Once upon a time there was a very rich and powerful king who, in spite
of having been married several times, had only two daughters.
The elder was extremely plain–she squinted and was hunchbacked; but
at the same time she was very clever and amusing, so, though at heart
both spiteful and untruthful, she was her father’s favourite.
The younger princess, on the other hand, was both lovely and
sweet-tempered, and those who knew her well could hardly say whether
her charming face or pleasant manners was the more attractive.
The neighbouring country was governed by a young emperor, who, though
not much over twenty years of age, had shown great courage in battle,
and, had he wished it, might very likely have conquered the whole
world. Luckily he preferred peace to war, and occupied his time with
trying to rule his own kingdom well and wisely. His people were very
anxious that he should marry, and as the two princesses were the only
ladies to be heard of of suitable age and rank, the emperor sent
envoys to their father’s court to ask for the hand of one of them in
marriage. But, as he was resolved only to marry a woman whom he could
love and be happy with, he determined to see the lady himself before
making up his mind. For this purpose he set out in disguise not long
after the departure of his ambassadors, and arrived at the palace very
soon after they did; but as he had foolishly kept his plan secret, he
found, when he reached the court, that they had already made proposals
for the elder princess.
Now the emperor might just as well have gone openly, for his presence
soon became known; and when the king heard of it he prepared to
receive him royally, though of course he had to pretend that he had no
idea who he was. So it was settled that the ambassadors should present
their master under the name of one of the princes, and in this manner
he was received by the king.
At night there was a grand ball at which the young emperor was able to
see the two princesses and to make their acquaintance. The ugly face
and figure and spiteful remarks of the elder displeased him so greatly
that he felt he could not marry her even if she owned ten kingdoms,
whilst the sweet face and gentle manners of the younger sister charmed
him so much that he would gladly have shared his throne with her had
she been only a simple shepherdess.
He found it very difficult to conceal his thoughts and to pay the
elder princess the amount of attention due to her, though he did his
best to be polite; while all he saw or heard during the next few days
only increased his love for her younger sister, and at last he
confessed that his dearest wish was to make her his wife, if she and
her father would grant his desire.
He had commanded his ambassadors to put off their farewell audience
for a little time, hoping that the king might perceive the state of
his feelings; but when it could be deferred no longer, he bade them
propose in his name for the younger princess.
On hearing this news, so different from what he had been led to
expect, the king who–as we have said before–was devoted to his elder
daughter and entirely under her influence, could hardly contain his
displeasure. Directly the audience was over he sent for the princess
and told her of the insolent proposal the emperor had made for her
sister. The princess was even more furious than her father, and after
consulting together they decided to send the younger daughter to some
distant place out of reach of the young emperor; but _where_ this
should be they did not quite know. However, at length, after they had
both racked their brains to find a suitable prison, they fixed on a
lonely castle called the Desert Tower, where they thought she would be
Meantime, it was thought best to let the court gaieties go on as
usual, and orders were given for all sorts of splendid entertainments;
and on the day that was fixed for carrying off the princess, the whole
court was invited to a great hunt in the forest.
The emperor and the young princess were counting the hours till this
morning, which promised to be so delightful, should dawn. The king and
his guest arrived together at the meeting-place, but what was the
surprise and distress of the young man at not seeing the object of his
love amongst the ladies present. He waited anxiously, looking up and
down, not hearing anything that the king said to him; and when the
hunt began and she still was absent, he declined to follow, and spent
the whole day seeking her, but in vain.
On his return, one of his attendants told him that some hours before
he had met the princess’s carriage, escorted by a troop of soldiers
who were riding on each side, so that no one could get speech of her.
He had followed them at a distance, and saw them stop at the Desert
Tower, and on its return he noticed that the carriage was empty. The
emperor was deeply grieved by this news. He left the court at once,
and ordered his ambassadors to declare war the very next day, unless
the king promised to set free the princess. And more than this, no
sooner had he reached his own country than he raised a large army,
with which he seized the frontier towns, before his enemy had had time
to collect any troops. But, ere he quitted the court, he took care to
write a letter to his beloved princess, imploring her to have
patience and trust to him; and this he gave into the hands of his
favourite equerry, who would he knew lay down his life in his service.
With many precautions the equerry managed to examine the surroundings
of the tower, and at last discovered, not only where the princess
lodged, but that a little window in her room looked out on a desolate
plot full of brambles.
Now the unhappy princess was much annoyed that she was not even
allowed to take the air at this little window, which was the only one
in her room. Her keeper was her elder sister’s former nurse, a woman
whose eyes never slept. Not for an instant could she be induced to
stir from the side of the princess, and she watched her slightest
One day, however, the spy was for once busy in her room writing an
account of the princess to her elder sister, and the poor prisoner
seized the opportunity to lean out of the window. As she looked about
her she noticed a man hidden amongst the bushes, who stepped forward
as soon as he caught sight of her, and showed her a letter, which he
took from his jerkin. She at once recognised him as one of the
emperor’s attendants, and let down a long string, to which he tied the
letter. You can fancy how quickly she drew it up again, and luckily
she had just time to read it before her gaoler had finished her report
and entered the room.
