The Story of the King
and the Four Girls

a folktale from India
edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1999

There was once a king who, during the day, used to sit on his throne and dispense justice, but who at night was accustomed to disguise himself and to wander about the streets of his city looking for adventures.

One evening he was passing by a certain garden when he observed four young girls sitting under a tree, and conversing together in earnest tones. Curious to overhear the subject of their discourse, he stopped to listen.

The first said, "I think of all tastes the pleasantest in the world is the taste of meat."

"I do not agree with you," said the second. "There is nothing so good as the taste of wine."

"No, no," cried the third, "you are both mistaken, for of all tastes the sweetest is the taste of love."

"Meat and wine and love are all doubtless sweet," remarked the fourth girl. "But in my opinion nothing can equal the taste of telling lies."

The girls then separated and went to their homes. And the king, who had listened to their remarks with lively interest and with much wonder, took note of the houses into which they went, and, having marked each of the doors with chalk, he returned to his palace.

The next morning he called his vizier, and said to him, "Send to the narrow street, and bring before me the owners of the four houses, the doors of which have a round mark in chalk upon them."

The vizier at once went in person, and brought to the court the four men who lived in the houses to which the king had referred. Then said the king to them, "Have not you four men four daughters?"

"We have," answered they.

"Bring the girls hither before me," said the king.

But the men objected, saying, "It would be very wrong that our daughters should approach the palace of the king."

"Nay," said the king, "if the girls are your daughters, they are mine too, besides which, you can bring them privately."

So the king sent four separate litters, curtained in the usual manner, and the four girls were thus brought to the palace and conducted into a large reception room. Then he summoned them one by one to his presence as he required them.

To the first girl he said, "O daughter, what were you talking about last night when you sat with your companions under the tree?"

"I was not telling tales against you, O king," answered she.

"I do not mean that," said the king. "But I wish to know what you were saying."

"I merely said," replied she, "that the taste of meat was the pleasantest."

"Whose daughter, then, are you?" inquired the king.

"I am the daughter of a Bhábrá," answered she.

"But," said the king, "if you are one of the Bhábrá tribe, who never touch meat, what do you know of the taste of it? So strict are they, that when they drink water they put a cloth over the mouth of the vessel, lest they should swallow even an insect."

Then said the girl, "Yes, that is quite true, but, from my own observation, I think meat must be exceedingly pleasant to the palate. Near our house there is a butcher's shop, and I often notice that when people buy meat, none of it is wasted or thrown away. Therefore it must be precious. I also notice that, when people have eaten the flesh, the very bones are greedily seized upon by the dogs, nor do they leave them until they have picked them as clean as a lance head. And even after that, the crows come and carry them off, and when the crows have done with them, the very ants assemble together and swarm over them. Those are the reasons which prove that the taste of flesh-meat must be exceedingly pleasant."

The king, hearing her argument, was pleased, and said, "Yes, daughter, meat is very pleasant as food. Everyone likes it." And he sent her away with a handsome present.

The second girl was then introduced, and of her the king inquired likewise, "What were you talking about last night under the tree?"

"I said nothing about you, O king," answered she.

"That is true, but what did you say?" asked the king.

"What I said," replied she, "was that there was no taste like the taste of wine."

"But whose daughter are you?" continued the king.

"I am," said she, "the daughter of a priest.":

"A good joke, forsooth," said the king, smiling. "Priests hate the very name of wine. Then, what do you know of the taste of it?"

Then said the girl, "It is true I never touch wine, but I can easily understand how pleasant it is. I learn my lessons on the top of my father's house. Below are the wine shops. One day I saw two men nicely dressed, who came with their servants to buy wine at those shops, and there they sat and drank. After a time they got up and went away, but they staggered about from side to side, and I thought to myself, 'Here are these fellows rolling about, knocking themselves against the wall on this side, and falling against the wall on that. Surely they will never drink wine again!' However, I was mistaken, for the next day they came again and did the very same thing, and I considered, 'Wine must be very delicious to the taste, or else these persons would never have returned for more of it.'"

Then said the king, "Yes, O daughter, you are right. The taste of wine is very pleasant." And, giving her also a handsome present, he sent her home.

When the third girl entered the room, the king asked her in like manner, "O daughter, what were you talking about last night under the tree?"

"O king," answered she, "I made no reference to you."

"Quite so," said the king, "but tell me what it was you were saying."

"I was saying," replied she, "that there is no taste in the world so sweet at the taste of love-making."

"But," said the king, "you are a very young girl. What can you know about love-making? Whose daughter are you?"

