ONCE upon a time there was a King.
In his youth he had been a great conqueror, who had known the taste of victory. His wars had been successful, which had enabled him in later years to establish his land in peace and plenty. Honoured and respected throughout his realm, great and small had been taught to bless his name.
Years in great number had passed over his head; now he was old, very old, and bent as though he bore the weight of all those years on his shoulders.
His eyes were tired, his hands trembly, and when he lifted his head it wobbled just a little. He wore a long white beard, and because his bones ached within him, those who served him laid many soft cushions on the throne where he sat.
King Demetrius was also very wise; so wise, indeed, was he that even the wisest men in his country respected his wisdom, although some considered it quite unnecessary for a King to be so learned. For hours he would sit poring over his books. His nose was very long and sometimes got into the way when he turned the pages, for being shortsighted he held his head low. Really and truly he resembled some grey old bird with a long curved beak.
He always wanted books, more books! They were heaped on the table before him, piled upon the chairs, on the floor, even on the window-sill. Sometimes a small bird would hop on to one of them and sing its innocent song, ignoring all the wisdom folded between its leaves. Its song was curiously out of place in that royal chamber of study. The King would look up, push his spectacles back on to his forehead, wag his head, and vaguely wonder if it were spring outside and if the trees were in bloom. Once upon a time, it had also been spring-time in his heart, but that was long ago. . . . Twit . . .twit . . . the little bird would whisk its tail, flutter its wings, and off it would fly, back into the sunshine . . . twit . . . twit . . . and 'twas gone! And the King would resume his studies, his nose buried deeper than ever in the pages of his book.
From this you will very naturally have concluded that Demetrius was all virtue, that the weaknesses of the flesh were not his! and yet, and yet . . .
Well, I'll tell you, Demetrius was not perfect, and his pet sin was pride!
Yes, pride of his possessions, pride of his wisdom, pride of his name, of his ancestors, of his horses, of his gardens, even of the stars which shone at night over his land, for he could not help considering that they were his. I am not quite sure if he believed that the moon was his also, but I think he did!
It often happens that the more a person has a thing, the more he wants it. Some want power, some love, some land, precious stones or decorations, but most want money. . . . King Demetrius being wise, almost insupportably wise, in fact, nevertheless wanted to be wiser still.
I have been told that he wanted to be considered wiser than any man, either living or dead, even wiser than King Solomon, who has been dead for centuries, you know, and who has always, since all times, been considered the wisest amongst kings.
King Demetrius was not very amusing or exhilarating company for the young. In fact, you probably would have called him an old bore. In their heart of hearts his courtiers would no doubt have agreed with you, but this of course was never confessed above a whisper, and then only at late hours of night, when the well-paid satellites were taking off their stiff court clothes, and with them also their good manners. The sort of hour, you know, when one yawns and scratches one's weary limbs.
But in spite of this, Demetrius's reputation had spread far beyond his own frontiers, and learned gentlemen from all over the world would come to debate with him. They were received with much pomp and ceremony, for King Demetrius was a great stickler about form. His court was a very self-respecting court, where simple things were complicated indefinitely. I cannot tell you why, or wherein lay the advantage, but it was perhaps so as to give the manifold courtiers something more to do than to twiddle their thumbs.
But once seated together, discussing dry questions, solving deep problems, or pondering over new forms of philosophy, King Demetrius would become so absorbed in his subject, that etiquette would be forgotten, and he would not even remark if his crown sat straight or crooked on his forehead.
One day it came to pass that an old wiseacre from China, having heard about King Demetrius's wisdom, asked audience with him, so as to discuss certain abstract questions. During their conversation the Chinaman related something to Demetrius which much disturbed the peace of his mind, and which had a fatal influence over his destiny. This is what I am going to tell you about, you will soon hear how tragic it was!
The Chinaman was called Chin-Chin-Chah. His face was yellow and shiny, his pigtail so long that it trailed just an inch on the ground, and the tip of it was always dusty. He wore a very gorgeous robe, all red, embroidered in many colours. The waves of the sea and many sea-monsters and sea-flowers were embroidered round the hem, and on his breast, back, and sleeves were enormous golden dragons, with five claws, which demonstrated his elevated rank.
He walked very stiffly, and had a large pair of spectacles on his nose, which seemed only there for him to try and look over.
If you had been walking behind him, I am sure you would have been seized with an irresistible desire to tread on the little piece of pigtail which trailed on the ground.
But I am running away from my subject; you will be wanting to know what it was that Chin-Chin-Chah told Demetrius which disturbed the peace of his mind.
Well, it was this: Chin-Chin-Chah declared that there was an old hermit somewhere in King Demetrius's own country who possessed the Seed of Knowledge—that is to say, the seed of a plant which was the key to all wisdom.
