I. The Three Questions
There was once a king of England whose name was John. He was a bad king; for he was harsh and cruel to his people, and so long as he could have his own way, he did not care what became of other folks. He was the worst king that England ever had.
Now, there was in the town of Can-ter-bur-y a rich old abbot who lived in grand style in a great house called the Abbey. Every day a hundred noble men sat down with him to dine; and fifty brave knights, in fine velvet coats and gold chains, waited upon him at his table.
When King John heard of the way in which the abbot lived, he made up his mind to put a stop to it. So he sent for the old man to come and see him.
“How now, my good abbot?” he said. “I hear that you keep a far better house than I. How dare you do such a thing? Don’t you know that no man in the land ought to live better than the king? And I tell you that no man shall.”
“O king!” said the abbot, “I beg to say that I am spending nothing but what is my own. I hope that you will not think ill of me for making things pleasant for my friends and the brave knights who are with me.”
“Think ill of you?” said the king. “How can I help but think ill of you? All that there is in this broad land is mine by right; and how do you dare to put me to shame by living in grander style than I? One would think that you were trying to be king in my place.”
“Oh, do not say so!” said the abbot “For I”—
“Not another word!” cried the king. “Your fault is plain, and unless you can answer me three questions, your head shall be cut off, and all your riches shall be mine.”
“I will try to answer them, O king!” said the abbot.
“Well, then,” said King John, “as I sit here with my crown of gold on my head, you must tell me to within a day just how long I shall live. Sec-ond-ly, you must tell me how soon I shall ride round the whole world; and lastly, you shall tell me what I think.”
“O king!” said the abbot, “these are deep, hard questions, and I cannot answer them just now. But if you will give me two weeks to think about them, I will do the best that I can.”
“Two weeks you shall have,” said the king; “but if then you fail to answer me, you shall lose your head, and all your lands shall be mine.”
The abbot went away very sad and in great fear. He first rode to Oxford. Here was a great school, called a u-ni-ver-si-ty, and he wanted to see if any of the wise pro-fess-ors could help him. But they shook their heads, and said that there was nothing about King John in any of their books.
Then the abbot rode down to Cam-bridge, where there was another u-ni-ver-si-ty. But not one of the teachers in that great school could help him.
At last, sad and sor-row-ful, he rode toward home to bid his friends and his brave knights good-by. For now he had not a week to live.
II. The Three Answers
As the abbot was riding up the lane which led to his grand house, he met his shep-herd going to the fields.
“Welcome home, good master!” cried the shepherd. “What news do you bring us from great King John?”
“Sad news, sad news,” said the abbot; and then he told him all that had happened.
“Cheer up, cheer up, good master,” said the shepherd. “Have you never yet heard that a fool may teach a wise man wit? I think I can help you out of your trouble.”
“You help me!” cried the abbot “How? how?”
“Well,” answered the shepherd, “you know that everybody says that I look just like you, and that I have some-times been mis-tak-en for you. So, lend me your servants and your horse and your gown, and I will go up to London and see the king. If nothing else can be done, I can at least die in your place.”
“My good shepherd,” said the abbot, “you are very, very kind; and I have a mind to let you try your plan. But if the worst comes to the worst, you shall not die for me. I will die for myself.”
So the shepherd got ready to go at once. He dressed himself with great care. Over his shepherd’s coat he threw the abbot’s long gown, and he bor-rowed the abbot’s cap and golden staff. When all was ready, no one in the world would have thought that he was not the great man himself. Then he mounted his horse, and with a great train of servants set out for London.
Of course the king did not know him.
“Welcome, Sir Abbot!” he said. “It is a good thing that you have come back. But, prompt as you are, if you fail to answer my three questions, you shall lose your head.”
“I am ready to answer them, O king!” said the shepherd.
“Indeed, indeed!” said the king, and he laughed to himself. “Well, then, answer my first question: How long shall I live? Come, you must tell me to the very day.”
“You shall live,” said the shepherd, “until the day that you die, and not one day longer. And you shall die when you take your last breath, and not one moment before.”
The king laughed.
“You are witty, I see,” he said. “But we will let that pass, and say that your answer is right. And now tell me how soon I may ride round the world.”
“You must rise with the sun,” said the shepherd, “and you must ride with the sun until it rises again the next morning. As soon as you do that, you will find that you have ridden round the world in twenty-four hours.”
“You shall live until the day that you die.”
The king laughed again. “Indeed,” he said, “I did not think that it could be done so soon. You are not only witty, but you are wise, and we will let this answer pass. And now comes my third and last question: What do I think?”
“That is an easy question,” said the shepherd. “You think that I am the Abbot of Can-ter-bur-y. But, to tell you the truth, I am only his poor shepherd, and I have come to beg your pardon for him and for me.” And with that, he threw off his long gown.
The king laughed loud and long.
“A merry fellow you are,” said he, “and you shall be the Abbot of Canterbury in your master’s place.”
“O king! that cannot be,” said the shepherd; “for I can neither read nor write.”
“Very well, then,” said the king, “I will give you something else to pay you for this merry joke. I will give you four pieces of silver every week as long as you live. And when you get home, you may tell the old abbot that you have brought him a free pardon from King John.”