The Gentle Conqueror
Long long ago there lived in the land of the Madras a noble king who ruled his people wisely and well. He had most of the things which make people happy a stout heart, a liberal hand, great wealth and peace within the borders of his realm; but because he had neither son nor daughter his happiness was incomplete.
So the king fasted and prayed and offered unceasing sacrifice to the goddess Savitri, the Bringer of Gifts, beseeching her to send sons and daughters to gladden his royal palace and turn it from a dwelling-place into a home. And because he was brave and good and unselfish the goddess answered his prayers and sent him a daughter.
The happy monarch made a splendid birth-feast for the little princess, who was given the name of the Bringer of Gifts—Savitri.
The child grew in strength and grace and beauty, and when she drew near to womanhood the fame of her loveliness went out through all the land. So pure and perfect did she seem, so full of maiden grace and modesty, that not one of all the noble lords about her father's court dared to ask her as his wife.
One day she came before her father bearing in her arms fresh flowers, which she laid at his feet; and then modestly folding her hands she stood with bowed head before his throne.
"Daughter," he said, "the time is come for you to wed, and seeing that no one comes to ask for you, go forth and search for yourself according to our custom. Choose a prince of noble mind, and if you. love him, I will love him too."
The princess bowed to the ground before the king, her father, and then left his presence. Mounting a gaily-decorated car, she set out upon her errand in the company of some of the king's wisest subjects. They passed through many great forests and came to many woodland towns; and the princess watched earnestly, seeking a noble prince in whose keeping her heart could rest.
One day the king sat in close counsel with his chief minister and adviser, when, all unexpected, Savitri entered the hall, accompanied by the wise men. She bowed before the king, touching the ground with her forehead.
"Tell me, my daughter," said the king, "what honourable prince have you chosen?"
"Upon my journey," said Savitri, "I came to a wood in which lived a blind old king who had been deprived of his inheritance and who was living in this place with his wife and son. My choice is made, and Prince Satyavan, the son of this blind and banished king, shall be my lover and my husband."
"It is an evil choice," said the king's counsellor hastily. "The prince is indeed noble, just, and true, and a lover of horses, graceful in bearing, liberal of hand, reverent to age, and guided by honour. But he is fated to die within a year from this day."
The king started. "Choose again, my daughter," he said, but the princess replied without hesitation or confusion, "I have chosen once, my father, and whether my prince shall live one year or a thousand years, my heart is fixed."
"Yes, her heart is fixed, King," said the counsellor, "she must have her will."
So the king consented, and gave directions for the wedding to be arranged; and when the appointed day had dawned he set out with his daughter to find the blind old king in the place of his exile.
He found the old man keeping simple state in the forest, sustained by the dignity of undeserved misfortune, and proud in his humility. The King of the Madras alighted from his horse and approached the old king as he sat under a canopy of woven grasses. The two monarchs exchanged courteous greetings, and then the exiled king asked his guest the nature of his errand.
The King of the Madras looked towards Prince Satyavan, who stood near his father, and then at his own daughter. "This is my child, Savitri," he said. "Take her to be the wife of thy son."
"How shall we do honour to so great a princess?" asked the blind old king, "for we keep kingly state no longer."
"Thy simple state is royal," answered the other courteously. "We are equals in rank. Let it be."
"It shall be as the princess desires," said the blind old monarch; and in a very short space of time the marriage ceremony was performed, and the happy young prince was rejoicing in his unexpected good fortune.
Before long the King of the Madras went his way; and as soon as he was gone Savitri took off her royal robes, dressed herself in a manner more fitting for her new life, and set to work to be a helpmeet to her husband and a solace to the wife of the blind old king. So the life in the forest flowed peacefully onward; but the words of the wise man, her father's counsellor, were never long absent from the mind of the princess, and when the fateful day drew near on which the prince was to die, Savitri withdrew herself from the rest for prayer and fasting.
In the early morning of that dreadful day she came again to her father-in-law, who begged of her to break her fast.
"I am under a vow," she said, "and I cannot eat this day until the sun has set."
Then the prince, her husband, came up to her with his axe upon his shoulder, ready to go to work in the forest.
"Let me come with you," she cried, "my dearest lord, I cannot leave you to yourself to-day."
"Nay, beloved," he said gently, "you are weak with your fasting, and the way through the forest is rough for tender feet."
"My heart is strong, my lord," she said?" let me go."
"It shall be as you will," said Satyavan, "but first beg leave of my father and mother."
The old people were loth to let her go, but, seeing that her heart was set upon it, the blind king gavje her leave; and the two set out with shining faces, rejoicing in each other's presence, though the heart of Savitri was heavy with foreboding.
The way was rough, but the beauty of the forest scenery drew the eyes of the princess, and for a few moments she forgot her sorrow in the joys of youth and dear companionship. But the grief returned and cast its heavy shadow over the beauty of the morning.
