(While this story can stand alone, it is also the third in a series. Read #1, Jack and the Princess here, and #2, Jack and Princess Rose here)
Once Upon a Time, the most beautiful princess in all the world was the daughter of King Jack, Princess Rose. And she was not only beautiful but good, for she gave away food and clothing to the dirtiest and most destitute of the poor, distributing it with her own hands. Her father and mother, King Jack and Queen Miranda, were as proud as their citizens to have such a wonderful daughter, and believed she would guide the kingdom even better than they when she became queen.
However, over the years the King and Queen and Princess had garnered many enemies, who hated the royal family on account of their goodness and good fortune.
When the princess went out of the palace on her rounds to bring food baskets to the poor, she was watched by evil eyes from behind dark shadows and hidden alleys. Sometimes she would feel the hair on the back of her neck prickle and lift, and then she would whirl around to see what might be following her, but there was never anything to be seen.
Nothing, that is, until one day a gigantic, fat, bulbous giant waddled into the village and heedlessly stampeded through the palace gates to eat up all the extra food that was set aside for the poor.
The palace guards tried to stop him, but they could do nothing against its layers and layers of protective fat, and his giant height. After being peppered with twenty or more arrows, the odious man just waddled back the way he had come, leaving the market and fields behind in ruins.
The princess wept, and the entire kingdom along with her. But their enemies whispered to each other that this is just what comes of setting yourself up as so much better than everyone else, and they nodded their heads in satisfaction.
The royal family was at their wits end about what would happen to the poor and helpless of the kingdom, for the number was now thrice what it had been before. The princess went to the king and pleaded to him, “What shall I do, father? How can I help our people?”
“My dear Rose,” said her loving father, sitting her down beside him, “your mother and I have a plan, but we are not sure what you shall think of it. The kingdom of Coresh is wealthier now than ever before, and the prince of that land, Prince Joseph, is about your age. His father is a good man, and vouches for the temperament of his son. We can invite him to stay with us, and if you fall in love with him, then you can marry and unite our kingdoms. In this way, your mother and I shall have cared for you and the kingdom all at once.”
Princess Rose considered her father’s proposal carefully. She knew that her mother had married her father for love and they were very happy, so she decided to only marry Prince Joseph if her heart truly desired it. If she did not, she would have to find another way to save the kingdom.
They invited the prince to stay with them for a month, and to impress him, began the visit with a great party. It was a royal affair, with dukes and bishops and counts and courtiers – everyone of importance in the kingdom was invited.
The guests gathered in the splendid ballroom, mingling and enjoying the lovely refreshments, when the trumpeter announced the entrance of Princess Rose. She appeared in magnificent beauty at the top of a grand staircase, and the prince simply gazed up at her as upon a goddess. In that moment, he was stricken to the heart with deep love.
Rose, however, was not so fortunate. She was generally unimpressed when she saw him at the foot of the staircase, gaping at her with round eyes and open mouth like a puppy. She strictly told herself not to be deceived by appearances, and after all, if he wore a different expression, his face could have been rather pleasant. She danced with him all night and found that, although he was handsome, strong, and a good dancer, his brain held nothing deeper than the depths of his dull blue eyes. She tried to speak of the state of the kingdoms, and he managed to interpret her remarks as clever observations of the weather. She brought up the current theological debates circulating among the clergy, and he misinterpreted her statements as pious niceties. As a last resort, she attempted to discuss the training methods of knights and squires, and at this he grew most animated, taking it upon himself to boast of all his greatest and most impressive exploits on the training field of battle.
Toward the end of the evening, her father found her between dances and swept her into a waltz. She melted into his arms in gratitude, and enjoyed the peaceful cadence of the dance.
“So what is the verdict?” he asked as they swayed to the violins.
“I’m spoiled by you. There’s just no man who can measure up.”
“You flatter me, my dear. Do you expect to find someone exactly like me? Can you not appreciate him on his own merit?”
She smiled in a way that told him the prince was really a lost cause.
“Very well. What shall we do about caring for our poor?”
She looked around the room. “We could throw a great party like this one – a charity ball.”
The king smiled at his resourceful daughter. “And the prince?’
“There’s no real harm to him. We can let him wear out his welcome.”
