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Stories of Vikram and Betal
Betal's Fifth Story: Of the theif who laughed and wept

<< Index of Stories of Vikram and Betal

Your majesty (quoth the demon, with unusual politeness), there is a country called Malaya, on the western coast of the land of Bharat--you see that I am particular in specifying the place--and in it was a city known as Chandrodaya, whose king was named Randhir.

This Raja, like most others of his semi-deified order, had been in youth what is called a Sarva-rasi; that is, he ate and drank and listened to music, and looked at dancers and made love much more than he studied, reflected, prayed, or conversed with the wise. After the age of thirty he began to reform, and he brought such zeal to the good cause, that in an incredibly short space of time he came to be accounted and quoted as the paragon of correct Rajas. This was very praiseworthy. Many of Brahma's vicegerents on earth, be it observed, have loved food and drink, and music and dancing, and the worship of Kama, to the end of their days.

Amongst his officers was Gunshankar, a magistrate of police, who, curious to say, was as honest as he was just. He administered equity with as much care before as after dinner; he took no bribes even in the matter of advancing his family; he was rather merciful than otherwise to the poor, and he never punished the rich ostentatiously, in order to display his and his law's disrespect for persons. Besides which, when sitting on the carpet of justice, he did not, as some Kotwals do, use rough or angry language to those who cannot reply; nor did he take offence when none was intended.

All the people of the city Chandrodaya, in the province of Malaya, on the western coast of Bharatland, loved and esteemed this excellent magistrate; which did not, however, prevent thefts being committed so frequently and so regularly, that no one felt his property secure. At last the merchants who had suffered most from these depredations went in a body before Gunshankar, and said to him:

"O flower of the law! robbers have exercised great tyranny upon us, so great indeed that we can no longer stay in this city."

Then the magistrate replied, "What has happened, has happened. But in future you shall be free from annoyance. I will make due preparation for these thieves."

Thus saying Gunshankar called together his various delegates, and directed them to increase the number of their people. He pointed out to them how they should keep watch by night; besides which he ordered them to open registers of all arrivals and departures, to make themselves acquainted by means of spies with the movements of every suspected person in the city, and to raise a body of paggis (trackers), who could follow the footprints of thieves even when they wore thieving shoes, till they came up with and arrested them. And lastly, he gave the patrols full power, whenever they might catch a robber in the act, to slay him without asking questions.

People in numbers began to mount guard throughout the city every night, but, notwithstanding this, robberies continued to be committed. After a time all the merchants having again met together went before the magistrate, and said, "O incarnation of justice! you have changed your officers, you have hired watchmen, and you have established patrols: nevertheless the thieves have not diminished, and plundering is ever taking place."

Thereupon Gunshankar carried them to the palace, and made them lay their petition at the feet of the king Randhir. That Raja, having consoled them, sent them home, saying, "Be ye of good cheer. I will to-night adopt a new plan, which, with the blessing of the Bhagwan, shall free ye from further anxiety."

Observe, O Vikram, that Randhir was one of those concerning whom the poet sang--

The unwise run from one end to the other.

Not content with becoming highly respectable, correct, and even unimpeachable in point of character, he reformed even his reformation, and he did much more than he was required to do.

When Canopus began to sparkle gaily in the southern skies, the king arose and prepared for a night's work. He disguised his face by smearing it with a certain paint, by twirling his moustachios up to his eyes, by parting his beard upon his chin, and conducting the two ends towards his ears, and by tightly tying a hair from a horse's tail over his nose, so as quite to change its shape. He then wrapped himself in a coarse outer garment, girt his loins, buckled on his sword, drew his shield upon his arm, and without saying a word to those within the palace, he went out into the streets alone, and on foot.

It was dark, and Raja Randhir walked through the silent city for nearly an hour without meeting anyone. As, however, he passed through a back street in the merchants' quarter, he saw what appeared to be a homeless dog, lying at the foot of a house-wall. He approached it, and up leaped a human figure, whilst a loud voice cried, "Who art thou?"

Randhir replied, "I am a thief; who art thou?"

"And I also am a thief," rejoined the other, much pleased at hearing this; "come, then, and let us make together. But what art thou, a high-loper or a lully-prigger?"

