The Cautious King, and the All-round Wise Woman

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From Harper's Weekly Vol. LIII No. 2740 (June 26, 1909)

The caution of the King had skipped a generation. His own parents had been exceeding reckless people, his mother having died when he was very young, from an accident on a chute the chute, and his father having also perished when his son was of very tender years, from pneumonia contracted by sitting in a draught, listening to a very long-winded speech made by his Prime Minister. But the King's grandparents had been so cautious that they had lived to be very old people. The present King was very like his grandparents. He had his grandfather's eyes, and his grandmother's nose, and he had inherited the mental traits of both. These last he evinced when he was a baby in the cradle. He cried, and cried, and made himself so very stiff in the back, and red in the face, that everybody was horribly worried. They called in all the eminent physicians in the kingdom, and the best trained nurses, and they did all they could, but all to no purpose.

At last the situation seemed very desperate. There was a consultation of the eminent physicians, and they agreed that if the King could not be quieted before long he might die, and that would leave his uncle heir to the throne, and the uncle was a very disagreeable man, who petted the Tariff. We will later on describe what an awful thing the Tariff was, and how the people dreaded him.

The physicians did not like to adopt such a course, because they were very jealous of her, but they finally decided that the only possible chance for the King lay in calling in the All-round Wise Woman. The All-round Wise Woman was not recognized as an authority by physicians in regular standing, and yet sometimes they were forced to consult her in emergencies.

The All-round Wise Woman was a very singular person. She was called “all round” because of both her mental and physical attributes. She knew something of all knowledge, and she was round as to her physical make-up. She was as round as a woman could be and not be actually a ball. She was acquainted with all the living languages and all the dead languages. Of course she had to talk to herself in the dead languages, because there was nobody else to talk to. That was how she amused herself. She talked to herself in dead languages, and knitted. She was knitting an umbrella of water-proof silk large enough to cover the whole city. She considered that it would be a great national boon. It could be used on very hot summer days and during rains. Of course it would throw dealers in umbrellas and parasols out of employment, but the people in the city were very patriotic, and they bought a great many umbrellas and parasols in order to enable the dealers to grow rich enough to retire when the city umbrella could be completed.

The All-round Wise Woman lived in a very singular house. It was round, and stood on a strong stem. It looked very much like a puffball, but the stem was constructed like a gigantic corkscrew, and the whole house could be moved on it as on a pivot. By pressing something which looked like an electric button, the house would swing around on its pivot, and the woman consequently could always have the sun or moon shining in the windows of the room which she occupied. The house was entered by means of a skylight. When the woman wished anybody to enter, she threw from this skylight a rope ladder, and she stood with a loaded gun until the head of her visitor appeared. If she wished to admit the visitor she put away the gun, otherwise she fired. The gun was loaded with very strong snuff, and the undesirable visitor would slide sneezing violently down the rope ladder. Usually he would be obliged to lie on the ground outside the house and sneeze about half the day before he recovered sufficiently to be able to leave the precincts. When the delegation from the King's palace went to interview the Wise Woman, she let down the rope ladder as usual, and the Prime Minister climbed up while the woman stood underneath the skylight. “Who is there?” she demanded, and levelled her gun loaded with snuff.

“It is only me,” replied the Prime Minister. He had risen from the ranks, and never used good grammar when he was nervous, and it always made him nervous to have a gun pointed at him.

The Wise Woman lowered her gun at once. “If,” said she, “you are me, you are not yourself, and it is not sense, but never mind. You may enter.”

So the Prime Minister put a leg up over the skylight and entered, and told the Wise Woman how very anxious they were about the King. “He weeps so incessantly,” said the Prime Minister, “that the Court Physician says he may rupture a blood-vessel.”

“Stuff and nonsense!” said the Wise Woman. “You don't even know that he has a blood-vessel. Why, my sakes alive! you don't know that he has a rowboat. He isn't made wrong side out, is he?”

“Of course he isn't,” replied the Prime Minister, who had now recovered sufficiently to speak grammatically. “He is a most beautiful and perfect King. It is not that at all. But every one knows that perfect people have blood-vessels.”

