Authors: Penelope S. Delta
PENELOPE S. DELTA
Translated and illustrated by
HEN OLD KING PRUDENTIUS
realized that he had little time left to live, he summoned his son, young Witless, and said to him:
“You’ve had your fill of frolics and amusements for long enough, my son. The time has come for you to marry, and to take in your hands the governance of the State. My time is over. It is now your turn to rule well and to be a good king.”
He therefore dispatched his High Chancellor to the neighbouring kingdom to seek the hand of the beautiful Princess Barmy, on behalf of Witless, son of Prudentius I, King of the Fatalists.
The wedding took place amidst great joy and sumptuous feasting, and a few days later, after he had given his blessing to his children, old Prudentius went the way of all flesh, and Witless was crowned king.
Everything seemed rosy and enviable for the young couple. The coffers of old Prudentius were filled to bursting
point with gold florins; the kingdom was ringed and strong-walled by mighty citadels brimming with soldiers; the splendid palace, built high up on a densely wooded mountain, reigned supreme over the capital below, where its citizens lived in good prosperity; wide and well-paved thoroughfares linked the kingdom of the Fatalists with kingdoms nearby.
Everywhere one looked there was joy and good life.
And in whichever direction the new king might turn his eye, looking out from the high donjon tower of his palace, he could see endless sown fields, gorges and vales bursting with the lushest vegetation, cities and villages with neat and pretty dwellings, mountains thick with woods, and pastures of the greenest green. There were countless cows grazing in happy company with flocks of sheep and goats. And the farmers labouring the land were as busy and as numerous as ants, milking the cows, shearing the sheep, transporting grain and produce to the capital, where they would sell them.
Many years passed.
Time, which turned to white Witless’s hair, and caused it to moult, Time, which withered the fair beauty of Queen Barmy, also transformed the entire aspect of the kingdom of the Fatalists.
Everywhere was wasteland. Endless dales, barren and untilled, stretched to the farthest corners of the kingdom, and only some few, dilapidated ruins bore witness to the places where in the olden times there
had stood proud and fearsome the formidable citadels of Prudentius I.
Here and there, a miserable, ramshackle hovel broke the monotony of the deserted valley. Weeds and rubble covered the hills; the neglected roads vanished beneath the thorn bushes that spread unchecked their spiny, tangled twigs in every direction.
Whistling shrilly among the rubble and the rocks, the wind bewailed the desolation of the land.
The great woods alone remained in their place, forgotten, unlaboured, concealing under their burgeoning foliage an entire universe of butterflies, beetles, weevils and bees, which enjoyed undisturbed the sweet-scented wild flowers. There were great hosts of wild strawberry plants, blossoming and bearing fruit in brotherly company with the brambles, their fruit rotting and dropping useless on the ground.
The footpaths, which in the olden days had led through the trees, these too had been long erased, for long had it been since the time when a human foot had walked on them. And the trees, the shrubs and the undergrowth had so forgotten what a human form looked like that they were all shocked and startled, they shivered and trembled, and murmured frightened whispers to one another when, one day, they saw a young boy, with dusky, dream-laden brown eyes, walking under their foliage, stopping at every step in order to look here at a flower, there at an insect, with amazement and surprise, as though he were seeing them for the very first time.
“Hark, what sort of thing is this that walks past?” asked a lentisk fearfully, drawing back its leaves, scared that the boy might see it.
“Who knows!” replied the pine. “Perhaps it could be a different kind of deer?”
A poplar, standing erect nearby, tilted its proud head ever so slightly to catch a glimpse of the passer-by.
“A deer?” it said in a burst of laughter, which caused all of its leaves to turn upside down, so that in an instant its colour changed from fresh green to shimmering silver. “You must be dreaming, my lad! A deer has four legs and this one only has two!”
“Well, what sort of animal is it then?” asked a bramble anxiously. “Could it be wicked? Will it eat up my new suit of clothes, so that summer should find me naked?”
“Do not torment your little heads, my children,” said the old plane tree, “for this is no animal, nor does it graze on leaves. It has been many years since one of them passed this way. Yet I remember that there was a time when our forest was teeming with others like him. Those were the good times, when people gathered the honey of the bees, and the strawberries of the strawberry shrub, the blackberries, and the ripe, fire-golden fruit of the arbutus tree.”
