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."
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.