"A little more ceremony between coves in the lorst," whispered the king, speaking as a flash man, "were not out of place. But, look sharp, mind old Oliver, or the lamb-skin man will have the pull of us, and as sure as eggs is eggs we shall be scragged as soon as lagged."

"Well, keep your red rag quiet," grumbled the other, "and let us be working."

Then the pair, king and thief, began work in right earnest. The gang seemed to swarm in the street. They were drinking spirits, slaying victims, rubbing their bodies with oil, daubing their eyes with lamp-black, and repeating incantations to enable them to see in the darkness; others were practicing the lessons of the god with the golden spear, and carrying out the four modes of breaching a house: 1. Picking out burnt bricks. 2.Cutting through unbaked ones when old, when softened by recent damp, by exposure to the sun, or by saline exudations. 3. Throwing water on a mud wall; and 4. Boring through one of wood. The sons of Skanda were making breaches in the shape of lotus blossoms, the sun, the new moon, the lake, and the water jar, and they seemed to be anointed with magic unguents, so that no eye could behold, no weapon harm them.

At length having filled his bag with costly plunder, the thief said to the king, "Now, my rummy cove, we'll be off to the flash ken, where the lads and the morts are waiting to wet their whistles."

Randhir, who as a king was perfectly familiar with "thieves' Latin," took heart, and resolved to hunt out the secrets of the den. On the way, his companion, perfectly satisfied with the importance which the new cove had attached to a rat-hole, and convinced that he was a true robber, taught him the whistle, the word, and the sign peculiar to the gang, and promised him that he should smack the lit that night before "turning in."

So saying the thief rapped twice at the city gate, which was at once opened to him, and preceding his accomplice led the way to a rock about two kos (four miles) distant from the walls. Before entering the dark forest at the foot of the eminence, the robber stood still for a moment and whistled twice through his fingers with a shrill scream that rang through the silent glades. After a few minutes the signal was answered by the hooting of an owl, which the robber acknowledged by shrieking like a jackal. Thereupon half a dozen armed men arose from their crouching places in the grass, and one advanced towards the new comers to receive the sign. It was given, and they both passed on, whilst the guard sank, as it were, into the bowels of the earth. All these things Randhir carefully remarked: besides which he neglected not to take note of all the distinguishable objects that lay on the road, and, when he entered the wood, he scratched with his dagger all the tree trunks within reach.

After a sharp walk the pair reached a high perpendicular sheet of rock, rising abruptly from a clear space in the jungle, and profusely printed over with vermilion hands. The thief, having walked up to it, and made his obeisance, stooped to the ground, and removed a bunch of grass. The two then raised by their united efforts a heavy trap door, through which poured a stream of light, whilst a confused hubbub of voices was heard below.

"This is the ken," said the robber, preparing to descend a thin ladder of bamboo, "follow me!" And he disappeared with his bag of valuables.

The king did as he was bid, and the pair entered together a large hall, or rather a cave, which presented a singular spectacle. It was lighted up by links fixed to the sombre walls, which threw a smoky glare over the place, and the contrast after the deep darkness reminded Randhir of his mother's descriptions of Patal-puri, the infernal city. Carpets of every kind, from the choicest tapestry to the coarsest rug, were spread upon the ground, and were strewed with bags, wallets, weapons, heaps of booty, drinking cups, and all the materials of debauchery.

Passing through this cave the thief led Randhir into another, which was full of thieves, preparing for the pleasures of the night. Some were changing garments, ragged and dirtied by creeping through gaps in the houses: others were washing the blood from their hands and feet; these combed out their long dishevelled, dusty hair: those anointed their skins with perfumed cocoa-nut oil. There were all manner of murderers present, a villanous collection of Kartikeya's and Bhawani's crew. There were stabbers with their poniards hung to lanyards lashed round their naked waists, Dhaturiya- poisoners distinguished by the little bag slung under the left arm, and Phansigars wearing their fatal kerchiefs round their necks. And Randhir had reason to thank the good deed in the last life that had sent him there in such strict disguise, for amongst the robbers he found, as might be expected, a number of his own people, spies and watchmen, guards and patrols.

The thief, whose importance of manner now showed him to be the chief of the gang, was greeted with applause as he entered the robing room, and he bade all make salam to the new companion. A number of questions concerning the success of the night's work was quickly put and answered: then the company, having got ready for the revel, flocked into the first cave. There they sat down each in his own place, and began to eat and drink and make merry.

