THE PRINCE'S DREAM
By Jean Ingelow
If we may credit the fable, there is a tower in the midst of a great
Asiatic plain, wherein is confined a prince who was placed there in
his earliest infancy, with many slaves and attendants, and all the
luxuries that are compatible with imprisonment.
Whether he was brought there from some motive of state, whether to
conceal him from enemies, or to deprive him of rights, has not
transpired; but it is certain that up to the date of this little
history he had never set his foot outside the walls of that high
tower, and that of the vast world without he knew only the green
plains which surrounded it; the flocks and the birds of that region
were all his experience of living creatures, and all the men he saw
outside were shepherds.
And yet he was not utterly deprived of change, for sometimes one of
his attendants would be ordered away, and his place would be supplied
by a new one. The prince would never weary of questioning this fresh
companion, and of letting him talk of cities, of ships, of forests, of
merchandise, of kings; but though in turns they all tried to satisfy
his curiosity, they could not succeed in conveying very distinct
notions to his mind; partly because there was nothing in the tower to
which they could compare the external world, partly because, having
chiefly lived lives of seclusion and indolence in Eastern palaces,
they knew it only by hearsay themselves.
At length, one day, a venerable man of a noble presence was brought to
the tower, with soldiers to guard him and slaves to attend him. The
prince was glad of his presence, though at first he seldom opened his
lips, and it was manifest that confinement made him miserable. With
restless feet he would wander from window to window of the stone
tower, and mount from story to story; but mount as high as he would
there was still nothing to be seen but the vast, unvarying plain,
clothed with scanty grass, and flooded with the glaring sunshine;
flocks and herds and shepherds moved across it sometimes, but nothing
else, not even a shadow, for there was no cloud in the sky to cast
one. The old man, however, always treated the prince with respect, and
answered his questions with a great deal of patience, till at length
he found a pleasure in satisfying his curiosity, which so much pleased
the poor young prisoner, that, as a great condescension, he invited
him to come out on the roof of the tower and drink sherbet with him in
the cool of the evening, and tell him of the country beyond the
desert, and what seas are like, and mountains, and towns.
"I have learnt much from my attendants, and know this world pretty
well by hearsay," said the prince, as they reclined on the rich carpet
which was spread on the roof.
The old man smiled, but did not answer; perhaps because he did not
care to undeceive his young companion, perhaps because so many slaves
were present, some of whom were serving them with fruit, and others
burning rich odors on a little chafing-dish that stood between them.
"But there are some words to which I never could attach any particular
meaning," proceeded the prince, as the slaves began to retire, "and
three in particular that my attendants cannot satisfy me upon, or are
reluctant to do so."
"What words are those, my prince?" asked the old man. The prince
turned on his elbow to be sure that the last slave had descended the
tower stairs, then replied:
"O man of much knowledge, the words are theseóLabor, and Liberty, and
"Prince," said the old man, "I do not wonder that it has been hard to
make thee understand the first, the nature of it, and the cause why
most men are born to it; as for the second, it would be treason for
thee and me to do more than whisper it here, and sigh for it when none
are listening; but the third need hardly puzzle thee; thy hookah
[Footnote: Hookah: a kind of pipe for smoking tobacco, used in
Eastern Europe and Asia.] is bright with it; all thy jewels are set in
it; gold is inlaid in the ivory of thy bath; thy cup and thy dish are
of gold, and golden threads are wrought into thy raiment."
"That is true," replied the prince, "and if I had not seen and handled
this gold, perhaps I might not find its merits so hard to understand;
but I possess it in abundance, and it does not feed me, nor make music
for me, nor fan me when the sun is hot, nor cause me to sleep when I
am weary; therefore when my slaves have told me how merchants go out
and brave the perilous wind and sea, and live in the unstable ships,
and run risks from shipwreck and pirates, and when, having asked them
why they have done this, they have answered, 'For gold,' I have found
it hard to believe them; and when they have told me how men have lied,
and robbed, and deceived; how they have murdered one another, and
leagued together to depose kings, to oppress provinces, and all for
gold; then I have said to myself, either my slaves have combined to
make me believe that which is not, or this gold must be very different
from the yellow stuff that this coin is made of, this coin which is of
no use but to have a hole pierced through it and hang to my girdle,
that it may tinkle when I walk."
"Notwithstanding this," said the old man, "nothing can be done without
gold; for it is better than bread, and fruit, and music, for it can
buy them all, since all men love it, and have agreed to exchange it
for whatever they may need."
"How so?" asked the prince.
"If a man has many loaves he cannot eat them all," answered the old
man; "therefore he goes to his neighbor and says, 'I have bread and
thou hast a coin of goldólet us exchange;' so he receives the gold
and goes to another man, saying, 'Thou hast two houses and I have
none; lend me one of thy houses to live in, and I will give thee my
gold;' thus again they exchange."
