The princess bride, p.7
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       The Princess Bride, p.7

           William Goldman
 

  ***

  "QUICK--QUICK--COME--" Buttercup's father stood in his farmhouse, staring out the window.

  "Why?" This from the mother. She gave away nothing when it came to obedience.

  The father made a quick finger point. "Look--"

  "You look; you know how." Buttercup's parents did not have exactly what you might call a happy marriage. All they ever dreamed of was leaving each other.

  Buttercup's father shrugged and went back to the window. "Ahhhh," he said after a while. And a little later, again, "Ahhhh."

  Buttercup's mother glanced up briefly from her cooking.

  "Such riches," Buttercup's father said. "Glorious."

  Buttercup's mother hesitated, then put her stew spoon down. (This was after stew, but so is everything. When the first man first clambered from the slime and made his first home on land, what he had for supper that first night was stew.) "The heart swells at the magnificence," Buttercup's father muttered very loudly.

  "What exactly is it, dumpling?" Buttercup's mother wanted to know.

  "You look; you know how" was all he replied. (This was their thirty-third spat of the day--this was long after spats--and he was behind, thirteen to twenty, but he had made up a lot of distance since lunch, when it was seventeen to two against him.) "Donkey," the mother said, and came over to the window. A moment later she was going "Ahhhh" right along with him.

  They stood there, the two of them, tiny and awed.

  From setting the dinner table, Buttercup watched them.

  "They must be going to meet Prince Humperdinck someplace," Buttercup's mother said.

  The father nodded. "Hunting. That's what the Prince does."

  "How lucky we are to have seen them pass by," Buttercup's mother said, and she took her husband's hand.

  The old man nodded. "Now I can die."

  She glanced at him. "Don't." Her tone was surprisingly tender, and probably she sensed how important he really was to her, because when he did die, two years further on, she went right after, and most of the people who knew her well agreed it was the sudden lack of opposition that undid her.

  Buttercup came close and stood behind them, staring over them, and soon she was gasping too, because the Count and Countess and all their pages and soldiers and servants and courtiers and champions and carriages were passing by the cart track at the front of the farm.

  The three stood in silence as the procession moved forward. Buttercup's father was a tiny mutt of a man who had always dreamed of living like the Count. He had once been two miles from where the Count and Prince had been hunting, and until this moment that had been the high point of his life. He was a terrible farmer, and not much of a husband either. There wasn't really much in this world he excelled at, and he could never quite figure out how he happened to sire his daughter, but he knew, deep down, that it must have been some kind of wonderful mistake, the nature of which he had no intention of investigating.

  Buttercup's mother was a gnarled shrimp of a woman, thorny and worrying, who had always dreamed of somehow just once being popular, like the Countess was said to be. She was a terrible cook, an even more limited housekeeper. How Buttercup slid from her womb was, of course, beyond her. But she had been there when it happened; that was enough for her.

  Buttercup herself, standing half a head over her parents, still holding the dinner dishes, still smelling of Horse, only wished that the great procession wasn't quite so far away, so she could see if the Countess's clothes really were all that lovely.

  As if in answer to her request, the procession turned and began entering the farm.

  "Here?" Buttercup's father managed. "My God, why?"

  Buttercup's mother whirled on him. "Did you forget to pay your taxes?" (This was after taxes. But everything is after taxes. Taxes were here even before stew.) "Even if I did, they wouldn't need all that to collect them," and he gestured toward the front of his farm, where now the Count and Countess and all their pages and soldiers and servants and courtiers and champions and carriages were coming closer and closer. "What could they want to ask me about?" he said.

  "Go see, go see," Buttercup's mother told him.

  "You go. Please."

  "No. You. Please."

  "We'll both go."

  They both went. Trembling...

  "Cows," the Count said, when they reached his golden carriage. "I would like to talk about your cows." He spoke from inside, his dark face darkened by shadow.

  "My cows?" Buttercup's father said.

  "Yes. You see, I'm thinking of starting a little dairy of my own, and since your cows are known throughout the land as being Florin's finest, I thought I might pry your secrets from you."