“Nobody knows for sure what he has neither seen, felt, or tasted or heard,” replied the Wise Woman. She sat on a little round stool and the Prime Minister on another. There was between them a round table, on which were a round lamp and a round book, in which was written the wisdom of the Wise Woman. A portrait, in a round frame, of the Wise Woman's grandfather, who had been a noted wizard, completed the furniture of the room. The Prime Minister looked at the Wise Woman, who continued knitting on the City Umbrella, and said nothing for a while. The Prime Minister wished very much to smoke, but did not dare, because his hostess did not approve of it. The Prime Minister, because he could not smoke and needed to do something, reverted to a custom of his childhood. He popped a thumb into his mouth and sucked it, while his big eyes watched the Wise Woman. She did not speak for an hour. She never spoke without much reflection. When she did speak, she rose at the same time and laid her knitting-work aside. “I,” said she, “will go with you and see the King.” She entered her bedroom, and emerged shortly with a round bonnet on her head, and a round cape over her shoulders. She stood up on her stool, and clambered out of the skylight, and the Prime Minister after her. When they had gone down the rope ladder she removed it — it had automatic hooks — and placed it in a box which she kept for the purpose in her garden. The box was labelled “Dynamite. The Rope Ladder is not Within,” and was consequently a very safe hiding-place. The Wise Woman locked the box, which had a large padlock, and put the key in her petticoat pocket. Then she and the Prime Minister set out for the palace. They heard the loud and piteous wails of the King as soon as they came in sight of the walls, and also the Prima Donna singing a lullaby.

“It is terrible,” sighed the Prime Minister.

“I don't know a thing about babies crying on Mars,” replied the Wise Woman, “but I do know how to find out the reason for it on earth.”

“It will be such a calamity if the King dies and his uncle succeeds,” said the Prime Minister.

“Wait till that happens,” returned the Wise Woman. “I should really like to know if you are ever off that bridge before you cross it.”

“The King will certainly break a blood-vessel if he continues to cry,” persisted the Prime Minister.

“The Prima Donna is much more likely to break one than the King,” said the Wise Woman; and then they entered the palace, between the bowing flunkeys, and were at once conducted to the King's nursery.

When the Wise Woman and the Prime Minister entered the King's nursery, which was a very large room, it was quite filled with people, all endeavoring to amuse the King. The Prima Donna was singing, the court fiddlers were fiddling, lackeys were working jumping-jacks, and cups and balls, and every sort of mechanical toy. The noise was terrific, and also the motion, for all the court dancers were whirring and bending before the King. The King, however, did not see anything, for his eyes were tightly closed, and his mouth was wide open, and his wails drowned out every other sound. All the time the Head Nurse rocked the cradle violently, so violently that the King bounced. The Wise Woman stood for a minute looking on.

“Well,” she observed at length, “I should think the King would cry! He wouldn't have any sense if he didn't.”

The Court Physician approached her. “Do you think,” he asked, anxiously, “that there is too much noise, and — too much going on, and that is the reason why the King cries?”

“I think,” said the Wise Woman, “that there is entirely too much going on, and if the King were grown up he would have you all ordered to the scaffold, but that is not the reason why he cries.”

The Court Physician clasped his hands. “Then, Madam, I beg that you give me your diagnosis of the case,” he said.

“I do not need to make a diagnosis,” she replied. “I deal directly with the case. You forget that I am wise.”

“I ask your pardon,” said the Court Physician, and the Wise Woman nodded affably. “It is always easy for the wise to forgive the foolish for their folly,” said she, “and I can tell you at once what the trouble is. This is not a case for a physician or a prima donna or fiddlers or nurses. It is a case for the Court Carpenter.”

“What?” cried everybody in amazement. They were all so amazed that the music and the jumping-jacks, and everything except the rocking the cradle stopped. Of course the Head Nurse dared not stop rocking the cradle, for that seemed more important than anything else.

“Yes, it is a case for the Court Carpenter,” said the Wise Woman. “Order the Court Carpenter to come immediately. The King has inherited caution from his grandfather on his father's side, and his grandmother on his mother's side. It skipped the generations.”