"It is well," said the prince; "but in time of drought, if there is no
bread in a city, can they make it of gold?"
"Not so," answered the old man, "but they must send their gold to a
city where there is food, and bring that back instead of it."
"But if there was a famine all over the world," asked the prince,
"what would they do then?"
"Why, then, and only then," said the old man, "they must starve, and
the gold would be nought, for it can only be changed for that which
is; it cannot make that which is not."
"And where do they get gold?" asked the prince. "Is it the precious
fruit of some rare tree, or have they whereby they can draw it down
from the sky at sunset?"
"Some of it," said the old man, "they dig out of the ground."
Then he told the prince of ancient rivers running through terrible
deserts, whose sands glitter with golden grains and are yellow in the
fierce heat of the sun, and of dreary mines where the Indian slaves
work in gangs tied together, never seeing the light of day; and lastly
(for he was a man of much knowledge, and had travelled far), he told
him of the valley of the Sacramento in the New World, and of those
mountains where the people of Europe send their criminals, and where
now their free men pour forth to gather gold, and dig for it as hard
as if for life; sitting up by it at night lest any should take it from
them, giving up houses and country, and wife and children, for the
sake of a few feet of mud, whence they dig clay that glitters as they
wash it; and how they sift it and rock it as patiently as if it were
their own children in the cradle, and afterward carry it in their
bosoms, and forego on account of it safety and rest.
"But, prince," he went on, seeing that the young man was absorbed in
his narrative, "if you would pass your word to me never to betray me,
I would procure for you a sight of the external world, and in a trance
you should see those places where gold is dug, and traverse those
regions forbidden to your mortal footsteps."
Upon this, the prince threw himself at the old man's feet, and
promised heartily to observe the secrecy required, and entreated that,
for however short a time, he might be suffered to see this wonderful
Then, if we may credit the story, the old man drew nearer to the
chafing-dish which stood between them, and having fanned the dying
embers in it, cast upon them a certain powder and some herbs, from
whence as they burnt a peculiar smoke arose. As their vapors spread,
he desired the prince to draw near and inhale them, and then (says the
fable) assured him that when he should sleep he would find himself, in
his dream, at whatever place he might desire, with this strange
advantage, that he should see things in their truth and reality as
well as in their outward shows.
So the prince, not without some fear, prepared to obey; but first he
drank his sherbet, and handed over the golden cup to the old man by
way of recompense; then he reclined beside the chafing-dish and
inhaled the heavy perfume till he became overpowered with sleep, and
sank down upon the carpet in a dream.
The prince knew not where he was, but a green country was floating
before him, and he found himself standing in a marshy valley where a
few wretched cottages were scattered here and there with no means of
communication. There was a river, but it had overflowed its banks and
made the central land impassable, the fences had been broken down by
it, and the fields of corn laid low; a few wretched peasants were
wandering about there; they looked half-clad and half-starved. "A
miserable valley, indeed!" exclaimed the prince; but as he said it a
man came down from the hills with a great bag of gold in his hand.
"This valley is mine," said he to the people; "I have bought it for
gold. Now make banks that the river may not overflow, and I will give
you gold; also make fences and plant fields, and cover in the roofs of
your houses, and buy yourselves richer clothing." So the people did
so, and as the gold got lower in the bag the valley grew fairer and
greener, till the prince exclaimed, "O gold, I see your value now! O
wonderful, beneficent gold!"
But presently the valley melted away like a mist, and the prince saw
an army besieging a city; he heard a general haranguing his soldiers
to urge them on, and the soldiers shouting and battering the walls;
but shortly, when the city was well-nigh taken, he saw some men
secretly giving gold among the soldiers, so much of it that they threw
down their arms to pick it up, and said that the walls were so strong
that they could not throw them down. "O powerful gold!" thought the
prince; "thou art stronger than the city walls!"
After that it seemed to him that he was walking about in a desert
country, and in his dream he thought, "Now I know what labor is, for I
have seen it, and its benefits; and I know what liberty is, for I have
tasted it; I can wander where I will, and no man questions me; but
gold is more strange to me than ever, for I have seen it buy both
liberty and labor." Shortly after this he saw a great crowd digging
upon a barren hill, and when he drew near he understood that he was to
see the place whence the gold came.
He came up and stood a long time watching the people as they toiled
ready to faint in the sun, so great was the labor of digging up the
He saw some who had much and could not trust any one to help them to
carry it, binding it in bundles over their shoulders, and bending and
groaning under its weight; he saw others hide it in the ground, and
watch the place, clothed in rags, that none might suspect that they
were rich; but some, on the contrary, who had dug up an unusual
quantity, he saw dancing and singing, and vaunting their success, till
robbers waylaid them when they slept, and rifled their bundles and
carried their golden sand away.
"All these men are mad," thought the prince, "and this pernicious gold
has made them so."
