Old Deccan Days/The Rakshas' Palace

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A GREAT while since there lived a Rajah who was left a widower with two little daughters. Not very long after his first wife died, he married again, and his second wife did not care for her step-children, and was often unkind to them; and the Rajah, their father, never troubled himself to look after them, but allowed his wife to treat them as she liked. This made the poor girls very miserable, and one day one of them said to the other, 'Don't let us remain any longer here; come away into the jungle, for nobody here cares whether we go or stay.' So they both walked off into the jungle, and lived for many days on the jungle fruits. At last, after they had wandered on for a long while, they came to a fine palace which belonged to a Rakshas; but both the Rakshas and his wife were out when they got there. Then one of the Princesses said to the other, 'This fine palace, in the midst of the jungle, can belong to no one but a Rakshas; but the owner has evidently gone out; let us go in and see if we can find anything to eat.' So they went into the Rakshas' house, and finding some rice, boiled and ate it. Then they swept the room, and arranged all the furniture in the house tidily. But hardly had they finished doing so, when the Rakshas and his wife returned home. Then the two Princesses were so frightened that they ran up to the top of the house, and hid themselves on the flat roof, from whence they could look down on one side into the inner courtyard of the house, and from the other could see the open country. The house-top was a favourite resort of the Rakshas and his wife. Here they would sit upon the hot summer evenings; here they winnowed the grain, and hung out the clothes to dry; and the two Princesses found a sufficient shelter behind some sheaves of corn that were waiting to be threshed. When the Rakshas came into the house he looked round and said to his wife, 'Somebody has been arranging the house, everything in it is so clean and tidy. Wife, did you do this?'—'No,' she said; 'I don't know who can have done all this.'—'Some one also has been sweeping the courtyard,' continued the Rakshas. 'Wife, did you sweep the courtyard?'—'No,' she answered, 'I did not do it. I don't know who did.' Then the Rakshas walked round and round several times with his nose up in the air, saying, 'Some one is here now. I smell flesh and blood! Where can they be?'—'Stuff and nonsense!' cried his wife. 'You smell flesh and blood, indeed! Why, you have just been killing and eating a hundred thousand people. I should wonder if you didn't still smell flesh and blood!' They went on disputing the subject, until at last the Rakshas said, 'Well, never mind, I don't know how it is, but I'm very thirsty; let's come and drink some water.' So both the Rakshas and his wife went to a well which was close to the house, and began letting down jars into it, and drawing up the water, and drinking it. And the Princesses, who were on the top of the house, saw them. Now the youngest of the two Princesses was a very wise girl, and when she saw the Rakshas and his wife by the well, she said to her sister, 'I will do something now that will be good for us both;' and, running down quickly from the top of the house, she crept close behind the Rakshas and his wife, as they stood on tiptoe more than half over the side of the well, and, catching hold of one of the Rakshas' heels and one of his wife's, gave each a little push, and down they both tumbled into the well and were drowned, the Rakshas and the Rakshas' wife! The Princess then returned to her sister and said, 'I have killed the Rakshas.'—'What! both?' cried her sister. 'Yes, both,' she said. 'Won't they come back?; said her sister. 'No, never,' answered she.

The Rakshas being thus killed, the two Princesses took possession of the house, and lived there very happily for a long time. In it they found heaps and heaps of rich clothes, and jewels, and gold and silver, which the Rakshas had taken from people he had murdered; and all round the house were folds for the flocks, and sheds for the herds of cattle, which the Rakshas had owned. Every morning the youngest Princess used to drive out the flocks and herds to pasturage, and return home with them every night, while the eldest stayed at home, cooked the dinner, and kept the house; and the youngest Princess, who was the cleverest, would often say to her sister on going away for the day, 'Take care if you see any stranger (be it man, woman, or child) come by the house, to hide, if possible, that nobody may know of our living here; and if any one should call out and ask for a drink of water, or any poor beggar pray for food, before you give it them be sure you put on ragged clothes, and cover your face with charcoal, and make yourself look as ugly as possible, lest, seeing how fair you are, they should steal you away, and we never meet again.'—'Very well,' the other Princess would answer, 'I will do as you advise.' But a long time passed, and no one ever came by that way.

