The princess bride, p.6
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       The Princess Bride, p.6
 

           William Goldman
I whirled, screaming "Don't you bug me!" and whatever it was--friend, foe, imagination--fled. I could hear the running and I realized something: right then, at that moment, I was dangerous.

  Then it got cold. I went home. Helen was going over some notes in bed. Ordinarily, she would come out with something about me being a bit elderly for acts of juvenile behavior. But there must have been danger clinging to me still. I could see it in her smart eyes. "He did try," she said finally.

  "I never thought he didn't," I answered. "Where's the book?"

  "The library, I think."

  I turned, started out.

  "Can I get you anything?"

  I said no. Then I went to the library, closed myself in, hunted out The Princess Bride. It was in pretty good shape, I realized as I checked the binding, which is when I saw it was published by my publishing house, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. This was before that; they weren't even Harcourt, Brace & World yet. Just plain old Harcourt, Brace period. I flicked to the title page, which was funny, since I'd never done that before; it was always my father who'd done the handling. I had to laugh when I saw the real title, because right there it said:

  THE PRINCESS BRIDE

  S. Morgenstern's

  Classic Tale of True Love

  and High Adventure

  You had to admire a guy who called his own new book a classic before it was published and anyone else had a chance to read it. Maybe he figured if he didn't do it, nobody would, or maybe he was just trying to give the reviewers a helping hand; I don't know. I skimmed the first chapter, and it was pretty much exactly as I remembered. Then I turned to the second chapter, the one about Prince Humperdinck and the little kind of tantalizing description of the Zoo of Death.

  And that's when I began to realize the problem.

  Not that the description wasn't there. It was, and again pretty much as I remembered it. But before you got to it, there were maybe sixty pages of text dealing with Prince Humperdinck's ancestry and how his family got control of Florin and this wedding and that child begatting this one over here who then married somebody else, and then I skipped to the third chapter, The Courtship, and that was all about the history of Guilder and how that country reached its place in the world. The more I flipped on, the more I knew: Morgenstern wasn't writing any children's book; he was writing a kind of satiric history of his country and the decline of the monarchy in Western civilization.

  But my father only read me the action stuff, the good parts. He never bothered with the serious side at all.

  About two in the morning I called Hiram in Martha's Vineyard. Hiram Haydn's been my editor for a dozen years, ever since Soldier in the Rain, and we've been through a lot together, but never any phone calls at two in the morning. To this day I know he doesn't understand why I couldn't wait till maybe breakfast. "You're sure you're all right, Bill," he kept saying.

  "Hey, Hiram," I began after about six rings. "Listen, you guys published a book just after World War I. Do you think it might be a good idea for me to abridge it and we'd republish it now?"

  "You're sure you're all right, Bill?"

  "Fine, absolutely, and see, I'd just use the good parts. I'd kind of bridge where there were skips in the narrative and leave the good parts alone. What do you think?"

  "Bill, it's two in the morning up here. Are you still in California?"

  I acted like I was all shocked and surprised. So he wouldn't think I was a nut. "I'm sorry, Hiram. My God, what an idiot; it's only 11:00 in Beverly Hills. Do you think you could ask Mr. Jovanovich, though?"

  "You mean now?"

  "Tomorrow or the next day, no big deal."

  "I'll ask him anything, only I'm not quite sure I'm getting an accurate reading on exactly what you want. You're sure you're all right, Bill?"

  "I'll be in New York tomorrow. Call you then about the specifics, okay?"

  "Could you make it a little earlier in the business day, Bill?"

  I laughed and we hung up and I called Zig in California. Evarts Ziegler has been my movie agent for maybe eight years. He did the Butch Cassidy deal for me, and I woke him up too. "Hey, Zig, could you get me a postponement on the Stepford Wives? There's this other thing that's come up."

  "You're contracted to start now; how long a postponement?"

  "I can't say for sure; I've never done an abridgement before. Just tell me what you think they'd do?"

  "I think if it's a long postponement they'd threaten to sue and you'd end up losing the job."

