The Story of the False Prince
TO feel one is appreciated is always delightful; and so thought Labakan, a journeyman tailor, who worked for a very worthy master in Alexandria.
No one could say that Labakan was unhandy with the needle; on the contrary, he was an excellent worker.
And it would have been equally unjust to have called him idle, for he would often sew hour after hour with such rapidity that his needle and thread simply flew through the stuff.
But there were days when he seemed to be deep in thought, and would sit with vacant eyes, and was so eccentric in manner that his master and fellow-workmen used to say, "Labakan has put on his superior air!"
On Friday, however — the Mohammedan Sunday — when other people after attending Mosque were quietly returning to their houses or their work, Labakan in his best clothes walked slowly and with dignity through the market-place and streets of the city; and when his friends cried, "Peace be with you, Labakan," or, "How are you, friend Labakan?"
he graciously waved his hand, or nodded condescendingly.
And when his master would say jokingly, "You ought to be a prince, Labakan!"
he was delighted, and answered, "Then you have realised it too," or, "I think so myself."
His master pardoned his foolishness because Labakan, besides being a valuable servant, was a very decent fellow.
One day Prince Selim, the Sultan's brother, who was travelling through Alexandria, sent a handsome coat to be altered.
This was handed to Labakan.
When evening came, and both master and men had left business, Labakan remained behind, and looked longingly at the beautifully embroidered silken thing.
He could not resist the desire to try it on; and, lo, it fitted him splendidly.
"Am I not as good a prince as Selim?"
he asked himself.
"Did not the master say I ought to have been born a prince?"
In putting on the coat Labakan seemed to have put on quite a noble air; and he persuaded himself that he was an unknown king's son, and the thought possessed him to go out into the world away from a place where the people were so stupid as not to recognise his true position.
That splendid coat, he argued, was surely the gift of a good fairy, and he took his modest belongings and passed in the gathering twilight through the gates of Alexandria.
But the new Prince soon perceived that his fine coat and dignified demeanour were not well suited for walking; so for a modest sum he bought an old nag, for he was not an experienced rider, and feared he could not properly manage a fiery steed.
One day as he was slowly riding along, a traveller begged to be allowed to bear him company.
The new-corner was a pleasant young man, good-looking and well set up.
He questioned Labakan closely as to where he was going and whence he came, and found that their way lay in the same direction.
The young man said his name was Omar, and that he was the nephew of Elfi Bey, the unfortunate Pasha of Cairo, and he was going to that city to carry out a mission entrusted him by his dying uncle.
Labakan was not so frank; he simply told Omar that he was of high rank and was travelling for pleasure.
On the second day of their journeyings Labakan asked his companion some particulars of his business, and heard as follows:
Elfi Bey, the Pasha of Cairo, had brought Omar up from his earliest childhood; and his parents were unknown to him.
But Elfi Bey had lately been engaged in a war, and after several battles had been mortally wounded and compelled to fly, so he told his foster-child that he was not his nephew, but the son of a mighty ruler of provinces who, in consequence of the baleful predictions of an astrologer, had sent the young Prince away on the understanding that he should return when he was twenty-one.
Elfi Bey had never told him his father's name, only that on the fourth day of the coming month, Ramadan, on which he would come of age, he was to present himself on an appointed place, El-Serujah, four days’ ride eastwards from Alexandria, and show the men he would find there his dagger, saying at the same time, "Here am I whom ye seek!"
If they answered, "Praise be the Prophet, who preserved thee!"
he could safely go with them, and they would conduct him to his father.
Labakan was much surprised at his story.
He looked at Omar with envious eyes, and reflected on the strange freaks of fate which had in this instance brought into intimacy a prince and a journeyman.
All that day he thought of little else, all night could get little rest, and when he awoke and his glance fell on Omar, who was sleeping soundly, he suddenly thought he would try to obtain, by strategy or strength, the position for which fate had evidently intended him.
The dagger, which was to be the sign-manual of the returning Prince, was stuck in Omar's waistband; and very gently Labakan took it, set it in his own belt, got astride the Prince's horse, and before Omar awoke to the consciousness of his misfortune the treacherous tailor was many miles on the way.
