Story by Eleanor Farjeon an English author of children’s stories and plays, poetry, biography, history and satire.
There was once a Little Dressmaker who was apprentice to a Big Dressmaker. But although she was only an apprentice she cut her patterns so beautifully, and took her stitches so daintily, and had such charming fancies about the dresses she made, that she was really the best dressmaker in the kingdom, and the Big Dressmaker knew it. But the Little Dressmaker was so young and so modest, that the Big Dressmaker said to herself:
‘There is no need to tell Lotta she is a better dressmaker than I am. If I don’t tell her, she will never find out for herself, and if I do tell her she will go away and set up a Rival business.’
So the Big Dressmaker held her tongue, and did not always praise Lotta when she had done something prettier than usual, and quite often scolded her when she had done nothing whatever to deserve it. But Lotta took it all in good part; and she did not suspect her own worth, even when the Big Dressmaker came to her for advice, as, when she had a particularly important order, she always did.
‘The Marchioness of Roley-Poley has just been in to order a ball dress, Lotta,’ the Big Dressmaker would say. ‘She fancies herself in a peach-coloured silk.’
‘Oh, what a pity!’ Lotta would cry. ‘She would look so much better in plum-coloured velvet.’
‘Exactly what I told her,’ said the Big Dressmaker. ‘She wants seventeen flounces on the skirt.’
‘Fancy that!’ exclaimed Lotta. ‘She ought to have it as plain as plain but with a dignified cut.’
‘Precisely,’ said the Big Dressmaker. ‘As I said to the Marchioness with my very own lips, a dignified cut is the thing, and as plain as plain can be.’
So instead of making the Marchioness of Roley-Poley a flouncy peach-coloured dress, they made her a dignified plum-coloured one; and the Marchioness looked extremely imposing at the Queen’s reception, and everybody said, ‘The Big Dressmaker is a genius.’
But it was really little Lotta.
Now you must know that the Queen of the country was seventy years old and, being unmarried, had no children to succeed to the throne. But if she had never been a mother, she had at least been, for twenty-five years, an aunt; and her nephew, who was King of the kingdom next door, would in the course of time rule over her country as well as his own. He hadn’t visited his aunt for twenty years, but reports said he was a charming young man, and, like his aunt, he was unmarried—a circumstance which bothered her so much that she wrote to him about it twice a year: at Christmas and on his birthday. But he always wrote back:
‘Dear Aunt Georgey,
Thank you awfully for the jolly pencil-case.
Your loving Nephew,
P.S. There’s plenty of time.’
But old Georgina was seventy and young King Richard was twenty-five, and at seventy there does not seem to be quite so much time as there does at twenty-five; so presently the Queen, who was a masterful old lady, wrote a letter in between Christmas and his birthday, to tell him he must come to her Court and choose for himself a bride from among the Court ladies, because she was sick and tired of his stuff and nonsense. As this time she hadn’t sent him a pencil-case, the King couldn’t put it off with thanks, and the chief part of his letter had to be about the marriage. So he wrote:
‘Dear Aunt Georgey,
Just as you like.
Your loving Nephew,
P.S. I won’t marry anybody who isn’t nineteen-and-a-half years old, and nineteen-and-a-half inches round the waist.’
The Queen immediately summoned all the Court ladies of nineteen-and-a-half years old, and had them measured. There were exactly three whose waists were nineteen-and-a-half inches, no more and no less. So she wrote again to her nephew.
‘My dear Richard,
The Duchess of Junkets, the Countess of Caramel, and the Lady Blanche Blancmange will all be twenty next December; the present month being June. They are delightful girls, and their waists meet your requirements. Come and choose for yourself.
Your affectionate Aunt,
To this the King replied:
‘Dear Aunt Georgey,
Have it your own way. I’ll come on Monday. Please give three balls, on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and let me have each of the ladies in turn for my partner. I’ll marry the one I like best on Friday, and go home on Saturday.
Your loving Nephew,
P.S. I’d like the balls to be fancy dress, because I’ve got an awfully good one.’
The Queen did not get this letter till Monday morning, and the King was coming that very night. You can imagine what a flutter everybody was in, particularly the ladies with the nineteen-and-a-half-inch waists! Of course, they paid a visit to the Big Dressmaker at once.
Said the Duchess of Junkets:
‘I positively must have the most beautiful fancy dress you can make me, and that on Tuesday in time for the First Ball. And be sure, when it is ready, and have sent to me one of your girls to show me how to wear it.’
Said the Countess of Caramel:
‘It is of the utmost importance that you should make me the most fascinating fancy dress you can think of, and deliver it on Wednesday in time for the Second Ball. And let your best apprentice bring it, to set it off for me.’
Said the Lady Blanche Blancmange:
‘I shall expire of vexation if you do not create for me the most enchanting fancy dress in the world, to be worn on Thursday night at the Third Ball. And that I may see it is quite perfect, put it on your daintiest model so that I can judge the effect for myself.’
The Big Dressmaker promised them all, and as soon as the ladies had departed she rushed into Lotta and told her all about it.
