The Best Friend.

In the early days of Rome, a king, dying, left the throne to a young son. A protracted siege soon followed; the city was oppressed by famine; and the king, acting on the advice of counsellors of his own age, ordered all the old men and women to be slain, as they consumed food, but were useless for defence. All who concealed their parents were also to be put to death. Thus the sons became more cruel than the enemy to their fathers. One wise old man was concealed in an underground cave by his son, whose wife was aware of the fact, but promised with an oath to keep the secret. By-and-by peace was con­cluded. The young king had no advisers skilled in law and wisdom. His young counsellors drew him into every wickedness; vice ran riot in the realm, the impious triumphed, and the innocent suffered. The country now had cause to remember the saying of the wise man: “Woe to the state whose king is a boy, and whose princes feast together till morning.” But the youth who had concealed his father brought before him all causes referred to him. The old man pointed out the proper decisions, and thus the youth came into favour, was able somewhat to restore order and law, and was made chief counsellor. Hence arose hatred towards him, and plots were laid by his former associates. They suspected that his father was alive and taught him this wisdom. Openly they durst not say so. They per­suaded the king to appoint a time for plays, games, and feasts, and to order every one to bring forward (1) his best friend, (2) his worst enemy, (3) as good a mimic and (4) as faithful a servant as he had. This was agreed to. Some brought as the friend a father, others a wife, and so on. But the youth, instructed by his father, who detected the evil design, brought forward a dog, an ass, his little son, and his wife. At the noise of the people and the sound of the music, the stolid ass became excited, and made the palace echo with his braying. Soon all were attracted to the spot. Ridiculed by the wits, the youth, when questioned by the king, said:

“My dog is my best friend. He does not fear to accompany me wherever I go, encountering with me the danger of streams and robbers, and the sharp fangs of wild beasts. For me, he despises even death itself, and often refreshes me and my guests with the excellent game he captures. Away from me, he is never happy, beside me, never sad. Truly, O king, I have nowhere found so faithful and sincere a friend, nor do I think you have any better.

“I have brought forward to you my ass, the most faithful and patient of servants. For he, every morning, going out to the forest, returns thence laden with firewood; when this is removed from his back, he carries corn to the mill, and brings it back ground; then he sets off with the buckets to the well, and returns with them full. Although he does all this day by day, without murmur or reluctance, he demands no costly dress, or expensive food, but is satisfied if a little hay or chaff follows his daily toil. I ask, O king, where shall I find such a servant? Clearly, nowhere.

“But whom, as a mimic, could I bring forward better than my little son? For he daily shows me new sports, and, while he attempts to imitate what he sees or hears, puts on comic expressions, mumbles the words he cannot utter plainly, and when he completely fails to say what he thinks, expresses it by signs and bodily gestures. In the same hour, we find him joyful and sad, weeping and laughing, and that not artificially, as with others, but he acts simply, incited by his nature and age, and looking for no reward from me.

“Finally, I have brought here my wife, the greatest enemy I have.” But the wife, seeing she had been reserved for this indignity, remembering the confidence, pity, and humanity exer­cised towards her husband and his father, was goaded into fury, and could scarcely allow her husband to finish the words. “O worst and most ungrateful of men,” said she, “who, unmindful of the kindness and pity which I have shown for many years now towards your father, withdrawn from death and kept in a cave—now to regard me before the king and all the people as an enemy!” But the young man replied:

“You see, O king, that what I said concerning my wife is true, who, for a single word, both betrays my concealed father and brings me under sentence of death. So a certain very wise old man, instructing his son, commanded him to be especially on his guard against her who lay in his bosom, that is, his wife, wishing it to be understood that she was a false friend. For against open enemies it is easy to be on the watch, but no one can avoid a wife, or fair-faced friend, who is always about, because they pretend to inordinate love by their words, and plan snares in their hearts.”

But the king, having admired the skill of the young man, and understanding the truth of his words, anticipated his accusers: “Go,” said he to him; “you and your father are safe; delay not to bring him to the games.” The old man was therefore led from the cave, and on account of his surprising wisdom, the king appointed him a judge and father of the city and country. In a short time he restored the ancient condition of things, expelled vice, implanted good, restored quiet, and, dying, left behind him many followers of virtue.

“Hear then,” adds the wise man, “my story ends, and going away, O king, I ask from thee nought else but that you grant your son his life for this day, knowing that something is concealed which, if you knew, will free you from murder and your son from punishment.”

This story, found in different forms in mediæval works, and probably of Talmudic origin, is reproduced, with variations, in the Gesta Romanorum, Tale 124, to this effect: A certain noble knight, having offended his king, is to be pardoned on condition that he enter the royal hall of audience on foot and riding at the same time, and bring with him his most attached friend, the best jester, and his most deadly foe. One evening a pilgrim comes to the knight's castle to claim his hospitality, and after he has retired, the knight, saying to his wife that pilgrims often carried much gold about with them, proposes to rob and murder their guest, which has the lady's approval. But the knight, rising early next morning, dismisses the pilgrim, and, killing a calf, he cuts it into pieces, and puts them into a sack, which he then gives to his wife, desiring her to hide it, saying that only the head, legs, and arms of the pilgrim were in the sack—the rest he had him­self concealed in the stable. On the day appointed, the knight proceeds to the king's palace, accompanied by his dog, his child, and his wife. He enters the royal hall, with one leg over his dog, as if he was riding. The king is amused with his ingenuity, and then asks him for his best friend. The knight, drawing his sword, wounds his dog, who runs away, howling with pain; but on the knight calling him back, he immediately returns, and fawns upon him. “This,” says he, “is my true and faithful friend.” Then the king asks for his worst enemy; upon which the knight strikes his wife a severe blow. Enraged at this affront, the lady exclaims: “Why dost thou smite me? Dost thou forget that thou didst slay a pilgrim in thy house?” The knight then gave her a second blow. “Wretch!” she cries, “dost thou think I cannot tell where I placed the sack contain­ing parts of the murdered man, and that the rest of him lies in the stable?” Messengers are despatched to search the places indicated by the woman, and they return with the flesh and bones of the calf, upon which the king bestows great gifts and honours on the knight, and ever after held him in great esteem.

On the Fourth Morning the prince is again led out to be burnt, when an aged man, robed in a toga, and seated on a mule, presents himself before the king, and relates the story of