It was exactly the first day of Ramadan when Labakan thus robbed the Prince; and he had just four days’ time to reach the appointed spot.
Possibly two days’ hard riding would suffice, so he hastened on, as he feared the real Prince might overtake him.
At the end of the second day Labakan saw the monument.
It stood on a little hill, and he could reach it in less than three hours.
The false Prince was in a more sober state of mind.
During the last two days he had had time to think over the role he was assuming; and his conscience had reproached him more than once; but the thought that he was born to be a prince encouraged him again, and with great glee he determined to follow out his own ideas.
The ground was rough and uneven; and the new Prince encamped beneath some palm-trees to await his fate.
Towards the middle of the next day he saw a long train of horses and camels coming slowly along.
They halted at the foot of the hill, and Labakan saw that many of the Prince's people had come to meet him.
He would have liked to declare himself at once, but he had to wait a little longer to attain the height of his ambition.
The rays of the morning sun awoke the excited tailor early on the auspicious day, which was to raise him from lowly estate to that of the honoured son of a noble father.
In spite of misgivings, he felt that, in person at least, he was any man's equal; and fortified by this reflection he sprang on his horse, urged it to a gallop, and in less than a quarter of an hour was at the foot of the hill.
Here he dismounted, and fastened his horse to a tree; drew out Prince Omar's dagger, mounted the hill, and found six men assembled at the base of the monument.
In their midst was a kingly-looking figure.
A splendid kaftan of cloth of gold, a white burnous, a white turban glittering with jewels, showed him to be a man of position and power.
To him Labakan went, and bowing low said, as he handed him the dagger: "I am he whom ye seek!"
"Praised be Allah, who has preserved you!"
answered the greybeard with tears of joy.
"Embrace thy old father, my dear son Omar!"
The tailor was quite overcome on hearing these affectionate words, and with a curious feeling of joy and contrition threw himself into the arms of the old Prince.
But only for one moment did he enjoy the bliss of his new position.
As he raised himself from that embrace, he saw a rider rapidly approaching.
Labakan recognised his old nag Murva, and seated on his back was the rightful son, Prince Omar.
But the spirit of evil stood Labakan in good stead, and he determined, if necessary, to brazen out his venture.
It could plainly be seen that the rider in the distance was waving a handkerchief.
And when he reached the foot of the hill he ran rather than walked up it.
"Wait," he cried, breathlessly; "wait if you can; and do not be deceived by a shameless adventurer! I am Omar; and no impostor shall dare to assume my name."
Nothing but amazement was to be seen on the countenances of the bystanders; even the old chieftain seemed bewildered as he gazed from one to another.
Labakan, however, said quietly, but impressively: "Gracious lord and dear father, do not be deceived by this young man.
He is, I know it well, a half-witted tailor of Alexandria, named Labakan, and deserves pity rather than punishment."
Boiling with rage, Omar sprang at Labakan, but the bystanders closed in and held him fast, and the old Prince said: "Surely enough, my son, the fellow is irresponsible.
He shall be bound and set on a came!, so that we may get him examined and well cared for."
The Prince's passion was exhausted; and weeping, he exclaimed: "O my lord, my heart tells me you are my father.
I beseech you by the memory of my mother, listen to me!"
"Listen to him," said the chieftain.
"He begins to romance again!"
And taking Labakan by the arm, they descended the hill together, and mounting splendidly caparisoned horses, rode away.
The unhappy Prince's hands were bound, and he was placed on a camel and carefully guarded all the journey by two horsemen.
The old man was Saand, Sultan of Wechabi.
After many married years, to his great joy, a son was born to him But the astrologer whom he consulted at the child's birth, told him that until his twenty-first year danger threatened the boy, so the Sultan sent his much-loved infant son to Elfi Bey, an old and trusted friend, to be educated and cared for until he came of age.
This the old Sultan related to his pretended son, with whose appearance he seemed to be well pleased.
When they had at last reached the principal city, they were received by the residents with cries of joy, for the return of the young Prince had been eagerly awaited.
Through the streets they passed, and beneath arches wreathed with flowers and ribbons.
