A Prince Carries An Old Woman Across A River
( Originally Published 1902 )
THERE was a young prince who was defrauded of his father's throne by another king. After a most careful education, he resolved to take the kingdom which belonged to him, and started upon his journey. He was beautiful in form and feature, his long flaxen hair falling about his shoulders. He had a spear in either hand and a leopard-skin mantle to protect him from the rain. The sandals, elegantly embroidered and fastened with gold braid, which he had on his feet had been worn by his father, and were especially prized by him. He came to a river badly swollen by the heavy rains and by the melting snow on Mount Olympus, and stood hesitating at its edge. While doing so, a little dried-up old woman, with singularly lustrous eyes and a peacock by her side, asked him whither he was going. He told her that he was going to claim a throne that had been wrongfully taken from him, but that he regretted deeply that the floods had made it about impossible for him to cross. She suggested that she also desired to cross the river, and begged that he would take her over on his back. He earnestly protested against the folly of such an undertaking, saying that the current would certainly sweep them down and destroy them. With a strange flash in her large brown eye, she told him that if he did not have charity enough for a poor old woman, and courage enough to stem the flood and take her to the other side, he was not the kind of stuff out of which kings were made, and that he had better give up his undertaking at once. Shamed by her remarks, he stooped down, asking her to get upon his back, which she did, throwing her arms tightly about his neck. The peacock flew up and lit upon her shoulder. Into the stream he went, cautiously feeling his way with his spear. Reaching the middle of the river, he had the misfortune to catch his foot between two rocks, and in his effort to extricate it he lost his sandal. This greatly distressed him, but the old woman told him that she was in a condition to know that the accident would be his best fortune ; that it assured her of his royal lineage and future success ; that the king whom he was on his way to dethrone would turn pale with fear when he saw one of his feet sandaled and the other bare. As he struggled with the rocks and with the volume of waters sweeping by, instead of being exhausted he gained strength at every step, and set her down safely on the other side and continued upon his journey.
No man is fit to rule who is not willing to serve ; no person can ever arise to mastery in an earthly calling who has not served his way up to that mastery, and no one can maintain that mastery who does not continue the service. The lawyer who serves his clients best, the physician who gives himself up most completely to his patients, the teacher who lives for his scholars, the editor who devotes himself to the public, the merchant who most benefits his customers, the preacher who is the greatest minister to his congregation, the officer who is the greatest servant of the people is the greatest one.
Service to the lowly is another sign of real royalty. The woman was right when she told the young prince that he was not fit to rule a kingdom unless he were willing to help a poor woman across a swollen river; that she did not know what kings were for, unless they were to help the weak and lowly. The old woman, who pretended to have divine knowledge, never dreamed how many centuries would have to roll by before the kings of the earth would learn that lesson. In these days the people are teaching the rulers this duty very rapidly, and those who pay no attention to it find their power limited or their crowns taken away from them. The most royal spirits in all the callings of life are those who most cheerfully serve the poorest and the lowliest children of earth.
There is nothing that increases strength like bearing burdens. The prince who hesitated to carry the woman over the river because, feeling scarcely able to cross himself, he feared that both would be lost in the attempt, said that the moment he took her on his back he received a strength which he had never had in all his life before, which enabled him not only to carry her over, but also to make his own way across. There is a magic in the burdens that love bears which increases the vigor of the bearer. Carrying the weak and the poor and the humble across the swollen streams of Time will impart to us superhuman energy which will enable us not only to carry them, but also ourselves, more surely to the other side. And what we see in the material and moral realm reminds us of the great fact in the spiritual world, that the soul gains strength by carrying other souls, and saves itself in saving them.