After some hours the flaring torches began to burn out, and drowsiness to overpower the strongest heads. Most of the robbers rolled themselves up in the rugs, and covering their heads, went to sleep. A few still sat with their backs to the wall, nodding drowsily or leaning on one side, and too stupefied with opium and hemp to make any exertion.

At that moment a servant woman, whom the king saw for the first time, came into the cave, and looking at him exclaimed, "O Raja! how came you with these wicked men? Do you run away as fast as you can, or they will surely kill you when they awake."

"I do not know the way; in which direction am I to go?" asked Randhir.

The woman then showed him the road. He threaded the confused mass of snorers, treading with the foot of a tiger-cat, found the ladder, raised the trap-door by exerting all his strength, and breathed once more the open air of heaven. And before plunging into the depths of the wood he again marked the place where the entrance lay and carefully replaced the bunch of grass.

Hardly had Raja Randhir returned to the palace, and removed the traces of his night's occupation, when he received a second deputation of the merchants, complaining bitterly and with the longest faces about their fresh misfortunes.

"O pearl of equity!" said the men of money, "but yesterday you consoled us with the promise of some contrivance by the blessing of which our houses and coffers would be safe from theft; whereas our goods have never yet suffered so severely as during the last twelve hours."

Again Randhir dismissed them, swearing that this time he would either die or destroy the wretches who had been guilty of such violence.

Then having mentally prepared his measures, the Raja warned a company of archers to hold themselves in readiness for secret service, and as each one of his own people returned from the robbers' cave he had him privily arrested and put to death--because the deceased, it is said, do not, like Baitals, tell tales. About nightfall, when he thought that the thieves, having finished their work of plunder, would meet together as usual for wassail and debauchery, he armed himself, marched out his men, and led them to the rock in the jungle.

But the robbers, aroused by the disappearance of the new companion, had made enquiries and had gained intelligence of the impending danger. They feared to flee during the daytime, lest being tracked they should be discovered and destroyed in detail. When night came they hesitated to disperse, from the certainty that they would be captured in the morning. Then their captain, who throughout had been of one opinion, proposed to them that they should resist, and promised them success if they would hear his words. The gang respected him, for he was known to be brave: they all listened to his advice, and they promised to be obedient.

As young night began to cast transparent shade upon the jungle ground, the chief of the thieves mustered his men, inspected their bows and arrows, gave them encouraging words, and led them forth from the cave. Having placed them in ambush he climbed the rock to espy the movements of the enemy, whilst others applied their noses and ears to the level ground. Presently the moon shone full upon Randhir and his band of archers, who were advancing quickly and carelessly, for they expected to catch the robbers in their cave. The captain allowed them to march nearly through the line of ambush. Then he gave the signal, and at that moment the thieves, rising suddenly from the bush fell upon the royal troops and drove them back in confusion.

The king also fled, when the chief of the robbers shouted out, "Hola! thou a Rajput and running away from combat?" Randhir hearing this halted, and the two, confronting each other, bared their blades and began to do battle with prodigious fury.

The king was cunning of fence, and so was the thief. They opened the duel, as skilful swordsmen should, by bending almost double, skipping in a circle, each keeping his eye well fixed upon the other, with frowning brows and contemptuous lips; at the same time executing divers gambados and measured leaps, springing forward like frogs and backward like monkeys, and beating time with their sabres upon their shields, which rattled like drums.

Then Randhir suddenly facing his antagonist, cut at his legs with a loud cry, but the thief sprang in the air, and the blade whistled harmlessly under him. Next moment the robber chief's sword, thrice whirled round his head, descended like lightning in a slanting direction towards the king's left shoulder: the latter, however, received it upon his target and escaped all hurt, though he staggered with the violence of the blow.

And thus they continued attacking each other, parrying and replying, till their breath failed them and their hands and wrists were numbed and cramped with fatigue. They were so well matched in courage, strength, and address, that neither obtained the least advantage, till the robber's right foot catching a stone slid from under him, and thus he fell to the ground at the mercy of his enemy. The thieves fled, and the Raja, himself on his prize, tied his hands behind him, and brought him back to the city at the point of his good sword.

