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Samba The Coward

from The Olive Fairy Book





In the great country far away south, through which flows the river
Nile, there lived a king who had an only child called Samba.

Now, from the time that Samba could walk he showed signs of being
afraid of everything, and as he grew bigger he became more and more
frightened. At first his father's friends made light of it, and said
to each other:

'It is strange to see a boy of our race running into a hut at the
trumpeting of an elephant, and trembling with fear if a lion cub half
his size comes near him; but, after all, he is only a baby, and when
he is older he will be as brave as the rest.'

'Yes, he is only a baby,' answered the king who overheard them, 'it
will be all right by-and-by.' But, somehow, he sighed as he said it,
and the men looked at him and made no reply.

The years passed away, and Samba had become a tall and strong youth.
He was good-natured and pleasant, and was liked by all, and if during
his father's hunting parties he was seldom to be seen in any place of
danger, he was too great a favourite for much to be said.

'When the king holds the feast and declares him to be his heir, he
will cease to be a child,' murmured the rest of the people, as they
had done before; and on the day of the ceremony their hearts beat
gladly, and they cried to each other:

'It is Samba, Samba, whose chin is above the heads of other men, who
will defend us against the tribes of the robbers!'

* * * * *

Not many weeks after, the dwellers in the village awoke to find that
during the night their herds had been driven away, and their herdsmen
carried off into slavery by their enemies. Now was the time for Samba
to show the brave spirit that had come to him with his manhood, and to
ride forth at the head of the warriors of his race. But Samba could
nowhere be found, and a party of the avengers went on their way
without him.

It was many days later before he came back, with his head held high,
and a tale of a lion which he had tracked to its lair and killed, at
the risk of his own life. A little while earlier and his people would
have welcomed his story, and believed it all, but now it was too late.

'Samba the Coward,' cried a voice from the crowd; and the name stuck
to him, even the very children shouted it at him, and his father did
not spare him. At length he could bear it no longer, and made up his
mind to leave his own land for another where peace had reigned since
the memory of man. So, early next morning, he slipped out to the
king's stables, and choosing the quietest horse he could find, he rode
away northwards.

Never as long as he lived did Samba forget the terrors of that
journey. He could hardly sleep at night for dread of the wild beasts
that might be lurking behind every rock or bush, while, by day, the
distant roar of a lion would cause him to start so violently, that he
almost fell from his horse. A dozen times he was on the point of
turning back, and it was not the terror of the mocking words and
scornful laughs that kept him from doing so, but the terror lest he
should be forced to take part in their wars. Therefore he held on, and
deeply thankful he felt when the walls of a city, larger than he had
ever dreamed of, rose before him.

Drawing himself up to his full height, he rode proudly through the
gate and past the palace, where, as was her custom, the princess was
sitting on the terrace roof, watching the bustle in the street below.

'That is a gallant figure,' thought she, as Samba, mounted on his big
black horse, steered his way skilfully among the crowds; and,
beckoning to a slave, she ordered him to go and meet the stranger, and
ask him who he was and whence he came.

'Oh, princess, he is the son of a king, and heir to a country which
lies near the Great River,' answered the slave, when he had returned
from questioning Samba. And the princess on hearing this news summoned
her father, and told him that if she was not allowed to wed the
stranger she would die unmarried.

Like many other fathers, the king could refuse his daughter nothing,
and besides, she had rejected so many suitors already that he was
quite alarmed lest no man should be good enough for her. Therefore,
after a talk with Samba, who charmed him by his good humour and
pleasant ways, he gave his consent, and three days later the wedding
feast was celebrated with the utmost splendour.

The princess was very proud of her tall handsome husband, and for some
time she was quite content that he should pass the days with her under
the palm trees, telling her the stories that she loved, or amusing her
with tales of the manners and customs of his country, which were so
different to those of her own. But, by-and-by, this was not enough;
she wanted other people to be proud of him too, and one day she said:

'I really almost wish that those Moorish thieves from the north would
come on one of their robbing expeditions. I should love so to see you
ride out at the head of our men, to chase them home again. Ah, how
happy I should be when the city rang with your noble deeds!'



