The Crimson Fairy Book
by Andrew Lang
“The Story of the Sham Prince, or the Ambitious Tailor”
by Andrew Lang
- Year Published: 1903
- Language: English
- Country of Origin: Egypt
- Source: Lang, A. (Ed.). (1903). The Crimson Fairy Book. London: Dover Publications.
- Flesch–Kincaid Level: 7.3
- Word Count: 4,795
- Genre: Fairy Tale/Folk Tale
- Keywords: forgiveness
- ✎ Cite This
Lang, A. (1903). “The Story of the Sham Prince, or the Ambitious Tailor”. The Crimson Fairy Book (Lit2Go Edition). Retrieved June 06, 2023, from https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/142/the-crimson-fairy-book/5195/the-story-of-the-sham-prince-or-the-ambitious-tailor/
Lang, Andrew. "“The Story of the Sham Prince, or the Ambitious Tailor”." The Crimson Fairy Book. Lit2Go Edition. 1903. Web. <https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/142/the-crimson-fairy-book/5195/the-story-of-the-sham-prince-or-the-ambitious-tailor/>. June 06, 2023.
Andrew Lang, "“The Story of the Sham Prince, or the Ambitious Tailor”," The Crimson Fairy Book, Lit2Go Edition, (1903), accessed June 06, 2023, https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/142/the-crimson-fairy-book/5195/the-story-of-the-sham-prince-or-the-ambitious-tailor/.
Once upon a time there lived a respectable young tailor called Labakan, who worked for a clever master in Alexandria. No one could call Labakan either stupid or lazy, for he could work extremely well and quickly—when he chose; but there was something not altogether right about him. Sometimes he would stitch away as fast as if he had a red-hot needle and a burning thread, and at other times he would sit lost in thought, and with such a queer look about him that his fellow-workmen used to say, ‘Labakan has got on his aristocratic face today.’
On Fridays he would put on his fine robe which he had bought with the money he had managed to save up, and go to the mosque. As he came back, after prayers, if he met any friend who said ‘Good-day,’ or ‘How are you, friend Labakan?’ he would wave his hand graciously or nod in a condescending way; and if his master happened to say to him, as he sometimes did, ‘Really, Labakan, you look like a prince,’ he was delighted, and would answer, ‘Have you noticed it too?’ or ‘Well, so I have long thought.’
Things went on like this for some time, and the master put up with Labakan’s absurdities because he was, on the whole, a good fellow and a clever workman.
One day, the sultan’s brother happened to be passing through Alexandria, and wanted to have one of his state robes altered, so he sent for the master tailor, who handed the robe over to Labakan as his best workman.
In the evening, when every one had left the workshop and gone home, a great longing drove Labakan back to the place where the royal robe hung. He stood a long time gazing at it, admiring the rich material and the splendid embroidery in it. At last he could hold out no longer. He felt he must try it on, and lo! and behold, it fitted as though it had been made for him.
‘Am not I as good a prince as any other?’ he asked himself, as he proudly paced up and down the room. ‘Has not the master often said that I seemed born to be a prince?’
It seemed to him that he must be the son of some monarch, and at last he determined to set out at once and travel in search of his proper rank.
He felt as if the splendid robe had been sent him by some kind fairy, and he took care not to neglect such a precious gift. He collected all his savings, and, concealed by the darkness of the night, he passed through the gates of Alexandria.
The new prince excited a good deal of curiosity wherever he went, for his splendid robe and majestic manner did not seem quite suitable to a person travelling on foot. If anyone asked questions, he only replied with an important air of mystery that he had his own reasons for not riding.
However, he soon found out that walking made him ridiculous, so at last he bought a quiet, steady old horse, which he managed to get cheap.
One day, as he was ambling along upon Murva (that was the horse’s name), a horseman overtook him and asked leave to join him, so that they might both beguile the journey with pleasant talk. The newcomer was a bright, cheerful, good-looking young man, who soon plunged into conversation and asked many questions. He told Labakan that his own name was Omar, that he was a nephew of Elfi Bey, and was travelling in order to carry out a command given him by his uncle on his death bed. Labakan was not quite so open in his confidences, but hinted that he too was of noble birth and was travelling for pleasure.
The two young men took a fancy to each other and rode on together. On the second day of their journey Labakan questioned Omar as to the orders he had to carry out, and to his surprise heard this tale.
