Many hundreds of years ago, not long after the Greeks returned from the famous siege of Troy, there lived a king of Egypt, whose name was Rhampsinitus. So great a king was he, that he kept a small army constantly employed in supplying the royal household with food, and another small army was required to keep the gardens of the palace in order. And had any one been bold enough to doubt the greatness of the king, he need only have looked at his magnificent dress to set all doubts at rest forever. Upon the neck of the king was a heavy necklace, glittering with priceless jewels, and on his arms were massive bracelets of pure gold. A golden serpent, the symbol of royalty, gleamed from his forehead, and his golden breastplate showed the sacred beetle worked in precious stones, to protect him from evil spirits. Whenever he appeared in the streets of his capital, he was borne in the royal chair on the shoulders of eight of his courtiers, while on each side walked a great noble carrying a fan, shaped like a palm leaf, with a long, straight stem. In front marched the bodyguard of Sardinians, men with fair skins and blue eyes, who looked very much out of place among the swarthy Egyptians; and last of all came the grim, black guards from Ethiopia, with their sabres flashing in the sun. And all the people fell on their faces and kissed the dust before their royal master. Moreover, King Rhampsinitus erected several enormous statues of himself, as well as many fine palaces and a beautiful temple, bearing inscriptions which related all his great and glorious deeds, so that the people who lived after him might know how great a king he had been.
But, in spite of all his greatness, there was one thing that prevented King Rhampsinitus from being a happy man. He had so many treasures—masses of silver, nuggets of gold, and bags of gold-dust, jewelry, precious stones, and carvings in ivory—that he lived in constant fear of being robbed. He had all his treasures packed in large jars and strong chests, which were securely fastened, sealed up, and stowed away in a strong room of the palace; but even then he did not feel comfortable, for might not the palace be broken into by a clever thief and part of his treasure stolen, while he slept? Besides, there was so much treasure packed away already, that it was difficult to find a safe place for any more. His anxiety made the king so unhappy, and caused him so many sleepless nights, that he determined at last to build a large chamber of stone, with walls too thick for any thief to break through. He sent for his chief architect, who collected a great multitude of workmen and set to work building the chamber without delay. Whole villages were compelled to join in the work; even the old men and children were employed in carrying away rubbish, bringing water and clay, and doing other work that was not too hard for them. The stronger and more skillful workmen hewed great blocks of granite, which were dragged to the place on wooden sledges; and, as they had no cranes to lift the stones into their places on the walls, they were obliged to build mounds of sand and rough bricks, and roll up each stone gradually with wooden levers, until they got it into its proper place. It was terribly hard work, but there were so many workmen, and the foremen used their whips so unmercifully, that the walls rose very rapidly.
Now the architect was a cunning man, and guessed what the chamber was intended to hold. He therefore fitted one stone in such a way that it would slide down and leave a hole just large enough for a man to crawl through; and yet, when you looked at the wall, there was no sign at all by which the secret could be discovered. Nor did the architect think it necessary to mention the secret opening to his majesty, when he showed the chamber to him and told him that it was as strong as he could make it.
Rhampsinitus lost no time in moving his treasures into the new treasure-chamber. The key he kept with him night and day, so that at last he could sleep peacefully, knowing that any one who wished to pass the solid, brass-bound door, must first prevail upon him to unlock it.
For some time all went well. The king went to the treasury every morning, and found everything in its place. Evidently he had been too clever for the thieves.
In the mean time the architect was lying ill in bed, and day by day he grew weaker and weaker; until at length he knew that his end was approaching, and, calling his two sons to his bedside, he told them of the secret way into the treasure-chamber.
"I have little of my own to leave you, my sons," he said, "and I have but little influence at court; but by the aid of this secret, which I devised for your sake, you may become rich men, and hold the office of king’s treasurers for life."
The young men were delighted at his words, and so impatient were they to enjoy their good fortune, that on the very night of their father’s funeral they stole away quietly to the place where the treasure-house stood. They found the sliding stone exactly as their father had described it. The younger and slimmer of the two brothers crawled through the opening and found himself in a dark chamber, surrounded by heavy chests and jars with sealed covers. Breaking open one of the latter, he put in his hand and drew out a handful of gold, which sparkled and twinkled at him even in the faint light which came through the hole in the wall. Handful after handful he drew out and passed to his brother, at the same time filling the bags he had brought with him, until both had as much as they could conveniently carry. Then they replaced the stone, and returned to lay the treasure before their mother; for in those days stealing was considered rather a clever trick, and even the thief’s mother did not scold him, so long as he was not so clumsy as to be caught.