"Ah!” cried Demetrius, "Ah!" and his mouth opened wide. He took off his spectacles, wiped them, rubbed his watery eyes, and scratched his head inside the circle of his crown, quite regardless whether it lay straight or crooked on his brow.
"Ah!" he repeated, and again, "Ah!"
The Chinaman nodded self-complacently; he was pleased to have stirred up such signs of emotion in this royal old packet of wisdom, who had had the best of several arguments at the beginning of the day; for Demetrius and Chin-Chin-Chah had spent already several hours together.
The King stared at the Chinaman, who was really very ugly. So shiny was his face that it might have been rubbed with castor-oil. The light from the window made a bright white spot on each of his cheeks.
"And you say that this hermit lives in my country? Is, in fact, a subject of mine?"
"It were indeed correct to term him 'subject,' Your Majesty, except for the little complication that Father Pantelimon, according to his principles, recognizes no master except God."
"Tush!" snorted the King. " And what does he do with me?"
"Ignores Your Majesty," answered the Chinaman, bowing his head nearly to the ground.
"I have never been ignored!" exclaimed the King.
"Father Pantelimon has nothing to ask and nothing to lose," said Chin-Chin-Chah.
"I shall send for him to my court," declared the King.
"He will not come," said the Chinaman.
"Who is he to disobey my orders?" demanded the King.
"A saint," was the Chinaman's reply.
"That is not a title!" answered the crowned man.
"It is a passport for Heaven," said the Asiatic with another low bow.
"Pah!" said the King, and his voice was full of contempt. " I prefer a crown to a halo!"
"Perhaps the halo weighs heavier in the scales of God! " insisted the Chinaman in suave tones.
"This is a fruitless discussion," declared the King. "Tell me more about the Seed of Knowledge."
And Chin-Chin-Chah related to the King all he knew about Father Pantelimon and his magic seeds.
As a result, a sleepless night for Demetrius, and next morning deputies sent off in all haste to the lonely mountain pass where the holy hermit was supposed to be living the life of a saint.
All that day, and the next, and the next, King Demetrius could not fix his mind upon his studies. The Chinaman had entirely robbed him of his peace of mind. He had now but one desire: to possess the Seed of Knowledge.
"I am old," he kept murmuring to himself, "old, old, and my sand has all but run down. My eyes are weakening, at times I drop to sleep over my book. All my knowledge is just enough to prove to me how much I do not know. If I could get hold of the Seed of Knowledge, I would have to ponder and search no more. I would know!"
Demetrius rose from his chair and paced his chamber with tottering feet, up and down, up and down, and ever more shaky became his gait.
A small page watching him through the keyhole took pity upon him, for he loved and venerated his old master; so he stole unasked into the chamber, silently like a mouse, and passing his strong young arm under the King's shoulder, upheld his feeble steps.
So absorbed was the old man in his thoughts that he never noticed that he was being helped, but continued pacing up and down, up and down. . . .
And ridiculous as it may sound, in the night the King's thoughts all converged into a trivial little song, which kept ringing in his ears.
This song, as you see, is quite unworthy of a King, and a man of learning, yet it droned with maddening persistence in Demetrius's ears whenever he tried to close his eyes.
On the third day Demetrius's envoys came back with the message that Father Pantelimon, who had no use for Kings or Crowns, Princes or Palaces, preferred to remain in his hut. . . .
Demetrius flew into a rage. Nobody as yet had ever refused him anything, so he was quite at a loss, not knowing how to get out of his rage into something more useful.
Besides his rage did not lead him anywhere. He just blustered and got out of breath.
Finally, seeing no way out of the difficulty, and completely absorbed by the one thought: to possess the Seed of Knowledge, the old King took the tremendous decision to go to the hermit, as the hermit would not come to him.
I have heard that he is not the first who has got out of a difficulty in this way.
* * * * * *
Now you must know it was many a year since the wise old monarch had been out of his palace.
He had become so absorbed in his studies that books sufficed him, and he lived in the worlds they opened before him, though in all fairness be it said, this made him in no wise neglect the affairs of state, although many a time they seemed paltry to him in comparison to the verities he dug out of his wise volumes. But the real world meant little to him any more.
It was spring-time. Nature was clothed in her tenderest green; flowers were in bloom everywhere, and when the King stepped out on to the terrace he was astonished to find the world so beautiful. Birds were singing, the sun lay golden over all things, and a delicious perfume of lilacs sweetened the air.
The King raised his head and sniffed. He also blinked at the sun and stretched out his two trembling hands, as though to warm them in its rays.
He looked rather a poor old thing out there on his marble terrace, draped in a regal cloak which seemed too heavy for him. His face looked waxy, and his beard less lustrous than it had done in the house.
He did not find anything to say, he simply sighed deeply, whether with satisfaction or regret it would have been difficult to say.
