Bengal Fairy Tales/Katmanush, or the Human Being who was made of Wood

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VII

KATMANUSH, OR THE HUMAN BEING WHO WAS MADE OF WOOD

AT a fair held on the borders of two contiguous kingdoms, there assembled a large crowd, but amongst all those who gathered there, two especially attracted the chief attention; the prince of one of the kingdoms, and the princess of the other. They were complete strangers to one another and happening both to fancy the same exquisite article which was for sale, they began bargaining for it. Taking advantage of the competition, the seller raised its price, till at last the prince thought it to be too high, and left the article for the princess to buy. But he was galled at the disappointment and beckoning the princess aside, he whispered into her ear, "If I ever possess you as my wife, I shall leave you, even on the day of our marriage." The princess also in a whisper made the reply, " If what you suppose takes place, I shall make you eat jhole-bhát[1] for six months." By this threat, she meant that she would make him lie prostrate on a sick-bed for six months.

The two then parted, though neither of them forgot the episode. In the course of a few months, the prince's father, thinking of marrying his son, sent Ghataks[2] to the neighbouring kingdoms, and the princess's father happened at the same time to do the same with regard to his daughter. The Ghataks of both countries met, and patched up a contract of marriage between the prince and the princess, to be in time confirmed by their fathers. The contract was ratified, and the required preliminaries having been gone through, the marriage day was fixed. The two young persons most interested in the affair remained in ignorance of the fact that there was soon to be the very relationship between themselves that they had, but a few months ago, imagined and made vows concerning. Great therefore was their astonishment when they met before the priest, to be united in the bonds of matrimony.

The ceremony duly came to an end and the prince and the princess were about to be conducted into the bridal chamber, when the former, alleging some urgent duty as a plea, left the palace never to retrace his steps. The bride therefore was compelled to pass the night without her husband. She understood full well what his absence meant but instead of regretting her former impertinence, she rather bragged of it to herself, and renewed her own vow a thousand times.

Months passed without the husband or wife hearing of each other. Their parents kept a good understanding between themselves but the chief parties remained indifferent. One morning, a woman, apparently made of wood, but possessed of the power of moving, speaking, and acting like a human being, came to the prince's mother, and asked service of her. The whole house was in amazement at this prodigy. But the voice and words of sense coming from the abnormal form so captivated the queen that she could not refuse the services offered. The woman gave her name as Kátmánúsh[3] and closed the contract, saying that there were two conditions that must be made; one, that she should never be told to cook, and the other, that she must be permitted to sleep alone in her own room. Being promised these things, she worked as an ordinary servant.

Time passed, and Kátmánúsh endeared herself to every one in her mistress's family. The prince talked kindly to her and the king bestowed especial favour on her. One evening there was a fair held near the palace and its inmates went there, leaving her behind. She being alone and thus free to act as she liked, emerged from her wooden frame, which as the reader may by this time have guessed, had been assumed by her as a disguise, and went to the roof of the palace to take the evening air, not suspecting that any one would intrude. But she was wrong in her calculations, for the prince returning to the house on some urgent business, knocked at the gate. She hastily resumed her wooden frame and opened the door to him, whereupon he at once asked who the lady of unrivalled beauty on the roof was. She said she was ignorant of any lady being in the house, and though the prince remained silent, the vivid impression made upon him by the extraordinary manifestation of beauty his eyes had seen could not be effaced from his mind. There was hardly a moment when he did not think of her who had captivated his heart, and he greatly longed to see her again. But his longing was vain, for the time being at least, and he gradually pined away. Great mental anguish produced bodily distempers, and the healthy and vigorous young man was turned into a skeleton. He lost his appetite and the power of digestion and was forced to take to his bed. Nobody knew the cause of his complaint except Kátmánúsh, who kept the secret from them all. At length all hope of the prince's life was given up and a message was sent to his sister, living in her father-in-law's house, that she must visit her brother at once, if she wished to see him alive.

What sister can remain away from the bed-side of a brother in such a plight? The princess without a moment's delay started for her father's palace. But the journey was too long to be accomplished in one day, so she was compelled to halt by the way to spend the night. Near the inn where she stopped, there was a temple of Shiva, and she fell prostrate before the god to supplicate him for the recovery of her brother. Thereupon the god revealed to her, that the prince was certain to get well if she who was named Kátmánúsh would cook his food for six months, and sleep in the same room with him for the same time.

Delighted with this communication, she sped to her brother's side, and informed her mother of the instructions of Shiva. Kátmánúsh was then called in, and piteously asked to save the prince's life. She raised many objections, the chief among them being that she would not, as she had stipulated at the beginning of her service, cook or sleep with any living mortal. At this the queen and the princess became very importunate. They fell at her feet, and with tears rolling down their cheeks entreated her to preserve from an untimely death him whom they loved more than their lives. She at length gave in on the condition that when cooking, she must be left alone with the doors shut and that when she slept with the prince, there must be no light in the room. We need hardly say that the conditions were gladly accepted, and from that very day Kátmánúsh began ministering to the prince.

Six months expired in this way, and during the first night after the termination of that period, Kátmánúsh as usual lay by the side of the prince in total darkness. She could not sleep owing to the different feelings that agitated her. Love struggled with pride, and pity with feminine bashfulness, until at last, casting aside the wooden cover that hid her charms, she lit the lamp in the room, awakened the prince and stood before him endowed with all those charms that had from the house-top turned his head. He gazed at her, and dim recollections of the past crept into his mind, until at last convinced that the lady before him was no other than his wife, he hugged her to his bosom.

Next morning, the whole royal family were surprised to find the door of the prince's room shut, even when the sun gilded the domes of the palace. That Kátmánúsh should be so late in quitting the room was a mystery to them, and the queen herself, afraid that some mishap might have happened to her son, called at last from outside, until the sleepers awakened and opened the door to her. We can easily realize how thunderstruck she was to see a lady of ravishing beauty in the place of the servant of abnormal shape, and her son with the flush of health and cheerfulness on his countenance. Explanations were given, and the queen, setting fire to the frame of wood with her own hands, led the prince and princess to the king. The whole city soon became a scene of joy. All the houses in it were grandly decorated, and during the night there were magnificent illuminations and fireworks. The happy couple viewed the scene from a splendid chariot driven from one end of the city to the other, the people in crowds shouting, "Long live the prince and the princess Kátmánúsh!"

 

  1. Boiled rice and thin broth.
  2. Match makers.
  3. A human being made of wood.