To Read Ply the First, click here.
The violent storm that had flung the young woman and her knitting bag across the moat was no quieter the next day.
Driving rain pelted buds from branches and drove green shoots back into the ground. Howling wind toppled the spire on the highest turret, and blew the fleece right off three of the Queen’s prize sheep.
“Never,” said the Queen crossly, “have I seen such indelicate weather.”
The Prince didn’t mind. He retreated to his favorite corner of the great hall with pencils and paper and began work on a new graphic novel. The young woman came down from her room, less damp but not otherwise much improved, and asked the Prince if she might settle herself on a nearby chair.
“I won’t bother you,” she said. “I have my own work to be getting on with.”
“Suit yourself,” said the Prince quietly. He shuffled his papers and nibbled the end of his pencil.
The young woman opened her bag and drew out a bundle of diaphanous fabric on slender needles, worked in a yarn so fine it was nigh to invisible. Settling her glasses upon her nose, she addressed herself to the next row of the pattern. Her fingers, the Prince noticed, were surprisingly nimble. And as she worked, her features composed themselves into a picture of perfect serenity.
The Prince consulted his notes and began to sketch. He meant to draw a pair of knights in combat, one of them tumbling backwards after a solid biff with a quarterstaff. But the more he drew, the more the upright knight looked like a sturdy young woman brandishing a pair of knitting needles.
The Queen, immediately upon stepping into the hall, recognized the look on the Prince’s face.
“Darling boy,” she said, “I seem to have forgot my stitch markers in my boudoir, and that useless pageboy refuses to answer the bell. Will you not go and fetch them for me?”
The obedient Prince did as his mother asked, and the Queen addressed herself to the young woman–who had set aside her knitting and dropped a lopsided curtsy.
“Do be seated, my dear,” said the Queen, taking a chair opposite the young woman. “You will find we are quite casual in the morning. Do show me your work. Is that lace? I do believe it is. In silk, yes?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” said the young woman.
“Indeed,” said the Queen. “Pray allow me a closer look.”
The Queen took up the lace, and squinted at every corner looking for a snag or a mistake. Finding none, she said cautiously, “Your work, my dear, is admirably delicate.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” said the young woman. “I was taught to knit as a small girl, and it has become my heart’s delight.”
“One does not expect,” said the Queen, “to see such dainty work growing from such…what is the word? From such…stout fingers.”
“One might observe,” said the young woman, “that Your Majesty’s sheep are rather stout–yet the wool they produce is incomparably delicate.”
The Queen, affronted and flattered at the same time, departed in high dudgeon.
The following day the storm continued. Morning found the Prince and young woman once again together near the fire in the great hall.
As the noon bell rang, the young woman set down her lace, stretched her arms, and said, “What are you drawing?”
The Prince turned a little pink.
“The cover for a new story,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s not going to so well, though.”
“Why not?” said the young woman.
“The lines will not do as I wish,” he said.
“That happens often with knitting,” said the young woman. “The thing is to keep going. May I see your sketch?”
“You will not like it,” said the Prince.
“I shall judge for myself,” said the young woman. “And I promise I shall not tease if it is terrible.”
The Prince handed her the sheet, and she saw that he had drawn–with, she noted, some skill–a solid young woman with knitting needles aloft, looming over a knight who lay swooning on the ground.
“Is this me?” said the young woman, pointing to the triumphant figure.
“I’m afraid it is,” said the Prince. “I hope you do not object. In my defense, I have never seen a woman quite like you. I hoped to capture your likeness before you must be gone away from us, so that I might never forget you.”
“Perhaps,” said the young woman, “I should in fairness show you my progress today.”
She lifted up her lace, and the Prince was startled to see his own face looking back at him, rendered most marvellously in the fine strands of the knitting.
“I hope,” said the Prince, “that it may go on storming for some days yet.”
“As do I,” said the young woman.
The Queen, meanwhile, was frightfully annoyed. Rules of hospitality forbid her to confine the young woman to a locked room, nor could she bar the Prince from his own hall. She had run out of excuses for sending him to the far corners of the castle.
The rain fell, and the sparks of love flew, and she was haunted by visions of her only child besotted with a girl whose figure called to mind a privy built of brick.
It was all so…indelicate.
She was preoccupied with these thoughts when the Prince came to her of an evening confirmed her worst fears.
“I wish to marry her,” he said. “She is kind and clever. She is thoughtful and warm. What is more, she returns my affection. I have proposed, and she has accepted.”
“I beg your pardon,” said the Queen. “You are the heir to the throne, and you shall not marry any woman without my consent. And my consent is not given. You are a prince, and a prince must marry a princess. Not a soggy, stocky wench who blew in on a gale–no matter how fine her knitting, no matter how kind her words.”
“But she is a princess,” said the Prince.
“So she claims,” said the Queen. “But who has ever seen a princess with such a tendency to lumber into and out of rooms? Who cannot settle on a chair but she must wiggle and stretch and rub her glasses on her sleeve? Who speaks directly, nay, who shouts like the swineherd calling the pigs to supper?”
“I love her,” said the Prince. “And she is a princess, and we shall be married, and that is the end of it.”
The Queen had never seen her son so resolved. He seemed determined to have his way. She wondered if he might run away with the girl, and cause a scandal.
“Darling,” she said, softening her voice. “Darling, you must understand that it is not your poor mother who stands in your way. We are bound by the custom of the kingdom. You must marry a princess, or you lose your inheritance. Think of the chaos it would bring to the people if you were to follow your heart and marry in error. An abdication, a fight for succession, perhaps even a civil war. A swineherd may wed whom he will, darling. A prince may not.”
“But I say she is a princess,” said the Prince.
