The Rebellious Kingdom
Leaving the royal city and choosing a lower road, the handsome prince quickly entered the deep passes which wound through the great mountains surrounding his homeland. Onward, seemingly ever downward, crossing deep, swirling rivers, hot deserts and dark forests, he made his slow but determined way. Then suddenly – though the sun still shone brightly – it seemed that the way grew darker. Wearily journeying on, he spied men of evil visage gliding stealthily through the thorn bushes and watching him – this stranger who had dared to enter their forbidden country. Instantly the prince understood the validity of the rumours: this far away kingdom had indeed risen in rebellion against his father – the Great King – and was even now preparing a revolt to secede from his rulership.
Although warning after warning had been sent from the royal palace, each one had been ignored. So the king’s son, being a youth of great wealth and of a peaceable and kind disposition, had resolved to journey to the kingdom with messages of peace and good will.
Continuing on his journey, he felt that he had gone deeper than the countries of living men and passed into the regions of the infernal, so fearful and degraded were the rude villages through which he was passing. When at last the goodly prince entered the city of the ruling chief, his brave heart hesitated in wonder and almost fear, for truly these wicked ones were a people of the very lowest culture, of superstitious and darkened minds whose evil faces revealed the blackest of hearts. Of them he inquired the way to the dwelling of the chief.
Approaching the chief, the prince introduced himself, then explained carefully the reason for his visit. Scarcely appearing any better than his subjects, the chief welcomed the prince most cooly, that is, until the latter presented beautiful and costly gifts which the ruler grabbed with alacrity but with little gratitude. Because of the gifts, the prince was given permission to dwell among these people for a time.
In the days that followed, the prince patiently instructed the villagers in the ways of cleanliness, peace and prosperity, encouraging them to submit willingly to the demands of the Great King, and not to continue with their plans for insurrection. Unfortunately, word soon reached the chief that his people were greatly admiring the good-hearted prince because of his wise teachings and many kindnesses. In violent anger he began to plot the intruder’s death, finally arriving at the conclusion that in the excitement of the restless activity of a brilliant festival the prince’s death could easily be enacted. But first his wicked heart conceived a plan to take from the prince any remaining gifts. On the feast days – the chief cunningly explained to him – it was the custom of his people to exchange gifts. “Surely the prince would desire to honor his excellency with a royal remembrance, would he not?”
Unfortunately, the chief had not realized that the prince had brought no other gifts than those already given. But, after some thought, the visiting prince wrote a few words on a slip of paper, pricked his finger, then signed the note in his own blood. Handing it to the chief, he remarked that this was the greatest gift in his power to give.
Hastily and greedily the chief read: “THE BEARER, OR BEARERS, PRESENTING THIS NOTE TO THE KING WILL RECEIVE WHATSOEVER THEY REQUIRE.” In horror and lack of understanding, and deeply dreading even the thought of a confrontation with the monarch whose rulership he deeply hated and resented, the chief – whose eyes had been blinded by hatred and jealousy – completely underestimated the value of the note. Probably he would be killed as he neared the palace grounds. Why, then, should he go? This all must surely be a scurvy trick, he thought.
Feeling cheated and mocked, in his frustration he hastily crumpled the note and cast it under the table, making awkward attempts at being grateful. Without fail he must begin immediately to set in motion his plan for the riddance of this hated prince. But even as they were shifting each man to his assigned task, a strange thing happened. Almost as though having received a silent warning, the goodly prince suddenly disappeared. Escaping from the vile kingdom, he vowed that if he ever returned it would be to utterly destroy all its evil inhabitants.
When the chief discovered his intended victim’s escape, he was even more angry. Terrible were his ravings and denunciations as he blamed everyone but himself for the failure of his plan. Meanwhile the little crumpled note – now forgotten – was swept away into the streets and disappeared into the abundance of the city’s trash.
Early the next morning three old and ugly beggar women came searching for bits of food and rags among the newly dumped trash, seeking for anything to help prolong their already miserable existence. How they scratched, shoved and searched – these pitiful examples of humanity! Miserable and wretched, they had banded together in a pitiful friendship of mutual pain and misery. Friendless, lonely, embittered by life’s tragedies, perverted in mind, disillusioned and vengeful, they were nothing but loathsome lepers. Two were haggard and disfigured old widows, but the eldest of the trio was the worst. Without even the pitiful rags of widowhood to hide her fallen soul, she disclosed by her very bearing her impossible-to-keep secret; she had been a woman of the streets. It was difficult to look upon her without nausea, so far had the dread disease progressed. Surely she was nought but a repulsive old hag – a miserable piece of wreckage vomited up by life’s seas and now lying helpless and putrifying on the sands of time. For her, death would be a merciful release – and the tomb a shroud of decency in which to hide her shame.
