THERE was once a king who was so wicked that he would not allow any widows to live in his kingdom, because he was certain that they had caused the death of their husbands; nor would he admit of any fat man or woman, as he was afraid that they would eat up everything in the kingdom.
He was also very proud and arrogant, and if any man happened to be taller than himself, he would give him the choice of being lowered to a proper height by either having his head or his legs cut off.
His subjects were so afraid of him and of his laws, that the married women would not let their husbands go out of their sight, lest any harm should happen to them, and if they turned at all pale, or had broken sleep, or had lost their appetites, they would nurse them night and day. So afraid were they of becoming widows that they always agreed with their husbands on all points, lest by disagreeing they should bring about an attack of indigestion, or something worse that might produce death.
And when their children commenced to grow rapidly, their fears were doubled lest they should become taller than the king; for if they fed them on pudding, which does not promote growth, they incurred the danger of their becoming fat; and if they fed them on meat, so as to make them lean, they would probably grow tall.
It very soon became evident that there were more hunchbacks in that country than in any other; for as soon as the children were approaching the forbidden height, their parents would suspend heavy weights from their shoulders, so that their backs became rounded and eventually humped.
The young men, when they were at an age to marry, found it very difficult to get any woman to have them, because they were afraid of becoming widows, and also because so many of the men were humpbacked.
But, notwithstanding the king’s wickedness, it was admitted by the married men that their condition had considerably improved.
There was a wide road made round the cities and towns, on which all who were inclined to be stout, both men and women, would run until they were out of breath, and jump over hurdles; and there were so many of these people that the revenues of the Church commenced to suffer, owing to the decreased demand for “bulls,” as they willingly imposed long fasts on themselves.
Now, in the chief city of this country there was a very wise man, well versed in the law and in concocting drugs, for he was the public executioner and the chemist of the place. To him, therefore, went a deputation of the people to lay their grievances before him; and after the spokesman had finished what he had to say, the executioner looked very wise, and, after considering awhile, he said—
“Our king’s predecessor was held to be just and generous because he allowed every man to retain a fifth of his produce for the maintenance of his family, and the tax he imposed on this fifth part was always readily paid.” Here he touched the edge of his sharp axe and smiled; and the deputation exclaimed—
“Quite right; so it was.”
“Now, the present king,” continued the wise man, again feeling the edge of his axe, “has magnanimously increased your loyal tribute to him by one part in a hundred of the produce of the land, and yet you are not satisfied!”
“The king’s generosity we all feel,” said the deputation; “but, if we may be allowed to express an opinion to you, sir, we would——”
“Certainly you may,” interrupted the man of drugs, running his hand quickly over the axe—“certainly you may; why should you not?”
By this time the chief spokesman had got behind the others, and it was very evident that the members of the deputation were becoming aware that the logic of the executioner was too sharp for them.
Seeing that they were all silent, the executioner went on to say that the king had, in his opinion, been extremely considerate; for he had, by the law against widows, contributed to the happiness and long life of the husbands; and, by enacting that no man should exceed a certain height or stoutness, they had economized in many ways, for they ate less, and their clothes would cost them less. In fact, he saw no reason for dissatisfaction; but as they had come to him as a deputation, he felt it to be his duty to place their supposed grievances before the king, and he, the executioner, felt certain that the king would reply to them in a suitable manner. And having said this he raised the axe to the light to see that there was no notch on the edge, which caused the deputation to tremble most violently, and to assure the executioner that they were perfectly satisfied, and desired to withdraw.
The executioner, however, would not allow them to retire—for the grievances of a people should not be withheld from the king’s ear; but the members of the deputation became so frightened that they made their escape through the windows as fast as they could. And when the king heard all about it he remarked that “Folly had entered with dignity by the door, and Wisdom had unceremoniously escaped through the window.”