The Salt of Life.
 

Once upon a time there was a king who had three sons, and by the time that the youngest prince had down upon his chin the king had grown so old that the cares of the kingdom began to rest over-heavily upon his shoulders. So he called his chief councillor and told him that he was of a mind to let the princes reign in his stead. To the son who loved him the best he would give the largest part of his kingdom, to the son who loved him the next best the next part, and to the son who loved him the least the least part. The old councillor was very wise and shook his head, but the king's mind had long been settled as to what he was about to do. So he called the princes to him one by one and asked each as to how much he loved him.

"I love you as a mountain of gold," said the oldest prince, and the king was very pleased that his son should give him such love.

"I love you as a mountain of silver," said the second prince, and the king was pleased with that also.

But when the youngest prince was called, he did not answer at first, but thought and thought. At last he looked up. "I love you," said he, "as I love salt."

When the king heard what his youngest son said he was filled with anger. "What!" he cried, "do you love me no better than salt -- a stuff that is the most bitter of all things to the taste, and the cheapest and the commonest of all things in the world? Away with you, and never let me see your face again! Henceforth you are no son of mine."

The prince would have spoken, but the king would not allow him, and bade his guards thrust the young man forth from the room.

Now the queen loved the youngest prince the best of all her sons, and when she heard how the king was about to drive him forth into the wide world to shift for himself, she wept and wept. "Ah, my son!" said she to him, "it is little or nothing that I have to give you. Nevertheless, I have one precious thing. Here is a ring; take it and wear it always, for so long as you have it upon your finger no magic can have power over you."

Thus it was that the youngest prince set forth into the wide world with little or nothing but a ring upon his finger.

For seven days he travelled on, and knew not where he was going or whither his footsteps led. At the end of that time he came to the gates of a town. The prince entered the gates, and found himself in a city the like of which he had never seen in his life before for grandeur and magnificence--beautiful palaces and gardens, stores and bazaars crowded with rich stuffs of satin and silk and wrought silver and gold of cunningest workmanship; for the land to which he had come was the richest in all of the world. All that day he wandered up and down, and thought nothing of weariness and hunger for wonder of all that he saw. But at last evening drew down, and he began to bethink himself of somewhere to lodge during the night.

Just then he came to a bridge, over the wall of which leaned an old man with a long white beard, looking down into the water. He was dressed richly but soberly, and every now and then he sighed and groaned, and as the prince drew near he saw the tears falling--drip, drip--from the old man's eyes.

The prince had a kind heart, and could not bear to see one in distress; so he spoke to the old man, and asked him his trouble.

"Ah, me!" said the other, "only yesterday I had a son, tall and handsome like yourself. But the queen took him to sup with her, and I am left all alone in my old age, like a tree stripped of leaves and fruit."

"But surely," said the prince, "it can be no such sad matter to sup with a queen. That is an honor that most men covet."

"Ah!" said the old man, "you are a stranger in this place, or else you would know that no youth so chosen to sup with the queen ever returns to his home again."

"Yes," said the prince, "I am a stranger and have only come hither this day, and so do not understand these things. Even when I found you I was about to ask the way to some inn where folk of good condition lodge."

"Then come home with me to-night," said the old man. "I live all alone, and I will tell you the trouble that lies upon this country." Thereupon, taking the prince by the arm, he led him across the bridge and to another quarter of the town where he dwelt. He bade the servants prepare a fine supper, and he and the prince sat down to the table together. After they had made an end of eating and drinking, the old man told the prince all concerning those things of which he had spoken, and thus it was:

"When the king of this land died he left behind him three daughters--the most beautiful princesses in all of the world.

"Folk hardly dared speak of the eldest of them, but whisperings said that she was a sorceress, and that strange and gruesome things were done by her. The second princess was also a witch, though it was not said that she was evil, like the other. As for the youngest of the three, she was as beautiful as the morning and as gentle as a dove. When she was born a golden thread was about her neck, and it was foretold of her that she was to be the queen of that land.

"But not long after the old king died the youngest princess vanished--no one could tell whither, and no one dared to ask--and the eldest princess had herself crowned as queen, and no one dared gainsay her. For a while everything went well enough, but by-and-by evil days came upon the land. Once every seven days the queen would bid some youth, young and strong, to sup with her, and from that time no one ever heard of him again, and no one dared ask what had become of him. At first it was the great folk at the queen's palace--officers and courtiers--who suffered; but by-and-by the sons of the merchants and the chief men of the city began to be taken. One time," said the old man," I myself had three sons -- as noble young men as could be found in the wide world. One day the chief of the queen's officers came to my house and asked me concerning how many sons I had. I was forced to tell him, and in a little while they were taken one by one to the queen's palace, and I never saw them again.

