In a kingdom where cunning, virtue, and kindness were prized above all else, there dwelt a princess. She was not comely. In fact, her round freckled face with its flat blunt nose and her rather squat figure would have looked more at home on a farm than in the royal reception hall. But because the princess was good, clever, and compassionate, her people held her in the highest esteem.
When she was of age to marry, her parents had a portrait made of her and sent this off with a parchment roll detailing her many virtues and accomplishments, as was the custom of all the surrounding kingdoms. Many days passed, and then weeks, but to the surprise of all, no envoys from any of the other kingdoms arrived declaring their royal princes’ desire to become acquainted with the princess.
“Surely she is accomplished and clever enough to interest at least one royal person, even if he were not so much as a minor prince,” her parents said.
One day the advisor came before the king. The advisor had lived abroad in his youth and knew the strange ways of other kingdoms. “Your proposal requires careful handling,” the advisor said. “Permit me to send off another portrait and parchment, and trust to me to interest a prince within the week.” The puzzled king and queen were only too glad to give the matter over to their advisor, who had proven himself in the past to be shrewd in dealing with the peculiar methods of foreigners.
The advisor accordingly sent another portrait and parchment out to each of the surrounding kingdoms. Within the week, just as he had promised, arrived the first letter of interest, stating a neighboring prince’s desire to make the princess’s acquaintance and thereafter court her if their meeting proved favorable. The princess was beside herself with excitement, and the king and queen congratulated themselves as if the marriage had already come off.
It was arranged that the princess would be conducted to the distant kingdom by the advisor, a small guard, and one handmaid. It was not one of the princess’s usual handmaids, who were all clever enough to converse with her, but a dull commoner that the advisor had hand-picked himself and insisted must accompany them. The princess was kind to the girl, but it was plain that the girl was better suited to wait on the cows and pigs of the farm she had come from.
When they had crossed the border between the two kingdoms, the advisor insisted that the princess veil herself. When she protested, the advisor reminded her that he alone knew of the strange ways of foreigners and that under her royal father and mother’s orders, she was to follow his directions that all might turn out as it should. He forbade her lift the veil under any circumstance until he expressly bade her do so. Finding that the veil, though opaque to outside eyes, did not much obstruct her view of the world, the princess acquiesced and rode on, closely followed by her handmaid.
They entered the castle where the advisor presented the princess and her handmaid to the eager prince. Everyone was astonished by the matter in which he presented them, saying, “My liege, I bring before you two halves of a whole, the beauty of the face and the beauty of the heart.” He brought the handmaid forward and said, “This represents the beauty of our kingdom’s heart: the virtuous princess.” Then by a word the princess stepped forward. “This represents the heart of the princess herself, veiled and unseen as every heart is, but ready to reveal itself to those who truly seek to behold its beauty.”
The princess was every bit as astonished as the prince and everyone else by this introduction, but remained silent, per the advisor’s orders.
“Is this a test of some sort?” the prince asked.
“It is,” the advisor said with a nod.
“I accept,” the prince said, intrigued.
From that day onward, the princess was never to go anywhere unless she had the veil on, and was always to be accompanied by her handmaid.
The princess soon learned for herself of the strange manners of foreigners when, on the following day, she and her handmaid joined the prince out in a walled garden. The prince could not stop staring at the face of the princess’s companion, which he praised as the most beautiful of faces belonging to the loveliest of forms he had ever beheld. The handmaid became alarmed at being the object of such strange attention. She had never been praised before, and as she was so dull, she could think of nothing to say to the prince’s misplaced adulation. The princess, perceiving her servant’s acute discomfort, came to her rescue by deflecting the prince’s questions and comments to herself.
And so it was that every day, the three would meet in the garden, and while the prince would stare with steadfast longing at the lovely face of the shy handmaid, he would converse in lively and animated tones with the mysterious veiled figure at the lovely maiden’s side.
The prince could not understand the purpose of the test, and became more and more confused as time wore on. He found himself in love with the beautiful maid’s form, but had fallen just as much in love with the veiled maiden’s voice and manner of bodily expression.
After many weeks of continuing on like this, the prince grew impatient and commanded that the princess remove her veil. He had asked her every day since the first they had spent together in the garden but she had always refused. On this day, however, the princess realized she had fallen in love with the prince, and wished to do his bidding. Despite her advisor’s orders, she slowly pulled away the veil from her face. The prince drew back with a gasp and could not stop himself from exclaiming, “You are not beautiful!” He could also not hide his terrible disappointment.
“Am I not?” she asked, startled by his words. “You said not more than an hour since that I had a beautiful voice and a beautiful heart. Do you now retract these words because of my simple, wholesome face? Why should my appearance matter so much to you?”
The prince became master of himself, and said nothing more, but he could not make himself look at her again. It was then that the princess understood. “Is the beauty of a face the most desirable quality you would have in a wife?” The prince mumbled that he had thought that surely her face would match her voice and mind. He had been tricked!
“The only one that has tricked you is yourself,” the princess said warmly. “I understand now why my advisor bid me veil my face. Not only have you failed this test, you have failed in your professed devotion to me. I would not have you now even if you were to offer me ten kingdoms. Take my handmaid to wife, if you would, and learn for yourself that there is no merit in a pretty face only. She does not understand you. She cannot converse with you. Her mind is too simple. I value her for her loyalty and virtue, but I see now that you do not even value me for that.” Then, beside herself with heartbreak, the princess rushed away, leaving the prince alone with her handmaid.
That evening the prince found the advisor and angrily reprimanded him. The advisor listened in silence until the young man had finished his tirade, then answered simply, “You failed the test. You are not worthy of our dear princess. I am sorry for it, for I thought I saw in you a keen intellect and understanding, a deeper love and appreciation for the beauty of the immaterial world. I see now that my hope blinded me and I was woefully mistaken. Good day and good life to you, prince. I wish you as much happiness as a pretty face can bestow.”
