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The Banished King by Frank R. Stockton

 

There was once a kingdom in which every thing seemed to go wrong. Everybody knew this, and everybody talked about it, especially the King. The bad state of affairs troubled him more than it did any one else, but he could think of no way to make them better.

“I cannot bear to see things going on so badly,” he said to the Queen and his chief councillors. “I wish I knew how other kingdoms were governed.”

One of his councillors offered to go to some other countries, and see how they were governed, and come back and tell him all about it, but this did not suit his majesty.

“You would simply return,” he said, “and give me your ideas about things. I want my own ideas.”

The Queen then suggested that he should take a vacation, and visit other kingdoms, and see for himself how things were managed in them.

This did not suit the king. “A vacation would not answer,” he said. “I should not be gone a week before something would happen here which would make it necessary for me to come back.”

The Queen then suggested that he be banished for a certain time, say a year. In that case he could not come back, and would be at full liberty to visit foreign kingdoms, and find out how they were governed.

This plan pleased the King. “If it were made impossible for me to come back,” he said, “of course I could not do it. The scheme is a good one. Let me be banished.” And he gave orders that his council should pass a law banishing him for one year.

Preparations were immediately begun to carry out this plan, and in day or two the King bade farewell to the Queen, and left his kingdom, a banished man. He went away on foot, entirely unattended. But, as he did not wish to cut off all communication between himself and his kingdom, he made an arrangement which he thought a very good one. At easy shouting distance behind him walked one of the officers of the court, and at shouting distance behind him walked another, and so on at distances of about a hundred yards from each other. In this way there would always be a line of men extending from the King to his palace. Whenever the King had walked a hundred yards the line moved on after him, and another officer was put in the gap between the last man and the palace door. Thus, as the King walked on, his line of followers lengthened, and was never broken. Whenever he had any message to send to the Queen, or any other person in the palace, he shouted it to the officer next him, who shouted it to the one next to him, and it was so passed on until it reached the palace. If he needed food, clothes, or any other necessary thing, the order for it was shouted along the line, and the article was passed to him from man to man, each one carrying it forward to his neighbor, and then retiring to his proper place.

In this way the King walked on day by day until he had passed entirely out of his own kingdom. At night he stopped at some convenient house on the road, and if any of his followers did not find himself near a house or cottage when the King shouted back the order to halt, he laid himself down to sleep wherever he might be. By this time the increasing line of followers had used up all the officers of the court, and it became necessary to draw upon some of the under government officers in order to keep the line perfect.

The King had not gone very far outside the limits of his dominions when he met a Sphinx. He had often heard of these creatures, although he had never seen one before. But when he saw the winged body of a lion with a woman's head, he knew instantly what it was. He knew, also, that the chief business of a Sphinx was that of asking people questions, and then getting them into trouble if the right answers were not given. He therefore determined that he would not be caught by any such tricks as these, and that he would be on his guard if the Sphinx spoke to him. The creature was lying down when the King first saw it, but when he approached nearer it rose to its feet. There was nothing savage about its look, and the King was not at all afraid.

“Where are you going?” said the Sphinx to him, in a pleasant voice.

“Give it up,” replied the King.

“What do you mean by that?” said the other, with an air of surprise.

“I give that up, too,” said the King.

The Sphinx then looked at him quite astonished.

“I don't mind telling you,” said the King, “of my own free will, and not in answer to any questions, that I do not know where I am going. I am a King, as you may have noticed, and I have been banished from my kingdom for a year. I am now going to look into the government of other countries in order that I may find out what it is that is wrong in my own kingdom. Every thing goes badly, and there is something very faulty at the bottom of it all. What this is I want to discover.”

“I am much interested in puzzles and matters of that kind,” said the Sphinx, “and if you like I will go with you and help to find out what is wrong in your kingdom.”

“All right,” said the King. “I shall be glad of your company.”

“What is the meaning of this long line of people following you at regular distances?” asked the Sphinx.

“Give it up,” said the King.

The Sphinx laughed.

“I don't mind telling you,” said the King, “of my own free will, and not in answer to any question, that these men form a line of communication between me and my kingdom, where matters, I fear, must be going on worse than ever, in my absence.”

The two now travelled on together until they came to a high hill, from which they could see, not very far away, a large city.

“That city,” said the Sphinx, “is the capital of an extensive country. It is governed by a king of mingled sentiments. Suppose we go there. I think you will find a government that is rather peculiar.”

