The Good of a Few Words
 

There was one Beppo the Wise and another Beppo the Foolish.

The wise one was the father of the foolish one.

Beppo the Wise was called Beppo the Wise because he had laid up a great treasure after a long life of hard work.

Beppo the Foolish was called Beppo the Foolish because he spent in five years after his father was gone from this world of sorrow all that the old man had laid together in his long life of toil. But during that time Beppo lived as a prince, and the life was never seen in that town before or since--feasting and drinking and junketing and merrymaking. He had friends by the dozen and by the scores, and the fame of his doings went throughout all the land.

While his money lasted he was called Beppo the Generous. It was only after it was all gone that they called him Beppo the Foolish.

So by-and-by the money was spent, and there was an end of it.

Yes; there was an end of it; and where were all of Beppo's fair-weather friends? Gone like the wild-geese in frosty weather.

"Don't you remember how I gave you a bagful of gold?" says Beppo the Foolish. "Won't you remember me now in my time of need?"

But the fair-weather friend only laughed in his face.

"Don't you remember how I gave you a fine gold chain with a diamond pendant?" says Beppo to another. "And won't you lend me a little money to help me over to-day?"

But the summer-goose friend only grinned.

"But what shall I do to keep body and soul together?" says Beppo to a third.

The man was a wit. "Go to a shoemaker," said he, "and let him stitch the soul fast"; and that was all the good Beppo had of him.

Then poor Beppo saw that there was not place for him in that town, and so off he went to seek his fortune else whither, for he saw that there was nothing to be gained in that place.

So he journeyed on for a week and a day, and then towards evening he came to the king's town.

There it stood on the hill beside the river--the grandest city in the kingdom. There were orchards and plantations of trees along the banks of the stream, and gardens and summer-houses and pavilions. There were white houses and red roofs and blue skies. Up above on the hill were olive orchards and fields, and then blue sky again.

Beppo went into the town, gazing about him with admiration. Houses, palaces, gardens. He had never seen the like. Stores and shops full of cloths of velvet and silk and satin; goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewellers--as though all the riches of the world had been emptied into the city. Crowds of people--lords, noblemen, courtiers, rich merchants, and tradesmen.

Beppo stared about at the fine sights and everybody stared at Beppo, for his shoes were dusty, his clothes were travel-stained, and a razor had not touched his face for a week.

The king of that country was walking in the garden under the shade of the trees, and the sunlight slanted down upon him, and sparkled upon the jewels around his neck and on his fingers. Two dogs walked alongside of him, and a whole crowd of lords and nobles and courtiers came behind him; first of all the prime-minister with his long staff.

But for all this fine show this king was not really the king. When the old king died he left a daughter, and she should have been queen if she had had her own rights. But this king, who was her uncle, had stepped in before her, and so the poor princess was pushed aside and was nobody at all but a princess, the king's niece.

She stood on the terrace with her old nurse, while the king walked in the garden below.

It had been seven years now since the old king had died, and in that time she had grown up into a beautiful young woman, as wise as she was beautiful, and as good as she was wise. Few people ever saw her, but everybody talked about her in whispers and praised her beauty and goodness, saying that, if the right were done, she would have her own and be queen.

Sometimes the king heard of this (for a king hears everything), and he grew to hate the princess as a man hates bitter drink.

The princess looked down from the terrace, and there she saw Beppo walking along the street, and his shoes were dusty and his clothes were travel-stained, and a razor had not touched his face for a week.

"Look at yonder poor man," she said to her nurse; "yet if I were his wife he would be greater really than my uncle, the king."

The king, walking below in the garden, heard what she said.

"Say you so!" he called out. "Then we shall try if what you say is true"; and he turned away, shaking with anger.

"Alas!" said the princess, "now, indeed, have I ruined myself for good and all."

Beppo was walking along the street looking about him hither and thither, and thinking how fine it all was. He had no more thought that the king and the princess were talking about him than the man in the moon.

Suddenly some one clapped him upon the shoulder.

Beppo turned around.

There stood a great tall man dressed all in black.

"You must come with me," said he.

"What do you want with me?" said Beppo.

"That you shall see for yourself," said the man.

"Very well," said Beppo; "I'd as lief go along with you as anywhere else."

So he turned and followed the man whither he led.

They went along first one street and then another, and by-and-by they came to the river, and there was a long wall with a gate in it. The tall man in black knocked upon the gate, and some one opened it from within. The man in black entered, and Beppo followed at his heels, wondering where he was going.

