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VI

THE FOUR SWINDLERS

ONCE, in a certain country, there was a king who was on terms of intimate friendship with his prime minister, the chief merchant, and the kotál. Each of them had a son, and the four young men were great friends. They were very intelligent and learned, and being desirous of completing their education by travelling, they started on an auspicious day for foreign countries. Reaching the kingdom nearest to their own, they heard of its king's fame for justice, and of his keen insight in dispensing it. Being curious to prove the correctness of the report, they resolved to enter his kingdom in disguise, carry on a series of swindles, and see how he detected and punished them.

There was a river on the outskirts of his dominions, which had to be crossed before entering them. The young men, on reaching it, found a boy in charge of the ferry boat. They got into it as passengers, and on inquiry learnt from him that his father had just gone home to snatch a hasty meal, and that he was acting for him. This knowledge was fully utilized by them. They crossed the river, and on landing each gave the boy a cowrie, which was not a current coin. He, as was natural, refused to take these as his remuneration, whereupon the four friends said, "Well, you say your house is on the road which we shall have to pass. Come with us, and when we are near your house, you may call out to your father that we have given you four bad cowries. If he protests against it, you may compel us to pay you to your satisfaction."

The boy agreed to this, and when they came near his home cried out, "Father, four men have crossed the river, and paid me four bad cowries." The intimation was so ambiguously worded, according to the dictation of the friends, that the ferry-man understood that in the cowries his son had received, there were four that were bad, and so he thought little of the matter. But when he came to the ghat and learnt from his son the whole story, he found that he had been imposed upon, and he instantly reported the matter to the king, so that he might know of the arrival of swindlers within his dominions.

The friends, having proceeded further, saw a confectioner's shop, and finding there a man acting as its master, whose very features betrayed that he was a first-class idiot, they proposed to play a trick on him, similar to that which they had played upon the ferry-man's son. Entering the shop, they ordered some good sandesh[1] and ate as much of it as they could. Then, in the course of their conversation with the man, they learnt that not he, but his brother, Juggo, who was then absent, was the owner of the shop. Hearing the name, they said that Juggo was their old friend, and pretended great sorrow at not being in time to meet him. When the man in the shop asked their names, they said they were known as Machees.[2] The conversation having come to an end, they got up from their seats, and were about to leave, when they were asked for the price of the sweetmeats. At this they burst into a laugh, patted the man on the back, and said, "You are Juggo's younger brother, and so ours, and we bless you from our hearts. If our friend were here, he would not let us depart so soon, but would force us to be his guests for weeks and weeks. To spare you reproaches from him, we do not like to pay you anything, for if he learns on returning that you have taken money for the sweetmeats supplied to his beloved Machees, he will be very cross with you. Give him our best love, and say that we intend seeing him on our return." The poor deluded man, on his brother's arrival home, found that he had been cheated. The village Chaukidar was informed of the swindle, and he of course reported the matter to his superiors, and they to the king.

It was manifest, therefore, to the people of the capital that swindlers had found their way into the kingdom, and the king instructed the police to be on the alert. The friends had in the meantime reached the capital, and were making preparations to begin swindling on a grand scale. They had cheated two men, the ferryman and the confectioner, who were illiterate and stupid, but that was nothing in comparison with what they were meditating. At the chief seat of Government the four foremost families were the king's, the prime minister's, the chief merchant's, and the kotál's, and these they selected as their intended victims. Each of the friends was to practise his art of deception on the family of equal rank to his own. In a short time they became masters of the secrets of these families, and began their work, each taking his turn.

First came the turn of the prime minister's son. He on inquiry learnt that his father's equal in the kingdom had a young married daughter, in the full bloom of youth and beauty, whose husband had never visited her after their marriage. With the object of playing her husband's part, and thus defrauding her father of much jewellery and other valuables, the minister's son one evening called at the house of his intended victim, and introduced himself as his son-in-law. The old man was not in a position to judge whether the young man was in reality his daughter's husband or not, for he had not seen the latter since the marriage many years before. But in the circumstances, there was no reason for doubt, since no stranger was likely to venture to make such a pretension.

