IN a lonely part of a large forest there dwelt four wise men of India who owned a treasure consisting of gold, silver, and great jewels: like all property it was a source of great anxiety to its owners, for they always feared that it would be stolen from them. With that idea they constantly watched it, counted it, and changed its hiding-place; burying it sometimes under trees, or in a ruined well that stood not far distant; at other times with them in the house.
For many long years they had kept it safely thus, so safely indeed that gradually they grew a little less zealous in their guardianship: the confidence born of long and unmolested peace made them somewhat careless; and so in some inexplicable manner news of its existence floated to the ears of a young man who dwelt in the town not so many miles away, and he at once made up his mind that he would become possessed of it. Being wise he only took counsel of himself, and bided his time with much patience.
He made the acquaintance of the four recluses, and watched their movements and studied their habits with much diligence. He was a handsome, high-spirited youth, with manners that were frank and engaging, and the old men liked to see him and talk to him, soon growing to look forward to his visits.
Months passed, and he went to see them often. They conversed unreservedly before him and trusted him as one of themselves.
As time passed and no opportunity of taking the treasure offered itself, he began to be impatient, and was indeed almost reduced to despair when he learnt, to his inexpressible pleasure, that they intended going on a day’s pilgrimage in the near future.
He laid his plans.
When the day came he rode to the forest on a pony, and, dismounting, fastened it near by as was his custom, and went within. The garden, with its moss-overgrown, decayed walls, was quite still save for the song of the birds. The sun fell through the leaves of the trees and made brilliant patches of light on the grass.
The rooms of the house were dark and cool and empty. There were the broken remains of a meal and various things belonging to the absent masters scattered about. The visitor looked round and about him carefully, peering here and there, then, having quite satisfied himself that only he and the feathered world shared the stillness, he smiled.
Some hours later the pilgrims returned home: they had been far and were wearied; they rested for awhile, then ate their evening meal and prepared to make ready for the night. As was customary with them they went to look at the treasure where they had put it in an upper room, to find to their unspeakable horror and dismay that it was gone. They looked on one another in mute amazement and despair; they beat their breast; there were no words to describe what they felt in that hour when they bewailed its loss in a helpless, hopeless way.
After awhile one of them said—
“He who has come here so many times of late with fair words and fairer smiles, it is he who hath done this thing.”
The others agreed that it was only he who could have, for no one else had ever penetrated to their abode or shared their confidence. Too late they bitterly rued having ever received the stranger.
They sat long that night talking. One said—
“We have no proof save our own conviction that he whom we met as a friend and a brother has robbed us; therefore what can we do?”
The others answered him—
“We will seek the King, to our requests he has always leant a kind and willing ear.”
Meanwhile homeward through the sultry night rode a horseman with a heavy load.
When the dawn broke, they who had been robbed set out together to seek the Court of the King.
His Majesty, who was revered for his goodness, had one daughter who to a keen intellect united great beauty, and was renowned throughout her father’s dominions and even in countries beyond the sea.
Whenever the King or his ministers were perplexed as to how to act in any particular matter they invariably consulted the Princess, who on each and all such occasions had guided them aright; while no chicanery or fraud ever passed her undetected.
All that was brave, lofty, and good she admired, honoured, and followed. All that was mean, low, and dishonest she abhorred.
United to a powerful mind were many womanly, gracious, and charitable qualities, which made her beloved in humble circles as well as respected in high ones.
Therefore when the four petitioners sought the King, it was with the idea of humbly pleading for the Princess’s assistance.
The King, who knew them, received them at once on their arrival and listened to all that they had to say, agreeing with them in their suspicions. He asked them, when he had heard their story, if they could identify the property if they were to see it anywhere; to which they answered, “Yes.”
Then, bidding them rest and refresh themselves, he went himself to the apartments of his daughter and told her the tale that he had heard. She was very much interested, and gladly promised to do what she could, telling her father that if the young man could be found and brought to the palace she fancied that she could restore to them their lost goods.