He was in a garden. There were fruit trees and flowering shrubs and long marble walks, and away in the distance a great grand palace of white marble that shone red as fire in the light of the setting sun, but there was not a soul to be seen anywhere.

The tall man in black led the way up the long marble walk, past the fountains and fruit trees and beds of roses, until he had come to the palace.

Beppo wondered whether he were dreaming.

The tall man in black led the way into the palace, but still there was not a soul to be seen.

Beppo gazed about him in wonder. There were floors of colored marble, and ceilings of blue and gold, and columns of carved marble, and hangings of silk and velvet and silver.

Suddenly the tall man opened a little door that led into a dark passage, and Beppo followed him. They went along the passage, and then the man opened another door.

Then Beppo found himself in a great vaulted room. There at one end of the room were three souls. A man sat on the throne, and he was the king, for he had a crown on his head and a long robe over his shoulders. Beside him stood a priest, and in front of him stood a beautiful young woman as white as wax and as still as death.

Beppo wondered whether he were awake.

"Come hither," said the king, in a harsh voice, and Beppo came forward and kneeled before him. "Take this young woman by the hand," said the king.

Beppo did as he was bidden.

Her hand was as cold as ice.

Then, before Beppo knew what was happening, he found that he was being married.

It was the princess.

"Now," said the king to her when the priest had ended, and he frowned until his brows were as black as thunder--"now you are married; tell me, is your husband greater than I?"

But the princess said never a word, only the tears ran one after another down her white face. The king sat staring at her and frowning.

Suddenly some one tapped Beppo upon the shoulder. It was the tall man in black.

Beppo knew that he was to follow him again. This time the princess was to go along. The tall man in black led the way, and Beppo and the princess followed along the secret passage and up and down the stairs until at last they came out into the garden again.

And now the evening was beginning to fall.

The man led the way down the garden to the river, and still Beppo and the princess followed him.

By-and-by they came to the river-side and to a flight of steps, and there was a little frail boat without sail or oars.

The tall man in black beckoned towards the boat, and Beppo knew that he and princess were to enter it.

As soon as Beppo had helped the princess into the boat the tall man thrust it out into the stream with his foot, and the boat drifted away from the shore and out into the river, and then around and around. Then it floated off down the stream.

It floated on and on, and the sun set and the moon rose.

Beppo looked at the princess, and he thought he had never seen any one so beautiful in all his life. It was all like a dream, and he hoped he might never waken. But the princess sat there weeping and weeping, and said nothing.

The night fell darker and darker, but still Beppo sat looking at the princess. Her face was as white as silver in the moonlight. The smell of the flower-gardens came across the river. The boat floated on and on until by-and-by it drifted to the shore again and among the river reeds, and there it stopped, and Beppo carried the princess ashore.

"Listen," said the princess. "Do you know who I am?"

"No," said Beppo, "I do not."

"I am the princess," said she, "the king's niece; and by rights I should be queen of this land."

Beppo could not believe his ears.

"It is true that I am married to you," said she, "but never shall you be my husband until you are king."

"King!" said Beppo; "how can I be king?"

"You shall be king," said the princess.

"But the king is everything," said Beppo, "and I am nothing at all."

"Great things come from small beginnings," said the princess; "a big tree from a little seed."

Some little distance away from the river was the twinkle of a light, and thither Beppo led the princess. When the two came to it, they found it was a little hut, for there were fish-nets hanging outside in the moonlight.

Beppo knocked.

An old woman opened the door. She stared and stared, as well she might, to see the fine lady in silks and satins with a gold ring upon her finger, and nobody with her but one who looked like a poor beggar-man.

"Who are you and what do you want?" said the old woman.

"Who we are," said the princess, "does not matter, except that we are honest folk in trouble. What we want is shelter for the night and food to eat, and that we will pay for."

"Shelter I can give you," said the old woman, "but little else but a crust of bread and a cup of water. One time there was enough and plenty in the house; but now, since my husband has gone and I am left all alone, it is little I have to eat and drink. But such as I have to give you are welcome to."

Then Beppo and the princess went into the house.

The next morning the princess called Beppo to her. "Here," said she, "is a ring and a letter. Go you into the town and inquire for Sebastian the Goldsmith. He will know what to do."

