Once upon a time, and of course it was in the Golden Age, and I hope you may know when that was, for I am sure I don’t, though I have tried hard to find out, there lived in a rich and fertile country, a powerful Prince whose name was BULL. He had gone through a great deal of fighting, in his time, about all sorts of things, including nothing; but, had gradually settled down to be a steady, peaceable, good-natured, corpulent, rather sleepy Prince.
This Puissant Prince was married to a lovely Princess whose name was Fair Freedom. She had brought him a large fortune, and had borne him an immense number of children, and had set them to spinning, and farming, and engineering, and soldiering, and sailoring, and doctoring, and lawyering, and preaching, and all kinds of trades. The coffers of Prince Bull were full of treasure, his cellars were crammed with delicious wines from all parts of the world, the richest gold and silver plate that ever was seen adorned his sideboards, his sons were strong, his daughters were handsome, and in short you might have supposed that if there ever lived upon earth a fortunate and happy Prince, the name of that Prince, take him for all in all, was assuredly Prince Bull.
But, appearances, as we all know, are not always to be trusted—far from it; and if they had led you to this conclusion respecting Prince Bull, they would have led you wrong as they often have led me.
For, this good Prince had two sharp thorns in his pillow, two hard knobs in his crown, two heavy loads on his mind, two unbridled nightmares in his sleep, two rocks ahead in his course. He could not by any means get servants to suit him, and he had a tyrannical old godmother, whose name was Tape.
She was a Fairy, this Tape, and was a bright red all over. She was disgustingly prim and formal, and could never bend herself a hair’s breadth this way or that way, out of her naturally crooked shape. But, she was very potent in her wicked art. She could stop the fastest thing in the world, change the strongest thing into the weakest, and the most useful into the most useless. To do this she had only to put her cold hand upon it, and repeat her own name, Tape. Then it withered away.
At the Court of Prince Bull—at least I don’t mean literally at his court, because he was a very genteel Prince, and readily yielded to his godmother when she always reserved that for his hereditary Lords and Ladies—in the dominions of Prince Bull, among the great mass of the community who were called in the language of that polite country the Mobs and the Snobs, were a number of very ingenious men, who were always busy with some invention or other, for promoting the prosperity of the Prince’s subjects, and augmenting the Prince’s power. But, whenever they submitted their models for the Prince’s approval, his godmother stepped forward, laid her hand upon them, and said ‘Tape.’ Hence it came to pass, that when any particularly good discovery was made, the discoverer usually carried it off to some other Prince, in foreign parts, who had no old godmother who said Tape. This was not on the whole an advantageous state of things for Prince Bull, to the best of my understanding.
The worst of it was, that Prince Bull had in course of years lapsed into such a state of subjection to this unlucky godmother, that he never made any serious effort to rid himself of her tyranny. I have said this was the worst of it, but there I was wrong, because there is a worse consequence still, behind. The Prince’s numerous family became so downright sick and tired of Tape, that when they should have helped the Prince out of the difficulties into which that evil creature led him, they fell into a dangerous habit of moodily keeping away from him in an impassive and indifferent manner, as though they had quite forgotten that no harm could happen to the Prince their father, without its inevitably affecting themselves.
Such was the aspect of affairs at the court of Prince Bull, when this great Prince found it necessary to go to war with Prince Bear. He had been for some time very doubtful of his servants, who, besides being indolent and addicted to enriching their families at his expense, domineered over him dreadfully; threatening to discharge themselves if they were found the least fault with, pretending that they had done a wonderful amount of work when they had done nothing, making the most unmeaning speeches that ever were heard in the Prince’s name, and uniformly showing themselves to be very inefficient indeed. Though, that some of them had excellent characters from previous situations is not to be denied. Well; Prince Bull called his servants together, and said to them one and all, ‘Send out my army against Prince Bear. Clothe it, arm it, feed it, provide it with all necessaries and contingencies, and I will pay the piper! Do your duty by my brave troops,’ said the Prince, ‘and do it well, and I will pour my treasure out like water, to defray the cost. Who ever heard ME complain of money well laid out!’ Which indeed he had reason for saying, inasmuch as he was well known to be a truly generous and munificent Prince.
When the servants heard those words, they sent out the army against Prince Bear, and they set the army tailors to work, and the army provision merchants, and the makers of guns both great and small, and the gunpowder makers, and the makers of ball, shell, and shot; and they bought up all manner of stores and ships, without troubling their heads about the price, and appeared to be so busy that the good Prince rubbed his hands, and (using a favourite expression of his), said, ‘It’s all right I’ But, while they were thus employed, the Prince’s godmother, who was a great favourite with those servants, looked in upon them continually all day long, and whenever she popped in her head at the door said, How do you do, my children? What are you doing here?’ ‘Official business, godmother.’ ‘Oho!’ says this wicked Fairy. ‘- Tape!’ And then the business all went wrong, whatever it was, and the servants’ heads became so addled and muddled that they thought they were doing wonders.
