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THE WISEST WOMAN COMES TO THE KING'S CASTLE
HAVING the shoe was not the same as having the shoe-wearer: they searched and searched everywhere for the maiden with the dress of gold, with the shining veil and the one golden shoe, but not a trace of her could they find. The Chamberlain went to search on his own account: into every dwelling around, hall or cabin, he went, asking every maiden that might be there to fit the shoe to her foot. They were all glad to try, but on none would the golden shoe go; it was too small for the foot of every grown maiden.
When the Chamberlain came back to the Castle the King's son made a declaration that he would wed only the maiden whose foot the golden shoe fitted. Then the maidens who were still in the castle sat ring-around on the lawn with their little shapely feet bare. But not to the foot of any of them could the Chamberlain fit the shoe of the MATCHLESS MAIDEN.
Their mother had given Berry-bright and Butter cup a salve to rub on their feet so that the shoe might be helped to fit. Buttercup rubbed on the salve: as she did her heel shrunk away; then with great pain and difficulty she got the shoe to go on. She stood up to walk to where the King's son was standing, but the pain in her foot was so afflicting that she had to sit down and cry to have the shoe taken off. Berry-bright rubbed on the salve, and her great toe shrunk away. With great pain and difficulty she put on the golden shoe. She stood up to walk to where the King's son was standing; but the pain in her foot was so great that she too had to sit down and cry to have the shoe taken off. And the end of it all was that Berry-bright and Buttercup had to go limping to their mother.
What now was to be done to find the maiden whose foot the golden shoe fitted? This one and that one advised this and that thing. But the ancient foster-mother of the King's son went straight to the King himself, and this is what she said to him:
"Listen to the words of your gossip, King Daniel: only a woman's wit can help your son to find the MATCHLESS MAIDEN that his heart is set upon winning. My own wits are not as sharp as they used to be or else I myself would help him. Now my advice to you is that you make proclamation asking to come to the Castle the woman who is the wisest in these parts. And that you may know she is the wisest she will have to come in this way: not naked, yet with no clothes on; not fed, and yet not fasting; in no one's company, yet not alone. The woman who can come in this way will be the wisest in these parts, and she, you may be sure, will help your son to find the maiden whose foot the golden shoe will fit."
The King took his gossip's advice: he made a proclamation asking that she come to the Castle, the woman who was the wisest in those parts. And that he might know she was the wisest she was to come, not naked, but with no clothes on; not fed, and yet not fasting; in no one's company, and yet not alone.
In the Castle and all around it every one talked of the King's proclamation. The Rat-catcher got so excited talking to the outlandish servants about it that he let the brown rats, the three biggest he had ever caught, bounce out of the cage and go running over Maid-alone who, that minute, was filling up her tub with the ashes of the third hearth.
The next day when he was walking in his private garden with his Councillors beside him a messenger came to the King to say that one was coming to see him in obedience to the proclamation he had caused to be made. The King sent for his son and for the Chamberlain, and he told the messenger that whoever was coming in obedience to his proclamation should be brought into his private garden. His son came with the Chamberlain and with all the bright-haired and brown-haired and dark-haired maidens who still stayed in the King's Castle.
The maidens whispered, "How can she come so as to be not naked, and yet with no clothes on; not fed, and yet not fasting; not in company, and yet not alone?" And the Councillors said to one another, "What a great age she must be, this woman who is the wisest in these parts!"
And then she came into the Garden. Not old at all was she, but young and slender. She was not naked, and yet she had no clothes on; she was not fed, and yet she was not fasting; she was in no one's company, and yet she was not alone.
All round her body a dark and heavy fishing-net was wrapped; she had a little apple between her teeth the juice of which broke her fast; and on her shoulders there were two starlings that saved her from being alone. The King looked her over and over. "Maiden," he said, "as young as you are, I find that you are the wisest woman in these parts."
The King's son took three steps to her and stopped; took three more steps to her and stopped. And all the time he looked at her like a man who was falling into or wakening out of a trance.
