The Seventh Princess

A Story by Eleanor Farjeon

from The Little Bookroom

Did you ever hear the tale of the six princesses who lived for the sake of their hair alone? This is it.

There once was a king who married a Gypsy, and was as careful of her as if she were made of glass. In case she ran away he put her in a palace in a park with a railing all around it, and never let her go outside. The Queen was too loving to tell him how much she longed to go beyond the railing, but she sat for hours on the palace roof, looking toward the meadows to the east, the river to the south, the hills to the west, and the markets to the north.

In time the Queen bore the King twin daughters as bright as the sunrise, and on the day they were christened the King in his joy asked what she would have for a gift. The Queen looked from her roof to the east, saw May on the meadows and said: "Give me the Spring!"

The King called fifty thousand gardeners, and bade each one bring in a root of wild-flowers, or a tender birch-tree from outside, and plant it within the railing. When it was done he walked with the Queen in the flowery park, and showed her everything, saying: "Dear wife, the Spring is yours."

But the Queen only sighed.

The following year tow more Princesses, as fair as the morning, were born, and once again, on their christening-day, the King told the Queen to choose a gift. This time she looked from the roof to the south, and seeing the water shining in the valley, said: "Give me the river!"

The King summoned fifty thousand workmen, and told them so to conduct the river into the park that it should supply a most beautiful fountain in the Queen’s pleasure-grounds.

Then he led his wife to the spot where the fountain rose and fell in a marble basin, and said: "You now have the river."

But the Queen only gazed at the captive water rising and falling in its basin, and hung her head.

Next year two more Princesses, as golden as the day, were born, and the Queen, given her choice of a gift, looked north from the roof into the busy town, and said: "Give me the people!"

So the King sent fifty thousand trumpeters down to the market-place, and before long they returned, bringing six honest market-women with them."

"Here, dear Queen, are the people,"said the King.

The Queen secretly wiped her eyes, and then gave her six beautiful babies into the charge of the six buxom women, so the Princesses had a nurse apiece.

Now in the fourth year the Queen bore only one daughter, a little one, and dark like herself, whereas the King was big and fair.

"What gift would you choose?"Said the King, as they stood on the roof on the day of the christening.

The Queen turned her eyes to the west, and saw a wood-pigeon and six swans flying over the hills.

"Oh!"cried she, "give me the birds!"

The King instantly sent fifty thousand fowlers forth to snare the birds. While they were absent the Queen said: "Dear King, my children are in their cots and I am on my throne, but presently the cots will be empty and I shall sit on my throne no more. When that day comes, which of our daughters will be Queen in my stead?"

Before the King could answer the fowlers returned with the birds. The King looked from the humble pigeon, with its little round head sunk in the soft breast-feathers, to the royal swans with their long white necks, and said: "The Princess with the longest hair shall be Queen."

Then the Queen sent for the six Nurses and told them what the King had said. "So remember,"she added, "to wash and brush and comb my daughters’ hair without neglect, for on you will depend the future Queen."

"And who will wash and brush and comb the hair of the Seventh Princess?"they asked.

"I will do that myself,"said the Queen.

Each nurse was exceedingly anxious that her own Princess should be Queen, and every fine day they took the children out into the flowery meadow and washed their hair in the water of the fountain, and spread it in the sun to dry. Then they brushed it and combed it till it shone like yellow silk, and plaited it with ribbons, and decked it with flowers. You never saw such lovely hair as the Princesses had, or so much trouble as the Nurses took with it. And wherever the six fair girls went, the six swans went with them.

But the Seventh Princess, the little dark one, never had her hair washed in the fountain. It was kept covered with a red handkerchief, and tended in secret by the Queen as they sat together on the roof and played with the pigeon.

At last the Queen knew her time had come. So she sent for her daughters, blessed them one by one and bade the King carry her to the roof. There she looked from the meadows to the river, from markets to the hills, and closed her eyes.