The prime minister, accordingly, received his supposed son-in-law with great cordiality. The good news was received in the Zenána, which in celebration of the joyous event resounded with the noise of conch-shells and ulús.[3] Great festivities took place, after which the pseudo son-in-law was shown to his apartments, and the ladies busied themselves in decorating the prime minister's daughter as gaily as possible. When she was bedecked to their satisfaction, they took the bashful girl, trembling with emotion, into her husband's apartments and left her with her supposed lord, who on seeing her, became a prey to diverse feelings—admiration at the beauty of the girl before him, pity at the ruse he was practising on the innocent creature, and fear of succumbing to temptation. But however intense his feelings, they soon yielded to his desire for success in the enterprise. Assuming a false gravity and sadness, he thus addressed the girl, "I see you do not value me in the least. Well, I deserve this for not having seen you so long. But surely these are not your best garments. Your jewels are of the poorest kind. This is an insult to me. I will never again touch the threshold of this house, until I can make you fitting presents."

The girl was much affected by this tirade. Sobbing she ran out of the room to her mother, who, on hearing her report, brought out the most precious gems in the house, and bedecking her with them, led her back to her husband's apartments and left her there. Her supposed husband, in order to avoid making any such overtures as might afterwards give rise to scandal, feigned to feel unwell and very drowsy, and fell into a pretended sleep. The girl therefore could not do otherwise than fall asleep too. It was during the small hours of the morning, when dead silence still reigned over the whole house, that the young man quietly rose up, removed the jewels and the rich clothes from the girl's body, and tying them in a small bundle, made towards the gate, and under pretence of some unavoidable and urgent business outside, deceived the guard, and showed a clean pair of heels. Before dawn he met his friends in the house they had hired, and they heartily congratulated him on the success of his adventure.

The prime minister's daughter on awaking, and finding herself alone and bereft of her clothes and jewels, was thunderstruck. With a loud shriek she fell into a swoon. Her parents hurried to her, and it did not take them long to see what had happened. On inquiry, they learnt from her the full details of the case, and the prime minister hastened to the court with the information. He received the sincerest sympathy at having been so mercilessly robbed, and the kotál was at once summoned, apprised of the affairs of the past night, and commanded to exercise great vigilance, so that similar cases might not occur in future.

The four friends were by no means cowards, and especially desired to make a prey of people prepared to oppose them. One of them, therefore, on the morning following the above incidents, called at the court in the disguise of an astrologer, and after the set form of speech peculiar to professors of astrology, said, "O Incarnation of justice! Four dangerous men have entered your majesty's kingdom with the intention of committing mischief. Last night one of them robbed His Excellency the Prime Minister. To-day again, one of them will try to make the chief merchant, Sadágar Maháshai, his victim. I reveal this secret so that your majesty may take means to thwart the wicked man's purpose."

The king dismissed the fictitious astrologer with rich presents, and called on the kotál to keep a special guard round the merchant's house. The whole city was awake, and sentinels paraded the streets, lanes and by-lanes. The prospective hero of the night, the merchant's son, whom we have referred to at the beginning of our story, was in the meantime making preparations to carry out his scheme of robbing the chief merchant in the city. Having ascertained that this man's old mother was a devoted worshipper of the god Shiva, to whom she had built a temple in the most unfrequented part of her son's extensive property, and whom she worshipped there every evening, he intended impersonating the god, and thus robbing her of everything valuable that she had amassed during her past life. A bull was secured, for the god was believed to ride only on an animal of this species, and having saddled it, our hero, when the shades of evening were approaching, got on its back, he himself being wrapped in a tiger skin, and smeared all over the body with ashes, since this was Shiva's usual habit. Like the god, he carried a horn in his hand, and thus equipped, he proceeded to the temple through a jungly path, the facsimile of him whom he represented. He reached the temple while the merchant's mother was engaged in devotional exercises, and with bôm, bôm, bôm, the supposed watch-word of Shiva, he burst into the room riding the bull. The old lady looked up, and beside herself with joy on recognizing him whom she took to be her tutelary god, she made obeisance after obeisance, and when the prostrations were over, stood before him with folded palms. Her visitor played his part to perfection and said, "My daughter, I am very much pleased with you and your devotions. You are no longer to be left in this wicked world and so I come to take you to Kailásh, my abode." At the words, the Sadágar's mother was greatly moved. She shed tears of joy and gratitude, and expressed instant readiness to be taken into that celestial country. The wily actor, in order to extort everything valuable his victim had, thus broke forth, "Oh Mother, it does not become you to go to Kailásh without money or gems. Present them to your mother, Bhagabati, and your brethren Nandi and Bhringi, my faithful attendants."

