Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess whose every wish and whim was the law of the land. Her every desire, no matter the difficulty in obtaining it, was fulfilled. Her father, the king, had brought her up to believe that his kingdom—everyone and everything in it—was hers to do with as she pleased. She was an only child and the apple of her father’s eye. Her mother, the queen, died while giving her birth.
Her father was a cruel king and his subjects lived in abject fear of him. His daughter took after him and not a day went by when she did not have someone flogged for the smallest transgression.
However, for all her power and all her wealth, the princess was lonely. She had had many proposals of marriage. Princes came from near and far to ask for her hand. They brought the riches of their kingdoms and laid their treasure at her feet. Nevertheless, she rebuffed all offers of marriage—and she grew lonelier still.
One day, as she and her father were riding through the kingdom, followed by their retinue, they happened upon a young peasant of about twenty summers. He was comely of face; the sinew of his muscles glistened with sweat in the morning sun. Being deep in thought and intent on the task at hand, he did not hear the approach of the royal entourage. Hence, he did not prostrate himself as all subjects were required to do when the king or princess passed.
The king halted the procession and pointed to the peasant. The captain of the guard, knowing his duty, ordered two of his men to bring the man before the king. He was accosted and held by his arms. Thusly, he was dragged before the king and made to kneel.
With face upturned, he looked from the king to the princess and back to the king. At length the king said, “How is it that thou does not prostrate thyself when thy king passes?”
The peasant, whose name was Tom, explained, “I am sorry, Sire. I did not hear you coming, so engaged was I in what I was doing.”
The king smiled a malicious and evil smile. “There are no excuses. Captain, show this man what happens to those who flaunt the edicts of the land. Tie him to a tree and administer forty lashes. And when thou has finished, chop off his left hand as a reminder to others that their king’s decrees are absolute. I am feeling benevolent today. Chop off only his left hand. His right hand, he shall not forfeit.”
All through the exchange between sovereign and subject, the princess looked on, enthralled by the peasant’s bearing and striking good looks; his muscles fairly rippled under his tattered tunic. Never had a prince of the realm so enchanted her.
As the man was led to a nearby tree, the princess whispered to her father. The king’s eyes widened. “Are you sure?” he asked.
“I am sure,” she answered.
The king ordered that the punishment not proceed. In its stead, the peasant was to be brought to the castle and ensconced in a room suitable for a prince. “Burn his clothes and bathe him. Then dress him befittingly.” Having issued his decree, the king commanded the procession move on. The princess did not look back at the receding figure of the man she had just saved.
When she arrived back at the castle, the first thing the princess did was call for her maidservant and eagerly demanded of her, “Where is he?”
“Who, Your Highness?” asked the girl.
Losing her temper at the girl’s obtuseness, the princess lashed out. “The man that was brought here while I was gone! Where is he?”
A light dawned in the girl’s mind and she told of a man having been put in the unused wing of the castle and that a guard was posted to keep servants and members of the court away. However, her sister, who was also a servant in the castle, was ordered to take hot water to that wing and she saw the man.
The princess smiled a wicked smile and dismissed her maidservant with an order that her bath water be readied. After her toilet, and dressed in her finest raiments, the princess called for a guard and instructed that the man be brought to her sitting room.
The guard demurred, thinking that he should first get the king’s permission. However, after one look at the princess, he knew that failing to carry out her command would mean imprisonment. Or something worse.
In due time, Tom was brought before the princess. His countenance wore a perplexed expression. He stood before the princess a moment before speaking. “I remember you. You were riding with the king this morning. Can you please tell me how I happened to be here?”
“You are here because I wanted you here,” the princess calmly replied.
Tom, not understanding, awaited her pleasure. He did not have long to wait. “What do they call you?” she asked.
“I am Tom, son of Tom the Tinker.”
“Do you know who I am?” the princess queried.
“You are a lady, milady. That is all I know.”
“That is good enough for now. You and I shall dine together. Is there anything in particular that you fancy?”
Tom responded, “If it’s all the same to you, milady, I would like to leave this place. I have someone that will worry if I do not return on this eve.”