Now, this was very bad conduct on the part of the vicious old nuisance, and she ought to have been strangled, even if she had stopped here; but, she didn’t stop here, as you shall learn. For, a number of the Prince’s subjects, being very fond of the Prince’s army who were the bravest of men, assembled together and provided all manner of eatables and drinkables, and books to read, and clothes to wear, and tobacco to smoke, and candies to burn, and nailed them up in great packing-cases, and put them aboard a great many ships, to be carried out to that brave army in the cold and inclement country where they were fighting Prince Bear. Then, up comes this wicked Fairy as the ships were weighing anchor, and says, ‘How do you do, my children? What are you doing here?’—‘We are going with all these comforts to the army, godmother.’—‘Oho!’ says she. ‘A pleasant voyage, my darlings.—Tape!’ And from that time forth, those enchanting ships went sailing, against wind and tide and rhyme and reason, round and round the world, and whenever they touched at any port were ordered off immediately, and could never deliver their cargoes anywhere.
This, again, was very bad conduct on the part of the vicious old nuisance, and she ought to have been strangled for it if she had done nothing worse; but, she did something worse still, as you shall learn. For, she got astride of an official broomstick, and muttered as a spell these two sentences, ‘On Her Majesty’s service,’ and ‘I have the honour to be, sir, your most obedient servant,’ and presently alighted in the cold and inclement country where the army of Prince Bull were encamped to fight the army of Prince Bear. On the sea-shore of that country, she found piled together, a number of houses for the army to live in, and a quantity of provisions for the army to live upon, and a quantity of clothes for the army to wear: while, sitting in the mud gazing at them, were a group of officers as red to look at as the wicked old woman herself. So, she said to one of them, ‘Who are you, my darling, and how do you do?’—‘I am the Quartermaster General’s Department, godmother, and I am pretty well.’ Then she said to another, ‘Who are YOU, my darling, and how do YOU do?’—‘I am the Commissariat Department, godmother, and I am pretty well! Then she said to another, ‘Who are YOU, my darling, and how do YOU do?’—‘I am the Head of the Medical Department, godmother, and I am pretty well.’ Then, she said to some gentlemen scented with lavender, who kept themselves at a great distance from the rest, ‘And who are YOU, my pretty pets, and how do YOU do?’ And they answered, ‘We-aw-are-the-aw-Staff-aw-Department, godmother, and we are very well indeed.’—‘I am delighted to see you all, my beauties,’ says this wicked old Fairy, ‘—Tape!’ Upon that, the houses, clothes, and provisions, all mouldered away; and the soldiers who were sound, fell sick; and the soldiers who were sick, died miserably: and the noble army of Prince Bull perished.
When the dismal news of his great loss was carried to the Prince, he suspected his godmother very much indeed; but, he knew that his servants must have kept company with the malicious beldame, and must have given way to her, and therefore he resolved to turn those servants out of their places. So, he called to him a Roebuck who had the gift of speech, and he said, ‘Good Roebuck, tell them they must go.’ So, the good Roebuck delivered his message, so like a man that you might have supposed him to be nothing but a man, and they were turned out—but, not without warning, for that they had had a long time.
And now comes the most extraordinary part of the history of this Prince. When he had turned out those servants, of course he wanted others. What was his astonishment to find that in all his dominions, which contained no less than twenty-seven millions of people, there were not above five-and-twenty servants altogether! They were so lofty about it, too, that instead of discussing whether they should hire themselves as servants to Prince Bull, they turned things topsy-turvy, and considered whether as a favour they should hire Prince Bull to be their master! While they were arguing this point among themselves quite at their leisure, the wicked old red Fairy was incessantly going up and down, knocking at the doors of twelve of the oldest of the five-and-twenty, who were the oldest inhabitants in all that country, and whose united ages amounted to one thousand, saying, ‘Will YOU hire Prince Bull for your master?—Will YOU hire Prince Bull for your master?’ To which one answered, ‘I will if next door will;’ and another, ‘I won’t if over the way does;’ and another, ‘I can’t if he, she, or they, might, could, would, or should.’ And all this time Prince Bull’s affairs were going to rack and ruin.
At last, Prince Bull in the height of his perplexity assumed a thoughtful face, as if he were struck by an entirely new idea. The wicked old Fairy, seeing this, was at his elbow directly, and said, ‘How do you do, my Prince, and what are you thinking of?’—‘I am thinking, godmother,’ says he, ‘that among all the seven-and-twenty millions of my subjects who have never been in service, there are men of intellect and business who have made me very famous both among my friends and enemies.’—‘Aye, truly?’ says the Fairy.—‘Aye, truly,’ says the Prince.—‘And what then?’ says the Fairy.—‘Why, then,’ says he, ‘since the regular old class of servants do so ill, are so hard to get, and carry it with so high a hand, perhaps I might try to make good servants of some of these.’ The words had no sooner passed his lips than she returned, chuckling, ‘You think so, do you? Indeed, my Prince?—Tape!’ Thereupon he directly forgot what he was thinking of, and cried out lamentably to the old servants, ‘O, do come and hire your poor old master! Pray do! On any terms!’
And this, for the present, finishes the story of Prince Bull. I wish I could wind it up by saying that he lived happy ever afterwards, but I cannot in my conscience do so; for, with Tape at his elbow, and his estranged children fatally repelled by her from coming near him, I do not, to tell you the plain truth, believe in the possibility of such an end to it.
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Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a writer. He was best known for his novels including David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and A Christmas Carol.