Once there was a king, who was both very good and very wise. His castle was a most beautiful thing, and just as impenetrable. It was built out of a mountain, and its highest tower was almost always hidden in clouds. When it was not hidden in clouds, it shone too gloriously to look at in the sun. Upon its ramparts grew grasses and flowers and every kind of fruiting tree or bush, and every kind of flowering one also. The castles of most kings are barren things, built out of dead stone, and hung for beauty with more things more or less dead and very defective for beauty to the natural beauty. This castle was built out of a living mountain, and for decoration it had real decoration – real and natural beauties, most of them good both for beauty to the eye and for delight to the mouth and body. His kingdom should have been as lovely as his castle. For the most part it was, and he was striving to make it more completely so.
Now, this king was looking for a bride, for a woman to make his queen. He wanted her to be as perfect in natural beauty and goodness as he was himself, and as he labored to make everything around him, including all his people.
The king disguised himself like a peasant, but all the peasant’s clothes in the world, or even all the beggar’s clothes in the world, could not disguise that he was a king. That is, that he was a real king, not a fake one, just like his castle was a real mountain, not a fake one, and its decorations were real beautiful living things, not fake imitations. So dressed, he went looking for a woman.
Now, in one part of his kingdom, there was a young woman, scarcely more than a girl. She was very poor, so poor that she could not eat well, and she was thin, and pale, and weak, and somewhat crooked. Most people would not have thought that a king so good and wise, so beautiful, and so desiring of goodness and beauty in everything around him, would have looked twice at her, except maybe in pity. To make matters worse, she had been born in a sinful and despicable manner, and the ill situation of her birth had clung to her. Nobody around her would have dreamed that the king would look at her, or even the best of them, to have around his court, let alone to make his queen. If any of them did, their fellows would have mocked at them and said, “Oh, so you’re so much better than we are, you’re fit to be around a king, are you? Hahaha! You’re just so proud and haughty. How did you come to think you’re less dirty than we are? Even if you are, it’s only by a few specks, and what are a few specks to a whole world of dust! It’s still a whole world of dust, if it loses a few specks. That king is spotless.” Their fellows would have been mostly right. If any of them had imagined that the king might want them around him, it would have been because he compared himself to his fellows and thought himself so much better than them, not because he understood the heart of this king – that with goodness and beauty, goes compassion and mercy.
One day, the king dressed as a peasant passed by this poor woman. He gave her such a look of compassion and love that her heart melted. She could hardly believe it. At the same time, she saw his goodness and wisdom, and she loved him. “Oh, that that man might marry me!” she thought. “I should love him forever and ever. I should want no one but him. And, surely, his goodness would make me good, if he took me so close as to be his wife.”
The king, however, loved her, and decided he wanted to make her his bride.
Looking after him, the woman, having seen the king in his royal dress before, thought, “That man looks so much like the king! I should die if I am not able to marry him. Certainly, I will not accept the proposal of any other.”
One of those people who supposed himself better than her – if he had known the truth about himself, he would not have thought so – saw her looking at the peasant-disguised king. Now he did not like the king at all, and he liked him no better as a peasant, even though he did not know he was the same person. Notwithstanding, he did not want someone he looked down upon so much as this girl to marry the peasant, saying to himself that he was much too good for her and that she would ruin his goodness with her badness. Now, he said this because he supposed himself in love with badness, though he did not quite admit it to himself, and wanted to believe that he could ruin goodness with badness. In fact, it was what he was about to do.
So, he approached the girl whom the king had decided to marry, and who, in his eyes and law, was already a princess if not a queen. If he had known the peasant was the king, he would have behaved just as badly. He asked her if she would marry him.
Now, he imagined himself so much better than her, and knew she would imagine the same, that he was certain she would leap at an offer of marrying him, for if she were his wife, everyone would look at her differently. If they did not exactly like her, they would at least forget her shame. So, he thought that, if she refused his offer, it was because she was going to marry the peasant, or at least wanted to.
