Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Another fairytale - the unexpected sweetness. Another one of my favourite fairytales came from a book I bought at a primary school fete many years ago. It was called "Cap O' Rushes", and according to this awesome website, it's an English folk version of a story that's told across Europe and even in northern India, and turns up in a modified form in King Lear. Here's my version. Note that I am slipping into 'fairy-tale language', which in itself is an interesting concept. It has a certain rhythm and vocabulary, doesn't it?

Once upon a time, there was a king who had three beautiful daughters. The eldest had raven-dark hair and piercing blue eyes like sapphires. The middle daughter had rich auburn hair and green eyes like sparkling emeralds. And the youngest had blonde hair like spun gold, and pale grey eyes like diamonds. The king was growing old, and thought to divide his kingdom among his daughters. So he called them to him.
He asked the eldest, "How much do you love me?"
"As much as the sun!"
Pleased, the father asked the middle daughter, "And my dear, how much do you love me?"
"Why, as much as the moon and the stars!"
Tenderly, the father turned to his youngest child, who was secretly his favourite. "And how much do you love me?"
"I love you as fresh meat loves salt," she replied.

Enraged, the father banished her from his kingdom. She took with her three of her fine dresses, which she reasoned she could sell for their fine fabrics and embroidery. But having no outer garment, she wove herself a rough hooded cloak from the rushes that grew in the nearby marshes. And in that covering, she entered the kitchens of the neighbouring king's palace. Pleading that she had nowhere to go, she asked for a place to stay. The shrewd cook looked her up and down.
"We have all the servants we need," she said.
"Please," begged the princess, "I'll do any work you want."
"Well, we could do with a scullery maid to scour the dirtiest pots," said the cook. "You'll find a bed of straw in this hut in the yard."

So she became a maid, and her beautiful royal hands, which had never seen a day's work, became raw, rough and reddened from scrubbing pots. Because she always wore her strange cloak, the servants nicknamed her "Cap O' Rushes", and because she refused to speak of her life or joke with the others, she became an outsider.

Her only consolation was at night. She would light a candle in the rude hut that served as her bedroom, put on one of her beautiful gowns, and brush out her long golden hair, singing all the while. One night, the prince of the realm happened into the yard, where he heard a beautiful voice singing a sweet and sad melody. Peeking through the window, the prince saw the most beautiful woman he'd ever laid eyes on, wearing a dress of golden satin and brushing out her lustrous hair. He fell instantly in love with her.

The next day, the prince excitedly told his father that he had found the woman he wished to marry.
"Well, who is she?" said the king.
"I don't know," replied the prince.
The wise old king thought for a moment. "Let us hold a grand ball, and send messengers far and wide to tell every noble house," he said. "If this girl is as fair as you say, she must be of high birth and will certainly be there."

Well! News of the ball put the kitchens into a frenzy. But Cap O' Rushes seemed strangely uninterested in the impending ball. She scrubbed her pots and said nothing. When the other servants asked if she cared to watch the festivities, she yawned.
"I'm much too tired," she said. "I'll just go to bed."
But after everyone had left, she hurried to her hut, donned one of her dresses, washed her face, brushed out her hair, and braided it in a coronet. Then she went to the ball.

Every head turned at her beauty and the brilliance of her gown, which was of gold satin like the sun, with embroidery of gold thread like the sun's rays. The prince instantly spotted her, and refused to dance with anyone else for the entire evening, although he was curious that her hands were so rough; very unlike a noblewoman's. But she left early, and was back in bed, wrapped in her rush cloak, before the ball was over.

The next day, everyone could talk of nothing but the mysterious woman at the ball.
"What a pity you were asleep, Cap O' Rushes!" said one of the kitchenmaids.
"I should have liked to have seen her," said the princess.
"You still may!" replied the maid, "for the Prince has fallen madly in love with her, and the King has decreed another ball tonight!"

