Painting by Yuri Khmeletsky
There lived a king who had an only son, on whom he doted. No one, not even his oldest tutor, was permitted to utter a word of correction to the prince whenever he did anything wrong, and so he grew up completely spoiled. He had many faults, but the worst features of his character were that he was proud, arrogant and cruel. Naturally, too, he was selfish and disobedient. When he was called to his lessons, he refused, saying, “I am a prince. Before many years I shall be your king. I have no need to learn what common people must know. Enough for me that I shall occupy the throne and shall rule. My will alone shall prevail. Says not the law of the land, ‘The king can do no wrong’?”
Handsome and haughty, even as a youth, he made the king’s subjects fear him by his imperious manner. His appearance in the streets was the signal for everyone to run into his house, bar the doors, and peer nervously through the casements. He was a reckless rider, and woe betide the unfortunate persons who happened to be in his way. Sparing neither man, woman, nor child, he callously rode over them, or lashed out vindictively with the long whip he always carried, laughing when anyone screamed with pain.
So outrageous did his public conduct become that the people determined to suffer in silence no longer. They denounced the prince in public, they petitioned the king himself to restrain his son, and his majesty could not disregard the complaints. At first he was merely annoyed, then he was indignant, but when he saw that the people were thoroughly aroused and threatened revolt, he deemed it wise to inquire into the charges against his son.
A commission of three judges was appointed to investigate. They made fullest inquiry and finally laid a document before the king summarizing what they did not hesitate to declare the “infamous actions of His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince.”
The king’s sense of justice and righteousness at once overcame his foolish pride.
“My people stand justified in their attitude which at first I thought only disrespectful to my royal person,” he said. “I owe them an apology and recompense. I shall atone. And my son shall atone, too. He shall not escape punishment.”
He summoned his son to appear before him, and the prince entered the royal justice chamber with the air of a braggart, smiling contemptuously at the learned judges who were seated to right and left of his majesty, and defiantly cracking his whip.
“Knowest thou why thou hast been bidden to stand before the judges of the land?” asked the king. “I know not and I care not,” was the haughty answer. “The foolish chatter of the mob interests me not.”
The king frowned. He had not seen the prince behave in this fashion before. In the presence of his father, he had always been respectful. “Thou hast disgraced thy honored name and thy mother’s sacred memory, foolish prince,” exclaimed the monarch angrily. “Thou hast humiliated thyself and me before the people.”
Still the prince tried to laugh off the matter as a joke, but he quickly discovered that the king was in no mood for trifling. Standing grave and erect, his majesty pronounced sentence in a loud and firm voice.
“Know all men,” he said, while all the judges, counselors, officers of state and representatives of the people stood awed to silence, “that it having been proved on indisputable evidence that the prince, my son, hath grievously transgressed against the righteous laws of this land and against the people, my subjects, on whom he hath heaped insult, I have taken counsel with my advisers, the ministers of state, and it is my royal will and pleasure to pronounce sentence. Wherefore, I declare that my son, the prince, shall be cast forth into the world, penniless, and shall not return until he shall have learned how to Count Five. And be it further known that none may minister unto his wants should he crave assistance by declaring he is my son, the prince.”
The prince stood astounded. What did the mysterious sentence mean? None could tell him. The only answer to his inquiries was a shrug of the shoulders, for nobody would speak to him.
In the dead of night, with only the stars gazing down on the strange scene, the prince, clad in the cast-off garments of a common laborer, with his golden curls cut off and not a solitary coin in his pocket, was conducted outside the palace grounds and left alone in the road.
He was too much dazed to weep. He told himself this was some horrible dream from which he would waken in the morning, to find himself in his own beautiful room, lying on his gilded bed under the richly embroidered silken coverlet.
When dawn broke, however, he found himself hungry, tired, and his body painfully stiff, under a hedge. He knew now it was no dream but a reality. He was alone and friendless, with no means of earning his food. He understood then what hardships the poor were compelled to undergo, and he began to realize how he had made them suffer, and how, in turn, he was now to pay a heavy price for his brutal treatment of the people.
All that day he wandered aimlessly, until, foot-sore and exhausted, he sank down at the door of a wayside cottage and begged for food and shelter. These were given to him, and next day he was set to work in the fields. But his hands were not used to labor, and he was sent adrift, his fellow workers jeering at him. With a heavy heart, and his pride humbled, he set forth again to learn the mystery of how to Count Five.
Long days and endless nights, through the heat of the summer, through the snows of winter, the autumnal rains and cold blasts of early spring, he wandered.
A whole year passed away, and he had learned nothing. In truth, he had almost forgotten why he was aimlessly drifting from place to place, farther and farther from his home.
Hunger and thirst were more often than not his daily portion, and the cold earth by night was frequently his couch. Time seemed to drag along without meaning, and oft-times for a week he heard not the sound of a human voice.
