A Toy Princess
By Mary de Morgan (1850–1907)
More than a thousand years ago, in a country quite on the other side of the world, it fell out that the people all grew so very polite that they hardly ever spoke to each other. And they never said more than was quite necessary, as “Just so,” “Yes indeed,” “Thank you,” and “If you please.” And it was thought to be the rudest thing in the world for any one to say they liked or disliked, or loved or hated, or were happy or miserable. No one ever laughed aloud, and if any one had been seen to cry they would at once have been avoided by their friends.
The King of this country married a Princess from a neighbouring land, who was very good and beautiful, but the people in her own home were as unlike her husband’s people as it was possible to be. They laughed, and talked, and were noisy and merry when they were happy, and cried and lamented if they were sad. In fact, whatever they felt they showed at once, and the Princess was just like them.
So when she came to her new home, she could not at all understand her subjects, or make out why there was no shouting and cheering to welcome her, and why every one was so distant and formal. After a time, when she found they never changed, but were always the same, just as stiff and quiet, she wept, and began to pine for her own old home.
Every day she grew thinner and paler. The courtiers were much too polite to notice how ill their young Queen looked; but she knew it herself, and believed she was going to die.
Now she had a fairy godmother, named Taboret, whom she loved very dearly, and who was always kind to her. When she knew her end was drawing near she sent for her godmother, and when she came had a long talk with her quite alone.
No one knew what was said, and soon afterwards a little Princess was born, and the Queen died. Of course all the courtiers were sorry for the poor Queen’s death, but it would have been thought rude to say so. So, although there was a grand funeral, and the court put on mourning, everything else went on much as it had done before.
The little baby was christened Ursula, and given to some court ladies to be taken charge of. Poor little Princess! She cried hard enough, and nothing could stop her.
All her ladies were frightened, and said that they had not heard such a dreadful noise for a long time. But, till she was about two years old, nothing could stop her crying when she was cold or hungry, or crowing when she was pleased.
After that she began to understand a little what was meant when her nurses told her, in cold, polite tones, that she was being naughty, and she grew much quieter.
She was a pretty little girl, with a round baby face and big merry blue eyes; but as she grew older, her eyes grew less and less merry and bright, and her fat little face grew thin and pale. She was not allowed to play with any other children, lest she might learn bad manners; and she was not taught any games or given any toys. So she passed most of her time, when she was not at her lessons, looking out of the window at the birds flying against the clear blue sky; and sometimes she would give a sad little sigh when her ladies were not listening.
One day the old fairy Taboret made herself invisible, and flew over to the King’s palace to see how things were going on there. She went straight up to the nursery, where she found poor little Ursula sitting by the window, with her head leaning on her hand.
It was a very grand room, but there were no toys or dolls about, and when the fairy saw this, she frowned to herself and shook her head.
“Your Royal Highness’s dinner is now ready,” said the head nurse to Ursula.
“I don’t want any dinner,” said Ursula, without turning her head.
“I think I have told your Royal Highness before that it is not polite to say you don’t want anything, or that you don’t like it,” said the nurse. “We are waiting for your Royal Highness
So the Princess got up and went to the dinner-table, and Taboret watched them all the time. When she saw how pale little Ursula was, and how little she ate, and that there was no talking or laughing allowed, she sighed and frowned even more than before, and then she flew back to her fairy home, where she sat for some hours in deep thought.
At last she rose, and went out to pay a visit to the largest shop in Fairyland.
It was a queer sort of shop. It was neither a grocer’s, nor a draper’s, nor a hatter’s. Yet it contained sugar, and dresses, and hats. But the sugar was magic sugar, which transformed any liquid into which it was put; the dresses each had some special charm, and the hats were wishing-caps. It was, in fact, a shop where every sort of spell or charm was sold.
Into this shop Taboret flew; and as she was well known there as a good customer, the master of the shop came forward to meet her at once, and bowing , begged to know what he could get for her.
“I want,” said Taboret, “a Princess.”
“A Princess!” said the shopman, who was in reality an old wizard. “What size do you want it? I have one or two in stock.”
“It must look now about six years old. But it must grow.”