She looked lovingly at him as she spoke; but, to her surprise, his
face grew dark, and he answered hastily:

'Never speak to me again of the Moors or of war. It was to escape from
them that I fled from my own land, and at the first word of invasion I
should leave you for ever.'

'How funny you are,' cried she, breaking into a laugh. 'The idea of
anyone as big as you being afraid of a Moor! But still, you mustn't
say those things to anyone except me, or they might think you were in
earnest.'

* * * * *

Not very long after this, when the people of the city were holding a
great feast outside the walls of the town, a body of Moors, who had
been in hiding for days, drove off all the sheep and goats which were
peacefully feeding on the slopes of a hill. Directly the loss was
discovered, which was not for some hours, the king gave orders that
the war drum should be beaten, and the warriors assembled in the great
square before the palace, trembling with fury at the insult which had
been put upon them. Loud were the cries for instant vengeance, and for
Samba, son-in-law of the king, to lead them to battle. But shout as
they might, Samba never came.

And where was he? No further than in a cool, dark cellar of the
palace, crouching among huge earthenware pots of grain. With a rush of
pain at her heart, there his wife found him, and she tried with all
her strength to kindle in him a sense of shame, but in vain. Even the
thought of the future danger he might run from the contempt of his
subjects was as nothing when compared with the risks of the present.

'Take off your tunic of mail,' said the princess at last; and her
voice was so stern and cold that none would have known it. 'Give it to
me, and hand me besides your helmet, your sword and your spear.' And
with many fearful glances to right and to left, Samba stripped off
the armour inlaid with gold, the property of the king's son-in-law.
Silently his wife took, one by one, the pieces from him, and fastened
them on her with firm hands, never even glancing at the tall form of
her husband who had slunk back to his corner. When she had fastened
the last buckle, and lowered her vizor, she went out, and mounting
Samba's horse, gave the signal to the warriors to follow.

Now, although the princess was much shorter than her husband, she was
a tall woman, and the horse which she rode was likewise higher than
the rest, so that when the men caught sight of the gold-inlaid suit of
chain armour, they did not doubt that Samba was taking his rightful
place, and cheered him loudly. The princess bowed in answer to their
greeting, but kept her vizor down; and touching her horse with the
spur, she galloped at the head of her troops to charge the enemy. The
Moors, who had not expected to be so quickly pursued, had scarcely
time to form themselves into battle array, and were speedily put to
flight. Then the little troop of horsemen returned to the city, where
all sung the praises of Samba their leader.

The instant they reached the palace the princess flung her reins to a
groom, and disappeared up a side staircase, by which she could,
unseen, enter her own rooms. Here she found Samba lying idly on a heap
of mats; but he raised his head uneasily as the door opened and looked
at his wife, not feeling sure how she might act towards him. However,
he need not have been afraid of harsh words: she merely unbuttoned her
armour as fast as possible, and bade him put it on with all speed.
Samba obeyed, not daring to ask any questions; and when he had
finished the princess told him to follow her, and led him on to the
flat roof of the house, below which a crowd had gathered, cheering
lustily.

'Samba, the king's son-in-law! Samba, the bravest of the brave! Where
is he? Let him show himself!' And when Samba did show himself the
shouts and applause became louder than ever. 'See how modest he is! He
leaves the glory to others!' cried they. And Samba only smiled and
waved his hand, and said nothing.

Out of all the mass of people assembled there to do honour to Samba,
one alone there was who did not shout and praise with the rest. This
was the princess's youngest brother, whose sharp eyes had noted
certain things during the fight which recalled his sister much more
than they did her husband. Under promise of secrecy, he told his
suspicions to the other princes, but only got laughed at, and was
bidden to carry his dreams elsewhere.

'Well, well,' answered the boy, 'we shall see who is right; but the
next time we give battle to the Moors I will take care to place a
private mark on our commander.'