As the three were searching, fighting and snarling over bits of food, the eldest discovered the crumpled note. Clutching the paper with claw-like fingers, it was she – the vilest of them all – who discovered the crumpled note then excitedly shared its message with her wretched cronies. Suddenly her voice dropped, and she hesitated as though remembering something. It had been late evening when she had seen the prince walking alone through the dirty lanes near the burial grounds where the lepers always slept. The villagers always avoided this path, but the goodly prince had traversed it. And he had stopped and looked at HER! His eyes contemplated her strangely. Could it have been a look of tenderness, of compassion? Then he moved slowly away and she had never seen him again.
Shaken from her reverie, she glanced again at the now grimy slip of paper in her hand. Surging up from the depths of her being came the conviction that what she held in her hands was of supreme value. These were HIS words; this was HIS signature! This was the name everyone had called him before his disappearance. This note surely meant riches, food, clothing, respectability, health!
Hastily the three set out on the long and difficult journey to the palace of the king. Although the trail was long and arduous and the younger widows were often tempted to turn back, the eagerness and conviction of the eldest one pushed them forward. Finally, they saw far off in the distance the outline of the lofty spires of the castle. The glowing lights of the royal city seemed like myriads of tiny stars twinkling far away. Soon, oh, so soon their lives would change and they would be possessors of a vast fortune. With this thought they almost ran the remaining miles which separated them from the royal city.
The Royal City
Ignoring the cold, disdainful reception of the wealthy and cultured populace, the three lepers, desperate now lest they be frustrated so near their destination, hastened on towards the palace grounds.
At the insistent knocking of the vilest one the guards opened the gates. Their shock and astonishment at the daring of these miserable creatures sent the heavy iron doors clanging shut. But having anticipated such rejection, the eldest quickly thrust herself forward waving the note. As they read it the shocked guards wondered what such loathsome creatures were doing with a letter signed by the prince. Then, even though it was against their better judgement and trembling in fear lest there be some mistake, they allowed the foul creatures to come in, warning them to stay near the portals until the king could be consulted.
One servant called another by ringing a gong-like bell until the Great King himself drew near. Trembling with fear and imploring mercy and pardon, the three old beggars threw themselves at the Great King’s feet, then showed him the paper.
Had he not been a gracious King he would have thrown the three old ones to the executioner immediately. But his kindness, overcoming his amazement and disgust, caused him to consider the note. He was utterly astonished as he beheld the loved signature made irrevocable in blood. Only then did he remember the prince’s visit to the hostile country, the miserable reception, and the note. But surely he hadn’t left the note in the hands of such loathsome creatures as these! There was only one conclusion to the matter: speedily give these miserable old women what they requested and send them on their way.
The youngest quickly made known her desire: “Give me many changes of raiment, healing ointments, a choice from the King’s treasury and citizenship in the royal city.” Somewhat relieved, the king ordered that her demands be met immediately.
The requirements of the second were similar to those of the first: healing ointments, clothing, a diamond studded crown and permission to live on the palace grounds. The latter request caused serious reflection on the part of the king, but he finally granted it on the condition that she wash daily in the courtyard fountain and never leave the royal grounds. With such requests the king had no misgivings. Evidently these ignorant creatures hadn’t understood the limitless scope of the terms of the signed note. What were a few rubies, changes of raiment, dwelling places or even citizenship to such a wealthy king?
Finally forcing himself to look upon the vilest of the three, he ordered these same gifts to be given to her as well. But even as he was speaking, she interrupted him to refuse the gifts. Then the heart of the kind king began to know fear. Did this vile bit of human misery somehow realize the limitless scope of the note? What more could she possibly want? He bade her look in the treasury room, but even as she longingly contemplated the beautiful treasure it contained, she chose nothing.
“Well, tell me, what DO you want?” insisted the King. “Name it and my servants will bring it to you.”
Out of the depths of her misery and life-long regret, out of the hurt of an unwanted soul, out of a deep, hidden longing she burst out, “Oh, King, I want a companion. I want a husband!”
Hearing this the King laughed in relief. Was it a husband she wanted? Easy enough. He would choose an eligible youth from his kingdom and command him to marry her. With that this entire matter could be concluded. Then the old beggar woman went on to say that only once in her life had any man ever showed her any kindness, and it was this one that she desired to marry.
“Tell me, then,” replied the King, “who that one is and I will have him brought to you,” now intensely relieved that the Old One had not understood the true value of the note.
“Oh, kind King, the one by whom the kindness was shown to me is your own son – the prince. I desire to marry him.” Speechless and appalled, the King watched her in utmost dismay as she continued, “This note says WHATSOEVER… Your son, sir, is my only desire. I will take nothing less.” Horrified, the King sent immediately for his son. What would the prince’s answer be to such a preposterous request?
Silence filled the palace grounds as the handsome prince looked searchingly into the heart of the Vilest One seeing there all the misery, the privation and the filth. But suddenly he saw something else which was strangely out of place – a brightly burning love. Turning slowly to his father he said, “I have given my word and that word I must keep. I will accept her as my bride if she will agree to fulfill two conditions: first to bathe in the courtyard fountain, then to follow me on a journey into the wilderness.”
The Crystal Pool
Thinking the prince’s terms easy to fulfill, the Eldest One eagerly assented. Then followed the King’s servants to his private courtyard.