“I can make you one,” said the wizard, “but it’ll come rather expensive.”
“I don’t mind that,” said Taboret. “See! I want it to look exactly like this,” and so saying she took a portrait of Ursula out of her bosom and gave it to the old man, who examined it carefully.
“I’ll get it for you,” he said. “When will you want it?”
“As soon as possible,” said Taboret. “By tomorrow evening if possible. How much will it cost?”
“It’ll come to a good deal,” said the wizard, thoughtfully. “I have such difficulty in getting these things properly made in these days. What sort of voice is it to have?”
“It need not be at all talkative,” said Taboret, “so that won’t add much to the price. It need only say, ‘If you please,’ ‘No, thank you,’ ‘Certainly,’ and ‘Just so.’”
“Well, under those circumstances,” said the wizard, “I will do it for four cats’ footfalls, two fish’s screams, and two swans’ songs.
“It is too much,” cried Taboret. “I’ll give you the footfalls and the screams, but to ask for swans’ songs!”
She did not really think it dear, but she always made a point of trying to beat tradesmen down.
“I can’t do it for less,” said the wizard, “and if you think it too much, you’d better try another shop.”
“As I am really in a hurry for it, and cannot spend time in searching about, I suppose I must have it,” said Taboret; “but I consider the price very high. When will it be ready?”
“By tomorrow evening.”
“Very well, then, be sure it is ready for me by the time I call for it, and whatever you do, don’t make it at all noisy or rough in its ways”; and Taboret swept out of the shop and returned to her home.
Next evening she returned and asked if her job was done.
“I will fetch it, and I am sure you will like it,” said the wizard, leaving the shop as he spoke.
Presently he came back, leading by the hand a pretty little girl of about six years — a little girl so like the Princess Ursula that no one could have told them apart.
“Well,” said Taboret, “it looks well enough. But are you sure that it’s a good piece of workmanship, and won’t give way anywhere?”
“It’s as good a piece of work as ever was done,” said the wizard, proudly, striking the child on the back as he spoke. “Look at it! Examine it all over, and see if you find a flaw anywhere. There’s not one fairy in twenty who could tell it from the real thing, and no mortal could.”
“It seems to be fairly made,” said Taboret, approvingly, as she turned the little girl round. “Now I’ll pay you, and then will be off”; with which she raised her wand in the air and waved it three times, and there arose a series of strange sounds. The first was a low tramping, the second shrill and piercing screams, the third voices of wonderful beauty, singing a very sorrowful song. The wizard caught all the sounds and pocketed them at once, and Taboret, without ceremony, picked up the child, took her head downwards under her arm, and flew away.
At court that night the little Princess had been naughty, and had refused to go to bed. It was a long time before her ladies could get her into her crib, and when she was there, she did not really go to sleep, only lay still and pretended, till every one went away; then she got up and stole noiselessly to the window, and sat down on the window-seat all curled up in a little bunch, while she looked out wistfully at the moon. She was such a pretty soft little thing, with all her warm bright hair falling over her shoulders, that it would have been hard for most people to be angry with her. She leaned her chin on her tiny white hands, and as she gazed out, the tears rose to her great blue eyes; but remembering that her ladies would call this naughty, she wiped them hastily away with her nightgown sleeve.
“Ah moon, pretty bright moon!” she said to herself, “I wonder if they let you cry when you want to. I think I’d like to got up there and live with you; I’m sure it would be nicer than being here.”
“Would you like to go away with me?” said a voice close beside her; and looking up she saw a funny old woman in a red cloak, standing near to her. She was not frightened, for the old woman had a kind smile and bright black eyes, though her nose was hooked and her chin long.
“Where would you take me?” said the little Princess, sucking her thumb, and staring with all her might.
“I’d take you to the sea-shore, where you’d be able to play about on the sands, and where you’d have some little boys and girls to play with, and no one to tell you not to make a noise.”
“I’ll go,” cried Ursula, springing up at once.
“Come along,” said the old woman, taking her tenderly in her arms and folding her in her warm red cloak. Then they rose up in the air, and flew out of the window, right away over the tops of the houses.
