One hot night, in Hindustan, a king and queen lay awake in the palace in the midst of the city. Every now and then a faint air blew through the lattice, and they hoped they were going to sleep, but they never did. Presently they became more broad awake than ever at the sound of a howl outside the palace.
‘Listen to that tiger !’ remarked the king.
‘Tiger ?’ replied the queen. ‘How should there be a tiger inside the city ? It was only a jackal.’
‘I tell you it was a tiger,’ said the king.
‘And I tell you that you were dreaming if you thought it was anything but a jackal,’ answered the queen.
‘I say it was a tiger,’ cried the king; ‘don’t contradict me.’
‘Nonsense !’ snapped the queen. ‘It was a jackal.’ And the dispute waxed so warm that the king said at last:
‘Very well, we’ll call the guard and ask; and if it was a jackal I’ll leave this kingdom to you and go away; and if it was a tiger then you shall go, and I will marry a new wife.’
‘As you like,’ answered the queen; ‘there isn’t any doubt which it was.’
So the king called the two soldiers who were on guard outside and put the question to them. But, whilst the dispute was going on, the king and queen had got so excited and talked so loud that the guards had heard nearly all they said, and one man observed to the other:
‘Mind you declare that the king is right. It certainly was a jackal, but, if we say so, the king will probably not keep his word about going away, and we shall get into trouble, so we had better take his side.’
To this the other agreed; therefore, when the king asked them what animal they had seen, both the guards said it was certainly a tiger, and that the king was right of course, as he always was. The king made no remark, but sent for a palanquin, and ordered the queen to be placed in it, bidding the four bearers of the palanquin to take her a long way off into the forest and there leave her. In spite of her tears, she was forced to obey, and away the bearers went for three days and three nights until they came to a dense wood. There they set down the palanquin with the queen in it, and started home again.
Now the queen thought to herself that the king could not mean to send her away for good, and that as soon as he had got over his fit of temper be would summon her back; so she stayed quite still for a long time, listening with all her ears for approaching footsteps, but heard none. After a while she grew nervous, for she was all alone, and put her head out of the palanquin and looked about her. Day was just breaking, and birds and insects were beginning to stir; the leaves rustled in a warm breeze; but, although the queen’s eyes wandered in all directions, there was no sign of any human being. Then her spirit gave way, and she began to cry.
It so happened that close to the spot where the queen’s palanquin had been set down, there dwelt a man who had a tiny farm in the midst of the forest, where he and his wife lived alone far from any neighbours. As it was hot weather the farmer had been sleeping on the flat roof of his house, but was awakened by the sound of weeping. He jumped up and ran downstairs as fast as he could, and into the forest towards the place the sound came from, and there he found the palanquin.
‘Oh, poor soul that weeps,’ cried the farmer, standing a little way off, ‘who are you ?’ At this salutation from a stranger the queen grew silent, dreading she knew not what.
‘Oh, you that weep,’ repeated the farmer, ‘fear not to speak to me, for you are to me as a daughter. Tell me, who are you ?’
His voice was so kind that the queen gathered up her courage and spoke. And when she had told her story, the farmer called his wife, who led her to their house, and gave her food to eat, and a bed to lie on. And in the farm, a few days later, a little prince was born, and by his mother’s wish named Ameer Ali.
Years passed without a sign from the king. His wife might have been dead for all he seemed to care, though the queen still lived with the farmer, and the little prince had by this time grown up into a strong, handsome, and healthy youth. Out in the forest they seemed far from the world; very few ever came near them, and the prince was continually begging his mother and the farmer to be allowed to go away and seek adventures and to make his own living. But she and the wise farmer always counselled him to wait, until, at last, when he was eighteen years of age, they had not the heart to forbid him any longer. So he started off one early morning, with a sword by his side, a big brass pot to hold water, a few pieces of silver, and a galail [a galail is a double-stringed bow from which bullets or pellets of hard dried clay can be fired with considerable force and precision.] in his hand, with which to shoot birds as he travelled.
Many a weary mile he tramped day after day, until, one morning, he saw before him just such a forest as that in which he had been born and bred, and he stepped joyfully into it, like one who goes to meet an old friend. Presently, as he made his way through a thicket, he saw a pigeon which he thought would make a good dinner, so he fired a pellet at it from his galail, but missed the pigeon, which fluttered away with a startled clatter. At the same instant he heard a great clamour from beyond the thicket, and, on reaching the spot, he found an ugly old woman streaming wet and crying loudly as she lifted from her head an earthen vessel with a hole in it from which the water was pouring. When she saw the prince with his galail in his hand, she called out:
‘Oh, wretched one ! why must you choose an old woman like me to play your pranks upon ? Where am I to get a fresh pitcher instead of this one that you have broken with your foolish tricks ? And how am I to go so far for water twice when one journey wearies me ?’
