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The Princess Of The Tower

from Jewish Fairy Tales And Legends - King Alexander's Adventures





I

Princess Solima was sick, not exactly ill, but so much out of sorts
that her father, King Zuliman, was both annoyed and perturbed. The
princess was as beautiful as a princess of those days should be; her
long tresses were like threads of gold, her blue eyes rivaled the
color of the sky on the balmiest summer day; and her smile was as
radiant as the sunshine itself.

She was learned and clever, too, and her goodness of heart gained for
her as great a renown as her peerless beauty. Despite all this,
Princess Solima was not happy. Indeed, she was wretched to
despondency, and her melancholy weighed heavily upon her father.

"What ails you, my precious daughter?" he asked her a hundred times,
but she made no answer.

She just sat and silently moped. She did not waste away, which puzzled
the physicians; she did not grow pale, which surprised her
attendants; and she did not weep, which astonished herself. But she
felt as if her heart had grown heavy, as if there was no use in
anything.

The king squared his shoulders to show his determination and summoned
his magicians and wizards and sorcerers and commanded them to perform
their arts and solve the mystery of the illness of Princess Solima. A
strange crew they were, ranged in a semi-circle before the king. There
was the renowned astrologer from Egypt, a little man with a humpback;
the mixer of mysterious potions from China, a long, lank yellow man,
with tiny eyes; the alchemist from Arabia, a scowling man with his
face almost concealed by whiskers; there was a Greek and a Persian and
a Phoenician, each with some special knowledge and fearfully anxious
to display it. They set to work.

One studied the stars, another concocted a sweet-smelling fluid, a
third retired to the woods and thought deeply, a fourth made abstruse
calculations with diagrams and figures, a fifth questioned the
princess' handmaidens, and a sixth conceived the brilliant notion of
talking with the princess herself. He was certainly an original
wizard, and he learned more than all the others.

Then they met in consultation and talked foreign languages and
pretended very seriously to understand one another. One said the stars
were in opposition, another said he had gazed into a crystal and had
seen a glow-worm chasing a hippopotamus which a third interpreted as
meaning the princess would die if the glow-worm won the race.

"Rubbish!" exclaimed the magician who had spoken to the princess;
"likewise stuff and nonsense and the equivalent thereof in the seventy
unknown languages."

That was an impertinent comment on their divinations, and so they
listened seriously.

"The princess," he said, "is just tired. That is a disease which will
become popular and fashionable as the world grows older and more
people amass riches. She is sick of being waited on hand and foot and
bowed down to and all that sort of thing. She has never been allowed
to romp as a child, to choose her own companions and the rest of it.
Therefore, she is bored with all the etcetras. The case is
comprehensible and comprehensive: it needs the exercise of imagination
stimulated by prescience, conscience, patience...."

The others yawned and began to collect dictionaries, and fearing that
they might be tempted to fling them at him after they had found the
meaning of his big words, he ceased.

"I agree," said the president of the assembly, the oldest wizard,
"only I diagnose the disease in simpler form. The princess is in
love."

That set them all jabbering together, and they finally agreed to
report to the king that the time had arrived when the princess should
marry, so that she should be able to go away to a new land, amid other
people and different scenes.

The king agreed reluctantly, for he dearly loved his daughter and
wished her to remain with him always if possible. Heralds and
messengers were sent out far and wide, and very soon a procession of
suitors for the princess' hand began to file past the lady. They were
princes of all shapes and sizes, of all complexions and colors; some
were resplendent with jewels, others were followed by retinues of
slaves bearing gifts; a few entered the competition by proxy--that is,
they sent somebody else to see the lady first and pronounce judgment
upon her. These she dismissed summarily, declaring that they were
disqualified by the rules of fair play.

When all the entrants had been inspected by the king, he said to his
daughter:

"Pick the one you love the best, Solima dear."

"None," she answered promptly.

"Dear, dear me--that is very awkward. We shall have to return the
entrance fees--I mean the presents," he said.

That prospect did not seem to worry the princess in the least; nor did
her father's appeal not to belittle him in the eyes of his fellow
monarchs have the slightest effect on her.