‘We must think with all our brains, and sew with all our fingers, Lotta, if we are to get them done in time!
‘Oh, I’m sure I can manage,’ said Lotta cheerfully. ‘We’ll take the dresses in order, and the Duchess shall have hers tomorrow night, and the Countess shall have hers the next night, and the Lady Blanche shall have hers the night after that, if I have to sit up all the time and never go to bed at all.’
‘Very well, Lotta,’ said the Big Dressmaker. ‘But now I must consider what the dresses will be.’
‘The Duchess will look beautiful as a Sunbeam,’ said Lotta.
‘Just what I was thinking,’ said the Big Dressmaker.
‘And how entrancing the Countess would look as Moonlight,’ said Lotta.
‘My idea exactly,’ said the Big Dressmaker.
‘And as a Rainbow the Lady Blanche would be simply ravishing.’
‘You have taken the very words out of my mouth,’ said the Big Dressmaker. ‘Now to design them, cut them out, and make them.’
So Lotta designed the three dresses, and set about making the first one, a radiant golden gown that would flash and sparkle like light as the wearer of it danced. She sat at it day and night, and saw nothing of the young King’s arrival at the palace; and on the Tuesday, an hour before the opening of the First Ball, the bright frock was ready.
‘They have sent a coach from the palace to fetch it,’ said the Big Dressmaker, ‘and one of my girls is to wear it and show it off to the Duchess before she puts it on. But whom can I possibly send? It has only a nineteen-and-a-half-inch waist.’
‘That’s just my size, madam,’ said Lotta.
‘How fortunate! Quick, Lotta, slip it on and be off.’
So Lotta slipped on the dazzling frock, the golden shoes and slippers, and the little gold crown twinkling with points of light, and throwing her old black cloak over all ran down to the royal coach that was waiting for her. The coachman flicked his whip and away they went. When she arrived at the palace, a Footman who was passing through the hall conducted Lotta to a little anteroom.
‘You are to wait here,’ said he, ’till the Duchess is ready for you in the next room. When she is, she will ring a bell. What a charming dress you seem to be wearing under your cloak.’
‘It is the Duchess’s dress,’ said Lotta, ‘with which she is to captivate the young King. Would you like to see it?’
‘Very much indeed,’ said the Footman.
Lotta dropped her black cloak, and stepped like a sunbeam out of a cloud.
‘There!’ she said. ‘Isn’t it beautiful! Do you think the King will be able to resist dancing with the Duchess in this dress?’
‘I am sure he won’t,’ said the Footman. And making an elegant bow, he added, ‘Duchess, may I have the honour of this dance?’
‘Oh, Your Majesty!’ laughed Lotta. ‘The honour is mine.’
The Footman put his arm round Lotta’s waist, and danced with her, and just as he was telling her that her hair was more golden than sunlight itself, the bell rang and Lotta had to go.
The Duchess was delighted with the dress, and when Lotta had shown her exactly how to move and sit and stand and dance in it, she put it on and sailed into the ballroom.
Lotta, wrapping herself up in her old cloak, heard how everybody broke into applause as the radiant little Duchess appeared.
‘Ah,’ thought Lotta, ‘the King will never be able to resist her!’ And back she ran, to begin the Moonlight dress.
All night and all day she sewed the slim silver sheath, and she got it done by the following evening, just as the royal coach drew up at the door to fetch her. As before, she slipped on the dress, covered herself with her cloak, and drove away; and as before, the young Footman escorted her to the anteroom and told her to wait.
‘And what happened at the ball last night?’ asked Lotta.
‘The King danced with the Golden Duchess all the evening,’ said the Footman. ‘I doubt if the Countess will have such luck.’
‘Don’t you think so?’ said Lotta; and opening her black cloak, she stood before him like the moon shining at midnight.
‘Oh, Countess!’ said the Footman, taking her hand and kissing it, ‘will you make me the happiest man in the world by dancing with me?’
‘The happiness is mine, Your Majesty,’ said Lotta, smiling sweetly.
So once more they danced together in the anteroom, and then they sat down and talked all about themselves and each other; and Lotta told him that she was nineteen-and-a-half years old, and that her mother was a housemaid and her father a cobbler, and she herself an apprentice dressmaker. And the Footman told her that he was twenty-five years old, and that his father was a bookbinder and his mother a laundress, and he himself a footman to the young King, to whose kingdom he would return when the King was married. And this made Lotta thoughtful, and the Footman asked why, and Lotta didn’t know. And the Footman took her hand in his, and was just telling her that it was as white as moonlight when the bell rang and Lotta had to go.
The Countess of Caramel was charmed with the dress, and when all its points had been shown off she put it on and entered the ballroom. And Lotta heard the shout of admiration that went up as she appeared; while Lotta herself hurried back in her old cloak to make the Rainbow dress.
