Once upon a time, a very long time ago indeed, there lived a King who had made a vow never to eat bread or break his fast until he had given away a hundredweight of gold in charity.
So, every day, before King Karan–for that was his name–had his breakfast, the palace servants would come out with baskets and baskets of gold pieces to scatter amongst the crowds of poor folk, who, you may be sure, never forgot to be there to receive the alms.
How they used to hustle and bustle and struggle and scramble! Then, when the last golden piece had been fought for, King Karan would sit down to his breakfast, and enjoy it as a man who has kept his word should do.
Now, when people saw the King lavishing his gold in this fashion, they naturally thought that sooner or later the royal treasuries must give out, the gold come to an end, and the King–who was evidently a man of his word–die of starvation. But, though months and years passed by, every day, just a quarter of an hour before breakfast-time, the servants came out of the palace with baskets and baskets of gold; and as the crowds dispersed they could see the King sitting down to his breakfast in the royal banqueting hall, as jolly, and fat, and hungry, as could be.
Now, of course, there was some secret in all this, and this secret I shall now tell you. King Karan had made a compact with a holy and very hungry old faqîr who lived at the top of the hill; and the compact was this: on condition of King Karan allowing himself to be fried and eaten for breakfast every day, the faqîr gave him a hundredweight of pure gold.
Of course, had the faqîr been an ordinary sort of person, the compact would not have lasted long, for once King Karan had been fried and eaten, there would have been an end of the matter. But the faqîr was a very remarkable faqîr indeed, and when he had eaten the King, and picked the bones quite quite clean, he just put them together, said a charm or two, and, hey presto! there was King Karan as fat and jolly as ever, ready for the next morning’s breakfast. In fact, the faqîr made no bones at all over the affair, which, it must be confessed, was very convenient both for the breakfast and the breakfast eater. Nevertheless, it was of course not pleasant to be popped alive every morning into a great frying-pan of boiling oil; and for my part I think King Karan earned his hundredweight of gold handsomely. But after a time he got accustomed to the process, and would go up quite cheerfully to the holy and hungry one’s house, where the biggest frying-pan was spitting and sputtering over the sacred fire. Then he would just pass the time of day to the faqîr, to make sure he was punctual, and step gracefully into his hot oil bath. My goodness! how he sizzled and fizzled! When he was crisp and brown, the faqîr ate him, picked the bones, set them together, sang a charm, and finished the business by bringing out his dirty, old ragged coat, which he shook and shook, while the bright golden pieces came tumbling out of the pockets on to the floor.
So that was the way King Karan got his gold, and if you think it very extraordinary, so do I!
Now, in the great Mânsarobar Lake, where, as of course you know, all the wild swans live when they leave us, and feed upon seed pearls, there was a great famine. Pearls were so scarce that one pair of swans determined to go out into the world and seek for food. So they flew into King Bikramâjît’s garden, at Ujjayin. Now, when the gardener saw the beautiful birds, he was delighted, and, hoping to induce them to stay, he threw them grain to eat. But they would not touch it, nor any other food he offered them; so he went to his master, and told him there were a pair of swans in the garden who refused to eat anything.
Then King Bikramâjît went out, and asked them in birds’ language (for, as every one knows, Bikramâjît understood both beasts and birds) why it was that they ate nothing.
‘We don’t eat grain!’ said they, ‘nor fruit, nor anything but fresh unpierced pearls!’
Whereupon King Bikramâjit, being very kind-hearted, sent for a basket of pearls; and every day, when he came into the garden, he fed the swans with his own hand.
But one day, when he was feeding them as usual, one of the pearls happened to be pierced. The dainty swans found it out at once, and coming to the conclusion that King Bikramâjit’s supply of pearls was running short, they made up their minds to go farther afield. So, despite his entreaties, they spread their broad white wings, and flew up into the blue sky, their outstretched necks pointing straight towards home on the great Mânsarobar Lake. Yet they were not ungrateful, for as they flew they sang the praises of Bikramâjit.
Now, King Karan was watching his servants bring out the baskets of gold, when the wild swans came flying over his head; and when he heard them singing, ‘Glory to Bikramâjit! Glory to Bikramâjit!’ he said to himself, ‘Who is this whom even the birds praise? I let myself be fried and eaten every day in order that I may be able to give away a hundredweight of gold in charity, yet no swan sings my song!’
So, being jealous, he sent for a bird-catcher, who snared the poor swans with lime, and put them in a cage.
Then Karan hung the cage in the palace, and ordered his servants to bring every kind of birds’ food; but the proud swans only curved their white necks in scorn, saying, ‘Glory to Bikramâjît!–he gave us pearls to eat!’
Then King Karan, determined not to be outdone, sent for pearls; but still the scornful swans would not touch anything.
‘Why will ye not eat?’ quoth King Karan wrathfully; ‘am I not as generous as Bikramâjit?’
Then the swan’s wife answered, and said, ‘Kings do not imprison the innocent. Kings do not war against women. If Bikramâjît were here, he would at any rate let me go!’