“What’s that?” exclaimed the wild strawberry, huddling close at the feet of the old plane tree. “What are you saying, grandfather? Could this be…
“Yes, most certainly indeed,
it is a man
,” replied the old plane tree.
And the poplar muttered:
“But yes, of course, that’s what it is, a man! I remember now having seen others like him in my youth.”
The lentisk spread out its branches with vivid curiosity, so as to get a closer look at him.
“A man?” asked the haughty oak. “And what does he want in our realm, might I ask?”
And all the trees leant forward, to see the “man”, as he passed by.
He was a slender boy, no more than sixteen years old. His velvet clothes, woven with gold and silver, were now threadbare at the elbows and the knees and far too small for him, rugged and torn; the golden ribbons that held his sandals to his feet were all ripped and frayed, secured into place with clumsy, knobbly knots.
He lay down at the roots of the old plane tree, saw the wild strawberry shrub by his side, heavy with
fruit; he picked the berries and ate them. Then he folded his arms under his head to make a pillow, and fell asleep.
He slept such a deep sleep that he did not hear the whisperings of the trees, nor the gurgling of the brook which flowed nearby, nor even yet the whistling of the blackbird, which, hopping from branch to bough, was telling the most extraordinary tales.
“The King’s son!” exclaimed the old plane tree. “How can I possibly believe this, when I look at his bare legs and tattered clothes?”
“And yet believe it you must!” replied the blackbird with a caw. “Heed my words, I fly in and out of the palace windows, I know all that goes on in there.”
“But why doesn’t he change his clothes?” asked the pine, thoroughly appalled.
“Because he has no other clothes, of course!” came the blackbird’s reply.
“What’s that? The King’s son?” exclaimed the thyme, offering up its budding flowers to the buzzing bee, who was seeking a place to land and suck their honey.
“Hah! You seem surprised!” came the shrill skirling of the blackbird. “Perhaps you think that the King himself has greater riches than a humble shepherd or a bargeman?”
“What you are saying is strange indeed!” murmured the lentisk, who would not allow himself to be convinced.
“And yet believe him you must,” said the bee, fluttering around him. “He is telling the truth. The King himself wears clothes just like these. And if you only saw the princesses, then you would be truly horrified!”
“Why?” enquired the strawberry shrub.
The blackbird leapt by its side, and whispered:
“Because underneath their robes, they do not even have a shirt on!”
And he burst into laughter, not realizing that he was standing right by the boy’s ear.
The Prince woke up with a jump, startled out of his sleep.
The blackbird took fright and flew away, the bee hid among the leaves of the lentisk, while the trees lifted up
their heads, feigning indifference, as though they had neither seen nor heard a single thing.
Dusk had fallen. The Prince got up and started again on his way. He came out of the forest, crossed the arid, waterless vale, and, turning towards the palace with a quick step, went up the mountain, clambering up the rocks and dry earth as nimbly as a young kid goat.
ROM THE GREAT
and splendid royal fortress of Prudentius I, only the high donjon tower was now habitable. Everything else—the great halls, the parapet walks, the barracks—all had crumbled to rubble. The tower itself was in a most derelict state. No one ever took care to repair the collapsing plaster. And the wind roamed and wandered unhindered, whistling shrilly in the empty chambers, where most of the windows were now left bereft of their glazing.
The thick walls, however, held strong still. And it was there, in a small number of rooms, that the King and his family had to confine themselves.
As he approached the palace, the Prince could hear angry voices, female as well as male.
He halted for a moment. Then, with a heavy sigh, he made as though to turn and go away again. Yet at that very moment a girl, fifteen or so, leapt out of the rubble and threw herself at his neck.
“Oh, sweet brother, at last you have returned!” she said to him with tears in her eyes. “If only you knew how long I have been waiting for you!”
The Prince kissed her and asked her sadly:
“What is all this screaming again?”
“What do you suppose it is? The same, always the same! Spitefulnia is squabbling with Jealousia, and father, in his efforts to separate them, is only fuelling their anger.”
“And what is mother doing?”
