As he entered the cramped space he shined the lantern on a small table upon which sat a cuckoo clock made of dark linden wood. Horace admired the clock, its familiar face and intricately-carved top-piece stirring memories of him and his parents in much happier times. He set the lamp on the floor, blew the dust off the clock, removed it from the table, and placed it on the hook from which the princess’ clock had hung. With reverence he drew the weights and set the clockwork in motion. The timepiece still ticked as strongly as it had the day his father had presented it to his mother. He held his breath and advanced the minute hand toward the twelve. The bird sprang from its trapped door with a hearty cuckoo and Horace exhaled—the bird looked identical in size, shape and detail to the cuckoo nesting in the princess’ hair.
Perhaps the clockmaker had visited the king as well while traversing the kingdom, Horace mused as he stopped the mechanism. Yes, he thought. Perhaps the new king was as fond of the clockmaker’s wares as my father was. He shut and locked the door, doused the lamp and crawled into bed to contemplate the young woman, her pin and the resolute march of time.
That night he slept soundly and awoke refreshed and … happy.
The next morning, as he prepared his portion of gruel and a single boiled egg, a knock came from the shop door despite the early hour. When he opened the door a man dressed in a dashing costume wordlessly presented him with a letter sealed in red wax stamped with a single monogram: “A.” Bidding the man farewell, Horace quickly opened the parchment with shaking fingers. It was a summons from King Aloysius himself, requesting his presence at the castle immediately. His heart leapt. He forgot about his breakfast, hurriedly washed, donned his best outfit, and dashed to the castle gate.
Upon arriving he presented the summons to the guard who quickly dispatched a paige. As he waited, Horace examined the outer wall and observed above the gate a bird carved into its face: a cuckoo, the very bird adorning the princess’ fine head of hair. He had not noticed the bird before, never being this close to the castle’s entrance. He cocked his head and grunted, but he had no further time to ponder this symbol before the princess herself, escorted by six handsome ladies, welcomed him.
“Horace the clockmaker,” she greeted. She took his hand and led him into the castle keep. “My father is excited to meet you. He and my mother are even now awaiting you.”
Horace allowed himself to be escorted by this fine lady, who, even at such an ungodly hour appeared as radiant as she had the evening before. His eyes, though admiring the princess’ alluring gait, also removed themselves from time to time to absorb and appreciate the castle and its adornments. The princess led him through the great hall, beneath a grand archway, and down a long corridor to a heavy door beside which stood a pair of guards dressed in maroon uniforms and leaning on glistening pikes.
“Wait here while I announce you,” the princess said. She giggled as she opened the door and slipped through it, closing it quickly.
Horace nodded at the guards, but they continued to stare straight ahead. What filled their minds he could not begin to fathom as behind him stood a mere blank wall carved from solid limestone.
A moment later the princess opened the door and beckoned him to enter. As he stepped foot into the dimly-lit room, what he beheld caused him to waver. He blinked and his mouth dropped open. From floor to ceiling, on all four walls, hung cuckoo clocks of a variety he could not have imagined in his most whimsical daydreams. The chamber resonated with the ticking of at least a thousand of them, but even as the noise rattled his ears, his heart beat to its underlying rhythm, time arranging chaos into a sublime and wonderful order. His foot began to tap. As his eyes darted from clock to clock, they were suddenly drawn to the presence of both the king and the queen reclining on couches at the far end of the room. He gasped. His face flushed. The royal couple rose and approached him with vibrant smiles.
“Horace the clockmaker,” the princess announced as her parents drew near.
Horace bowed deeply. As he stood again, the queen, as beautiful as her daughter, extended her hand. He kissed it. “I am indeed honored,” he said, his voice trembling.
“As are we,” the king said. “Please, sit.” He waved and an attendant placed a cushioned chair next to Horace.
Horace complied with the king’s wishes. The princess stood behind her mother and smiled.
“You have a gift, Horace the clockmaker,” the king began. “My daughter delivered this exquisite clock carved in the tradition of the finest Black Forest craftsmen.” The king waved again and another attendant produced the clock he had sold to the princess the night before. It rested on a pillow of royal purple trimmed in gold.
“Thank you, your majesty,” Horace said, wondering if addressing the king as “your majesty” was appropriate. He had never spoken to a person of royalty before and had only heard the phrase used once or twice.
“You are very welcome.” The king leaned forward. “I imagine you are wondering why I have called you here this morning,” he said. “Simply this: I need a clockmaker.”
Horace’s head swirled. “A clockmaker? Sire?”
“Yes, such as yourself. You see, I was a clockmaker once, many years ago. I made all of these.” He swept a hand around the room. “That was before my brother passed away and I took over the reins of the kingdom.”
Horace started. “You mean you. …” He looked at the princess, at the bird in her hair, at the clocks surrounding him, at the one he had crafted. “You are the clockmaker who sold my father our cuckoo clock so long ago.” Horace felt tears well up. “You are the reason I persisted—for my mother’s memory and for my father’s honor.” He slid out of the chair and knelt before the royal couple, bowing his head. “I am indeed humbled.”
“Please rise,” the king ordered. Horace stood and took his place again in the chair. “That winter,” said the king, “so long ago, I sought out all of the clockmakers in the kingdom and presented them with a single work for purchase. Those who bought I noted. Those who did not I blessed and continued on my search. To the richest I imparted wisdom and bade them farewell. To the poorest I also hid a dozen pieces of gold in the casing of each clock I sold, believing that even rubbish could be turned into something useful in the hands of the right person. I believe those that respect time will eventually master it. And you have.”
Horace sat up, not believing his ears. He looked at the princess. She nodded.
The king gestured toward Horace. “Of all those to whom I sold my clocks, only one has fulfilled my hopes. That one is you.”
“Thank you,” Horace whispered.
“And now, kind sir, I again ask you, would you accept the role as royal clockmaker?”
“I will!” Horace shouted. He caught the princess’ eye once more. “It is my honor and my duty, sire.”
The princess laughed, hurried around her parents and embraced Horace robustly as the king and queen stood to welcome him officially into their employment. He took the princess in his arms, knowing in his heart that time now celebrated with them, its investment in patience now manifesting in the full glory of its intentions. He fingered the bird in her hair and in that moment time showed him a glimpse of true happiness in his restless contentment and revealed to him an undeniable truth: here he stood as the last of a long line of clockmakers. And the first in a long line of royal clockmakers.
Time danced most gaily.
Copyright ©2015 by David C. Hughes