The night air was sharp, and Ursula soon fell asleep; but still they kept flying on, on, over hill and dale, for miles and miles, away from the palace, towards the sea.
Far away from the court and the palace, in a tiny fishing village, on the sea, was a little hut where a fisherman named Mark lived with his wife and three children. He was a poor man, and lived on the fish he caught in his little boat. The children, Oliver, Philip, and little Bell, were rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed. They played all day long on the shore, and shouted till they were hoarse. To this village the fairy bore the still sleeping Ursula, and gently placed her on the doorstep of Mark’s cottage; then she kissed her cheeks, and with one gust blew the door open, and disappeared before any one could come to see who it was.
The fisherman and his wife were sitting quietly within. She was making the children clothes, and he was mending his net, when without any noise the door opened and the cold night air blew in.
“Wife,” said the fisherman, “just see who’s at the door.”
The wife got up and went to the door, and there lay Ursula, still sleeping soundly, in her little white nightdress.
The woman gave a little scream at sight of the child, and called to her husband.
“Husband, see, here’s a little girl!” and so saying she lifted her in her arms, and carried her into the cottage. When she was brought into the warmth and light, Ursula awoke, and sitting up, stared about her in fright. She did not cry, as another child might have done, but she trembled very much, and was almost too frightened to speak.
Oddly enough, she had forgotten all about her strange flight through the air, and could remember nothing to tell the fisherman and his wife, but that she was the Princess Ursula; and, on hearing this, the good man and woman thought the poor little girl must be a trifle mad. However, when they examined her little nightdress, made of white fine linen and embroidery, with a crown worked in one corner, they agreed that she must belong to very grand people. They said it would be cruel to send the poor little thing away on such a cold night, and they must of course keep her till she was claimed. So the woman gave her some warm bread-and-milk, and put her to bed with their own little girl.
In the morning, when the court ladies came to wake Princess Ursula, they found her sleeping as usual in her little bed, and little did they think it was not she, but a toy Princess placed there in her stead. Indeed the ladies were much pleased; for when they said “It is time for your Royal Highness to arise,” she only answered, “Certainly,” and let herself be dressed without another word. And as the time passed, and she was never naughty, and scarcely ever spoke, all said she was vastly improved, and she grew to be a great favourite.
The ladies all said that the young Princess bid fair to have the most elegant manners in the country, and the King smiled and noticed her with pleasure.
In the meantime, in the fisherman’s cottage far away, the real Ursula grew tall and straight as an alder and merry and light-hearted as a bird.
No one came to claim her, so the good fisherman and his wife kept her and brought her up among their own little ones. She played with them on the beach, and learned her lessons with them at school, and her old life had become like a dream she barely remembered.
But sometimes the mother would take out the little embroidered nightgown and show it to her, and wonder whence she came, and to whom she belonged.
“I don’t care who I belong to,” said Ursula; “they won’t come and take me from you, and that’s all I care about.” So she grew tall and fair, and as she grew, the toy Princess, in her place at the court, grew too, and always was just like her, only that whereas Ursula’s face was sunburnt and her cheeks red, the face of the toy Princess was pale, with only a very slight tint in her cheeks.
Years passed, and Ursula at the cottage was a tall young woman, and Ursula at the court was thought to be the most beautiful there, and every one admired her manners, though she never said anything but “If you please,” “No, thank you,” “Certainly,” and “Just so.”
The King was now an old man, and the fisherman Mark and his wife were grey-headed. Most of their fishing was now done by their eldest son, Oliver, who was their great pride. Ursula waited on them, and cleaned the house, and did the needlework, and was so useful that they could not have done without her. The fairy Taboret had come to the cottage from time to time, unseen by any one, to see Ursula, and always finding her healthy and merry, was pleased to think of how she had saved her from a dreadful life.
But one evening when she paid them a visit, not having been there for some time, she saw something which made her pause and consider. Oliver and Ursula were standing together watching the waves, and Taboret stopped to hear what they said—
“When we are married,” said Oliver, softly, “we will live in that little cottage yonder, so that we can come and see them every day. But that will not be till little Bell is old enough to take your place, for how would my mother do without you?”