The Court Physician clapped his hands to his head. “Of course, of course!” he exclaimed. “Why did I not think? You have diagnosed the case, Madam. It is a beautiful diagnosis.”

The Wise Woman sniffed. “Pooh!” said she; “it is not a diagnosis. It is the case. The King has inherited caution, and is afraid of being rocked out of his cradle.” Then she spoke sharply to the Head Nurse, and she stopped rocking the cradle, and the Court Carpenter came on a run. “Saw the rockers off the King's cradle at once,” ordered the Wise Woman, and the Carpenter obeyed, although he turned pale. He sawed off the rockers, and immediately the King stopped crying, and began to coo. Then all the Court shook hands with the Wise Woman. “You have saved the King's life,” declared the Prime Minister, and the Court Physician echoed him.

“I have done nothing, except use my wisdom,” replied the Wise Woman. “If a baby cries because he is being rocked, stop rocking him. Now I am going home. It is my supper time.” When the nursery door had been closed after her, everybody stared at one another. “What a very wise woman she is!” they said, and the King crowed with delight. He had been frightened almost out of his royal wits by the rocking and bouncing.

“This has ended very well,” said the Court Physician, with a sigh. “But if the King has inherited caution from two sides of his family, I fear this is only the beginning of much trouble.”

“That is true,” said the Head Nurse; and she also sighed. The Prime Minister nodded solemnly.

“There is one good from it anyway,” said the Head Nurse to the nurse next to her. “It means six months' more wear out of shoes.”

“Yes,” said the next nurse, “rocking a cradle so incessantly is a horrible strain on shoes.”

“Still,” said the Head Nurse, “a cradle without rockers does seem an anomaly.”

Then the Court Physician interposed. “If,” said he, speaking quite sternly, “a King wishes to sleep in an anomaly it is a royal perogative.”

Therefore the King continued to sleep in his rockerless cradle and thrive, and there was no more trouble from that. As he grew up, it is true, his abnormal caution constantly involved his court and people in difficulties, but with the aid of the Wise Woman they were all averted. A war with a foreign Power, even, was conducted most successfully when the King was in his teens.

Although the King was so cautious he was brave, for bravery is not at all incompatible with caution. He did not shrink at all from the war, to which he considered he had great provocation, but he consulted the Wise Woman as to the best way of conducting it with loss to the enemy and little bloodshed on his own side.

“When do you expect the enemy?” asked she.

“The enemy are even now drawn up in battle array across our southern frontier,” replied the King.

“When do you expect them to charge?”

“To-morrow morning as soon as the fog clears.”

“Where is your army?”

“In camp, and ready to march at the word of command. They are very nice soldiers, and it does seem a pity because so many are sure to be killed and wounded,” said the King with a sigh.

“What, may I ask, in the name of common sense, is the need for their being killed or wounded?” remarked the Wise Woman, testily.

The King stared. “But if they go forth to battle?” he said, in a wondering tone.

“Go forth to battle! Stuff and nonsense! Keep them in camp, and give them bacon and eggs fried on both sides for breakfast.”

“Not have them go forth to battle?”

“Of course not. What is the Tariff for?”

“The Tariff?”

“Yes, the Tariff. Isn't he lively?”

“Very lively. He ramps up and down the coast like a whirlwind. The enemy would not have dared approach by water.”

“Very well; set the Tariff on the enemy.”

The King looked rather terrified. “But how?”

“How? Tell him he will have absolutely nothing to eat until he has routed the enemy. Tell him he can have all their guns and bombs and sabres, and uniforms and things, but he cannot have anything else to eat on the coast until the enemy is in full retreat.”