Splendid draperies hung from the windows of the houses, and the people praised Allah and the Prophet that their Prince was so handsome.
All this rejoiced the heart of the tailor.
But how unhappy was the lot of the real Prince, to whom all this homage belonged I as a prisoner and bound be rode in the procession.
No one troubled about him.
Omar's name resounded on all sides, but he passed unnoticed save that a few people asked who he was and where they were taking him, receiving for answer simply, "Oh, he is a half-witted tailor."
The procession soon reached the Palace, where every splendour was perfected.
In the state apartments, the Sultana, a noble lady, surrounded by courtiers, awaited their arrival.
She had not seen her son since his birth, so would not recognise him in a thousand.
Nearer and nearer came the procession; the horses’ hoofs were heard in the courtyard; and steps were heard in the corridor; the doors were thrown open and through the crowd of humbly-bowing servants, the Sultan, holding Labakan by the hand, hastened to the steps of the throne.
"Here," cried he, "I bring you one for whom your heart has yearned."
But the Sultana had hardly looked at the usurper when she exclaimed:
"That is not my son! That is the impostor whom the Prophet warned me of in a dream!"
And while the Sultan was endeavouring to convince her that she was wrong, the door of the room was hastily opened and Prince Omar rushed in followed by his guards.
He then threw himself all breathless before the throne and cried:
"Here will I die! Let me die, mighty father, for I cannot endure this shame any longer!"
This speech caused the greatest surprise.
The courtiers stared at the unhappy youth, and his guards would have seized and bound him had not the Sultana, who had been silent with amazement, stepped down from the throne.
"Stop," cried she.
"This and no other is my son; though my eyes never beheld him, my heart tells me he is my child."
The guards had unwillingly loosed Omar, but now the Sultan, furious with passion, ordered them to "take the idiot away!"
"It is I, who am to be first obeyed," said he in haughty tones.
"Here we are not influenced by dreams, but by unmistakable signs."
He signed Labakan to come forward.
"This is my son, for when he gave me the dagger, he also gave me my old friend Elfi's word in proof."
"He stole the dagger from me," cried Omar.
"My unhappy lot he has shamelessly caused."
But the Sultan would not listen to the voice of his son, so accustomed was he to consider himself always in the right.
So poor Omar was overpowered and taken from the throne-room.
And then the Sultan led Labakan to his room.
The Sultana was wild with grief over all that had happened, for she was sure than an impostor had gained the heart of the Sultan, and that Omar's was the face she had seen so often in her dreams.
When she became calmer she bethought herself how to convince her husband of his mistake.
It was not easy, for besides possessing the dagger Labakan seemed to know so much about the Prince's life as to give quite a reasonable account of it, and his word was counted worthier than the prisoner's.
She sent for the courtiers who had accompanied El-Serujah to the meeting-place, made them tell her everything, and then took counsel with her most-trusted slave-women.
They carefully considered all that bad been said; and at last Melechsalah, a clever, shrewd old woman, said:
"Have I correctly heard, your Highness, that the half-witted tailor you believe to be your son is named Labakan?"
"They say so," answered the Sultana.
"But what of that?"
"Suppose," said the slave, "that this impostor has taken your son's name and given him his! If this be so, I know of a capital plan to put things right."
The slave held a whispered conversation with her mistress, and then assisted her to dress, and they went to the Sultan.
The Sultana was a clever woman.
She knew argument would not convince her husband, so said she had a favour to ask him.
The Sultan, whose impatience with his wife was now over, granted it at once, and she said:
"I very much want to put these two young men to a test, so as to see which really is the impostor; but it shall neither be riding, nor fighting, nor throwing the spear; I will only put them to a technical proof.
To each of them shall be given a kaftan and pair of trousers to make, and we shall soon see which is tailor, which is Prince."
The Sultan laughed, and said:
"Really, you are a very clever woman.
Above all, I feel curious to see how much cloth my son will waste."
He went himself, however, to Labakan, and begged him to curry favour with his mother by consenting to make a kaftan.
Labakan laughed heartily; this would be an easy task.
Two rooms were set apart, one for the Prince, the other for the tailor.