"But misfortune, like death, comes upon the young as well as the old. You yourself have had trouble, or else I am mistaken. Tell me what lies upon your heart, my son, for the talking of it makes the burthen lighter."

The prince did as the old man bade him, and told all of his story; and so they sat talking and talking until far into the night, and the old man grew fonder and fonder of the prince the more he saw of him. So the end of the matter was that he asked the prince to live with him as his son, seeing that the young man had now no father and he no children, and the prince consented gladly enough.

So the two lived together like father and son, and the good old man began to take some joy in life once more.

But one day who should come riding up to the door but the chief of the queen's officers.

"How is this?" said he to the old man, when he saw the prince. "Did you not tell me that you had but three sons, and is this not a fourth?"

It was of no use for the old man to tell the officer that the youth was not his son, but was a prince who had come to visit that country. The officer drew forth his tablets and wrote something upon them, and then went his way, leaving the old man sighing and groaning. "Ah, me!" said he, "my heart sadly forebodes trouble."

Sure enough, before three days had passed a bidding came to the prince to make ready to sup with the queen that night.

When evening drew near a troop of horsemen came, bringing a white horse with a saddle and bridle of gold studded with precious stones, to take the prince to the queen's palace.

As soon as they had brought him thither they led the prince to a room where was a golden table spread with a snow-white cloth and set with dishes of gold. At the end of the table the queen sat waiting for him, and her face was hidden by a veil of silver gauze. She raised the veil and looked at the prince, and when he saw her face he stood as one wonder-struck, for not only was she so beautiful, but she set a spell upon him with the evil charm of her eyes. No one sat at the table but the queen and the prince, and a score of young pages served them, and sweet music sounded from a curtained gallery.

At last came midnight, and suddenly a great gong sounded from the court-yard outside. Then in an instant the music was stopped, the pages that served them hurried from the room, and presently all was as still as death.

Then, when all were gone, the queen arose and beckoned the prince, and he had no choice but to arise also and follow whither she led. She took him through the palace, where all was as still as the grave, and so came out by a postern door into a garden. Beside the postern a torch burned in a bracket. The queen took it down, and then led the prince up a path and under the silent trees until they came to a great wall of rough stone. She pressed her hand upon one of the great stones, and it opened like a door, and there was a flight of steps that led downward. The queen descended these steps, and the prince followed closely behind her. At the bottom was a long passage-way, and at the farther end the prince saw what looked like a bright spark of light, as though the sun were shining. She thrust the torch into another bracket in the wall of the passage, and then led the way towards the light. It grew larger and larger as they went forward, until at last they came out at the farther end, and there the prince found himself standing in the sunlight and not far from the seashore. The queen led the way towards the shore, when suddenly a great number of black dogs came running towards them, barking and snapping, and showing their teeth as though they would tear the two in pieces. But the queen drew from her bosom a whip with a steel-pointed lash, and as the dogs came springing towards them she laid about her right and left, till the skin flew and the blood ran, and the dogs leaped away howling and yelping.

At the edge of the water was a great stone mill, and the queen pointed towards it and bade the prince turn it. Strong as he was, it was as much as he could do to work it; but grind it he did, though the sweat ran down his face in streams. By-and-by a speck appeared far away upon the water; and as the prince ground and ground at the mill the speck grew larger and larger. It was something upon the water, and it came nearer and nearer as swiftly as the wind. At last it came close enough for him to see that it was a little boat all of brass. By-and-by the boat struck upon the beach, and as soon as it did so the queen entered it, bidding the prince do the same.

No sooner were they seated than away the boat went, still as swiftly as the wind. On it flew and on it flew, until at last they came to another shore, the like of which the prince had never seen in his life before. Down to the edge of the water ran a garden--but such a garden! The leaves of the trees were all of silver and the fruit of gold, and instead of flowers were precious stones--white, red, yellow, blue, and green--that flashed like sparks of sunlight as the breeze moved them this way and that way. Beyond the silver trees, with their golden fruit, was a great palace as white as snow, and so bright that one had to shut one's eyes as one looked upon it.

The boat ran up on the beach close to just such a stone mill as the prince had seen upon the other side of the water, and then he and the queen stepped ashore. As soon as they had done so the brazen boat floated swiftly away, and in a little while was gone.

"Here our journey ends," said the queen. "Is it not a wonderful land, and well worth the seeing? Look at all these jewels and this gold, as plenty as fruits and flowers at home. :You may take what you please; but while you are gathering them I have another matter after which I must look. Wait for me here, and by-and-by I will be back again."