  "My cows," Buttercup's father managed to repeat, hoping he was not going mad. Because the truth was, and he knew it well, he had terrible cows. For years, nothing but complaints from the people in the village. If anyone else had had milk to sell, he would have been out of business in a minute. Now granted, things had improved since the farm boy had come to slave for him--no question, the farm boy had certain skills, and the complaints were quite nonexistent now--but that didn't make his the finest cows in Florin. Still, you didn't argue with the Count. Buttercup's father turned to his wife. "What would you say my secret is, my dear?" he asked.

  "Oh, there are so many," she said--she was no dummy, not when it came to the quality of their livestock.

  "You two are childless, are you?" the Count asked then.

  "No, sir," the mother answered.

  "Then let me see her," the Count went on--"perhaps she will be quicker with her answers than her parents."

  "Buttercup," the father called, turning. "Come out, please."

  "How did you know we had a daughter?" Buttercup's mother wondered.

  "A guess. I assumed it had to be one or the other. Some days I'm luckier than--" He simply stopped talking then.

  Because Buttercup moved into view, hurrying from the house to her parents.

  The Count left the carriage. Gracefully, he moved to the ground and stood very still. He was a big man, with black hair and black eyes and great shoulders and a black cape and gloves.

  "Curtsy, dear," Buttercup's mother whispered.

  Buttercup did her best.

  And the Count could not stop looking at her.

  Understand now, she was barely rated in the top twenty; her hair was uncombed, unclean; her age was just seventeen, so there was still, in occasional places, the remains of baby fat. Nothing had been done to the child. Nothing was really there but potential.

  But the Count still could not rip his eyes away.

  "The Count would like to know the secrets behind our cows' greatness, is that not correct, sir?" Buttercup's father said.

  The Count only nodded, staring.

  Even Buttercup's mother noted a certain tension in the air.

  "Ask the farm boy; he tends them," Buttercup said.

  "And is that the farm boy?" came a new voice from inside the carriage. Then the Countess's face was framed in the carriage doorway.

  Her lips were painted a perfect red; her green eyes lined in black. All the colors of the world were muted in her gown. Buttercup wanted to shield her eyes from the brilliance.

  Buttercup's father glanced back toward the lone figure peering around the corner of the house. "It is."

  "Bring him to me."

  "He is not dressed properly for such an occasion," Buttercup's mother said.

  "I have seen bare chests before," the Countess replied. Then she called out: "You!" and pointed at the farm boy. "Come here." Her fingers snapped on "here."

  The farm boy did as he was told.

  And when he was close, the Countess left the carriage.

  When he was a few paces behind Buttercup, he stopped, head properly bowed. He was ashamed of his attire, worn boots and torn blue jeans (blue jeans were invented considerably before most people suppose), and his hands were tight together in almost a gesture of supplication.

  "Have
you a name, farm boy?"

  "Westley, Countess."

  "Well, Westley, perhaps you can help us with our problem." She crossed to him. The fabric of her gown grazed his skin. "We are all of us here passionately interested in the subject of cows. We are practically reaching the point of frenzy, such is our curiosity. Why, do you suppose, Westley, that the cows of this particular farm are the finest in all Florin? What do you do to them?"

  "I just feed them, Countess."

  "Well then, there it is, the mystery is solved, the secret; we can all rest. Clearly, the magic is in Westley's feeding. Show me how you do it, would you, Westley?"

  "Feed the cows for you, Countess?"

  "Bright lad."

  "When?"

  "Now will be soon enough," and she held out her arm to him. "Lead me, Westley."

  Westley had no choice but to take her arm. Gently. "It's behind the house, madam; it's terrible muddy back there. Your gown will be ruined."

  "I wear them only once, Westley, and I burn to see you in action."

  So off they went to the cowshed.

  Throughout all this, the Count kept watching Buttercup.

  "I'll help you," Buttercup called after Westley.

  "Perhaps I'd best see just how he does it," the Count decided.

