Not far beyond the city wall, our freshly disguised wanderer was accosted by another man on foot, travelling alone, who asked if he might walk with him. The King was delighted to have a chance to test his new identity, but rather nervous, lest he make a fool of himself through his obvious ignorance of common life. He need not have worried. His fellow traveller, a journeyman carpenter, regaled him with talk of all the important buildings, all the palaces, cathedrals and castles he had worked on over the last three years and was in turn equally delighted to find such an informed listener. This simple old man with his donkey seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the great residences and fortresses, barracks and cloisters of five kingdoms. The carpenter praised him effusively for his great knowledge, which was gratifying for the King, who had not expected such courtesy from the common people. After a while the carpenter asked the King if he could put his chisels and his adze in the donkey’s two panniers, to which the King, of course, agreed.
A little further on, the travellers came alongside a third man, a young stone mason by trade who, like the carpenter, hoped to be engaged for the construction of a church in the next major town. The two craftsmen were amused to find that they had never met before, despite having worked on some of the same sites: “but these fine houses are so grand and vast”, said the mason, “that even people who live in them go for years without seeing each other, so we shouldn’t be surprised.” The King was just beginning to protest that this was surely most unlikely, when he thought better of it, realising that he had no idea who half the people were that worked for him, nor what they actually did. Into the awkward silence the mason opined that the donkey was a “most uncommon fine animal” and seemed “most remarkable fresh” and furthermore was clearly not carrying much. Could he put his two big hammers in the panniers? It would make a big difference to his walking speed. The King readily agreed.
Halfway to the next town, just as they were passing a small coppice of beech trees, the little group was suddenly surprised by a young man with ragged clothes and a fierce, feverish light in his eyes who rose like a spectre out of the tall grass by the wayside. His head was swathed in a rather dirty looking bandage. He bade them not to be afraid of his wild appearance. He had been fighting as a mercenary in a foreign war, trying to earn enough to buy a small farm, until the severity of this wound and the loss of all his weapons and money to looters while unconscious forced him to set his feet homeward, empty-handed. He fell in with them and walked in silence awhile before shooting a keen glance at the two strong young men beside him. He asked them what they did for a living, as they both seemed well-nourished enough. After indicating the donkey, which was by now carrying all of their tools, the journeyman carpenter replied that they were craftsmen seeking work. Life was hard enough, it was true, but they did not go hungry.
“So, whose is the donkey?” asked the young mercenary. The King, not used to being so directly responsible for anything, and suddenly finding it beneath his dignity to claim ownership of such a small, undistinguished and humble animal, replied: “You could say it’s in my care. I was lent it by friends for the purpose of this journey”. This caught the mercenary’s interest. “And what might that purpose be?” The King, who could only think of how his son had talked him into this ridiculous charade, replied: “My son has gone off to study for a year in another country and my wife has taken the opportunity to go and stay with her sister. So, not wanting to be left alone at home, I decided to get out on a walking tour and see the world, something I never had the chance to do when I was younger.” All of this was true enough, as far as it went, so the King did not feel too much like a liar and an imposter.
“Ah, I understand”, said the young mercenary, “it seems that there are five men in this business: one of them – who is absent – owns the donkey that is currently carrying the bedroll and the clothing of a second man – yourself, sir – who has since most generously given away part of same donkey’s carrying capacity to two others – these stalwart craftsmen here – whose interest in the welfare and longevity of the aforementioned animal has thus risen considerably. It occurs to me, that if we were to be attacked by thieves, then the fifth man in the case – myself – would be the only one in present company not obliged to fight in the defence of the donkey. How fortunate, since I am the only one who has nothing (no sturdy staff, no heavy hammer or sharp chisel) that might prove useful in such a scrap. Nonetheless, I would be grateful and honoured if I could at least raise my fists in a good cause. But for that to happen, this donkey must carry something of importance to me
. Please allow a poor traveller to place his modest burden in those capacious baskets.” The King, once more, agreed.
At once the mercenary left the road and returned, scant seconds later, struggling under the weight of two mighty boulders. He carefully placed one giant rock in each pannier. “That one”, he said, “is the dream I had when I left home, a dream which has been turned to stone. The other is the weight of the sorrow I feel when I think of my poor parents, and how I have let them down. Let the donkey do his job, I shall be a livelier companion without their burden.” The King, who found this behaviour rather odd, was nonetheless touched by the apparent sincerity in the young man’s voice. The mason and the journeyman took all this with a shrug of their shoulders. “Folk are strange”, their gesture seemed to say, “but we’ve seen stranger things before”.
The sun was now at its zenith and the King, who had already finished his modest leather water bottle, began to complain of thirst. He was twice their age, he could not possibly be expected to keep up this pace any longer without at least a drink. The young mercenary immediately snatched the leather flask from his hands and ran off into the trees. A short while later he reappeared, the leather skin full to bursting with fresh spring water. Yet even while the King was drinking deep, the mercenary mysteriously gathered another pair of rocks and set them in the donkey’s panniers.
By now the donkey was finding the going tough. The day was hot. The road was long. He was small, even for his breed, and the load was well above what he was used to carrying. He was beginning to slow their progress down, and even though the afternoon sun was throwing longer shadows, the day was still oppressively hot. After a while the donkey was making such slow progress that the King, who had started out so optimistically, began to despair of even reaching the next town before nightfall. “We shall arrive too late”, he complained, “They will have closed the gates. There will be nowhere outside the town with a meal and a bed. We shall have to sleep rough. We shall likely be attacked and eaten by wolves.” This last mental scene of savage beasts feasting on his companions only served to bring on his own appetite more. “I’m dying of hunger,” moaned the King, “Breakfast was years ago. How you young striplings continue so long without food is beyond me. If it wasn’t carrying all our kit, I would eat the donkey.”