"At least," he said, growing impatient, "tell me what you do want."

"I will marry any man," she replied, while he wondered gravely what
else she could have said, "who is not such a fool as to think himself
the only person in the world who is of consequence."

The king was not without wisdom, and he knew that this remark is
foolish, or sensible, according to the mood in which it is said, and
the thoughts behind it.

"You do not regard any one of the princes," the king said gently, "as
worthy of----"

"Any woman," interrupted his daughter. "Listen, my father, you have
tried to make me happy always and until recently you have succeeded. I
wish to obey you in all things, even in the choice of a husband. Would
you really have me marry any one of these fools? Be not angry. Did
any one reveal a gleam of wisdom, or common-sense? Were they not all
just ridiculous fops? Let me enumerate:

"There was Prince Hafiz who talked only of his wars--of the men--aye
and women and children--his soldiers had butchered. The soldiers
fought and Prince Hafiz posed before me as a warrior and hero. I will
not be queen in a land where people cannot live in peace.

"Then there was Prince Aziz who boasted that he spends all his life
with his horses and dogs and falcons in the hunting field. He knows
the needs of beasts, but not of men. I will not be the bride of a
prince who allows his subjects to starve in wretchedness and poverty
while he enjoys himself with the slaughter of wild beasts.

"Prince Guzman had nothing else to impart to me but his taste in
jewels and dress. Prince Abdul knew exactly how many bottles of wine
he drank daily, but he could not tell me how many schools there were
in his city. Prince Hassan had not the slightest notion how the
majority of his people lived, whether by trading, or thieving, or
working, or begging."

King Zuliman listened intently. This was a singular speech for a
princess, but reason told him this was profoundest wisdom.

"Oh, I am tired," burst out Princess Solima, in tears. "I have no
desire for life if to be a ruler over men and women and children means
that you must take no interest in their welfare. My father, hearken. I
will not be queen in a land where the king thinks the people live only
to make him great. I shall be proud and happy to reign where the king
understands that it is his duty to make his people happy and his
country prosperous and peaceful."

The king left his daughter, and, deeply concerned, sought his wizards.

"My daughter has been born thousands of years before her time," he
declared, petulantly. "The stars have played a trick on me, and have
sent me my great-great-great-great ever so much great granddaughter
out of her turn."

The magicians did not laugh at this: they thought it a wonderfully
sage remark, and after much mysterious whispering among themselves and
consultation of old books, and gazing into crystals, they informed the
king that the stars foretold that Princess Solima would marry a poor
man!

They flattered themselves on their cleverness in arriving at this
conclusion, which they deduced from the princess contempt for
princes.

King Zuliman's patience was exhausted by this time. In a towering
rage, he told his daughter what the wizards had said, and when she
merely said, "How nice," he swore he would imprison her in his
fortress in the sea.

His majesty meant it, too, and at once had the fortress, which stood
on a tiny island miles from land, luxuriously furnished and fitted up
for his daughter's reception. Thither she was conveyed secretly one
night, but to her father's disgust she made no protest.

"I shall be free for a while," she said, "of all the absurd flummery
of the palace."


II.

The people were sad when the princess disappeared. She had been good
and kind to them, had understood them, and they did not know whether
she had died, or had deserted them without a word of farewell, though
that was hardly possible. All that they knew was that the king
suddenly became morose and sullen. Strangely enough, he began to take
an interest in the poor. He asked them funny questions--for a king.
How did they earn money? What was their occupation? Had they any
pleasures? And what were their thoughts?

Young people laughed, but old men said the king intended to promote
laws which would do good. Anyway, the king's interest did make his
subjects happier, and the officers of state became very busy with
projects and schemes for improving trade, providing work and for
educating children.

"They do say," remarked one old woman, who kept an apple stall in the
market place, "that a law will be passed that the sun should shine
every day, and that it should never rain on the days of the market.
Ah! that will be good," and she rubbed her hands at the prospect of
not having to crouch under a leaky awning when the rain came pelting
down, or over a tiny fire in a brass bowl in the winter, to thaw her
frozen and benumbed hands.

