Once upon a time, there was a princess who liked to go barefoot. Naturally, her parents and attendants tried to discourage this un-princess-like behavior.
“Put on your shoes! You’re going to catch your death of cold!” the Queen scolded.
“Please, Princess, you’ll get us in trouble!” the chamber maids begged.
“Darling, don’t you like the red slippers I had made for you? They match your dress and are ever so pretty on your tiny tootsies,” the King wheedled.
But nothing anyone said made her want to wear her shoes. When important visitors came to the castle, the Queen had to order the guards to hold her down while other guards tied her shoes on. Only the royal guards could do this, since she kicked with a most un-princess-like ferocity and the chamber maids could not move quickly enough in full armor.
Even with all this fuss, however, the Princess’s various shoes were found discarded in the usual nooks and crannies around the castle — the red dancing shoes in the moat, the pink slippers with ribbons up the chimney, the black riding boots in the Lord Chancellor’s file cabinet. Almost as soon as they had been put on, the Princess would be glimpsed running in the garden, deliberately avoiding the stepping stones so she could squish mud between her toes.
One day the Princess finished lowering the bucket into the well, with her silver sandals inside, and saw a great commotion at the front gate. The visitor (a distant cousin of the king of the country next-door) had arrived early, and he had brought some of his hunting dogs so the King could choose one to his liking as a gift. Since the guards had not known that he was bringing his dogs, they were scrambling to set up a makeshift kennel and were tripping on the dogs’ tails and leashes in the process. The dogs were happy to be let out of the carriage, so they were yapping and howling (especially when they were stepped on by the over-tasked guards) and making a terrific din. The Princess realized that the gate was unguarded — it was the perfect moment for running away outside of the castle!
She crept behind the shrubbery as far as she could, then dashed. One guard was just coming across the drawbridge, having returned from his leave of absence, and saw the Princess pattering towards him. He tried to intercept her to grab her, but the Princess cocked her fist and swung with all her strength. Fortunately, being still a small girl, all her strength was not significant; but unfortunately, being still a small girl, her punch landed in a significant area below the belt, making the poor soldier crumple with a whimper. Heedless, the Princess ran out into the city.
Having never been on the city streets before — at least, not outside of a carriage — the Princess narrowly dodged being trampled upon by several cart-oxen as she darted out from cluttered alleyways into main thoroughfares. In fact, she once startled a donkey so badly that it sat down in the middle of the street, causing a lengthy traffic jam. But the Princess hardly noticed, or cared. She was too engrossed in savoring her new-found freedom, soaking in the sights and sounds of the city.
As she was watching with wide eyes the garrulous exchange of a woman haggling with an oil merchant, she felt a sharp jab in her back. “OW!” She turned to scowl at the source of the pain and was surprised to find a scowl just as ferocious as her own. It was on a smudgy face at about the same level as hers, belonging to a boy whose tattered clothes looked as though they had been dragged backwards through a chimney (which, in fact, they very well could have been). Fists on his hips, the boy exuded hostility from every unwashed pore.
“Who’re you?” he demanded, then added, without waiting for a reply, “This is MY begging corner. Go find yerself another!”
“I don’t want your corner,” the Princess replied with a haughty sniff. “I don’t need to beg — I’m a princess!”
The boy’s scowl gave way to astonishment, then contorted into a laugh. “Yer not jest a beggar, yer teched in the head!” he bawled, as though the humor of the situation physically pained him.
“I am not teched in the head,” she shot back angrily, though she only vaguely construed what it meant, “and I am too a princess!”
“Oh-ho! I jest bet you are! What sorta princess has muddy toes?” he jeered.
The Princess would have answered, except she didn’t have an answer. In fact, his question had made her remember what her mother, the Queen, had always said: “No princess in her right mind would ever be caught without her shoes on!”
She gaped, disconcerted, for a moment. When the boy knew no retort was forthcoming, he laughed even louder and, to call whatever attention he could to the confounded Princess, started shouting, “Make way fer the Barefoot Princess! Her royal highness is come to beg on our humble corner! Bow down to the Beggar Princess!” Gaining the interest of people nearby, he started up a chant: “Barefoot Princess, Beggar Princess, lost her shoes and lost her mind!”
Within seconds there were other street urchins crowding around her, joining the chant and pointing at her filthy feet. One of them yelled, “Her dress is too clean fer beggin’!” and threw a clod of dirt (or worse) at her. The rest joined in, and those of them nearest her tried to wipe their grimy hands on her dress, thereby tearing it in several places.
