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THE DISCREET PRINCESS
N the time of the first crusades a certain king resolved to join the Christian princes in the war against the infidels in Palestine. What most disquieted this prince was the care of his family. He was the father of three young princesses, all marriageable. The eldest of these princesses they named Drona, signifying idle; the second Pratilia, implying talkative; and the third Finetta, names which had all of them a just relation to the characters of the three sisters. Never was any person so indolent as Drona; she never waked any day till one in the afternoon; her clothes were always tumbled, her gown loose, no girdle, and very often she had on one slipper of one sort, and one of another. Pratilia led quite another sort of life. This princess was very brisk and active, and employed very little time about her person; but she had so strange an itching to talk, that from the very moment she waked till the time she fell asleep again, her mouth was never shut. She kept a register of all those wives who starved their families at home, to appear the finer abroad, and was exactly informed what such a countess’s woman and such a marquis’s steward gained. The better to be instructed in all these little affairs, she gave audience to her nurse, and mantuamaker, with greater pleasure than she would to any ambassador; and when she had got any thing new, she tired everybody with repeating to them these fine stories, from the king her father, down to the footman; for, provided she could but talk, she did not care to whom it was. Never did Pratilia, any more than Drona, employ herself in thinking, reflecting, or reading. She never troubled herself about household matters, or the amusements of her spindle or needle. In short, these two sisters lived in perfect idleness, as well of mind as of body.
The youngest of these three princesses was of a different character. Her thoughts and hands were continually employed: she possessed surprising vivacity, and applied it to good uses. She danced, sung, and played upon music to perfection: finished with wonderful address and skill, all those works of the hand which generally amuse those of her sex, and used every vigilance in putting the king’s household into exact regulation and order. Her talents were not bounded there: she had a great deal of judgment, and such a wonderful presence of mind, that she immediately found the means of extricating herself out of the greatest difficulties. This young princess had, by her penetration, discovered a dangerous snare which a perfidious ambassador had laid for the king her father, in a treaty just ready to be signed by that prince. To punish the treachery of this ambassador and his master, the king altered the article of the treaty, and by wording it in the terms his daughter dictated to him, he in his turn deceived the deceiver. The princess gave, on several other occasions, such marks of her penetration and fine genius, that the people gave her the surname of Finetta. The king together, that they would let her come into the castle, telling them that she was a wretched stranger, who knew how to do a thousand things, and would serve them with the utmost fidelity. ‘Do you think,’ said Pratilia to her sister, ‘that the king’s order extends to this unfortunate wretch? I believe we may take her in without any consequence.’ — ‘You may do, sister,’ answered Drona, ‘what you please:’ Then Pratilia, who only waited her consent, immediately let down the basket. The woman got into it, and the princesses drew her up by the help of the pulley. The new servant of these princesses took a hundred turns about the castle, under pretence of doing her work: but in reality to see how things were disposed in it; for this pretended beggar-woman was the son of a powerful king, a neighbor of the princesses’ father. This prince who always acted with artifice and cunning, was by the people surnamed Rich-in-craft, but in shortness Rich-Craft.
He had a younger brother, who was as full of good qualities as he was of bad; and therefore was generally called Bel-a-voir. It was prince Rich-Craft who had put the ambassador of the king his father upon that wicked turn in the treaty, which was frustrated by the address of Finetta, and fell upon themselves. Rich-Craft, who before that had no great love for the princesses’ father, since then bore him the utmost aversion; so that when he had notice of the precautions which that prince had taken, in relation to his daughters, he took a pernicious pleasure to deceive, if possible, the prudence of so suspicious a father, and as we see had already contrived to make two of the princess disobedient; for which fault they each found their distaffs broken.
Finetta was so busily engaged in her own room, that she knew nothing of what had happened till she heard the screams of her sisters, whom the .prince beat severely and locked up together; he then went to seek Finetta, whom he resolved to marry as a punishment for what she had done. He went into all the rooms of the castle, one after another; and as he found them all open but one, which was fastened in the inside, he concluded for certain, that thither it was Finetta had retired. As he had composed a string of compliments, he went to retail them at Finetta’s door. But this princess heard him a good while, without making the least answer. At last, finding that he knew she was in the room, she told him, if it was true that he had so strong and sincere a passion for her, as he would persuade her, she desired he would go down into the garden, and shut the door after him, and after that, she would talk to him as much as he pleased out of the window of the apartment, which looked into the garden. Rich-Craft would not agree to this; and as the princess still resolutely persisted in not opening the door, this wicked prince, mad with impatience, went and got a billet, and broke it open. He found Finetta armed with a great hammer, which had been accidentally left in a wardrobe near her chamber. Emotion raised Finetta’s complexion; and, though her eyes sparkled with rage, she appeared to Rich-Craft a most enchanting beauty. He would have cast himself at her feet: but she said to him boldly, as she retired, ‘prince, if you approach me, I will cleave your head with this hammer.’