A snow-white ass with golden trappings and crimson saddle-cloth was brought for him to mount. In former days he had ridden fiery steeds, but this mild animal was considered now more in keeping with the aches and pains of his old age; neither did the monarch raise any protest, he merely nodded his head as though in approval.
The sunlight somewhat bewildered him, and all the knowledge he had accumulated for so many years, seemed to roll about like a ball in his head.
It was not without difficulty that the old man was hoisted on to the demure beast of burden which was to have the honour of carrying him, and his crown got somewhat displaced during the proceedings. The faithful little page who had already once come to his assistance gave it a skilful tilt, so as to put it straight again, and the King turned and smiled upon him.
The little page was part of the sunshine, of the spring, that was what dimly the King realized, just part of the green leaves and the flowers, and the song of the birds and of the lilacs which perfumed the air—whilst he, in spite of his gorgeous apparel, of his crown, of all his learning, was just an old man, a very old man, whose eyes were so tired that they blinked at the sun.
I do not know if the proud old monarch put all this to himself in so many words, but I know that his bones and his weary eyes and hands felt it.
But, indeed, you would have gasped if you had seen that royal procession moving through the sunshine.
The peasants stood still, cap in hand, mouth open, to watch it pass. Many crossed themselves, and some even knelt down in the dust as the King rode by. Indeed, something very important must be happening for King Demetrius to be riding thus through his country on a snow-white ass. It was so many, many years since his faithful subjects had set eyes upon him. He had become more of a myth than a reality. But he was venerated by all, and the simple of mind were persuaded that it was because they had such a wise and prudent monarch that their land was so fertile, so prosperous, and that peace sheltered their homes, and perhaps they were not so much mistaken after all. . . .
In a long, flaming line, many-coloured as a rainbow, did the royal cortège wind through the budding plain, up towards the mountains where the celebrated recluse lived.
A strange medley of followers accompanied the King—some, indeed, might have been called superfluous, but then, you see, this was a rare occasion for taking a little holiday at another's expense—and court life, after all, is not amusing every day!
There were courtiers and soldiers of all ranks, two learned physicians with their apothecary and medicine-mixer, pill-turner and bandage-roller, etc., etc. . . .
There was the Bishop and three lesser Church dignitaries, and several little boys of more or less ecclesiastical aspect; there was the astrologer, necromancer, and an old gipsy woman who could tell the future with a shell.
Of course the head-cook was there, with several less important cooks about him, like so many white-headed mushrooms, some, so I have been told, very closely related to the "chef," for King Demetrius was not the only dynasty sheltered behind the palace walls!
One could, without exaggeration, declare that there was also the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker; there was certainly the bootmaker and the tailor, and the first duster of the royal bed-chamber, and the royal garden inspector, and the master of the horse, and many another who had a title of some kind, which had often nothing at all to do with his duties, except the pay—but anyhow, they sounded well, and that is something after all.
Add to all these a crowd of beggars, a whole group of wandering gipsy minstrels and many calm, black-eyed, dignified peasants, and you will easily see what an endless procession it was.
The King's journey lasted three days, for he could go but slowly, and in spite of the gently-tripping gait of his white ass, which I forgot to tell you was called Belizar, the King's bones groaned at the length of the road.
At sunset, with many precautions he was helped off his saddle to a couch which had been prepared for him for the night by those sent on before.
With an important air the chief physician would come to feel his pulse, whilst with much fuss the astrologer would prepare his telescopes in case His Majesty should want any information from the stars. The old gipsy woman would hover near by with her shell, while the duster of the royal bed-chamber would keep smoothing out non-apparent creases in the King's covers, so as to justify his presence amongst the many superfluous beings who swelled the King's train.
The King dearly longed to be left in peace, but royal people have more patience than one imagines, and though they may inwardly wish their tormentors at Jericho, at all hours will a smile be found on their lips.
Of course the head-cook was quite the most important personage after the general in command and the master of the ceremonies. Everybody being hungry, he was well given to understand how much appreciated his high position was, and wonderful dishes were turned out one after another, all the little nephew and grandchildren cooklings running about hither and thither in the dusk, like so many little ghosts.
The King being old, ate little, though of course all these rich and expensive dishes were officially cooked for him.
He would sit all alone whilst his manifold followers were laughing and jesting and drinking at a respectful distance. He would watch the stars come out one by one, and the gipsy minstrels would steal near to where he sat to accompany his thoughts with many a tune that he had cared for in his youth.
His crown made him very lonely, but to this he was accustomed, as the stars in the sky are accustomed to their solitude, and he neither sighed nor complained about it, but only groaned sometimes, because his old bones ached, for all his wisdom and all his majesty did not prevent him feeling the weariness of his years.