Happily she plunged into the depths of the crystal pool which was surrounded by elaborately landscaped gardens. As her body touched the waters she experienced a strange feeling, an exhilaration as though these waters were cleansing her whole being. Something seemed to elevate her into another sphere.
After a long time – too long it seemed to her – she slowly rose from the pool. As her hand grasped the edge of the fountain she caught her breath at what she saw. Her hands were no longer twisted and gnarled, they were smooth and unblemished. Suddenly she cried out, startled that her hair which fell softly over her shoulders was no longer a drab gray but was a beautiful golden color. How strange she felt! Was this feeling the absolute absence of pain? How still the waters were! And who was the beautiful young maiden reflected in those waters? Looking around she saw no one standing at her side. Suddenly the truth broke upon her, enveloping her in ecstasy – the beautiful one was she herself! She had been changed.
Sleep was impossible that night. Oh, the wonder of it all! What magic was in those waters of the courtyard fountain? With great anticipation she thought of the proposed journey into the wilderness – the final step to the fulfillment of her life’s desire. Before she realized it, morning had come. Her journey must begin.
The majesty of the rising sun found her waiting for the prince at the palace gates. Looking upon him in all his princely beauty, then looking at herself now spotless, clean and young, she felt a fervent love surge up in her heart for him. Looking lovingly upon her, the prince sprang upon his charge without a word and beckoned her to follow him down the path which led out into the desert. But, how strange! Where was HER mount? Was she to go on foot? Perhaps a horse awaited her in the desert.
Obediently she followed him out through the city gates and eastward towards the rising sun. On and on she followed him into the deep wilderness. She walked rapidly to keep him in sight. On and on without stopping. On through the sandy wastes and through thorny thickets. On while the sun climbed higher and higher heating the desert sands. On she continued, for the prince neither waited nor slackened his pace.
Soon the heaviness of noonday descended upon her tired body. Hunger and thirst called and still there was no lessening of the pace. Breathing became difficult and she had to force her weary feet to run. Still the prince sped on ever deeper into the wilderness.
Without looking back she gathered every remaining bit of energy and struggled on under the friendless sun, gulping in great draughts of super-heated air. Her tongue began to swell rapidly as thirst ravaged her being. “Wait! Please wait”, she called out. Seemingly not hearing, he neither stopped nor turned to acknowledge her call. Slowing down and faltering she desperately called once again for him to wait. But what were these weird visions that played upon her mind? Was it true that he did stop and look back only to spur his horse on and flee even faster and further into the wilderness? Now she was alone in the solitude of the vastness of the desert; she could see him no longer.
The gentle young princess who had been so gloriously transformed from her former miserable state had struggled valiantly to prove herself worthy. She had failed! Her weary feet would no longer obey her determined will; she could continue no further. Stumbling, then falling, she lay prostrate on the searing sands where weary, torn and bleeding, with heart broken and soul in agony she groaned in despair because of her failure. Life ebbed swiftly away.
Had she been mocked by her love? Was there no eye to pity? Was there no help? Had hope fled? Must she die alone in this dreary desert? Her only answer was the low sighing of the drying winds. Surely NOW she would curse the day she believed this deceitful prince! Surely NOW her soul would die in bitterness! The love she believed to have found seemed to disappear as a mirage in the lonely and silent desert. Death was near.
Circles of tiny whirlwinds danced around her listening to her final words. Her lips moved slowly forming the words of a song:
I’ve loved thee in life; I love thee in death.
I’ve loved thee as long as thou gavest me breath.
And now, while the death dew lies cold on my brow,
If ever I’ve loved thee, Prince Jesus, ’tis now.
Was all but the empty hallucination of a mystic love? Tiny whirlwinds continued to dance around the form of the dead princess as over the distant sands the prince returned in haste to where she lay motionless and silent.
As the roseate sun of the dying day kissed her face and lit its beauty in rest, the prince looked tenderly down at her as he bade the tiny winds repeat her last words. As he listened, a mysterious smile spread over his face and his garments began to shine with a glorious light until his form and face were transfigured by a heavenly glory. A beautiful radiance surrounded him and he began to speak:
“Dear sister of mine, my dove, my undefiled, my spouse, you thought you had failed. Not so! I find your love true and worthy. You have followed me into this wilderness, even unto death, not once turning back nor denying my love. Surely you knew my earthly name, sung throughout all the land, but you did not know my other name. I am the Resurrection and the Life. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!”
And even as he was speaking, the radiant glory light began to move out and enfold the form of the motionless princess, shining around her, and like a living flame kindling within her the same resurrection glory that enveloped him. She arose and beheld her beloved, her earthly beauty now swallowed up in heavenly light and glory. Before, she had been made beautiful; now she was all glorious within and without. Tenderly placing the gentle princess beside him on the horse, he returned with her to the palace…
“Kiss me and kiss me again, for your love is sweeter than wine. How fragrant your cologne; your name is like its spreading fragrance. No wonder all the young women love you! Take me with you; come, let’s run!” (Song of Songs 1:2-4).