  "Strange things are happening," Buttercup's parents said, and off they went too, bringing up the rear of the cow-feeding trip, watching the Count, who was watching their daughter, who was watching the Countess.

  Who was watching Westley.

  "I COULDN'T SEE what he did that was so special," Buttercup's father said. "He just fed them." This was after dinner now, and the family was alone again.

  "They must like him personally. I had a cat once that only bloomed when I fed him. Maybe it's the same kind of thing." Buttercup's mother scraped the stew leavings into a bowl. "Here," she said to her daughter. "Westley's waiting by the back door; take him his dinner."

  Buttercup carried the bowl, opened the back door.

  "Take it," she said.

  He nodded, accepted, started off to his tree stump to eat.

  "I didn't excuse you, Farm Boy," Buttercup began. He stopped, turned back to her. "I don't like what you're doing with Horse. What you're not doing with Horse is more to the point. I want him cleaned. Tonight. I want his hoofs varnished. Tonight. I want his tail plaited and his ears massaged. This very evening. I want his stables spotless. Now. I want him glistening, and if it takes you all night, it takes you all night."

  "As you wish."

  She slammed the door and let him eat in darkness.

  "I thought Horse had been looking very well, actually," her father said.

  Buttercup said nothing.

  "You yourself said so yesterday," her mother reminded her.

  "I must be overtired," Buttercup managed. "The excitement and all."

  "Rest, then," her mother cautioned. "Terrible things can happen when you're overtired. I was overtired the night your father proposed." Thirty-four to twenty-two and pulling away.

  Buttercup went to her room. She lay on her bed. She closed her eyes.

  And the Countess was staring at Westley.

  Buttercup got up from bed. She took off her clothes. She washed a little. She got into her nightgown. She slipped between the sheets, snuggled down, closed her eyes.

  The Countess was still staring at Westley!

  Buttercup threw back the sheets, opened her door. She went to the sink by the stove and poured herself a cup of water. She drank it down. She poured another cup and rolled its coolness across her forehead. The feverish feeling was still there.

  How feverish? She felt fine. She was seventeen, and not even a cavity. She dumped the water firmly into the sink, turned, marched back to her room, shut the door tight, went back to bed. She closed her eyes.

  The Countess would not stop staring at Westley!

  Why? Why in the world would the woman in all the history of Florin who was in all ways perfect be interested in the farm boy? Buttercup rolled around in bed. And there simply was no other way of explaining that look--she was interested. Buttercup shut her eyes tight and studied the memory of the Countess. Clearly, something about the farm boy interested her. Facts were facts. But what? The farm boy had eyes like the sea before a storm, but who cared about eyes? And he had pale blond hair, if you liked that sort of thing. And he was broad enough in the shoulders, but not all that much broader than the Count. And certainly he was muscular, but anybody would be muscular who slaved all day. And his skin was perfect and tan, but that came again from slaving; in the sun all day, who wouldn't be tan? And he wasn't that much taller than the Count either, although his stomach was flatter, but that was because the farm boy was younger.

  Buttercup sat up in bed. It must be his teeth. The farm boy did have good teeth, give credit where credit was due. White and perfect, particularly set against the sun-tanned face.

  Could it have been anything else? Buttercup concentrated. The girls in the village followed the farm boy around a lot, whenever he was making deliveries, but they were idiots, they followed anything. And he always ignored them, because if he'd ever opened his mouth, they would have realized that was all he had, just good teeth; he was, after all, exceptionally stupid.

  It was really very strange that a woman as beautiful and slender and willowy and graceful, a creature as perfectly packaged, as supremely dressed as the Countess should be hung up on teeth that way. Buttercup shrugged. People were surprisingly complicated. But now she had it all diagnosed, deduced, clear. She closed her eyes and snuggled down and got all nice and comfortable, and people don't look at other people the way the Countess looked at the farm boy because of their teeth.

  "Oh," Buttercup gasped. "Oh, oh dear."