‘But, mother,’ replied the prince, ‘I played no trick upon you I did but shoot at a pigeon that should have served me for dinner, and as my pellet missed it, it must have broken your pitcher. But, in exchange, you shall have my brass pot, and that will not break easily; and as for getting water, tell me where to find it, and I’ll fetch it while you dry your garments in the sun, and carry it whither you will.’
At this the old woman’s face brightened. She showed him where to seek the water, and when he returned a few minutes later with his pot filled to the brim, she led the way without a word, and he followed. In a short while they came to a hut in the forest, and as they drew near it Ameer Ali beheld in the doorway the loveliest damsel his eyes had ever looked on. At the sight of a stranger she drew her veil about her and stepped into the hut, and much as he wished to see her again Ameer Ali could think of no excuse by which to bring her back, and so, with a heavy heart, he made his salutation, and bade the old woman farewell. But when he had gone a little way she called after him:
‘If ever you are in trouble or danger, come to where you now stand and cry: “Fairy of the forest ! Fairy of the forest, help me now !” And I will listen to you.’
The prince thanked her and continued his journey, but he thought little of the old woman’s saying, and much of the lovely damsel. Shortly afterwards he arrived at a city; and, as he was now in great straits, having come to the end of his money, he walked straight to the palace of the king and asked for employment. The king said he had plenty of servants and wanted no more; but the young man pleaded so hard that at last the rajah was sorry for him, and promised that he should enter his bodyguard on the condition that he would undertake any service which was especially difficult or dangerous. This was just what Ameer Ali wanted, and he agreed to do whatever the king might wish.
Soon after this, on a dark and stormy night, when the river roared beneath the palace walls, the sound of a woman weeping and wailing was heard above the storm. The king ordered a servant to go and see what was the matter; but the servant, falling on his knees in terror, begged that he might not be sent on such an errand, particularly on a night so wild, when evil spirits and witches were sure to be abroad. Indeed, so frightened was he, that the king, who was very kind-hearted, bade another to go in his stead, but each one showed the same strange fear. Then Ameer Ali stepped forward:
‘This is my duty, your majesty,’ he said; ‘I will go.’
The king nodded, and off he went. The night was as dark as pitch, and the wind blew furiously and drove the rain in sheets into his face; but he made his way down to the ford under the palace walls and stepped into the flooded water. Inch by inch, and foot by foot he fought his way across, now nearly swept off his feet by some sudden swirl or eddy, now narrowly escaping being caught in the branches of some floating tree that came tossing and swinging down the stream. At length he emerged, panting and dripping wet, on the other side. Close by the bank stood a gallows, and on the gallows hung the body of some evil-doer, whilst from the foot of it came the sound of sobbing that the king had heard.
Ameer Ali was so grieved for the one who wept there that he thought nothing of the wildness of the night or of the roaring river. As for ghosts and witches, they had never troubled him, so he walked up towards the gallows where crouched the figure of the woman.
‘What ails you ?’ he said.
Now the woman was not really a woman at all, but a horrid kind of witch who really lived in Witchland, and had no business on earth. If ever a man strayed into Witchland the ogresses used to eat him up, and this old witch thought she would like to catch a man for supper, and that is why she had been sobbing and crying in hopes that someone out of pity might come to her rescue.
So when Ameer Ali questioned her, she replied:
‘Ah, kind sir, it is my poor son who hangs upon that gallows; help me to get him down and I will bless you for ever.’
Ameer Ali thought that her voice sounded rather eager than sorrowful, and he suspected that she was not telling the truth, so he determined to be very cautious.
‘That will be rather difficult,’ he said, ‘for the gallows is high, and we have no ladder.’
‘Ah, but if you will just stoop down and let me climb upon your shoulders,’ answered the old witch, ‘I think I could reach him.’ And her voice now sounded so cruel that Ameer Ali was sure that she intended some evil. But he only said:
‘Very well, we will try.’ With that he drew his sword, pretending that he needed it to lean upon, and bent so that the old woman could clamber on to his back, which she did very nimbly. Then, suddenly, he felt a noose slipped over his neck, and the old witch sprang from his shoulders on to the gallows, crying:
‘Now, foolish one, I have got you, and will kill you for my supper.’
But Ameer Ali gave a sweep upwards with his sharp sword to cut the rope that she had slipped round his neck, and not only cut the cord but cut also the old woman’s foot as it dangled above him; and with a yell of pain and anger she vanished into the darkness.
