After the wedding of her sister Lily White to Rufty Tufty, a fête champêtre or country feast that took place in the woods between the two kingdoms, Brown Betty contracted a mysterious illness. She no longer wanted to eat and drink, not even a sliver of honey cake. She no longer had the strength to walk, not even to see and smell the flowers abundant at that time of year.
Most alarming, the wit Brown Betty had from birth, the store of intelligence and sparkle which won universal admiration, this sense of humor left her in the lurch. She no longer read the latest books and offered her own amusing opinion. She heard important news from abroad and yawned with indifference. Even to the latest gossip at court she seemed at a loss for what to say. All she could do was lie in bed and listen to the birds repeat their songs again and again, with slight variations.
The royal physician examined Brown Betty and reported to the queen.
“Your highness, I visited the princess, who received me in bed. Such was the custom many years ago. Today it might be deemed eccentric. She refused to get up. She was proper and polite but showed none of the wit for which she is known. I believe she suffers from melancholy.”
“Is she sick?”
“I can find no organic cause for her condition. The wedding of a friend and one her own age is bound to make a young woman feel lonely. She must feel the loss of Lily White as a daily companion. But sisters are also rivals. Brown Betty might bask in the undivided attention she will have at court.”
“Is the girl bewitched?”
“The possibility cannot be ruled out. It is also possible that the young princess prefers not to divulge things of an intimate nature to an older man.”
“What do you recommend?”
“A mother has a special touch that may extract the hidden cause. I suggest you visit Brown Betty unannounced.”
The queen let a day pass to think the matter through, then dropped in on the bedridden patient. Except for drawing deep breaths at regular intervals, like sighing on schedule, Brown Betty resembled as nearly as possible a corpse. Less constrained by etiquette than the physician, the queen spoke sharply to her daughter, who sulked, as even the wittiest and best-behaved princess may sometimes do. The queen seized the girl by the shoulders and shook her.
“You will talk to me!”
“Leave me alone!”
“I will leave this room only after you tell me the reason for this outrageous behavior.”
“I’m not hurting a fly!”
“You have us all worried. The king gave orders to stop work that makes noise in the palace. Music and social gatherings are suspended. The court barely functions as we cater to your whim.”
“I just want to die!”
“You enjoy this charade of death too much to want the real thing.”
Brown Betty sat up. “I do feel sad.”
“Which is perfectly natural now and then for a day or two. It’s time to snap out of it.”
“Start by telling me what’s on your mind. Are you jealous of your sister?”
“Beside her, I am ugly and stupid.”
“Nonsense. As for wit, you have no equal. Your sister’s conversation is a brook that burbles and glints, while yours is a river that flashes and roars. As for looks, it is true that she meets the conventional standard—blonde hair, white skin, rosy lips, narrow waist, full bust, and rounded limbs. You take after your grandfather.”
“What was he like?”
“He was a man of strength and endurance, a fierce warrior and a leader of men, incomparable in the saddle but ungainly on the ground. If you were a boy, you would be his spit and image.”
“There is no hope for me, then.”
“Beauty takes many forms, manly and womanly. Among the princes paying court, surely you noticed variations.”
“Yes, some were better than others.”
“Was there one who caught your eye?”
“There was. He is strong, handsome, light on his feet, and from a noble family. In all respects he is excellent. His name is Jim Dandy.”
“Oh, dear. That’s what I was afraid of.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He is everything you say, but he has an older brother, which means he stands to inherit nothing.”
“Why does that matter?”
“You have a baby brother who will one day inherit this kingdom from your father. Jim Dandy ought to look for a princess with a dowry. But as you may have noticed . . .”
“He is not very clever.”
“Are you in love or merely infatuated?”
“My heart went out to him.”
“And now you miss it and wonder if it will ever return.”
“So you do understand!”
“All too well. Now that we have a diagnosis, let’s consider a cure. Are you ready to give up this gloom and doom?”
“When you were born, the fairy in attendance said this: If the flower does not grow where the bee lives, the bee must fly to the flower.”
“What does that mean?”
“A riddle should be easy for you to solve.”
“If the Jim Dandy is the flower, the handsome prince, then I am the bee.”
“You will fly to him in disguise as a boy. For one year, you will serve as a page. You may be cured of a silly infatuation and come home ready to start fresh. Or you may find him worthy of your love and bring him up to the mark. Will you get out of bed and do as I say?”
The queen made an announcement to the court.
“The princess, on the advice of her physician, will travel to a spa to take the waters. The course of hydrotherapy is expected to last a year. I’m sure you will all join me in wishing her bon voyage.”
At dawn the next morning, the queen watched Brown Betty mount a horse for the journey. Dressed in doublet and trunk hose, with striped stockings and a feather in her cap, Brown Betty cut a fine figure as a boy. She was so excited she failed to notice the queen was misty-eyed. The horse, a dark and spirited mare, stamped with impatience. Brown Betty touched its flanks with her heels, and they took off.
In no time, it seemed, they arrived. Brown Betty presented herself at the castle under the name of Byron Bewtt. She spoke to the majordomo.
“I am a youth of good family who wishes to enter your service as a page.”
“As it happens, Byron Bewtt, the castle is short of staff. We can take you on provided you agree to perform a range of tasks and assignments, promptly and courteously, with a smile on your face and a spring in your step.”
“Sir, I will do whatever you ask to the best of my ability.”
“You look able-bodied, if ungainly on the ground. Can you read and write?”
“Yes, sir, and do arithmetic.”
“The younger prince could use some help along those lines. Jim Dandy has everything going for him but wit. To make his way in the world, he will need a little help.”
“It will be my honor to bring him up to the mark.”
