wind a kerchief round her head. Thusly disguised she would take her place among the servants, waiting on the young men as they whiled away the evening hours. The next morning the princess would always send a messenger to dismiss the suitors with gracious thanks for their visit.
One day a bold young knight, heralded for many victories won in valorous fashion, entered the castle. He bowed before the princess and declared his intention to seek her hand, proclaiming her beauty and generosity and good temper. He recited a poem, penned by his own hand, a silvery sonnet that praised her to the moon and stars. The princess nodded graciously, but with detached emotions. She had heard these sentiments before.
On that same day a Duke arrived with a gift for the Princess. He brought her a beautiful white horse with bejeweled saddle and reins. He declared it was not equal to her elegance. In all the realm he had searched to find a beast worthy of her. This animal was the best he could offer, but it still fell far short of what she deserved. The princess nodded graciously, but with disdain for his flattery. She knew that the only creature better than the horse would surely have wings and god-like powers.
After dinner, she changed into the servant’s clothing as usual. Believing her to be absent, the men, Knight and Duke, jested coarsely with each other and wagered on whom had won her favor. They demanded wine and meat from the only servant girl in the room, the disguised Princess. The Duke drunk himself into a stupor, and the Knight insulted her, calling her stupid for forgetting to stoke the fire. This typical discourse left the princess more disgusted than ever. And she went to her room disheartened.The queen was waiting, wanting to know which suitor the princess had chosen. At the usual answer, the queen suggested that the princess go herself the next morning to send the men away—dressed in the servant garb.
And so she did.
The next morning the Princess stood before them and explained that the Princess was very grateful for their visit, and wished them well in their endeavors.
“That’s it?” demanded the Knight.
The Princess gave one firm nod.
The Duke stared at her aghast. “But what about the horse?” he implored. “Can she heartlessly consume the gifts of the realm without any pity for the hearts she tramples?”
“You may take the horse with you. My lady has many horses at her disposal.”
The Duke tossed his hands up and left, stomping his way out.
The Knight hesitated. “Does the Princess have many poems at her disposal?”
“She has heard many.”
“I’m sure she has.” The knight looked down at his feet, and then up at the princess. “If I am to go, that is her decision of course. But I shall send her another poem.”
“She will receive all poems, of course, so long as they are not of a courting nature.”
The Knight laughed. “I thought it was a fine poem.”
The princess nodded. “Indeed, she said it was one of the finest.”
“And yet it did not…” he grasped his chin, and paced the floor in perplexed study. Finally, he came back to the princess. “What is it that unlocks the door to your lady’s heart, miss?”
“Now you treat me kindly, Sir Knight? Only last evening I was a stupid girl for forgetting to stoke the fire. I am only addressed as “miss” when I have information you want. My lady always treats me with courtesy and respect. And I shall do the same for her by keeping the key to her heart far away from your hands.”
The Knight let his hand fall. “I see.”
He bowed and took his leave.
Two more suitors came that afternoon, a prince from a neighboring country with rich foods and jewelry for the Princess, and a land baron with a trunk full of expensive clothes. They made their presentations, ate dinner, and retired for an evening in the lounge. The princess took her leave and made her change. When she re-entered the lounge, she found the Knight there as well.
When she got past the initial shock of seeing him there, uninvited and unannounced, she listened to the conversation passing between the occupants of the room. The prince and the baron were chiding him for his late arrival. The princess had already retired, they said. He was a foolish traveler, they said. He had not brought any presents, they said. He was wasting his time, they said.
Then the prince took notice of her, standing by the door, and asked her for more wine, on the double. The baron stopped her before she could exit and requested another meal of roast pork basted in apple sauces with plenty of greens on the side.
She hesitated. “But, my good baron,” she said, “did you not have enough to eat at my lady’s banquet? The prince did bring an ample feast.”
The baron shook his head. Then looking askance at the prince he whispered in her ear. “I did not care for his food a wit and discharged my belly at the soonest possible moment.”
“Oh,” she said, and departed the room.
The knight followed her right to the kitchen.
“What are you doing back?” she asked.
He dropped to one knee before her. “To apologize for calling you a stupid girl. And to give you this poem:
You wanted to see me
The way I truly am
Callous and rude
A boorish, mean man
There is nothing I could give
Nothing I could say
To open your heart
To grant me stay
But I wanted you to know
Your test has won
I see myself the way I am
And will change in time to come.”
He kissed her hand and walked away.
“Knight,” she called after him.
He came back slowly.
“When did you know?” she said.
“When you dismissed us, the Duke and me, this morning. I looked into your face. I saw you. I saw your integrity and your spirit. Your firm resolve. I’m sorry I never looked at you that way before.”
She smiled. “Take your leave, Sir Knight, and call again whenever you wish. I shall be glad to see you again.”
And the Knight did call again, many, many, many times, until their wedding day when the calling ceased and the marriage began.