"I am the daughter of a bard," answered she. "It is true I am very young, but somehow I guess that love-making must be pleasant. My mother suffered so much when my little brother was born that she never expected to live. Yet, after a little time, she went back to her old ways and welcomed her lovers just the same as before. That is the reason I think that love-making must be so pleasant."

"What you say," observed the king, "cannot, O daughter, be justly denied." And he gave her a present equal in value to those of her friends and sent her, also, away.

When the fourth girl was introduced, the king put the same question to her, "Tell me what you and your companions talked about under the tree last night."

"It was not about the king," answered she.

"Nevertheless," asked he, "what was it you said?"

"Those who tell lies, said I, must tell them because they find the practice agreeable," replied she.

"Whose daughter are you?" inquired the king.

"I am the daughter of a farmer," answered the girl.

"And what made you think there was pleasure in telling lies?" asked the king.

The girl answered saucily, "Oh, you yourself will tell lies someday!"

"How?" said the king. "What can you mean?"

The girl answered, "If you will give me two lacs of rupees, and six months to consider, I will promise to prove my words."

So the king gave the girl the sum of money she asked for, and agreed to her conditions, sending her away with a present similar to those of the others.

After six months he called her to his presence again, and reminded her of her promise. Now, in the interval the girl had built a fine palace far away in the forest, upon which she had expended the wealth which the king had given to her. It was beautifully adorned with carvings and paintings, and furnished with silk and satin. So she now said to the king, "Come with me, and you shall see God."

Taking with him two of his ministers, the king went out, and by the evening they all arrived at the palace.

"This palace is the abode of God," said the girl. "But he will reveal himself only to one person at a time, and he will not reveal himself even to him unless he was born in lawful wedlock. Therefore, while the rest remain without, let each of you enter in order."

"Be it so," said the king. "But let my ministers precede me. I shall go in last."

So the first minister passed through the door and at once found himself in a noble room, and as he looked around he said to himself, "Who knows whether I shall be permitted to see God or not? I may be a bastard. And yet this place, so spacious and so beautiful, is a fitting dwelling place even for the deity." With all his looking and straining, however, he quite failed to see God anywhere. Then said he to himself, "If now I go out and declare that I have not seen God, the king and the other minister will throw it in my teeth that I am base-born. I have only one course open, therefore, which is to say that I have seen him."

So he went out, and when the king asked, "Have you seen God?" he answered at once, "Of course I have seen God."

"But have you really seen him?" continued the king.

"Really and truly," answered the minister.

"And what did he say to you?" inquired the king further.

"God commanded me not to divulge his words," readily answered the minister.

Then said the king to the other minister, "Now you go in."

The second minister lost no time in obeying his master's order, thinking in his heart as he crossed the threshold, "I wonder if I am base-born?" Finding himself in the midst of the magnificent chamber, he gazed about him on all sides, but failed to see God. Then said he to himself, "It is very possible I am base-born, for no God can I see. But it would be a lasting disgrace that I should admit it. I had better make out that I also have seen God."

Accordingly, he returned to the king, who said to him, "Well, have you seen God?" when the minister asserted that he had not only seen him, but that he had spoken with him too.

It was now the turn of the king, and he entered the room confident that he would be similarly favored. But he gazed around in dismay, perceiving no sign of anything which could even represent the Almighty. Then began he to think to himself, "This God, wherever he is, has been seen by both my ministers, and it cannot be denied, therefore, that their birthright is clear. Is it possible that I, the king, am a bastard, seeing that no God appears to me? The very thought is confusion, and necessity will compel me to assert that I have seen him too."

Having formed this resolution, the king stepped out and joined the rest of his party.

"And now, O king," asked the cunning girl, "have you also seen God?"

"Yes," answered he with assurance, "I have seen God."

"Really?" asked she again.

"Certainly," asserted the king.

Three times the girl asked the same question, and three times the king unblushingly lied. Then said the girl, "O king, have you never a conscience? How could you possibly see God, seeing that God is a spirit?"

Hearing this reproof, the king recalled to mind the saying of the girl that one day he would lie too, and, with a laugh, he confessed that he had not seen God at all. The two ministers, beginning to feel alarmed, confessed the truth as well. Then said the girl, "O king, we poor people may tell lies occasionally to save our lives, but what had you to fear? Telling lies, therefore, for many has its own attractions, and to them at least the taste of lying is sweet."

Far from being offended at the stratagem which the girl had practiced on him, the king was so struck with her ingenuity and assurance that he married her forthwith, and in a short time she became his confidential adviser in all his affairs, public as well as private. Thus this simple girl came to great honor and renown, and so much did she grow in wisdom that her fame spread through many lands.

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Revised October 20, 1999.