One day the great King of the Magicians and Sorcerers was leaving his country to visit a neighboring Queen. He was leaning on his walking-stick, having been travelling since the break of day, when the sun rose and spread his beneficent rays over all nature. The birds sang blithely, and the little crickets in the grass made themselves noisy; but the King, while enjoying the scene and the sounds around him, went forward without delay. The sun shone brightly, the birds were joyous, and all nature seemed to be happy, but the King suffered from fatigue. Great beads of perspiration broke out on his forehead,65 and he longed for a cloud that would give shade and coolness. The earth seemed to be a furnace. The sun spread its great rays of light and the cloud came not. The King begged for a clump of woods that he might have the benefit of shade, and for a stream of cool and sparkling water that he might quench his thirst. The road was long and dusty, and the wells were dry
But in the air, far away, appeared the King of the Lapwings. He bore in his beak a draught of water, and his wings were dripping wet. Faster than the wind he made his way to the dying King.
Ah," said the bird, "it was indeed time that I came;" and with the end of his wing, as tenderly as would a mother, he washed the face of the unfortunate King, and placed between his lips the water he held in his beak. The King revived and opened his eyes.
"Ah, thou," he exclaimed, "who gave me back my life! I am hereafter under all obligations to you."
"Wait a moment, your majesty," said the King of the Lapwings; "thirst still devours you, but have hope. Behold in the distance my faithful subjects, who come forth, each one carrying at the end of its wings the delightful refreshment you have longed for."
The lapwings arrived on all sides. Each one deposited in the mouth of the unfortunate King the fresh water for which he thirsted.
"Ah, this is better than bread," said the King, reviving; "what can I do to show my gratitude?"
"Nothing," said the King of the Lapwings. "Nothing," responded the other birds. "Continue your journey, and you will find yourself hereafter under the shadow of our wings."
Then the King resumed his journey. Night came, and he found himself near the palace of the Queen whom he had intended to visit. The lapwings still continued with him. No matter how bright the sun shone, no matter how suffocating the heat as he journeyed on, a gentle lapwing came to his assistance. Touched by the solicitude of these birds the King said:
"I cannot leave you, my friends, you who had pity on me when I was forsaken by all, without giving you a substantial evidence of my gratitude. Tell me, what can I do for you? How can I show you how grateful I am?"
At these words the King of the Lapwings advanced and spoke to the King:
"We desire, your majesty, to be the most beautiful of birds. We want a golden crown on our heads, so that we may be placed before the peacock, who is so proud of his plumage, and before the gay nightingale, who is so proud of his song."
At these words a great sadness filled the heart of the King, who could read the future, and he responded, shaking his head:
"Ah! you foolish birds, larger of heart than of mind! you do not know the weight of a crown and of the numberless dangers to which it exposes those who possess it. A golden diadem, say you? Alas! it will bring you misfortune; ambition without bounds is wicked and perilous. Dear friends, demand of me something else."
"No, no," cried the lapwings, on all sides, young and old, little and big, "that is the only gift we desire-a crown on our heads. Ah, what happiness! We will fly in the air and each bird will envy us."
The King then saw that nothing he could say would convince his companions. He had promised to satisfy their first request, and his word was sacred.
"Come with me," said he, "to my friend, the magician Zacchar. No one is more expert in the working of metal. At his touch iron becomes more supple, silver becomes malleable, and gold is mere paste. Come! and you shall have the diadem you long for."
During three days the magician worked pure gold. The bellows blew and the hammers thumped. During three nights he chased the marvellous crowns that were to adorn the heads of the lapwings. At the dawn of the fourth day the King arrived, with a sad smile on his face.
"Friends," said he to the birds, "my promise is fulfilled. Take these diadems; take these diadems, which are masterpieces of art, and go whither your destiny calls you."
At these words the lapwings uttered loud cries of joy.
"Go, go," cried the King, "escape from man or you are lost."
Without understanding his warning, but obeying the command of the powerful King, the lapwings took flight, filled with joy and happiness. They went here and there, flying to the tops of the mountains and descending to the depths of the valleys, telling of their good fortune to all their friends both far and wide.
When the other birds saw the crowns with which the heads of the lapwings were encircled they paid due homage to the symbols. Whenever there was a feast or an important funeral the lapwings and their friends walked in the place of honor, before the eagles and the peafowls, leaving far behind them the humming-bird (that living flower), the linnet, and the nightingale.
But, unfortunately, it happened one day that a lapwing came too near the abode of man, and a hunter saw it and killed it "What is this?" exclaimed the sportsman, perceiving the golden crown. Seizing it, he ran quickly to the jeweller's.
"Worker in metals!" said he, "see this marvellous diadem the lapwing carries! Of what metal is it made?" The jeweller took the crown, turned it on all sides, and looking at it with greedy eyes, exclaimed: "It is of pure gold, and if you will part with it I will pay you an hundred shekels."
When the other sportsmen found out the value of the ornament that the lapwings wore on their heads, they made haste to go into the country, and they pursued the lapwings, wherever they could find them. New weapons were invented, and the hunters watched day and night, killing all the lapwings that were so unfortunate as to appear in sight.
"Lord, have mercy on us!" exclaimed the lapwings, "and blind the eyes of the cruel men who are killing us!" But the crown of the lapwings was so brilliant that it resembled the sun's rays, and even in the darkness it shone like the stars. There was no rest or escape for these unfortunate birds. The dark night, even, was as fatal to them as the day. The huntsmen pursued them with so much vigor that only ten remained alive.
"What shall we do?" asked the King of the Lapwings, who had not yet been destroyed. "Let us go and implore the great King to relieve us of these golden crowns that are the cause of all our misfortunes."
Immediately the lapwings started on their journey in search of the great King. Some of them stopped by the way, so that only a few reached the King's throne, where they were welcomed, the powerful ruler talking to them kindly as he would have talked to faithful friends.
"Lapwings with the golden diadems! My dear companions, what can I do to please you this day?" "Great Prince!" they replied, "you can give us our lives by removing these unfortunate gifts that adorn our heads-by taking away these golden crowns that have been the cause of all our misfortunes."
"I will grant your desire," said the great King; "but in remembrance of your kindness to me you shall hereafter wear a diadem of feathers; but bear in mind that happiness is not in the gift of the great or the rich, but that it only belongs to those who earn it."
Thereafter the lapwings were no longer pursued by man, and they were happier with their modest tuft of feathers than they had been with their golden diadem