In spite of their defeat, not many days after the Moors sent a fresh
body of troops to steal some cattle, and again Samba's wife dressed
herself in her husband's armour, and rode out at the head of the
avenging column. This time the combat was fiercer than before, and in
the thick of it her youngest brother drew near, and gave his sister a
slight wound on the leg. At the moment she paid no heed to the pain,
which, indeed, she scarcely felt; but when the enemy had been put to
flight and the little band returned to the palace, faintness suddenly
overtook her, and she could hardly stagger up the staircase to her own
apartments.

'I am wounded,' she cried, sinking down on the mats where he had been
lying, 'but do not be anxious; it is really nothing. You have only got
to wound yourself slightly in the same spot and no one will guess that
it was I and not you who were fighting.'

'What!' cried Samba, his eyes nearly starting from his head in
surprise and terror. 'Can you possibly imagine that I should agree to
anything so useless and painful? Why, I might as well have gone to
fight myself!'

'Ah, I ought to have known better, indeed,' answered the princess, in
a voice that seemed to come from a long way off; but, quick as
thought, the moment Samba turned his back she pierced one of his bare
legs with a spear.

He gave a loud scream and staggered backwards, from astonishment, much
more than from pain. But before he could speak his wife had left the
room and had gone to seek the medicine man of the palace.

'My husband has been wounded,' said she, when she had found him, 'come
and tend him with speed, for he is faint from loss of blood.' And she
took care that more than one person heard her words, so that all that
day the people pressed up to the gate of the palace, asking for news
of their brave champion.

'You see,' observed the king's eldest sons, who had visited the room
where Samba lay groaning, 'you see, O wise young brother, that we were
right and you were wrong about Samba, and that he really did go into
the battle.' But the boy answered nothing, and only shook his head
doubtfully.

It was only two days later that the Moors appeared for the third time,
and though the herds had been tethered in a new and safer place, they
were promptly carried off as before. 'For,' said the Moors to each
other, 'the tribe will never think of our coming back so soon when
they have beaten us so badly.'

When the drum sounded to assemble all the fighting men, the princess
rose and sought her husband.

'Samba,' cried she, 'my wound is worse than I thought. I can scarcely
walk, and could not mount my horse without help. For to-day, then, I
cannot do your work, so you must go instead of me.'

'What nonsense,' exclaimed Samba, 'I never heard of such a thing.
Why, I might be wounded, or even killed! You have three brothers. The
king can choose one of them.'

'They are all too young,' replied his wife; 'the men would not obey
them. But if, indeed, you will not go, at least you can help me
harness my horse.' And to this Samba, who was always ready to do
anything he was asked when there was no danger about it, agreed
readily.

So the horse was quickly harnessed, and when it was done the princess
said:

'Now ride the horse to the place of meeting outside the gates, and I
will join you by a shorter way, and will change places with you.'
Samba, who loved riding in times of peace, mounted as she had told
him, and when he was safe in the saddle, his wife dealt the horse a
sharp cut with her whip, and he dashed off through the town and
through the ranks of the warriors who were waiting for him. Instantly
the whole place was in motion. Samba tried to check his steed, but he
might as well have sought to stop the wind, and it seemed no more than
a few minutes before they were grappling hand to hand with the Moors.

Then a miracle happened. Samba the coward, the skulker, the terrified,
no sooner found himself pressed hard, unable to escape, than something
sprang into life within him, and he fought with all his might. And
when a man of his size and strength begins to fight he generally
fights well.

That day the victory was really owing to Samba, and the shouts of the
people were louder than ever. When he returned, bearing with him the
sword of the Moorish chief, the old king pressed him in his arms and
said:

'Oh, my son, how can I ever show you how grateful I am for this
splendid service?'

But Samba, who was good and loyal when fear did not possess him,
answered straightly:

'My father, it is to your daughter and not to me to whom thanks are
due, for it is she who has turned the coward that I was into a brave
man.'





Next: Kupti And Imani

Previous: The Thanksgiving Of The Wazir



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