“We shall put her the test, then” said the Queen. “If she is a princess, she must prove it by displaying at least a shred of delicacy. Here is what we shall do.”
The Queen commanded her maid to open the great chest that stood in the corner of the boudoir; and from it she extracted an enormous blanket knitted from quantities of the famous royal wool.
“See here,” said the Queen to her son, “that the center of this blanket is worked all in the smoothest stockinette–all but this single purl stitch. Tonight, we shall spread the blanket across the bed of your intended bride. If she truly is delicate enough to be a princess, the tiny bump of this purl will seem to her a rock, a boulder, an absolute impediment to repose. If she complains of it in the morning, we shall know that she is royal; and you have my word that you may marry her.”
Thus it was agreed, though the Prince was sick with doubt. The Queen was delighted, for she had no doubt that so rugged a young woman could sleep peacefully on a bed of nails.
And so the blanket with the single purl stitch was laid across the mattress of the young woman’s bed. The Queen reassured her that it was to keep away the chill of the storm–which had grown even stronger, and now battered the castle walls like a dragon demanding an invitation to breakfast.
“I made this myself, you know,” said the Queen, patting the blanket. “I washed and carded the fleece. I spun the yarn. And the design of the border is my own.”
“How very kind you are, to allow me to sleep upon Your Majesty’s own handiwork,” said the young woman.
“Sweet dreams,” said the Queen.
All through the long night, the Queen snored happily as she dreamt of the young woman, sorrowful and soggy, making her way home through fields full of mud.
The royal breakfast table was fraught with apprehension. The Prince ate nothing and said little. The Queen ate everything and talked endlessly.
“Thank heaven that wretched storm has blown itself out,” she said, as she poured cream onto her oatmeal. “Though I fear we shall celebrate Christmas before the garden is put to rights again. The head gardener tells me my topiary swans are all flown away but one, and that one is reduced to a wing and a beak.”
The Prince stared morosely at his soft-boiled egg.
“You might as well eat, darling,” the Queen cooed. “No point in waiting for our guest to join us. I imagine she slept so very, very deeply last night that she may not wake ’til noon.”
“Or perhaps,” muttered the Prince, “she slept so poorly that her weary feet struggle to bring her hither.”
“Don’t say ‘hither,’” said his mother. “You sound like a graphic novel full of unicorns.”
“Good morning,” said a sleepy voice. “I’m terribly sorry to be late. I do hope you haven’t waited for me.”
It was the young woman. Her glasses were smudged, her matted hair carelessly tied back, and her eyes ringed with dark circles. The Prince felt he had never seen any woman look so beautiful.
“How did you sleep, my dear?” said the Queen.
“Not well, I fear,” said the young woman. “Barely a wink.”
“The noise of the storm, no doubt?” said the Queen.
“Not at all,” said the Young Woman. “The sound of rain and wind is soothing. It was, if I may be so bold, the fault of the bed itself.”
“Not warm enough?” said the Queen.
“Perfectly warm,” said the young woman. “But there was a lump. Just a small one. Tiny, truly. Yet I confess it did keep me awake until sunrise.”
“Drat,” said the Queen. “Say no more. Sit down. Your toast is getting cold.”
So the young woman had proven herself delicate, and therefore satisfied the Queen’s requirements. She and the Prince were given leave to plan a wedding. In fact, the young woman was a bona fide Princess, heiress apparent to a mountaintop kingdom just upwind of the Prince’s own.
So the lovers sat together in the sunny garden–he writing, she knitting–and each turned out work twice as good from the encouragement of the other.
“Would you please,” said the Prince, “tell me what you think of this chapter?”
“Bring it hither,” said the Princess.
As she read it through, red pencil in hand, the Prince lay his head on her shoulder and sighed happily.
“To think,” he said, “that you can be so strong and yet so delicate.”
“Delicate?” she laughed. “I’m nothing of the kind.”
“You were kept awake,” said the Prince, “by a tiny purl bump. Just as mother said a true princess must be. Just as mother said you would not be.”
“I beg your pardon?” said the Princess.
Whereupon the Prince set forth his mother’s intrigue, top to bottom.
“My dearest,” said the Princess, when he had finished, “I will not deny it was the purl bump that kept me awake. The moment your mother unfurled the blanket, I spotted it. Indeed, I tried for hours to ignore it. Yet no knitter worth her wool could let it stand. What was I to do? I rose from the bed, I unraveled to the error, I corrected it. Then I knit the rest again as it had been. Dawn rose as I bound off the border. I was exhausted, as you saw–though I felt so much the better.”
The Prince was astounded.
“You must never tell your mother,” said the Princess. “She is a fine knitter, and proud of her work. She would be mortified to learn such a mistake had escaped her notice.”
“My beloved,” said the Prince, “you are the finest of all women. So kind-hearted. So very diplomatic. So very…”
“Delicate?” said the Princess.
And so she was.
Writer, illustrator, and photographer Franklin Habit is the author of I Dream of Yarn: A Knit and Crochet Coloring Book (Soho Publishing, 2016) and It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008) and proprietor of The Panopticon, one of the most popular knitting blogs on Internet. His publishing experience in the fiber world includes contributions to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Ply Magazine, Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters, Twist Collective, and Knitty.com.
He travels constantly to teach knitters at shops and guilds across the country and internationally; and has been a popular member of the faculties of such festivals as Vogue Knitting Live!, Stitches Events, Squam Arts Workshops, and the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat.
These days, Franklin knits and spins in Chicago, Illinois, sharing a small city apartment with a Schacht spinning wheel, two looms, and colony of sock yarn that multiplies alarmingly whenever his back is turned.
Visit him at www.franklinhabit.com.