The princess’s delight was great, and next day she managed to write an
answer on a sheet of her note book, and to throw it down to the
equerry, who hastened to carry it back to his master. The emperor was
so happy at having news of his dear princess, that he resolved, at all
risks, to visit the Desert Tower himself, if only to see her for a
moment. He ordered his equerry to ask leave to visit her, and the
princess replied that she should indeed rejoice to see him, but that
she feared that her gaoler’s watchfulness would make his journey
useless, unless he came during the short time when the old woman was
writing alone in her own room.
Naturally, the bare idea of difficulties only made the emperor more
eager than ever. He was ready to run any risks, but, by the advice of
the equerry, he decided to try cunning rather than force. In his next
letter he enclosed a sleeping powder, which the princess managed to
mix with her gaoler’s supper, so that when the emperor reached the
tower in the evening the princess appeared fearlessly at her window on
hearing his signal. They had a long and delightful conversation, and
parted in the fond hope that their meeting had not been observed. But
in this they were sadly mistaken. The watchful eyes of the old nurse
were proof against any sleeping draught–she had seen and heard all;
and lost no time in writing to report everything to her mistress.
The news made the spiteful little hunchback furious, and she resolved
to be cruelly revenged for the contempt with which the emperor had
treated her. She ordered her nurse to pretend not to notice what might
be passing, and meantime she had a trap made so that if the emperor
pushed his way through the brambles at the foot of the tower, it would
not only catch him, as if he were a mouse, but would let loose a
number of poisoned arrows, which would pierce him all over. When it
was ready, the trap was hidden amongst the brambles without being
observed by the princess.
That same evening the emperor hurried to the tower with all the
impatience of love. As he came near he heard the princess break into a
long, joyous peal of laughter. He advanced quickly to give the usual
signal, when suddenly his foot trod on something, he knew not what. A
sharp, stinging pain ran through him, and he turned white and faint,
but, luckily, the trap had only opened a little way, and only a few of
the arrows flew out. For a moment he staggered, and then fell to the
ground covered with blood.
Had he been alone he would have died very shortly, but his faithful
squire was close at hand, and carried his master off to the wood where
the rest of his escort were waiting for him. His wounds were bound up,
and some poles were cut to make a rough litter, and, almost
unconscious, the emperor was borne away out of his enemy’s country to
his own palace.
All this time the princess was feeling very anxious. She had been
whiling away the hours before this meeting by playing with a little
pet monkey, which had been making such funny faces that, in spite of
her troubles, she had burst into the hearty laugh overheard by the
emperor. But by-and-by she grew restless, waiting for the signal which
never came, and, had she dared, would certainly have rebelled when her
gaoler, whom she believed to be fast asleep, ordered her to go to bed
A fortnight passed, which was spent in great anxiety by the poor girl,
who grew thin and weak with the uncertainty. At the end of this
period, when the nurse went to her room one morning as usual in order
to write her daily report, she carelessly left the key in the door.
This was perceived by the princess, who turned it upon her so quickly
and quietly that she never found out she was locked in till she had
finished writing, and got up to seek her charge.
Finding herself free, the princess flew to the window, and to her
horror saw the arrows lying about amongst the bloodstained brambles.
Distracted with terror she slipped down the stairs and out of the
tower, and ran for some time along a path, when with great good luck
she met the husband of her own nurse, who had only just learned of her
imprisonment, and was on his way to try and find out whether he could
serve her. The princess begged him to get her some men’s clothes while
she awaited him in a little wood close by. The good man was overjoyed
to be of use, and started at once for the nearest town, where he soon
discovered a shop where the court lackeys were accustomed to sell
their masters’ cast-off clothes. The princess dressed herself at once
in the disguise he had brought, which was of rich material and covered
with precious stones; and, putting her own garments into a bag, which
her servant hung over his shoulders, they both set out on their
This lasted longer than either of them expected. They walked by day as
far as the princess could manage, and by night they slept in the open
air. One evening they camped in a lovely valley watered by a rippling
stream, and towards morning the princess was awakened by a charming
voice singing one of the songs of her own childhood. Anxious to find
out where the sound came from, she walked to a thicket of myrtles,
where she saw a little boy with a quiver at his back and an ivory bow
in his hand, singing softly to himself as he smoothed the feathers of
‘Are you surprised at seeing my eyes open?’ he asked, with a smile.
‘Ah! I am not always blind. And sometimes it is well to know what sort
of a heart needs piercing. It was I who sent out my darts the day that
you and the emperor met, so, as I have caused the wound, I am in duty
bound to find the cure!’
Then he gave her a little bottle full of a wonderful salve with which
to dress the emperor’s wounds when she found him.
‘In two days you can reach his palace,’ he said. ‘Do not waste time,
for sometimes time is life.’
The princess thanked the boy with tears in her eyes, and hastened to
awake her guide so that they might start, and set off at once on their
As the boy had foretold, in two days the tower and walls of the city
came in sight, and her heart beat wildly at the thought that she would
soon be face to face with the emperor, but on inquiring after his
health she learned, to her horror, that he was sinking fast. For a
moment her grief was so great that she nearly betrayed herself. Then,
calling all her courage to her aid, she announced that she was a
doctor, and that if they would leave him in her charge for a few days
she would promise to cure him.