The next morning Randhir visited his prisoner, whom he caused to be bathed, and washed, and covered with fine clothes. He then had him mounted on a camel and sent him on a circuit of the city, accompanied by a crier proclaiming aloud: "Who hears! who hears! who hears! the king commands! This is the thief who has robbed and plundered the city of Chandrodaya. Let all men therefore assemble themselves together this evening in the open space outside the gate leading towards the sea. And let them behold the penalty of evil deeds, and learn to be wise."

Randhir had condemned the thief to be crucified, nailed and tied with his hands and feet stretched out at full length, in an erect posture until death; everything he wished to eat was ordered to him in order to prolong life and misery. And when death should draw near, melted gold was to be poured down his throat till it should burst from his neck and other parts of his body.

In the evening the thief was led out for execution, and by chance the procession passed close to the house of a wealthy landowner. He had a favourite daughter named Shobhani, who was in the flower of her youth and very lovely; every day she improved, and every moment added to her grace and beauty. The girl had been carefully kept out of sight of mankind, never being allowed outside the high walls of the garden, because her nurse, a wise woman much trusted in the neighbourhood, had at the hour of death given a solemn warning to her parents. The prediction was that the maiden should be the admiration of the city, and should die a Sati- widow before becoming a wife. From that hour Shobhani was kept as a pearl in its casket by her father, who had vowed never to survive her, and had even fixed upon the place and style of his suicide.

But the shaft of Fate strikes down the vulture sailing above the clouds, and follows the worm into the bowels of the earth, and pierces the fish at the bottom of the ocean--how then can mortal man expect to escape it? As the robber chief, mounted upon the camel, was passing to the cross under the old householder's windows, a fire breaking out in the women's apartments, drove the inmates into the rooms looking upon the street.

The hum of many voices arose from the solid pavement of heads: "This is the thief who has been robbing the whole city; let him tremble now, for Randhir will surely crucify him!"

In beauty and bravery of bearing, as in strength and courage, no man in Chandrodaya surpassed the robber, who, being magnificently dressed, looked, despite his disgraceful cavalcade, like the son of a king. He sat with an unmoved countenance, hardly hearing in his pride the scoffs of the mob; calm and steady when the whole city was frenzied with anxiety because of him. But as he heard the word "tremble" his lips quivered, his eyes flashed fire, and deep lines gathered between his eyebrows.

Shobhani started with a scream from the casement behind which she had hid herself, gazing with an intense womanly curiosity into the thoroughfare. The robber's face was upon a level with, and not half a dozen feet from, her pale cheeks. She marked his handsome features, and his look of wrath made her quiver as if it had been a flash of lightning. Then she broke away from the fascination of his youth and beauty, and ran breathless to her father, saying:

"Go this moment and get that thief released!

"The old housekeeper replied: "That thief has been pilfering and plundering the whole city, and by his means the king's archers were defeated; why, then, at my request, should our most gracious Raja Randhir release him?"

Shobhani, almost beside herself, exclaimed: "If by giving up your whole property, you can induce the Raja to release him, then instantly so do; if he does not come to me, I must give up my life!"

The maiden then covered her head with her veil, and sat down in the deepest despair, whilst her father, hearing her words, burst into a cry of grief, and hastened to present himself before the Raja. He cried out:

"O great king, be pleased to receive four lakhs of rupees, and to release this thief."

But the king replied: "He has been robbing the whole city, and by reason of him my guards have been destroyed. I cannot by any means release him."

Then the old householder finding, as he had expected the Raja inexorable, and not to be moved, either by tears or bribes, or by the cruel fate of the girl, returned home with fire in his heart, and addressed her:

"Daughter, I have said and done all that is possible but it avails me nought with the king. Now, then, we die."

In the mean time, the guards having led the thief all round the city, took him outside the gates, and made him stand near the cross. Then the messengers of death arrived from the palace, and the executioners began to nail his limbs. He bore the agony with the fortitude of the brave; but when he heard what had been done by the old householder's daughter, he raised his voice and wept bitterly, as though his heart had been bursting, and almost with the same breath he laughed heartily as at a feast. All were startled by his merriment; coming as it did at a time when the iron was piercing his flesh, no man could see any reason for it.