Naturally, there was plenty of work to do, and the kitchens fell to it. At the end of the day, Cap O' Rushes again complained of weariness, and went to bed in her hut. But secretly she braided her hair and donned her second dress, which was of black velvet like the night sky, with a moon embroidered in silver thread and studded with jewels like stars. When she entered the ballroom the company hushed, and the prince stepped joyously to her side once more. They danced every dance together, but again she made excuses to leave early, and was back in her hut before the ball was over.

The King decreed a third ball the next night, and Cap O' Rushes again refused to go, feigning tiredness, but brushed out her long golden hair and donned her third dress, which was of shimmering white silk, encrusted with diamonds so that it sparkled in the light. Her grey eyes, too, shone like diamonds. When the prince saw her, he thought his heart with burst from love. He held tight to her hand to prevent her from running away, and implored her to tell him her name. But she simply smiled and was silent.

"I shall die if I never see you again!" cried the prince. He kissed her rough hands, and slipped a diamond ring onto her finger. But she managed to slip away from him, and was back in bed, wrapped in her rush cloak, before the ball was over.

The next day, the kitchen servants chided Cap O' Rushes for not going to the ball, because there would be no more and she had missed her chance to see the prince's mysterious belle. Meanwhile, the prince made all manner of enquiries about the identity of his love, and sent messengers far across the land, but nobody could solve the mystery. The prince grew sick with love, and took to his bed. He refused to eat, and was close to dying.

"Let me make him a bowl of gruel," volunteered Cap O' Rushes.
"What - serve common gruel to the prince of the realm?" scoffed the cook.
Cap O' Rushes merely nodded. "I have seen this gruel cure sickness that no medicine could treat."
The cook reasoned that, as the prince wouldn't eat anything, it would do no harm to offer him the gruel, so she allowed Cap O' Rushes to make it. As the princess stirred the gruel, she thought sadly of how she could never reveal herself to her beloved, and three salt tears dripped into the gruel. Her eyes were so full of tears that she didn't notice the diamond ring slip from her finger and fall into the bowl.

The cook brought the bowl of gruel to the prince. "Any news of my beloved?" he said weakly.
"No," said the cook, "but I have brought you a bowl of gruel to help you regain your strength."
At first the prince refused to eat, but the gruel tasted unexpectedly good, and he finished the entire bowl. Upon discovering the ring at the bottom, he sent for the cook.

"Who made this gruel?" he asked.
Alarmed, the cook said, "I did, sire."
"No you didn't," replied the prince. "Don't be afraid to tell the truth."
"Well, 'twas our scullery maid, whom we call Cap O' Rushes."
"Send her to me."
And when she arrived in the prince's bedchamber, she doffed her cloak of rushes, revealing her beautiful gown.

Well! News of the impending wedding put the kitchen into a frenzy. Hunting and fishing parties were sent to track down boar, venison, salmon, pheasant and peacock! Sloe-eyed diplomats made gifts of sweetmeats from the far East! Rosy-cheeked maids prepared herbed vegetables from the palace gardens, and pies of every description! Pages were dispatched, huff-puffing, to the cellars to retrieve the king's finest wines and ales. But the bride commanded that two feasts be prepared - one containing salt, and one without.

All the nobles from across the land attended the wedding, including the princess's own father and her two sisters. The princess wore her white silk dress - it was suitable for a wedding, after all - and a necklace and coronet encrusted with precious diamonds. She was so beautiful that even her own relatives did not recognise her. The guests sat down to the splendid feast, but soon murmurs of complaint spread throughout the hall.
"It's so bland!"
"The impertinence of inviting us to such a mean banquet!"
"These dishes have no taste at all!"

But the bride's father burst into tears. "Once I had a daughter," said he, "who told me she loved me as much as fresh meat loves salt. I thought she didn't love me, but now I see she loved me best of all! And I'll never know what became of her!"

With that, the bride threw her arms around him and kissed him, crying, "Here I am, father!" Everyone burst into cheering and crying. Even the two elder sisters were in tears. And with that, the cook brought out the second feast, seasoned with salt. Everyone ate their fill, and lived happily ever after.

What I like about this story is that sometimes, the sweetest things in life are not sweet at all, and the things you take for granted turn out to be the most precious. And with that, I'm going to have another cup of tea.

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