He grinned, and then frowned in thought. “Can we afford another party? We threw most of our resources into this one to impress the prince.”
She smiled impishly as he twirled her around, and he knew she had a trick up her sleeve. “We can’t. But Lady Geraldine most certainly can.”
Lady Geraldine was the Queen’s aunt’s brother-in-law’s cousin, who had married into the family from a low but wealthy station. She had little interest in aiding the poor, but she craved royal approval far too much to turn down a chance to work with the kingdom’s beloved princess on a pet project.
Princess Rose, for the next few days of palace life, found herself greatly regretting her leniency toward the visiting prince. If he had looked like a puppy dog that first night, he acted like one now. From dawn to dusk she employed all her ingenuity to escape his unwelcome attentions, and it was a constant game of cat and mouse. What made it far worse was that Prince Joseph had no clue she sought to avoid him.
Her propensity to send him on long, pointless errands only gratified his idea that she had his heart obediently wrapped around her little finger. Her constant questions about ‘wouldn’t you be more comfortable in the stables?’ or ‘isn’t it time for your midday meal?’ filled him with joy over her loving concern for his welfare. Finally, her forthright confessions of a far-distant marriage with a still unknown partner only soothed any doubts about her feminine modesty.
Princess Rose eagerly awaited the night of Lady Geraldine’s charity ball for more than simply philanthropic concerns: the ball was to take place far from her home and Prince Joseph was not invited. She looked forward to a night free from his unremitting attentions.
It was with alarm then, when, at the breakfast table the morning of, she overheard the Prince requesting permission from her father to escort her to the party.
She turned pleading eyes upon the King, and he stuttered that he would give the prince his answer later.
He went up to his daughter after the meal.
“Father, please, you must tell him straight out that I am uninterested in him. Perhaps he will hear it from you. I went so far as to tell him that I do not see a future between us, but he seems to hear my words as encouragement! I don’t know what to do!”
He smiled at his beautiful daughter. “Be easy on him, my dear. There was a time I might have behaved so foolishly toward your mother.”
“But you will say something?”
“Yes. I will speak to him.”
King Jack found the prince strolling through the gardens, lost in weaving the image of the multi-colored blossoms into an eulogy of Rose’s incandescent radiance. The prince, you see, was not a bad sort, only rather pathetic, and so it saddened the king to end his blissful dreams.
He sat the young man down on a stone bench and gently but firmly told him that his daughter was not interested in a marital union. The prince was shocked: he cried out that the princess had given him every encouragement. He grasped in vain at memories rich with the sweet scent of her presence, but could recall no hint of her disapproval. The king watched him flounder a moment, and then repeated, for surety’s sake, that his daughter truly had no designs upon the prince.
“What have I done wrong? What can I do? King Jack, I adore your precious daughter: no, more than that, I love her! I would die, lay down my life, perish, grapple with the hounds of hell, for her sake. Can I not prove this? I must prove it!”
The king lay his hand on the prince’s shoulder. “My boy, you can prove nothing. Your death will serve no good but to definitely wipe you from her life forever. And at this point,” he stated bluntly, “she might find that a welcome change.”
Joseph’s shoulders drooped deeply, and he hung his head. Then he turned serious, pleading blue eyes upon the king. “Please, sir. Please advise me. All I want is for her to be happy. But if there is some way… something I can do… I must try, even if I fail!”
The King respected the prince’s resolve. “Very well. I cannot promise that anything you do will improve Rose’s opinion of you. I can, however, tell you some of what she finds lacking in your character. If you believe that after diligent work you can supply what is lacking in your person, then I here and now extend an invitation for you to return in a year’s time and prove it to her.”
The prince leaned forward eagerly to hear tell of all his faults. The king recited them in a pragmatic list, and the prince nodded curtly at each one,
“Lack of interest in politics; lack of knowledge regarding politics; lack of interest in anything academic; lack of true understanding about science, religion, literature, or medicine; general distaste for anything deep or thought-provoking; a tendency to over-romanticize life; reciting poetry with no true understanding of its deeper nuances; and finally, your nagging tendency to follow my daughter around ‘like a puppy-dog’, as she puts it.”
“I had no idea those things were important to her. Whoever heard of anyone liking politics or religion? They are an everyday part of life, but liking them?” This was a new concept to him.