So saying, she turned and left the prince, going towards the castle back of the trees.

But the prince was a prince, and not a common man; he cared nothing for gold and jewels. What he did care for was to see where the queen went, and why she had brought him to this strange land. So, as soon as she had fairly gone, he followed after.

He went along under the gold and silver trees, in the direction she had taken, until at last he came to a tall flight of steps that led up to the doorway of the snow-white palace. The door stood open, and into it the prince went. He saw not a soul, but he heard a noise as of blows and the sound as of some one weeping. He followed the sound, until by-and-by he came to a great vaulted room in the very centre of the palace. A curtain hung at the doorway. The prince lifted it and peeped within, and this was what he saw:

In the middle of the room was a marble basin of water as clear as crystal, and around the sides of the basin were these words, written in letters of gold:

"Whatsoever is False, that I make True."

Beside the fountain upon a marble stand stood a statue of a beautiful woman made of alabaster, and around the neck of the statue was a thread of gold. The queen stood beside the statue, and beat and beat it with her steel-tipped whip. And all the while she lashed it the statue sighed and groaned like a living being, and the tears ran down its stone cheeks as though it were a suffering Christian. By-and-by the queen rested for a moment, and said, panting, "Will you give me the thread of gold?" and the statue answered "No." Whereupon she fell to raining blows upon it as she had done before.

So she continued, now beating the statue and now asking it whether it would give her the thread of gold, to which the statue always answered "No," and all the while the prince stood gazing and wondering. By-and-by the queen wearied of what she was doing, and thrust the steel-tipped lash back into her bosom again, upon which the prince, seeing that she was done, hurried back to the garden where she had left him and pretended to be gathering the golden fruit and jewel flowers.

The queen said nothing to him good or bad, except to command him to grind at the great stone mill as he had done on the other side of the water. Thereupon the prince did as she bade, and presently the brazen boat came skimming over the water more swiftly than the wind. Again the queen and the prince entered it, and again it carried them to the other side whence they had come.

No sooner had the queen set foot upon the shore than she stopped and gathered up a handful of sand. Then, turning as quick as lightning, she flung it into the prince's face. "Be a black dog," she cried in a loud voice, "and join your comrades!"

And now it was that the ring that the prince's mother had given him stood him in good stead. But for it he would have become a black dog like those others, for thus it had happened to all before him who had ferried the witch queen over the water. So she expected to see him run away yelping, as those others had done; but the prince remained a prince, and stood looking her in the face.

When the queen saw that her magic had failed her she grew as pale as death, and fell to trembling in every limb. She turned and hastened quickly away, and the prince followed her wondering, for he neither knew the mischief she had intended doing him, nor how his ring had saved him from the fate of those others.

So they came back up the stairs and out through the stone wall into the palace garden. The queen pressed her hand against the stone and it turned back into its place again. Then, beckoning to the prince, she hurried away down the garden. Before he followed he picked up a coal that lay near by, and put a cross upon the stone; then he hurried after her, and so came to the palace once more.

By this time the cocks were crowing, and the dawn of day was just beginning to show over the roof-tops and the chimney-stacks of the town.

As for the queen, she had regained her composure, and, bidding the prince wait for her a moment, she hastened to her chamber. There she opened her book of magic, and in it she soon found who the prince was and how the ring had saved him.

When she had learned all that she wanted to know she put on a smiling face and came back to him. "Ah, prince," said she, "I well know who you are, for your coming to my country is not secret to me. I have shown you strange things to-night. I will unfold all the wonder to you another time. Will you not come back and sup with me again?"

"Yes," said the prince, "I will come whensoever you bid me;" for he was curious to know the secret of the statue and the strange things he had seen.

"And will you not give me a pledge of your coming?" said the queen, still smiling.

"What pledge shall I give you," said the prince.

"Give me the ring that is upon your finger," said the queen; and she smiled so bewitchingly that the prince could not have refused her had he desired to do so.

Alas for him! He thought no evil, but, without a word, drew off the ring and gave it to the queen, and she slipped it upon her finger.

"O fool!" she cried, laughing a wicked laugh, "O fool! to give away that in which your safety lay!" As she spoke she dipped her fingers into a basin of water that stood near by and dashed the drops into the prince's face. "Be a raven," she cried, "and a raven remain!"

In an instant the prince was a prince no longer, but a coal-black raven. The queen snatched up a sword that lay near by and struck at him to kill him. But the raven-prince leaped aside and the blow missed its aim.

By good luck a window stood open, and before the queen could strike again he spread his wings and flew out of the open casement and over the house-tops and was gone.