The advisor whirled away and had taken several steps when the prince commanded him to stop. The advisor turned around and fixed a cold expectant stare on the prince. “I admit that I am angry that you deceived me with this matter of the veil,” the prince said, “but I willingly agreed to the test, and so will lay that matter to rest. But I have the right to demand an explanation for the falseness your kingdom displayed in sending me the portrait of the beautiful servant girl instead of the princess.”
“Did you read the accompanying letter carefully?” the advisor said, looking haughtily down his nose at the prince. “It stated that the portrait was a truthful representation of the beauty of the heart of our dear princess. It did not anywhere state that it was a likeness of the princess herself.”
The prince cursed him and his trickery, and forbade him from setting foot in his kingdom again.
The next morning the princess and the advisor left the prince’s kingdom, leaving the beautiful handmaid behind. They traveled many days and reached their own kingdom in safety. The princess was in truth quite aggrieved, but her people showed forth so much love and concern for her that she made an effort to be cheered.
Several months passed, and though the princess could not forget her love for the prince, she did not dwell on what could have been, but pressed forward with her own activities and accomplishments. Sometimes she found herself staring curiously at her appearance in the mirror, but she refused to place any value on her lack of physical beauty. “I would never be happy living with one who did,” she would tell herself, and was comforted.
One day an invitation arrived inviting the princess and the royal family to the wedding of the prince, which was to take place a week hence. The princess trembled as she read the invitation; she could not help it. But she had sorely missed her lively conversations with the prince, and desired to speak with him again. She was also curious to see how her simple handmaid was bearing up under the expectation of all the splendor that was soon to be hers as the daughter-in-law of a king.
After several days’ journey, the princess’s family arrived at the prince’s castle. The king and queen preceded her inside; the princess had asked for a little time to prepare herself. When she finally entered, the guards in front of the entrance to the feasting room blocked her way. The prince had commanded that she don a veil before entering, that she not to remove it unless told to do so, and that she not to reveal her identity to anyone, not even to her own friends or family. The princess, though feeling more sorrowful than ever, quietly acquiesced to these terms. She entered the wedding hall full of humiliation that the prince would go to such lengths to avoid looking at her plain face.
Her astonishment could easily be imagined when, on entering the wedding hall, she saw that every other maiden also wore a veil. Remembering the guards’ injunction not to reveal her identity, she mingled among the others incognito, and found that they were just as confused as she. Was this some grand game, or a strange new tradition?
When the time for the wedding to take place drew near, excited whispers rolled over the gathered guests in waves. Here was the prince, but no bride!
The prince stood at the front of the room and scanned the groups of veiled figures. Everyone grew silent and expectant, but still the prince said nothing, and still there was no sign of his bride. He stepped off the dais and stood close to one veiled figure, then moved to stand near another, then another, and so on, making his way around the room. All eyes followed him as everyone grew more and more mystified.
As the prince drew near the veiled princess, she gave a little gasp; her heart beat so fast and loud she was sure everyone in the room must be able to hear it. The prince had stood beside her in silence for several moments when she suddenly turned away to flee. Seeing him and being near him again had made her realize that she could never witness his marriage to another, not when she loved him with all her heart as she did.
“Wait!” the prince cried, rushing forward. He grasped her hand and she was compelled to turn toward him. He then caught her arm in his and walked through the crowd of murmuring figures to the dais. There he stopped to face her and raised his hand for silence. “I once failed a test of love,” the prince said in the instant hush that followed, “and lost the most beauteous heart that ever beat in this world. And so I set myself another test, in the hopes that I would pass this time, and regain what I had lost through my own willful blind folly.” The prince stared at the veiled princess and dropped to one knee. “Princess, I know now what it is to lose one’s heart to another’s beauty, for when your heart left my kingdom, it took my heart with it. I beg a thousand apologies from thee. When you would teach me what true love was, I scorned it, measuring love by the eyes alone. Will you consent to give me your hand in marriage, that I might behold the beauty of thy heart all the rest of my days?”
The princess was at first speechless with surprise and emotion, but soon recovering herself, she said, “But you have not yet looked upon me. How do you know I am the princess you speak of?”
“Were these eyes of mine to be plucked from my head, my heart would still know thee. After you left I tried to satisfy myself with gazing on the lovely face of your handmaid, but there my love ended. She does not love me, but rather fears me, as she cannot understand the thoughts and sentiments my heart revealed to yours during our many conversations in the garden. I wished to prove to you that I had truly been in err, but I did not then think myself worthy of your love. At last I resolved upon another test, which winning result you see before you.”
“But you have not yet explained how it is that you know I am the princess you seek,” the veiled princess insisted.
“Do not the tones of that voice reveal it is you?” he asked. “And the dainty gestures of those hands? And the way you move as you walk? But even were you not to speak or move, I would still know it was you. I told myself that if I loved the servant with the pretty face, then my heart ought to know her when it drew near to her, but I felt nothing as I passed each veiled maiden in this room. With you it was different. When I stood near you, my heart beat wild with joy and hope. It knew better than my eyes ever did the true treasure I sought.”
“Then you have indeed passed the test, and I will marry you!” the princess cried. The prince joyfully bid all present to reveal their faces except that of his dearest beloved. The priest was called to step forward, and before all assembled, married the prince and the princess, binding their two glad hearts into one.
When the priest bid the prince kiss his bride, he tenderly lifted the veil from the princess’s plain face. Love and the beauty of the heart had transformed it into an image more dear than any he had beheld before. He kissed her, and then pressed her beauteous heart to his joyous one.