At last one day, after the youngest Princess had gone out as usual to take the cattle to pasturage, a young Prince, the son of a neighbouring Rajah, who had been hunting with his attendants for many days in the jungles, came near the place when searching for water (for he and his people were tired with hunting, and had been seeking all through the jungle for a stream of water, but could find none). When the Prince saw the fine palace, standing all by itself, he was very much astonished, and said, 'It is a strange thing that any one should have built such a house as this in the depths of the forest! Let us go in; the owners will doubtless give us a drink of water.'—'No, no, do not go,' cried his attendants; 'this is most likely the house of a Rakshas.'—'We can but see,' answered the Prince. 'I should scarcely think anything very terrible lived here, for there is not a sound stirring, nor a living creature to be seen.' So he began tapping at the door, which was bolted, and crying, 'Will whoever owns this house give me and my people some water to drink, for the sake of kind charity?' But nobody answered, for the Princess, who heard him, was busy up in her room, blacking her face with charcoal, and covering her rich dress with rags. Then the Prince got impatient, and shook the door, saying angrily, 'Let me in, whoever you are! If you don't I'll force the door open.' At this the poor little Princess got dreadfully frightened; and having blacked her face, and made herself look as ugly as possible, she ran downstairs with a pitcher of water, and unbolting the door, gave the Prince the pitcher to drink from; but she did not speak, for she was afraid. Now the Prince was a very clever man, and as he raised the pitcher to his mouth to drink the water, he thought to himself, 'This is a very strange-looking creature who has brought me this jug of water. She would be pretty, but that her face seems to want washing, and her dress also is very untidy. What can that black stuff on her face and hands be? it looks very unnatural.' And so thinking to himself, instead of drinking the water, he threw it in the Princess's face! The Princess started back with a little cry, whilst the water, trickling down her face, washed off the charcoal, and showed her delicate features and beautiful fair complexion. The Prince caught hold of her hand, and said, 'Now tell me true, who are you? where do you come from? Who are your father and mother? and why are you here alone by yourself in the jungle? Answer me, or I'll cut your head off.' And he made as though he would draw his sword. The Princess was so terrified she could hardly speak, but, as best she could, she told how she was the daughter of a Rajah, and had run away into the jungle because of her cruel stepmother, and finding the house, had lived there ever since; and having finished her story, she began to cry. Then the Prince said to her, (Pretty lady, forgive me for my roughness; do not fear; I will take you home with me, and you shall be my wife.' But the more he spoke to her the more frightened she got,—so frightened that she did not understand what he said, and could do nothing but cry. Now she had said nothing to the Prince about her sister, nor even told him that she had one, for she thought, 'This man says he will kill me; if he hears that I have a sister, they will kill her too.' So the Prince, who was really kind-hearted, and would never have thought of separating the two little sisters who had been together so long, knew nothing at all of the matter, and only seeing she was too much alarmed even to understand gentle words, said to his servants, 'Place this lady in one of the palkees, and let us set off home.' And they did so.

When the Princess found herself shut up in the palkee and being carried she knew not where, she thought how terrible it would be for her sister to return home and find her gone, and determined, if possible, to leave some sign to show her which way she had been taken. Round her neck were many strings of pearls. She untied them, and tearing her saree into little bits, tied one pearl in each piece of the saree, that it might be heavy enough to fall straight to the ground; and so she went on, dropping one pearl and then another, and another, and another, all the way she went along, until they reached the palace, where the Rajah and Ranee, the Prince's father and mother, lived. She threw the last remaining pearl down just as she reached the palace gate.

The old Rajah and Ranee were delighted to see the beautiful Princess their son had brought home; and when they heard her story they said, 'Ah, poor thing! what a sad story; but now she has come to live with us, we will do all we can to make her happy.' And they married her to their son with great pomp and ceremony, and gave her rich dresses and jewels, and were very kind to her. But the Princess remained sad and unhappy, for she was always thinking about her sister, and yet she could not summon courage to beg the Prince or his father to send and fetch her to the palace.

