Wherefore the Well-and-wise-walking Khan once more took the way of the cool grove; and having brought thence the Siddhî-kür bound in his bag, the Siddhî-kür as they went along told him this tale, saying,--
HOW THE WIDOW SAVED HER SON'S LIFE (1).
LONG ages ago there lived in Chara Kitad (2), which lieth to the east of India, a king named Daibang (3), who had one only son. But this son never showed himself to the people. No one in the whole empire had once set his eyes on him. Every day he sent and fetched a handsome youth of the people to come and comb his hair for him, and immediately that he had made an end of combing him he had him put to death. Every day one. This went on for many years, and no one dared to withhold their son from the king's command. At last it came to the turn of a youth who was a widow's son. The widow, therefore, full of anguish at the thought of her son, her eldest stay and consolation, being taken from her and slain, made cakes of dough kneaded with her own milk, and gave them to her son, saying, "Manage so that while thou art combing the hair of the Khan, he shall eat one of these cakes."
The widow's son, therefore, came and stood before the Khan; and as he combed the Khan's hair with the Khan's golden comb, he saw that the ears of the Khan were formed like to the ears of an ass, and that it was that his subjects might not know he had ears like to the ears of an ass, that he put to death every day the young men, who, combing his hair, had seen them. Nevertheless, the widow's son went on combing the Khan's hair, and eating the cakes his mother had given him the while.
At last the Khan said, "What eatest thou?"
And he answered, "Cakes kneaded of rice-flour and milk; such cakes do I eat."
And when the Khan asked for some to taste, he gave him one, and the Khan ate it. When the Khan had eaten the cake, he said, "The scent and the flavour of these cakes is good. How are they composed? tell me."
The widow's son answered, "My mother made them for me with milk of her own breast, and kneaded them with rice-flour."
When the Khan heard that, he said within himself, "How shall I put this youth to death, seeing he and I have both partaken of one mother's milk? That were unnatural and unheard of." Then said he aloud, "If that be so, I will not put thee to death this day; but only take an oath of thee that thou tell no man that I have ears like to asses' ears. Shouldst thou, however, break thine oath, then, know that thou shalt surely be put to death."
"Unto no man, O Khan," swore the youth, "will I declare this thing. Neither unto my mother herself." And having thanked the Khan for sparing his life he went his way.
Day after day, however, all the youths who went in to comb the Khan's hair were put to death as before, and all the people wondered greatly why the widow's son had been spared. Nevertheless, remembering the oath which he had given the Khan, he told no man how it had befallen for all their wondering and inquiring, nor even his own mother.
But as he continued thus keeping his own counsel, and telling no man the reason why the Khan killed all the other youths who combed his hair and spared him, the secret vexed his heart, nor could he stand against the oppression of his desire to speak it, so that he fell ill, and like to die. Nor were medicaments nor yet offerings in sacrifice (4) of any avail to heal him of that sickness, though many Lamas were called to see him. At last a Lama came, who having felt his pulse said, "In this kind of sickness medicaments avail nothing; only tell what it is thou hast on thine heart, and as soon as thou shalt have told it, to whomsoever it may be, thou shalt be relieved, and be well again. Other remedy is there none." Thus spoke the Lama.
Then all they that stood by the bed spoke to him, saying, "If it be that thou hast any thing on thy mind, as the Lama has said, even though it be the least matter, speak it now and recover. Of what good shall it be to thee to keep the secret if, after all, thou diest?"
But neither so would he break his oath to the Khan. But at night when they were all gone, and his mother only was with him, and she urged him much, he told her, saying, "Of a truth have I a secret; but I have sworn to the Khan that I will tell it to no man, nor yet even to thee, my mother."
Then spoke his mother again, saying, "If this be so, then go out far from the habitations of men, and hiding thy face in a crack of the earth where the soil is parched for want of moisture; or else, in the hollow of an ancient tree, or in a narrow cleft of the everlasting rock, and speak it there."
And the youth listened to her word; and he went out far from the habitations of men till he came where there was a hole of a marmot in the ground. Putting his mouth into the hole he cried, "Our Khan, Daibang, has ears even like to the ears of an ass!" and he repeated the same four times, and was well again.
But the marmot living in the hole, had heard the words, and she repeated them to the echo, and the echo told them to the wind, and the wind brought them to the Khan.
So the Khan sent, and called the youth, even the widow's son, before him, saying, "Charged I thee not that thou told no man this thing, and swarest thou not unto me that thou wouldst declare it to no man, nor even to thine own mother? How then hast thou gone and spoken it abroad?"
But the youth answered, saying, "To no man either at home or abroad have I spoken the thing, O Khan!"
"How then came the words back to me unless it be that thou hast spoken them, seeing that none other knows the thing save thee?" again asked the Khan.
"I know not," replied the youth, "unless it be that through refraining of myself that I might keep the secret I fell ill, and when all medicaments and offerings of sacrifice failed, there came a Lama who said there was no remedy save that I should unburden that which oppressed my mind. Then to save my life, and yet not betray the Khan's confidence, I spoke it in the hole of a marmot in the waste, far from the habitations of men."
Then when the Khan found he was so faithful and discreet he believed his word, and forbore to put him to death. Further he said to him, "Tell me, now, canst thou devise any means by which these asses' ears may be concealed, so that I may go forth among my subjects like other Khans?"
"If the Khan would listen to the word of one so humble, even now a means of concealment is plain to my mind," replied the youth.
And the Khan answered him, "Speak, and I will listen to what thou hast to advise."
The youth therefore spoke, saying, "O mighty Khan! Let now a high-fashioned cap be made to cover thine head, and let there be on either side lappets to the cap, covering the ears. Then shall all men when they see the Khan wearing such a cap deem it beseeming to wear such a cap likewise." Thus the youth counselled the Khan.
And the Khan found the counsel good, and he made him a high-fashioned cap with lappets covering the ears; and when the ministers of state and the counsellors and nobles saw the Khan wearing such a cap, they made to themselves caps like unto it, and all men wore it, and it was known by the name of "the lappet cap." But no man knew that the king's ears were like to asses' ears.
Furthermore, the Khan no longer had need to put to death the youths who combed his hair, and all the people rejoiced greatly. But for the youth, even the widow's son, he made him steward over all his household, and whatsoever he did, he did with prudence and judgment, his mother advising him.
"The Khan who put so many youths to death to save his own reputation did not deserve so good a counsel!" exclaimed the Khan.
And as he let these words escape him, the Siddhî-kür replied, "Forgetting his health, the Well-and-wise-walking Khan hath opened his lips." And with the cry, "To escape out of this world is good!" he sped him through the air, swift out of sight.