“No. It is not all the same to me. I saved you this morning from lashings and the loss of your hand; you now belong to me,” she said in a raised and angry voice.
Tom, not knowing what to make of the tirade, smiled at the girl before him and told her quite forcibly that he belonged to no one save his one true love.
Without a word of reply, the princess stood, walked to the door, and summoned the nearest servant. “Bring to me the captain of the guard—at once!” Thence she smiled at Tom and asked the name of his one true love.
Tom fathomed something in her manner and hesitated. “She lives not in this country. She is of a clan eight leagues to the north.” He lied. And the princess knew the lie for what it was.
“I tire of you,” she said.
It was then that there was a knocking upon the door. “Enter!” the princess commanded.
The captain entered and awaited word from his princess. She was not long in forthcoming with her instructions. “Take this man to the dungeon and see to it that he is not fed this night, nor on the morrow. He is not to be fed until I say so. He may have water, but that is all.” Showing reluctance, the captain said, “Your Highness, your father has instructed me to treat this man with courtesy.”
The princess informed the captain in no uncertain words that the king had issued his command on her behalf. Now she wanted the peasant in the dungeon. The captain, who had been at court many years, and was a captain because he knew how to obey orders, did as instructed. As he led Tom from the room, the princess intoned, “Captain, when you have finished with the charge given you, return to this chamber.”
The captain reported back as ordered and was given a new commission. “I want you to send men out to find a woman. She will be in the vicinity of where we came across that man. His name is Tom, son of Tom the Tinker. She will be either his wife or his intended. When you locate her, bring her here to me. Now leave. I am weary.”
The captain sent four of his best men to find . . . and bring back . . . one girl.
The undertaking was not as easy as the princess had thought. It was not until the early morning hours that the girl was located. And when she was brought to the castle, no one, including the captain, wanted to awaken the princess. So the girl was locked in a room until her highness awoke and had eaten her morning repast. It was only then that the captain sent word that the girl she desired was in the castle and awaiting her pleasure.
The young girl, whose name was May, was brought before the princess not knowing her offense. She was too scared to say anything. The princess walked around her once, twice, and at length said, “So you are the little snip that Tom prefers to me?”
Not knowing to what the princess referred, the girl said, “I am sorry, ma’am, but I do not know of what you speak.”
This infuriated the princess to no end. “I am Princess Elizabeth. I always get what I want. And I want Tom. Your Tom thinks you are more desirable than I, but if you were no more, then he would come to me willingly.”
The outburst had the opposite effect from that which the princess had intended. May stood straight and tall. With a smile, she let it be known that she was proud to love Tom and was proud of his love for her. Then she implored, “Where is Tom? Is he all right? May I see him?”
“You ask much for a peasant girl. No, you may not see him. He is mine, and as soon as you are dispatched, we will be married.” The princess smiled her coldhearted smile and called for the guard. “Take this girl to the dungeon and behead her.”
May, contrary to what the princess had envisioned, did not beg for her life. “You may kill me, but you will never kill Tom’s love for me.”
“Take her away and do as I have commanded,” screamed the princess.
That afternoon, Tom was brought before the princess. She bade him to sit at a table laid with the finest food in the land and to please partake of the fare.
“Do you think a night without food would have me forsake my true love? Nay! Not one night—not one thousand nights—will do so!”
The princess smiled and bid Tom to eat and enjoy. “I am not fearful of your love. Her name is May, is it not?”
Tom was startled and asked, “What do you know of her?”
“I know nothing of her. Nothing . . . that is . . . excepting she lies dead below us.”
Tom shouted, “You lie!”
“Shall I have her head brought to us?”
It was then Tom knew in his innermost being that the princess spoke the truth. He walked over to a window. While looking down at the courtyard far below, he asked, “Why?”
The princess shrugged. “I wanted you and she stood in the way. Now you are mine.”
Tom shook his head. “I will never be yours.”
He then leaped to his death.
The Beauty of this tale: The love between Tom and May.
The Beast is self-evident.
Andrew Joyce’s Molly Lee