On he flew and on he flew until he came to the old man's house, and so to the room where his foster-father himself was sitting. He lit upon the ground at the old man's feet and tried to tell him what had befallen, but all that he could say was "Croak! croak!"

"What brings this bird of ill omen?" said the old man, and he drew his sword to kill it. He raised his hand to strike, but the raven did not try to fly away as he had expected, but bowed his neck to receive the stroke. Then the old man saw that the tears were running down from the raven's eyes, and he held his hand. "What strange thing is this?" he said. "Surely nothing but the living soul weeps; and how, then, can this bird shed tears?" So he took the raven up and looked into his eyes, and in them he saw the prince's soul. "Alas!" he cried, "my heart misgives me that something strange has happened. Tell me, is this not my foster-son, the prince?"

The raven answered "Croak!" and nothing else; but the good old man understood it all, and the tears ran down his cheeks and trickled over his beard. "Whether man or raven, you shall still be my son," said he, and he held the raven close in his arms and caressed it.

He had a golden cage made for the bird, and every day he would walk with it in the garden, talking to it as a father talks to his son.

One day when they were thus in the garden together a strange lady came towards them down the pathway. Over her had and face was drawn a thick veil, so that the two could not tell who she was. When she came close to them she raised the veil, and the raven-prince saw that her face was the living likeness of the queen's; and yet there was something in it that was different. It was the second sister of the queen, and the old man knew her and bowed before her.

"Listen," said she. "I know what the raven is, and that it is the prince, whom the queen has bewitched. I also know nearly as much of magic as she, and it is that alone that has saved me so long from ill. But danger hangs close over me; the queen only waits for the chance to bewitch me; and some day she will overpower me, for she is stronger than I. With the prince's aid I can overcome her and make myself forever safe, and it is this that has brought me here to-day. My magic is powerful enough to change the prince back into his true shape again, and I will do so if he will aid me in what follows, and this is it: I will conjure the queen, and by-and-by a great eagle will come flying, and its plumage will be as black as night. Then I myself will become an eagle, with black-and-white plumage, and we two will fight in the air. After a while we will both fall to the ground, and then the prince must cut off the head of the black eagle with a knife I shall give him. Will you do this?" said she, turning to the raven, "if I transform you to your true shape?"

The raven bowed his head and said "Croak!" And the sister of the queen knew that he meant yes.

Therewith she drew a great, long keen knife from her bosom, and thrust it into the ground. "It is with this knife of magic," said she, "that you must cut off the black eagle's head." Then the witch-princess gathered up some sand in her hand, and flung it into the raven's face. "Resume," cried she, "your own shape!" And in an instant the prince was himself again. The next thing the sister of the queen did was to draw a circle upon the ground around the prince, the old man, and herself. On the circle she marked strange figures here and there. Then, all three standing close together, she began her conjurations, uttering strange words--now under her breath, and now clear and loud.

Presently the sky darkened, and it began to thunder and rumble. Darker it grew and darker, and the thunder crashed and roared. The earth trembled under their feet, and the trees swayed hither and thither as though tossed by a tempest. Then suddenly the uproar ceased and all grew as still as death, the clouds rolled away, and in a moment the sun shone out once more, and all was calm and serene as it had been before. But still the princess muttered her conjurations, and as the prince and the old man looked they beheld a speck that grew larger and larger, until they saw that it was an eagle as black as night that was coming swiftly flying through the sky. Then the queen's sister also saw it and ceased from her spells. She drew a little cap of feathers from her bosom with trembling hands. "Remember," said she to the prince; and, so saying, clapped the feather cap upon her head. In an instant she herself became an eagle--pied, black and white--and, spreading her wings, leaped into the air.

For a while the two eagles circled around and around; but at last they dashed against one another, and, grappling with their talons, tumbled over and over until they struck the ground close to the two who stood looking.

Then the prince snatched the knife from the ground and ran to where they lay struggling. "Which was I to kill?" said he to the old man.

"Are they not birds of a feather?" cried the foster-father. "Kill them both, for then only shall we all be safe."

The prince needed no second telling to see the wisdom of what the old man said. In an instant he struck off the heads of both the eagles, and thus put an end to both sorceresses, the lesser as well as the greater. They buried both of the eagles in the garden without telling any one of what had happened. So soon as that was done the old man bade the prince tell him all that had befallen him, and the prince did so.

"Aye! aye!" said the old man, "I see it all as clear as day. The black dogs are the young men who have supped with the queen; the statue is the good princess; and the basin of water is the water of life, which has the power of taking away magic. Come; let us make haste to bring help to all those unfortunates who have been lying under the queen's spells."

