As a child, freed from school for the Christmas holidays, I was sent to stay with my grandmother. She lived like a recluse, relying on a dusty, old radio for news because she considered TV to be the work of Satan. So, on long wintry evenings when tusks of icicles hung from the windows, she told me stories by the fireside. She called this one, ‘The King’s honest Treasurer.’
Once upon a time in a country far away near a black sea, there was a King who heard the sad news that his Treasurer had died. The Treasurer’s death was a double blow, however, for the King had not only lost a trusted friend, he now had the tricky task of finding another Treasurer who he could trust absolutely.
The King spent sleepless nights, worrying about his unguarded sacks of gold. Fear gripped him. He had visions of empty sacks, the shining gold coins plundered by dishonest Ministers of the Crown. Through the long, dark nights he whispered to himself that that the longer he waited to find an honest man, the greater the risk would be.
His daughter, Princess Iulia, was as wise as she was beautiful. The King loved her and trusted her judgment in all things. And so he asked her for her advice.
“How can I find an honest man to look after my wealth?” he said. “I am afraid my Ministers will steal it all.”
“Give me time until the sun sinks behind the hills, the hens have gone to roost, and the owl hoots from the dark woods, and the pale moon reflects upon the lake,” she said. “By then, I will have an answer for you.”
The King was consoled by her answer, but was reminded of the fact that Iulia was much like her mother, the Queen. She could also talk a lot of nonsense before coming to the point.
But sure enough, by the time the sun had sunk behind the owls, the hens had reflected on the pale lake, and the lake had gone to roost behind the hills, and the hens were lost in the dark woods, or whatever, Iulia had an answer for the King!
After explaining her plan, the King was certain he would find an honest man.
Soon, there was a fanfare of trumpets and a proclamation was made in the King’s court for everyone to hear, including the greedy Ministers of the Crown, who would happily cut their grandmothers’ throats with a rusty razor to gain 10 bani. The herald read the proclamation. “The King seeks an honest man to be his new Treasurer. Only honest men should apply. Gather in the King’s courtyard by sunset tomorrow.”
The next day, the biggest bunch of crooks you’ve ever seen gathered in the courtyard. Princess Iulia smiled and welcomed them all. Among the group, however, was a stranger; a jovial, fat man with rosy cheeks. He was simply dressed, like a man from the countryside. The greedy Ministers in their fine, silk clothes avoided him, considering him to be beneath them.
Finally, when everyone had gathered, Iulia told all the would-be Treasurers to enter the door of a gloomy, passageway. She told them that beyond the far door of the passage, they would enter the King’s chamber where his Majesty was waiting for them. One by one, the Ministers entered the gloomy passage, while the Princess watched. Eventually, when they had all entered the passage, including the jovial, fat man from the countryside,
Princess Iulia entered the King’s chamber by another door.
As the candidates emerged into the King’s candlelit chamber, they were surprised to see a troupe of musicians standing in a corner, preparing to play. The King welcomed them and said he was pleased to see so many honest men in one place. He added that it would be a difficult task to pick just one to be his new Treasurer. Then he ordered the musicians to play a jig and instructed the assembly of Ministers and the jovial peasant to dance!
Dance! The candidates looked around in surprise and shock. Dance! Us, dance!
“Yes,” said Iulia, “the King wants you all to dance. Dance, please.”
Immediately, Ministers began to clutch at their legs, their arms, their backs and their heads. Suddenly, rheumatism, aches and pains, muscular problems, high blood pressure, headaches and various other ailments appeared.
All the Ministers claimed some kind of health problem as the troupe of musicians launched into a lively jig. But one candidate began to dance. It was the jovial, fat peasant from the countryside. He danced and danced as the musicians played faster and faster. He jigged and hopped from one leg to the other, and even turned cartwheels across the King’s chamber. He danced and danced until sweat poured from his brow.
The King cried, ‘Bravo, bravo!’ like Maria Tănase while Iulia clapped her hands in time to the music. The peasant grew red in the face, eventually running out of breath, then collapsed into a chair.
‘Bravo, bravo!’ the King cried. ‘Wonderful fellow! You are an honest man, and you will be my new Treasurer.’
There was a huge outcry from the Ministers who yelled, “Why, why, why?”
“You know why,” said Iulia. “I placed sacks of gold coins against the walls of the passageway through which all of you went to reach the King’s chamber. And on the way, you stuffed your pockets with as many gold coins as you could. By the time you reached the King’s chamber, you could hardly move under the weight of gold. So, when the King ordered you to dance, you refused because you knew the gold coins would spill onto the floor of the chamber.”
Iulia clapped her hands and soldiers appeared. They emptied the pockets of the greedy Ministers and arrested them. But as these crooks were being taken away to prison, they yelled that the accusations against them were politically motivated.
After the commotion had died down, the jovial, honest peasant asked when he could start his new job.
“When the moon reflects upon the woods, and the hens are drowned in the lake, and the owls learn to play the bagpipes, and the ……….”
“Yes, yes, yes, sweetheart,” said the King, interrupting Iulia. “But if we wait for all these auspicious things to happen, we’ll be too old to join the Schengen area.”
My grandmother finished the story and looked wisely at my handsome, boyish features, and said, “Do you know what the moral of the story is?” I shook my head. “The moral of the story is that Romanian MPs always refuse to dance.”
She winked at me, and said that one day in the future I would understand. And now, I do! I really do!
By Angus McFarlane, guest writer