Walter de La Mare
Walter de la Mare (1893 - 1956) was born in Kent, of French and Scottish parentage. He never went to University, but was given honorary degrees by Oxford, Cambridge, and St Andrews in his later years. Best known as a poet, he published his first book, Songs of Childhood, in 1902 at the insistence of Andrew Lang. He worked for almost twenty years as a statistician and was always known as a friendly and independent writer, tied to no literary school. He collected several unusual anthologies and wrote five novels, the best of which of Memoirs of a Midget (1921). Told Again, in which 'The Dancing Princesses' appears, was published in 1927 and later re-issued as Tales Told Again. His stories show his mastery of the supernatural and the poetic, as well as his great gift for improving the old fairy tales. This tale was once told by the Brothers Grimm; who were actually language scholars and dictionary makers and who collected fairy tales only as a hobby.
The Dancing Princesses
There was a King of old who had twelve daughters. Some of them were fair as swans in spring, some dark as trees on a mountainside, and all were thought beautiful. And because the King wished to keep their beauty to himself only, they slept at night in twelve beds in one long stone chamber whose doors were closely barred and bolted.
Yet, in spite of this, as soon as the year came round to May again, and the stars and cold of winter were gone and the world was merry, at morning and every morning the soles of the twelve Princesses' slippers were found to be worn through to the very welts. It was as if they must have been dancing in them all night long.
News of this being brought to the King, he marvelled. Unless they had wings, how could they have flown out of the palace? There was neither crevice nor cranny in the heavy doors. He spied. He set watch. It made no difference. Brand-new though the Princesses' gold and silver slippers were overnight, they were worn out at morning. He was in rage and despair.
At last this King made a decree. He decreed that anyone who, by waking and watching, by wisdom or magic, should reveal this strange secret, and where and how and when the twelve Princesses' slippers went of nights to get so worn, he should have the hand in marriage of whichever of the Princesses he chose, and should be made heir to the throne. As for anyone foolish enough to be so bold as to attempt such a task and fail in it, he should be whipped out of the kingdom and maybe lose his ears into the bargain. But such was the beauty of these Princesses, many a high-born stranger lost not only his heart but his ears also; and the King grew ever more moody and morose.
Now, beyond the walls of the Royal house where lived the twelve Princesses was a forest; and one summer's evening an old soldier who was travelling home from the wars met there, on his way, a beldame with a pig. This old beldame had brought her pig to the forest to be fed on the beech mast and truffles, but now, try as she might, she could not prevail upon it to be caught and to return home with her to its sty. She would steal up behind it with its cord in her hand, but as soon as she drew near and all but in touch of it, the pig, that meanwhile had been busily rooting in the cool loose loam, with a flick of its ears and a twinkle of its tail would scamper off out of her reach. It was almost as if its little sharp glass-green eyes could see through the pink shutters of its ears.
The old soldier watched the pig (and the red sunlight was glinting in the young leaves of the beeches), and at last he said: 'If I may make so bold, Grannie, I know a little secret about pigs. And if, as I take it, you want to catch that particular pig, it's yours and welcome.'
This beldame, who had fingers like birds' claws and eyes black as sloes, thanked the old soldier. Fetching out a scrap of some secret root from the bottom of his knapsack, he first slowly turned his back on the pig, then stooped down and, with the bit of root between his teeth, stared earnestly at the pig from between his legs.
Presently, either by reason of the savour of the root or drawn by curiosity, the pig edged closer and closer to the old soldier until at last it actually came nosing and sidling in underneath him, as if under a bridge. Then in a trice the old soldier snatched him up by ear and tail and slipped the noose of the cord fast. The pig squealed like forty demons, but more as if in fun than in real rage.
'There we are, Grannie,' said the old soldier, giving the old beldame her pig, 'and here's a scrap of root, too. There's no pig all the world over, white, black, or piebald, but after he gets one sniff of it comes for more. That I'll warrant you, and I'm sure you're very welcome.'
The beldame, with her pig now safely at the rope's end and the scrap of root between her fingers, thanked the old soldier and asked him of his journey and whither he was going; and it was just as if, with its snout uplifted, its ears drawn forward, the nimble young pig was also listening for his answer.
