Shehzadi Mircha

By Flora Annie Stee

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Once upon a time, a very old woodman lived with his very old wife in a tiny hut close to the orchard of a rich man,—so close that the boughs of a pear-tree hung right over the cottage yard. Now it was agreed between the rich man and the woodman, that if any of the fruit fell into the yard, the old couple were to be allowed to eat it; so you may imagine with what hungry eyes they watched the pears ripening, and prayed for a storm of wind, or a flock of flying foxes, or anything which would cause the fruit to fall. But nothing came, and the old wife, who was a grumbling, scolding old thing, declared they would infallibly become beggars. So she took to giving her husband nothing but dry bread to eat, and insisted on his working harder than ever, till the poor old soul got quite thin; and all because the pears would not fall down! At last, the woodman turned round and declared he would not work any more unless his wife gave him khichri to his dinner; so with a very bad grace the old woman took some rice and pulse, some butter and spices, and began to cook a savoury khichri. What an appetizing smell it had, to be sure! The woodman was for gobbling it up as soon as ever it was ready. ‘No, no,’ cried the greedy old wife, ‘not till you have brought me in another load of wood; and mind it is a good one. You must work for your dinner.’

So the old man set off to the forest and began to hack and to hew with such a will that he soon had quite a large bundle, and with every faggot he cut he seemed to smell the savoury khichri and think of the feast that was coming.

Just then a bear came swinging by, with its great black nose tilted in the air, and its little keen eyes peering about; for bears, though good enough fellows on the whole, are just dreadfully inquisitive.

‘Peace be with you, friend!’ said the bear, ‘and what may you be going to do with that remarkably large bundle of wood?’

‘It is for my wife,’ returned the woodman. ‘The fact is,’ he added confidentially, smacking his lips, ‘she has made such a khichri for dinner! and if I bring in a good bundle of wood she is pretty sure to give me a plentiful portion. Oh, my dear fellow, you should just smell that khichri!’

At this the bear’s mouth began to water, for, like all bears, he was a dreadful glutton. ‘Do you think your wife would give me some too, if I brought her a bundle of wood?’ he asked anxiously.
‘Perhaps; if it was a very big load,’ answered the woodman craftily.

‘Would—would four hundredweight be enough?’ asked the bear.

‘I’m afraid not,’ returned the woodman, shaking his head; ‘you see khichri is an expensive dish to make,—there is rice in it, and plenty of butter, and pulse, and—’

‘Would—would eight hundredweight do?’

‘Say half a ton, and it’s a bargain!’ quoth the woodman.

‘Half a ton is a large quantity!’ sighed the bear.

‘There is saffron in the khichri,’ remarked the woodman casually.

The bear licked his lips, and his little eyes twinkled with greed and delight.

‘Well, it’s a bargain! Go home sharp and tell your wife to keep the khichri hot; I’ll be with you in a trice.’

Away went the woodman in great glee to tell his wife how the bear had agreed to bring half a ton of wood in return for a share of the khichri.

Now the wife could not help allowing that her husband had made a good bargain, but being by nature a grumbler, she was determined not to be pleased, so she began to scold the old man for not having settled exactly the share the bear was to have; ‘For,’ said she, ‘he will gobble up the potful before we have finished our first helping.’

On this the woodman became quite pale. ‘In that case,’ he said, ‘we had better begin now, and have a fair start.’ So without more ado they squatted down on the floor, with the brass pot full of khichri between them, and began to eat as fast as they could.

‘Remember to leave some for the bear, wife,’ said the woodman, speaking with his mouth crammed full.

‘Certainly, certainly,’ she replied, helping herself to another handful.

‘My dear,’ cried the old woman in her turn, with her mouth so full that she could hardly speak, ‘remember the poor bear!’

‘Certainly, certainly, my love!’ returned the old man, taking another mouthful.

So it went on, till there was not a single grain left in the pot.

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