Down in the country there was an old farm, and on it lived an old squire who had two sons that were too clever by half – they wanted to propose to the king’s daughter and were quite prepared to do so because she had let it be known that she would take as her husband the man best able to state his case.
The two of them spent eight days preparing – that was the most they could spare for it – but it was also more than enough as they had lots of knowledge in advance, which is always useful. The one knew the whole Latin dictionary by heart as well as the city’s newpaper for the past three years, both forwards and backwards; the other was familiar with all the guild articles and what every guildmaster needed to know to converse about government matters, he felt, and furthermore he knew how to embroider braces, for he was sensitive and adroit with his fingers.
‘I’ll get the king’s daughter!’ both of them said, and their father gave each of them a fine horse: the one who knew the dictionary and the newspapers got a jet-black horse, and the one who knew all about guildmasters and embroidery got a milk-white horse, and then they smeared the corners of their mouths with cod liver oil to make them more supple. All the servants were down in the courtyard to see them mount their steeds; and at that very moment the third brother came along – for there were three of them, although nobody really thought of him as a brother, for he was not nearly as clever as the other two, who simply referred to him as Numskull Jack.
‘Where are you off to, seeing you’re all in your Sunday best?’ he asked.
‘To court to woo the king’s daughter! Haven’t you heard what’s being proclaimed all over the country to the beating of the drum?!’ and then they told him.
‘Gracious me, then I must come too!’ Numskull Jack said, and his brothers laughed at him and rode off.
‘Father, let me have a horse!’ Numskull Jack shouted. ‘I feel such an urge to get married. If she takes me, she takes me! and if she doesn’t, I’ll take her even so!’
‘Stuff and nonsense!’ his father said. ‘You’ll not be getting a horse from me. You can’t even speak! no, your brothers, they’re proper city gents!’
‘If I can’t have a horse,’ Numskull Jack said, ‘then I’ll take the billy goat – he’s mine and he can easily carry me!’ and he sat himself astride the billy goat, dug his heels into its ribs and set off down the highway. Wheee! off they shot. ‘Here I come!’ said Numskull Jack, singing so loud he made the skies ring.
But the brothers rode quietly on ahead, not saying a word, for they had to think of all the bright ideas they would come up with, for everything had to be so ingeniously planned!
‘Tally ho!’ Numskull Jack shouted, ‘here I come! Just look at what I’ve found on the highway!’ and he showed them the dead crow he had found!
‘Numskull!’ they said. ‘What do you want that for?’
‘Give it to the king’s daughter as a present!’
‘Yes, just you do that!’, they said, laughed and rode on.
‘Tally ho! here I come! Just look at what I’ve found now – it’s not every day you find such a thing on the highway!’
And the brothers turned round again to see what it was. ‘Numskull!’ they said, ‘that’s an old wooden clog and the upper’s missing! Is the king’s daughter to have that too?’
‘Yes, she is!’ Numskull Jack said; and the brothers laughed and rode on and were soon far ahead.
‘Tally ho! here I come!’ Numskull Jack shouted; ‘No, it’s gets odder and odder! tallyho! it’s simply amazing!’
‘What have you found now?’ the brothers said.
‘Oh!’ Numskull Jack said, ‘there are no words for it! how glad she’ll be, the king’s daughter!’
‘Ugh!’ the brothers said, ‘but that’s mud that’s been thrown up from the ditch!’
‘Yes, exactly!’ Numskull Jack said, ‘and it’s the very finest sort – it slips through your fingers!’ and then he stuffed his pocket with it.
But his brothers rode on as fast as they could, and ended up a whole hour ahead and stopped at the city gate, and there the suitors were given a number as they arrived, and placed in a queue in ranks of six and packed so tight that they couldn’t move their arms, and that was a good thing, because otherwise through would have ripped up each other’s backs, simply because they were crammed the one in front of the other.
Everyone else in the land was standing round the castle, close up to the windows so they could see the king’s daughter receive the suitors, and as soon as one of them came into the room, his eloquence failed him completely.
‘No good!’ the king’s daughter said. ‘Off with him!’
Now the brother, the one who knew the dictionary, came in, but standing in the queue had made him completely forget everything, and the floor creaked and the ceiling was of mirror glass, so he saw himself upside-down, and at each window there stood three clerks and a guildmaster, and each of them wrote down all that was said, so it could at once be put in the newspaper and sold for twopence on the corner. It was frightful, and what’s more they had heated the stove so much that the drum had turned red!
‘It’s terribly hot in here!’ the suitor said.
‘That’s because my father’s roasting cockerels today!’ the king’s daughter said.
‘Oooh!’ there he stood, not the speech he had been expecting; he didn’t have a single word in his head, for he would have liked to have said something witty. Oooh!’
‘No good!’ the king’s daughter said. ‘Off with him!’ and he had to leave. Now the other brother came in.
‘Terrible heat in here!’ he said.
‘Yes, we roasted cockerels today!’ the king’s daughter said.
‘Beg your – what?’ he said, and all the clerks wrote Beg your – what!
‘No good!’ the king’s daughter said. ‘Off with him!’
Now Numskull Jack came in, riding on his billy goat straight into the room. ‘Red-hot in here!’ he said.
‘That’s because I’m roasting cockerels!’ the king’s daughter said.
‘That’s great!’ Numskull Jack said, ‘then I suppose I can get my crow roasted too?’
‘Certainly you can!’ the king’s daughter said, ‘but have you got anything to roast it in, for I’ve no pots and pans!’
‘But I have,’ Numskull Jack said. ‘Here’s a cooking utensil complete with a tin hook!’ and he brought out the wooden clog and placed the crow in the middle of it.
‘There’s enough for a whole meal!’ the king’s daughter said, ‘but what shall we do for the sauce?’
‘I’ve got that in my pocket!’ Numskull Jack said. ‘I’ve got so much I can even spill some!’ and he poured a little mud from his pocket.
‘That I like!’ the king’s daughter said. ‘You’ve an answer for everything and a tongue in your head and I want you for my husband! But do you realise that every word we say and have said is being written down and will appear in the newspaper tomorrow! at every window you can see three clerks and a guildmaster standing, and the guildmaster’s the worst of the lot – he doesn’t understand anything!’ and she said this to try and frighten him. And all the clerks whinnied and made ink blots on the floor.
‘So these are the fine gentlemen!’ Numskull Jack said, ‘then I’d better give the guildmaster the best of the lot!’ and he turned out his pockets and flung the mud in his face.
‘Oh, well done!’ the king’s daughter said, ‘I couldn’t have done that! but I’m sure I can learn how to!’
And so Numskull Jack became king, gained a wife and a crown and sat on a throne, and we’ve got this straight from the Guildmaster’s News – and that is completely unreliable!