Now, in order to make a good appearance at court the new doctor
resolved to have an entire suit made of pale blue satin. She bought
the richest, most splendid stuff to be had in the shops, and summoned
a tailor to make it for her, engaging to pay him double if he would
finish the work in two hours. Next she went to the market, where she
bought a fine mule, bidding her servant see that its harness was
adorned with trappings of blue satin also.
Whilst all was being made ready the princess asked the woman in whose
house she lived whether she knew any of the emperor’s attendants, and
found to her satisfaction that her cousin was his majesty’s chief
valet. The doctor then bade the woman inform everyone she met that on
hearing of the emperor’s illness a celebrated surgeon had hastened to
attend him, and had undertaken to cure him entirely; declaring himself
prepared to be burnt alive in case of failure.
The good woman, who loved nothing better than a bit of gossip, hurried
to the palace with her news. Her story did not lose in telling. The
court physicians were very scornful about the new-comer, but the
emperor’s attendants remarked that as, in spite of their remedies, his
majesty was dying before their eyes, there could be no harm in
consulting this stranger.
So the lord chamberlain begged the young doctor to come and prescribe
for the royal patient without delay; and the doctor sent a message at
once, that he would do himself the honour to present himself at the
palace, and he lost no time in mounting his mule and setting out. As
the people and soldiers saw him ride past they cried out:
‘Here comes the Satin Surgeon! Look at the Satin Surgeon! Long live
the Satin Surgeon!’ And, on arriving, he was announced by this name,
and at once taken to the sick room of the dying man.
The emperor was lying with his eyes closed, and his face as white as
the pillow itself; but directly he heard the new-comer’s voice, he
looked up and smiled, and signed that he wished the new doctor to
remain near him. Making a low bow, the Satin Surgeon assured the
emperor that he felt certain of curing his malady, but insisted that
everyone should leave the room except the emperor’s favourite equerry.
He then dressed the wounds with the magic salve which the boy had
given him, and it so relieved the emperor’s pain that he slept soundly
all that night.
When morning broke, the courtiers and doctors hurried to the emperor’s
chamber, and were much surprised to find him free of pain. But they
were promptly ordered out of the room by the Satin Surgeon, who
renewed the dressings with such good results that next morning the
emperor was nearly well, and able to leave his bed. As he grew
stronger, his thoughts dwelt more and more on the cause of all his
sufferings, and his spirits grew worse as his health grew better. The
face and voice of his new doctor reminded him of the princess who had,
he imagined, betrayed him, and caused him such dreadful torture; and,
unable to bear the thought, his eyes filled with tears.
The doctor noticed his sad countenance and did all he could to enliven
his patient with cheerful talk and amusing stories, till at last he
won the emperor’s confidence and heard all the story of his love for a
lady who had treated him cruelly, but whom, in spite of everything, he
could not help loving. The Satin Surgeon listened with sympathy, and
tried to persuade the emperor that possibly the princess was not so
much to blame as might appear; but, eager though the sick man was to
believe this, it took a long while to persuade him of it. At length a
day came when the emperor was nearly well, and for the last time the
doctor dressed the wounds with the precious salve. Then, both patient
and surgeon, being wearied out with something they could not explain,
fell asleep and slept for hours.
Early next morning, the princess, having decided to resume her own
clothes which she had brought with her in a bag, dressed herself with
great care and put on all her jewels so as to make herself look as
lovely as possible. She had just finished when the emperor awoke,
feeling so strong and well that he thought he must be dreaming, nor
could he believe himself to be awake when he saw the princess draw
aside his curtains.
For some minutes they gazed at each other, unable to speak, and then
they only uttered little gasps of joy and thankfulness. By-and-by the
princess told him the whole story of her adventures since their last
interview at the Desert Tower; and the emperor, weak as he was, threw
himself at her feet with vows of love and gratitude, without ever
giving a thought to the fact that the household and court physicians
were awaiting their summons in the ante-room.
The emperor, anxious to prove how much he owed to the Satin Surgeon,
opened his door himself, and great was everyone’s surprise and joy at
seeing him in such perfect health. Like good courtiers, they hastened
in to praise and compliment the Satin Surgeon, but what was their
astonishment on finding that he had disappeared, leaving in his place
the loveliest princess in the whole world.
‘Whilst thanking the surgeon for his miraculous cure, you might at the
same time do homage to your empress,’ observed the emperor. He wished
to have the marriage celebrated the same day, but the princess
declared that she must wait to get her father’s permission first.
Messengers were therefore instantly despatched to the neighbouring
capital, and soon returned with the king’s consent, for he had lately
discovered all the mischief caused by his elder daughter.
The spiteful princess was so furious at the failure of her plans that
she took to her bed, and died in a fit of rage and jealousy. No one
grieved for her, and the king, being tired of the fatigues of
Government, gave up his crown to his younger daughter; so the two
kingdoms henceforth became one.