The King consented, and they walked down the hill toward the city.

“How did the King get his sentiments mingled?” asked the King.

“I really don't know how it began,” said the Sphinx, “but the King, when a young man, had so many sentiments of different kinds, and he mingled them up so much, that no one could ever tell exactly what he thought on any particular subject. Of course, his people gradually got into the same frame of mind, and you never can know in this kingdom exactly what people think or what they are going to do. You will find all sorts of people here: giants, dwarfs, fairies, gnomes, and personages of that kind, who have been drawn here by the mingled sentiments of the people. I, myself, came into these parts because the people every now and then take a great fancy to puzzles and riddles.”

On entering the city, the King was cordially welcomed by his brother sovereign, to whom he told his story; and he was lodged in a room in the palace. Such of his followers as came within the limits of the city were entertained by the persons near to whose houses they found themselves when the line halted.

Every day the Sphinx went with him to see the sights of this strange city. They took long walks through the streets, and sometimes into the surrounding country—always going one way and returning another, the Sphinx being very careful never to bring the King back by the same road or street by which they went. In this way the King's line of followers, which, of course, lengthened out every time he took a walk, came to be arranged in long loops through many parts of the city and suburbs.

Many of the things the King saw showed plainly the mingled sentiments of the people. For instance, he would one day visit a great smith's shop, where heavy masses of iron were being forged, the whole place resounding with tremendous blows from heavy hammers, and the clank and din of iron on the anvils; while the next day he would find the place transformed into a studio, where the former blacksmith was painting dainty little pictures on the delicate surface of egg-shells. The king of the country, in his treatment of his visitor, showed his peculiar nature very plainly. Sometimes he would receive him with enthusiastic delight, while at others he would upbraid him with having left his dominions to go wandering around the earth in this senseless way. One day his host invited him to attend a royal dinner, but, when he went to the grand dining-hall, pleased with anticipations of a splendid feast, he found that the sentiments of his majesty had become mingled, and that he had determined, instead of having a dinner, to conduct the funeral services of one of his servants who had died the day before. All the guests were obliged by politeness to remain during the ceremonies, which our King, not having been acquainted with the deceased servant, had not found at all interesting.

“Now,” said the King to the Sphinx, “I am in favor of moving on. I am tired of this place, where every sentiment is so mingled with others that you can never tell what anybody really thinks or feels. I don't believe any one in this country was ever truly glad or sorry. They mix one sentiment so quickly with another that they never can discover the actual ingredients of any of their impulses.”

“When this King first began to mingle his sentiments,” said the Sphinx, “it was because he always desired to think and feel exactly right. He did not wish his feelings to run too much one way or the other.”

“And so he is never either right or wrong,” said the King. “I don't like that, at all. I want to be one thing or the other.”

“I have wasted a good deal of time at this place,” remarked the King, as they walked on, “and I have seen and heard nothing which I wish to teach my people. But I must find out some way to prevent every thing going wrong in my kingdom. I have tried plan after plan, and sometimes two or three together, and have kept this up year after year, and yet nothing seems to do my kingdom any good.”

“Have you heard how things are going on there now?” asked the Sphinx.

“Give it up,” said the King. “But I don't mind saying of my own accord, and not as answer to any question, that I have sent a good many communications to my Queen, but have never received any from her. So I do not know how things are going on in my kingdom.”

They then travelled on, the long line of followers coming after, keeping their relative positions a hundred yards apart, and passing over all the ground the King had traversed in his circuitous walks about the city. Thus the line crept along like an enormous snake in straight lines, loops, and coils; and every time the King walked a hundred yards a fresh man from his capital city was obliged to take his place at the tail of the procession.

“By the way,” said the Sphinx, after they had walked an hour or more, “if you want to see a kingdom where there really is something to learn, you ought to go to the country of the Gaumers, which we are now approaching.”

“All right,” said the King. “Let us go there.”

In the course of the afternoon they reached the edge of a high bluff. “On the level ground, beneath this precipice,” said the Sphinx, “is the country of the dwarfs called Gaumers. You can sit on the edge of the bluff and look down upon it.”

The King and the Sphinx then sat down, and looked out from the edge over the country of the little people. The officer of the court who had formed the head of the line wished very much to see what they were looking at, but, when the line halted, he was not near enough.

“You will notice,” said the Sphinx, “that the little houses and huts are gathered together in clusters. Each one of these clusters is under a separate king.”