Imagine the consternation of King Rhampsinitus when he visited the chamber the following morning! Everything seemed as secure as ever, and yet, when he opened the door, there lay one of the great jars turned over and empty, while the lid of one of the chests was broken open and part of the contents scattered on the floor. He examined every nook and cranny of the chamber from floor to ceiling, and there was no sign of any one’s having forced an entrance. The fastenings of the door were firm, and the lock was one which it was perfectly impossible to pick. For greater security, however, Rhampsinitus sent at once for a locksmith, and commanded him to fit the door with a second lock, the key of which he kept with the other.
Notwithstanding this precaution, the treasure-chamber was robbed again on the next night, and this time the thieves had broken open a great many of the chests, and carried away some of the most valuable jewels. On the following night a sentinel was posted, and still the treasury was robbed. The sentinel vowed that he had stood with his back to the door all night, and there is little doubt that he spoke the truth, though the poor fellow was accused of sleeping at his post, and punished for his negligence.
Then the king took counsel of the fan-bearer on the right hand, who was also prime minister. He made a long speech, beginning with his regret that his majesty had not thought fit to consult him earlier, and concluding with a learned discourse on the habits of rats.
"This is all very interesting," said Rhampsinitus, "but I do not see that it helps very much to protect my treasure."
"I crave your majesty’s pardon," the prime minister answered. "I was about to observe that the best way to catch a rat is first to study the habits and tastes of the rat, and next to apply the knowledge so gained in setting a trap."
From which one may see that the prime minister was a very learned man, and could not be expected to come to the point all at once. The king thanked him for his valuable advice, and procured two or three powerful man-traps, which he placed within his treasure-chamber.
Night came on, and the two thieves set to work as before, but no sooner had the younger brother disappeared through the hole in the wall than he began to utter loud cries of agony.
"Peace, brother! You will rouse the guard," said the elder. "What can have befallen you?"
The other controlled himself, and said with a groan, "Ladronius, we are ruined. I am held fast in a trap, and I think my leg is broken. O Horus, Lord of Life, deliver me!"
With some difficulty Ladronius crawled through the opening to aid his brother, for, though a thief, he was no coward.
"Go back, Ladronius, go back!" cried his brother. "Leave me to my fate! I think I hear the cries of the guard. No, brother, waste no more time!" he entreated, as Ladronius tugged in vain at the cruel teeth of the trap. "One thing remains to be done. Cut off my head, and take it away with you, that I may not be recognized and so we both perish! I hear the footsteps of men approaching. Do not rob our mother of both her sons!"
And Ladronius, seeing that there was nothing else to be done, drew his sword, cut off his brother’s head, and escaped through the opening, not forgetting to replace the stone behind him. He was only just in time, for scarcely had he gained the cover of a clump of trees, when the soldiers of the guard came running to the place and began to belabor the door. To their surprise they found everything quiet and nothing displaced. They examined the outside of the building thoroughly, and then, supposing that they had been roused by a false alarm, they returned to the palace.
In the morning, Rhampsinitus paid his daily visit to the chamber, and discovered the headless body in the trap. He was more puzzled than ever. He examined the fastenings of the door and the whole of the chamber over and over again, and no hole nor crevice could he find.
"Nevertheless," said he, "I have now bait for my trap. What can I do better than set a thief to catch a thief?"
So he ordered the body to be hung from the outer wall of the chamber, and placed sentinels to guard it, strictly charging them to bring before him any one who showed pity or sorrow for the dead.
When the mother heard of her son’s death and how the body had been treated, she reproached Ladronius bitterly for his cowardice, and implored him with many tears to bring back the body for proper burial. For the Egyptians thought that unless a man’s body were properly embalmed and buried whole, he could have no life in the next world; so that it would be a terrible misfortune if the head and the body were buried separately. Ladronius attempted to comfort his mother, but did not dare to carry off his brother’s body so long as the sentinels were watching. In vain his mother wept and entreated him, until at last her grief was turned to anger, and she vowed that, if he did not obey her, she would go to the king and tell him the whole story. Then Ladronius, seeing her so determined, promised to do as she wished, and set his wits to work to invent some means of carrying off the body without being caught by the sentinels. At last he thought of a plan, which seemed to have some chance of success. He hired two donkeys, and having bought some wineskins, which were used in the place of bottles, he filled them with strong wine and placed them on the donkeys’ backs.