Elfi Bey, Pacha of Cairo, had brought up Omar from his earliest childhood, and the boy had never known his parents. On his deathbed Elfi Bey called Omar to him, and then told him that he was not his nephew, but the son of a great king, who, having been warned of coming dangers by his astrologers, had sent the young prince away and made a vow not to see him till his twenty-second birthday.
Elfi Bey did not tell Omar his father’s name, but expressly desired him to be at a great pillar four days’ journey east of Alexandria on the fourth day of the coming month, on which day he would be twenty-two years old. Here he would meet some men, to whom he was to hand a dagger which Elfi Bey gave him, and to say ‘Here am I for whom you seek.’
If they answered: ‘Praised be the Prophet who has preserved you,’ he was to follow them, and they would take him to his father.
Labakan was greatly surprised and interested by this story, but after hearing it he could not help looking on Prince Omar with envious eyes, angry that his friend should have the position he himself longed so much for. He began to make comparisons between the prince and himself, and was obliged to confess that he was a fine-looking young man with very good manners and a pleasant expression.
At the same time, he felt sure that had he been in the prince’s place any royal father might have been glad to own him.
These thoughts haunted him all day, and he dreamt them all night. He woke very early, and as he saw Omar sleeping quietly, with a happy smile on his face, a wish arose in his mind to take by force or by cunning the things which an unkind fate had denied him.
The dagger which was to act as a passport was sticking in Omar’s girdle. Labakan drew it gently out, and hesitated for a moment whether or not to plunge it into the heart of the sleeping prince. However, he shrank from the idea of murder, so he contented himself with placing the dagger in his own belt, and, saddling Omar’s swift horse for himself, was many miles away before the prince woke up to realise his losses.
For two days Labakan rode on steadily, fearing lest, after all, Omar might reach the meeting place before him. At the end of the second day he saw the great pillar at a distance. It stood on a little hill in the middle of a plain, and could be seen a very long way off. Labakan’s heart beat fast at the sight. Though he had had some time in which to think over the part he meant to play his conscience made him rather uneasy. However, the thought that he must certainly have been born to be a king supported him, and he bravely rode on.
The neighbourhood was quite bare and desert, and it was a good thing that the new prince had brought food for some time with him, as two days were still wanting till the appointed time.
Towards the middle of the next day he saw a long procession of horses and camels coming towards him. It halted at the bottom of the hill, and some splendid tents were pitched. Everything looked like the escort of some great man. Labakan made a shrewd guess that all these people had come here on his account; but he checked his impatience, knowing that only on the fourth day could his wishes be fulfilled.
The first rays of the rising sun woke the happy tailor. As he began to saddle his horse and prepare to ride to the pillar, he could not help having some remorseful thoughts of the trick he had played and the blighted hopes of the real prince. But the die was cast, and his vanity whispered that he was as fine looking a young man as the proudest king might wish his son to be, and that, moreover, what had happened had happened.
With these thoughts he summoned up all his courage sprang on his horse, and in less than a quarter of an hour was at the foot of the hill. Here he dismounted, tied the horse to a bush, and, drawing out Prince Omar’s dagger climbed up the hill.
At the foot of the pillar stood six men round a tall and stately person. His superb robe of cloth of gold was girt round him by a white cashmere shawl, and his white, richly jewelled turban showed that he was a man of wealth and high rank.
Labakan went straight up to him, and, bending low, handed him the dagger, saying: ‘Here am I whom you seek.’
‘Praised be the Prophet who has preserved you! replied the old man with tears of joy. ‘Embrace me, my dear son Omar!’
The proud tailor was deeply moved by these solemn words, and with mingled shame and joy sank into the old king’s arms.
But his happiness was not long unclouded. As he raised his head he saw a horseman who seemed trying to urge a tired or unwilling horse across the plain.
Only too soon Labakan recognised his own old horse, Murva, and the real Prince Omar, but having once told a lie he made up his mind not to own his deceit.
At last the horseman reached the foot of the hill. Here he flung himself from the saddle and hurried up to the pillar.
‘Stop!’ he cried, ‘whoever you may be, and do not let a disgraceful impostor take you in. My name is Omar, and let no one attempt to rob me of it.’