In them were put the articles necessary for their work.
For each a roll of cloth, a needle, scissors, and thread.
The Sultan was particularly anxious to see what sort of a kaftan his son would make in the time.
And even the Sultana's heart beat faster as she thought of all that depended on the success of her plan.
For two days the young men were occupied.
The third day, when the Sultan and Sultana were sitting together, they sent for the youths.
Labakan stepped proudly forward, and showed his kaftan to the astonished pair.
"See, father," he cried.
"Look, my honoured mother, if this kaftan is not a masterpiece.
I defy the Court tailor to make a better one."
The Sultana smiled, and said to Omar:
"And now show us your handiwork, my son!"
Omar laid the roll of cloth and the scissors at his parent's feet.
"I was taught to bridle a horse, to handle a sword, or to hurl a lance," said he, "but not to do needlework.
That was unworthy of a protege of Elfi Bey, the ruler of Cairo!"
"Oh, you true son of my body!"
cried the Sultana.
"Oh, let me embrace you, for you are my son.
See, my lord and courtiers," said she, turning to the Sultan, "how my plan has succeeded.
Do you not now believe which is Prince and which is tailor?
Nevertheless, this is a valuable kaftan, sire, for your son has made it.
I would like to know to whom he was apprenticed!"
The Sultan seemed deep in thought, mistrusting his wife, and looking at Labakan, who was trying to make his escape.
"This test is not sufficient" said the Sultan.
"I also have an idea; we will wait and see."
So he ordered his swiftest horse to be brought and rode to a far-off forest in which dwelt a wise woman named Adolzaide, who lived in a hollow tree.
When he arrived at the clearing he shouted in a loud voice: "If it be true that your advice guided my father in the hour of need, do not refuse to help me now when I am sore perplexed."
He had hardly spoken the last words when a cedar-tree trunk opened and a lovely fairy appeared.
"I know what brings you here, Sultan Saand; your desire is honourable, so you shall have my help.
Take these two caskets.
Let each of the young men choose one.
I know that the true Omar will make no mistake."
Then the fairy gave him the little caskets beautifully set with gold and pearls, and disappeared from his gaze.
On each lid was an inscription in diamonds.
"Honour and Truth" ran the one, and "Happiness and Inheritance" the other.
Directly the Sultan returned to the Palace he sent for his wife and told her what the fairy had said.
On this test the Sultana had also great confidence.
She felt sure that the one to whom her heart inclined would choose the casket which had the worthiest motto.
Before the Sultan's throne two tables were set; and on these the Sultan placed the caskets, mounted his throne, and signed to the slaves to open the doors of the chamber.
A brilliant train of Pashas and Emirs entered and seated themselves on the crimson divans against the walls.
The King made another sign and Labakan appeared.
With haughty steps he reached the dais and throwing himself before the throne, said: "What is my worthy father's wish?"
The Sultan raised his head and spoke: "My son, there is still a doubt in some people's minds as to who you are.
This must be settled once for all.
In one of these caskets there is the register of your birth.
I know you will choose aright!"
Labakan went to the tables, and pondered long which casket to choose.
At last he said : "Honoured father! What can be better than the happiness of being your son; what nobler than the kingdom of your approval?
I choose the casket with the inscription ‘Happiness and Inheritance.’
Omar was then brought in.
His sad looks, his unhappy mien attracted the attention of all who beheld him.
He threw himself down before the throne and asked what were the Sultan's commands.
He was told to choose one of the caskets.
Thoughtfully he read the inscriptions and then said: "During the last few days I have learnt the uncertainty of happiness; how doubtful the joys of inheritance; but I have also learnt that honour lives only in the hearts of the brave, and truth does not always dwell with success.
And even if I thus lose my throne, I choose ‘Honour and Truth."
Then he laid his hand on the casket he had chosen, but the Sultan bade him wait.
And to Labakan he made a sign to keep his casket.
Then the Sultan called for a beaker of water from the holy river of Zem Zem in Mecca, and washed his hands, turned his face to the east, and prayed thus:
"God of my fathers! Thou who hast preserved my race pure and unsullied, do not permit that one unworthy of the name of Abassiden shall succeed me, but guide and protect my rightful son, who shall soon be known beyond doubt."