The Princess, surrounded by so many filthy, grabbing hands and shouting, leering faces, was stunned for a minute. Then she tried to dodge them, this way and that, until someone caught a handful of her hair and yanked. The pain snapped her out of her stupor, and the Princess decided right then, right there, to throw a royal tantrum. She flailed her arms and stomped the ground with her tiny bare feet, screaming, “I AM A PRINCESS! GET AWAY FROM ME OR I’LL HAVE YOU THROWN IN THE DUNGEONS! DON’T YOU DARE PULL MY HAIR AGAIN! AND STOP TOUCHING ME WITH YOUR FILTHY HANDS!”
The children around her started backing away, more from her furious fists than her threats. Some of the older citizens who were looking on, unable to decipher what she was shrieking, thought that she really was a poster child for a mental institution and began discussing which one she ought to be taken to. As none of them volunteered to restrain the little banshee, it was a moot point. However, even the street urchins caught their mood from the words they overheard and, fearing the girl really was a dangerous lunatic, most of them fled with only a few more clumps of refuse thrown in her direction. A few of the bravest, including the boy who had started the whole commotion, tossed bits of rotten cabbage from a nearby vegetable stall, cheering each other whenever a piece came near her open mouth. For the Princess was in the middle of an all-out fit (like the time the Queen forbad her to eat any more strawberry pie after she’d had three quarters) and was on the ground on her back, kicking and beating the air in every direction and screaming with hardly a pause for breath.
Of course, such carrying-on requires much exertion, and before long even the Princess was too tired to scream anymore. She lay panting on the stone pavement, her eyes closed, too exhausted to move. She felt oddly alone and realized that at the castle, even when she was throwing a tantrum, the maids would try to distract her by bringing her favorite toys and sweets, usually to replace whatever she couldn’t have or do. And when there were visitors and she was held down by the royal guards to have shoes forced onto her feet, the guards would try to persuade her to wear them of her own volition. Here, nobody had told her to stop screaming, or to sit up, or to put on her shoes. Nobody had spoken to her at all, except the boy who had made fun of her. Even the adults quickly resumed their business, glad to ignore the responsibility of having her committed. For the first time in her life, she was truly alone. And also for the first time in her life, she felt tears spilling out uncontrollably, and for good reason.
Having screamed herself hoarse, the Princess could only weep silently. She lay on the pavement until it grew dark and dozed, awakening to a street completely deserted except for some garbage and herself. She sat up, stiff and sore, and her empty stomach howled in protest, which also made her aware of her extreme thirst. Her tongue could afford no relief to her parched, chapped lips, and she thought longingly of sweet fruit juices and pies and jelly sandwiches. She decided to go home.
The Princess stood up, thinking of all she would drink and eat, and started walking along the road. She followed the road straight on until her feet began to hurt. Her tiny, unshod feet were unused to walking on hard stone. Then, when she sat to rest them, she abruptly realized that she did not know where she was. She only knew that she had never passed this way before. In all her life, she had never been so frightened! She wanted to cry, but her voice was gone and her head already thudding, so there was nothing for her to do except stand up and keep walking. She often had to sit and rest, napping and dreaming that the whole situation was a nightmare, only to awaken to its brutal reality. Once she shed more tears and tried to soothe her dry lips with them, but was maddened when they stung her cracked skin. Finally, she huddled in a somewhat clean corner and slept.
She slept through the rumbling of the street vendors’ carts. She slept through the earliest wave of shoppers, mostly maids and servants sent out to buy fresh produce for breakfast. What rudely terminated her slumber was a long stick that poked her, held by one of the street urchins from the previous day.
“Beggar Princess, lost her shoes and lost her mind!” it bellowed, then took off running. She rubbed her swollen, salty eyes. Her blackened feet still hurt, although somewhat rested, but her even more painful hunger and now desperate thirst forced her on. She wandered aimlessly until she was drawn by the sounds of the morning market.
The market was in full swing, with local housewives out trading gossip and selecting the day’s groceries. She again avoided being run over by shopping carts and trampled upon by the skin of her teeth, staggering befuddled through the crowd. But she stopped dead in front of one stall. It had ripe melons piled artistically high, with one sliced open to assure the discriminating consumer of its ripeness. Although her mouth was too dehydrated to water, the Princess could almost taste the sweet dew displayed so temptingly. Her grubby hands reached out, without thinking, for the piece of melon.
“Hey now! None of that, you little thief!”
The bearded man glowering down at her had caught both her wrists in an iron grip.