Ameer Ali then sat down to collect himself a little, and felt upon the ground by his side an anklet that had evidently fallen off the old witch’s foot. This he put into his pocket, and as the storm had by this time passed over he made his way back to the palace. When he had finished his story, he took the anklet out of his pocket and handed it to the king, who, like everyone else, was amazed at the glory of the jewels which composed it. Indeed, Ameer Ali himself was astonished, for he bad slipped the anklet into his pocket in the dark and had not looked at it since. The king was delighted at its beauty, and having praised and rewarded Ameer Ali, he gave the anklet to his daughter, a proud and spoiled princess.
Now in the women’s apartments in the palace there hung two cages, in one of which was a parrot and in the other a starling, and these two birds could talk as well as human beings. They were both pets of the princess who always fed them herself, and the next day, as she was walking grandly about with her treasure tied round her ankle, she heard the starling say to the parrot:
‘Oh, Toté’ (that was the parrot’s name), ‘how do you think the princess looks in her new jewel ?’
‘Think ?’ snapped the parrot, who was cross because they hadn’t given him his bath that morning, ‘I think she looks like a washerwoman’s daughter, with one shoe on and the other off ! Why doesn’t she wear two of them, instead of going about with one leg adorned and the other bare ?’
When the princess heard this she burst into tears; and sending for her father she declared that he must get her another such an anklet to wear on the other leg, or she would die of shame. So the king sent for Ameer Ali and told him that he must get a second anklet exactly like the first within a month, or he should be hanged, for the princess would certainly die of disappointment.
Poor Ameer Ali was greatly troubled at the king’s command, but he thought to himself that he had, at any rate, a month in which to lay his plans. He left the palace at once, and inquired of everyone where the finest jewels were to be got; but though he sought night and day he never found one to compare with the anklet. At last only a week remained, and he was in sore difficulty, when he remembered the Fairy of the forest, and determined to go without loss of time and seek her. Therefore away he went, and after a day’s travelling he reached the cottage in the forest, and, standing where he had stood when the old woman called to him, he cried:
‘Fairy of the forest ! Fairy of the forest ! Help me ! help me !’
Then there appeared in the doorway the beautiful girl he had seen before, whom in all his wanderings he had never forgotten.
‘What is the matter ?’ she asked, in a voice so soft that he listened like one struck dumb, and she had to repeat the question before he could answer. Then he told her his story, and she went within the cottage and came back with two wands, and a pot of boiling water. The two wands she planted in the ground about six feet apart, and then, turning to him, she said:
‘I am going to lie down between these two wands. You must then draw your sword and cut off my foot, and, as soon as you have done that, you must seize it and hold it over the cauldron, and every drop of blood that falls from it into the water will become a jewel. Next you must change the wands so that the one that stood at my head is at my feet, and the one at my feet stands at my head, and place the severed foot against the wound and it will heal, and I shall become quite well again as before.’
At first Ameer Ali declared that he would sooner be hanged twenty times over than treat her so roughly; but at length she persuaded him to do her bidding. He nearly fainted himself with horror when he found that, after the cruel blow which lopped her foot off, she lay as one lifeless; but he held the severed foot over the cauldron, and, as drops of blood fell from it, and he saw each turn in the water into shining gems, his heart took courage. Very soon there were plenty of jewels in the cauldron, and he quickly changed the wands, placed the severed foot against the wound, and immediately the two parts became one as before. Then the maiden opened her eyes, sprang to her feet, and drawing her veil about her, ran into the hut, and would not come out or speak to him any more. For a long while he waited, but, as she did not appear, he gathered up the precious stones and returned to the palace. He easily got someone to set the jewels, and found that there were enough to make, not only one, but three rare and beautiful anklets, and these he duly presented to the king on the very day that his month of grace was over.
The king embraced him warmly, and made him rich gifts; and the next day the vain princess put two anklets on each foot, and strutted up and down in them admiring herself in the mirrors that lined her room.
‘Oh, Toté,’ asked the starling, ‘how do you think our princess looks now in these fine jewels ?’
‘Ugh !’ growled the parrot, who was really always cross in the mornings, and never recovered his temper until after lunch, ‘she’s got all her beauty at one end of her now; if she had a few of those fine gew-gaws round her neck and wrists she would look better; but now, to my mind, she looks more than ever like the washer-woman’s daughter dressed up.’
Poor princess ! she wept and stormed and raved until she made herself quite ill; and then she declared to her father that unless she had bracelets and necklace to match the anklets she would die.
Again the king sent for Ameer Ali, and ordered, him to get a necklace and bracelets to match those anklets within a month, or be put to a cruel death.