All night and all day she sat at it, and her eyes were rather heavy, and her heart was a little heavy too, but she couldn’t think why. And just an hour before the Third Ball was to begin, the dress was done and the coach was waiting. Once more Lotta put on a shimmering dress, hid herself in her old cloak, and was driven to the palace. And once more the Footman escorted her to the anteroom, where she sank into a deep chair while he stood before her. And once more Lotta asked, ‘What happened at the ball last night?’
‘The King danced every dance with the Silver Countess, and never took his eyes off her,’ said the Footman. ‘I don’t suppose there’s much chance for the Lady Blanche.’
‘You never know,’ said Lotta. But she was feeling so tired that she didn’t even try to undo her cloak and show him. So the Footman undid it for her, and laid it back against the chair; and when he saw Lotta shining like a little rainbow against a black cloud-bank, he fell on his knees before her.
Oh, Lady!’ he whispered, ‘won’t you dance this dance with me, and every other dance as well?’
But Lotta shook her head, because she was so tired, and she tried to smile, but at the same time big tears trickled down her cheeks. And the Footman didn’t even ask why, since tears seem natural in a rainbow, but he put his arms round her as she sat in the chair and gave her a kiss. And before the kiss was quite finished, the bell rang, and Lotta had to wipe her eyes and go.
The Lady Blanche was ravished with the dress, and after Lotta had turned this way and that way to show her how to wear it, she put it on and ran into the ballroom. Lotta heard a great sigh of wonder go round at the lovely little vision that had appeared. Then she went back to the empty anteroom, put on her old cloak, and stumbled home. She meant to go to bed and sleep and sleep.
But at the door the Big Dressmaker met her with a face of despair.
‘What do you think? An order has just come from the Queen that we must make the finest wedding-dress ever made, for the King’s Bride tomorrow. The wedding is to be at noon. Now, think, Lotta, think! What shall the wedding-dress be?’
Lotta thought of a dress as pure as a fall of snow, and as she began to cut it out she said, ‘But, madam, we do not know whom it is to fit.’
‘Make it to fit yourself,’ said the Big Dressmaker. ‘For you and the three ladies are all of a size.’
‘And which do you think it will be?’ asked Lotta.
‘Nobody knows. They say the King was equally charmed by the Sun and the Moon, and doubtless he will be by the Rainbow as well.’
‘And what dress did the King wear at the balls, madam?’ asked Lott,a trying to keep herself awake.
‘A most disappointing dress for a King,’ said the Big Dressmaker. ‘He wore the clothes of his own Footman!
After that, Lotta asked no more questions. She just bent her tired little head over the pure white stuff, and sewed and sewed till her fingers and her eyes ached.
The night passed, morning came, and an hour before noon the dress was ready.
‘The coach is here,’ said the Big Dressmaker. ‘Put on the dress, Lotta, for the Bride will certainly wish to see how it should be worn.’
‘Who is the Bride?’ asked Lotta.
‘Still nobody knows,’ said the Big Dressmaker. ‘They say the young King is making his choice at this moment, and the wedding will take place as soon as he has decided.’
So Lotta put on the wedding-dress, and went down to the coach, and there, to her surprise, was her own Footman, waiting to hand her in. She looked at him earnestly and said, ‘But aren’t you the King?’ and the Footman said, ‘Whatever made you think that?’ and closed the door, and away they galloped. And Lotta leaned back in a corner, and fell fast asleep, and dreamed she was driving to her wedding.
When she woke up, the coach was just pulling up at a door; but instead of being the palace door, it was the door of a little church in the country.
The Footman jumped down and helped Lotta out; it all seemed a natural part of her dream as she went up on his arm and down the aisle in the snow-white gown, and found the clergyman waiting at the altar. In two minutes they were married, and Lotta, with a gold ring on her finger, went back to the coach. But this time the Footman got inside with her, and as they drove off he finished giving her the kiss he had begun the night before, and Lotta went to sleep with her head on his shoulder.
She never woke up till they reached the young King’s city and stopped before the young King’s palace. And there, all in a daze, she found herself going up the steps on the Footman’s arm amid the cheers of the populace, and at the top of the steps, waiting to receive them, with a merry smile on his face—the young King himself.
Yes; because, you see, the Footman really was the Footman. Only, as the young King didn’t want to be married a bit, he had sent his Footman in his place. And as the Footman fell in love with Lotta at first sight, he had made up his mind before the very first ball, and after that there wasn’t any chance for the Duchess of Junkets, the Countess of Caramel, or the Lady Blanche Blancmange. And this was really very fortunate, because if the Footman had chosen and married one of them, the old Queen would have been greatly annoyed when she found out the trick that had been played upon her by her nephew; and the Bride would have been annoyed as well.
As it was, when the facts came to the Queen’s ears, she wrote to the young King on his birthday:
‘My dear Richard,
I send you the enclosed, with my love. At the same time, I wish to say I am extremely displeased with you, and shall take no further interest in your matrimonial affairs.
Your affectionate Aunt,
To which the young King replied:
‘Dear Aunt Georgey,
Your loving Nephew,
P.S. Oh, and thank you for the jolly pencil-case.’