Hearing this, the young mercenary once more ran off into the bushes. Minutes later he reappeared a little way ahead of them, swinging a dead rabbit. “The creatures out here are far too trusting”, he called. “I didn’t even need a slingshot”. Putting down the rabbit, he began to gather kindling for a fire”. But once the rabbit was skinned and spitted and roasting, the mercenary again went off to look for two large rocks and placed them in the donkey’s basket. The King meant to ask him what the meaning of this odd behaviour was, but the smell of roast rabbit swept the thought clean away.
After supper the band of travellers made very slow progress in the thickening twilight. The King soon refused to continue, insisting that even if the young folk were for going on; his old eyes were not good enough to see the way ahead anymore. Did they think he was an owl? Did they want him to break his neck? He could not and would not walk a step further. It was reckless in the dark and anyway, he was too tired to care about anything other than his bed. Not wanting to vex the owner of the precious donkey, the young men agreed to call a halt. The town could not be very far now. They would bed-down and continue at first light. They would arrive early, as the gates opened, and steal a march on anyone else seeking employment by being first in line at the hiring post.
The three men unpacked the panniers. First the mercenary removed the rocks, so that the mason and the carpenter could get at their tools. Once the tools were removed, the mercenary unstrapped the panniers, unpacked the King’s bedroll and laid it out on the softest bit of turf he could find. Soon the king was under his blankets, but sleep eluded him. The ground was too hard for his aging bones and he needed a pillow. Moreover, the night might get cold and he feared to catch a chill. Hearing these words the mercenary persuaded the mason and the carpenter to give up their coats, which he then stretched out beneath the King’s bedroll. For a pillow, he took the grimy bandage from his own head, saying he hardly needed it now, and wrapped it in the warm, furry rabbit pelt he had scraped clean before supper.
The sun rose next morning to the sight of the mason sleeping fitfully in one pannier, the carpenter shivering in another, while the mercenary tried to keep warm by snuggling up as close as possible to the donkey. The King, who had slept like a baby, awoke with a royal hunger and immediately professed a need for breakfast.
At once the mercenary slipped away into the underbrush to return only minutes later with a handful of plover’s eggs. These he roasted over a tiny fire of twigs and gave them to the King, who declared he had never in his life eaten anything that tasted this good. The carpenter and the mason looked on sullenly as the King breakfasted and took a draught of water, while the mercenary folded up the bed roll, bundled it, together with the craftsmen’s jackets, into the baskets, dropped in the tools and then proceeded to fill up the remaining space with rocks, making sure that there was enough room for another two, really big ones, which he placed on top.
And so they went on their way through the damp morning mists of what promised to be another scorching hot day. But it was only a mile or two later, and in clear sight now of the town, perched as pretty as a picture on top of a nearby hill, that the donkey gave a great sigh, collapsed to its knees, keeled slowly over sideways and lay lifeless. With a roar the King shouted: “You lout, you barbarian, you brutish ruffian with your damnable rocks, you’ve killed my donkey.”
“No Sire! With respect, it is your Majesty who has killed the donkey. When your Majesty’s tax collectors ruined my father’s farm, the donkey died. When my mother stitched 100 hessian sacks a day to keep us alive, the donkey died. When my brother had to haul coal at the age of eleven, the donkey died. When my sister would disappear in the evenings and come back with food or money or a bottle of wine, each time the donkey died.
“You wonder what the meaning of the stones is. I told you: broken dreams and sorrows. When the King is thirsty, donkey carries his thirst. When the King is hungry, donkey carries his hunger. When the King has to rest, donkey carries his weight. When the King is cold, donkey keeps him warm, even though he shivers through the night. His Majesty slept well and ate a good breakfast this morning. Hallelujah! It merely cost the life of a faithful beast. Everything you do is a weight on his back. You have only to raise your finger and another rock falls on donkey.
“And is donkey even yours that you burden him so? No, you merely borrow him for a time until he has to bear your successor. Despite this obvious truth, you are quite ready to give away his strength and substance to the very first flatterer who gets your ear. You bother us with your cares and suffering. But who hears donkey’s lament? Who knows his sorrows? Who witnesses his suffering? Who will carry his load?”
The King, who had listened well enough to all this, was still dealing with the first sentence:
“So you know who I am!”
“We all know who you are, Sire,” said the carpenter.
“We always have, Sire,” added the mason.
“Then, who the hell are you?”
“We are but poor shadows Sire”, said the mercenary. “We flit across the stage of your life and make a great show out of precious little. Yet when we speak, sweet Truth herself bends an ear to listen. And when we bow, trust me, angels kneel.” So saying, the mercenary crouched down beside the donkey and whispered in one of its oversized ears. At once the animal stood up as if nothing had happened and began to graze the grass verge.
“This is witchcraft”, shouted the King, “this simply cannot be happening. That beast was dead.”
“My hammers are made of painted wood, Sire”, said the mason. “My chisels are too”, added the carpenter. “And most of my rocks”, said the mercenary, “are made of mashed paper. Only the donkey is genuine, though he is a veritable prince among actors.”
“And I”, said the King solemnly, “am a damnable ass among princes. I imagine my son was behind all this, am I right?”
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + +
Well, of course he was right. And so it happened that the father learned a great deal about statecraft in a single, fine spring day, while the son enjoyed but the briefest of visits to their powerful neighbour, though just long enough to capture the heart and colonize the loins of the sweetest, bonniest, most curvaceous little chamber maid as ever plumped up a pillow. The King, God bless him, would consider nothing less than marriage. He was quite adamant that his son should marry a commoner. The world, as he reasoned to anyone who would listen, would surely be a better place for it?
And it was.
© Edwin Drood
, May 2012