Before long they came to a place where the woodland fruits were plentiful, and while the princess gathered them, Satyavan set to work to cut fuel. But in a few moments he came tottering to his wife and said, "I cannot work, beloved, for a fever is in my veins. Let me rest beside you."
Very tenderly she laid him down upon the ground, and, sitting beside him, placed his head in her lap. Then she gently fanned his face, and, happening to raise her eyes for a moment, she saw standing near her a tall dark dreadful figure clothed in scarlet and holding a cord with a noose in his hand.
Savitri rose to her feet, after gently laying the head of the prince upon the soft grass, and clasped her hands in supplication.
"Who art thou?" she asked.
"Thou art worthy to know, Savitri. I am Yama, the King of the Dead, and I am come to fetch thy loved one to my kingdom,"
Then without pause or pity he touched the form of the prince, who, in a moment, lay still and cold; and, turning swiftly, the dread King made his way towards the south with the soul of Satyavan in his keeping.
But the great love of the princess gave her untold strength and courage, and she followed the King as he passed quickly through the forest. Then Yama turned and sternly, though with some gentleness, bade her go back to the body of her lord.
"Nay, my lord is here," she said, "and where he goes I must follow also. Permit me to go with thee, and as we pass onward let me say a verse to thee."
Then in a low sweet voice the princess repeated a verse in praise of Duty. The heart of Yama was touched by her gentleness. "Ask a boon of me," he said; "ask anything but the soul of Satyavan."
"A boon, OKing," she said gladly; "let the blind old king be blind no longer, and make him strong with the strength of manhood."
"Thy desire is granted," said Yama; "but now turn back, for thou art worn and weary."
"I feel no weariness when I am near my lord," she said, "except, at times, the weariness which is merely a longing for the comfort of his hand; and indeed I know another verse which tells of this."
Then in a low sweet voice the princess repeated a verse in praise of Friendship. A second time the heart of Yama was touched, and he said, "Ask any boon of me except the life of Satyavan."
"Let my husband's father," said the princess, "sit once more upon his throne and rule in righteousness."
"It shall be so," said the dread King of the Dead?" but now return, lest evil befall thee."
"I know yet another verse," she replied. Then in tones still more gentle she recited some lines in praise of Charity. The words fell sweetly upon the ears of Yama, and again he promised the princess any boon but the soul of Satyavan.
"My father hath no son, dear monarch," she said?" grant him the blessing of heirs to his royal throne."
"It shall be so," said Yama; "but now go back, for already thou hast come too far."
"I am near my lord," she said simply, "and while he is beside me no journey is too long, no way too rough. I know yet another verse, great King."
Then she recited some lines in praise of Righteousness, and once more won the promise of any boon but the life of her lord.
"I ask then," she said, "noble sons for myself, strong and virtuous, like my own dear husband," And she spoke as if Satyavan were still strong and well.
"Thou shalt be the mother of valiant princes," said Yama; "but now go back, for the path is too hard for thee."
"I know still one more verse," she said with sweet persistence. Then she said a longer verse in praise of Virtue, and as he listened the stern face of the dread King relaxed.
"Ask any gift of me," he cried at length. "Ask the greatest boon of all."
"Grant me my sweet lord's life," she cried, "without which I am dead already. Give me Satyavan, alive and well."
Then the eyes of the King of the Dead grew tender, for her faithful love had conquered even his stern heart. "See," he said, "thou queen among women, for thy love the soul of Satyavan shall return, led captive by thyself in sweetest slavery; and all the boons which I have granted thee shall still be thine."
Then Yama turned and went quickly to his own place. But Savitri ran yet more quickly through the forest to the place where lay the body of her lord and master. Down she sank upon the earth and laid his head upon her lap, and even as she touched him the warm blood flowed once more within his veins. His white lips moved, his eyes grew bright, and gazed with slowly dawning consciousness upon the face of his beloved wife.
"I have slept long," he murmured gently. "Why did you not rouse me? And where is the gloomy man who gazed at us so steadfastly?"
"Your sleep was long, my lord," she said, "and deep likewise, for he who gazed at us was Yama, King of the Dead. But see, the night falls fast. Let us hasten home. The leaves rustle with the soft footfall of the beasts of prey! Let us go."
"But we shall not see the pathway," said the prince.
"There was a fire in the forest to-day," she said, "and it still burns. I will fetch a burning branch, and we will kindle a fire and spend the night here."
"My strength returns," said Satyavan, "and with your help, beloved, I will venture; for those we love will be uneasy at our absence."
Then he stood up and, laying his arm across the shoulders of the princess, made his way, with pain at first, but soon with gathering strength, through the darkening forest.
Just before dawn they reached the woodland home of the king, blind and old no longer, but strong and vigorous, with his sight restored.
All were filled with wonder, but soon Savitri told her story; and as she finished messengers arrived to say that the father of Satyavan was restored to his kingdom. So in triumph he returned to his home, taking with him as the richest of his treasures the wife of his son Satyavan, whose love had conquered Death.