Thus equipped, and dressed up to look like an old merchant, he set out for the place where his brother’s body was suspended. When he drew near to the sentinels, he secretly loosened some of the strings which fastened the necks of the wineskins, and then whipping the donkeys and letting them run on a little way in front, he pursued them with loud cries.
"Oh, miserable wretch that I am!" he cried, beating his head and looking the very picture of despair. "All my good wine wasted on the ground! What shall I do? Oh, what shall I do? Stop, most ungrateful of donkeys, children of Set, that devour my substance and waste my wine as if it were water! May Tefnet plague you with gadflies, and Renenutet poison the thistles! Oh dear! oh dear! I am a ruined man."
The soldiers, supposing it to be a genuine accident, laughed loudly at the fellow’s distress, and while some chased and caught the donkeys, the others brought bowls and pitchers and began to drink the wine, as it ran out of the skins.
"Never mind, worthy sir!" they said to Ladronius. "The wine is serving a very good purpose. Here is to our future friendship and your excellency’s very good health!"
Ladronius pretended to fly into a great passion, and called them thieves and monsters of iniquity for robbing a poor man of his wine.
"Ay, laugh away!" he cried. "But a day of reckoning will come for your wickedness. See how the law treats robbers!" And he pointed to his brother’s body hanging on the wall.
"Now, by Anubis, the fellow speaks truth," said one of the soldiers. "We are but sorry fellows to drink away a poor man’s living, and if this were to come to the ears of the king, we should be in evil case for leaving our duty."
The others laughed good-humoredly, as they tied up some of the skins, and did their best to put the merchant into a good temper. Ladronius, after a little more grumbling, appeared to be pacified, and, as a sign of good-will, presented a wineskin to the soldier who had first spoken in his favor.
"May you never want a young friend to speak for you in your old age," said he, "and may you meet with no worse companions than these; for though they seem to be somewhat headstrong, yet I perceive that I spoke hard words in my anger."
The soldiers, who by this time had sat down on the grass and were passing the wineskin from one to another, declared that the merchant was a good-hearted old fellow and invited him to come and drink their health.
"Nay, my masters," said Ladronius, pretending to adjust the straps on the donkeys’ backs. "I have far to go, and I am but a little way on my journey."
But, as they pressed him, he consented to drink one cup with them before he went. "Though in truth," he added, "if I mistake not, the skin is emptied already. I see that you would force me to part with another, before I set out."
As he spoke, he produced another wineskin, and the soldiers, who were growing merry, greeted him with a shout of delight, and insisted on his sitting down with them. Ladronius, still declaring that he could stay only long enough to drink one cup with them, allowed himself to be placed in the midst, where he presently proved himself so good a companion and told so many merry tales that the soldiers would not hear of his departure. They drank more and more heavily, until at length a third skin was opened, and one by one the sentinels were overpowered by the strong wine, and all lay asleep on the ground.
By this time it had grown dark, and Ladronius, who had pretended to be as drunk as the rest, cautiously raised his head, and finding that all the sentinels were snoring, he took down his brother’s body and carried it off. But, before he went, he shaved the right side of the head of each of the sentinels, to show his contempt for the king’s precautions.
The king was furious when he discovered the failure of his plan and the insult offered to his guards, all of whom were beheaded for their disobedience to his orders. He was more determined than ever to catch the thief, and after taking counsel once more with his prime minister, he decided upon another plan. He caused a proclamation to be made, in which he promised the hand of his daughter to the man whom she should consider the cleverest and most wicked of all men. He commanded the princess to sit on a throne in the temple of Ra, the sun-god, and to speak to all who came to pay their homage to her, asking them what was the cleverest and most wicked deed they had done. But secretly Rhampsinitus told her that, if any one related the story of the robbing of the treasury, she was to seize him by the hand, and hold him till the guards came and secured him.
The moment Ladronius heard the proclamation, he saw that it was another trick to catch him, but he was so daring and so fond of adventure that he could not resist the temptation to outdo the king in cunning once more. He determined actually to put his head in the lion’s mouth—in other words, to go boldly to the temple and talk to the princess. He took with him under his cloak the strangest of presents, an arm cut from a dead man’s body.