‘What! beautiful princess,’ cried Rich-Craft, in his hypocritical tone, ‘does the love I have for you inspire you with such cruel hatred?’ He added, that the only motive he had to put on such disguise, was with respect to offer her his hand and heart: and told her, that she ought to pardon, on account of the violence of his love, his boldness in breaking open her door. The adroit princess, feigning herself entirely pacified, told him, that she must find out her sisters, and after that, they would take their measures altogether: but Rich-Craft answered, that he could by no means resolve upon that, till she had consented to marry him, because her sisters would not fail to oppose the match, on account of their right of eldership. Finetta, who with good reason distrusted this prince, found her suspicions redoubled by this answer. But she told Rich-Craft, that she readily consented to marry him; but she was fully persuaded that marriages which were made at night, were always unhappy; and therefore desired he would defer the ceremony, of plighting to each other their mutual faith, till the next morning. She added, he might be assured she would not mention a syllable of all this to the princesses, her sisters, and begged him to give her only a little time to say her prayers; that afterwards, she would lead him to a chamber where he should have a very good bed, and then she would return to her own room till the morrow morning.
Rich-Craft consented to what the princess desired, and went away, to give her some time to meditate. He was no sooner gone, than Finetta hastened to make a bed over the hole of a sink in one of the rooms of the castle. This room was as handsome as any of the rest. Finetta put over the hole two weak sticks across; then very handsomely made the bed upon them, and immediately returned to her chamber. A moment after came Rich-Craft, and the princess conducted him into the room where she had made him his bed, and retired. The prince threw himself hastily upon the bed, and his weight having all at once broken the slender sticks, he fell down to the bottom of the sink. Finetta was delighted to hear (by the noise of his falling) what had happened; but her first care was to seek her sisters, and she was sorry to find their own misconduct had caused all their troubles. In the mean time Rich-Craft passed the night very uncomfortably, and when day came, with a great deal of painful struggling, he came to the end of the drain, which ran into a river at a considerable distance from the castle. He found means to make himself heard by some men who were fishing in the river, by whom he was drawn out in such a pickle, as raised compassion in those good people.
He caused himself to be carried to his father’s court to get cured; and this disgrace made him take such a strong hatred and aversion to Finetta, that he thought less on his cure than on revenge. That princess passed her time very sadly, as her sisters continued so ill from their bruises, as to require many comforting nourishing things which she had not the means of procuring, and she dreaded much her father’s anger upon finding that their distaffs were broken. The cunning Rich-Craft guessed all this, and contrived that baskets of cordials and medicines should be placed under the window at night, to tempt Finetta to come down for them; and though she feared there was some trick in it, she was too courageous and generous to let her sisters languish for what it was in her power to obtain for them; she therefore let herself down in the basket, but was no sooner there, than Rich-Craft’s officers seized hold of her and carried her to a country-house, where the prince was, for the recovery of his health. When the prince was a little better, he had her taken to the top of a high mountain, whither he followed immediately after. Here it was that he told her, they were going to put her to death. Then that base prince very barbarously showed Finetta a barrel stuck in the inside all round with pen-knives, razors, and hooked nails, and told her they were going to put her into that vessel, and roll her down from the top of the mountain into the valley. Though Finetta was no Roman, she was no more afraid of the punishment than Regulus heretofore was at the sight of a like destiny.