"Can you help us to find the maiden whose foot this shoe will fit?" said the Chamberlain. He always carried the shoe about with him, and now he held it in his hand.
"It may be that I can, lord," said she. She held her own bare foot as if she wanted him to fit the shoe on it.
But now a whisper was going round that this was the Cinder-wench from the underground kitchens. "To think that she should imagine that the golden shoe that was tried on many a Princess would go on her foot," some of the maidens were saying. The Chamberlain did not heed. He was now so used to fitting the golden shoe to a foot that was held for it that he went down on his knees and brought Maid-alone's foot to the shoe.
Easily the foot fitted the shoe; easily the Chamberlain buckled it on. And there stood Maid-alone with one white bare foot and one golden-covered foot standing in the grass of the King's garden, while the two starlings on her shoulders sang aloud.
"By all the King's horses," said the Chamberlain, "this is no other than the MATCHLESS MAIDEN!"
"No other than the MATCHLESS MAIDEN!" they all said.
The King's son took three more steps to her, and now it looked as if he were awakening out of a trance.
"Will the King give me permission to leave, so that I may put proper clothing on myself?" said Maid-alone.
"By all means we will give you permission if you say you will come back to us," said the King.
"I will come back," said Maid-alone.
Then, holding the golden shoe in her hand, Maid-alone ran through the grass of the King's garden and out through the gate. The maidens talked to each other, the King talked to his Councillors and the Councillors talked to the King, and the Chamberlain talked to everyone. But the King's son stood silent and apart, watching the gate that Maid-alone had gone through.
When they saw her again she had on a gleaming dress, with a glittering veil and gleaming shoes. The King himself rose from his seat in delight at her appearance. The King's son went to her. But all she said to him was, "You can rede now where I have come from: from Ditch-land which is by Old Shoe Garden."
Again she got the King's permission to leave, and again she ran through the grass and out of the gate of the King's garden. They all talked and talked of her, saying that the King's son should be happy now that he had found indeed the MATCHLESS MAIDEN. But the King's son stood leaning against a tree, with the red of shame coming and going in his face. He was thinking of the maiden who gathered berries in an old shoe for him, and how he rode his jennet against her, while her mouth trembled and her eyes looked steadily on him.
All watched the gate for the MATCHLESS MAIDEN'S return. She came in a dress of silver, with a shimmering veil and glimmering shoes. The King himself took a step towards her, and all the Councillors began to say how dark her hair was, and how full of light were her eyes.
The King's son went to her, but all she said to him was, "You can rede where I have come from: from Last-ember Moor."
She got permission to go from the garden once more. She went, and all went to the gate that they might be quick to welcome her coming back. But the King's son stood on shamefast feet: he thought of the time when he had let her go from the fire she had made into the darkness of the moor.
She came again into the King's Garden. All in gold was she now, with a shining veil, and two golden shoes on her feet. The King himself took her hands, and the maidens who were there praised her for the star she had on her forehead.
But the King's son stood before her with head held down. "You can rede now where I've come from," she said to him; "from where a dog's tongue lapped water from my hands."
Again she asked permission to leave the garden. "But she is so lovely that we want to do nothing else but look on her," said the King. "But, please your Majesty," said the Chamberlain, "no one has seen the MATCHLESS MAIDEN with her jewels on."
"No one has seen her with her jewels on," said the maidens.
The King gave her permission, and she went out of the garden, leaving all high in impatience for her return.
The King's son stood shamefast, thinking of the time when he rode his high-mettled horse with his bell-mouthed hound beside him; she had come to him, bringing water for him in her hands. And he had not praised her hands, but had turned her away, bidding her bring water in her hands for his hound to lap his tongue in.
They watched and watched for the MATCHLESS MAIDEN'S return. They would take her into the King's castle, and give a feast for her, and bestow gifts on her. But though they watched long and long she did not return. The Chamberlain went out to search for her. He went to this place and that place, and even down to the underground kitchens, but sign or token of Maid-alone who had come to be called the MATCHLESS MAIDEN he did not find.