The Unworthy Princess by James Stephens

His mother finished reading the story of the Beautiful Princess, and it was surely the saddest story he had ever heard. He could not bear to think of that lovely and delicate lady all alone in the huge, black castle, waiting, waiting until the giant came back from killing her seven brothers.

He would come back with their seven heads swinging pitifully from his girdle, and when he reached the castle gates he would gnash his teeth through the keyhole with a noise like the grinding together of great rocks, and would poke his head through the fanlight of the door and say fee-faw-fum in a voice of such exceeding loudness that the castle would be shaken to its foundations.

Thinking of this his throat grew painful with emotion, and his heart swelled to the most uncomfortable dimensions, and he resolved to devote his whole life to the rescue of the Princess and, if necessary, die in her defense.

picture of a princess

Such was his impatience that he could wait for nothing more than his dinner, and this he ate so speedily as to cause his father to call him a Perfect-Young-Glutton and a Disgrace-To-Any-Table. He bore these insults in a meek and heroic spirit, whereupon his mother said he was ill, and it was only by a sustained and violent outcry that he escaped being sent to bed.

Immediately after dinner, he set out in search of the Giant's-Castle. Now a Giant's Castle is one of the most difficult things in the world to find; that is because it is so large that one can only see it through the wrong end of a telescope, and further, he did not even know this giant's name; and so he might never have found the way if he had not met a certain Old-Woman on the common. She was a very nice Old-Woman: she had three teeth and a red shawl, and an umbrella with groceries inside it; so he told her of the difficulty he was in. She replied that he was in luck's way, and that she was the only person in the world who could assist him. She said her name was Really-and-Truly, and that she had a magic head, and that if he cut off her head it would answer any question he asked it. So he stropped his penknife on his boot and said he was ready. The Old-Woman then told him that in all affairs of this delicate nature it was customary to take the will for the deed, and that he might now ask her head anything he wanted know, so he asked the head what was the way to the nearest giant, and the head replied that if he took the first turning to the left, the second to the right and then the first to the left again, and knocked at the fifth door on the right-hand side, he would see the giant.

He thanked the Old-Woman very much for the use of her head, and she permitted to lend her one threepenny piece, one pocket handkerchief, one gun-metal watch, and one bootlace. She said that she never took two of anything because that was not fair, and that she wanted these for a very particular secret purpose about which she dare not speak and as to which she trusted he would not press her, and then she took a most affectionate leave of him and went away.

He followed her directions with the utmost fidelity and soon found himself opposite a house which, to the eye of anyone over seven years of age, looked very like any other house, but to the searching eye of six and three-quarters it was palpably and patently a Giant's-Castle. He tried the door, but it was locked, as indeed, he expected it would be, and then he crept very cautiously and peeped through the first-floor window. He could see in quite plainly. There was a Polar-Bear crouching on the floor, and the head looked at him so directly and vindictively that if he had not been a hero he would have fled. The unexpected is always terrible, and when one goes forth to kill a Giant it is unkind of Providence to complicate one's adventure with a gratuitous and wholly unnecessary Polar-Bear. He was, however, reassured by the sight of a heavy chair standing on the Polar-Bear's stomach, and in the chair there sat the Most-Beautiful-Woman-In-The-World.

An ordinary person would not have understood, at first sight, that she was the Most-Beautiful-Woman-In-The-World, because she looked very stout and much older than is customary with princesses-but that was because she was under an enchantment and she would become quite young again when the Giant was slain and three drops of his blood had been sprinkled on her brow.

She was leaning forward in her chair staring into the fire, and she was so motionless that he was certain she must be under an enchantment. From the very instant he saw the Princess he loved her, and his heart swelled with pity to think that so beautiful a damsel should be subject to the tyranny of a giant, and these twin passions of pity and love grew to so furious a strength within him that he could no long contain himself, but wept in a loud and very sudden voice which lifted the damsel out of her enchantment and her chair and hurled her across the room as though she had been propelled by a powerful spring.

He was so overjoyed at seeing her move that he pressed his face against the glass and wept with great strength, and in a few moments the Princess came timidly to the window and looked out. She looked right over his head at first and then she looked down and saw him, and her eyebrows went far up on her forehead and her mouth opened, and so he knew she was delighted to see him. He nodded to give her courage and shouted three times – Open Sesame, Open Sesame, Open Sesame, and then she opened the window and he climbed in. The Princess tried to push him out again, but she was not able, and he bade her put all her jewels in the heel of her boot and fly with him. But she was evidently the victim of a very powerful enchantment, for she struggled violently and said incomprehensible things to him, such as – "Is it a fire, or were you chased ?" and "Where is the cook?" But after a little time she listened to the voice of reason and knew that these were legitimate and heroic embraces from which she could not honorably disentangle herself.

When her first transports of joy were somewhat abated she assured him that excessive haste had often undone great schemes, and that one should look before one leaped, and in order that one might become accustomed to the severe air of freedom, and he was overjoyed to find that she was as wise as she was beautiful. He told her that he loved her dearly, and she admitted, after some persuasion, that she was not insensible to the charms of his heart and intellect, but that her love was given to Another. At these tidings his heart withered away within him, and when the Princess admitted that she loved the Giant his amazement became profound and complicated. There was a rushing sound in him, and he was staring upon a new planet the name of which was Astonishment. He looked around with a queer feeling insecurity. At any moment the floor might stand up on one of its corners or the walls might begin to flap and waggle. But none of these things happened. Before him sat the Princess in an attitude of deep dejection and her lily-white hands rested helplessly in her lap. She told him in a voice that trembled that she would have married him if he had asked ten years earlier and said she could not fly with him because, in the first place, it would be against the law, and, in the third place, his mother might object. She admitted that she was Unworthy of his love and that she should have Waited, and she bore his reproaches with meekness that finally disarmed him.

He stropped his penknife on his boot and said that there was nothing left but to kill the giant, and that she had better leave the room while he did so because it was not a sight for a weak woman, and he wondered how much hast pudding would fall out of the Giant if he Stabbed Him Right To The Heart. The Princess begged him not to kill her husband, and assured him that this giant had not got any hasty pudding in his heart, and stated that he was really the nicest giant who ever lived, and that he had not killed her seven brothers but the seven brothers of quite another person entirely, which was a reasonable thing to do in the circumstances; and she continued in a strain which proved to him that this unnatural woman really loved the giant.

It was more in pity than in anger that he recognized the impossibility of rescuing this person. He saw at last that she was Unworthy of Being Rescued, and told her so. He said bitterly that he had grave doubts of her being a Princess at all and that if she was married to a giant it was no more than she deserved, and that he had a good mind to rescue the giant from her, and he would do it in a minute only that it was against his principles to rescue giants. And saying so he placed his penknife between his teeth and climbed out through the window.

He stood for a moment outside the window with his right hand extended to the sky and the moonlight blazing on his penknife – a truly formidable figure and one which the Princess never forgot, and then walked slowly away, hiding behind a cold and impassive demeanor a mind that was tortured, and a heart that had plumbed most of the depths of human suffering.

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