The merchant's mother, hearing these words, asked permission to fetch all she had, and it being granted, she hastened to her room, emptied her well-filled coffers, and returned to the temple with immense treasure hid in a bundle of cloth. The false Shiva took her upon the bull, and drove it away till he reached the thickest part of the jungle, where he pushed her off the animal's back, and left her bruised and wounded. Getting into the public road, he drove the animal off to graze, and hurried on to where he lodged with his friends. His reception was as cordial as might have been expected, and the night was passed in great merriment.

Next morning the bed of the merchant's mother was found empty and no trace of her was to be discovered. The strictest search was made throughout the house, but to no effect. At length some of the merchants' neatherds, who had gone with their charges early to the adjacent jungle, found her half-dead with fright and exposure and brought her before her son. On being asked her experiences during the past night, she burst into bitter lamentations, and said, "O, how wretched am I! When I had nearly reached the doors of Kailáshpuri, I accidentally fell down. May God be merciful and take me there again, to enjoy that blissful abode in the society of mother Bhagabati and brothers Nandi and Bhringi." Being asked what she meant, she faithfully narrated what had happened and her son at once saw the hoax that had been played upon her, and hurried off to the court with the information. All were paralyzed with astonishment and they racked their brains to discover means to detect the perpetrators of these crimes, and prevent them from molesting others. At that moment, the preceding day's fictitious astrologer came in and prophesied that during the following night the kotál's house would be plundered, and he himself put to torture. The head of the police, however, was not the man to be frightened. He bragged of his sagacity and vigilance, and scouted the idea of being circumvented. But before the next morning dawned, he was destined to be taken completely unawares and robbed of every valuable article he possessed.

Evening drew near, and nature was quickly clothed in her sable garb. The kotál's son, who was to play his part, dressed himself as the princess of the kingdom, imitated her voice and manners, taking his friends with him disguised as her attendants, and carrying with him all the things required for worship. The plan adopted was that the kotál's son, the chief actor that night, should in his female dress impersonate the princess, and his companions her followers. All four bent their steps towards the temple of Káli near the palace. Their female attire afforded them security and no policeman dared challenge them. But when they arrived at the spot where the kotál of the kingdom was personally superintending his forces, he, filled with suspicion, laid his hand on the shoulder of him who played the part of the princess. The latter at once assumed the dignity and tone of an affronted lady, and threatened to report the kotál's insolence to the king. The officer, under the impression that the person speaking was no other than the princess herself, fell on his knees and begged for pardon, which was granted on condition that he would amuse them by showing them how criminals were put in the stocks. The kotál, hastening to comply with their request, led them into the jail, and having none undergoing the punishment at the time, took off his coat, laid himself flat on his back, and asked one of them to put him into the stocks. It was no sooner done, than the hero of the night dressed himself in the uniform of the man at his mercy, went to his wife and so cleverly impersonated her husband, that he induced her to make over every valuable gem and jewel she possessed, to be kept securely by him until the morning. Then the young men, with their precious spoil, hurriedly left the place for their own house.

The next morning the kotál was missing, and the whole court and the members of his family, who were full of anxiety, looked for him everywhere without success. At length an inferior police officer happened by chance to enter the jail, and great was his consternation on finding the kotál stretched at full length on the ground, with the stocks on his feet. Being instantly liberated, the prefect of police saw his wife, who with tears related how the most precious things in the house had been taken away. The man was pierced to the heart to realize that he was now reduced to poverty, and hastened to the court with the report of the outrage done to him. Some pitied him, others less favourably disposed, laughed in their sleeves at his expense. A little later the pretender to astrological knowledge made his appearance as usual, and announced that the king himself would be the next victim.

The sensation that prevailed after this announcement can be better imagined than described, and the whole city was in great consternation. The police force was augmented by recruits from the mofussil, mercenaries from all over the kingdom within a day's march were enrolled, and every house in the city sent out its volunteers. The king, at sunset, fully accoutred, patrolled the streets on horseback, and it seemed as if every door was shut against intruders.

Galloping far and near, the king on one of his rides towards the outskirts of the city, found a Jogi absorbed in his meditations, with a fire burning before him. The king was inspired with veneration for the Jogi's sanctity and bowed low to him, informing him of his troubles, and begging him to frustrate the evil purposes of his enemies. The Jogi expressed great sympathy, and offered to go to the palace, and cast a spell round it, so as to make it impervious to any attack. The king said that that was out of the question, for he had left word that nobody should be permitted to approach the palace. At that the Jogi appeared to give up the project, but the king, after musing within himself, came to a decision on the matter.