* * * * * *
On the third day towards evening, after a steep climb up a very stony path, King Demetrius and his retinue reached the desolate spot where Father Pantelimon housed in lonely contemplation of the vanities of this world.
With laudable tact His Majesty deigned to express the desire of approaching the holy man unaccompanied, except by the little page who was leading his ass.
When the last corner of the rocky pass had been turned, King Demetrius found himself face to face with an old man who strangely resembled the King himself. So alike, in fact, were the two that both Demetrius and the little page at his side gasped out of sheer astonishment. The one was draped in purple, the other was garbed in rags, otherwise they might have been brothers: the same long, flowing beard, the same beak-like nose—the same stooping shoulders as though age pressed wearily upon them, and beneath the overhanging brows the same keen, yet tired eyes.
The recluse sat in front of a tiny hovel built on the very edge of a precipice, whence he could contemplate a vast world of solitude. Upon a stone did he sit, and heaped up around him were large, much-worn volumes, much like those the King was always fingering, but none of them were open, the old man seemed to have done with study, and to be now taking his rest.
He offered no greeting to the man who wore a crown, he only stared at him with unblinking scrutiny, and the King, accustomed to be received with every outward manifestation of humility, felt ill at ease, and quite at a loss what to say.
It was the old recluse who spoke first.
"A greeting to thee, O brother—if thou art thirsty, yonder bubbles a spring of icy water God has placed as a blessing in this solitude."
"I am not thirsty," answered the King, "but I am weary, having ridden three long days to reach this place."
"The roads of God are open to all," said the hermit.
"This one was steep," sighed the King.
"Thou art old, brother," said Pantelimon; "at thy age it were better to sit still with God's thoughts than to go gallivanting over the face of the earth."
Though somewhat annoyed, the King thought it wiser to ignore this last remark, and replied rather stiffly, "I sent messengers inviting thee to my court, but thou didst not heed my request; therefore, greatly desiring to be in communication with thee, I faced the fatigues of a three days' journey, little in keeping with the number of my years."
"I too am old," was the holy man's reply; "the vanities of this wicked world mean nothing to me. God is near me on this height, and when my day will be over it will be His hand which will close my eyes. But if thou has desire to hold converse with me, descend from thy ass; the sun is setting behind thee, thou art a blotch in its centre, a shadow without a face; besides, it wearies me to lift my head."
The King felt slightly offended by this address, so little in keeping with the exaggerated courtesy he was accustomed to, but he understood the futility of protest, so with the aid of the faithful little page, and with many a groan, he managed to descend from Belizar, not without, however, catching his foot in the unnecessarily voluminous folds of his purple mantle.
Belizar felt no emotions; he twitched his long ears and slowly whisked his tail, although there were no flies—Belizar was a philosophic beast.
Pantelimon pointed to a stone close by the stone on which he sat, and the King took his place upon it, although it had no cushion to soften its hardness. Indeed, it was harder by far than his royal throne.
On near inspection Demetrius realized, somewhat to his discomfort, that the holy man had but vague ideas about cleanliness. In fact he was inconceivably grimy; soap and water were certainly unknown luxuries, and the King's aristocratic nose was more than a little offended by the atmosphere that emanated from him.
His Majesty felt especially ill at ease when his eyes rested upon the saintly father's beard and hair. He could not help wondering what housed therein, and this somewhat obscured his usually clear mind.
"Do thy crown and purple afford thee comfort?" enquired the hermit, for he too was carefully studying his neighbour.
The King felt at a loss what to answer, in fact this unceremonious faster in the wilderness disconcerted him not a little.
"I have worn them for many a year," he explained at last.
"So have I my cassock," declared Pantelimon; "in fact I have never taken it off for over forty years."
Instinctively Demetrius drew his cloak a little closer about him. He had not meant his own words quite so literally. Belizar brayed suddenly, he also seemed somewhat aghast.
"I have come on a special quest," said the King rather hurriedly, afraid of being drawn out of his depths. " I received a short while ago the visit of a very learned Asiatic, who told me that thou wert possessor of the Seed of Knowledge."
"And of many other seeds besides," nodded the hermit, without any show of emotion.
"So it is true!" cried the King.
"If it was my friend Chin-Chin-Chah who was thy informer," said the hermit, "thou canst be sure that it is true, for a holier, more God-fearing man, Christian or heathen, have I never met."
"He made a deep impression upon me," confessed the King.
"So it is to enquire about the Seed of Knowledge that thou hast journeyed all this way?" asked the desert-dweller, and a curious light lit in his eye.
"Indeed, I am profoundly interested," confessed the King. "Hast thou ever planted it! does it flower? is it through its roots or through its blossom that wisdom comes to thee from it?"
"I have not yet planted it," said Pantelimon.
"Hast thou no more need of knowledge?" asked the King, and his voice was quite hoarse with emotion.
