Once far from here a king understood the language of all birds and beasts and insects. This knowledge had been given him by a fairy godmother. But it was rather a troublesome present, for if he should happen to reveal his secret, he would be called insane. He managed to keep his secret guarded, grew up to manhood, married a wife and was glad.
This king used to have his food in some nice little place and to sit in the middle of it with very few clothes on, for he did not want to become a strangers to nature.
One day the king was eating his dinner in just such a nice picnic spot. His wife was sitting opposite to wait on him and keep him company. As he ate he dropped some grains of rice on the ground. A little ant seized on one of the grains and bore it off towards his hole. Just outside the king's circle the ant met another ant and the king heard the second one say:
"Oh, dear friend, do give me that grain of rice and get another one for yourself. You see my feet are so dirty that if I were to go on the king's eating place I should defile it. I cannot do that, it would be so very rude."
But the owner of the grain of rice only answered:
"If you want rice, go and get it. No one will notice your dirty feet. I'm not going to carry rice for all our kindred."
Then the king laughed.
The queen asked: "What are you laughing at? If it is me I wish you would say so."
"I cannot tell you, dear, but it is not you," said the king.
The king went on to say there could be many good reasons she did not know about. It made the queen more curious. She must and would know. For days it went on, nag, nag, nag, and the queen gave him no rest till at last he thought that life was not worth living any longer; he might as well tell her the secret and take the consequences.
"I will not lie," he thought. "Lies are evil. Perhaps when my secret is let out I may retire and thereby escape ruining my reputation altogether. But let me think things over, and then I may tell my wife the secret down by the river and take leave of her there too."
He told his wife that if she would ride with him to the river it would make him glad. She agreed, so they rode together to the river.
On the way they came to a fine well beneath the shade of some lofty, wide-spreading trees. The king proposed that they should get off and rest a little, drink some of the cool water and then pass on. The queen agreed. They dismounted and sat down in the shade by the well side to rest.
An old goat and his wife were browsing nearby. As the king and queen sat there, the nanny goat came to the well's brink and peering over saw some lovely green leaves that sprang in tender shoots out of the side of the well.
"Oh!" cried she to her husband, "come quickly and look. Here are some leaves which make my mouth water. Come and get them for me!"
Then the billy goat strolled up and looked over the well to the green leaves. After that he eyed his wife a little crossly.
"You expect me to get you those leaves? How in the world I am to reach them? If I tried to reach those leaves I should fall into the well and be drowned!"
"Oh," cried the nanny goat, "why should you fall in? Do try and get them!"
"I am not going to be so silly," answered the billy goat.
But the nanny goat still wept and entreated.
"Look here," said her husband, "there are plenty of fools in the world, but I am not one of them. This silly king here, because he cannot cure his wife of asking questions, is going to throw his life away. But I know how to cure you of your follies and I'm going to."
And with that he butted the nanny goat so severely that in two minutes she was submissively feeding somewhere else and had made up her mind that the leaves in the well were not worth having.
Then the king, who had understood every word, laughed once more. The queen looked at him suspiciously, but the king got up and walked across to where she sat.
"Are you still determined to find out what I was laughing at the other day?" he asked.
"Quite," answered the queen angrily.
"Because," said the king, tapping his leg with his riding whip, "the cost of that answer must be paid in advance, and it is a large part of your skin."
"What do you mean?" asked the queen nervously.
"Well," answered the king, "I notice that if that goat is displeased with his wife, he just butts her and that seems to settle the question."
"Do you mean to say you would claw or whip me?" cried the queen.
"What do you think?" retorted the king; "but I wish you will go home quietly with me now and ask no more nagging questions when I politely say I am not free to to tell."
The queen meekly went home with him; and it is said that they are both happier and wiser than ever before.
[Punjabi story, Major Campbell, Feroshepore.]