Even the laborers in the fields, who were mainly dull-witted people
with no learning whatsoever, heard the news; and they actually
pondered over it and wondered whether it meant that they would never
more be hungry and wretchedly clad.

One who thought deeply was a shepherd lad. He loved to bask lazily in
the sun, to listen to the birds chirruping, and to all the sounds of
the air and the fields and the forests. He seemed to understand them;
the murmuring of the brooks on a warm day was like a gentle cradle
song lulling him to sleep; on a day when the wind howled, its sulky
growl as it dashed over the stones warned him that floods might come,
and that he must move his flocks to safer ground.

"I wonder," he mused, "if I shall learn to read the written word and
even to pen it myself. I could then write the song of the brook and
the birds, so that others should know it."

And musing thus, he fell asleep. He slept longer than usual, and when
he awoke, he was alarmed to see that the sun had set. Darkness was
falling fast, and he had his flock to see safely home. The cows and
sheep had begun to collect themselves as a matter of habit, and it was
their noise that woke him. They were already trudging the well-known
route, and all he had to do in following was to see that none strayed,
or tumbled into the brook.

All went well until he came in sight of home. Then a huge bird, a ziz,
bigger than several houses, appeared in the sky and swooped down on
the cows and sheep.

The shepherd beat the monster off as long as he could with a big
stick, while the affrighted animals scampered hastily homeward. The
ziz however, was evidently determined not to be balked of its prey.
It dug its talons deep into the flanks of an ox that had stampeded in
the wrong direction and was lagging behind the others.

The poor animal bellowed in pain, and the shepherd, rushing to the
rescue, seized it by the forelegs as it was being raised from the
ground. Curling his leg round the slender trunk of a tree, the young
man began a struggle with the ziz. The mighty bird, its eyes glowing
like two signal lamps, tried to strike at him with his tremendous
beak, one stroke of which would have been fatal.

In the fast gathering darkness it missed, fortunately for the
shepherd, but the thrust of the beak caught the upper part of the tree
trunk. It snapped under the blow, and the shepherd was compelled to
release his hold. He still gripped tightly the forelegs of the ox, but
with naught now to hold it back, the great bird had no difficulty in
rising into the air. Before he fully grasped what had happened, the
shepherd found himself high above the trees.

To release his hold would have meant destruction. He held on grimly,
clutching the legs of the ox with all his might, and even swinging up
his feet to grip the hind-legs of the animal.

Higher and higher the ziz rose into the air, spreading its vast wings
majestically, and flying silently and swiftly over the land. It made
the shepherd giddy to glance down at the ground scurrying rapidly past
far below him. So he closed his eyes, but opening them again for a
moment, he was horrified to notice that the bird was now flying over
the sea on which the moon was shining with silvery radiance. With a
heavy sigh he gave himself up for lost, and began to consider whether
it would be better to release his hold and fall down and be drowned,
rather than be devoured by the gigantic bird.

Before he could make up his mind, the bird stopped, and the shepherd
was bumped down on something with such violence that for a moment he
was stunned. Looking around, when he regained his senses, he saw that
he was on the top of a tower in the sea. Beside him was the carcass of
the ox. Above them stood the ziz, its eyes glowing like twin fires,
its beak thrust down to strike.

With a quick movement, the shepherd drew a knife which he carried in
his girdle, and struck at the opening of the descending beak. The bird
uttered a shrill cry of pain as the knife pierced its tongue, and in a
few moments it had disappeared in the air. So swift was its flight
that almost instantly it was a mere speck in the moonlit sky.

Thoroughly exhausted, the shepherd slept until awakened by the sound
of a voice. Opening his eyes, he saw that the sun had risen. Above him
stood a woman of ravishing beauty. He sprang to his feet and bowed
low.

"Who are you?" asked Princess Solima, for she it was. "And tell me how
came you here with this carcass of an ox, so distant from the land, so
high up as this tower in the sea?"

"Of a truth I scarcely know," answered the shepherd. "It may be that I
am bewitched, or dreaming, for my adventure passes all belief," and he
related it.