“If you develop a thoughtful understanding of these things, and learn to improve your blind gaze of life and love, you may – and I say may – have a chance to win my daughter.”
The prince beamed gratitude and left for his home immediately to gain a deep insight into these mysterious realms of knowledge. Great was the astonishment of his old tutor when he barged in upon him and demanded lessons in Aristotle, Archimedes, Ptolemy, and Aquinas, and still deeper was his surprise at the prince’s diligence in learning them , which stretched into not only a week or a month, but month after month, for an entire year.
Rose’s philanthropic pursuits developed significantly over that time, and her unremitting efforts brought benefit not only to her own kingdom, but to all the lands far and wide. The poor and needy had never known such loving care.
But this only caused the evil hatred toward her to grow, and now the eyes that watched did so with a plan, waiting to kidnap and kill and take from the princess all the riches and blessings that she possessed, and on April 3rd of the next year, which happened to be Good Friday, the waiting, lurking presence rose up to strike.
Princess Rose sang to herself as she dug inside her garden. It was not a flower garden, like most princesses’, but a veritable rainbow of fruits, vegetables, and grains, and she loved to till the earth with the warmth of the midday sun on her bent back. But suddenly, she paused with a sudden chill, feeling evil eyes upon her, and she turned around to look, telling herself it was nothing. It was always nothing.
It was an old hag in a dirty cloak.
“Hello, my dear,” spoke the hag, “and who might you be, such a sweet little thing?”
“I am Princess Rose. Do you need anything, mother? Some food or drink, or anything else I can give you?”
“Oh! Youth, naturally. Goodness. All those intangibles that pass away easier than water through your fingers.”
Rose smiled sadly. “I can only offer you food, and a place to stay. Will you accept it?”
The hag smiled, but it was a terrifying grimace, and Rose stumbled back despite herself. “I said,” repeated the old woman, “that I want your youth!”
And with that, she waved her hand and dissolved herself and the princess into thin air.
The kingdom was in turmoil and sorrow, remembering how the princess had been captured as an infant, and praying that she would return safe and sound as before; but this time, though the king and all the knights searched everywhere, they could not find the missing princess. And so the king sent out a decree for an award to any young man who could find and rescue his daughter.
Prince Joseph was in the midst of composing a theoretical juridical treatise on the proper treatment of blacksmith injuries in the winter months, which, due to his devoted efforts to interview every blacksmith in the kingdom, he found far more fascinating than he ever anticipated, when he received word that King Jack was looking for young champions to rescue his daughter. Immediately, and still grasping the roll of printed parchment in his hands, the prince rushed to King Jack’s kingdom.
On the way, he stopped at a tavern and overheard a conversation that made him sit up and take notice.
“Says she’s kidnapped the king’s daughter, and I say good for her! They’ve gotten all too complacent in that palace, telling us all what to do and giving out their wealth to the poor! It’s not decent, I tell you.”
“Well, what’s she going to do to the spoiled brat?”
“Says she’s gonna steal her youth and take it for herself, then kill her and take over the kingdom!”
There was great laughter at this, and the prince had to force himself not to rise up and challenge the men to a fight. His studies of diplomacy had taught him some things, however, and now he approached the table.
“What’s that you say, gentlemen? I thought I heard that King Jack is finally going to get what’s coming to him?”
“Oh, aye!” cried the man who was friends with the witch. “Going to kill that rotten princess!”
“Excellent!” said Prince Joseph. “And who is this witch? I’d like to shake hands with her and give her my personal thanks!”
The man told him that her name was Gertie, she lived in the vale by the great river, and she would be happy to meet someone so young and handsome as himself. The prince thanked them, and then rode with all speed to the palace to tell King Jack that he had found his daughter.
“I will save her!” he cried on entering the palace.
Jack was seated in his throne and raised his eyebrows and said nothing, annoyed that Joseph, the prince with his head in the clouds, was the one to answer his summons for help.
“I will save her life. I don’t care if she loves me or not: I care nothing for such things. I care only for her safety.”
The Queen sighed. “This is not the time for idle boasts, Prince Joseph. If you want to save our daughter, then save her, but don’t make useless speeches.”
“Right! Do you know where she is?”