The Sultan rose and mounted his throne again, and his signal was impatiently awaited.
The spectators could hardly breathe; the fall of a seed could have been heard, so still and quiet were they all.
Then the Sultan said: "Open the caskets."
And at the slightest pressure the lids flew open.
In Omar's casket was a golden crown and sceptre.
In Labakan's a large needle and a little thread.
The Sultan commanded them to bring him the caskets.
First he took the crown in his hand and admired its design, for he perceived that it expanded to the size of a full crown; then he set it on his real son's head, and kissed him on the forehead, and bade him sit on his right hand.
To Labakan, however, he said: "There is an old proverb, ‘The shoemaker must stick to his last.’
It seems as if you are destined to the needle.
You are far from deserving my consideration; but some one has pleaded for you, and I cannot punish you as you deserve; so I give you your wretched life.
But let me also advise you to go away from my country as quickly as you can!"
Ashamed, humbled, and despised, the poor tailor had nothing to say.
He threw himself before the Prince and his eyes filled with tears.
"Can you forgive me, Prince?"
"‘Be faithful to your friends, generous to your enemies,’ this is the Abassiden motto," answered the Prince, raising Labakan.
"Go in peace."
"Oh, you are indeed my son!"
cried the old father, embracing Omar.
Then the Emirs and Pashas and all their followers stood up and shouted: "Hail, hail, hail to the Prince; the King's son!"
And during these rejoicings Labakan, with his casket under his arm, slipped out of the Palace.
He went to the Sultan's stables and took his old nag, Murva, and rode as quickly as he could through the gates and back to Alexandria.
Like a brief splendid dream his princehood lay behind him, and only the beautiful casket set with diamonds and pearls reminded him that it had really happened.
When he came to the shop kept by his old master he dismounted and went inside.
His master, who did not recognise him, bowed low before him and asked what he desired.
But as he looked more closely, he recognised Labakan, and called his workmen to come and look at him.
They did not at once see who it was, and were all perplexed and puzzled; and the poorest of them all was so bewildered that he hurried in with iron and measure, needle and scissors, and bowed and scraped until he fell exhausted on a heap of old clothes.
The worthy master however, rated him soundly for stealing the kaftan.
Labakan assured him that he had only come to return it; but no one believed him, and they set upon him and thumped and beat him and pushed him outside the door.
So beaten and bruised the unlucky wretch got on his old horse and rode to a wayside inn.
There he lay his tired head down, and thought on the uncertainty of happiness and the vanity of earthly things; and fell asleep, determined to give up his dreams of greatness and to diligently follow his rightful occupation.
His adventures he did not regret.
He disposed of his casket to a jeweller for a large sum of money, bought himself a house, and started in business, and hung a large sign over the door, "Labakan, tailor."
First of all the industrious fellow began to repair his coat, which was much damaged when he was so hustled and bustled, using for this purpose the fairy's needle and thread.
Some one called just as he had begun, and as he sat himself down again to work, a wonderful surprise awaited him.
The needle was sewing as if guided by an unseen hand, and making such stitches as Labakan himself could not compass.
And, better than all, the thread never came to an end, and he said to himself, "Even a modest gift from a fairy can be useful in great work!"
Labakan got many customers, and was soon the most famous tailor far and near.
He cut the garments out, made the first stitch with the magic needle, which flew in and out till the thing was finished, and his business rapidly increased, for he worked so well and so absurdly cheap that the people of Alexandria wondered how he could do without assistants.
But he kept his door locked and said nothing.
So after all the motto of his casket was true.
If in somewhat different guise, Happiness and Inheritance was his lot, for he was a most successful tailor.
And when he heard the universal praises of the young Sultan Omar, who had won the love and pride of his people, and the respect of his enemies, the once-upon-a-time Prince would say to himself; "I am better off as a tailor, for Honour and Truth are difficult things."
So he lived long, contented with his condition, and if the magic needle has not lost its cunning it still is sewing with its endless thread, the gift of the good fairy Adolzaide.