This turn of affairs threw the standers-by into great surprise. The old king in particular seemed much moved as he looked from one face to the other. At last Labakan spoke with forced calmness, ‘Most gracious lord and father, do not let yourself be deceived by this man. As far as I know, he is a half-crazy tailor’s apprentice from Alexandria, called Labakan, who really deserves more pity than anger.’
These words infuriated the prince. Foaming with rage, he tried to press towards Labakan, but the attendants threw themselves upon him and held him fast, whilst the king said, ‘Truly, my dear son, the poor fellow is quite mad. Let him be bound and placed on a dromedary. Perhaps we may be able to get some help for him.’
The prince’s first rage was over, and with tears he cried to the king, ‘My heart tells me that you are my father, and in my mother’s name I entreat you to hear me.’
‘Oh! heaven forbid!’ was the reply. ‘He is talking nonsense again. How can the poor man have got such notions into his head?’
With these words the king took Labakan’s arm to support him down the hill. They both mounted richly caparisoned horses and rode across the plain at the head of their followers.
The unlucky prince was tied hand and foot, and fastened on a dromedary, a guard riding on either side and keeping a sharp look-out on him.
The old king was Sached, Sultan of the Wachabites. For many years he had had no children, but at length the son he had so long wished for was born. But the sooth-sayers and magicians whom he consulted as to the child’s future all said that until he was twenty-two years old he stood in danger of being injured by an enemy. So, to make all safe, the sultan had confided the prince to his trusty friend Elfi Bey, and deprived himself of the happiness of seeing him for twenty-two years. All this the sultan told Labakan, and was much pleased by his appearance and dignified manner.
When they reached their own country they were received with every sign of joy, for the news of the prince’s safe return had spread like wildfire, and every town and village was decorated, whilst the inhabitants thronged to greet them with cries of joy and thankfulness. All this filled Labakan’s proud heart with rapture, whilst the unfortunate Omar followed in silent rage and despair.
At length they arrived in the capital, where the public rejoicings were grander and more brilliant than anywhere else. The queen awaited them in the great hall of the palace, surrounded by her entire court. It was getting dark, and hundreds of coloured hanging lamps were lit to turn night into day.
The brightest hung round the throne on which the queen sat, and which stood above four steps of pure gold inlaid with great amethysts. The four greatest nobles in the kingdom held a canopy of crimson silk over the queen, and the Sheik of Medina fanned her with a peacock-feather fan.
In this state she awaited her husband and her son. She, too, had not seen Omar since his birth, but so many dreams had shown her what he would look like that she felt she would know him among a thousand.
And now the sound of trumpets and drums and of shouts and cheers outside announced the long looked for moment. The doors flew open, and between rows of lowbending courtiers and servants the king approached the throne, leading his pretended son by the hand.
‘Here,’ said he, ‘is he for whom you have been longing so many years.’
But the queen interrupted him, ‘That is not my son!’ she cried. ‘That is not the face the Prophet has shown me in my dreams!’
Just as the king was about to reason with her, the door was thrown violently open, and Prince Omar rushed in, followed by his keepers, whom he had managed to get away from. He flung himself down before the throne, panting out, ‘Here will I die; kill me at once, cruel father, for I cannot bear this shame any longer.’
Everyone pressed round the unhappy man, and the guards were about to seize him, when the queen, who at first was dumb with surprise, sprang up from her throne.
‘Hold!’ cried she. ‘This and no other is the right one; this is the one whom my eyes have never yet seen, but whom my heart recognises.’
The guards had stepped back, but the king called to them in a furious voice to secure the madman.
‘It is I who must judge,’ he said in tones of command; ‘and this matter cannot be decided by women’s dreams, but by certain unmistakable signs. This one’ (pointing to Labakan) ‘is my son, for it was he who brought me the token from my friend Elfi—the dagger.’
‘He stole it from me,’ shrieked Omar; ‘he betrayed my unsuspicious confidence.’
But the king would not listen to his son’s voice, for he had always been accustomed to depend on his own judgment. He let the unhappy Omar be dragged from the hall, whilst he himself retired with Labakan to his own rooms, full of anger with the queen his wife, in spite of their many years of happy life together.
The queen, on her side, was plunged in grief, for she felt certain that an impostor had won her husband’s heart and taken the place of her real son.