“Why don't they all live under one ruler?” asked the King. “That is the proper way.”

“They do not think so,” said the Sphinx. “In each of these clusters live the Gaumers who are best suited to each other; and, if any Gaumer finds he cannot get along in one cluster, he goes to another. The kings are chosen from among the very best of them, and each one is always very anxious to please his subjects. He knows that every thing that he, and his queen, and his children eat, or drink, or wear, or have must be given to him by his subjects, and if it were not for them he could not be their ruler. And so he does every thing that he can to make them happy and contented, for he knows if he does not please them and govern them well, they will gradually drop off from him and go to other clusters, and he will be left without any people or any kingdom.”

“That is a very queer way of ruling,” said the King. “I think the people ought to try to please their sovereign.”

“He is only one, and they are a great many,” said the Sphinx. “Consequently they are much more important. No subject is ever allowed to look down upon a king, simply because he helps to feed and clothe him, and send his children to school. If any one does a thing of this kind, he is banished until he learns better.”

“All that may be very well for Gaumers,” said the King, “but I can learn nothing from a government like that, where every thing seems to be working in an opposite direction from what everybody knows is right and proper. A king anxious to deserve the good opinion of his subjects! What nonsense! It ought to be just the other way. The ideas of this people are as dwarfish as their bodies.”

The King now arose and took up the line of march, turning away from the country of the Gaumers. But he had not gone more than two or three hundred yards before he received a message from the Queen. It came to him very rapidly, every man in the line seeming anxious to shout it to the man ahead of him as quickly as possible. The message was to the effect that he must either stop where he was or come home: his constantly lengthening line of communication had used up all the chief officers of the government, all the clerks in the departments, and all the officials of every grade, excepting the few who were actually needed to carry on the government, and if any more men went into the line it would be necessary to call upon the laborers and other persons who could not be spared.

“I think,” said the Sphinx, “that you have made your line long enough.”

“And I think,” said the King. “that you made it a great deal longer than it need to have been, by taking me about in such winding ways.”

“It may be so,” said the Sphinx, with its mystic smile.

“Well, I am not going to stop here,” said the King, “and so I might as well go back as soon as I can.” And he shouted to the head man of the line to pass on the order that his edict of banishment be revoked.

In a very short time the news came that the edict was revoked. The King then commanded that the procession return home, tail-end foremost. The march was at once begun, each man, as he reached the city, going immediately to his home and family.

The King and the greater part of the line had a long and weary journey, as they followed each other through the country and over the devious ways in which the Sphinx had led them in the City of Mingled Sentiments. The King was obliged to pursue all these complicated turnings, or be separated from his officers, and so break up his communication with his palace. The Sphinx accompanied him.

When at last, he reached his palace, his line of former followers having apparently melted entirely away, he hurried up-stairs to the Queen, leaving the Sphinx in the court-yard.

The King found, when he had time to look into the affairs of his dominions, that every thing was in the most admirable condition. The Queen had retained a few of the best officials to carry on the government, and had ordered the rest to fall, one by one, into the line of communication. The King set himself to work to think about the matter. It was not long before he came to the conclusion that the main thing which had been wrong in his kingdom was himself. He was so greatly impressed with this idea that he went down to the court-yard to speak to the Sphinx about it.

“I dare say you are right,” said the Sphinx, “and I don't wonder that what you learned when you were away, and what you have seen since you came back, have made you feel certain that you were the cause of every thing going wrong in this kingdom. And now, what do you intend to do about your government?”

“Give it up,” promptly replied the King.

“That is exactly what I should advise,” said the Sphinx.

The King did give up his kingdom. He was convinced that being a King was exactly the thing he was not suited for, and that he would get on much better in some other business or profession. He determined to be a traveller and explorer, and to go abroad into other countries to find out things that might be useful to his own nation. His Queen had shown that she could govern the country most excellently, and it was not at all necessary for him to stay at home. She had ordered all the men who had made up his line to follow the King's example and to go into some good business; in order that not being bothered with so many officers, she would be able to get along quite easily.

The King was very successful in his new pursuit, and although he did not this time have a line of followers connecting him with the palace, he frequently sent home messages which were of use and value to his nation.

“I may as well retire,” said the Sphinx to itself. “As the King has found his vocation and every thing is going all right it is not necessary I should remain where I may be looked upon as a questionable personage.”

 
 
 

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