FOLK TALES: courtesy of Mary Mark Ockerbloom, A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Emperor and the Abbot." by Lilian Gask (1865-)
From: Folk Tales From Many Lands. retold by Lilian Gask (1865-). Illustrations by Willy Pogany (1882-1955). New York, T.Y. Crowell & Company [1910] pp. 72-81.

FROM MANY LANDS: courtesy of Mary Mark Ockerbloom, A Celebration of Women Writers


The Emperor & the Abbot  A similar story is related of one of our English Kings John and the Abbot of Canterbury

T HE Emperor Charlemagne was a splendid horseman, and there was nothing he enjoyed more than a long ride through field and forest. He galloped just where his fancy led him, only staying his flying steed when he wished to gaze with pride over his vast dominions.

On one of these occasions he saw before him the Abbey of St Gall, and noticed with much amusement the sleek and contented air of the good Abbot, who was just then strolling through the lovely gardens. His brow was smooth and open; his eyes were bright and placid as a child's, and from his well-nourished appearance it was plain that care sat lightly upon him. As the Emperor surveyed him, himself unseen, he felt a pang of envy.

"My good Abbot takes life too easily," he thought; "I must give him something to think of." And leaving his horse with a startled servitor, he entered the gardens and greeted the Abbot with kindly dignity. So pleasant was he in his inquiries as to his mode of life, the way he employed his time, and so on, that the Abbot was ill prepared for his concluding speech.

"I have three more questions to ask you," said the Emperor. "If you can answer them correctly, you shall continue to be the Abbot of St Gall. If you fail, however, I shall command you to ride round the city on an ass, with your back towards his head, and holding his tail in your hand instead of a bridle."

The Abbot turned pale and trembled, and his voice shook as he inquired what his Majesty's will might be. He knew, poor man, that he was far from clever, and the thought of riding upon the ass in the way described disturbed him as nothing had done for years. The Emperor, well satisfied to have ruffled his calm content, smiled to himself as he continued.

"Listen," he cried, "and listen well! For the peace of your future depends upon this. I will ask you my questions now, but I will give you three months in which to answer them, so that you cannot complain I have taken you unawares. The first one is, how long to a minute will it take me to go round the world?"

The Abbot gasped, and the Emperor smiled grimly as he put the second question.

"How much am I worth to a penny, when my crown is on my head, my sceptre in my hand, and I am clad in my royal robes?"

He paused a moment to let the import of his words sink into the Abbot's mind; then struck his final blow.

"Lastly," he said, "you must not only tell me of what I am thinking at the moment, when I next put the question, but you must prove that I am mistaken, and quite in the wrong."

The Abbot was beyond speech now, and, laughing heartily at his discomfiture, and reminding him of the ignominious penance that awaited him if he failed, the Emperor mounted his horse and rode away.

Gone was the good Abbot's peace of mind. Night and day he was haunted by those terrible questions; he could not sleep, and he could not eat. His plight indeed was pitiable. In vain he consulted the learned men throughout the Emperor's dominions. The wisest professors in the great universities shook their heads when the questions were put to them, and the answers they gave were so unsatisfactory that even the Abbot could see they would not do. A month flew by as if its flight were winged; a second followed it swiftly, and when the third drew to its close the Abbot was in despair. None of his friends could comfort him, and, sad at heart, he wandered over the country, envying the humblest creature that made its home in the fields.

He was in this mood when he was suddenly accosted by a shepherd, to whom he was well known by sight.

"Good morning, Lord Abbot," said the man. "You seem distressed. I would gladly serve you if I could, for many a sup of good red wine did you send my wife when she was ill, and food for the children when times were hard. Tell me, I pray you, what troubles you so sorely? A mouse before now has been known to help a lion."

The Abbot was touched by the poor man's sympathy, which he accepted as simply as it was offered.

B E thankful," he said, "that you are only a shepherd, for many are the ills that your position spares you." And laying aside his usual reserve with his inferiors, he told him of the penance he must perform if he failed to answer the Emperor's terrible questions.

"The time that his Majesty gave me has nearly expired," he added mournfully, "and I am no nearer to solving them than I was at first."

