The Enchanted Horse of Firouz Schah
On the first day of the year, which is called Nevrouz, the king of Persia held a great feast in his palace, to which, according to the custom of the country, he invited every man in the world who had perfected any useful or curious invention. As a matter of course, his halls were crowded with ingenious gentlemen from every country of Asia, each more anxious to exhibit the product of his mind and hand than to partake of the delicate viands with which his tables were loaded. Here were men with improved mouse-traps; men with new kinds of sandals; men who were on the point of discovering perpetual motion; alchemists with bottles of the precious elixir of life; authors, threadbare and penniless, who thought they had written something new; schoolmasters with machines for pouring learning into the brains of their pupils; and crowds of enchanters and charlatans, every one of whom had discovered something wherewith he would finally upset the universe. The king was greatly delighted at his success in bringing together so many inventors and so complete a collection of inventions, and he examined with the greatest care the various machines that were submitted to his inspection. The thing which attracted his attention most was an artificial horse made by an ingenious Hindoo—the like of which had never before been seen in Persia.
"Is he alive?" asked the king, struck by the wonderfully natural appearance of the machine.
"He is more alive than either you or I," answered the Hindoo; "for, while we are constantly dying, and would die outright were we not sustained by the food which we eat, he is always strong and hearty, and needs no food. And he is always ready for service. At my command he will carry me across the broadest seas or over the highest mountains, and that without any fatigue.
"That seems to be impossible," said the king.
"I am ready to prove it to you," was the answer.
"You shall do so. Do you see yonder white mountain, whose top seems to pierce the clouds, and which glistens so brightly in the sunlight? On the farther slope of that mountain there grows a palm-tree, the leaves of which are different from any others in the world. Suppose you mount your horse, and, if he can do what you claim, bring me within an hour one of those palm leaves."
"It shall be as you desire," cried the Hindoo, leaping into the saddle. The horse rose swiftly into the air, and then soared away in the direction of the distant mountain.
In less than a quarter of an hour the Hindoo stood before the king, with the palm leaf in his hand.
"Have I not proved the truth of my words concerning the horse?" he asked.
"Most certainly you have," answered the king; "and I rather think that I should like to own such a horse myself."
"It would, indeed, be very convenient for you," answered the Hindoo. "For whenever you wished to see what was going on in the remotest corner of your kingdom, you would have nothing to do but mount your steed, and he would carry you whithersoever you bade him."
"What is the price of the creature?"
"The price? Ah, your majesty, he is so incomparable a steed that I dare not name the price—it must necessarily be so great."
"But it is not so great that the King of Persia cannot pay it if he choose to do so. Out with it, I command you."
"Will your majesty pardon me beforehand for whatever presumption I may appear to have in naming the price?"
"I pardon you, even if you should ask the half of my kingdom. But remember that I do not promise to pay you what you may name."
"The price, then, O king, is the hand of your daughter, fair Nourmahal," said the Hindoo. "Give her to me as my wife, and you shall have this incomparable horse which will make you the most famous monarch in all Asia."
The king did not know what to say. He was angry at the very thought of having a Hindoo for his son-in-law; and yet he had set his mind on the horse, and he feared that if he refused to buy it some other prince might become its possessor. While he was pondering over the matter and disputing with the Hindoo, his son, Firouz Schah, came in.
"I am ashamed of you, father," cried the prince, "that you should hesitate a moment as to what answer this fellow should have. Only think of his impudence in asking to become a member of our family!" With these words the hot-headed youth gave the Hindoo a blow that sent him reeling against the wall. Then, mounting the horse, the prince twisted the peg which was half concealed in its mane, and the creature carried him swiftly up into the air and was soon sailing away to the southward.
The unfortunate Hindoo was filled with alarm for the safety, no less of the horse than of the foolish Firouz Schah. He threw himself at the feet of the king and prayed that no blame should be imputed to him for any accident that might befall the prince.