"I have recognized the vanity of the things of this world," declared Pantelimon.
"Even of knowledge?" gasped the King.
"Even of knowledge," admitted the recluse.
"Therefore thou hast no need of the seed!" faltered His Majesty.
Pantelimon did not answer—and the King, watching him, felt that it would not be easy to get from this strange being the thing for which he had come. . . .
* * * * * *
The little page, only witness of the scene, related afterwards that his royal master had had rather a bad time of it with the unceremonious old fellow of the hills. But I shall let the little page tell his tale in his own words.
"I saw that His Majesty was very eager about something. He remained most courteous, although I noticed that his royal blood was up, and that he with difficulty kept his temper. Besides I was well aware that the hard stone he was seated on incommodated His Majesty.
"Once he allowed me to lay the crimson saddle-cloth beneath him, but he immediately waved me away afterwards, for he was heatedly discussing some point.
"The grimy old fellow was not polite at all, and treated the great King as though he had been a nondescript pilgrim come to do penance at some shrine. Oh! I can tell you that my fingers twitched!
"Once, after a very animated argument, when the King actually seemed to be pleading with the hermit, the latter got up and went to fetch something out of the awful little hovel behind him.
"Wanting to see all I could, I peeped in when he was not watching, and all I can say is, that Belizar would have refused to be stabled in such a place, and oh, the smell!" Here the page pinched his small nose with two fingers, and drew down the corners of his mouth.
"The hermit reappeared with a small cotton bag in his hand. It was of a faded blue colour, with yellow designs over it! The King was all trembling with eagerness, but the nasty old hermit seemed to be tantalizing His Majesty with it, till I felt hot all over, and again my fingers actually twitched.
"At last the King lost his temper, and I was really glad that he did, because I could stand no more, and wondered how he could! He got up from his seat and stood towering over the monk, who had a nasty ironical smile on his face, which was so terribly like my master's, except that it was dirty.
"One moment the King even tried to catch hold of the bag, and I heard him cry, 'But if thou dost not mean to use it, why not sell it to me! I will give thee anything thou wishest for it, sacks and sacks of gold. I can also give thee a title or a piece of land or a fine castle, I can build a great church and give it thy name!'
"But old Pantelimon only shook his head, and pointing to the setting sun he said, 'Each morning anew I have the glory of dawn to rejoice upon; why should I, therefore, need things made by human hands?" . . .
"Then my master sat down, hiding his face in both his hands, as though he were weeping, but of course he was not weeping, only thinking. . . .
"After awhile he got up, and said something which sounded very bitter, but which I did not well understand. The old recluse got up also, and there was a nasty sly expression on his face, like someone who is chuckling over the discomfiture of a neighbour; old, shabby, destitute as he was, he had had the better of a King, and he seemed to rejoice over it, in spite of all his holiness.
"But just as His Majesty had signed to me to put the crimson cloth back on to Belizar's saddle, thereby indicating his desire to depart, the hermit thrust his hand into the blue bag, and drew out a seed something the shape of a bean, but bright scarlet in colour.
"I saw His Majesty's face light up as with a great hope, and eagerly he stretched out his hand.
"'There,' exclaimed the hermit, 'to prove to thee that I need neither wealth nor honours, that I despise the pomps and vanities of this world, that gold and fine words cannot buy me, nor wrath of kings make me quail, I shall give thee the treasure thou camest to seek, give it to thee for nothing at all; the gift of a beggar to a King!' and the rude old fellow laughed such an ugly, toothless laugh I could have strangled him with my two hands, but my master actually bent down and kissed, yes, kissed, the grimy old hermit's hand. Pah! it nearly made me sick!"
Thus spoke the little page.
* * * * * *
King Demetrius was now the happy possessor of the Seed of Knowledge! His journey had not been in vain, he was richer by a small scarlet bean, so insignificant in appearance, so weighty in meaning.
No doubt the way it had been given him had been far from ceremonious—a good thing, indeed, that the little page alone had been witness, for each time the monarch remembered with what disregard the hermit had treated him, the hot blood of shame mounted anew to his temples. The dirty old "saint" had certainly been rude, and quite between you and me, the King was well aware that the tattered recluse had had the better of him. But there between his fingers he was clasping the Seed of Knowledge, that was the most important thing, and made up for the humiliation he had encountered.
All the way back Demetrius contemplated with satisfaction the fat richness of his country, rejoiced over its beauty, over its prosperous, peaceful aspect. As he descended from the hills to the plain he marvelled over the green cornfields rolling away into the distance, a never-ending ocean of abundance, a copious promise soon to be fulfilled.
The villages he passed through looked one and all the picture of content. Snug and tidy, they were alive with children whose cheeks were ruddy as autumn apples, who laughed and romped and shouted as though the entire world were a garden planted for their joy. At the sight of them the King would raise three fingers in blessing, and the women would rush out of their cottages to cover him with flowers, whilst all the church bells rang lustily, filling the spring air with a sound of really royal welcome.