The King, although he was doubtful, obeyed the Wise Woman's instructions, and the enemy fled in shirts and trousers, leaving Tariff sitting in their rear, simply gorging himself with their ammunition and uniforms and supplies. The Tariff was a very terrible monster. He had a head like a donkey's, but his mouth was like a wolf's, and his front legs were very much longer than his hind ones. He was very fastidious, and wore always five hundred buttoned ladies' gloves on his front legs, and ladies' cotton stockings on his hind ones, and he wore out on an average a pair of gloves and a pair of stockings a minute, when he was ramping. Had it not been for his stopping so long and frequently to eat he could have done nothing except put on fresh gloves and stockings. All the ladies in the kingdom went without gloves and stockings because the Tariff used so many. After the Tariff's victory over the foreign foe, people were at first disposed to consider him as a very necessary and desirable evil, for no Power ventured to attack the kingdom for a long time. The Powers were dazed before such an opponent as the Tariff. They were prepared for bombs and bullets, but when it came to a simple gormandization of their own ammunition they were helpless. But after awhile the King realized, and his statesmen also, that the Tariff, if he could not prey upon a foreign Power, would prey upon themselves. They began to long for another war. They were just as provoking as they knew how to be; they violated all the laws of nations in order to bring about hostilities, but to no purpose. They became convinced that they were at the mercy of an insatiable monster, about the time they realized that the young King ought to think about marriage. He was much older than his father had been when he married, but then his father had not been cautious. The King was so cautious that it was a terrible hindrance to his entering the estate of matrimony. “What a frightful risk one does run in marrying!” he often remarked to his Prime Minister. “Suppose I should marry a wife who proved to be a shrew, or had inherited disease, or was too fond of her clothes or of gadding about, or was flirtatious!”

“But, your Majesty,” urged the Prime Minister, “the good of the country demands that you marry.”

“But not the wrong wife,” persisted the King, piteously. “It would be very bad indeed for the country if I married the wrong wife.”

“We must be careful in our choice,” said the Prime Minister.

“But how shall we set about being careful?” said the King. “Of course we cannot expect any princess to reveal any shortcomings before marriage, and we can be very sure that her parents will not. If only wives were guaranteed for a few years like some machines. Ah, no, my dear Prime Minister, it is a most shocking leap in the dark which you ask me to undertake, and no human being can say whether I shall alight in a bed of roses, or very sharp carpet-tacks, or bottomless slush. Matrimony is the most dangerous undertaking in this world, and you ask me, who am perhaps the most cautious monarch of history, to undertake it.”

“Sire, there is no other way,” replied the Prime Minister, firmly.

The King sighed and looked very pale. “It is a truly awful situation,” said he. “Here am I confronted by the Tariff and matrimony at the same time.”

“It is possible,” said the Prime Minister, “that matrimony may solve the situation of the Tariff.”

“I must confess I do not see how,” replied the King, “unless the Queen should insist upon wearing gloves and stockings, and the Tariff should devour her and them bodily. But in that case the Tariff would solve the problem of matrimony, and not matrimony that of the Tariff. It seems to me that your arguments are very fallacious.”

“Sometimes it happens that women, when they want articles of personal adornment and are deprived of them, show wonderful powers of resource,” returned the Prime Minister.

“Then,” said the King, “it seems obvious that we must be on the lookout for a Princess who will not live without gloves and stockings.”

“The Princess Primrosa, the daughter of old King Rhododentrous, is the very one,” said the Prime Minister. “I think she would be eaten alive in small mouthfuls and chewed very small for the sake of nourishment rather than appear even in the seclusion of the palace without stockings and gloves.”

“Well,” sighed the King, “if there is no other course open, that Princess may be approached — or rather her royal father, I suppose.”

“King Rhododentrous has already been approached,” replied the Prime Minister, “and the modistes have the coronation robe almost completed.”

The King gasped. “Without consulting me!”

“Sire,” replied the Prime Minister, “when people have to deal with a cautious King, they have to use strenuous measures.”

“If I had to be a king at all, why was I cautious?” asked the King.

“The answer to that is shrouded in the mysteries of heredity,” said the Prime Minister.

“But,” inquired the King, hesitating, “what — does the Princess say?”

The Prime Minister hesitated a little in his turn, and even colored slightly. “Well, to tell the truth,” he said, “the Princess is romantic.”

“Oh Lord, that too!” gasped the King. “I know what that means — notes under my pillow, and poetry!”

“It is not so much that,” said the Prime Minister.

“What is it, then?”

“Well, to tell the truth, the romanticism of the Princess has taken a most unfortunate turn. She has fallen in love with another.”