  Now the farm boy was staring back at the Countess. He was feeding the cows and his muscles were rippling the way they always did under his tanned skin and Buttercup was standing there watching as the farm boy looked, for the first time, deep into the Countess's eyes.

  Buttercup jumped out of bed and began to pace her room. How could he? Oh, it was all right if he looked at her, but he wasn't looking at her, he was looking at her.

  "She's so old," Buttercup muttered, starting to storm a bit now. The Countess would never see thirty again and that was fact. And her dress looked ridiculous out in the cowshed and that was fact too.

  Buttercup fell onto her bed and clutched her pillow across her breasts. The dress was ridiculous before it ever got to the cowshed. The Countess looked rotten the minute she left the carriage, with her too big painted mouth and her little piggy painted eyes and her powdered skin and ... and ... and...

  Flailing and thrashing, Buttercup wept and tossed and paced and wept some more, and there have been three great cases of jealousy since David of Galilee was first afflicted with the emotion when he could no longer stand the fact that his neighbor Saul's cactus outshone his own. (Originally, jealousy pertained solely to plants, other people's cactus or ginkgoes, or, later, when there was grass, grass, which is why, even to this day, we say that someone is green with jealousy.) Buttercup's case rated a close fourth on the all-time list.

  It was a very long and very green night.

  She was outside his hovel before dawn. Inside, she could hear him already awake. She knocked. He appeared, stood in the doorway. Behind him she could see a tiny candle, open books. He waited. She looked at him. Then she looked away.

  He was too beautiful.

  "I love you," Buttercup said. "I know this must come as something of a surprise, since all I've ever done is scorn you and degrade you and taunt you, but I have loved you for several hours now, and every second, more. I thought an hour ago that I loved you more than any woman has ever loved a man, but a half hour after that I knew that what I felt before was nothing compared to what I felt then. But ten minutes after that, I understood that my previous love was a puddle compared to the high seas before a storm. Your eyes are like that, did you know? Well they are. How many minute
s ago was I? Twenty? Had I brought my feelings up to then? It doesn't matter." Buttercup still could not look at him. The sun was rising behind her now; she could feel the heat on her back, and it gave her courage. "I love you so much more now than twenty minutes ago that there cannot be comparison. I love you so much more now than when you opened your hovel door, there cannot be comparison. There is no room in my body for anything but you. My arms love you, my ears adore you, my knees shake with blind affection. My mind begs you to ask it something so it can obey. Do you want me to follow you for the rest of your days? I will do that. Do you want me to crawl? I will crawl. I will be quiet for you or sing for you, or if you are hungry, let me bring you food, or if you have thirst and nothing will quench it but Arabian wine, I will go to Araby, even though it is across the world, and bring a bottle back for your lunch. Anything there is that I can do for you, I will do for you; anything there is that I cannot do, I will learn to do. I know I cannot compete with the Countess in skills or wisdom or appeal, and I saw the way she looked at you. And I saw the way you looked at her. But remember, please, that she is old and has other interests, while I am seventeen and for me there is only you. Dearest Westley--I've never called you that before, have I?--Westley, Westley, Westley, Westley, Westley,--darling Westley, adored Westley, sweet perfect Westley, whisper that I have a chance to win your love." And with that, she dared the bravest thing she'd ever done: she looked right into his eyes.

  He closed the door in her face.

  Without a word.

  Without a word.

  Buttercup ran. She whirled and burst away and the tears came bitterly; she could not see, she stumbled, she slammed into a tree trunk, fell, rose, ran on; her shoulder throbbed from where the tree trunk hit her, and the pain was strong, but not enough to ease her shattered heart. Back to her room she fled, back to her pillow. Safe behind the locked door, she drenched the world with tears.

  Not even one word. He hadn't had the decency for that. "Sorry," he could have said. Would it have ruined him to say "sorry"? "Too late," he could have said.

  Why couldn't he at least have said something?

  Buttercup thought very hard about that for a moment. And suddenly she had the answer: he didn't talk because the minute he opened his mouth, that was it. Sure he was handsome, but dumb? The minute he had exercised his tongue, it would have all been over.

 
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