“What would you expect? She is busy making herself pretty, as ever!”
“And you, my Little Irene?”
“I… I…” She hid her face in her hands and burst into tears. “
came out to find you, because you are the only one who knows how to soothe and to offer comfort.”
He sat on the flat stone next to her and rested his chin on the palm of his hand, pensive, listening to the screaming which still persisted in the palace.
Little Irene threw her arm around his neck.
“Say something to me, please do,” she begged fondly.
“What shall I say?” muttered her brother. “I am going to go away, Little Irene.”
“You’ll go away? Where will you go?”
“Where every man who wishes to live with dignity goes, where all those who have left our kingdom and forsaken their country have gone.”
“And you would leave me behind?”
The Prince kissed her.
“No, my Little Irene. I shall take you with me.”
“Irene! Little Irene!” boomed a voice from behind the walls. “Little Irene, where are you? Come along, then, and bring us your smile. I am tired of your older sisters and their screaming!”
At that, the King, his crown askew on his bald head, his mantle worn to shreds, appeared in the doorway.
Brother and sister got up and followed their father to the room where all the family had gathered.
Before a cracked mirror stood Queen Barmy. Two maids were braiding flowers and old, discoloured ribbons through her silvery-white hair, while with their backs turned to one another, at the two opposite ends of the room, sat the two elder princesses, long-faced, with pursed lips, cross and ill-tempered.
“Hark at the beauty and familial joy,” said the King, crossing his arms, and looking in turn at Jealousia and Spitefulnia. “This is how we pass the day, every day: one of the two yells white, while the other one howls black!”
“This is nothing compared to what
have to suffer, poor miserable me!” bemoaned Queen Barmy. “You only have your two daughters to complain about. What about me, having to cope with you, deafening me with your screams, and with your precious son, going off wandering just when I need him to go and fetch me pretty little flowers…”
Yet, seeing that her tears were causing her nose to redden, she stopped abruptly, smiled to her mirror, and with solemn gravity concentrated on attaching to her belt a great tin star.
The King stood up and rang the bell to summon one of his servants. Yet no one came. He rang again, and still no one appeared.
This made him exceedingly cross; he went to the doorway, and began to stamp his feet on the ground, shouting angrily:
“To the devil with all of you! You call yourselves my servants! I will have everyone’s head off!”
At this, frightened and panting, came the High Chancellor.
A tin chain jingled around his neck.
“My lord, please, forgive your unworthy slave—” he began.
“Where are all those monkey-faced servants of mine?” interrupted the King irritably. “Why is there no response when I ring the bell?”
Then, seeing the chain, he burst all of a sudden into a guffaw.
“What’s that you have slung around your neck instead of your golden chain of state?” he asked.
The High Chancellor grew red in the face, mumbled, his words became confused; he froze with embarrassment, and fell silent.
“What’s that you are saying?” exclaimed the King. “You sold it? And what for?”
“So that Your Majesty could dine yesterday,” replied the High Chancellor in an almost inaudible murmur, bowing low all the way to the ground.
“Ah!… Hmm!… So be it,” said the King. “I forgive you this time.”
He wrapped himself majestically in the tatters of his mantle and continued:
“Give the orders for the Cellar Master to come. My throat is parched, and I desire to sweeten it with amber-coloured wine from the islands, such as even the King my Royal Uncle would envy! And then command the Master of the Household to set the table. Why does he keep us waiting? The hour is late.”
Bent double, almost to the ground, the High Chancellor stood perfectly still, not moving a muscle.
“Well, did you not hear me?” said the King, raising his royal head even higher. “What are you waiting for?”
“Your Majesty… your Cellar Master has gone, and the cellar is empty.”
“What are you saying?” bellowed the King.
“What are you saying?” echoed Spitefulnia.
And forgetting both tantrums and mulishness, seized by the greater fear of hunger, she leapt up from her seat, while the maids dropped the Queen’s hair, and anxiously they too approached to listen.
The High Chancellor bowed ever so slightly lower, yet made no reply.
The King scratched his bald head nervously, and his crown now slid gloomily over to his left ear.
Somewhat numbed, he asked:
The High Chancellor, still bowing low, offered up for display the open palms of his two hands, showing the King that they were empty.