When he entered the temple, he beheld the princess seated on her throne, looking very beautiful in her royal robes, with her dark curls flowing over her shoulders, and the golden vulture of Egypt spreading his wings over her head. She looked a little pale and weary too, for she had talked with many scores of suitors, all of whom had told her tales which were very much alike and nothing at all to do with her father’s treasure-chamber. And when the princess looked up and saw Ladronius standing there, with his bold, handsome face, and resolute eyes, she had a suspicion that this was the robber of the treasury. At the same time she felt some pity for the young man, whom she was to be the means of punishing for his bravery. However, she could only obey her father, and motioning to Ladronius to approach, she addressed him with great courtesy, saying, "You seem, sir, by your bearing, to be a man of some strength and courage. Tell me now, what is the most wicked thing, and what the cleverest, you ever did in your life?"
And Ladronius looked her straight in the face and answered, "Most gracious princess, the most wicked thing I ever did in my life was to cut off my brother’s head in His Majesty’s treasure-house, and the cleverest was when I made the sentinels drunk and carried off my brother’s body."
Scarcely were the words out of his mouth, when the princess jumped up and caught him, as she supposed, by the arm, at the same time crying out for the guards, who were concealed behind the throne. But, to her dismay, the arm seemed to part company with the rest of the body, and she was left with the cloak of Ladronius and the arm of the dead man, while Ladronius himself was out of the temple before she had recovered from her surprise; nor could the guards find any trace of him outside.
The princess went back to her father in fear and trembling, and related how Ladronius had escaped once more; but the king was so amazed at the daring and skill of the young man, that he quite forgot to be angry.
The picture of the princess holding the arm that had no body attached to it, and gazing blankly after the departing figure of Ladronius, so took his fancy, that he lay back on his couch, and laughed till his sides ached.
"Bast!" he cried at length. "If the youth is really as clever as this, I would rather have him my friend than my enemy. Such a man should be rewarded and not punished for his genius. So he made you a present of his cloak too, did he?" And the king collapsed once more.
"And what manner of youth is he?" he asked the princess; the princess answered, with a blush, that he looked like a brave young man.
"That I am sure he is," said the king. "I have learnt it to my cost. And he is not ill-looking?"
"No," said the princess; she would not describe him as ill-looking.
"Ah! well," said the king dryly, "we must see whether we cannot find some means of securing his friendship."
So King Rhampsinitus ordered another proclamation to be made, promising that if the robber would present himself to the king and confess how he had broken into the treasury, the king would grant him a free pardon and a great reward beside.
Ladronius was not long in making up his mind. He knew that kings were not always above treachery, but he had survived so many dangers that he determined to risk this also. He arrayed himself, therefore, in his best attire, and boldly presented himself to the king, who was delighted with his courage and bade him relate the whole story fearlessly. And when Rhampsinitus heard of the secret way into his treasury, he would not rest until he had seen the sliding stone and moved it for himself. He laughed heartily when he remembered how he had put another lock on the door, and how he had posted a sentinel in the one place where he could see nothing of the thieves. Then he returned to the palace, and sent for the princess, his daughter. Presently she entered with her train of maidens, and Ladronius was so overcome by her fresh, girlish beauty, that he could hardly find voice enough to reply to the king’s questions. The king rose and embraced his daughter, and then, addressing Ladronius before the assembled courtiers, he said, "Ladronius, the Egyptians are the most cunning of all nations on the face of the earth, and you have proved yourself more cunning than all the Egyptians. And now, after robbing me of so many treasures, you are about to rob me of the best and most priceless of all."
So saying, he took his daughter by the hand, and led her to Ladronius.
"Take her, my son!" he said. "A good and obedient daughter should make a faithful and loving wife."
The princess stood with her eyes cast down, blushing very prettily, and Ladronius looked very handsome as he knelt and kissed her hand. Then the trumpets began to blare, the drums rattled, the cymbals clashed, and the courtiers shouted, "Long live our gracious princess! Long live Rhampsinitus and his son-in-law Ladronius!" The royal minstrel brought his harp and sang a solemn chant, all about the beauty of the princess and the bravery of Ladronius; and the maids of honor performed a graceful dance to the music, winding wreaths of lotus flowers about the bride and bridegroom. As the music ceased, the venerable High Priest of Ra, a tall old man with his head clean-shaven, came forward to bless and anoint them, and to tell how he had foreseen it all from the beginning.
So Ladronius and the beautiful princess were married, and, though it is not in the story, there can be no doubt that they lived very happily for the rest of their lives.