“Enough said. Stay out of trouble, and keep your nose clean. When can you start?”
That very day, Byron Bewtt began service for a term of one year, with the unofficial duty of helping the prince in his studies. The princess had to keep her wits about her to play the role so lightly undertaken. In a castle, privacy is hard to come by.
The prince and the page were about the same age. If one made a slip, the other was apt to let it slide. And the page saved the prince from many a gaffe. Not previously known for intelligent remarks, Jim Dandy learned to hold his own in a conversation. If not exactly a voracious reader, he acquired some facts and dates. Though rather vain of his own appearance, he made a real effort to see and connect with the world. He came to rely on Byron Bewtt.
“How would I manage without you?” he said one fine spring day as they played chess. The game was an exercise for the mind and a pleasant pastime. The chess pieces were carved from white alabaster and black onyx.
“You will have to answer that question soon. My year of service has come to an end.”
“No! You are indispensable.”
“Far from it. But I must return to my home country, my family, and my career.”
“What will I do?”
“You will assist your brother the crown prince or strike out on your own.”
“Either way, success will be thanks to you.”
“Not at all. Your own abilities have blossomed.”
“How can I repay you?”
“Getting to know you has been all the reward I wanted.”
“You must take something away as a token. Pick whatever you like. An Italian dagger with a steel blade, a purse of Spanish leather, a gold ring set with a precious stone.”
“All of these are beautiful things, and you are generous to offer them. If you permit, I take this black queen from the chessboard. In its place, though it spoils the set, I leave a lump of lead in the shape of a bee.”
“This bee will never fly away.”
“Unlike the black queen. But I will keep her safe and sound until you take her from me.”
“Never! She is yours for as long as you want.”
“And the bee is yours.”
Shortly after this exchange, Byron Bewtt took leave of Jim Dandy and rode home on the trusty mare, arriving after nightfall. The next morning Brown Betty, dressed once again as a royal princess, went to pay her respects to the king and queen.
“We are delighted to have you back in one piece,” the king said, “not only because we love you, but because of changes at court. As the little crown prince has died, and as your older sister was married a year ago, and as no other close relative is alive, you, Brown Betty, are now heiress apparent.”
“Sire, I am honored.”
“A year at the spa has restored you to health,” the queen said. “You are now as attractive as a young woman in your position can be. After the period of mourning is over, we intend to invite eligible princes to compete for your hand in marriage. A tournament of jousting, with a feast and all the usual folderol. What do you say?”
“Again, I am honored. If I may suggest an alteration to your plans, it would be this. Instead of
a tournament of jousting and warlike feats, I propose a tournament of chess.”
“Chess?” the king and queen said in unison.
“It is a royal game and suitable for princes. Instead of riding full tilt, knocking each other senseless, and hacking each other to bloody pieces, they will plot and scheme and demonstrate their mental skill. Rounds of play will eliminate contenders. The one who is left will then play against me. Winner take all.”
“A highly original idea,” the king said.
“Just the sort of thing you would think of,” the queen said.
A company of eight princes arrived. Some had visited a year before to pay court to Lily White, and they were eager to try their luck again. Some were drawn by the prospect of marrying into a distinguished family, and they were eager to try their wits. And some were so sure of their own merit, they felt that Brown Betty could not do better than to marry them.
The tournament began with four pairs of players, the first round. The four winners then played in two pairs, the second round. The two winners then played a third round, as everyone crowded around the board. Tension ran high, not only because the two young men were two-time winners, but because the stakes were the princess herself. A prince of modest appearance, near-sighted and awkward, but said to be as smart as a whip, was matched against a prince who was strong, handsome, light on his feet, from a noble family, and in all respects excellent—none other than Jim Dandy!
The two chess players battled nearly to a draw, with only a few pieces left on the board. Silence filled the room. Like everyone else, Brown Betty stared at the board. Unlike the crowd, she saw the move that would bring the game to an end. Unable to breathe, she looked away, and the next moment she heard the fatal word:
She whirled around. Jim Dandy had won!
“Congratulations,” she said in a whisper.
“I must also congratulate my opponent,” he said, “for playing so well. Yet my trial is not over. For the final game, if the princess will permit, I brought a set of chess pieces from home. As you see, they are carved from white alabaster and black onyx. Unfortunately, the black queen is missing. A friend was kind enough to give me this lead bee to take its place.”
“I have no objection. For courtesy I choose black. And now if you are ready, let’s begin.”
The game was by no means a foregone conclusion. Each played in earnest, with the eyes of the court and seven princes following every move. As they sat face to face, something about the princess’s style made Jim Dandy dart a questioning glance. Brown Betty gave nothing away.
At last, only a few pieces were left on the board, among them the lead bee. It was white’s turn to play. He was about to take it with his rook, when Brown Betty broke the silence.
“Are you sure that’s what you want?” She took the lead bee from the chessboard and replaced it with a queen carved in black onyx. Onlookers marveled, but he understood at once.
“Yes, I’m sure.” He took the black queen. “I believe, dear princess, the game is over. In three moves, I can take the king. Do you concede?”
“What?” She studied the board and saw what he meant. “Yes. And with that you win my hand in marriage.”
The wedding took place as soon as arrangements could be made. The bride and groom lived happily, of course. They taught their children how to play checkers, cribbage, backgammon . . . and chess.
A wise old woman said to me:
“To every flower comes a bee.”
I said: “What if a flower grows
In a far place where no bee goes?”
“Nature,” she said, “administers
Fair trade in favors, his and hers.
You know that flowers rooted firm
Make pollen, which is the male germ,
While bees that wander out and in
To pollinate are feminine.”
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.