There once was a queen who was brought to bed of a son so ugly and badly formed that the midwife doubted the baby was human.
“It isn’t normal, ma’am. You may have been bewitched.”
A fairy who was present at the birth reassured the queen.
“The boy is healthy. He will always be lovable, because he will have plenty of wit, which is to say presence of mind. By virtue of the gift I now bestow, he will also be able to give as much wit as he wants to the person he will love the best.”
This prediction consoled the poor queen. Though beyond reproach, she was distressed to have brought into the world such a queer monkey. True enough, when the child began to talk, he said a thousand pretty things. And something in his prinks and pranks won people over. His mother, his nurse, and the inner circle of the royal court proclaimed him utterly charming.
I forgot to say he came into the world with a tuft of hair on top of his head, an unruly lock that would never lie down despite all washing, combing, and pomade. Though the family name was quite correct, and though he was a prince, and though the bishop christened him Richard, this hairstyle earned him the name of Rufty Tufty.
Around this time the queen of a neighboring realm was brought to bed of twin daughters. The first who came into the world was as fair as day. This queen was so glad, the midwife feared that too much emotion would do her harm.
“Try not to laugh so much, ma’am. It’s bad for your middle.”
The fairy who had been present at the birth of Rufty Tufty assisted again. She lived nearby and was often on call. To moderate the queen’s excessive joy, the fairy said:
“The girl will have no wit at all. She will be as stupid as she is fair.”
The queen was mortified. A few moments later she had a greater shock, for the second girl to which she gave birth was as ugly as the first was fair.
“Never mind,” the fairy said. “Your second daughter will have ample compensation. She will have so much wit that people will hardly notice her looks.”
“May God grant it,” the queen replied. “But isn’t there a way to give a little wit to the girl who has none?”
“I can do nothing for her on the side of wit,” the fairy said, “but I can do anything on the side of beauty. And since I desire nothing more than your satisfaction, I hereby give her the power to render handsome or fair the person who will please her best.”
As the two princesses grew and matured, their perfections grew along with them. People spoke only of the beauty of the elder, Lily White, who was pale and blonde, and the wit of the younger, Brown Betty, who was dark and brunette.
It is also true that their faults increased with age. In the eyes of the court, Brown Betty grew uglier, while Lily White became more stupid. When asked a question, she answered not a word or she spouted nonsense. What is more, she was so clumsy she could hardly arrange four porcelain cups on the chimney shelf without breaking one, or drink a glass of water without spilling half of it on her clothes.
Beauty is a great advantage to the young. Nevertheless in company, Brown Betty elbowed aside her elder sister. At first people flocked to Lily White to see and admire her golden pallor. But soon they drifted to the one who had more wit, to listen to her say a thousand pretty things. In a quarter of an hour, strangely enough, Lily White had almost no one at her side, while Brown Betty attracted a crowd.
For all her stupidity, Lily White was well aware of the social slight. Without regret, she would have given all her beauty for half the wit her sister had. Though wise, the queen could not refrain from scolding the girl for being dim. The poor princess wept for shame:
“I may as well die.”
One day, when Lily White had fled on foot to lament her unhappy fate in the woods, she saw coming toward her a little man who was ugly and repulsive, but dressed with great magnificence. Atop his head instead of a hat a ribbon fluttered, tied to a tuft of hair.
“Fair princess, allow me to pay my respects. From the praise that circulates far and wide, as well as this painted miniature in a gold locket I clasp to my heart, I have fallen in love with you. I left my father’s kingdom today solely to have the pleasure to see and talk to you. Imagine my delight at encountering you here!” He thrust out a bandy leg and bowed. “At your service, Rufty Tufty.”
“Your highness is . . . too kind.”
“Pardon the observation, but a cloud hangs over you. I cannot fathom how a person as fair as you are can also be as sad as you appear. For, though I boast of having seen many beautiful faces, I dare say I have never seen one whose beauty approaches that of yours.”
“It pleases you to say so, sir,” Lily White replied. She could think of nothing more to say.
“Beauty is such an advantage in life, it ought to take the place of all the rest. For when you possess it, I do not see that anything can greatly distress you.”
“I would prefer to be as ugly as you are, and to have as much wit, than to have all the beauty I have, and to be as dim as I am.”
“My lady, there is no greater mark of wit than to believe you do not have it. And it is in the nature of this gift that the more you have, the more you suspect the lack of it.”
“I don’t know about that, but I know quite well that I am dim. From this comes the sorrow that kills me.”
“If that is all that bothers you, I can easily put an end to your trouble.”
“And how would you do that?”
“I have the power to give as much wit as a brain can hold to the person I love the best. Since you, Lily White, are this very person, the choice is yours. Receive as much wit as you would like to have, provided you consent to marry me.”
Dumbfounded, the princess opened her mouth and nothing came out.
“I see this proposal gives you pause. Who would not be surprised? I give you a whole year to make up your mind.”
“My lord, I have so little mind to work with. At the same time, I want so much to get more. I imagine the end of this year will never come. I accept the proposal you kindly make.”
No sooner had she promised Rufty Tufty to marry him in one year to the day, than Lily White felt quite changed from her previous state. She found she could talk with ease on any subject she liked, and say fine things in a natural way. From this moment on, she began to converse. She bantered and quipped. She shone with such brilliance that Rufty Tufty wondered:
“Have I given her more wit than I kept for myself?”
They parted amicably. When Lily White returned to the palace, the court did not know how to account for a change so sudden and extraordinary. Before they had heard her drivel and blab, and now they heard her say sensible things and intelligent remarks. Everyone felt great joy—except for Brown Betty. Unhappy at no longer having the advantage of wit, placed beside her elder sister, she looked like a miserable ape.