Gently swayed by Belizar's tripping advance, Demetrius felt at peace with the world, felt full of benevolence, full of sympathy with his loyal people. Fatherly pride pervaded his old heart, he had the agreeable illusion that his smile might be benign enough to make the corn ripen, and to ward off misfortune from the homes of the lowly. All these agreeable sensations mixed up together made the King forget that there had been one with the title of "saint" who had made small case of his crown and his dignity.
But all the same the old man was tired when he reached his palace, and it was not without a sigh of relief that he sank back once more amongst the extra-soft cushions of his study.
That evening, having at last divested himself of his cumbersome purple robes, to don a warm black velvet dressing-gown, the old King with trembling fingers planted the precious seed.
Having laid aside his crown, he had slipped his feet into wide slippers, and put his huge spectacles on his nose, which all went to deprive him of his royal aspect, but the little page, whom he had called to his assistance, loved him best of all in this garb—he might have been just a kindly old grandfather with no stiff etiquette to hem him in and make everybody uncomfortable.
Very close together did the golden and the silvery head bend over the absorbing task. The King had chosen his most valuable Persian faience bowl, as the only vessel worthy of receiving the precious seed. And what a bowl it was! Blue shading off into green, lustrous and mellow, as though emeralds and turquoises had been melted into its glaze, and when the delicate operation had been performed, His Majesty laid the now doubly precious bowl into the eager hands of the little page to be set down beside the royal bed.
Only then, like a child who has hidden a treasure under its pillow, did the King slip between his sheets and allow the little page to blow out his candle, but not before having caressed once more the shiny sides of his treasure. After that, the little page kissed his royal master's hand and slipped out into the night. . . .
* * * * * *
Thoroughly tired by his journey, the King slept soundly that night, but at about six o'clock next morning he was suddenly awakened by a loud sound, somewhat resembling the report of a gun.
With a start the bewildered monarch sat up in bed, his hair standing out like silver wires on all sides of his head, to find himself entangled in a strange medley of white roots, like so many thin snakes crawling all over his bed. The precious blue bowl lay in a thousand pieces on the floor! whilst an evil-looking plant, almost as big as a bush, rose straight and menacing out of the dark mould, which for some unexplained reason still retained the form of the once unique bowl.
Aghast the King stared about him with the horrid sensation of being caught in the meshes of some uncanny dream.
He passed his trembling hand over his dishevelled head, over the silken bed-cover, over his crumpled sheets, touched with a queer feeling of repulsion the sleek white roots—no! he was not sleeping, he was wide awake . . . wide awake!
Then frantically he rang his bell.
* * * * * *
The King's attendants had an anxious time extricating His Majesty from the clutches of the innumerable white roots, and each one of their movements was accompanied by royal oh's! and ah's! for, although Demetrius abhorred the feeling of the clammy things that had twisted themselves about him, he was above all desperately afraid that some damage might be done to the precious plant.
He, all the same, heaved a sigh of relief when he had at last been freed from the clutches of the uncanny growth which uncomfortably resembled the arms of a polypus.
The King gave orders that the unruly shrub should be planted beneath his bedroom window in his own enclosed garden.
Wrapped in his black-velvet dressing-gown, his grey locks tossed about by the early breeze, he himself superintended the operation, and when at last the many roots were well buried in the ground, he stamped down the mould above them with his own royal slippers, which he kept losing during the proceedings, for they were very old and loose.
Afterwards he stood by, nodding approvingly as the little page watered the surrounding ground with a golden can marked with the King's own initials. But when he looked at the plant itself, he had the uncomfortable sensation that it was mocking him as the hermit had done, and yet of course the plant had no face or mouth, or eyes, or voice with which to mock.
"Whence and how will knowledge come to me from it?" pondered the King, and I am sure you have been asking yourself the same question. How?
* * * * * *
The King's next awakening was also of a dramatic kind.
Again about six in the morning he was torn out of his troubled slumbers by the sound of smashing glass. To his amazement he saw a great branch like an enormous arm come suddenly through his window, then another and another! till the light was quite obscured, and a rustling sound as of wind amongst leaves filled the chamber.
One branch actually stretched right across the apartment, till it reached the King's bed. The end part of it divided up into small twigs like so many grabbing fingers.
This time the King's hair stood straight up on end, and a great fear clutched at his throat, so that he could not raise his voice to scream.
At last His Majesty mustered up enough strength to raise a hand and ring the bell. . . .
When the anxious attendants rushed into their royal master's chamber, they found him lying on his bed in a swoon, and the whole room was filled with swaying, moving branches, which seemed to be shaking with laughter.
