13.THE SNAKE-WOMAN AND KING ALI MARDAN

Once upon a time King Ali Mardan went out hunting, and as he hunted in the forest above the beautiful Dal lake, he came suddenly on a maiden, lovely as a flower, who, seated beneath a tree, was weeping bitterly. Telling his followers to remain at a distance, he went up to the woman, and asked her who she was, and how she came to be alone in the wild forest.

‘Oh great King,’ she answered, looking up into his face, ‘I am the Emperor of China’s handmaiden, and as I wandered about in the gardens of his palace I lost my way. I do not know how far I have come since, but now I must surely die, for I am weary and hungry!’

‘So fair a maiden must not die while Ali Mardan can save her,’ said the king, gazing lovingly at the beautiful girl. So he told his servants to take her with the greatest care to his summer palace in the Shalimar gardens, where the fountains scatter dewdrops over the beds of flowers, and laden fruit-trees bend over the marble colonnades. There, amid the flowers and sunshine, she lived with the King, who quickly became so in love with her that he forgot everything else in the world.

So the days passed until it happened that a holy man’s servant, coming back from the holy lake Gangabal, which lies on the snowy peak of Haramukh, where he went every year to draw water for his master, passed by the gardens; and over the high garden wall he saw the tops of the fountains, leaping and splashing like silver sunshine. He was so astonished at the sight that he put his vessel of water on the ground, and climbed over the wall, determined to see the wonderful things inside. Once in the garden amid the fountains and flowers, he wandered here and there, bewildered by beauty, until, wearied out by excitement, he lay down under a tree and fell asleep.

Now the King, coming to walk in the garden, found the man lying there, and noticed that he held something fast in his closed right hand. Bending down, Ali Mardan gently loosed the fingers, and discovered a tiny box filled with a sweet-smelling ointment. While he was examining this more closely, the sleeper awoke, and missing his box, began to weep and wail. The King told him to be calm, and showing him the box, promised to return it if he would honestly tell him why it was so precious to him.

‘Oh great King,’ replied the holy man’s servant, ‘the box belongs to my master, and it contains a holy ointment of many powers. By its power I am safe from all harm, and am able to go to Gangabal and return with my jar full of water in so short a time that my master is never without.’

Then the King was astonished, and, looking at the man keenly, said, ‘Tell me the truth! Is your master indeed such a holy saint? Is he indeed such a wonderful man?’

‘Oh King,’ replied the servant, ‘he is indeed such a man, and there is nothing in the world he does not know!’

This reply aroused the King’s curiosity, and putting the box in his vest, he said to the servant, ‘Go home to your master, and tell him King Ali Mardan has his box, and means to keep it until he comes to fetch it himself.’ In this way he hoped to bring the holy man into his presence.

So the servant, seeing there was nothing else to be done, set off to his master, but he was two years and a half in reaching home, because he did not have the precious box with the magical ointment. All this time Ali Mardan lived with the beautiful stranger in the Shalimar palace, and forgot everything in the wide world except her loveliness. Yet he was not happy, and a strange look came over his face and a stony stare into his eyes.

Now, when the servant reached home at last, and told his master what had occurred, the Holy man was very angry, but as he could not get on without the box which enabled him to get the water from Gangabal, he set off at once to the court of King Ali Mardan. On his arrival, the King treated him with the greatest honour, and faithfully fulfilled the promise of returning the box.

Now the Holy man was indeed a learned man, and when he saw the King he knew at once all was not right, so he said, ‘Oh King, you have been kind unto me, and I in my turn desire to do you a kind action; so tell me truly,—have you always had that white scared face and those stony eyes?’

The King hung his head.

‘Tell me truly,’ continued the holy man, ‘have you any strange woman in your palace?’

Then Ali Mardan, feeling a strange relief in speaking, told the Holy man about the finding of the maiden, so lovely and pitiful, in the forest.

‘She is no handmaiden of the Emperor of China—she is no woman!’ said the Holy man fearlessly. ‘She is nothing but a Lamia—the dreadful two-hundred-year-old snake which has the power to take a woman’s shape!’

Hearing this, King Ali Mardan was at first furious, for he was madly in love with the stranger. But when the Holy man insisted, he became alarmed, and at last promised to obey the holy man’s orders, and so discover the truth of his words.

Therefore, that same evening he ordered two kinds of porridge to be made ready for supper, and placed in one dish, so that one half was sweet porridge, and the other half salt.

Now, when as usual the King sat down to eat out of the same dish with the Snake-woman, he turned the salt side towards her and the sweet side towards himself.

She found her portion very salty, but, seeing the King eat his, finished hers in silence. But when they had gone to rest, the King, obeying the Holy man’s orders, had pretended to be asleep. The Snake-woman became so dreadfully thirsty, because of all the salty food she had eaten, that she longed for a drink of water. As there was none in the room, she had to go outside to get some.

Now, if a Snake-woman goes out at night, she must resume her own disgusting form. So, as King Ali Mardan lay pretending to be asleep, he saw the beautiful form in his arms change to a deadly slimy snake, that slid from the bed out of the door into the garden. He followed it softly, watching it drink from every fountain by the way, until it reached the Dal Lake, where it drank and bathed for hours.

Fully satisfied of the truth of the Holy man’s story, King Ali Mardan begged him for help in getting rid of the beautiful horror. This, the Holy man promised to do, if the King would faithfully obey orders. So they made an oven of a hundred different kinds of metal melted together, and closed by a strong lid and a heavy padlock. This they placed in a shady corner of the garden, fastening it securely to the ground by strong chains. When all was ready, the King said to the Snake-woman, ‘My beloved! Let us wander in the gardens alone today, and amuse ourselves by cooking our own food,’

She agreed, and so they wandered about in the garden; and when dinner-time came, set to work, with laughter, to cook their own food.

The King heated the oven very hot, and kneaded the bread, but being clumsy at it, he told the Snake-woman he could do no more, and that she must bake the bread. This she at first refused to do, saying that she disliked ovens, but when the King pretended to be bothered, claiming she could not love him since she refused to help; she gave in, and began to do the baking.

Then, just as she bent over the oven’s mouth, to turn the loaves, the King, seizing his opportunity, pushed her in, and closing the cover, locked and double-locked it.

Now, when the Snake-woman found herself caught in the scorching oven, she jumped so that had it not been for the strong chains, she would have leaped out of the garden, oven and all! But as it was, all she could do was to jump up and down, while the King and the Holy man piled wood on to the fire, and the oven grew hotter and hotter. So it went on from four o’clock one afternoon to four o’clock the next, when the Snake-woman ceased to jump, and all was quiet.

They waited until the oven grew cold, and then opened it, when not a trace of the Snake-woman was to be seen, only a tiny heap of ashes, out of which the Holy man took a small round stone, and gave it to the King, saying, ‘This is the real essence of the Snake-woman, and whatever you touch with it will turn to gold.’

But King Ali Mardan said such a treasure was more than any man’s life was worth, since it must bring envy and battle and murder to whoever had it; so when he went to lake he threw the magical Snake-stone into the river.