The Wise Princess by Mary De Morgan

Once upon a time lived a King whose wife was dead and who had one little daughter who was named Fernanda. She was very good and pretty, but when she was a child she vexed all her ladies by asking them questions about everything she saw.

"Your Highness should not wish to know too much," they told her, whereat Princess Fernanda threw up her little head, and said,

"I want to know everything."

As she grew up she had masters and mistresses to teach her, and learnt every language and every science; but still she said, "It is not enough; I want to know more."

In a deep cave underground there lived an old Wizard who was so wise that his face was well-nigh black with wrinkles, and his long white beard flowed to his feet. He knew all sorts of magic, and every day and night sat poring over his books till now there seemed to be nothing left for him to learn.

One night after every one was asleep, Princess Fernanda rose and slipped softly down the stairs and out of the palace unheard by any one, and stole away to the Wizard's cave.

The old man was sitting on his low stool reading out of an immense book by a dim green light, but he raised his eyes as the Princess entered at the low doorway, and looked at her. She wore a blue and silver robe, but her bright hair was unbound, and fell in ripples to her waist.

"Who are you, and what do you want with me?" he asked shortly.

"I am the Princess Fernanda," she said, "and I wish to be your pupil. Teach me all you know."

"Why do you wish for that?" said the Wizard: "you will not be better or happier for it."

"I am not happy now," said the Princess sighing wearily. "Teach me and you shall find me an apt pupil, and I will pay you with gold."

"I will not have your gold," said the Wizard, "but come to me every night at this hour, and in three years you shall know all I do."

So every night the Princess went down to the Wizard's cave while all the court were sleeping. And the people wondered at her more and more, and said, "How much she knows! How wise she is!"

When the three years had gone by the Wizard said to her, "Go! I can teach you no more now. You are as wise as I." Then the Princess thanked him and went back to her father's palace.

She was very wise. She knew the languages of all animals. The fishes came from the deep at her call, and the birds from the trees. She could tell when the winds would rise, and when the sea would be still. She could have turned her enemies to stone, or given untold wealth to her friends. But for all that, when she smiled, her lips were very sad, and her eyes were always full of care. She said she was weary, and her father thought she was sick, and would have sent for the physicians, but she stopped him.

"How should physicians help me, my father," she said, "seeing that I know more than they?"

One night, a year after she had taken her last lesson from the Wizard, she arose and returned to his cave, and he raised his eyes and saw her standing before him as formerly.

"What do you want?" he said. "I have taught you all I know."

"You have taught me much," she said, falling on her knees beside him, "yet I am ignorant of one thing—teach me that also—how to be happy.'

"Nay," said the Wizard with a very mournful smile; "I cannot teach you that, for I do not know it myself. Go and ask it of them who know and are wiser than I."

Then the Princess left the cave and wandered down to the sea-shore. All that night she spent sitting on a rock that jutted out into the sea, watching the wild sky and the moon coming and going behind the clouds. The sea dashed up around her, and the wind blew, but she did not fear them, and when the sun rose the waters were still and the wind fell. A skylark rose from the fields and flew straight up to heaven, singing as though his heart would burst with pure joy.

"Surely that bird is happy," said the Princess to herself; and she called it in its own tongue.

"Why do you sing?" she asked.

"I sing because I am so happy," answered the lark.

"And why are you so happy?" asked the Princess.

"So happy?" said the lark. "God is so good. The sky is so blue, and the fields are so green. Is that not enough to make me happy?"

"Teach me, then, that I may be happy too," said Princess Fernanda.

"I cannot," said the lark; "I don't know how to teach;" and then he rose, singing, into the blue overhead, and Princess Fernanda sighed and turned back towards the palace.

Outside her door she met her little lap-dog, who barked and jumped for joy on seeing her.

"Little dog," she said; "poor little dog, are you so glad to see me? Why are you so happy?"

"Why am I so happy?" said the little dog, surprised. "I have plenty to eat, and a soft cushion to rest upon, and you to caress me. Is not it enough to make me happy?"

"It is not enough for me," said the Princess, sighing; but the little dog only wagged his tail and licked her hand.

Inside her room was the Princess's favourite little maid Doris, folding up her dresses.

"Doris," she said, "you look very merry. Why are you so happy?"

"Please your Royal Highness, I am going to the fair," answered Doris, "and Luke is to meet me there; only," she added, pouting a little, "I wish I had a pretty new hat to wear with my new dress."

"Then you are not perfectly happy, so you cannot teach me," said Princess Fernanda, and then she sighed again.

In the evening at sunset she arose, and went out into the village, and at the door of the first cottage to which she came, sat a woman nursing a baby, and hushing it to sleep. The baby was fat and rosy, and the mother looked down at it proudly.

The Princess stopped, and spoke to her.

"You have a fine little child there," she said. "Surely you must be very happy."

The woman smiled.

"Yes," she said, "so I am; only just now my goodman is out fishing, and as he's rather late, it makes me anxious."

"Then you could not teach me," said the Princess, sighing to herself as she moved away. She wandered on till she came to a church, which she entered. All was still within, for the church was empty; but before the altar, on a splendid bier, lay the body of a young man, who had been killed in the war. He was dressed in his gay uniform, and his breast was covered with medals, and his sword lay beside him. He was shot through the heart, but his face was peaceful and his lips were smiling. The Princess walked to his side, and looked at the quiet face. Then she stooped and kissed the cold forehead, and envied the soldier. "If he could speak," she said, "he surely could teach me. No living mouth could ever smile like that." Then she looked up and saw a white angel standing on the other side of the bier, and she knew it was Death.

"You have taught him," she said, holding out her arms. "Will you not teach me to smile like that?"

"Nay," said Death, pointing to the medals on the dead man's breast, "I taught him whilst he was doing his duty. I cannot teach you." And so saying he vanished from her sight.

She went out from the church down to the sea-shore. There was a high sea, and a great wind, a little child had been playing on a row of rocks, and had slipped off them into the water, and was struggling among the waves, and would soon be drowned, for he was beyond his depth in the water.

When the Princess saw him, she plunged into the water and swam to where the child was, and taking him in her arms, placed him safely on the rocks again, but the waves were so strong that she could scarcely keep above them. As she tried to seize the rocks, she saw Death coming over the water towards her, and she turned to meet him gladly.

"Now," said he, clasping her in his arms, "I will teach you all you want to know;" and he drew her under the water, and she died.

The Kings servants found her lying on the shore, with her face white and her lips cold, but smiling as they had never smiled before, and her face was very calm. They carried her home, and she was laid out in great state, covered with gold and silver.

"She was so wise," sobbed her little maid, as she placed flowers in the cold hand, "she knew everything."

"Not everything," said the skylark from the window; "for she asked me, ignorant though I am, to teach her how to be happy."

"That was the one thing I could not teach her," said the old Wizard, looking at the dead Princess's face. "Yet I think now she must be wiser than I, and have learned that too. For see how she smiles."