Beppo took the ring and the letter and started off to town, and it was not hard for him to find the man he sought, for every one knew of Sebastian the Goldsmith. He was an old man, with a great white beard and a forehead like the dome of a temple. He looked at Beppo from head to foot with eyes as bright as those of a snake; then he took the ring and the letter. As soon as he saw the ring he raised it to his lips and kissed it; then he kissed the letter also; then he opened it and read it.

He turned to Beppo and bowed very low. "My lord," said he, "I will do as I am commanded. Will you be pleased to follow me?"

He led the way into an inner room. There were soft rugs upon the floor, and around the walls were tapestries. There were couches and silken cushions. Beppo wondered what it all meant.

Sebastian the Goldsmith clapped his hands together. A door opened, and there came three black slaves into the room. The Goldsmith spoke to them in a strange language, and the chief of the three black slaves bowed in reply. Then he and the others led Beppo into another room where there was a marble bath of tepid water. They bathed him and rubbed him with soft linen towels; then they shaved the beard from his cheeks and chin and trimmed his hair; then they clothed him in fine linen and a plain suit of gray and Beppo looked like a new man.

Then when all this was done the chief of the blacks conducted Beppo back to Sebastian the Goldsmith. There was a fine feast spread, with fruit and wine. Beppo sat down to it, and Sebastian the Goldsmith stood and served him with a napkin over his arm.

Then Beppo was to return to the princess again.

A milk-white horse was waiting for him at the Goldsmith's door, a servant holding the bridle, and Beppo mounted and rode away.

When he returned to the fisherman's hut the princess was waiting for him. She had prepared a tray spread with a napkin, a cup of milk, and some sweet cakes.

"Listen," said she; "to-day the king hunts in the forest over yonder. Go you thither with this. The king will be hot and thirsty, and weary with the chase. Offer him this refreshment. He will eat and drink, and in gratitude he will offer you something in return. Take nothing of him, but ask him this: that he allow you once every three days to come to the palace, and that he whisper these words in your ear so that no one else may hear them--"A word, a word, only a few words; spoken ill, they are ill; spoken well, they are more precious than gold and jewels.'"

"Why should I do that?" said Beppo.

"You will see," said the princess.

Beppo did not understand it at all, but the princess is a princess and must be obeyed, and so he rode away on his horse at her bidding.

It was as the princess had said: the king was hunting in the forest, and when Beppo came there he could hear the shouts of the men and the winding of horns and the baying of dogs. He waited there for maybe an hour or more, and sometimes the sounds were nearer and sometimes the sounds were farther away. Presently they came nearer and nearer, and then all of a sudden the king came riding out of the forest, the hounds hunting hither and thither, and the lords and nobles and courtiers following him.

The king's face was flushed and heated with the chase, and his forehead was bedewed with sweat. Beppo came forward and offered the tray. The king wiped his face with the napkin, and then drank the milk and ate three of the cakes.

"Who was it ordered you to bring this to me?" said he to Beppo.

"No one," said Beppo; "I brought it myself."

The king looked at Beppo and was grateful to him.

"Thou hast given me pleasure and comfort," said he; "ask what thou wilt in return and if it is in reason thou shalt have it."

"I will have only this," said Beppo: "that your majesty will allow me once every three days to come to the palace, and that then you will take me aside and will whisper these words into my ear so that no one else may hear them--A word, a word, only a few words; spoken ill, they are ill; spoken well, they are more precious than gold and jewels.'"

The king burst out laughing. "Why," said he, "what is this foolish thing you ask of me? If you had asked for a hundred pieces of gold you should have had them. Think better, friend, and ask something of more worth than this foolish thing."

"Please your majesty," said Beppo, "I ask nothing else."

The king laughed again. "Then you shall have what you ask," said he, and he rode away.

The next morning the princess said to Beppo: "This day you shall go and claim the king's promise of him. Take this ring and this letter again to Sebastian the Goldsmith. He will fit you with clothes in which to appear before the king. Then go to the king's palace that he may whisper those words he has to say into your ear."

Once more Beppo went to Sebastian the Goldsmith, and the Goldsmith kissed the princess's ring and letter, and read what she had written.

Again the black slaves took Beppo to the bath, only this time they clad him in a fine suit of velvet and hung a gold chain around his neck. After that Sebastian the Goldsmith again served a feast to Beppo, and waited upon him while he ate and drank.

