Once upon a time there was a King who had no children, and this disappointment preyed so dreadfully upon his mind that he chose the dirtiest and most broken-down old bed he could find, and lay down on it in the beautiful palace gardens. There he lay, amid the flowers and the fruit trees, the butterflies and the birds, quite regardless of the beauties around him;—that was his way of showing grief.
Now, as he lay thus, a holy faqîr passed through the garden, and seeing the King in this pitiful plight, asked him what the sorrow was which drove him to such a very dirty old bed.
‘What is the use of asking?’ returned the King; but when the faqîr asked for the third time what the sorrow was, the King took heart of grace, and answered gloomily, ‘I have no children!’
‘Is that all?’ said the faqîr; ‘that is easily remedied. Here! take this stick of mine, and throw it twice into yonder mango tree. At the first throw five mangoes will fall, at the second two. So many sons you shall have, if you give each of your seven Queens a mango apiece.’
Then the King, greatly delighted, took the faqîr’s stick and went off to the mango tree. Sure enough, at the first throw five mangoes fell, at the second, two. Still the King was not satisfied, and, determining to make the most of the opportunity, he threw the stick into the tree a third time, hoping to get more children But, to his surprise and consternation, the stick remained in the tree, and the seven fallen mangoes flew back to their places, where they hung temptingly just out of reach.
There was nothing to be done but to go back to the faqîr, and tell him what had happened.
‘That comes of being greedy!’ retorted the faqîr; ‘surely seven sons are enough for anybody, and yet you were not content! However, I will give you one more chance. Go back to the tree; you will find the stick upon the ground; throw it as I bade you, and beware of disobedience, for if you do not heed me this time, you may lie on your dirty old bed till doomsday for all I care!’
Then the King returned to the mango tree, and when the seven mangoes had fallen—the first time five, the second time two—he carried them straight into the palace, and gave them to his Queens, so as to be out of the way of temptation.
Now, as luck would have it, the youngest Queen was not in the house, so the King put her mango away in a tiny cupboard in the wall, against her return, and while it lay there a greedy little mouse came and nibbled away one half of it. Shortly afterwards, the seventh Queen came in, and seeing the other Queens just wiping their mouths, asked them what they had been eating.
‘The King gave us each a mango,’ they replied, ‘and he put yours in the cupboard yonder.’
But, lo! when the youngest Queen ran in haste to find her mango, half of it was gone; nevertheless she ate the remaining half with great relish.
Now the result of this was, that when, some months afterwards, the six elder Queens each bore a son, the youngest Queen had only half-a-son—and that was what they called him at once,—just half-a-son, nothing more: he had one eye, one ear, one arm, one leg; in fact, looked at sideways, he was as handsome a young prince as you would wish to see, but frontways it was as plain as a pikestaff that he was only half-a-prince. Still he throve and grew strong, so that when his brothers went out shooting he begged to be allowed to go out also.
‘How can you go a-shooting?’ wept his mother, who did nothing but fret because her son was but half-a-son; ‘you are only half-a-boy; how can you hold your crossbow?’
‘Then let me go and play at shooting,’ replied the prince, nothing daunted. ‘Only give me some sweets to take with me, dear mother, as the other boys have, and I shall get on well enough.’
‘How can I make sweets for half-a-son?’ wept his mother; ‘go and ask the other Queens to give you some,’
So he asked the other Queens, and they, to make fun of the poor lad, who was the butt of the palace, gave him sweets full of ashes.
Then the six whole princes, and little Half-a-son, set off a-shooting, and when they grew tired and hungry, they sat down to eat the sweets they had brought with them. Now when Prince Half-a-son put his into his half-a-mouth, lo and behold! though they were sweet enough outside, there was nothing but ashes and grit inside. He was a simple-hearted young prince, and imagining it must be a mistake, he went to his brothers and asked for some of theirs; but they jeered and laughed at him.
By and by they came to a field of melons, so carefully fenced in with thorns that only one tiny gap remained in one corner, and that was too small for any one to creep through, except half-a-boy; so while the six whole princes remained outside, little Half-a-son was feasting on the delicious melons inside, and though they begged and prayed him to throw a few over the hedge, he only laughed, saying, ‘Remember the sweets!—it is my turn now!’
When they became very importunate, he threw over a few of the unripe and sour melons; whereupon his brothers became so enraged that they ran to the owner of the field and told him that half-a-boy was making sad havoc amongst his fruit. Then they watched him catch poor Prince Half-a-son, who of course could not run very fast, and tie him to a tree, after which they went away laughing.