The old soldier told her he was returning from the wars. 'But as for where to, Grannie, or what for, I hardly know. For wife or children have I none, and most of my old friends must have long forgotten me. Not that I'm meaning to say, Grannie,' says the soldier, 'that that much matters, me being come so far and no turning back. Still, there's just one thing I'd like to find out before I go, and that is where the twelve young daughters of the mad old King yonder dance of nights. If I knew that, Grannie, they say I might some day sit on a throne.' With that he burst out laughing, at which the pig, with a twist of its jaws (as though recalling the sweet savour of the root) flung up its three-cornered head and laughed too.
The beldame, eyeing the old soldier closely, said that what he had asked for was not a hard or dangerous matter if only he would promise to do exactly what she told him. The old soldier found that easy enough.
'Well,' said the beldame, 'when you come to the palace, you'll be set to watch, and you'll be tempted to sleep. Vow a vow, then, to taste not even a crumb of the sweet cake or sip so much as a sip of the wine the Princesses will bring to you before they go to bed. Wake and watch; then follow where they lead; and here is a cloak which, come fair or foul, will make you invisible.' At this the beldame took a cloak finer than spider silk from out of a small bag or pouch she wore, and gave it him.
'That hide me!' said the soldier. 'Old coat, brass buttons and all?'
'Ay,' said the beldame, and thanked him again for his help; and the pig coughed, and so they parted.
When she was out of sight the old soldier had another look at the magic cloak and thought over what the beldame had told him. Being by nature bold and brave, and having nothing better to do, he went off at once to the King.
The King looked at the old soldier, listened to what he said and then, with a grim smile half hidden under his beard, bade him follow him to a little stone closet hard by the long chamber where the Princesses slept. 'Watch here,' he said, 'and if you can discover this secret, then the reward I have decreed shall be yours. If not -' He glanced up under his brows at the brave old soldier (who had no more fear in his heart than he had money in his pocket), but did not finish his sentence.
A little before nightfall, the old soldier sat himself down on a bench in the stone closet and by the light of a stub of candle began to mend his shoe.
By and by the eldest of the Princesses knocked swiftly on his door, smiled on him and brought him a cup of wine and a dish of sweet-cakes. He thanked her. But as soon as she was gone he dribbled out the wine drip into a hole between the flagstones and made crumbs of the cakes for the mice. Then he lay down and pretended to be asleep. He snored and snored, but even while he snored he was busy with his cobbler's awl boring a little hole for a peephole between the stone of the wall where he lay and the Princesses' room. At midnight all was still.
But hardly had the little owl of midnight called, Ahoo! Ahoo! Ahoo! when the old soldier, hearing a gentle stirring in the next room, peeped through the tiny hole he had bored in the wall. His eyes dazzled; a wondrous sight was to be seen. For the Princesses in the filmy silver of the moon were now dressing and attiring themselves in clothes that seemed not of this world but from some strange otherwhere, which they none the less took out of their own coffers and wardrobes. They seemed to be as happy as larks in the morning or like swallows chittering before they fly, laughing and whispering together while they put on these bright garments and made ready. Only one of them, the youngest, had withdrawn herself a little apart and delayed to join them, and now kept silent. Seeing this, her sisters made merry at her and asked her what ailed her.
'The others', she said, 'whom our father set to watch over us were young and foolish. But that old soldier has wandered all over the world and has seen many things, and it seems to me he is crafty and wise. That, sisters, is why I say, Beware!'
Still they only laughed at her. 'Crafty and wise, forsooth!' said they. 'Listen to his snoring! He has eaten of our sweet cakes and drunken the spiced wine, and now he will sleep sound till morning.' At this the old soldier, peeping through his little bore hole in the stones, smiled to himself and went on snoring.
When they were all ready to be gone, the eldest of the Princesses clapped her hands. At this signal, and as if by magic, in the middle of the floor one wide flagstone wheeled softly upon its neighbour, disclosing an opening there, and beneath it a narrow winding flight of steps. One by one, according to age, the Princesses followed the eldest down this secret staircase, and the old soldier knew there was no time to be lost.
He flung the old beldame's cloak over his shoulders, and (as she had foretold) instantly of himself there showed not even so much as a shadow. Then, having noiselessly unbarred the door into the Princesses' bedroom, he followed the youngest of them down the stone steps.