Meantime the youngest Princess, who had been out with her flocks and herds when the Prince took her sister away, had returned home. When she came back she found the door wide open, and no one standing there. She thought it very odd, for her sister always came every night to the door, to meet her on her return. She went upstairs; her sister was not there; the whole house was empty and deserted. There she must stay all alone, for the evening had closed in, and it was impossible to go outside and seek her with any hope of success. So all the night long she waited, crying, 'Some one has been here, and they have stolen her away: they have stolen my darling away. O sister! sister!' Next morning, very early, going out to continue the search, she found one of the pearls belonging to her sister's necklace tied up in a small piece of saree; a little further on lay another, and yet another, all along the road the Prince had gone. Then the Princess understood that her sister had left this clue to guide her on her way, and she at once set off to find her again. Very, very far she went—a six months' journey through the jungle—for she could not travel fast, the many days' walking tired her so much, and sometimes it took her two or three days to find the next piece of saree with the pearl. At last she came near a large town, to which it was evident her sister had been taken. Now this young Princess was very beautiful indeed—as beautiful as she was wise,—and when she got near the town she thought to herself, 'If people see me they may steal me away as they did my sister, and then I shall never find her again. I will therefore disguise myself.' As she was thus thinking she saw by the side of the road the skeleton of a poor old beggar-woman, who had evidently died from want and poverty. The body was shrivelled up, and nothing of it remained but the skin and bones, The Princess took the skin and washed it, and drew it on over her own lovely face and neck, as one draws a glove on one's hand. Then she took a long stick and began hobbling along, leaning on it, towards the town. The old woman's skin was all crumpled and withered, and people who passed by only thought, 'What an ugly old woman!' and never dreamed of the false skin and the beautiful, handsome girl inside. So on she went, picking up the pearls—one here, one there—until she found the last pearl just in front of the palace gate. Then she felt certain her sister must be somewhere near, but where, she did not know. She longed to go in to the palace and ask for her, but no guards would have let such a wretched-looking old woman enter, and she did not dare offer them any of the pearls she had with her, lest they should think she was a thief. So she determined merely to remain as close to the palace as possible, and wait till fortune favoured her with the means of learning something further about her sister. Just opposite the palace was a small house belonging to a farmer, and the Princess went up to it, and stood by the door. The farmer's wife saw her and said, 'Poor old woman, who are you? what do you want? why are you here? have you no friends?'—'Alas! no,' answered the Princess. 'I am a poor old woman, and have neither father nor mother, son nor daughter, sister nor brother, to take care of me; all are gone! and I can only beg my bread from door to door.'

'Do not grieve, good mother,' answered the farmer's wife kindly. 'You may sleep in the shelter of our porch, and I will give you some food.' So the Princess stayed there for that night and for many more: and every day the good farmer's wife gave her food. But all this time she could learn nothing of her sister.

Now there was a large tank near the palace, on which grew some fine lotus plants, covered with rich crimson lotuses—the royal flower—and of these the Rajah was very fond indeed, and prized them very much. To this tank (because it was the nearest to the farmer's house) the Princess used to go every morning, very early, almost before it was light, at about three o'clock, and take off the old woman's skin and wash it, and hang it out to dry; and wash her face and hands, and bathe her feet in the cool water, and comb her beautiful hair. Then she would gather a lotus-flower (such as she had been accustomed to wear in her hair from a child) and put it on, so as to feel for a few minutes like herself once more! Thus she would amuse herself. Afterwards, as soon as the wind had dried the old woman's skin, she put it on again, threw away the lotus-flower, and hobbled back to the farmer's door before the sun was up.