The king grew red in the face and seemed about to burst, but the Queen, who possessed more natural patience, laid a hand on her husband’s arm and said deliberately, “If we knew, we would have saved her already.”
“Of course! Naturally. Of course,” said Joseph, using too many words. His studies had not taught him to be diplomatic with friends – only dangerous enemies. “I do, though, you see, because I met the man in the tavern and it’s his friend and so I know to go to the vale, you know, and -”
“The devil take you boy!” cried the king at last, exploding from worry and vexation. “Do you know where she is or don’t you?”
“She’s with the witch Gertie in the vale by the great river,” proclaimed Joseph.
“At last!” said Miranda. “But, oh Jack, Gertie is the most powerful of the witches. She will not be easy to kill.”
The prince’s fiery resolve paused a moment at that. His chest remained half-inflated for a long moment in between a breathe to declare his adieus and a distracted reverie.
“Kill?” he asked at last.
“Oh course,” said Jack, rising and heading toward his suit of armor. “I do not approve of it on principal, but some people are too powerful and wicked to let live.”
“Ah! Yes of course. But I shall rescue her, your majesty! After all, you put out that summons.”
Jack paused with his helmet in his hands.
“Oh, Prince Joseph, this is not a task for the inexperienced. You’ve never even been in a battle, have you?” said Miranda.
Joseph stuttered uncomfortably a moment.
“Have you even killed a squirrel or raccoon?”
There was still no coherent answer.
Then Miranda could no longer contain her husband’s rage, and really, she no longer wished to, and he roared out, “What did you think would happen, anyway? You’d gallop across the fields and swoop the princess into your saddle? You’re no better than you used to be! Still living deep inside your dreamy head: the world is not all rainbows and flowers and kisses, boy! It’s gore, and hatred, and enemies, and death!”
The prince was visibly shaken, but significantly affected. His year of study, reading, and learning had not been in vain. He may have lacked any real-world experience, but his readiness for it was greatly increased. He squared his shoulders and stood tall before King Jack and Queen Miranda, and for the first time since Jack had laid eyes upon him, the Prince was truly handsome.
“I may not know what I get myself into. I may not have the experience I need. As I learned from Beowulf, however, everyone has to start somewhere, and this is my opportunity to swim the length of the sea. Who knows? If I do not perish in this attempt, I may go on to slay monsters! Farewell, your majesties: if I return, it will be with your daughter.”
The King and Queen watched him leave, and then Miranda began to giggle, and then to laugh out loud.
“What?” asked her husband in annoyance.
“Everything!” she gasped, thinking about his comment that someday he might slay monsters, and yet that was exactly what he had set off to do. “But mostly,” she giggled, “he reminds me of you.”
“Me?” Jack was revolted.
“Standing there, an ant in the midst of a giant’s castle, so fiery and in love, declaring that you would rescue me no matter what the risk.” She looked at her savior with great love. “Give him a chance,” she said. “Love can overcome many faults.”
Joseph arrived at Gertie’s cottage around nightfall, when the forest made strange noises and normal objects distorted into gruesome, misshapen wraiths. He pulled up his horse and dismounted, his scroll of juridical theory in his belt and his sword in his hand.
He knocked at the cottage door. There was the sound of scuffling and creaking from inside and then the old witch stood before him, wearing a lovely gown of pink satin that looked ghastly on her.
“What do you want?” she screamed, annoyed that someone had interrupted her preparations for regaining her youth.
“Uh, I uh, um,” stuttered the prince.
“No soliciting!” she cried, and stepped back to slam the door in his face.
But at that moment, the prince had a brilliant idea. He smiled brightly, sheathed his sword, and smoothly drew out his blacksmith thesis, stepping possessively into the house.
“Ah, but my dear old mother, your reputation precedes you! You see, I am the proposer of a brilliant business scheme that will make us both filthy rich, and I have come to present this scheme to you. I hear that you are on the verge of gaining youth once again, and what is youth without riches? I have here an uncommon insight into the ways and workings of blacksmith forges. You see, when blacksmiths injure themselves, kingdoms have no means of offering compensation or care for them. They’re left out in the cold. Well, if we increase the amount of blacksmith injuries with your magic, and then I market my doctor services to heal those injuries (but really, you’ll heal them again with magic), we could make a fortune! With my marketing skills, and your charisma…we’d be unstoppable! Come on, mother — what do you say?”