He was a beggar, generally accepting gratefully what was given to him, sometimes with harsh words, often with kindly expressions. When he could, he worked, doing anything for small coins, for a rabbi, who had taken compassion on him, had said, “Do any honest work, however repugnant it may at first seem, rather than say haughtily, ‘I am the son of a rich father.'”
For a moment he wondered whether the rabbi had guessed his secret, but the learned man said to him he was but repeating a maxim from the Talmud.
Exactly a year from the date of his sentence, as well as he could keep count, the prince found himself in a strange land on the outskirts of a great city. There he fell in with a beggar who hailed him as a brother.
“Come with me,” said the beggar. “I know the lore of our fraternity as few do. I know where to obtain the best food and shelter for naught. Here, in this city, a beautiful and noble princess has established a place where all wayfarers may rest and refresh. None are turned away. I will take you thither.”
The beggar was as good as his word, and the prince enjoyed the best meal and the most comfortable shelter since he had been an outcast. Overcome with emotion at the thoughts which were conjured up, he retired into a corner and wept. Suddenly he heard a voice of entrancing sweetness say, “Why do you weep?”
He looked up and beheld the most beautiful woman his eyes had ever seen. Instinctively, he rose and bowed low, but made no answer. “The princess speaks. It is your duty to answer,” said another voice, that of an attendant.
A princess! Of course, none but a princess could be so fair. And what a sympathetic voice she possessed. As a prince, he remembered, he had spoken harshly as a rule, and had never visited any of the charitable institutions.
“You must have a history,” said the princess, kindly. “Tell it to me. If it is to be kept a secret, you may place confidence in me. I shall not betray you.”
The prince was on the point of telling her everything but he hesitated and said:
“Alas! I am an unhappy, wandering beggar, as you see, O most gracious princess. But pity me not. I am not worthy of your kind thoughts. A year ago I dwelt in a—a beautiful house. I was the only son of a—rich merchant, and my father lavished all his love and wealth on me. But I was wicked. I was unkind to people, and I was cast forth and ordered not to return until I had learned to Count Five. I have not yet learned. I am doomed to a wretched life. That is the whole of my history.” “Strange,” murmured the princess. “I will help thee if I can.”
Next day she came again to the shelter, and with her was the rabbi who had given the prince good counsel. The rabbi made no sign that he had seen the stranger before. “This sage of the Jews is a wise man and will teach thee,” said the princess, and, at her bidding, the prince repeated what he had said the previous night. “It is a simple lesson,” said the rabbi, “so absurdly simple, unfortunately, that proud people overlook it. Tell me, my son,” he added. “Hast thou experienced hunger?”
“That I have,” returned the prince, sadly.
“Then canst thou count One. Dost thou know what it is to feel cold?”
“Two canst thou count. Tell me, further, dost thou know what kindness of heart is?”
“That have I received from the poorest and also from the gracious princess.”
“Thou hast proceeded far in thy lesson,” said the rabbi. “Thou canst now count Three. Hast thou ever felt gratitude?”
“Indeed I have, often during this past year, and now most particularly.”
“Four is now the toll of thy count,” said the rabbi. “Tell me, my son, hast thou learned the greatest lesson of all? Dost thou feel humble in spirit?”
With tears in his eyes, the prince answered, “I do, most sincerely.”
“Then hast thou truly learned to Count Five. Return to thy father. He must be a wise and just man to impose on thee this lesson. He will assuredly forgive thee. Go, with my blessing,” and the rabbi raised his hands above the young man’s head and uttered a benediction.
“Take also my good wishes,” said the princess, and she offered him her hand to kiss.
“Gracious princess,” he said, “it is not meet that a beggar in rags should speak what is in his heart. But I shall return, and if thou deemest me worthy, perchance thou wilt grant a request that I shall make.” “Perchance,” replied the princess, with a laugh.
The prince made haste to return to his father’s palace and related all his adventures. The old man listened quietly, then he clasped his son in his arms, forgave him, and proudly proclaimed him prince before all the people again. He was a changed man, and nevermore guilty of a cruel action.
Before many months had passed, he returned to the city where he had seen the princess, with a long retinue of attendants, all bearing presents. “Gracious princess,” he said, when he had been granted an audience. “I said I would return.” “Indeed! I know thee not.”
The prince told her of their former meeting and she seemed highly pleased.
“Now,” he said, “put the crown on thy work which restored to me the manhood I had foolishly cast away by my conduct. I would make thee my bride, and with thee ever my guide and counselor, I shall be the most faithful of kings, and thou a queen of goodness and beauty and wisdom such as the world has not yet seen.”
The princess did not give her answer immediately, but in due course she did; and once again, the prince returned home, this time happier than ever. Sitting by his side in the chariot of state, was the princess, radiant in smiles, for the people welcomed her heartily, strewing flowers in her path. And ever afterward there was happiness throughout the land.