He said that the religious man might put on the royal dress, and riding on the royal horse, might reach the palace unopposed. The plan seemed feasible, but another difficulty stood in the way. The Jogi said that the fire burning before him was sacrificial, and that it was necessary that it should be preserved. The king, however, volunteered to attend to it, and the two men thereupon exchanged clothes. The king then sat down by the fire to replenish it while the ascetic rode to the palace.

The Jogi was no other than the prince of the foreign kingdom, bent on practising his ruse, and on he sped, until entering the palace, he hastened to the queen and talked to her so cleverly that no suspicion as to his identity entered her mind. He pretended a great deal of apprehension, and induced her to deliver into his hands all the most precious gems and jewels in her custody. This done, he rode away, though not to the place where he had left the king, but to his lodgings.

The poor king waited for the Jogi's return for many hours, and when he could no longer command his patience, he wearily walked to the gate of the palace. On attempting to get in, however, he was repulsed by the police. On his becoming imperious they laughed at him, and then thrashed him so that he lay insensible during the remaining hours of the night. But when the sun rose above the horizon, some of the sentinels recognized him, and with aching hearts removed him to his bed, where it took him some considerable time to recover.

Later in the day he attended the court, and with tears narrated his experiences of the past night. The false astrologer was present; but this time the courtiers suspected him. They rightly thought that he must be an accomplice of the robbers; and one of them went so far as to throw out inuendoes regarding his complicity, and to advise his instant dismissal from the court, after he had been severely chastised. The object of this treatment, without making any protest, went away, and when he met his friends, they concocted a plan for the punishment of the courtier. What that plan was, we shall see later.

The court rose, and people went to their own homes in no enviable humour. They were all filled with suspense. Nobody knew who was to be the next victim. The security offered by the presence of the police was no security at all, and most of the citizens thought of leaving their homes for some other country. Human succour could no longer be relied upon, and appeal was made to the gods for the removal of the curse. The king resigned himself to the hands of fate, and after attending the special devotional services that were held, sought his bed.

Let us now divert our attention to the four men who had caused him and his people so much trouble. With a basket of sweetmeats, they knocked at the gate of the courtier who had that morning insulted one of them. The owner of the house, unwilling to receive strangers at so late an hour, did not open the gate, but asked from inside who his visitors were. To this they replied that they were bearers of presents from the king. The poor man's gullibility got the better of his judgment and half opening the gate, he thrust forth his right hand to receive the gift. But, alas, that hand would never more be used, for the greater part of it was chopped off, and the courtier rolled on the ground in great agony. His assailants vanished before his shrieks could be heard by his people, and hurriedly proceeded towards that side of the palace where the king's bed-room stood. Through its open window, they thrust the courtier's hand, tied to a pole, so that it touched the king's head. The king, instantly jumping up, cut at it with the sword lying beside him, and exulted greatly at the idea of having dismembered one of those who had so long been his pests and having thus found a clue to the discovery of the whole gang.

The next morning the king got up and instructed the kotál to send his men round to find out a man whose right hand had been cut off. But the man had not far to go for the unfortunate courtier was found coming to the palace, with his mutilated wrist hidden in a bandage slung round his neck. This at once aroused suspicion in their minds, and taking off the bandage they saw that the hand was missing and at once jumped to the conclusion that the man they wanted was before them. They led him bound to the king, and the account he gave of the night's adventure not being believed, he was sentenced to be tortured until he named his accomplices, and finally, if he did not confess, to be executed. The work of torture was about to commence, when the four young men, the cause of his misfortune, came to the court, dressed according to their rank, and made a clean breast of everything. They had brought with them all their spoils, and they laid them at the king's feet with many apologies for the trouble they had caused. The king, too generous and humorous not to understand their motives, embraced them, and sent them away with many presents, giving the hand of his daughter to the prince. The kotál and the merchant also had marriageable daughters, and these they gave to the two young men whose fathers in their own country were of the same rank as themselves. The prime minister had a young maiden niece whom he married to him who had once impersonated his son-in-law. A veil was drawn over the past, and the four friends with their wives returned safely to their own country, not forgetting to make ample amends to the confectioner and the boatman for the deception they had practised upon them.

 

  1. One of the best Indian sweetmeats.
  2. Flies.
  3. Musical sounds that Bengali women make on joyous occasions by moving their tongues inside their mouths.