After this, as he wandered here and there, he saw groups of people
smelting the gold under the shadow of the trees, and he observed that
a dancing, quivering vapor rose up from it which dazzled their eyes,
and distorted everything that they looked at; arraying it also in
different colors from the true one.
He observed that this vapor from the gold caused all things to rock
and reel before the eyes of those who looked through it, and also, by
some strange affinity, it drew their hearts toward those who carried
much gold on their persons, so that they called them good and
beautiful; it also caused them to see darkness and dulness in the
faces of those who had carried none. "This," thought the prince, "is
very strange;" but not being able to explain it, he went still
farther, and there he saw more people. Each of these had adorned
himself with a broad golden girdle, and was sitting in the shade,
while other men waited on them.
"What ails these people?" he inquired of one who was looking on, for
he observed a peculiar air of weariness and dulness in their faces. He
was answered that the girdles were very tight and heavy, and being
bound over the regions of the heart, were supposed to impede its
action, and prevent it from beating high, and also to chill the
wearer, as, being of opaque material, the warm sunshine of the earth
could not get through to warm them.
"Why, then, do they not break them asunder," exclaimed the prince,
"and fling them away?"
"Break them asunder!" cried the man; "why, what a madman you must be;
they are made of the purest gold!"
"Forgive my ignorance," replied the prince; "I am a stranger."
So he walked on, for feelings of delicacy prevented him from gazing
any longer at the men with the golden girdles; but as he went he
pondered on the misery he had seen, and thought to himself that this
golden sand did more mischief than all the poisons of the apothecary;
for it dazzled the eyes of some, it strained the hearts of others, it
bowed down the heads of many to the earth with its weight; it was a
sore labor to gather it, and when it was gathered the robber might
carry it away; it would be a good thing, he thought, if there were
none of it.
After this he came to a place where were sitting some aged widows and
some orphan children of the gold-diggers, who were helpless and
destitute; they were weeping and bemoaning themselves, but stopped at
the approach of a man whose appearance attracted the prince, for he
had a very great bundle of gold on his back, and yet it did not bow
him down at all; his apparel was rich, but he had no girdle on, and
his face was anything but sad.
"Sir," said the prince to him, "you have a great burden; you are
fortunate to be able to stand under it."
"I could not do so," he replied, "only that as I go on I keep
lightening it;" and as he passed each of the widows, he threw gold to
her, and, stooping down, hid pieces of it in the bosoms of the
"You have no girdle," said the prince.
"I once had one," answered the gold-gatherer; "but it was so tight
over my breast that my heart grew cold under it, and almost ceased to
beat. Having a great quantity of gold on my back, I felt almost at the
last gasp; so I threw off my girdle, and being on the bank of a river,
which I knew not how to cross, I was about to fling it in, I was so
vexed! 'But no,' thought I, 'there are many people waiting here to
cross besides myself. I will make my girdle into a bridge, and we will
cross over on it.'"
"Turn your girdle into a bridge!" said the prince, doubtfully, for he
did not quite understand.
The man explained himself.
"And, then, sir, after that," he continued, "I turned one-half of my
burden into bread, and gave it to these poor people. Since then I have
not been oppressed by its weight, however heavy it may have been; for
few men have a heavier one. In fact, I gather more from day to day."
As the man kept speaking, he scattered his gold right and left with a
cheerful countenance, and the prince was about to reply, when suddenly
a great trembling under his feet made him fall to the ground. The
refining fires of the gold-gatherers sprang up into flames, and then
went out; night fell over everything on the earth, and nothing was
visible in the sky but the stars of the southern cross.
"It is past midnight," thought the prince, "for the stars of the cross
begin to bend."
He raised himself upon his elbow, and tried to pierce the darkness,
but could not. At length a slender blue flame darted out, as from
ashes in a chafing-dish, and by the light of it he saw the strange
pattern of his carpet and the cushions lying about. He did not
recognize them at first, but presently he knew that he was lying in
his usual place, at the top of his tower.
"Wake up, prince," said the old man.
The prince sat up and sighed, and the old man inquired what he had
"O man of much learning!" answered the prince, "I have seen that this
is a wonderful world; I have seen the value of labor, and I know the
uses of it; I have tasted the sweetness of liberty, and am grateful,
though it was but in a dream; but as for that other word that was so
great a mystery to me, I only know this, that it must remain a mystery
forever, since I am fain to believe that all men are bent on getting
it; though, once gotten, it causeth them endless disquietude, only
second to their discomfort that are without it. I am fain to believe
that they can procure with it whatever they most desire, and yet that
it cankers their hearts and dazzles their eyes; that it is their
nature and their duty to gather it; and yet that, when once gathered,
the best thing they can do is to scatter it!"
The next morning, when he awoke, the old man was gone. He had taken
with him the golden cup. And the sentinel was also gone, none knew
whither. Perhaps the old man had turned his golden cup into a golden