Too dispirited to try and hide the tears that filled his eyes, the Abbot sadly resumed his walk. The shepherd laid a detaining hand on his flowing mantle.

"My lord," he said, "I am only a humble shepherd, but I believe I can answer those questions for you. If you will lend me your cloak, your mitre, and your cross, I will appear before the Emperor in your place, and you will be spared this trial."

The Abbot shook his head at this suggestion, but after a moment or two it did not appear to him so wild as it had done at first. Strange to relate, the shepherd was much the same build as himself, and had the rosy cheeks and unwrinkled brow that had been his own before the Emperor's visit. His eyes also were similar in colour to the good Abbot's, and when he spoke gently, as he did now, his voice was not too rough.

"You are a good fellow," said the Abbot gratefully, suddenly realising that if the shepherd took his place before the Emperor, he would likewise have to carry out the prescribed penance if he failed to answer the questions. After a little more urging on the poor man's part, he consented to his request. It was a forlorn hope, but a drowning man catches at a straw, and the Abbot's dreams were still haunted by a giant ass which had the head of the Emperor and a thousand tongues.

When the last day of the three months' grace had expired, his Majesty, who had by this time forgotten the whole occurrence, was told that the Abbot of St Gall awaited his royal pleasure. Laughing maliciously, he contemplated for some moments the man whom he believed to be the victim of his ingenious questions, noting with satisfaction that his figure appeared less bulky than before.

"Oho!" he cried, "it strikes me, my Lord Abbot, that you are somewhat thinner than you used to be!–less sleek of hair too, and your face is oval instead of round.... Have you found the answers to my questions? If not, remember, you must pay the penalty!"

To his amazement the Abbot looked him bravely in the face instead of cringing.

"I quite understand, your Majesty," he replied, "and am prepared to carry out your conditions."

"Well, then," said the Emperor, rather taken aback, "tell me, in the first place, the exact time, to the very minute, in which I could go round the world on horseback. Do not hurry–I want an accurate reply."

"If your Majesty will set out the instant the sun flames his banners above the horizon, and travel as quickly round the world as he does, you will have completed the tour in just twenty-four hours."

T HIS answer so amazed the Emperor that he remained silent for a while. As he could find no fault with it, he passed on to the second question.

"Well, then, how much am I worth, to the very penny, when clad in my royal robes, with my crown on my head, and my sceptre in my hand?"

Without showing the least sign of fear or hesitation, the pretended Abbot still looked him steadily in the face, and reverently lowered his voice.

"The Saviour of the World," he said, "was sold for thirty pieces of silver, and, since your Majesty would not claim to be so great as He, I therefore estimate your value at one piece less."

This answer did not please the Emperor, but he could not openly find fault with it.

He bravely looked the Emperor in the Face

"Well," he said haughtily "you have certainly answered two of my questions, but the third is yet to come, and if you fail with this, you must still ride through the city on an ass. Tell me what I think at this present moment!"

"You think that I am the Abbot of St Gall," was the quick reply.

"I do," returned the Emperor, "and I am curious to know how you are going to prove that I am wrong!"

The shepherd took off his cloak and mitre, displaying his peasant's garb.

"Then I am not," he said with emphasis, "as you may see." The contrast between the Abbot's robes and the shepherd's raiment so tickled the Emperor's fancy that he burst out laughing.

"You are a daring fellow," he exclaimed, "and a witty one also. Since you have afforded me so much amusement I will give you any reward that you may ask–even to making you the Abbot of St Gall in the place of your master."

"As your Majesty has so graciously promised to give me what I ask," returned the honest shepherd, "let my good master remain the Abbot for the rest of his life, without further anxiety."

"Would that my courtiers were as true to me as you are to him!" replied the Emperor, greatly struck by this poor man's loyalty and devotion. He did as he wished, and promised that the Abbot should be left in peace for the rest of his life; but he made it a condition that the shepherd himself should be well paid, so that in future he and his children need fear neither cold nor hunger. To do him justice, the Abbot was in no danger of forgetting his services, and as a further token of gratitude for his timely help, no one in need was ever allowed to leave the Abbey in want or misery.

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FROM MANY LANDS: courtesy of Mary Mark Ockerbloom, A Celebration of Women Writers