"He knows nothing about the machine, not even how to bring it to the earth again," he cried. "If he should lose his life through his own rashness, I beg that I may not be held accountable."
It was some time before the king could fully realize what had happened, for he was naturally rather slow of comprehension. When, however, he was made to understand that there was no way of overtaking the horse or of aiding the prince, he was beside himself with grief and rage. He commanded his attendants to seize the trembling Hindoo and to cast him into prison; and he declared that if his son, Firouz Schah, did not return within twenty days the head of the culprit should be forfeited.
I need not relate how Firouz Schah fared in that first perilous flight of his, nor need I stop to tell of his adventures in India and far-off Bengal, to which the enchanted steed carried him. On the nineteenth day, as his father the king was sitting pensive and sad in his palace, the prince suddenly appeared before him. The king was alarmed at first, thinking that it was a ghost; but when Firouz Schah spoke to him, and assured him that he was alive and well, he greeted him with the greatest show of affection, and begged him to relate the story of his adventures. The young man gave a most romantic account of what had happened to him, and concluded by saying that he had brought with him from the south the most beautiful lady in all the world, the fair princess of Bengal. She had ridden behind him on the enchanted steed and was now at the king's country house, two leagues from the city, waiting until Firouz Schah could obtain permission to lead her home as his bride.
The king was delighted at this prospect of an alliance with the powerful sultan of Bengal, and having again embraced his son he made proclamation that the wedding should occur at once; and preparations were begun for bringing the princess to the palace and giving her a magnificent welcome. As the Hindoo had been the unwitting means of bringing all this happiness and good fortune to Firouz Schah and his father, it was decided that he should be allowed to leave the prison, and, taking the enchanted horse, which was his own property, to depart unharmed from Persia.
"But be sure that you never set foot in our territories again," said the prince; "for I have not yet forgiven you for your impudent proposal to become my brother-in-law."
The Hindoo was glad enough to get his freedom and his horse, but he was angered beyond measure at the insults which the prince had heaped upon him, and he meditated revenge. He mounted the enchanted steed, which seemed to be none the worse for his adventure with Firouz Schah, and flew away. But he had observed the preparations that were being made for the wedding, and he had learned that the princess of Bengal was at the king's country house, waiting for the coming of the prince at the head of a royal procession to conduct her to the palace in the city. He would have his revenge. He accordingly alighted at the king's country house, where he announced himself as a messenger who had been sent by Firouz Schah to carry the princess into the city. He had no difficulty in persuading the young lady to mount behind on the steed which had already borne her safely from the distant country of Bengal. Then they rose high in the air and hovered for a while above the very road along which the prince and his retinue were passing. Imagine, if you can, the rage and despair of Firouz Schah as, glancing upward, he saw his betrothed carried away, he knew not whither, by the revengeful Hindoo. But he was well aware that neither rage nor despair would rescue her from the villain. He therefore returned with all speed into the city, and, having disguised himself as a dervish, set off on a long and well-nigh hopeless pilgrimage in search of some trace of the lost princess.
For weeks and months the faithful Firouz Schah wandered hither and thither, but he heard not a word of the enchanted horse and his riders. He visited every city of Persia; he wandered through the deserts of Bokhara; he traveled eastward into the mountainland of Tibet—eagerly inquiring for news, but everywhere meeting with disappointment. Coming at last into the capital of Kashmir, he heard something which gave him a ray of hope.
"A princess of Bengal, is it?" said a beggar to whom he had given alms, and of whom he had asked the usual question. "No, I have never seen one—nor even an enchanted horse. But our sultan was on the point of marrying a princess of Bengal not long ago. She was wonderfully beautiful, they said. The wedding feast was all ready, and the guests were in the palace, when the princess was suddenly stricken with madness. She was as fierce as any Bengal tiger. It was worth a man's life to go near her. All that could be done, was to shut her up in her room; and there she remains to this day, staring mad, although as beautiful as ever. The sultan has offered a great reward to any physician who will cure her of her malady, but she is so wild that there isn't a physician in Kashmir who dares enter her room."