“And we had better not tell them,” said Ursula, “that we mean to marry, or else the thought that they are preventing us will make them unhappy.”
When Taboret heard this she became grave, and pondered for a long time. At last she flew back to the court to see how things were going on there. She found the King in the middle of a state council. On seeing this, she at once made herself visible, when the King begged her to be seated near him, as he was always glad of her help and advice.
“You find us,” said his Majesty, “just about to resign our sceptre into younger and more vigorous hands; in fact, we think we are growing too old to reign, and mean to abdicate in favour of our dear daughter, who will reign in our stead.”
“Before you do any such thing,” said Taboret, “just let me have a little private conversation with you”; and she led the King into a corner, much to his surprise and alarm.
In about half an hour he returned to the council, looking very white, and with a dreadful expression on his face, whilst he held a handkerchief to his eyes.
“My lords,” he faltered, “pray pardon our apparently extraordinary behaviour. We have just received a dreadful blow; we hear on authority, which we cannot doubt, that our dear, dear daughter” — here sobs choked his voice, and he was almost unable to proceed — “is — is — in fact, not our daughter at all, and only a sham.”
Here the King sank back in his chair, overpowered with grief, and the fairy Taboret, stepping to the front, told the courtiers the whole story; how she had stolen the real Princess, because she feared they were spoiling her, and how she had placed a toy Princess in her place. The courtiers looked from one to another in surprise, but it was evident they did not believe her.
“The Princess is a truly charming young lady,” said the Prime Minister.
“Has your Majesty any reason to complain of her Royal Highness’s conduct?” asked the old Chancellor.
“None whatever,” sobbed the King, “she was ever an excellent daughter.”
“Then I don’t see,” said the Chancellor, “what reason your Majesty can have for paying any attention to what this — this person says.”
“If you don’t believe me, you old idiots,” cried Taboret, “call the Princess here, and I’ll soon prove my words.”
“By all means,” cried they.
So the King commanded that her Royal Highness should be summoned.
In a few minutes she came, attended by her ladies. She said nothing, but then she never did speak till she was spoken to. So she entered, and stood in the middle of the room silently.
“We have desired that your presence be requested,” the King was beginning, but Taboret without any ceremony advanced towards her, and struck her lightly on the head with her wand. In a moment the head rolled on the floor, leaving the body standing motionless as before, and showing that it was but an empty shell.
“Just so,” said the head, as it rolled towards the King, and he and the courtiers nearly swooned with fear.
When they were a little recovered, the King spoke again. “The fairy tells me,” he said, “that there is somewhere a real Princess whom she wishes us to adopt as our daughter.
And in the meantime let her Royal Highness be carefully placed in a cupboard, and a general mourning be proclaimed for this dire event.”
So saying he glanced tenderly at the body and head, and turned weeping away.
So it was settled that Taboret was to fetch Princess Ursula, and the King and council were to be assembled to meet her.
That evening the fairy flew to Mark’s cottage, and told them the whole truth about Ursula, and that they must part from her:
Loud were their lamentations, and great their grief, when they heard she must leave them. Poor Ursula herself sobbed bitterly.
“Never mind,” she cried after a time, “if I am really a great Princess, I will have you all to live with me. I am sure the King, my father, will wish it, when he hears how good you have all been to me.”
On the appointed day, Taboret came for Ursula in a grand coach and four, and drove her away to the court. It was a long, long drive; and she stopped on the way and had the Princess dressed in a splendid white silk dress trimmed with gold, and put pearls round her neck and in her hair, that she might appear properly at court.
The King and all the council were assembled with great pomp, to greet their new Princess, and all looked grave and anxious. At last the door opened, and Taboret appeared, leading the young girl by the hand.
“That is your father!” said she to Ursula, pointing to the King; and on this, Ursula, needing no other bidding, ran at once to him, and putting her arms round his neck, gave him a sounding kiss.
His Majesty almost swooned, and all the courtiers shut their eyes and shivered.
“This is really!” said one.
“This is truly!” said another.