And again Ameer Ali spent nearly the whole month searching for the jewels, but all in vain. At length he made his way to the hut in the forest, and stood and cried:
‘Fairy of the forest ! Fairy of the forest ! Help me ! help me !’
Once more the beautiful maiden appeared at his summons and asked what he wanted, and when he had told her she said he must do exactly as he had done the first time, except that now he must cut off both her hands and her head. Her words turned Ameer Ali pale with horror; but she reminded him that no harm had come to her before, and at last he consented to do as she bade him. From her severed hands and head there fell into the cauldron bracelets and chains of rubies and diamonds, emeralds and pearls that surpassed any that ever were seen. Then the head and hands were joined on to the body, and left neither sign nor scar. Pull of gratitude, Ameer Ali tried to speak to her, but she ran into the house and would not come back, and he was forced to leave her and go away laden with the jewels.
When, on the day appointed, Ameer Ali produced a necklace and bracelets each more beautiful and priceless than the last, the king’s astonishment knew no bounds, and as for his daughter she was nearly mad with joy. The very next morning she put on all her finery, and thought that now, at least, that disagreeable parrot could find no fault with her appearance, and she listened eagerly when she heard the starling say:
‘Oh, Toté, how do you think our princess is looking now ?’
‘Very fine, no doubt,’ grumbled the parrot; ‘but what is the use of dressing up like that for oneself only ? She ought to have a husband — why doesn’t she marry the man who got her all these splendid things ?’
Then the princess sent for her father and told him that she wished to marry Ameer Ali.
‘My dear child,’ said her father, ‘you really are very difficult to please, and want something new every day. It certainly is time you married someone, and if you choose this man, of course he shall marry you.’
So the king sent for Ameer Ali, and told him that within a month he proposed to do him the honour of marrying him to the princess, and making him heir to the throne.
On hearing this speech Ameer Ali bowed low and answered that he had done and would do the king all the service that lay in his power, save only this one thing. The king, who considered his daughter’s hand a prize for any man, flew into a passion, and the princess was more furious still. Ameer Ali was instantly thrown into the most dismal prison that they could find, and ordered to be kept there until the king had time to think in what way he should be put to death.
Meanwhile the king determined that the princess ought in any case to be married without delay, so he sent forth heralds throughout the neighbouring countries, proclaiming that on a certain day any person fitted for a bridegroom and heir to the throne should present himself at the palace.
When the day came, all the court were gathered together, and a great crowd assembled of men, young and old, who thought that they had as good a chance as anyone else to gain both the throne and the princess. As soon as the king was seated, he called upon an usher to summon the first claimant. But, just then, a farmer, who stood in front of the crowd, cried out that he had a petition to offer.
Well, hasten then,’ said the king; ‘I have no time to waste.’
‘Your majesty,’ said the farmer, ‘has now lived and administered justice long in this city, and will know that the tiger who is king of beasts hunts only in the forest, whilst jackals hunt in every place where there is something to be picked up.’
‘What is all this ? what is all this ?’ asked the king. ‘The man must be mad !’
‘No, your majesty,’ answered the farmer; ‘I would only remind your majesty that there are plenty of jackals gathered to-day to try and claim your daughter and kingdom: every city has sent them, and they wait hungry and eager; but do not, O king, mistake or pretend again to mistake the howl of a jackal for the hunting cry of a tiger.’
The king turned first red and then pale.
‘There is,’ continued the farmer, ‘a royal tiger bred in the forest who has the first and only true claim to your throne.’
‘Where ? what do you mean ?’ stammered the king, growing pale as he listened.
‘In prison,’ replied the farmer; ‘if your majesty will clear this court of the jackals I will explain.’
‘Clear the court!’ commanded the king; and, very unwillingly, the visitors left the palace.
‘Now tell me what riddle this is,’ said he.
Then the farmer told the king and his ministers how he had rescued the queen and brought up Ameer Ali; and he fetched the old queen herself, whom he had left outside. At the sight of her the king was filled with shame and self-reproach, and wished he could have lived his life over again, and not have married the mother of the proud princess, who caused him endless trouble until her death.
‘My day is past,’ said he. And he gave up his crown to his son Ameer Ali, who went once more and called to the forest fairy to provide him with a queen to share his throne.
‘There is only one person I will marry,’ said he. And this time the maiden did not run away, but agreed to be his wife. So the two were married without delay, and lived long and reigned happily.
As for the old woman whose pitcher Ameer Ali had broken, she was the forest maiden’s fairy godmother, and when she was no longer needed to look after the girl she gladly returned to fairyland.
The old king has never been heard to contradict his wife any more. If he even looks as if he does not agree with her, she smiles at him and says:
‘Is it the tiger, then ? or the jackal ?’ And be has not another word to say.