Little Ellie and Other Tales/The Wicked King
The Wicked King.
N old times there lived a wicked, proud-hearted King, who never thought of anything but of conquering all the lands in the world, and making his name a terror to every one. He hurried about with fire and sword; his soldiers trampled down the corn in the fields, and burned the houses of the peasants, so that the red flame seemed to lick the leaves off the trees, and the fruit hung roasted from the black and scorched boughs. Many a poor mother hid herself, with her little naked baby, behind the smoking walls, and the soldiers searched for them till they found both herself and her child, and then began their cruel joy. Wicked spirits could not have done more shocking things than they did; but the king thought this was just as it should be.
Day by day his power increased; his name became a terror to every one, and fortune favored him in all that he did. He brought home large heaps of gold and treasure from the cities that he conquered; and in his own royal city such wealth was stored up as never was seen in any other place. Now he had splendid castles and palaces built; and every one who saw these glorious things said, “What a great king!” They never thought of the distress he had brought upon other countries; they never heard the sighs and groans that rose from the towns which he had laid in ashes. The king gazed on his gold, and on his gorgeous palaces; and then, like many other people, he thought, “What a great king am I! but I must have still more, much more. No power must be called equal to, and certainly none shall be greater than mine!”
So he began at once to make war upon all his neighbors, and he conquered them all. He had the vanquished princes fastened to his chariot by chains of gold when he drove through the streets; and when he sat at table, they had to lie at his feet, and at the feet of his courtiers, and pick up the crumbs that were thrown to them.
Now the king had his image set up in the public squares and royal palaces: yes, he even wanted it to stand in the churches before the altar of the Lord; but the priests said, “O King, thou art great, but God is greater: we dare not do this.”
“Well, then,” said the wicked king, “I will overcome Him also!”
And in the pride and folly of his heart, he had a beautiful ship built, which could sail through the air. It was as gay in color as the tail of the peacock, and seemed furnished with a thousand eyes; but every eye was the muzzle of a gun-barrel. The King sat in the middle of the ship; then he had only to press a spring, and thousands of balls would fly out, while the guns were found loaded again, just as they had been before. Hundreds of mighty eagles were harnessed to the ship: and so, now that all was ready, it rose in the air, and flew up towards the sun.
The earth soon lay far down below him. At first, with its mountains and its woods, it looked like a ploughed field, where the green blades of grass peep out from among the broken clods of turf; then it was like a smooth map of the world, and soon after this it was hidden in mist and cloud. Higher and higher flew the eagles.
But, behold, God sent a single one from His countless host of angels, and the king shot thousands of balls at him; but the hard balls rebounded like hail from the angel’s shining wings. One drop of blood only, one single drop, came trickling from his snow-white plumes. This drop fell upon the ship in which the king was sitting: it burnt itself into it, and weighing down the vessel like a thousand fothers of lead, it bore it with awful violence towards the earth.
The strong wings of the eagles were broken; the wind whistled round the head of the king; and the clouds around him, which were made of the smoke of the burnt cities, took the threatening form of griffins, many miles long, that stretched out their strong claws at him; or now they looked like rolling rocks and dragons vomiting fire.
The king lay half dead at the bottom of the ship, which was caught, at last, in the thick branches of the forest.
“I will conquer heaven,” said he. “I have sworn that I will, and it shall be done.”
So for the next seven years he had ships cleverly built for sailing through the air; he had flashes of lightning forged from the hardest steel; for he was bent on riving the bulwarks of heaven. From all the countries he ruled over, large armies were levied, which covered a circuit of several miles when they were drawn up in order man by man.
They embarked in the ship she had so cunningly contrived, and he himself drew near to the one which he was to sail in. It was then that God sent a swarm of gnats against him,—one little swarm of gnats. They buzzed round the king, and stung him on his face and hands. He drew his sword in anger, but he only fought the empty air, for he could not touch the gnats. Therefore he ordered silken robes to be brought: he bade them wind these around him, that not a gnat should be able to reach him with its sting; and they did as he commanded.
But one little gnat lighted on the inside of the robes: it crept into the King’s ear, and stung him there. The wound burned like fire; the poison rose to his brain. He tore off the silken coverings, and dashed them from him; then, rending his clothes, he danced naked and mad before the rude wild soldiers; while they, in their turn, jeered at the mad and wicked King, who had thought of fighting with God, and who yet had been overcome by one single little gnat.