His Majesty understood. He abandoned his imperious tone, together with the gold-embroidered mantle, which
now hung trailing behind him, deplorable and pitiful in its ragged state.
He marched once or twice around the room, then sat on a lame, hole-ridden armchair; and, sending his crown with one determined shove from left to right ear, he made a decision:
“Cunningson, come here!”
The High Chancellor straightened his back, and advanced towards the King.
“My liege…” he said, bowing once more.
“What would you advise?” the King asked curtly.
The High Chancellor fixed his eyes silently upon his royal master’s crown, which glittered with a goodish few precious and sizeable stones encrusted in the golden frame.
The King understood the meaning of the gaze, and aghast seized his crown with his two hands, holding it secure upon his head.
“Oh, no! Never that!” he shouted nervously. “Advise again.”
“Well, then, and since the equerries whom I sent to the neighbouring kingdoms some ten days ago have not returned, may His Royal Highness the Prince go once more to the King your Royal Cousin…”
“No,” said the Prince firmly, coming out of the corner where he and Little Irene had withdrawn. “I took an oath never to beg again.”
The King sprang to his feet and stood straight and erect before his son, menacing him with his fist.
“And who are you, you little imp, to have taken oaths, and to have opinions?” he said crossly.
“I am the future king,” replied his son quietly, “and I wish to preserve my dignity.”
Witless rubbed his forehead with furious rage. He could find no answer to give to his boy, and yet the problem remained unresolved: where were they to find food?
“Cunningson!” he finally shouted frantically. “Either you find me a solution, or I shall have your head cut off!”
The miserable Cunningson was most profoundly distressed. He began to tremble and to shake in earnest, and he kept glancing at the door, gauging with his eye how many steps he would have to take in order to reach it.
“Well, then, out with it! A solution!” yelled the King.
The High Chancellor was quivering all over.
“I… I ought to go myself, then…” he suggested, his voice a mere whisper.
“Well then, go, and see that you run!” replied the King. “I want food and wine, at once. If you do not leave and come back as quick as lightning, I shall have your head cut off!”
Before he had even finished his phrase, the High Chancellor was already far away.
Cunningson bolted out of the palace as fast as he could. Yet once outside in the darkness and the cold, he stopped still.
“Where am I going?” he muttered. “And how? It would take me two days to reach the realm of the King the Royal Cousin, and till then…”
For two long minutes he stood there, considering the situation. Then he made up his mind.
“Today, tomorrow, what difference does it make!” he mumbled. “I am going away in any case! I just need to wrap up some unfinished business first, with my friend Faintheart…”
He began to scramble down the mountain.
As he was hurrying down, he heard footsteps nearby. A cold shiver ran through him.
“Who’s that?” he asked, petrified.
“No one, Your Excellency, it is only I!” answered a voice, even more petrified than his own.
The High Chancellor found his lost courage once more. “And
be?” he asked.
“It… It is I… Miserlix the blacksmith,” answered the quivering voice.
“Show yourself here before me at once!” commanded the High Chancellor.
And a human shadow, with a heavy bulge over its shoulder, appeared in front of him.
The High Chancellor seized the bulge.
“You thieving rogue! What have you got in your
?” he demanded savagely.
“Your Excellency… I am no rogue and no thief… These are my chickens, and my wine, which I have bought and paid for—”
“You lie!” barked the High Chancellor more brutally still. “Ragged beggars such as yourself eat no chickens
and drink no wine! You have stolen these goods! Tell me now where from!”
“I have not stolen them, master, peace be with you, I paid for these!” answered Miserlix, his voice breaking into sobs. “I paid for these, master, I did, with the money I got selling my daughter’s needlework, a commission from the King the Royal Uncle, the sovereign of the kingdom across the border. Ask Him, Your Excellency, if I paid or not! He even gave me a gift, a shepherd’s pie…”
He was given, however, no chance to finish what he was saying. Cunningson was not likely to miss out on such an incredible stroke of good luck.
He snatched the haversack from Miserlix, who stood frozen, transfixed with terror, and with a sharp kick sent him rolling down the slope so viciously and violently that the poor man did not regain his foothold until he had reached the foot of the high mountain.