Firouz did not wait to hear anything more. He hurried away to his lodgings, and having exchanged his dervish costume for the dress of a physician, he presented himself at the sultan's palace. Passing through the courtyard, his heart gave a great leap of joy, for he saw that which made him feel sure he had reached the end of his quest. In a pile of lumber and cast-away furniture he recognized the enchanted horse. To the sultan, who demanded his business, he explained that he was a Persian physician who had given all the years of his life to the study of insanity in its various forms; and he said that, having heard of the madness of the princess of Bengal, he had come to Kashmir in the hope that he might be able to restore her to her senses. The sultan was overjoyed, and yet he warned the pretended physician that no one could enter into the princess's apartment except at the risk of bruised face, broken bones, and even life itself. But Firouz was in no wise daunted by this information.
"I am somewhat of a wizard," said he, "and if I can only allow the princess to catch a glimpse of me before she flies into a fury, I think I can manage the rest."
And so it was done. The door of the princess's apartment was opened very gently. The physician turned his face squarely toward her and pronounced the magic words "Firouz Schah." The maniac became at once as gentle as a lamb, and, instead of tearing out the physician's eyes, greeted him with a most wonderful cordiality. The attendants ran to the sultan declaring that a miracle had been performed, and during their absence the princess hurriedly explained to her lover all that had befallen her since the perfidious Hindoo had carried her away on the enchanted horse. She and her captor had alighted, she said, at a little distance from the city of Kashmir for the purpose of procuring food before continuing their flight into India. There they were discovered by a company of soldiers, who killed the Hindoo and carried her, together with the enchanted horse, into the city. The sultan had no sooner set his eyes upon her than he resolved to make her his wife. Apartments were given to her in the palace, a great wedding-feast was made ready, and—
"I know the rest!" cried Firouz Schah. "And now for the escape!"
A moment later the attendants returned, and with them the sultan, trembling alternately with fear and hope—fear that the princess might scratch his eyes out; hope that the physician had restored her to her senses. And well might he fear, for no sooner did the princess see him than all her fierceness returned, and had not the physician closed the door very quickly there is no knowing what might have happened.
"I find," said he to the sultan, "that the lady's madness was caused by having touched something that was enchanted, perhaps at or about the time that she was brought into Kashmir. If that object can be found, and she can be induced to touch it again, there is no doubt but that she will recover at once. Otherwise, the case appears to me to be a hopeless one."
"Touched something enchanted!" said the sultan. "What could it have been? I cannot think of anything."
Then he called the officers of his household together and made inquiry of them: "Do you know of any enchanted object that could have been in the way of the princess of Bengal on the evening that she was brought into Kashmir?"
None of them knew of any such thing. But by and by one, who had been with the soldiers when they killed the Hindoo, remembered that there was an old horse brought into town—a curious old wooden horse, covered with a horse's hide, which they had thrown among the lumber in the courtyard.
"Perhaps that is it," said the physician. "At any rate, we can try it and see."
The horse was accordingly dragged out into the middle of the city square, where it was carefully examined and secretly put in order by the physician. A circle was then drawn around it upon the ground, and in this circle the physician placed a number of chafing-dishes with a little fire burning in each. The princess, closely veiled, was then led into the charmed circle, and while the sultan and the great men of Kashmir stood around, Firouz Schah lifted her into the saddle. He then threw some chemicals into the chafing-dishes, and immediately so dense a smoke arose that no one could see through it; but a moment afterward the sultan, lifting his eyes, saw the enchanted horse sailing through the sky with Firouz Schah and the princess upon his back.
"Sultan of Kashmir," cried a voice from above, "when next thou wouldst wed a princess, be sure to obtain her consent!"
Firouz Schah and his betrothed returned to Persia, where they lived happily together forever afterward.