It was dark beneath the flagstones, and the old soldier trod clumsily in his heavy shoes. And as he groped down, he stumbled and trod on the hem of the youngest Princess' dress.
'Alas, sisters, a hand is clutching at me!' she called out to her sisters.
'A hand!' mocked the eldest. 'You must have caught your sleeve on a nail!'
On and down they went and out of a narrow corridor at last emerged and came full into the open air, and, following a faint track in the green turf, reached at last a wood where the trees (their bark, branches, twigs, and leaves) were all of silver and softly shimmering in a gentle light that seemed to be neither of sun nor moon nor stars. Anon they came to a second wood, and here the trees shone softly too, but these were of gold. Anon they came to a third wood, and here the trees were in fruit, and the fruits upon them were precious stones - green, blue, amber, and burning orange.
When the Princesses had all passed through this third wood, they broke out upon a hillside, and, looking down from out the leaf-fringed trees, the old soldier saw the calm waters of a lake beyond yellow sands, and drawn up on its strand twelve swan-shaped boats. And there, standing as if in wait beside them, were twelve young men that looked to be Princes. Noble and handsome young men they were.
The Princesses, having hastened down to the strand,
greeted these young men one and all, and at once embarked into the twelve swan-shaped boats, the old soldier smuggling himself as gingerly as he could into the boat of the youngest. Then the Princes rode away softly across the water towards an island that was in the midst of the lake, where there was a palace, its windows shining like crystal in the wan light that bathed sky and water.
Only the last of the boats lagged far behind the others, for the old soldier sitting there invisible on the thwart, though little else but bones and sinews, weighed as heavy as a sack of stones in the boat. At last the youngest of the Princes leaned on his oars to recover his breath. 'What', he sighed, 'can be amiss with this boat tonight? It never rowed so heavily.'
The youngest of the Princesses looked askance at him with fear in her eyes, for the boat was atilt with the weight of the old soldier and not trimmed true. Whereupon she turned her small head
and looked towards that part of the boat where sat the old soldier, for there it dipped deepest in the water. In so doing, she gazed straight into his eyes, yet perceived nothing but the green water beyond. He smiled at her, and - though she knew not why - she was comforted. 'Maybe,' she said, turning to the Prince again and answering what he had said, 'maybe you are wearied because of the heat of the evening.' And he rowed on.
When they were come to the island and into the palace there, the old soldier could hardly believe his eyes, it was a scene so fair and strange and unearthly. All the long night through, to the music of harp and tambour and pipe, the Princesses danced with the Princes. Danced, too, the fountains at play, with an endless singing of birds, trees and flowers blossoming, and no one seemed to weary. But as soon as the scarlet shafts of morning showed beyond these skies, they returned at once to the boats and the Princesses were soon back safely under the King's roof again, and so fast asleep in their beds that they looked as if they had never stirred or even sighed in them the whole night long. They might be lovely images of stone.
But the old soldier slept like a hare - with one eye open.
When he awoke, which was soon, he began to think over all that he had seen and heard. The longer he pondered on it, the more he was filled with astonishment. Every now and then, as if to make sure of the land of the living, he peeped with his eye through the hole in the wall, for he was almost of a mind to believe that his journey of the night before - the enchanted woods, the lake, the palace, and the music - was nothing more than the make-believe of a dream.
So, being a man of caution, he determined to say nothing at all of what had passed this first night, but to watch again a second night. When dark drew on, he once more dribbled out the spiced wine into the crannies of the stones and crumbled the sweet cakes into morsels for the mice, himself eating nothing but a crust or two of rye bread and a rind of cheese that he had in his haversack.
All happened as before. Midnight came. The Princesses rose up out of their beds, gay and brisk as fish leaping at evening out of their haunts, and soon had made ready and were gone to their trysting place at the lakeside. All was as before.
The old soldier - to make sure even surer - watched for the third night. But this night, as he followed the Princesses, first through the wood where the leaves were of silver, and next where they resembled fine gold, and last where the fruits on the boughs were all of precious stones, he broke off in each a twig. As he did so the third time, the tree faintly sighed, and the youngest Princess heard the tree sigh. Her fears of the first night, far from being lulled and at rest, had only grown sharper. She stayed a moment in the wood, looking back, and cried, 'Sisters! Sisters! We are being watched. We are being followed. I heard this tree sigh, and it was in warning.' But they only laughed at her.