Whereupon the King consulted the four, and a messenger was sent to search and bring the young fellow with as little delay as possible. The envoy of His Majesty found him whom they desired with but little difficulty, who received the royal summons with much astonishment and some fear. Instinctively he felt that it was with regard to the stolen jewels that he was sent for, and he trembled not a little as he set out.
Were the theft ever to be discovered he knew full well that his punishment would not be a light one. Almost he felt inclined to regret that he had ever embarked on so hazardous a course, but then the memory of the shining heaps of gold and silver and the glittering stones, and all that they represented, came to him, and he laughed and shook off all feelings of fear; for how, after all, he said to himself, could they prove that it was he who was the thief?
When he arrived at the palace, therefore, he was quite light-hearted, and walked through the lines of servants with a haughty, self-confident air.
They ushered him through many halls and at last into a large and most beautifully decorated apartment situated at the end of a long vista of salons. The four walls had bas-reliefs of graceful figures of women in coloured marble and uncut jewels. The hangings were of ivory satin, embroidered with elephants and dragons in dead gold. From the ceiling were suspended magnificent lamps of many finely blended colours. A large fountain splashedsoftly near by; the floor was strewn with tiger skins; the air was heavy with strong perfume; while the light from without stole in subdued and cool through green blinds. But what riveted the visitor’s attention beyond all else was a couch of immense dimensions stretching across the upper end of the room, reclining on which amongst many cushions was a woman; overhead was a canopy of fringed cloth supported by delicately chased silver poles inlaid with turquoises. On a table of mother-of-pearl stood some cheroots and a glass globe of water. Several attendants, gorgeously attired, lounged near, and created a breeze with fans made of real roses.
The lady herself was very handsome, with a clear skin of an almost olive colour, great eyes of a velvety darkness, and a soft, slow, sweet smile; pearls clasped her throat, diamonds shone on her fingers, while gold bracelets glittered on her slender bare ankles. She motioned her somewhat bewildered visitor to seat himself near, and signed to the attendants to withdraw.
He felt terribly nervous in the presence of this royal lady: she watched him in silence for a few moments, fanning herself languidly the while; she was uncertain as to how to open the conversation. He was very handsome, certainly, she thought, as she looked, and with a figure as lithe and graceful as that of a panther.
She raised herself a little and leant forward slightly; he started and looked at her apprehensively.
“I suppose,” she began, “that you are wondering why I sent for you?”
The tones of her voice were strangely liquid and clear.
The young man murmured something indistinctly in response.
She continued, “But for some time past, when the King and myself have gone abroad, we have seen you often and have desired to know you.”
The listener was trembling so with joy, relief, and surprise at hearing such words, that he could find naught to say in reply.
Then she, perceiving his agitation, spoke to him gently and kindly for a few minutes, in order to give him time to recover his self-possession. Then, when he was more composed, she asked him many questions about himself—questions which he gladly answered. Then after a while she bade him go and to return on the morrow.
So he went from the seductive presence of the Princess with his head in a whirl, and feeling as if he dwelt no longer on earth but in Nirvana.
On the morrow he returned, and for many days following, not a question was ever asked. He was ushered always into the same room, where he was greeted most graciously.
On the occasion of his fourth visit, after the Princess had conversed with him on many subjects, she asked him somewhat suddenly if he was betrothed or married.
And when he answered that he was not it seemed to him that she appeared pleased. Then a long silence fell between them, which he of course did not attempt to break.
“My friend,” she said at last, and her manner was somewhat nervous and embarrassed, “I am glad that your affections are not placed elsewhere, because I myself, strange as it is for a woman to tell a man, desire to wed with you. To my father’s Court have come many who have sought my hand in marriage, but in none have I seen those qualities which I admire and esteem——” she paused.
The low, thrilling words stole on the listener’s ear in sweet, subdued cadence. Did he hear aright? He doubted it; he feared that he only dreamt.
Then he looked at her where she sat, with her shimmering jewels glancing a thousand hues, and his heart throbbed and his brain reeled, and he was as if drunk with wine.
He knew not how to answer this beautiful, gracious lady.