The Princess tried to say something, but her throat was too dry. The merchant’s scowling face frightened her and, tired beyond her limits, she started to cry. Not a tantrum, or a sham to get what she wanted, but unstoppable tears that shook her frame without a sound. The man released one of her hands to scratch his head.
“Well, now,” he muttered, “I know them’s crocodile tears, but she’s a devil of a’ actor, that’s fer sure.”
An old man walked up to the stall and looked at the Princess, then at the merchant, then back at the Princess.
“Zedek, I didn’t know you had a daughter,” he finally said.
“I don’t! This thief just tried to snatch one of my melons. As if I look like a charitable organization,” he grumbled.
“Well,” the old man pointed out, “you can’t hold on to her all day.”
“Of course not! I have a business to run.” The merchant scratched his head again, perplexed.
“Do you mean to hand her over to the authorities?”
“Why, yes! Yes, of course, that’s what I’ll do!”
“Do you have proof that she stole your melon?”
“Proof? I saw her with my own eyes!”
“Stealing your melon?”
“Yes, she was reaching for it, so I grabbed her.”
“But she didn’t actually touch it?”
“No, I caught her before she laid her grubby hands on it.”
“So she didn’t actually touch it…” The old man slowly shook his head. “Zedek, I’m afraid you don’t have a case. They won’t lock her up unless she actually picked up a melon and walked away from your stall.”
The merchant looked confused. “What are you talking about? If I hadn’t stopped her, she would’a ran off with that piece right there!”
“That’s only what you think she would have done. How do you know she wasn’t going to thump one to see if it were ripe?”
The merchant turned purple, thinking furiously. “B-but,” he sputtered, “she don’t gots no money!”
“It doesn’t look like she does, no, but how can you be sure?”
Under the old man’s calm gaze, Zedek paled and scratched his head with more vigor. “Well, she… but… but, it’s so obvious!”
“I know it seems obvious, to you and to me, but the authorities always want proof. And Zedek, when have you ever known them to be reasonable?”
“Well… I… no, I guess not.” He looked at the Princess, a hint of resignation in his face. “So, there’s nothing I can do?”
“I’m afraid not,” the old man answered. “But look at it this way: if you hadn’t caught her, she would have spoiled one of your wares and you would have lost the money it was worth, even if you could have gotten her locked up. This way, even though you have to set her free, you didn’t lose anything.”
A satisfied smile crept into the merchant’s features. “You’re right! I didn’t lose a thing.” He turned to the Princess and said, not unkindly, “Now you! Don’t go nabbing things no more, or next time you could be in big trouble. Go on!”
He released the Princess, who did not comprehend the situation. As she stood there, tears continuing down her cheeks, the old man bent to look into her face. “Now then,” he said, “let’s get you cleaned up.” He gently took her hand and led her further into the marketplace to the center square, where the community water fountain was. The Princess’s tears gradually subsided as they walked, so that by the time they reached the fountain she was only sobbing. Women filling their buckets or doing their laundry there looked up when the old man approached and made way for them; but at the sight of water the Princess broke free from him and, plunging her face into the nearest pool, drank and drank like a thirsty horse. She didn’t even think of all her pretty cups and glasses at the palace — she’d never tasted water so good, so refreshing, or so wet, in all her life.
When she finally had her fill, one of the women (with whom the old man had been talking) took a rag from her pile, rubbed a little soap onto it, told the Princess, “Now let’s just see what kind of face you got under all that mud,” and proceeded to scrub her face quite thoroughly and, to the Princess’s mind, none too gently. “Well! It is a little child after all!” she laughed as the Princess’s skin emerged. Next came her hands and arms, then her legs, then her feet, which stung from all the cuts they had gotten from walking on the stone pavement for so long. They were still sore and tired, too, and the water felt deliciously cool. The woman made her sit on the edge of one pool (which let the water run out and was used for rinsing laundry) with her feet soaking in the mild stream. The Princess was so exhausted that she didn’t even kick and splash about, which ordinarily she would have done.
“Now what are you going to do with her?” the woman asked the old man.
“I suppose I should take her back to her parents,” he replied.
The woman shook her head. “Doesn’t look like she got decent parents, or why would she be out on the street in such a state?”
“You’re probably right, but we should at least ask her.” He walked over to the pool and sat down next to her. “Child, what is your name? Where do you live?”
The Princess was about to answer that she was the Princess and lived in the castle, but then she remembered what had happened the day before. Nobody had believed her (after all, what princess would be caught without any shoes?) and worse, everybody (that she could see, anyway) had been frightfully cruel to her. Not daring to say anything true and not knowing what else to say, she fell silent, gazing at her toes.