  It came out pretty much as he said; they threatened to sue and I almost lost the job and some money and didn't make any friends in "the industry," as those of us in show biz call movies.

  But the abridgement got done, and you hold it in your hands. The "good parts" version.

  WHY DID I go through all that?

  Helen pressured me greatly to think about an answer. She felt it was important, not that she know necessarily, but that I know. "Because you acted crackers, Willy boy," she said. "You had me truly scared."

  So why?

  I never was worth beans at self-scrutiny. Everything I write is impulse. This feels right, that sounds wrong--like that. I can't analyze--not my own actions anyway.

  I know I don't expect this to change anybody else's life the way it altered mine.

  But take the title words--"true love and high adventure"--I believed in that once. I thought my life was going to follow that path. Prayed that it would. Obviously it didn't, but I don't think there's high adventure left anymore. Nobody takes out a sword nowadays and cries, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father; prepare to die!"

  And true love you can forget about too. I don't know if I love anything truly anymore beyond the porterhouse at Peter Luger's and the cheese enchilada at El Parador's. (Sorry about that, Helen.) Anyway, here's the "good parts" version. S. Morgenstern wrote it. And my father read it to me. And now I give it to you. What you do with it will be of more than passing interest to us all.

  New York City

  December, 1972

  One

  The Bride

  THE YEAR that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette. Annette worked in Paris for the Duke and Duchess de Guiche, and it did not escape the Duke's notice that someone extraordinary was polishing the pewter. The Duke's notice did not escape the notice of the Duchess either, who was not very beautiful and not very rich, but plenty smart. The Duchess set about studying Annette and shortly found her adversary's tragic flaw.

  Chocolate.

  Armed now, the Duchess set to work. The Palace de Guiche turned into a candy castle. Everywhere you looked, bonbons. There were piles of chocolate-covered mints in the drawing rooms, baskets of chocolate-covered nougats in the parlors.

  Annette never had a chance. Inside a season, she went from delicate to whopping, and the Duke never glanced in her direction without sad bewilderment clouding his eyes. (Annette, it might be noted, seemed only cheerier throughout her enlargement. She eventually married the pastry chef and they both ate a lot until old age claimed them. Things, it might also be noted, did not fare so cheerily for the Duchess. The Duke, for reasons passing understanding, next became smitten with his very own mother-in-law, which caused the Duchess ulcers, only they didn't have ulcers yet. More precisely, ulcers existed, people had them, but they weren't called "ulcers." The medical profession at that time called them "stomach pains" and felt the best cure was coffee dolloped with brandy twice a day until the pains subsided. The Duchess took her mixture faithfully, watching through the years as her husband and her mother blew kisses at each other behind her back. Not surprisingly, the Duchess's grumpiness became legendary, as Voltaire has so ably chronicled. Except this was before Voltaire.) The year Buttercup turned ten, the most beautiful woman lived in Bengal, the daughter of a successful tea merchant. This girl's name was Aluthra, and her skin was of a dusky perfection unseen in India for eighty years. (There have only been eleven perfect complexions in all o
f India since accurate accounting began.) Aluthra was nineteen the year the pox plague hit Bengal. The girl survived, even if her skin did not.

  When Buttercup was fifteen, Adela Terrell, of Sussex on the Thames, was easily the most beautiful creature. Adela was twenty, and so far did she outdistance the world that it seemed certain she would be the most beautiful for many, many years. But then one day, one of her suitors (she had 104 of them) exclaimed that without question Adela must be the most ideal item yet spawned. Adela, flattered, began to ponder on the truth of the statement. That night, alone in her room, she examined herself pore by pore in her mirror. (This was after mirrors.) It took her until close to dawn to finish her inspection, but by that time it was clear to her that the young man had been quite correct in his assessment: she was, through no real faults of her own, perfect.

  As she strolled through the family rose gardens watching the sun rise, she felt happier than she had ever been. "Not only am I perfect," she said to herself, "I am probably the first perfect person in the whole long history of the universe. Not a part of me could stand improving, how lucky I am to be perfect and rich and sought after and sensitive and young and..."