“Well, I am not at all sure but that is fortunate,” said the King. “She may spare me the notes and poetry. Who is the Prince or King?”

“That is the unfortunate part of it,” replied the Prime Minister. “I told your Majesty that she was romantic, and she is so much so that she has not fallen in love with a Prince or King at all. In that case we might be able to go to war on her account, and quiet the Tariff a little, but she has fallen in love with the Gardener.”

“The Gardener?”

“Yes, your Majesty, with your own Court Gardener.”

“How extraordinary!”

“It happened in this way, your Majesty,” explained the Prime Minister. “As you are aware, the frontiers of your kingdom adjoin those of King Rhododentrous, and the Royal Gardens are on that frontier, guarded by a very high steel wall. Well, it seems that the very choicest of your Majesty's climbing roses grow over that wall, and the Princess wished for some, and the Court Gardener, who has remarkably good hearing, heard her talking about them to her maids of honor. So he clambered up the steel wall, and —”

“You are talking nonsense,” interrupted the King. “How on earth could the Gardener climb a steel wall?”

“Your gardener is a genius,” replied the prime Minister. “He is an inventor. He is, to speak the truth, a somewhat remarkable young man, and he has good blood in his veins, that is to say, he has royal blood. He is sixteenth grandson of the dynasty which preceded that of your Majesty.”

“Why,” said the King, “did not that dynasty have spirit enough to keep the kingdom?”

“Your sixteenth grandfather had no caution,” answered the Prime Minister.

The King sighed. “Well,” he remarked, “I suppose one has to put up with one's ancestors, but you have not yet told me how the Gardener managed to climb the steel wall.”

“He has invented some magnetic shoes,” replied the Prime Minister. “He simply skimmed the wall like a butterfly, and he then doffed his plumed cap, and presented the lady with a perfect shower of roses. He had carried up his pruning-shears, and he lopped off every rose which she had seen and coveted, and cast them at her feet, and she, being romantic, promptly fell in love.”

“And therefore she objects to wedding me, I presume.”

“Sire, she has not been consulted, but she is very wilful, and although she will have to consent for state reasons, she will be very disagreeable, and will, I am sure, insist upon wearing gloves and stockings.”

“Is she a beautiful Princess?” inquired the King.

“Very beautiful, your Majesty.”

“It seems a hard fate,” said the King, “for a young and beautiful Princess, for the Tariff will surely devour her.” The King sighed, for he was tender-hearted, and he also felt very impatient because of the whole situation. “It is a terrible misfortune for a well-meaning man, who has inherited caution, to be a King,” said he.

The Prime Minister sighed and said nothing, for he quite agreed with the King.

“I should much prefer to be a gardener,” said the King, frowning. “Such a charming and safe pursuit!”

The Prime Minister sighed again.

“Well,” said the King, suddenly, “the audience is at an end. We need time to consider such a momentous project.”

The Prime Minister retired backward, bowing to the ground, and the King sat down to think, after ordering damp towels. He never thought unless he first wrapped his head in wet towels in order to guard against congestion of the brain. As a result of his meditation, he set out incognito that very night to visit the Gardener. He went quite unattended, but he had no fear because he wore his armor. The King's armor was very peculiar. It consisted of a cage of strong wire shaped like a barrel, covered with several thicknesses of wool. His head was encased in an egg-shaped helmet of wire, and he wore steel moccasins. When he neared the Royal Gardens he heard a superb tenor voice singing a serenade, and when the garden gate was opened he beheld the Court Gardener seated upon the top of the steel wall, singing like a nightingale.

The King stood and stared up at the Gardener. “Halloo!” said he.

The Gardener looked down and perceived the King, but since he himself came of royal blood he did not flinch, but finished the stanza before he slid down the wall and knelt before the King.

“Rise,” said the King, graciously. “Is the Princess on the other side?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” replied the Gardener, rising and looking at the King with his bold blue eyes.

“I hear she is in love with you.”

“If she is not,” replied the Court Gardener, “she is certainly out of her head, to be standing there in the dew with a swarm of mosquitoes around; and there are hop-toads in the grass, too.”