But Prince Half-a-son had some compensation for being only half-a-boy, in that he possessed the magical power of making a rope do anything he bade it. Therefore, when he saw his brothers leaving him in the lurch, he called out, ‘Break, rope, break! my companions have gone on,’ and the rope obeyed at once, leaving him free to join his brothers.
By and by they came to a plum tree, where the fruit grew far out on slender branches that would only bear the weight of half-a-boy.
‘Throw us down some!’ cried the whole brothers, as they saw Half-a-son with his half-mouth full.
‘Remember the sweets!’ retorted the prince.
This made his brothers so angry that they ran off to the owner of the tree, and telling him how half-a-boy was feasting on his plums, watched while he caught the offender and tied him to the tree. Then they ran away laughing; but Prince Half-a-son called out, ‘Break, rope, break! my companions have gone on,’ and before they had gone out of sight he rejoined his brothers, who could not understand how this miserable half-a-boy outwitted them.
Being determined to be revenged on him, they waited until he began to draw water from a well, where they stopped to drink, and then they pushed him in.
‘That is an end of little Half-a-son!’ they said to themselves, and ran away laughing.
Now in the well there lived a one-eyed demon, a pigeon, and a serpent, and when it was dark these three returned home and began to talk amongst themselves, while Prince Half-a-son, who clung to the wall like a limpet, and took up no room at all, listened and held his breath.
‘What is your power, my friend?’ asked the demon of the serpent. Whereupon the serpent replied, ‘I have the treasures of seven kings underneath me! What is yours, my friend?’
Then the demon said conceitedly, ‘The King’s daughter is possessed of me. She is always ill; some day I shall kill her.’
‘Ah!’ said the pigeon, ‘I could cure her, for no matter what the disease is, any one who eats my droppings will become well instantly.’
When dawn came, the demon, the serpent, and the pigeon each went off to his own haunt without noticing Prince Half-a-son.
Soon afterwards, a camel-driver came to draw water from the well, and let down the bucket; whereupon Prince Half-a-son caught hold of the rope and held on.
The camel-driver, feeling a heavy weight, looked down to see what it was, and when he beheld half-a-boy clinging to the rope he was so frightened that he ran clean away. But all Half-a-son had to do was to say, ‘Pull, rope, pull!’ and the rope wound itself up immediately.
No sooner had he reached the surface once more than he set off to the neighbouring city, and proclaimed that he was a physician come to heal the King’s daughter of her dreadful disease.
‘Have a care! have a care!’ cried the watchmen at the gate. ‘If you fail, your head will be the forfeit. Many men have tried, and what can you do that are but half-a-man?’
Nevertheless, Prince Half-a-son, who had some of the pigeon’s droppings in his pocket, was not in the least afraid, but boldly proclaimed he was ready to accept the terms; that is to say, if he failed to cure the princess his head was to be cut off, but if he succeeded, then her hand in marriage and half the kingdom should be his reward.
‘Half the kingdom will just suit me,’ he said,’ seeing that I am but half-a-man!’
And, sure enough, no sooner had the princess taken her first dose, than she immediately became quite well—her cheeks grew rosy, her eyes bright; and the King was so delighted that he gave immediate orders for the marriage. Now amongst the wedding guests were Prince Half-a-son’s wicked brothers, who were ready to die of spite and envy when they discovered that the happy bridegroom was none other than their despised half-a-boy. So they went to the King, and said, ‘We know this lad: he is a sweeper’s son, and quite unfit to be the husband of so charming a princess!’
The king at first believed this wicked story, and ordered the poor prince to be turned out of the kingdom; but Half-a-son asked for a train of mules, and one day’s respite, in order to prove who and what he was. Then he went to the well, dug up the treasures of seven kings during the serpent’s absence, loaded the mules, and came back glittering with gold and jewels. He laid the treasures at the King’s feet, and told the whole story,—how, through no fault of his own, he was only half-a-son, and how unkindly his brothers had behaved to him.
Then the marriage festivities went on, and the wicked brothers crept away in disgrace.
They went to the well, full of envy and covetousness. ‘Half-a-son got rich by falling in,’ they said; ‘let us try if we too cannot find some treasure,’ So they threw themselves into the well.
As soon as it was dark, the demon, the serpent, and the pigeon came home together. ‘Some thief has been here!’ cried the pigeon, ‘for my droppings are gone! Let us feel round, and see if he is here still.’
So they felt round, and when they came upon the six brothers, the demon ate them up one after another.
So that was an end of them, and Prince Half-a-son had the best of it, in spite of his only being half-a-boy.