Now, hardly had the King done drying his own, when a trumpet sounded at his gate, and page came running in to say the Prince of the World had come. So the King threw open his doors, and the Prince of the World came in, followed by his servant. The Prince was all in cloth of gold, and his mantle was so long that when he stood before the King it spread the whole length of the room, and the plume in his cap was so tall that the tip touched the ceiling. In front of the Prince walked his servant, and young man all in rags.

The King said: Welcome, "Prince of the World!"and held out his hand.

The Prince of the World did not answer; he stood there with his mouth shut and his eyes cast down. But his Ragged Servant said, "Thank you, King of the Country!"And he took the King’s hand and shook it heartily.

This surprised the King greatly.

"Cannot the Prince speak for himself?"he asked.

"If he can,"said the Ragged Servant, "nobody has ever heard him do so. As you know, it takes all sorts to make the world: those who speak and those who are silent, those who are rich and those who are poor, those who think and those who do, those who look up and those who look down. Now my master has chosen me for his servant, because between us we make up the world of which he is Prince. For he is rich and I am poor, and he thinks things and I do them, and he looks down and I look up, and he is silent, so I do the talking."

"Why has he come?"asked the King.

"To marry your daughter,"said the Ragged Servant, "for it takes all sorts to make a world, and there must be a woman as well as a man."

"No doubt,"said the King. "But I have seven daughters. He cannot marry them all."

"He will marry the one who is to be Queen,"said the Ragged Servant.

"Let my daughters be sent for,"said the King, "for the time is now come to measure the length of their hair."

So the Seven Princesses were summoned before the King. The six fair ones came in with their Nurses, and the little dark one came in by herself. The Ragged Servant looked quickly from one to the another, but the Prince of the World kept his eyes down and did not look at any of them.

The King sent for the Court Tailor, with his tape-measure; and when he came the six fair Princesses shook down their hair till it trailed on the ground behind them.

One by one they had it measured, while six Nurses looked on with pride - for had they not taken just as much care as they could of their darlings’ hair? But, alas! as neither more care nor less had been spent upon any of them, it was discovered that each of the six Princesses had hair exactly as long as the others.

The Court held up its hands in amazement, the Nurses wrung theirs in despair, the King rubbed his crown, the Prince of the World kept his eyes on the ground, and the Ragged Servant looked at the Seventh Princess.

"What shall we do,"said the King, "if my youngest daughter’s hair is the same length as the rest?"

"I don’t think it is, sir,"said the Seventh Princess, and her sisters looked anxious as she untied the red handkerchief from her head. And indeed her hair was not the same length as theirs for it was cropped close to her head, like a boy’s.

"Who cut your hair, child?" asked the King.

"My mother, if you please, sir,"said the Seventh Princess. "Every day as we sat on the roof she snipped it with her scissors."

"Well, well!"cried the King, "which ever is meant to be Queen, it isn’t you!"

That is the story of the Six Princesses who lived for the sake of their hair alone. They spent the rest of their lives having it washed, brushed, and combed by the Nurses, till their locks were as white as their six pet swans.

And the Prince of the World spent the rest of his life waiting with his eyes cast down until one of the Princess should grow the longest hair, and become his Queen. As this never happened, for all I know he is waiting still.

But the Seventh Princess tied on her red handkerchief again, and ran out of the palace to the hills and the river and the meadows and the markets; and the pigeon and the Ragged Servant went with her.

"But,"she said, "what will the Prince of the World do without you in the palace?"

"He will have to do as best he can,"said the Ragged Servant, "for it takes all sorts to make the world, those that are in and those that are out."

This story must reflect a little of Eleanor's own independent spirit. It is a well crafted story - in her unique storytelling style - that speaks to the issue of parents and child - of the conflicts between the expectations of others and the yearning to simply be ourselves. It also speaks to the empty materialism that our culture tries to force on us. The "caged" spirit of the Queen yearning to be free - and daring to offer that freedom to her Seventh Princess has a very strong emotional pull; as does the unexpected ending - perhaps happiness is not to be a "Queen married to the Prince of the World", but rather to resist those pressures to conform to the expectations of others, and to go forth with hearts free like gypsies to wander the meadows and hills with the Ragged Servant.

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