  Young?

  The mist was rising around her as Adela began to think. Well of course I'll always be sensitive, she thought, and I'll always be rich, but I don't quite see how I'm going to manage to always be young. And when I'm not young, how am I going to stay perfect? And if I'm not perfect, well, what else is there? What indeed? Adela furrowed her brow in desperate thought. It was the first time in her life her brow had ever had to furrow, and Adela gasped when she realized what she had done, horrified that she had somehow damaged it, perhaps permanently. She rushed back to her mirror and spent the morning, and although she managed to convince herself that she was still quite as perfect as ever, there was no question that she was not quite as happy as she had been.

  She had begun to fret.

  The first worry lines appeared within a fortnight; the first wrinkles within a month, and before the year was out, creases abounded. She married soon thereafter, the selfsame man who accused her of sublimity, and gave him merry hell for many years.

  Buttercup, of course, at fifteen, knew none of this. And if she had, would have found it totally unfathomable. How could someone care if she were the most beautiful woman in the world or not. What difference could it have made if you were only the third most beautiful. Or the sixth. (Buttercup at this time was nowhere near that high, being barely in the top twenty, and that primarily on potential, certainly not on any particular care she took of herself. She hated to wash her face, she loathed the area behind her ears, she was sick of combing her hair and did so as little as possible.) What she liked to do, preferred above all else really, was to ride her horse and taunt the farm boy.

  The horse's name was "Horse" (Buttercup was never long on imagination) and it came when she called it, went where she steered it, did what she told it. The farm boy did what she told him too. Actually, he was more a young man now, but he had been a farm boy when, orphaned, he had come to work for her father, and Buttercup referred to him that way still. "Farm Boy, fetch me this"; "Get me that, Farm Boy--quickly, lazy thing, trot now or I'll tell Father."

  "As you wish."

  That was all he ever answered. "As you wish." Fetch that, Farm Boy. "As you wish." Dry this, Farm Boy. "As you wish." He lived in a hovel out near the animals and, according to Buttercup's mother, he kept it clean. He even read when he had candles.

  "I'll leave the lad an acre in my will," Buttercup's father was fond of saying. (They had acres then.) "You'll spoil him," Buttercup's mother always answered.

  "He's slaved for many years; hard work should be rewarded." Then, rather than continue the argument (they had arguments then too), they would both turn on their daughter.

  "You didn't bathe," her father said.

  "I did, I did" from Buttercup.

  "Not with water," her father continued. "You reek like a stallion."

  "I've been riding all day," Buttercup explained.

  "You must bathe, Buttercup," her mother joined in. "The boys don't like their girls to smell of stables."

  "Oh, the boys!" Buttercup fairly exploded. "I do not care about 'the boys.' Horse loves me and that is quite sufficient, thank you.

  She said that speech loud, and she said it often.

  But, like it or not, things were beginning to happen.

  Shortly before her sixteenth birthday, Buttercup realized that it had now been more than a month since any girl in the village had spoken to her. She had never much been close to girls, so the change was nothing sharp, but at least before there were head nods exchanged when she rode through the village or along the cart tracks. But now, for no reason, there was nothing. A quick glance away as she approached, that was all. Buttercup cornered Cornelia one morning at the blacksmith's and asked about the silence. "I should think, after what you've done, you'd have the courtesy not to pretend to ask" came from Cornelia. "And what have I done?" "What? What?...You've stolen them." With that, Cornelia fled, but Buttercup understood; she knew who "them" was.

  The boys.

  The village boys.

  The beef-witted featherbrained rattleskulled clodpated dim-domed noodle-noggined sapheaded lunk-knobbed boys.

  How could anybody accuse her of stealing them? Why would anybody want them anyway? What good were they? All they did was pester and vex and annoy. "Can I brush your horse, Buttercup?" "Thank you, but the farm boy does that." "Can I go riding with you, Buttercup?" "Thank you, but I really do enjoy myself alone." "You think you're too good for anybody, don't you, Buttercup?" "No; no I don't. I just like riding by myself, that's all."