How she must love him, he thought, when she could so stoop from her high estate. He dropped on his knees before her. “Ah,” he murmured, “where could I find fitting expressions in which to tell you what I feel? Your words have lifted me to complete Nirvana, I shall never dwell on earth again. Speech is but a poor thing often, therefore I will not say much. Deeds are best; it is by them, O Princess, that you shall read my heart.”
She smiled, and her eyes were softly tender as they met his.
“There is but one thing,” she said, after a few moments; “my father must not be told till after we are married; he would not sanction our union, though he will forgive us afterwards. Therefore you must take me hence, away from out the kingdom for some time; then, when my father’s just anger shall have faded, as it surely will, we will return together.”
The young man listened in rapt attention, scarcely crediting even yet his own great fortune.
“And yet I scarcely see,” gravely pursued the Princess, after a short silence, “how it can be managed.”
She rose as she spoke and advanced to where a box of ivory, inlaid with opals, stood, touched a spring and opened it.
“See,” she cried, “this is all the money I own,” taking in her hands a few small worthless pieces of silver; “I have never required money till now, all that I have ever wanted has been always beside me.”
“Do not fear if it is only money that you need,” answered the young man; “for of that I have more than enough.”
“Ah! is that so?” she exclaimed eagerly, turning to him a face of glad surprise.
“At home,” he continued, “I have much of jewels and gold which I got but a little while back; sufficient to keep us in that luxury which is due to your rank, for many a year to come.”
“Go and fetch it,” urged the Princess, “and return here at nightfall, and I will go with thee to another life—a life of happiness such as this world seldom holds.”
Her great eyes glittered as she spoke.
He read in her words, her looks, and her gestures only the fond impatience of a love long, secret, and denied.
He prostrated himself, and saying, “I will return at nightfall,” left her to hurry on his errand.
In the early evening, when the darkness had only just fallen, he drove in a carriage to the palace; he left it at a little distance from the great gold entrance, and taking on his person much of his stolen treasure, he was ushered into the Princess’s room; the swinging lamps were lit and shed a faint radiance on all around.
She was by herself, and greeted him in a manner that left nothing to be desired.
Wishing to assure her of the existence of that money and those jewels that he had spoken of, and feeling nervously elated, he drew from the recesses of his turban and sash a handful of great stones, that were as rivers of light; she gave a woman’s delighted cry as she took them in her hands.
He smiled, well pleased, and tendered a great ruby of wondrous size and blood-red fire.
“These are but a few of what I have,” he said.
“How rich you must be!” she exclaimed, “From whence did all these things come?”
“Ah, Princess, what matter whence they came? Sufficient it is that now they are yours.”
As he spoke she, unseen by him, touched a gong of curious workmanship that stood near.
Then she held the stones up to the light, praising their beauty and worth, and asking many questions.
A short while passed and then a great door at the end of the room opened and the King entered, followed by the four fakirs, and advanced to where his daughter sat.
The young man’s heart beat in alarm at the sight of those whom he had robbed. And the Princess’s first words did not tend to decrease the feeling.
“Are these some of the treasures that you have lost?” she asked, handing to the elder of the four the biggest of the diamonds and the rubies. He took them in his hand, then passed them to the others, saying, at the same time—
“These are ours.”
“There stands the thief, then,” said the Princess, pointing to the now cowering shaking figure of the culprit, who looked piteously from one to the other, feeling at the same time very enraged with himself for having been so easily caught in the trap that had been laid for him. “It is for you,” continued the Princess, addressing herself to the four, “when your entire treasure has been restored to you, to name his punishment.”
The elder of them answered—
“We are so rejoiced to regain that which we had feared was lost for ever, Princess, that we are willing that he should go forth unchastised; his conscience, and what it will say to him, will be his punishment.”
“That would be too light a sentence; for I doubt much if he has any conscience,” said the lady, as she seated herself.
“Then, Princess, will you relieve us by sentencing him yourself, as you best will?” craved the four.
“No,” she answered, “that I cannot do, I might be too harsh—I have convicted him; let His Majesty, who is ever lenient, name his punishment.”
Then they all turned to the King, who said—
“I command that he be banished from this land for ever, and any property that he has, or is likely to have, be confiscated.”
Read more folk and fairy tales from Burma.