Once far from here there lived a king who 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 as happy as monarchs use to be.
This king customarily had his food in a nice little place on the ground freshly plastered with mud, and he used to sit in the middle of it with very few clothes on adhering to quality of life and not being made strangers to nature.
Well, one day the king was eating his dinner in just such a nice picnic spot and 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, and a little ant that was running about seeking a living, seized on one of the grains and bore it off towards his hole. Just outside the king's circle this 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 boots 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 boots; and you don't suppose that I am going to carry rice for all our kindred?"
Then the king laughed.
The queen asked: "What are you laughing at?"
"Did I laugh?" answered the king.
"Of course you did," retorted the queen; "and if it is me you are laughing at I wish you would say so. What are you laughing at? I want to know why."
"I'm afraid I cannot tell you, dear," said the king.
"You must," answered the queen impatiently. "If you laugh when there's nothing to laugh at you must be ill or mad."
Still the king refused to tell why, and only said there could be plenty of good reasons she knew nothing of, but the queen declared she must and would know. For days it went 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, and that he might as well tell her the secret and take the consequences.
"I will not lie," he thought. "Lies are evil. It might be better be kicked here and there by man and beast, and ridiculed by naughty children, getting restless and miserable. Perhaps when my secret is let out I may retire to some secluded spot for the remainder of my days and thereby escape ruining my reputation altogether. But let me think things over. First go down to the cool river and strollalong it till I find some secure place to stay. I may tell my wife the secret down there and take leave of her also."
He told his wife that if she would ride with him to the river it would make him glad. She agreed, but may have thought he was joking till horses were ordered and they set out.
On the way they came to a fine well beneath the shade of some lofty, wide-spreading trees, and 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; so they dismounted and sat down in the shade by the well side to rest.
It happened that 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 sauntered up and looked over, and after that he eyed his wife a little crossly.
"You expect me to get you those leaves, do you? I suppose you don't consider how in the world I am to reach them? You don't seem to think at all; if you did you would know that 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 will be all the skin on your forehead and back, if not more. This one answer comes at such a price to be payed in advance."
"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 with all my heart I hope that you will go home quietly with me now and ask no more nagging questions when I politely say I am not at liberty 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.]