In front of the house a noble horse, as black as jet, was waiting to carry Beppo to the palace, and two servants dressed in velvet livery were waiting to attend him.

So Beppo rode away, and many people stopped to look at him.

He came to the palace, and the king was giving audience. Beppo went into the great audience-chamber. It was full of people--lords and nobles and rich merchants and lawyers.

Beppo did not know how to come to the king, so he stood there and waited and waited. The people looked at him and whispered to one another: "Who is that young man?" "Whence comes he?" Then one said: "Is not he the young man who served the king with cakes and milk in the forest yesterday?"

Beppo stood there gazing at the king. By-and-by the king suddenly looked up and caught sight of him. He gazed at Beppo for a moment or two and then he knew him. Then he smiled and beckoned to him.

"Aye, my foolish benefactor," said he, aloud, "is it thou, and art thou come so soon to redeem thy promise? Very well; come hither, I have something to say to thee."

Beppo came forward, and everybody stared. He came close to the king, and the king laid his hand upon his shoulder. Then he leaned over to Beppo and whispered in his ear: "A word, a word, only a few words; if they be spoken ill, they are ill; if they be spoken well, they are more precious than gold and jewels." Then he laughed. "Is that what you would have me say?" said he.

"Yes, majesty," said Beppo, and he bowed low and withdrew.

But, lo and behold, what a change!

Suddenly he was transformed in the eyes of the whole world. The crowd drew back to allow him to pass, and everybody bowed low as he went along.

"Did you not see the king whisper to him," said one. "What could it be that the king said?" said another. "This must be a new favorite," said a third.

He had come into the palace Beppo the Foolish; he went forth Beppo the Great Man, and all because of a few words the king had whispered in his ear.

Three days passed, and then Beppo went again to the Goldsmith's with the ring and a letter from the princess. This time Sebastian the Goldsmith fitted him with a suit of splendid plum-colored silk and gave him a dappled horse, and again Beppo and his two attendants rode away to the palace. And this time every one knew him, and as he went up the steps into the palace all present bowed to him. The king saw him as soon as he appeared, and when he caught sight of him he burst out laughing.

"Aye," said he, "I was looking for thee today, and wondering how soon thou wouldst come. Come hither till I whisper something in thine ear."

Then all the lords and nobles and courtiers and ministers drew back, and Beppo went up to the king.

The king laughed and laughed. He laid his arm over Beppo's shoulder, and again he whispered in his ear: "A word, a word, only a few words; if they be spoken ill, they are ill; if they be spoken well, they are more precious than gold and jewels."

Then he released Beppo, and Beppo withdrew.

So it continued for three months. Every three days Beppo went to the palace, and the king whispered the words in his ear. Beppo said nothing to any one, and always went away as soon as the king had whispered to him.

Then at last the princess said to him: "Now the time is ripe for doing. Listen! To-day when you go to the palace fix your eyes, when the king speaks to you, upon the prime-minister, and shake your head. The prime-minister will ask you what the king said. Say nothing to him but this: Alas, my poor friend!'"

It was all just as the princess had said.

The king was walking in the garden, with his courtiers and ministers about him. Beppo came to him, and the king, as he always did, laid his hand upon Beppo's shoulder and whispered in his ear: "A word, a word, only a few words; if they be spoken ill, they are ill; if they be spoken well, they are more precious than gold and jewels."

While the king was saying these words to Beppo, Beppo was looking fixedly at the prime-minister. While he did so he shook his head three times. Then he bowed low and walked away.

He had not gone twenty paces before some one tapped him upon the arm; it was the prime-minister. Beppo gazed fixedly at him. "Alas, my poor friend!" said he.

The prime-minister turned pale. "It was, then, as I thought," said he. "The king spoke about me. Will you not tell me what he said?"

Beppo shook his head. "Alas, my poor friend!" said he, and then he walked on.

The prime-minister still followed him.

"My lord," said he, "I have been aware that his majesty has not been the same to me for more than a week past. If it was about the princess, pray tell his majesty that I meant nothing ill when I spoke of her to him."

Beppo shook his head. "Alas, my poor friend!" he said.

The prime-minister's lips trembled. "My lord," said he, "I have always had the kindest regard for you, and if there is anything in my power that I can do for you I hope you will command me. I know how much you are in his majesty's confidence. Will you not speak a few words to set the matter straight?"

Beppo again shook his head. "Alas, my poor friend!" said he, and then he got upon his horse and rode away.