After a time the Rajah discovered that some one had plucked some of his favourite lotus-flowers. People were set to watch, and all the wise men in the kingdom put their heads together to try and discover the thief, but without avail. At last, the excitement about this matter being very great, the Rajah's second son, a brave and noble young Prince (brother to him who had found the eldest Princess in the forest) said, 'I will certainly discover the thief.' It chanced that several fine trees grew round the tank. Into one of these the young Prince climbed one evening (having made a sort of light thatched roof across two of the boughs, to keep off the heavy dews), and there he watched all the night through, but with no more success than his predecessors. There lay the lotus plants, still in the moonlight, without so much as a thieving wind coming by to break off one of the flowers. The Prince began to get very sleepy, and thought the delinquent, whoever he might be, could not intend to return, when, in the very early morning, before it was light, who should come down to the tank but an old woman he had often seen near the palace gate. 'Aha!' thought the Prince 'this then is the thief; but what can this queer old woman want with lotus-flowers?' Imagine his astonishment when the old woman sat down on the steps of the tank and began pulling the skin off her face and arms! and from underneath the shrivelled yellow skin came the loveliest face he had ever beheld! So fair, so fresh, so young, so gloriously beautiful, that appearing thus suddenly it dazzled the Prince's eyes like a flash of golden lightning! 'Ah,' thought he, 'can this be a woman or a spirit? a devil, or an angel in disguise?'

The Princess twisted up her glossy black hair; and, plucking a red lotus, placed it in it, and dabbled her feet in the water, and amused herself by putting round her neck a string of the pearls that had been her sister's necklace. Then, as the sun was rising, she threw away the lotus, and covering her face and arms again with the withered skin, went hastily away. When the Prince got home the first thing he said to his parents was, 'Father, mother; I should like to marry that old woman who stands all day at the farmer's gate, just opposite.'—'What!' cried they, 'the boy is mad! Marry that skinny old thing? You cannot—you are a King's son. Are there not enough Queens and Princesses in the world, that you should wish to marry a wretched old beggar woman?' But he answered, 'Above all things I should like to marry that old woman. You know that I have ever been a dutiful and obedient son. In this matter, I pray you, grant me my desire.' Then seeing he was really in earnest about the matter, and that nothing they could say would alter his mind, they listened to his urgent entreaties, not, however, without much grief and vexation; and sent out the guards, who fetched the old woman (who was really the Princess in disguise) to the palace, where she was married to the Prince as privately, and with as little ceremony, as possible, for the family were ashamed of the match.

As soon as the wedding was over, the Prince said to his wife, 'Gentle wife, tell me how much longer you intend to wear that old skin? You had better take it off; do be so kind.' The Princess wondered how he knew of her disguise, or whether it was only a guess of his: and she thought, 'If I take this ugly skin off, my husband will think me pretty, and shut me up in the palace and never let me go away, so that I shall not be able to find my sister again. No, I had better not take it off.' So she answered, 'I don't know what you mean. I am as all these years have made me; nobody can change their skin.' Then the Prince pretended to be very angry, and said, 'Take off that hideous disguise this instant, or I'll kill you.' But she only bowed her head, saying, 'Kill me, then, but nobody can change their skin.' And all this she mumbled as if she were a very old woman indeed, and had lost all her teeth and could not speak plain. At this the Prince laughed very much to himself, and thought, 'I'll wait and see how long this freak lasts.' But the Princess continued to keep on the old woman's skin; only every morning, at about three o'clock, before it was light, she would get up and wash it and put it on again. Then some time afterwards the Prince, having found this out, got up softly one morning early, and followed her to the next room, where she had washed the skin and placed it on the floor to dry, and stealing it, he ran away with it, and threw it on the fire. So the Princess, having no old woman's skin to put on, was obliged to appear in her own likeness. As she walked forth, very sad at missing her disguise, her husband ran to meet her, smiling and saying, 'How do you do, my dear? Where is your skin now? Can't you take it off, dear?' Soon the whole palace had heard the joyful news of the beautiful young wife that the Prince had won; and all the people, when they saw her, cried, 'Why, she is exactly like the beautiful Princess our young Rajah married, the jungle lady.' The old Rajah and Ranee were prouder than all of their daughter-in-law, and took her to introduce her to their eldest son's wife. Then no sooner did the Princess enter her sister-in-law's room, than she saw that in her she had found her lost sister, and they ran into each other's arms! Great then was the joy of all, but the happiest of all these happy people were the two Princesses; and they lived together in peace and joy their whole lives long.