So Karan, not to be outdone in generosity, let the swan’s wife go, and she spread her broad white wings and flew southwards to Bikramâjit, and told him how her husband lay a prisoner at the court of King Karan.
Of course Bikramâjit, who was, as every one knows, the most generous of kings, determined to release the poor captive; and bidding the swan fly back and rejoin her mate, he put on the garb of a servant, and taking the name of Bikrû, journeyed northwards till he came to King Karan’s kingdom. Then he took service with the King, and helped every day to carry out the baskets of golden pieces. He soon saw there was some secret in King Karan’s endless wealth, and never rested until he had found it out. So, one day, hidden close by, he saw King Karan enter the faqîr’s house and pop into the boiling oil. He saw him frizzle and sizzle, he saw him come out crisp and brown, he saw the hungry and holy faqîr pick the bones, and, finally, he saw King Karan, fat and jolly as ever, go down the mountain side with his hundredweight of gold!
Then Bikrû knew what to do! So the very next day he rose very early, and taking a carving-knife, he slashed himself all over. Next he took some pepper and salt, spices, pounded pomegranate seeds, and pea-flour; these he mixed together into a beautiful curry-stuff, and rubbed himself all over with it–right into the cuts in spite of the smarting. When he thought he was quite ready for cooking, he just went up the hill to the faqîr’s house, and popped into the frying-pan. The faqîr was still asleep, but he soon awoke with the sizzling and the fizzling, and said to himself, ‘Dear me! how uncommonly nice the King smells this morning!’
Indeed, so appetising was the smell, that he could hardly wait until the King was crisp and brown, but then–oh, my goodness! how he gobbled him up!
You see, he had been eating plain fried so long that a devilled king was quite a change. He picked the bones ever so clean, and it is my belief would have eaten them too, if he had not been afraid of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.
Then, when it was all over, he put the King together again, and said, with tears in his eyes, ‘What a breakfast that was, to be sure! Tell me how you managed to taste so nice, and I’ll give you anything you ask.’
Whereupon Bikrû told him the way it was done, and promised to devil himself every morning, if he might have the old coat in return. ‘For,’ said he, ‘it is not pleasant to be fried! and I don’t see why I should in addition have the trouble of carrying a hundredweight of gold to the palace every day. Now, if I keep the coat, I can shake it down there.’
To this the faqîr agreed, and off went Bikrû with the coat.
Meanwhile, King Karan came toiling up the hill, and was surprised, when he entered the faqîr’s house, to find the fire out, the frying-pan put away, and the faqîr himself as holy as ever, but not in the least hungry.
‘Why, what is the matter?’ faltered the King.
‘Who are you?’ asked the faqîr, who, to begin with, was somewhat short-sighted, and in addition felt drowsy after his heavy meal.
‘Who! Why, I’m King Karan, come to be fried! Don’t you want your breakfast?’
‘I’ve had my breakfast!’ sighed the faqîr regretfully. ‘You tasted very nice when you were devilled, I can assure you!’
‘I never was devilled in my life!’ shouted the King; ‘you must have eaten somebody else!’
‘That’s just what I was saying to myself!’ returned the faqîr sleepily; ‘I thought–it couldn’t–be only–the spices–that’—Snore, snore, snore!
‘Look here!’ cried King Karan, in a rage, shaking the faqîr, ‘you must eat me too!’
‘Couldn’t!’ nodded the holy but satisfied faqîr, ‘really–not another morsel–no, thanks!’
‘Then give me my gold!’ shrieked King Karan; ‘you’re bound to do that, for I’m ready to fulfil my part of the contract!’
‘Sorry I can’t oblige, but the devil–I mean the other person–went off with the coat!’ nodded the faqîr.
Hearing this, King Karan returned home in despair and ordered the royal treasurer to send him gold; so that day he ate his breakfast in peace.
And the next day also, by ransacking all the private treasuries, a hundredweight of gold was forthcoming; so King Karan ate his breakfast as usual, though his heart was gloomy.
But the third day, the royal treasurer arrived with empty hands, and, casting himself on the ground, exclaimed, ‘May it please your majesty! there is not any more gold in your majesty’s domains!’
Then King Karan went solemnly to bed, without any breakfast, and the crowd, after waiting for hours expecting to see the palace doors open and the servants come out with the baskets of gold, melted away, saying it was a great shame to deceive poor folk in that way!
By dinner-time poor King Karan was visibly thinner; but he was a man of his word, and though the wily Bikrû came and tried to persuade him to eat, by saying he could not possibly be blamed, he shook his head, and turned his face to the wall.
Then Bikrû, or Bikramâjît, took the faqîr’s old coat, and shaking it before the King, said, ‘Take the money, my friend; and what is more, if you will set the wild swans you have in that cage at liberty, I will give you the coat into the bargain!’
So King Karan set the wild swans at liberty, and as the pair of them flew away to the great Mânsarobar Lake, they sang as they went, ‘Glory to Bikramâjît! the generous Bikramâjît!’
Then King Karan hung his head, and said to himself, ‘The swans’ song is true!–Bikramâjît is more generous than I; for if I was fried for the sake of a hundredweight of gold and my breakfast, he was devilled in order to set a bird at liberty!’