  But throughout her sixteenth year, even this kind of talk gave way to stammering and flushing and, at the very best, questions about the weather. "Do you think it's going to rain, Buttercup?" "I don't think so; the sky is blue." "Well, it might rain." "Yes, I suppose it might." "You think you're too good for anybody, don't you, Buttercup?" "No, I just don't think it's going to rain, that's all."

  At night, more often than not, they would congregate in the dark beyond her window and laugh about her. She ignored them. Usually the laughter would give way to insult. She paid them no mind. If they grew too damaging, the farm boy handled things, emerging silently from his hovel, thrashing a few of them, sending them flying. She never failed to thank him when he did this. "As you wish" was all he ever answered.

  When she was almost seventeen, a man in a carriage came to town and watched as she rode for provisions. He was still there on her return, peering out. She paid him no mind and, indeed, by himself he was not important. But he marked a turning point. Other men had gone out of their way to catch sight of her; other men had even ridden twenty miles for the privilege, as this man had. The importance here is that this was the first rich man who had bothered to do so, the first noble. And it was this man, whose name is lost to antiquity, who mentioned Buttercup to the Count.

  THE LAND OF Florin was set between where Sweden and Germany would eventually settle. (This was before Europe.) In theory, it was ruled by King Lotharon and his second wife, the Queen. But in fact, the King was barely hanging on, could only rarely tell day from night, and basically spent his time in muttering. He was very old, every organ in his body had long since betrayed him, and most of his important decisions regarding Florin had a certain arbitrary quality that bothered many of the leading citizens.

  Prince Humperdinck actually ran things. If there had been a Europe, he would have been the most powerful man in it. Even as it was, nobody within a thousand miles wanted to mess with him.

  The Count was Prince Humperdinck's only confidant. His last name was Rugen, but no one needed to use it--he was the only Count in the country, the title having been bestowed by the Prince as a birthday present some years before, the happening taking place, naturally, at one of the Countess's parties.

  The Countess was considerably younger than her husband. All of her clothes c
ame from Paris (this was after Paris) and she had superb taste. (This was after taste too, but only just. And since it was such a new thing, and since the Countess was the only lady in all Florin to possess it, is it any wonder she was the leading hostess of the land?) Eventually, her passion for fabric and face paint caused her to settle permanently in Paris, where she ran the only salon of international consequence.

  For now, she busied herself with simply sleeping on silk, eating on gold and being the single most feared and admired woman in Florinese history. If she had figure faults, her clothes concealed them; if her face was less than divine, it was hard to tell once she got done applying substances. (This was before glamour, but if it hadn't been for ladies like the Countess, there would never have been a need for its invention.) In sum, the Rugens were Couple of the Week in Florin, and had been for many years....

  ***

  This is me. All abridging remarks and other comments will be in this fancy italic type so you'll know. When I said at the start that I'd never read this book, that's true. My father read it to me, and I just quick skimmed along, crossing out whole sections when I did the abridging, leaving everything just as it was in the original Morgenstern.

  This chapter is totally intact. My intrusion here is because of the way Morgenstern uses parentheses. The copy editor at Harcourt kept filling the margins of the galley proofs with questions: 'How can it be before Europe but after Paris?' And 'How is it possible this happens before glamour when glamour is an ancient concept? See "glamer" in the Oxford English Dictionary.' And eventually: I am going crazy. What am I to make of these parentheses? When does this book take place? I don't understand anything. Hellllppppp!!!' Denise, the copy editor, has done all my books since Boys and Girls Together and she had never been as emotional in the margins with me before.

  I couldn't help her.

  Either Morgenstern meant them seriously or he didn't. Or maybe he meant some of them seriously and some others he didn't. But he never said which were the seriously ones. Or maybe it was just the author's way of telling the reader stylistically that 'this isn't real; it never happened.' That's what I think, in spite of the fact that if you read back into Florinese history, it did happen. The facts, anyway; no one can say about the actual motivations. All I can suggest to you is, if the parentheses bug you, don't read them.

 
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