“You don’t have to answer now. In fact, why don’t I just read you the notes I have here? I think you’ll find them very enlightening so you can make your decision. You just sit right down here in the easy chair, and I will read to you.”
Now, this was a very greedy witch, and the Prince’s proposal did not displease her. If she had no princess currently bundled into a trunk in her attic, she would have jumped at the idea. As it was, she was torn between listening to the scheme and throwing the strange marketer out of her home. Since, however, the prince’s actions gave her no room to argue politely, she sat down and let him read to her. This was a legal, hypothetical treatise, and as we all know, anything legal and hypothetical is extremely boring, and there is no quicker remedy for insomnia. Despite her best efforts, after an hour of “therefores”, “henceforths”, and “consequentlys”, the witch’s pointed chin rested deeply inside her shriveled bosom, and head-splitting snores screamed and growled out of her nose.
The prince took no time to congratulate himself or marvel at his good fortune, both of which he was very tempted to do; but as soon as he was certain that she was lost in slumber, he snatched his blade from his side and cut her throat so that her gray, wrinkled head bounced across the wooden floor.
Then Prince Joseph pounded up the stairs and into the attic, where he saw a trunk against the far wall. It was locked.
“Princess Rose!” he called out. “Are you in there?”
Rose managed not to sigh in disappointment: after all, she had heard all that had passed below, and the prince had risen considerably in her estimation. “I am here,” she yelled. “The key is around the witch’s neck on a chain!”
Joseph ran back to the hag and found the key, slippery with the witch’s blood. He put it carefully in the lock and freed the Princess.
After stretching her legs, back, and arms, Rose looked around for Joseph, but did not see him anywhere. She went outside, and he was there by the horse. To her surprise, she felt a pair of eyes on her. But they did not feel evil, and when she looked around, she saw nothing, so she turned to the prince. “I want to thank you for saving me.”
Joseph smiled sadly. He was glad that she was safe, but he did not expect her to like him anymore than she had before. After all, what was he but an ignorant man who happened to be born with a title? And he knew now that it did not grant him brains, brawn, or virtue.
“Thank you, your highness,” he bowed respectfully. “But I need no thanks. I want you to know that I will always consider you a friend, and I will always come if you need me.”
Rose was surprised by his answer. She found, to her consternation, that she was blushing – but she hid it well. She climbed on the horse in front of Joseph, and they started for home.
Along the way, to break the uncomfortable silence, Rose commented on Joseph’s legal treatise, of which she had only heard snatches in her imprisonment. Her one, innocent question was enough to launch the young scholar into an extensive monologue of the mistreatment of blacksmiths and the legal potentialities that could benefit them. The philanthropic princess, far from falling asleep in the enumeration of these details, grew excited and asked intelligent questions of her own, and proposed possible solutions. Both forgot their discomfort with the other, and were shocked when they reached the castle in what seemed like no time at all. Rose was actually a little disappointed when she tore herself away from Joseph to greet her happy, relieved parents, who were standing on the doorstep waiting for them, as if they had known they were coming.
Jack offered a sincere apology to Joseph and invited him to dinner. Before they all went inside to eat, Rose put a hand on her father’s arm, holding him back for a moment.
“Father,” she said, and a deep blush overspread his face. “Father, I do believe I’ve changed my mind.”
“About the prince?” he asked knowingly.
“Yes. He’s improved – somehow.”
“Yes, I think so too,” he put his hand tenderly on her cheek, then drew her close to his heart. He had planned to marry her to a wonderful man, but there was a sadness in letting her go. “You should tell him right away,” he advised her. “He looks like a dying puppy right now, and words from you will revive him.”
But she caught at his arm as he turned to go inside. “Father, you followed after Joseph, didn’t you? You were outside the witch’s cottage, making sure he had rescued me.”
He only smiled at her. “He did rescue you, and now you are his. But you will always be my princess. My Princess Rose.”
There never was a prouder and yet humbler prince than Joseph on the day that he joined in marriage with the daughter of King Jack, Princess Rose.
Jack and the Princess
Jack and Princess Rose