“See here,” said the King, and he beckoned the Gardener mysteriously to approach him closely. “If,” whispered the King, “you can only find means to rid this kingdom of the Tariff, you shall have the royal permission to wed the Princess.”

“I beg leave to thank your Majesty,” replied the Gardener, “but I do not want it.”

“Why, do you not love the Princess?”

“Do you think, if I did not, I should be such a fool as to perch like a dicky-bird on the top of a high steel wall and sing a serenade at this time of night?” replied the Gardener. “Of course I love her, but I cannot wed with one of so high degree.”

“Could you rid the kingdom of the Tariff?”

The Court Gardener laughed. “That,” said he, “is the easiest thing in the world, but I will not do it unless I am able to wed the Princess.”

The King stood gazing at him. “It seems a horrible tangle, does it not?” said he.

“Yes, your majesty, it does,” said the Court Gardener.

“I suppose,” said the King, “that there is nothing for it except to consult the Wise Woman.”

“She will know how to unravel the tangle if anybody,” assented the Gardener.

“Well, I will go to her at once,” said the King, “although the night is so warm that I am horribly uncomfortable in my armor. But first I wish to ask a question: Do you find it pleasant being a gardener.”

“Not at all pleasant,” replied the Gardener, promptly.


“I particularly dislike chasing the neighbors' chickens.”

“I think I should enjoy it,” said the King, meditatively. “They never turn upon you, do they?”

“Oh no, they merely cackle and run the wrong way.”

When the King reached the Wise Woman's house he was glad to see a faint glow over the skylight which indicated that she was not in bed, but awake knitting the City Umbrella. The King was promptly admitted, and laid the case before the Wise Woman, who laughed and took another stitch. “It is all so simple,” said she, “that only a King would have come to consult me about it. You evidently do not like being a King.”

“I simply loathe it,” said the King. “It is the most dangerous position in the world.”

“That is doubtless true, and the Gardener does not like to be a gardener.”

“No, he dislikes chasing the neighbors' chickens so much.”

“And the Princess is in love with him, and he with her, and he is not at all cautious, so matrimony has no terrors for him.”

“He is the most reckless young man I ever saw,” said the King.

“And he is able to destroy the Tariff?”

“So he says, and after seeing how he can climb that steel wall, I have no doubt that he speaks the truth.”

“And you think you would enjoy gardening.”

“Oh, that I would!” exclaimed the King, fervently.

“Then,” said the Wise Woman, “tell the gardener that he can take your place as King and wed the Princess on the condition that he destroys the Tariff, and then you can be Gardener. Now, please, your majesty, go home and go to bed, for I want to knit another round on the Umbrella.”

The King obeyed. He was happier than he had ever been before. He went home at once, only stopping at the Garden to inform the gardener of the Wise Woman's opinion. The Gardener at once agreed to the condition. “Your Majesty,” said he, “look along the coast to-morrow morning, and to show that I am honest I hereby agree to divide the spoils with your Majesty.”

“The spoils?” said the King, vaguely.

“Yes, your Majesty. You have never thought that the Tariff was a real created creature, have you?”

“I have not known what he was,” admitted the King.

“Very well, you will find out,” said the Gardener. “Look along the coast to-morrow morning, your Majesty. I shall enjoy being King, and if you do not mind chasing chickens, you will lead an ideal life as Gardener.”

The King and the Gardener parted, each greatly pleased, and the next morning the King went out to look along the coast, upon which he found such a store of precious stones and gold and articles of value, that he knew that he would be as rich as a King, although he was not King, and to that he did not object.

“The Tariff was a made Monster,” said the Gardener, “and he has been simply resolved into component parts by an invention of mine.”

The King tossed his crown gleefully into the air, then handed it over to the Gardener. “Here, take it,” said he, “and may you enjoy it more than I have done.”

The Gardener put on the crown and immediately became a very handsome King, the image of his sixteenth grandfather. He married the Princess Primrosa, who had gloves and stockings all the days of her life, and they were all very happy. The kingdom was the richest in the whole world, the King the most universally loved and admired, and as for the ex-King, he raised the most wonderful roses, and so enjoyed chasing chickens that he never grew old or stout.