MANY YEARS ago there lived a timber merchant who had three daughters. The eldest he named Hope and she was stern and responsible. She had long dark hair and a pale apron, and when she was of age, she married a trader. The second he called Faith; she had nut-brown hair, and was bright and studious, and she married a priest. The youngest he named Bella because, he said, he wished for no man’s charity. She had blue eyes and yellow hair and was pretty and feckless, and when she came of age she said to her father, who proposed that she wed a grocer’s son, that she did not wish to marry just yet, as she fancied there were a few things she still had to do, though she could not however say exactly what they were, as they had not yet happened.
Her father agreed reluctantly, and the marriage was postponed for a year. He told the groom’s parents that he still needed her around the house, as his wife was ill, and not expected to recover.
But she had other plans. She went to another city, taking only her clothes and a golden ring from her grandmother that was supposed to be her eldest sister’s. There she worked in a market, and then at an inn, serving food and cleaning rooms. But her heart was not in these things because all the time she was waiting to discover what it was that she ought to do. She was certain that cleaning chamber-pots was not it.
The men at the inn soon enough noticed that she was a pretty girl, and, finding her willing, lost no time bedding her. But they were unnerved by her manner in bed because she giggled when they tried to pleasure her, as though she were being tickled—and most of all at the moment of bliss, when, instead of dying the little death, she screamed with laughter until she was all tears and snot. When she tried to suppress her laughter it was even worse, as the resultant sniggering and snorting struck them as derision, and they were unmanned and unable to go on.
So Bella carried on emptying chamber-pots and serving food, and after a year her sister Faith came to her and said, “Our father has sent me to fetch you. It is time you married the grocer’s lad.”
“I would come, though not gladly, but I find that I have not yet fulfilled my quest. There are yet things for me to do.”
“There are piss-pots enough to empty in the grocer’s house.”
“Would I stay there?”
“Tell our father I cannot come. Tell him anything, any lie. Only I do not wish to marry the boy. Not yet, not yet.”
So Faith returned to her father and told him: “Bella is set on disobeying your wish, though the life she has found for herself is a worse one than the one you chose for her.”
Then the timber merchant sent Hope to call her back. When Hope arrived at the tavern, Bella was no longer there. A groom told her to look in the red light district, with a wink and a leer, and goosed her as she turned to leave.
Hope visited all the bawdy houses. At last she found Bella in a big and gaudy place where she was Diana the Laughing Whore. Men paid money to make love to her and wagered their potency against her laugher.
Hope found her in her working clothes—a state of semi-undress. She took her own coat off and draped it over Bella’s pale limbs. “I have come to fetch you,” was all she said.
“Ah, yes, you want me home,” Bella said, “but I will not come, because I still have things to do. And besides, if our father knew about Diana the Laughing Whore, the shame of it would kill him.”
“Our father need know nothing. Only come home, where your betrothed is now a grown man, and awaits you.”
“Is he a handsome man?” Bella asked.
“No, he is not. But his father now owns three shops, and besides deals in fruit and meat at the market. There are two servants who would ease your load. Leave this place, and come home with me.”
“Please give me more time. I feel that my destiny has yet to manifest, that something special is waiting to happen to me and I cannot come until it does. In the meanwhile, I get by as best as I can.” And she gave Hope her coat back and went out into the hall to meet the men.
Hope went home and told her father that Bella would not come, and the father became angry and took a great book, and, placing his hand on it, swore a great oath which disowned his disobedient daughter. But after a while he found that he still missed her cheerful face around the house. The prospect of a life that absolutely excluded the sound of her chattering and laughing in another room seemed drear. In his mind, too, he turned against the grocer’s son, who was, as far as he could determine, a loose-living lout and a lover of men.
Then one day he called Hope to him, and asked her to make discrete inquiries about Bella, and to beg her to come home, at least to visit her aging father, who now lived alone.
When Hope reached the bawdy house she found that Diana the Laughing Whore was no longer there.
“Ooh, she was a popular one, that one,” said one of the women. “With all the men betting and peeping through the holes, she paid off her debt and bought her way out. Left with a troupe of actors, she did. Not more than a month ago.”
Hope sought the actors, but was told that they were on tour and were in another city, and that Bella was the leading lady in a high drama. She followed them by coach, and found Bella backstage at a big theatre, dressed in fabulous satins and paste gems.
“Our father is old and pines to see his daughter again. Never mind the grocer’s son.”
“I would love to visit my father and make merry with the friends of my childhood again, but soon we are commanded to perform for the King, and I may not refuse. Besides, my heart tells me that I still have things to do, though I cannot say what.”
So Hope told her father that Bella could not visit, as she was commanded before the King, and the merchant grew proud of his daughter and boasted before the townspeople that his Bella played for the King. So he sent both Faith and Hope, saying: “When the play is over, she must come home. Offer her whatever we can offer. Forget the marriage.”
And when they came to the great theatre, they were directed to the palace. “The King fancied her,” said the director with a smirk. So they went to the great palace on the hill, surrounded by the great parks and fountains and walls and moats and gardens and out-buildings. There, after some fuss, they were shown to Bella’s suite. They found her dressed in satins and pearls, with a great diamond on her finger and an even larger one around her neck.
When they conveyed their father’s request and made his offer, she laughed like a bell. “The King is a sombre man, bearing on his shoulders the weight of the world, but when he saw my face he smiled and, wishing to smile again, he had me brought here. Now he visits me and we laugh together for hours. For it is my way that instead of showing passion with gasps, sweats and flushes, laughter comes from me as water from a rock. Now, I tell you this as sisters only: many men have sought of my love because of my yellow hair and smiling face, but few have pleasured me. They are unmanned by my laughter, thinking themselves mocked. But the King is so arrogant that he cannot imagine derision directed at his Royal Personage. He finds in me a merry relief from his cares. For him, as for so many men, pleasure was always a part of pain, and the pleasure of conquest greater than that of the body. But with me, he has a new experience—delight mixed with laughter. So he keeps me here, giving me whatever I want except my leave. I could not come home if I wanted to, and I am not altogether sure that I want to, for the King and I have much joy to share, and I still feel in my heart that I have things to do. But perhaps I could bring you to the court.”
Then they returned and told their father that Bella was the King’s mistress, and he grew proud and fearful, for nothing is more dangerous than the attentions of Kings. “Do not go again to the palace until we are summoned. The salons are full of daggers and intrigue.”
A summer and a winter passed, and still no summons came, and all their letters to Bella went unanswered. Then one day the timber merchant and his daughters were called to the palace, but told to travel incognito and to enter by a secret door. Arriving there, they found that Bella had born the king a son. The matter had to be hushed up as the bastard son would be in danger of his life, along with his family. The King told Bella to take the child home and raise him, and that he would call for him later. He named the child John, and told them to be on their way. Bella said, “I do not wish to go. My heart tells me that I still have things to do.” But the King said: “My state comes before your heart,” and commanded it and his spies ensured it, and Bella returned home to live with her ailing father and her son.
As the King had also ordered them to total secrecy, the merchant had to endure the shame of his bastard grandchild without the glory of being able to boast of his lineage. And the bitterness of it made him old and ill and he died before his time.
The King himself followed him not long after, and his firstborn son the Prince succeeded him, and John was forgotten as though he had never been. Bella married the grocer’s other son, the younger good-looking one. She taught him to laugh in bed, and they kept a grocery store which, if I am not mistaken, is still in the family name.