IN THE days of our fathers' fathers there lived a rich chief who had only one wife, whom he loved so much that he would not take even one of the beautiful daughters of the great chief to wife, not even when, after many years, no child was born to them. "I will wait," said the old chief, "the spirits will relent before I die, for we will offer many sacrifices to them." Accordingly the best of the flocks and herds were sacrificed, and the woman found favour in the eyes of the gods, and a daughter, beautiful as the morning, was born. So precious was this child in the eyes of her parents that they hid her from the sight of men, wrapping her in the skin of the crocodile, the sacred beast of the people. Because of this the people called her "Polomahache" (the crocodile scale), and very few believed in her beauty, for they thought she must be deformed or terribly ugly to be hidden away under a covering always; but the maiden grew in beauty and grace, until her parents felt they must strive to find a youth worthy of her, if one was to be had upon the earth.
Now the great chief had a son who was dearer to him than all his wives or his other children, or even his flocks and herds; a son tall and straight as the spear, fleet of foot as the wild deer, and brave as the mighty lion of the mountains. This youth the people called Khosi, the fleet one.
At the time when Polomahache had become old enough to marry, Khosi had begun to think of taking a wife, and had sent round to the neighbouring villages requesting the people to send the prettiest girls for his inspection, naming a certain day upon which he would receive them. Upon the day named, very early in the morning, Polomahache, enveloped in her crocodile skin and accompanied by two female attendants, set out for Khosi's village. Many other damsels passed them with jest and laughter, bidding Polomahache remain at home, as her looks were enough to frighten even the bravest lover. Now the custom was that each damsel should wash in the pool below the village of the expectant bridegroom-elect; accordingly the pool below Khosi's village was soon thronged with merry, laughing girls, who were quite unconscious of the fact that Khosi was hidden in the branches of a tree close by, from whence he could, unseen, inspect his would-be wives. While the other girls bathed, Polomahache remained quietly in the background, but when they had departed she stepped timidly down to the water's edge, where she stood hesitatingly, as if afraid to throw off her hideous covering. Khosi, upon seeing her, hid himself more securely in the tree, exclaiming, "Ah! what wild beast have we here? Surely she does not hope that I shall choose her?"
"My child," said one of the attendants, "why do you stand in fear? Know you not that it is the custom of our tribe for the damsels to wash ere they approach their master's house. Remove your covering, then, and be not afraid, for we are alone."
Reluctantly Polomahache did so, and stepped into the clear, cold water, revealing herself in all her beauty to the enraptured gaze of the spectator in the tree.
"Ha," exclaimed Khosi, "what beauty, what eyes, what a face! She, and she alone, shall be my bride." And he continued to gaze upon her until, her bathing completed, she once more enveloped herself in the crocodile skin and departed to the village, when Khosi descended from his hiding-place and returned by another path to his home.
When all the maidens were assembled, Khosi, accompanied by his father and mother, came out from the hut and walked slowly along, carefully studying each maid as he passed. Many bright glances were shot at him; many maiden hearts fluttered in hopeful expectation; but one by one he passed them all until he came to little Polomahache, who had hidden herself away at the end of the row of maidens.
"Ho! hèla! what is this?" exclaimed Khosi. "Surely this is no maiden, but some wild beast."
"Indeed, Chief Khosi," replied a gentle voice from behind the skin, "I am but a poor maid who fears she cannot hope to find favour in the eyes of the Great One."
"Now truly, mother, this is the wife for me. Send all the other maidens away, for I will have none of them." So saying, Khosi turned and re-entered the hut. His mother trembled with rage, for she thought Polomahache had bewitched her son, so she followed him into the hut; but when she heard what he had to tell her, she promised to try to arrange the marriage on condition that Khosi would manage to let her see Polomahache without the skin. Accordingly they arranged that Khosi was to see his bride alone, and if he could persuade her to throw off the crocodile skin he was to clap three times as if in pleasure, and his mother would come in.
When the sun was low in the heavens Khosi conducted Polomahache to his father's hut, where at length he persuaded her to throw off the skin. As it fell to the ground he clapped three times, exclaiming, "Oh! beautiful as the dawn is my beloved; her eyes are tender as the eyes of a deer; her voice is like many waters." As he spoke his mother entered, and being quite satisfied with the maiden's beauty, the marriage was soon arranged, and Khosi and his beautiful bride dwelt long in happiness and prosperity in the land of their fathers.