Without hesitation, her eyes glowing so that in them already could be seen the queen the king wanted to make her, as beautiful and wholesome as himself, she said, “No, I’m not going to marry you. I wouldn’t marry anyone in the world but that good, good man. He’s so good, I couldn’t have anyone else. Even though I’m not worthy of him at all, I love him so much and I couldn’t love anyone else, even if he won’t marry me.”
At this, the man was very mad, and proceeded to get her in trouble for stealing.
While they were getting ready to whip her for stealing – and it is irrelevant to the story whether she had stolen as they said or not – the peasant appeared. He interposed himself between her and her accusers and declared that she was his wife.
The girl’s eyes almost started out of her head. She couldn’t believe it.
“You can’t marry her without her consent,” said the biggest man. It did not occur to him that the peasant might be the king, and whatever the king could or could not do – for there might be things the king could not do, and marrying her without her consent might be one of them – he could not presume to know what the king could or could not do. “Besides, no one wants to marry a girl like that. You’ll be responsible for her then, and we will have to whip you for the stealing. Do you not know the law of this land? Where do you come from?”
Once again, the man did not realize how absurd his words were. He was really talking to his king who, of course, knew the law of his land. It does not follow that the man knew the law of the king’s land.
The king turned to the girl. “Will you marry me?” he asked.
“Of course!” said she, flinging herself at him, and so discomfited as to have been scarcely aware of what was being said, until he asked her his question. “I wouldn’t marry anyone in the world but you!”
He kissed her, then said, “It is done. She is my wife. I am her husband.”
Thereupon, the men fell upon him and gave him the whipping. The man who first accused her was rather happy to be able to catch the peasant in such a way. Indeed, it was rather better this way, than if the stupid, vile man had not decided to marry the girl.
Meanwhile, the girl stood, looking on. She was torn between joy and grief. She was happy that he loved her so much, and she was happy to be joined to him. She was grieved that he should suffer on her account, and, indeed, that he should suffer at all. It was so unfair! She knew, just by looking at him, that he had never done any wrong in his life.
Suddenly, looking at his face, she recognized him as the king! It could not be! She fainted right away.
When she came to herself, he was carrying her down the street. She was torn between love and grief. “Are you really the king?” she asked, in an awed whisper.
“Yes, I am,” he answered her. “And you really are my wife. I love you.” He kissed her, then.
“Why didn’t you tell them? They shouldn’t have hurt you then,” she said.
“They could have known if they wanted. If I had told them, they would not have believed me, or at least they would have pretended not to believe me.”
“That’s okay,” said the girl. “It’s just you I want. Only you are so good and beautiful. How can you have married an ugly wretch like me?”
They were standing in the gates of his palace now. He set her down and looked into her eyes. “As surely as I am marked by the stripes they meant to give you, you shall be as good and as beautiful and as wholesome as I am! You belong to me now, and I belong to you.”
“Oh!” said the girl, laughing in joy. “That’s just what I want.”
So the king took her into his palace and he fed her with his best fruits and he clothed her in his best clothes and he put his crown on her head and he made everything and everyone in his whole kingdom her servant just as much as it or he was the king’s servant. He gave his whole kingdom to her, without himself at all losing any of it. Soon, she was as beautiful and as good and as wise as he was. He had given her his beauty and goodness and wisdom.
When she thought of how she was the queen, it was almost unbelievable. What she thought about was not that the whole kingdom belonged to her – that didn’t matter, except in that it belonged to the king, and she wanted to be one with the king! Instead, it was the king. She only even realized she was queen of the kingdom as a corollary to being the king’s bride, his queen. Since she was one with the king, she had to own the kingdom, but she did not care about owning the kingdom in itself. She only cared about these things as one more sign or way in which she was one with the king, her king and her husband. As long as she lived, she never desired anyone or anything else.
As soon as she was well enough, the king threw a huge wedding feast for his queen, and he invited the entire kingdom to come and celebrate. Never was there seen such a marriage or such a marriage feast before.
Copyright 2019 Raina Nightingale