The old man sighed. “I thought as much. How would you like to come live with my wife and me?”
The Princess looked up into the old man’s eyes. They were filled with warmth and kindness — something she would not have noticed before. Slowly, almost shyly, she nodded.
“Well then,” he said, “let’s go home.”
The old man’s home turned out to be a small room in a large stone building, with one window in the wall and a fireplace in the corner which served as both furnace and kitchen. When they walked in, an old woman (the old man’s wife) was stirring a pot in the fireplace.
“Did you get any greens, my dear?” she asked without looking up.
“Yes, my dear, the greengrocer was especially generous today,” he answered, “and a good thing, too, since we have company.”
Startled, she looked up, saw the Princess, and dropped the wooden spoon with a little cry of surprise. “Well!” she gasped. “Well now, let me take a look at you! My, my, what a state your clothes are in,” she murmured, kneeling down in front of the Princess and pushing back some of her disheveled hair to see her face. “What a darling!” she exclaimed, a smile brightening her wrinkles. “Wherever did you find such a darling? And look, such pretty hair!” Even as she spoke, she had reached for her own comb and started untangling the Princess’s locks.
“My dear,” her husband reminded, “you may fuss over her pretty hair as much as you want, but right now I think she would like something to eat.”
“Why, bless me, of course she would!”
Without further ado, she washed the greens, chopped them, and stirred them into the pot. Soon all three were sitting by the table (the Princess on the churning stool, since there were only two chairs) eating hot porridge. The Princess thought she had never tasted anything quite so delicious as that watery bowl of porridge. She was hungry for more, but even she could see that the pot was empty, and still being a bit shy of the old woman, she did not say a word.
After breakfast the old man went back to the fountain to fetch some water while his wife finished combing the Princess’s hair. They heated the water with the last of their firewood and the old woman gave her a bath. She was dressed in the old man’s other shirt (which came down to her ankles) and pronounced a perfect darling by both of them. Since she did not dare tell them her real name, they decided “Darling” would do just fine. And so, settled into her new family, the Princess (or Darling) started her new life.
Every day the old man found odd jobs to do around town, since he was handy at fixing things, whether of wood or stone or metal. This, combined with his wife’s bit of knitting that they sold at market, comprised their meager income. The wood they used for fire had to be gathered from the forest beyond the town walls, and the Princess — or Darling — often went with the old woman to help find some and carry it back home. She now called them “Grandfather” and “Grandmother,” and was eager to earn their praise. When they said she was such a help to them that they didn’t know how they had gotten along without her, she glowed with pleasure, not realizing that her labor hardly made up for her board and keep.
She quickly got over her shyness and fell back into the habit of prattling every thought that entered her head. Mercifully, there were not many of those, and because her new lifestyle was much different from her old, she had a great many questions to ask about everything. In fact, if she remembered everything the old couple told her, she might have become very wise and knowledgeable; as it was she learned a few useful things, such as how to churn butter without spilling the cream, how to knit (rather poorly, for her mind tended to wander), and how to make porridge. Porridge was the staple of their diet. Darling thought at first that they could not eat meat and other things because they were old, but later realized that it was because meat and other things were expensive, much too expensive for the old couple to afford — especially, though they did not say it, with an additional mouth to feed.
So, she continued on in her state of bliss, not knowing, not caring, as long as there was something to put in her stomach at the end of each day. She often awoke late at night, either thirsty or the reverse, always to find them both working (she on her knitting and he on some small repair) in the dim firelight, but they told her they didn’t need as much sleep because they were old, and she believed them.
Meanwhile her parents, the King and Queen, had issued orders throughout the kingdom for their soldiers to search for the missing Princess, with even a handsome sum of gold coins offered as a reward. At first they were frantic with worry, but as time passed and no word was heard on Her Truant Highness (for nobody recognized the barefoot urchin as the Princess) they began to give her up for lost — for good. And the chambermaids and royal guards (and the Lord Chancellor) could not help but notice that life at the castle was much more quiet and orderly since the Princess had left.
One day Darling came home after fetching some water at the fountain and found the old couple whispering and giggling conspiratorially. She saw, to her surprise, that there was a bit of fish (which was less expensive than meat) in their porridge. As they sat around the table — Darling in the new chair the old man had made — eating the special porridge, the old woman winked at her and said they had splurged today. Darling did not know what “splurged” meant, but it tasted delicious. Then, after dinner was done and they had finished cleaning up, the old man cleared his throat.