A rumor concerning the princesses spread. Eligible princes of neighboring kingdoms sent tokens of love to Lily White. They presented themselves, and they made an effort. Almost all asked for her hand in marriage.
The princess heard each youth plead his case without committing herself to any. She found that none of them had enough wit. Nevertheless, there came to the palace a prince so strong, so handsome, so light on his feet, and from such a noble family, she could not prevent others at court from forming a good opinion of him.
Her father the king took all these developments under advisement. He consulted the council in his apartment. He summoned Lily White to a private chat.
“Aware as I am of current events, and in light of your recent intellectual attainment, I grant you complete freedom in the matter of a husband. You have only to declare your choice.”
“Thank you, sire. Now that I have more wit, I have more trouble reaching a firm decision. I ask you to give me time to think.”
The better to contemplate what she ought to do, the princess went for a walk. By chance her path led to the same woods where she had met Rufty Tufty. As she walked deep in thought, she heard a dull noise as of people coming and going underfoot, and a din of voices. She lent a more attentive ear and heard one say:
“Bring me that kettle.”
“Give me that pail”, another said.
“Put some wood on the fire”, another said.
The ground split open. Beneath her feet, the princess saw a great kitchen full of cooks and scullions and every grade of culinary underling needed to prepare a feast. A crew of twenty roasters emerged. They set up camp in a lane in the woods with a long trestle table. Each held an iron spit in his hand. A foxtail pinned to his cap hung over one ear. They set to work to the cadence of a drum and their own harmonious chant. Astonished by this spectacle, Lily White asked them:
“Who do you work for?”
“Why, ma’am,” replied the foreman of the crew, “we serve the young prince Rufty Tufty, whose wedding will be tomorrow.”
The princess was even more surprised. The wind dropped from her sail, and she stopped dead. All at once, she remembered:
“A year to the day has passed since I promised to marry Rufty Tufty! The reason I could not remember is that when I made this rash promise, I was stupid. When the brand new wit the little man gave me seeped into my brain, I forgot my foolish past.”
Continuing her walk, she had not gone thirty paces, when Rufty Tufty appeared in the flesh. A brave sight, magnificently dressed, he looked like a prince about to be married.
“You see me, my lady, as good as my word. I have no doubt that you came here likewise to keep yours. By giving me your hand, you will render me the happiest of men.”
“Sir, I frankly admit to you I have not yet reached a decision in this matter, and I fear I will never be able to reach the one you expect.”
“You surprise me, my lady.”
“I can believe it, sir. If I was dealing with a brute, a man without wit, my position would be quite an embarrassment. After all, a princess has no more than her word. It would seem that you must marry me, since you promised to do so. But since the man to whom I speak is the most intelligent man in the world, I am sure you will listen to reason. You know that when I was no better than a brute, I was mentally unfit to decide to marry you. Now that I have the wit you gave me, which puts me in a more difficult predicament, how can you expect me to reach a decision I was unable to reach at that time? If you intend to marry me in earnest, you were quite wrong to relieve my stupidity, and to make me see more clearly than I saw.”
“If a man without wit were allowed, as you say, to reproach you for breaking your word, my lady, why should you not expect me to do the same in a matter that touches the marrow of my life? Is it reasonable for persons who have wit to be in a worse condition than those who have none? Is this your claim, you who have so much, and who wanted so much to acquire it? But let us return to the facts. Apart from my ugliness, is there something about me that repels you? Are you displeased with my birth, my wit, my character, or my manners?”
“Not at all, dear prince. I love all the things about you that you mention.”
“If that is so, I will be happy, since you are able to turn me into a handsome man.”
“How can that be?”
“It can be, my lady, if you love me enough to wish it so. To remove all trace of doubt, know this. The same fairy who on the day of my birth gave me the power to render intelligent any person I please, also gave you the power to render handsome anyone you like, the person on whom you wish to bestow this favor.”
“If that is the case, I wish with all my heart for you to become the handsomest prince in the world! I make you this gift as much as I have it in me.”
No sooner had Lily White pronounced these words, than Rufty Tufty appeared in her eyes to be the most attractive man she ever saw. In face and form he was debonair, the handsomest prince in the world!
According to some, the fairy’s magic was not at work, but love arranged this metamorphosis. They say that the princess, having reflected on the perseverance of her lover, on his discretion, and on all the good qualities of his heart and soul, no longer saw the deformity of his body, nor the ugliness of his face. To her, his hump seemed no more than the trick of a man who hunches up his back. In place of what she previously saw as a frightful limp, she now perceived no more than a slight angle, a charming tilt. They say that his eyes, which squinted, appeared brighter to her, that their irregularity passed in her mind for a mark of the violence of love. Finally, his big red nose to her meant something warlike or heroic. However this may be, Lily White seized the moment.
“I promise to marry you, provided you obtain the consent of the king my father.”
Hand in hand, they ran from the woods. The king received the breathless couple. He addressed his daughter.
“Like you, I hold Rufty Tufty in the highest regard. Furthermore, I have come to know the prince to be intelligent and wise.” He turned to the suitor. “With pleasure, I accept you as my son-in-law.”
The next day, the wedding took place exactly as Rufty Tufty had foreseen, and following the orders he had given long before, a year to the day.
What you see in this brief tract
Is less a tale than truth exact.
All is fair in loving eyes;
All you love to see is wise.
Nature paints a lovely face
With colors art can never trace,
Yet all her thoughtless gifts can move
The heart no more than unseen love.
Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Oxford Magazine, Pennyshorts, Poydras Review, Short Fiction, and other magazines.