When the first shock was over she began to think how she could manage to convince the king of his mistake. Of course it would be a difficult matter, as the man who declared he was Omar had produced the dagger as a token, besides talking of all sorts of things which happened when he was a child. She called her oldest and wisest ladies about her and asked their advice, but none of them had any to give. At last one very clever old woman said: ‘Did not the young man who brought the dagger call him whom your majesty believes to be your son Labakan, and say he was a crazy tailor? ‘
‘Yes,’ replied the queen; ‘but what of that?’
‘Might it not be,’ said the old lady, ‘that the impostor has called your real son by his own name? If this should be the case, I know of a capital way to find out the truth.’
And she whispered some words to the queen, who seemed much pleased, and went off at once to see the king.
Now the queen was a very wise woman, so she pretended to think she might have made a mistake, and only begged to be allowed to put a test to the two young men to prove which was the real prince.
The king, who was feeling much ashamed of the rage he had been in with his dear wife, consented at once, and she said: ‘No doubt others would make them ride or shoot, or something of that sort, but every one learns these things. I wish to set them a task which requires sharp wits and clever hands, and I want them to try which of them can best make a kaftan and pair of trousers.’
The king laughed. ‘No, no, that will never do. Do you suppose my son would compete with that crazy tailor as to which could make the best clothes? Oh, dear, no, that won’t do at all.’
But the queen claimed his promise, and as he was a man of his word the king gave in at last. He went to his son and begged that he would humour his mother, who had set her heart on his making a kaftan.
The worthy Labakan laughed to himself. ‘If that is all she wants,’ thought he, ‘her majesty will soon be pleased to own me.’
Two rooms were prepared, with pieces of material, scissors, needles and threads, and each young man was shut up in one of them.
The king felt rather curious as to what sort of garment his son would make, and the queen, too, was very anxious as to the result of her experiment.
On the third day they sent for the two young men and their work. Labakan came first and spread out his kaftan before the eyes of the astonished king. ‘See, father,’ he said; ‘see, my honoured mother, if this is not a masterpiece of work. I’ll bet the court tailor himself cannot do better.
The queen smiled and turned to Omar: ‘And what have you done, my son?’
Impatiently he threw the stuff and scissors down on the floor. ‘I have been taught how to manage a horse, to draw a sword, and to throw a lance some sixty paces, but I never learnt to sew, and such a thing would have been thought beneath the notice of the pupil of Elfi Bey, the ruler of Cairo.’
‘Ah, true son of your father,’ cried the queen; ‘if only I might embrace you and call you son! Forgive me, my lord and husband,’ she added, turning to the king, ‘for trying to find out the truth in this way. Do you not see yourself now which is the prince and which the tailor? Certainly this kaftan is a very fine one, but I should like to know what master taught this young man how to make clothes.’
The king sat deep in thought, looking now at his wife and now at Labakan, who was doing his best to hide his vexation at his own stupidity. At last the king said: ‘Even this trial does not satisfy me; but happily I know of a sure way to discover whether or not I have been deceived.’
He ordered his swiftest horse to be saddled, mounted, and rode off alone into a forest at some little distance. Here lived a kindly fairy called Adolzaide, who had often helped the kings of his race with her good advice, and to her he betook himself.
In the middle of the forest was a wide open space surrounded by great cedar trees, and this was supposed to be the fairy’s favourite spot. When the king reached this place he dismounted, tied his horse to the tree, and standing in the middle of the open place said: ‘If it is true that you have helped my ancestors in their time of need, do not despise their descendant, but give me counsel, for that of men has failed me.’
He had hardly finished speaking when one of the cedar trees opened, and a veiled figure all dressed in white stepped from it.
‘I know your errand, King Sached,’ she said; ‘it is an honest one, and I will give you my help. Take these two little boxes and let the two men who claim to be your son choose between them. I know that the real prince will make no mistake.’
She then handed him two little boxes made of ivory set with gold and pearls. On the lid of each (which the king vainly tried to open) was an inscription in diamonds. On one stood the words ‘Honour and Glory,’ and on the other ‘Wealth and Happiness.’
‘It would be a hard choice,’ thought the king as he rode home.
He lost no time in sending for the queen and for all his court, and when all were assembled he made a sign, and Labakan was led in. With a proud air he walked up to the throne, and kneeling down, asked:
‘What does my lord and father command?’