“Come sit by the fire, Darling,” he said, pulling her chair up to the fireplace. She obeyed, thinking she was going to be taught a new style of knitting. The old woman went to the cupboard and took something out, but hid it behind her back as she walked towards them.
“We would have gotten them sooner, if we could have,” she confessed, “but at least you’ll have them in time for winter.”
She held out what she had hidden for Darling to see. It was a small pair of shoes.
Darling looked at the shoes, then looked at the old woman, the old man, and the old man’s shoes and the old woman’s shoes. Both of their pairs were worn and scuffed, and on the bottoms, where she couldn’t see, she knew they had been repaired many times. She looked at the little pair held out to her, which were only very slightly used. She took them and, without a word, she put them on. But tears slipped down her cheeks. She finally realized that they had put off buying new shoes for themselves in order to buy hers. It even began to occur to her that this was why they had been working so hard, late into the night. She knew by now, without asking, that shoes were expensive.
“Well? How do they feel?” the old man asked, his expression eager.
Instead of answering, Darling walked over to him and hugged him as tightly as she could — which, perhaps, was the best answer of all. She hugged the old woman very tightly, too. Then she looked at her shoes again. She pursed her lips and thought very hard.
“Now that I have shoes, I can be a Princess again,” she thought. “But I don’t want to leave Grandmother and Grandfather… they wouldn’t know what to do without me! Papa and Mama have lots of money, so they don’t need me to work for them.” She squinted her eyes and thought even harder. “But maybe if I go back to being a Princess, I could give Grandfather and Grandmother my Princess shoes, and they could sell them. Then they could buy new shoes for themselves!”
Looking determinedly up at the old couple, who were still waiting for her to say something (for she was usually never this quiet), she declared, “You have to come with me!”
She grabbed a hand each of the old couple and started dragging them to the door.
“But Darling, it’s late! It’s your bedtime.”
“Wherever are you going? It’s dark outside!”
“Oh, I can find my way,” she replied, still tugging (for she did know the streets of the city by now). “I can’t sleep yet, anyway. Come on!”
She released their hands and dashed outside. They reluctantly followed, bewildered by her behavior, but before they had a chance to speak she was back, hurrying them along.
When they finally came in sight of the castle gate, Darling darted across the drawbridge and was confronted by the sentry. “Halt! What goes there?”
“Let me through! I am the Princess, and I’ve brought Grandmother and Grandfather to give them my shoes!”
The sentry stooped to look at the Princess’s face, holding his lantern close. The old couple arrived, panting, just as he yelped and instinctively jumped back — for, as it happened, this was the guard the Princess had felled the day of her escape. When he started shouting for the Captain, the old couple thought their Darling had done something to get them all arrested. Shocked, they watched as she marched across the grounds to the main entrance, from which the royal guards were pouring out; then deciding that they couldn’t let their little Darling go to her fate alone, they trudged after her. Much to their surprise, the guards let out a cheer and hustled all three of them into the castle. Even more wondrous was the sight of the King and Queen, both bursting into tears and running to welcome Darling with hugs and kisses, then hugging each other and the nearby guards out of sheer delight.
“Our Princess! Our darling Princess is home! She’s safe and sound!” they cried.
Only then did the old couple realize the truth. They attempted to apologize for keeping the Princess so long, but the King would not hear of it, so overjoyed was he, and instead he ordered the reward for finding the Princess to be brought and presented to the couple. They stared in disbelief at the large bag of gold coins thrust into their hands, as did the Princess, who hadn’t thought that her Papa would have (naturally) offered a reward.
“But I was going to give them my shoes…” she faltered.
“What on earth,” asked the King, “would they do with your tiny shoes?”
“I thought they could sell them and buy new shoes for themselves.”
The couple suddenly started to weep, but the old man managed to smile through his tears. “With all this gold, we can buy all the new shoes we want.”
“You can keep your own shoes, which must be much nicer than those,” added his wife.
“But I like these,” the Princess insisted. “I don’t need the others.”
The Queen had burst into fresh tears when she realized that her daughter was actually wearing shoes. Dabbing her eyes with a royal handkerchief, she laughed, sighed, and told the Princess, “Then you may give your other shoes to children who don’t have any. As long as you promise,” she added, trying to look stern (which is a hard thing to do when you’re crying and laughing and very glad to see that your little girl is alive and well and wearing shoes), “to never run away ever again!”
The Princess promised. And she even got so used to wearing shoes that she continued to wear them, even after those ones were completely worn out and she only kept them in a pretty box to look at. And the old couple — who were now rich — built a house right next to the castle, so their Darling Princess could run over to visit them whenever she liked.