When he died, Shobhani, who was married to him in the spirit, recited to herself these sayings:

"There are thirty-five millions of hairs on the human body. The woman who ascends the pile with her husband will remain so many years in heaven. As the snake-catcher draws the serpent from his hole, so she, rescuing her husband from hell, rejoices with him; aye, though he may have sunk to a region of torment, be restrained in dreadful bonds, have reached the place of anguish, be exhausted of strength, and afflicted and tortured for his crimes. No other effectual duty is known for virtuous women at any time after the death of their lords, except casting themselves into the same fire. As long as a woman in her successive transmigrations, shall decline burning herself, like a faithful wife, in the same fire with her deceased lord, so long shall she not be exempted from springing again to life in the body of some female animal."

Therefore the beautiful Shobhani, virgin and wife, resolved to burn herself, and to make the next life of the thief certain. She showed her courage by thrusting her finger into a torch flame till it became a cinder, and she solemnly bathed in the nearest stream.

A hole was dug in the ground, and upon a bed of green tree-trunks were heaped hemp, pitch, faggots, and clarified butter, to form the funeral pyre. The dead body, anointed, bathed, and dressed in new clothes, was then laid upon the heap, which was some two feet high. Shobhani prayed that as long as fourteen Indras reign, or as many years as there are hairs in her head, she might abide in heaven with her husband, and be waited upon by the heavenly dancers. She then presented her ornaments and little gifts of corn to her friends, tied some cotton round both wrists, put two new combs in her hair, painted her forehead, and tied up in the end of her body-cloth clean parched rice and cowrie-shells. These she gave to the bystanders, as she walked seven times round the funeral pyre, upon which lay the body. She then ascended the heap of wood, sat down upon it, and taking the thief's head in her lap, without cords or levers or upper layer or faggots, she ordered the pile to be lighted. The crowd standing around set fire to it in several places, drummed their drums, blew their conchs, and raised a loud cry of "Hari bol! Hari bol! " Straw was thrown on, and pitch and clarified butter were freely poured out. But Shobhani's was a Sahamaran, a blessed easy death: no part of her body was seen to move after the pyre was lighted--in fact, she seemed to die before the flame touched her.

By the blessing of his daughter's decease, the old householder beheaded himself. He caused an instrument to be made in the shape of a half-moon with an edge like a razor, and fitting the back of his neck. At both ends of it, as at the beam of a balance, chains were fastened. He sat down with eyes closed; he was rubbed with the purifying clay of the holy river, Vaiturani; and he repeated the proper incantations. Then placing his feet upon the extremities of the chains, he suddenly jerked up his neck, and his severed head rolled from his body upon the ground. What a happy death was this!

The Baital was silent, as if meditating on the fortunate transmigration which the old householder had thus secured.

"But what could the thief have been laughing at, sire?" asked the young prince Dharma Dhwaj of his father.

"At the prodigious folly of the girl, my son," replied the warrior king, thoughtlessly.

"I am indebted once more to your majesty," burst out the Baital, "for releasing me from this unpleasant position, but the Raja's penetration is again at fault. Not to leave your royal son and heir labouring under a false impression, before going I will explain why the brave thief burst into tears, and why he laughed at such a moment.

"He wept when he reflected that he could not requite her kindness in being willing to give up everything she had in the world to save his life; and this thought deeply grieved him.

Then it struck him as being passing strange that she had begun to love him when the last sand of his life was well nigh run out; that wondrous are the ways of the revolving heavens which bestow wealth upon the niggard that cannot use it, wisdom upon the bad man who will misuse it, a beautiful wife upon the fool who cannot protect her, and fertilizing showers upon the stony hills. And thinking over these things, the gallant and beautiful thief laughed aloud.

"Before returning to my sires-tree," continued the Vampire, "as I am about to do in virtue of your majesty's unintelligent reply, I may remark that men may laugh and cry, or may cry and laugh, about everything in this world, from their neighbours' deaths, which, as a general rule, in no wise concern them, to their own latter ends, which do concern them exceedingly. For my part, I am in the habit of laughing at everything, because it animates the brain, stimulates the lungs, beautifies the countenance, and--for the moment, good-bye, Raja Vikram!

The warrior king, being forewarned this time, shifted the bundle containing the Baital from his back to under his arm, where he pressed it with all his might.

This proceeding, however, did not prevent the Vampire from slipping back to his tree, and leaving an empty cloth with the Raja.

Presently the demon was trussed up as usual; a voice sounded behind Vikram, and the loquacious thing again began to talk.

<< Index of Stories of Vikram and Betal

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