As, aghast, they stared at this incredible sight, they saw the wall beneath the window suddenly sway and fall in with a crash. . . .
You will hardly believe what I have now to relate, for, indeed, it is both tragic and inconceivable.
The plant which the first night had grown into a bush, smashing the precious blue bowl, the next night had grown into a tree beneath the King's window, smashing the glass panes with its thrusting branches, then demolishing the walls of the royal bed-chamber till it lay open to the four winds!
From that hour onwards, disaster followed upon disaster, and things happened in such rapid succession that they can hardly be related as quickly as they took place.
The terrible tree sprung from the Seed of Knowledge grew and grew, one could actually see it grow! and such gigantic roots did it throw out in all directions, that they sapped the foundations of the palace, bursting asunder the walls, the terraces, heaving up the marble pavements, and with them tall-growing trees, running over the lawns of the park, further and further like monstrous reptiles crawling all over the place.
The King saw his palace crash down about his ears, barely did he escape with his life. The ten plagues of Egypt could hardly have sown more panic, first through the court, then all over the country, for the roots' terrific growth did not confine itself to the royal enclosures, but spread all over the peaceful, fertile land like the pest.
Fields were torn up, forests uprooted, churches thrown down, houses cracked and shaken at their bases, everywhere, unchecked like fantastic pythons, did the abominable roots spread.
Where King Demetrius's palace had once throned, stood now a gigantic tree of which the shade was dark as night, and the roots of which had devastated the country, destroying hundreds of years of labour and toil.
In fact the whole of King Demetrius's fertile plains were now but a vast wilderness of brown-grey roots, like prodigious serpents feasting upon all that had formerly been rich, fruitful, and teeming with life.
In terror the peasants had fled from their tumbling villages into the mountains, appalled by this new sort of earthquake which was destroying their fields and their homes. Of course all the little children had fled with them, so the whole country was now still and sad.
* * * * * *
Upon the ruins of his palace sat King Demetrius, and beside him the faithful little page. No one else was near; perhaps, like the peasants, everybody belonging to the court had fled. The King did not think of enquiring, disaster had come upon him so quickly that it had entirely confused his brain.
He only desired one thing: to escape from the shadow of the awful Tree of Knowledge, back out into the sunshine—but walk as he would, the branches still seemed to pursue him, shutting away from him all light.
In a dazed sort of way he kept murmuring:
"If at least some special knowledge had come to me! But I have received such a shock I have even forgotten everything I knew, and what new knowledge have I acquired? Only how frail are the things I considered eternal! How all my power, riches, and glory can disappear in a night!
"But is that knowledge?" and the poor lonely old man shook his head, whilst hot tears rolled one by one over his beaked nose into his beard.
His black-velvet dressing-gown was quite dusty, and had a big tear in its sleeve. In the general destruction of all his possessions his crown had disappeared, and also all his precious books.
The little page watched him with round eyes, overflowing with awed sympathy. He did not know what to say; besides he had been horribly frightened when the palace came crashing down. He really did not know how he had escaped, he had simply run for his life. The whole world had seemed falling to pieces.
"It's a nasty tree," he kept repeating, "a nasty, nasty tree; let's get away from its shade," and he would take hold of the distracted old monarch's hand, and lead him carefully in and out of all the fallen stones, but still they could not escape from the shade of the fearful tree, which seemed a whole forest in itself.
"I have no longer a palace," said the King disconsolately, sinking down upon a stone, "no books, no crown, not anything at all. . . ." He passed his trembling hands over his spare grey locks. "And I've lost one of my slippers," he added lamely, and folded his hands in his lap.
The little page crept up quite close to him and, like a kitten, rubbed his fair curls against the torn sleeve of the King's dressing-gown.
Then an idea came to Demetrius.
"Fetch me Belizar," he suddenly said to his companion, "I want to ride back to Pantelimon, I want to ask him something, yes, I want to talk once more to Pantelimon before I die."
"You are not going to die!" protested the little page.
"Why should I live?" asked the King, and with a vague gesture he indicated the ruins all around. "Little boy with the fair curls, why should I live?"
And really the little page could find no good reason why he should, except that he, the little page, loved him—but somehow the child was too shy to give this reason, not feeling sure whether the King would think it a good one.
"Fetch me Belizar," repeated the old man, and the little page got up to obey.
But Belizar was not to be found anywhere; it was even difficult to recognize where the royal stables had been.
Finally the boy came upon an old grey donkey who was feasting very deliberately on some violet-headed thistles, which had already, like tramps, begun to invade the King's once private garden.
The grey donkey was dusty, mangy, depressed-looking, anything but a kingly mount. His Majesty looked a little disgusted; "Beggars cannot be choosers," he laughed, but his laugh was quite without mirth, it was cracked and shaky, and did not sound at all amused.