Three days passed.

"This morning," said the princess, "when you go to the king, look at the prime-minister when the king speaks to you, and smile. The prime-minister will again speak to you, and this time say, It is well, and I wish you joy.' Take what he gives you, for it will be of use."

Again all happened just as the princess said.

Beppo came to the palace, and again the king whispered in his ear. As he did so Beppo looked at the prime-minister and smiled, and then he withdrew.

The prime-minister followed him. He trembled. "It is well," said Beppo, "and I wish you joy."

The prime-minister grasped his hand and wrung it. "My lord," said he, "how can I express my gratitude! The palace of my son that stands by the river--I would that you would use it for your own, if I may be so bold as to offer it to you."

"I will," said Beppo, "use it as my own."

The prime-minister wrung his hand again, and then Beppo rode away.

The next time that Beppo spoke to the king, at the princess's bidding, he looked at the lord-treasurer, and said, as he had said to the prime-minister, "Alas, my poor friend!"

When he rode away he left the lord-treasurer as white as ashes to the very lips.

Three days passed, and then, while the king talked to Beppo, Beppo looked at the lord-treasurer and smiled.

The lord-treasurer followed him to the door of the palace.

"It is well, and I wish you joy," said Beppo.

The treasurer offered him a fortune.

The next time it was the same with the captain of the guards. First Beppo pitied him, and then he wished him joy.

"My lord," said the captain of the guards, "my services are yours at any time."

Then the same thing happened to the governor of the city, then to this lord, and then to that lord.

Beppo grew rich and powerful beyond measure.

Then one day the princess said: "Now we will go into the town, and to the palace of the prime-minister's son, which the prime-minister gave you, for the time is ripe for the end."

In a few days all the court knew that Beppo was living like a prince in the prime-minister's palace. The king began to wonder what it all meant, and how all such good-fortune had come to Beppo. He had grown very tired of always speaking to Beppo the same words.

But Beppo was now great among the great; all the world paid court to him, and bowed down to him, almost as they did before the king.

"Now," said the princess, "the time has come to strike. Bid all the councillors, and all the lords, and all the nobles to meet here three days hence, for it is now or never that you shall win all and become king."

Beppo did as she bade. He asked all of the great people of the kingdom to come to him, and they came. When they were all gathered together at Beppo's house, they found two thrones set as though for a king and a queen, but there was no sign of Beppo, and everybody wondered what it all meant.

Suddenly the door opened and Beppo came into the room, leading by the hand a lady covered with a veil from head to foot.

Everybody stopped speaking and stood staring while Beppo led the veiled lady up to one of the thrones. He seated himself upon the other.

The lady stood up and dropped her veil, and then every one knew her.

It was the princess. "Do you not know me?" said she; "I am the queen, and this is my husband. He is your king."

All stood silent for a moment, and then a great shout went up. "Long live the queen! Long live the king!"

The princess turned to the captain of the guards. "You have offered your services to my husband," said she; "his commands and my commands are that you march to the palace and cast out him who hath no right there."

"It shall be done," said the captain of the guards.

All the troops were up in arms, and the town was full of tumult and confusion. About midnight they brought the false king before King Beppo and the queen. The false king stood there trembling like a leaf. The queen stood gazing at him steadily. "Behold, this is the husband that thou gavest me," said she. "It is as I said; he is greater than thou. For, lo, he is king! What art thou?"

The false king was banished out of the country, and the poor fisherman's wife, who had entertained the princess for all this time, came to live at the palace, where all was joy and happiness.

"Friend," said St. George, "I like your story. Ne'th'less, tis like a strolling pedler, in that it carries a great deal of ills to begin with, to get rid of them all before it gets to the end of its journey. However, tis as you say--it ends with everybody merry and feasting, and so I like it. But now methinks our little friend yonder is big with a story of his own"; and he pointed, as he spoke, with the stem of his pipe to a little man whom I knew was the brave Tailor who had killed seven flies at a blow, for he still had around his waist the belt with the legend that he himself had worked upon it.

"Aye," piped the Tailor in a keen, high voice, "tis true I have a story inside of me. Tis about another tailor who had a great, big, black, ugly demon to wait upon him and to sew his clothes for him."

"And the name of that story, my friend," said the Soldier who had cheated the Devil, "is what?"

"It hath no name," piped the little Tailor, "but I will give it one, and it shall be--