The princess made no comment, but motioned to him that he should
follow her. He did so and she placed food before him. He was
ravenously hungry and did full justice to the meal. Then she led him
to the bath chamber.

"Wash and robe thyself," she said, giving him some clothes, "and then
I have much to inquire of thee."

The shepherd felt ever so much better when he had bathed, and then
attired in the strange garments she had given him, he appeared before
the princess.

She gazed at him so long and searchingly that he blushed in confusion.

"Thou art fair to look upon and of manly stature," said the princess.

The shepherd could only stammer a reply, but after a while he said,
"Fair lady, who and what thou art I know not. Such beauty as thine is
the right of princesses only. I am but a poor shepherd."

"And may not a shepherd be handsome?" she asked. "Tell me: who hath
laid down a law that only royal personages may be fair to behold? I
have seen princes of vile countenance."

She stopped suddenly, for she did not wish to betray her secret. They
sat in a little room in the tower, unknown to the many guards down
below, and, although the shepherd protested, the princess waited on
him herself, bringing him food, and cushions on which he could rest
that night.

Next morning they ascended the tower together.

"I come here every morning," said the princess.

"Why?" the shepherd asked.

"To see if my husband cometh," was the answer.

"Who is he?" asked the shepherd.

The princess laughed.

"I know not," she said. "Some mornings when I have stood here and
grieved at my loneliness, I have felt inclined to make a vow that I
would marry the first man who came hither."

The shepherd was silent. Then he looked boldly into the princess' eyes
and said: "Thou hast told me I am the first man who has come to thee.
I am emboldened to declare my love for thee, a feeling that swept over
me the moment my eyes beheld thee. Who thou art, what thou art, I know
not, I care not. Shall we be husband and wife?"

The princess gave him her hand.

"It is ordained," she said, and thus their troth was plighted.

"We cannot remain here forever," said the princess, presently. "Canst
thou, husband of my heart's choice, devise some means of escape?"

He looked down at the carcass of the ox thoughtfully for a few
moments.

"I have it," he exclaimed, excitedly. "It is a safe assumption that
the monster bird that brought me will return for his meal. He can then
carry us away. If the heavens approve," he said, fervently, "thus it
shall be."

That very night the ziz returned and feasted on the ox, and while it
was fully occupied appeasing its hunger, the shepherd managed to
attach strong ropes to its legs. To this he attached a large basket in
which he and his bride made themselves comfortable with cushions. Nor
did they forget to take a store of food.

Toward morning the ziz rose slowly into the air, and the lovers
clutched each other tightly as the basket spun round and round. The
giant bird did not seem to notice its burden at all, and after a
moment it began a swift flight over the sea. After many hours a city
became visible, and as it was approached the shepherd could note the
excitement caused by the appearance of the ziz. The bird was getting
tired, and having at last noticed the weight tied to its feet was
evidently seeking to get rid of it.

Flying low it dashed the basket against a tower. The occupants feared
they might be killed, but suddenly the cords snapped, the basket
rested on the parapet of the tower, and the bird flew swiftly away.

No sooner had the shepherd extricated himself and his bride from the
basket, than armed guards appeared. At sight of the princess they
lowered their weapons and fell upon their faces.

"Inform my father I have returned," she said, and they immediately
rose to do her bidding.

"Know you where you are?" asked the shepherd.

"Yes; this is the king's palace," was the reply.

Soon the king appeared, and with almost hysterical joy he embraced his
daughter.

"I am happy to see thee again," he cried. "I crave thy pardon for
immuring thee in the sea fortress. Thou shalt tell me all thy
adventures."

Then he caught sight of the shepherd.

"Who is this?" he demanded.

"Thy son-in-law, my husband," said the princess, her joy showing in
her bright eyes.

"What prince art thou?" asked the king.

"A prince among men," answered the princess quickly. "A man without
riches, who comes from the people and will teach us their needs and
how to rule them."

The king bowed to the inevitable. He blessed his son-in-law and
daughter, appointed them to rule over a province, and they settled
down to make everybody thoroughly happy, contented and prosperous.


white stood in the entry. (Page 286).]





Next: The Vision Of Victory

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