The little page detached the crumpled satin cloak from his shoulders and, spreading it over the meagre creature's back, helped his master to mount. Then, because there were no reins, he cut a switch and drove the lowly grey donkey along before him with the King on its back.
And it was in this wise that Demetrius came for a second time to Pantelimon, whom some people called a "Saint."
* * * * * *
Pantelimon lifted his head and blinked a little, for the sun was setting just before his eyes.
"Where is thy purple mantle, and where thy crown of gold? " he asked, and the King made answer:
"Did the Seed of Knowledge grow to thy satisfaction?" was the second question the hermit put.
"It sent forth so mighty a growth that it destroyed all I possessed, even the thoughts in my head."
"At the beginning of all time," spoke the hermit, "God forbade man to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, for otherwise he would die. It is not well to tempt God, nor is it wise to want to fathom those things which He has hidden away from man."
"My desire was to know all things," confessed the King.
"And God has laid thy head low in the dust," pursued the man of the wilderness.
"It is as thou sayest," admitted the King, "my head has been laid low in the dust."
"The things of this world fall to ruin and pass away," said the hermit, "lay not up treasures, therefore, upon earth."
"Mine are all gone," sighed the King.
Then there was silence, and the two old men stared into each other's eyes—more than ever striking was their resemblance to each other.
"Hast thou another seed," asked the King at length, "with which I can undo the harm which I have done?"
"There are many seeds in my cotton bag," admitted the hermit. "Thou art nearer my heart to-day, brother, so it may be that before thou departest I shall give thee a seed which shall lead thee towards that light which is Truth."
"Where shall I plant it?" asked the King quite humbly like a child.
"Near the seashore," said the hermit, "at the hour when the sun rises, and the child which is with thee shall water it with its tears."
"Is it well that a child should weep?" queried the King.
"The tears of the innocent wash the sins of the world away," spoke the saintly man of the hills, and the King, feeling strangely overcome, he knew not by what emotion, sank on his knees in the dust, whilst the hermit put into the palm of his hand a seed which was white as snow.
"Yonder by that steep path thou canst descend towards the sea; if thou travellest all night, at dawn thou canst be there."
"I shall go," said the King.
"And my blessing goes with thee," spoke the hermit, and rising for the first time from his seat, the dirty, unkempt old recluse solemnly raised his hand.
* * * * * *
All night long the old King wandered. The little page walked behind the grey donkey, urging it forwards with his switch.
Once or twice the child stumbled and fell amongst the stones—for he was terribly weary and sleepy, only his strange love for the old monarch kept him on his feet.
At dawn the seashore was reached. The sun was rising in its glory, flooding earth, sky, and water with red-gold light.
Here the King dismounted, and with hands that trembled sadly, he buried the white seed in the ground.
"I am tired," he murmured, "tired, tired, but Pantelimon said rightly God's dawn is glorious, glorious beyond words. I shall lay me down to sleep. Watch a while beside me, small companion, and to-morrow morning, when my seed shall sprout, it may be that I shall learn a new truth," and bending his head the crownless King kissed the little page on the brow.
After that he sank to the ground and slept.
* * * * * *
For a long while the boy watched by the man who was sleeping; he was very tired, very hungry, and the place being very lonely, he was also afraid, but because his King had desired it he kept awake and watched.
Once, bending down over the place where the King had planted the seed, he saw how the earth was splitting, and how a small, pale plant was growing up. . . .
"How happy he will be!" thought the child, and that hope springing up inside him made him feel less afraid.
But the hours dragged out long, long, too long for a child.
As the sun was setting the boy saw that the plant was spreading.
"Oh, he will be so glad!" he exclaimed. "I shall wake him up!"
Bending over his old master the faithful little page whispered something into his ear. The King did not move. Then the child gently shook the sleeping man.
"The seed is growing," he cried, "the seed is growing; wake up, wake up and see!"
But the old King did not open his eyes to look at the seed he had planted, for on another shore—far distant—God had opened his weary eyes, that had searched so much after wisdom, to a truth even diviner than that which Father Pantelimon had divined in his mountain-pass.
* * * * * *
It has been said that the second seed sown by King Demetrius undid all the damage the first seed had done—that the country became once more flourishing and prosperous, but that no one ever found out what had become of the venerable old monarch, and that his splendid palace was never built up again, because there where the mighty and fearful tree had stood, an enormous and gruesome lake had formed itself. In that lake's shimmering surface strange pictures could be seen—but of this another time.
One thing is certain: when the faithful little page realized that his beloved master was dead and not sleeping, he threw himself down on the ground beside him and wept—wept bitterly.
All his tears ran together on the dry ground, forming a tiny silvery little stream—and this warm little stream it was which watered the seed Demetrius had planted, the seed he was never destined to see grow, but in which he had placed all his hope.