“What I have I done?” cried Ursula, looking from one to another, and seeing that something was wrong, but not knowing what. “Have I kissed the wrong person?” on hearing which every one groaned.
“Come now,” cried Taboret, “if you don’t like her, I shall take her away to those who do. I’ll give you a week, and then I’ll come back and see how you’re treating her. She’s a great deal too good for any of you.”
So saying she flew away on her wand, leaving Ursula to get on with her new friends as best she might, But Ursula could not get on with them at all, as she soon began to see.
If she spoke or moved they looked shocked, and at last she was so frightened and troubled by them that she burst into tears, at which they were more shocked still.
“This is indeed a change after our sweet Princess,” said one lady to another.
“Yes, indeed,” was the answer, “when one remembers how even after her head was struck off she behaved so beautifully, and only said, ‘Just so.’”
And all the ladies disliked poor Ursula, and soon showed her their dislike. Before the end of the week, when Taboret was to return, she had grown quite thin and pale, and seemed afraid of speaking above a whisper.
“Why, what is wrong?” cried Taboret, when she returned and saw how much poor Ursula had changed. “Don’t you like being here? Aren’t they kind to you?”
“Take me back, dear Taboret,” cried Ursula, weeping. “Take me back to Oliver, and Philip, and Bell. As for these people, I hate them.”
And she wept again.
Taboret only smiled and patted her head, and then went into the King and courtiers.
“Now, how is it,” she cried, “I find the Princess Ursula in tears? And I am sure you are making her unhappy. When you had that bit of wood-and-leather Princess, you could behave well enough to it, but now that you have a real flesh-and-blood woman, you none of you care for her.”
“Our late dear daughter—” began the King, when the fairy interrupted him.
“I do believe,” she said, “that you would like to have the doll back again. Now I will give you your choice. Which will you have — my Princess Ursula, the real one, or your Princess Ursula, the sham?”
The King sank back into his chair.
“I am not equal to this,” he said. “Summon the council, and let them settle it by vote.”
So the council were summoned, and the fairy explained to them why they were wanted.
“Let both Princesses be fetched,” she said; and the toy Princess was brought in with care from her cupboard, and her head stood on the table beside her, and the real Princess came in with her eyes still red from crying and her bosom heaving.
“I should think there could be no doubt which one would prefer,” said the Prime Minister to the Chancellor.
“I should think not either,” answered the Chancellor.
“Then vote,” said Taboret; and they all voted, and every vote was for the sham Ursula, and not one for the real one. Taboret only laughed.
“You are a pack of sillies and idiots,” she said, “but you shall have what you want”; and she picked up the head, and with a wave of her wand stuck it on to the body, and it moved round slowly and said, “Certainly,” just in its old voice; and on hearing this, all the courtiers gave something as like a cheer as they thought polite, whilst the old King could not speak for joy.
“We will,” he cried, “at once make our arrangements for abdicating and leaving the government in the hands of our dear daughter”; and on hearing this, the courtiers all applauded again. But Taboret laughed scornfully, and taking up the real Ursula in her arms, flew back with her to Mark’s cottage.
In the evening the city was illuminated, and there were great rejoicings at the recovery of the Princess, but Ursula remained in the cottage and married Oliver, and lived happily with him for the rest of her life.
About the Author
Mary de Morgan, the daughter of an abolitionist and a mathematician, lived from 1850 to 1907. She was a suffragette, a socialist sympathizer, and a social worker among the girls of London’s East End. She also had a reputation for tactlessness, which is about what you’d expect from someone born into a family of intellectuals, non-conformists, and dissenters. De Morgan penned a two-volume novel called A Choice of Chance written under the pseudonym of William Dodson; but it was her fairy tales that she’s best known for. Her collections include On a Pincushion, The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde, and The Windfairies.
About the Narrator
Eleanor R. Wood writes and eats liquorice from the south coast of England, where she lives with her husband, two marvellous dogs, and enough tropical fish tanks to charge an entry fee. Her stories have appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Diabolical Plots, Nature: Futures, The Best of British Fantasy 2019 and Best of British Science Fiction 2020, and various anthologies, among other places.