The king replied: ‘My son, doubts have been thrown on your claim to that name. One of these boxes contains the proofs of your birth. Choose for yourself. No doubt you will choose right.’
He then pointed to the ivory boxes, which were placed on two little tables near the throne.
Labakan rose and looked at the boxes. He thought for some minutes, and then said: ‘My honoured father, what can be better than the happiness of being your son, and what nobler than the riches of your love. I choose the box with the words “Wealth and Happiness.”’
‘We shall see presently if you have chosen the right one. For the present take a seat there beside the Pacha of Medina,’ replied the king.
Omar was next led in, looking sad and sorrowful. He threw himself down before the throne and asked what was the king’s pleasure. The king pointed out the two boxes to him, and he rose and went to the tables. He carefully read the two mottoes and said: ‘The last few days have shown me how uncertain is happiness and how easily riches vanish away. Should I lose a crown by it I make my choice of “Honour and Glory.”’
He laid his hand on the box as he spoke, but the king signed to him to wait, and ordered Labakan to come to the other table and lay his hand on the box he had chosen.
Then the king rose from his throne, and in solemn silence all present rose too, whilst he said: ‘Open the boxes, and may Allah show us the truth.’
The boxes were opened with the greatest ease. In the one Omar had chosen lay a little gold crown and sceptre on a velvet cushion. In Labakan’s box was found—a large needle with some thread!
The king told the two young men to bring him their boxes. They did so. He took the crown in his hand, and as he held it, it grew bigger and bigger, till it was as large as a real crown. He placed it on the head of his son Omar, kissed him on the forehead, and placed him on his right hand. Then, turning to Labakan, he said: ‘There is an old proverb, “The cobbler sticks to his last.” It seems as though you were to stick to your needle. You have not deserved any mercy, but I cannot be harsh on this day. I give you your life, but I advise you to leave this country as fast as you can.’
Full of shame, the unlucky tailor could not answer. He flung himself down before Omar, and with tears in his eyes asked: ‘Can you forgive me, prince?’
‘Go in peace,’ said Omar as he raised him.
‘Oh, my true son!’ cried the king as he clasped the prince in his arms, whilst all the pachas and emirs shouted, ‘Long live Prince Omar!’
In the midst of all the noise and rejoicing Labakan slipped off with his little box under his arm. He went to the stables, saddled his old horse, Murva, and rode out of the gate towards Alexandria. Nothing but the ivory box with its diamond motto was left to show him that the last few weeks had not been a dream.
When he reached Alexandria he rode up to his old master’s door. When he entered the shop, his master came forward to ask what was his pleasure, but as soon as he saw who it was he called his workmen, and they all fell on Labakan with blows and angry words, till at last he fell, half fainting, on a heap of old clothes.
The master then scolded him soundly about the stolen robe, but in vain Labakan told him he had come to pay for it and offered three times its price. They only fell to beating him again, and at last pushed him out of the house more dead than alive.
He could do nothing but remount his horse and ride to an inn. Here he found a quiet place in which to rest his bruised and battered limbs and to think over his many misfortunes. He fell asleep fully determined to give up trying to be great, but to lead the life of an honest workman.
Next morning he set to work to fulfil his good resolutions. He sold his little box to a jeweller for a good price, bought a house and opened a workshop. Then he hung up a sign with, ‘Labakan, Tailor,’ over his door, and sat down to mend his own torn clothes with the very needle which had been in the ivory box.
After a while he was called away, and when he went back to his work he found a wonderful thing had happened! The needle was sewing away all by itself and making the neatest little stitches, such as Labakan had never been able to make even at his best.
Certainly even the smallest gift of a kind fairy is of great value, and this one had yet another advantage, for the thread never came to an end, however much the needle sewed.
Labakan soon got plenty of customers. He used to cut out the clothes, make the first stitch with the magic needle, and then leave it to do the rest. Before long the whole town went to him, for his work was both so good and so cheap. The only puzzle was how he could do so much, working all alone, and also why he worked with closed doors.
And so the promise on the ivory box of ‘Wealth and Happiness’ came true for him, and when he heard of all the brave doings of Prince Omar, who was the pride and darling of his people and the terror of his enemies, the ex-prince thought to himself, ‘After all, I am better off as a tailor, for “Honour and Glory” are apt to be very dangerous things.’