Rich-Craft bent himself down to look into the barrel, which was to be the instrument of his vengeance, to examine if it was well provided with all its murdering weapons. Finetta lost no time, but very dexterously pushed him into it, and rolled him down the mountain, without giving the prince any time to know where he was. After this, she ran away, and the prince’s officers, who had seen after what a cruel manner their master would have treated this amiable princess, made not the least attempt to stop her, besides, they were so much frightened at what happened to Rich-Craft, that they thought of nothing else but stopping the barrel, but their endeavours were all in vain; he rolled down to the bottom of the mountain, where they took him out wounded in a thousand places. The good king his father, and Bel-a-voir his brother, were very unhappy about him, as they saw he could not live many days: but Rich-Craft, perfidious to his last moment, studied how to abuse the tenderness of his brother. ‘You have always loved me, prince,’ cried he. ‘and I am dying; but if ever I have been dear to you, grant this one thing I beg of you, which I am going to ask of you.’ Bel-a-voir promised with the most terrible oaths, to grant him whatever he should desire. As soon as Rich-Craft heard these oaths, he said to his brother, embracing him, ‘I die contented, brother, since I am revenged; for that which I beg of you to do for me, is to ask Finetta in marriage immediately on my decease; you will undoubtedly obtain this wicked princess; and the moment she shall be in your power, plunge your poinard into her heart.’
Bel-a-voir trembled with horror at these words; but he had no mind his repentance should be taken notice of by his brother, who expired soon after. Finetta who had returned to her sisters, heard soon after of the death of Rich-Craft; and some time after that, news came to the three princesses, that the king their father was come home. This prince came in a hurry to the tower; and his first care was to see the distaffs. No one could show hers but Finetta: and the king fell into such a rage against his two eldest daughters, that he sent them away to the fairy, who had given him the distaffs, desiring her to punish them according to their deserts. The fairy gave them plenty of hard work, and long lessons to learn. Pratilia was never allowed to talk excepting in repeating her lessons. Drona could not help falling into despair at leading a life which was so little conformable to her inclinations, and died with fatigue and vexation. Pratilia, who some time after found means to make her escape by night out of the fairy’s castle, broke her skull against a tree, and died in the arms of some country people. Finetta’s good-nature made her very sensibly grieve for her sisters’ fate; and in the midst of these troubles she was informed, that prince Bel-a-voir had asked her in marriage of the king her father, who had consented to it, without giving her any notice thereof; Finetta trembled at this news, and went to consult the sage fairy, who esteemed her as much as she despised Drona and Pratilia.
The fairy only said to her, ‘princess, you are sage and prudent; you would not hitherto have taken such measures for your conduct, had you not always borne in mind, that distrust is the mother of security.’ Some days after, the princess was married, by an ambassador, in the name of prince Bel-a-voir, and she set out to go to her spouse in a magnificent equipage. When Bel-a-voir saw her, he was struck with her charms; but made her his compliments in a very confused manner. Finetta who was always thinking on the maxim which the fairy had revived in her mind, had a design in her head. This princess had gained over one of the women, who had the key of the closet belonging to the apartment which was designed for her; and she had privately given orders to that woman to carry into the closet some straw, and a bladder of sheep’s blood, and the entrails of some of those animals which had been dressed for supper. The princess, on some pretence, went into that closet and made a puppet of the straw, into which she put the entrails and the bladder full of blood: after that she dressed it up in a woman’s night clothes. When Finetta had finished this puppet, she returned to her company, where she supped with the prince; and after sometime they conducted the princess and her spouse to their apartment. When they had allowed as much time at the toilet as was necessary, the ladies of honour took away the flambeaux, and retired. Finetta immediately threw the image of straw upon the bed, and went and hid herself in one of the corners of the chamber.
The prince, having sighed three or four times very loud, drew his sword, and ran it through the body of the pretended Finetta: at the same instant he found the blood trickle all about, and the straw wife without motion. ‘Alas! what have I done?’ cried Bel-a-voir; ‘what, after so many cruel conflicts! could any one so much as dream to punish a woman for having too much virtue? well; Rich-Craft, I have satisfied thy unjust vengeance; but now I will revenge Finetta in her turn, by my death. Yes, beautiful princess, my sword shall’ by these words the princess understood that the prince, who in his transport let fall his sword, was feeling for it, in order to thrust it through his body, was resolved he should not be guilty of such a folly, and, therefore, cried out, ‘My prince, I am not dead; the goodness of your disposition made me divine your repentance, and, by an innocent cheat, I have hindered you from committing the worst of crimes.’
Upon which she related to Bel-avoir the foresight she had in relation to the figure of straw. The prince, all transported to find Finetta alive, admired the prudence she was mistress of on all occasions; and tenderly embracing her, renewed his vows of unalterable affection. Soon after, they became king and queen, and long, happy, and glorious was their reign.