The prince needed no urging to do that. They hurried to the palace; they crossed the garden to the stone wall. There they found the stone upon which the prince had set the black cross. He pressed his hand upon it, and it opened to him like a door. They descended the steps, and went through the passageway, until they came out upon the sea-shore. The black dogs came leaping towards them; but this time it was to fawn upon them, and to lick their hands and faces.

The prince turned the great stone mill till the brazen boat came flying towards the shore. They entered it, and so crossed the water and came to the other side. They did not tarry in the garden, but went straight to the snow-white palace and to the great vaulted chamber where was the statue. "Yes," said the old man, "it is the youngest princess, sure enough."

The prince said nothing, but he dipped up some of the water in his palm and dashed it upon the statue. "If you are the princess, take your true shape again," said he. Before the words had left his lips the statue became flesh and blood, and the princess stepped down from where she stood, and the prince thought that he had never seen any one so beautiful as she. "You have brought me back to life," said she, "and whatever I shall have shall be yours as well as mine."

Then they all set their faces homeward again, and the prince took with him a cupful of the water of life.

When they reached the farther shore the black dogs came running to meet them. The prince sprinkled the water he carried upon them, and as soon as it touched them that instant they were black dogs no longer, but the tall, noble young men that the sorceress queen had bewitched. There, as the old man had hoped, he found his own three sons, and kissed them with the tears running down his face.

But when the people of that land learned that their youngest princess, and the one whom they loved, had come back again, and that the two sorceresses would trouble them no longer, they shouted and shouted for joy. All the town was hung with flags and illuminated, the fountains ran with wine, and nothing was heard but sounds of rejoicing. In the midst of it all the prince married the princess, and so became the king of that country.

And now to go back again to the beginning.

After the youngest prince had been driven away from home, and the old king had divided the kingdom betwixt the other two, things went for a while smoothly and joyfully. But by little and little the king was put to one side until he became as nothing in his own land. At last hot words passed between the father and the two sons, and the end of the matter was that the king was driven from the land to shift for himself.

Now, after the youngest prince had married and had become king of that other land, he bethought himself of his father and his mother, and longed to see them again. So he set forth and travelled towards his old home. In his journeying he came to a lonely house at the edge of a great forest, and there night came upon him. He sent one of the many of those who rode with him to ask whether he could not find lodging there for the time, and who should answer the summons but the king, his father, dressed in the coarse clothing of a forester. The old king did not know his own son in the kingly young king who sat upon his snow-white horse. He bade the visitor to enter, and he and the old queen served their son and bowed before him.

The next morning the young king rode back to his own land, and then sent attendants with horses and splendid clothes, and bade them bring his father and mother to his own home.

He had a noble feast set for them, with everything befitting the entertainment of a king, but he ordered that not a grain of salt should season it.

So the father and the mother sat down to the feast with their son and his queen, but all the time they did not know him. The old king tasted the food and tasted the food, but he could not eat of it.

"Do you not feel hungry?" said the young king.

"Alas," said his father, "I crave your majesty's pardon, but there is no salt in the food."

"And so is life lacking of savor without love," said the young king; "and yet because I loved you as salt you disowned me and cast me out into the world."

Therewith he could contain himself no longer, but with the tears running down his cheeks kissed his father and his mother; and they knew him, and kissed him again.

Afterwards the young king went with a great army into the country of his elder brothers, and, overcoming them, set his father upon his throne again. If ever the two got back their crowns you may be sure that they wore them more modestly than they did the first time.

So the Fisherman who had one time unbottled the Genie whom Solomon the Wise had stoppered up concluded his story, and all of the good folk who were there began clapping their shadowy hands.

"Aye, aye," said old Bidpai, "there is much truth in what you say, for it is verily so that that which men call--love--is--the--salt--of--" * * *

His voice had been fading away thinner and thinner and smaller and smaller--now it was like the shadow of a voice; now it trembled and quivered out into silence and was gone.

And with the voice of old Bidpai the pleasant Land of Twilight was also gone. As a breath fades away from a mirror, so had it faded and vanished into nothingness.

I opened my eyes.

There was a yellow light--it came from the evening lamp. There were people of flesh and blood around--my own dear people--and they were talking together. There was the library with the rows of books looking silently out from their shelves. There was the fire of hickory logs crackling and snapping in the fireplace, and throwing a wavering, yellow light on the wall.

Had I been asleep? No; I had been in Twilight Land.

And now the pleasant Twilight Land had gone. It had faded out, and I was back again in the work-a-day world.

There I was sitting in my chair; and, what was more, it was time for the children to go to bed.