'Sigh, forsooth!; they said. 'So, too, would you, sister, if you were clad in leaves as trees are, and a little wind went through your branches.'
Hearing this, in hope to reassure her, the old soldier softly wafted the three twigs he carried in the air at a little distance from the youngest's face. Sweet was the scent of them, and she smiled. That night, too, for further proof, the old soldier stole one of the drinking cups in the Princes' palace and hid it away with the twigs in his haversack. Then for the last time he watched the dancing and listened to the birds' music and the noise of the fountains, but, being tired, he sat down and yawned, for he had no great wish to be young again and was happy being himself.
Indeed, as he looked in at the Princesses, fast, fast asleep that third early morning, their dreamless faces lying waxen and placid amid the braids of their long hair upon their pillows, he even pitied them.
That very day he asked to be taken before the King and, when he was come into his presence, entreated from him a favour.
'Say on!' said the King. The old soldier then besought the King to promise that if he told the secret thing he had discovered, he would forgive the Princesses all that had gone before.
'I'd rather', he said, 'be whipped three times round Your Majesty's kingdom than open my mouth else.'
The King promised. Then the old soldier brought out from his haversack the three twigs of the trees - the silver and the gold and the be-gemmed - and the gold cup from the banqueting hall; and he told the King all that had befallen him.
On first hearing of this, the King fell into a rage at the thought of how his daughters had deceived him. But he remembered his promise and was pacified. He remembered, too, the decree he had made, and sent word that his daughters should be bidden into his presence. When they were come, the dark and the fair together, he frowned on them, then turned to the old soldier: 'Now choose which of these deceivers you will have for wife, for such was my decree.'
The old soldier, looking at them each in turn, and smiling at the youngest, waved his great hand and said: 'My liege, there is this to be said: Never lived any man high or low that deserved a wife as gentle and fair as one of these. But in the place of enchantment I have told of, there were twelve young Princes. Well-spoken and soldierly young men they were; and if it was choosing sons I was, such are the sons I would choose. As for myself, now - if I may be so bold, and if it would be any ease to your Majesty's mind - it being a promise, in a manner of speaking - there's one thing, me having roved the world over all my life, I'm mortal anxious to know -' and here he paused.
'Say on,' said the King.
'Why,' replied the old soldier, 'what sort of thing it feels like to sit, even though but for the mite of a moment, on a throne.'
On hearing this, the King grasped his beard and laughed heartily. 'Easily done,' he cried. 'The task is to stay there.'
With his own hand he led the old soldier to the throne, placed his usual crown upon his head, the Royal sceptre in his hand, and with a gesture presented him to all assembled there. There sat the old soldier, with his war-worn face, great bony hands and lean shanks, smiling under the jewelled crown at the company. A merry scene it was.
Then the King earnestly asked the old soldier if he had anything in mind for the future, whereby he might show him his favour. Almost as if by magic, it seemed, the memory of the beldame in the forest came back into the old soldier's head, and he said: 'Well, truth's truth, Your Majesty, and if there was such a thing in my mind, it was pigs.'
'Pigs!' cried the King. 'So be it, and so be it, and so be it! Pigs you shall have in plenty,' said he. 'And, by the walls of Jerusalem, of all the animals on God's earth there's none better - fresh, smoked, or salted.'
'Ay, sir,' said the old soldier, 'and even better still with their plump-chapped noddles still on their shoulders and the breath of life in their bodies.'
Then the King sent for his Lord Steward and bade that seven changes of raiment should be prepared for the old soldier, and two mules saddled and bridled, and a fat purse of money put in his hand. Besides these, the King commanded that out of the countless multitude of the Royal pigs should be chosen three score of the comeliest, liveliest, and best, with two lads for their charge.
And when towards sundown a day or two after the old soldier set out from the Royal house into the forest with his laden mules, his pigs and his pig lads, besides the gifts that had been bestowed on him by the twelve noble young Princes and Princesses, he was a glad man indeed. But most he prized a worn-out gold and silver slipper which he had asked of the youngest Princess for a keepsake. This he kept in his knapsack with his magic scrap of root and other such treasures, as if for a charm.
"The twelve sisters on their way to the dance."
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