“The Impious King,” a story well known and often recited in taverns. But told only when the lord and his men are absent.
Long ago, in a distant land, there was a king who was very greedy and cruel. He always smiled when he slept because when he dreamed of all the wicked things he would do when he was awake.
One day while the king was riding through the forest with his retinue, it began to snow. At first, everyone was greatly consternated, for with the snow slowing their journey, they had no chance of returning home before nightfall. However, there was a monastery of St. Vadim nearby, so the king declared that they would seek shelter with the monks for the evening…
The monks at the monastery were happy to provide shelter for the king and his people: it was their custom to offer hospitality to all who needed it.
They brought the blankets from their own beds to wrap around the king so that he should be warm. They brought the bowls of porridge from their own table to feed the king so that he should have supper. But the greedy king was not satisfied!
“You have this fine monastery,” he said, “yet you claim to have nothing for your sovereign lord aside from these tattered sheets and this tasteless gruel?” The ungrateful king tore their blankets and dashed their bowls on the floor!
Many people in the king’s retinue were ashamed of their lord’s behavior, for they had been grateful to receive hospitality from the monks. However, the abbot spoke not one word of complaint as the king tore their only blankets and broke their only bowls.
“Because you have insulted me with this spindly fare, I shall take all your best treasures from you as punishment!” shouted the king. Then he demanded that the abbot take him to the vaults so he could seize from them their all their best treasures.
Without one word of complaint, the abbot did as he was bidden. He led the king and the king’s retinue deep into the monastery and opened the door to their chapel. At the far end of the chapel was an altar, and behind the altar was an apse; in the apse was a frame with a fine linen cloth draped over it.
The king looked at the linen-draped frame and asked, “What is this?”
“It is our treasure,” replied the abbot.
“Show me,” demanded the king.
Without a word, the abbot pulled away the fine linen cloth to reveal a beautiful mirror mounted in the frame. As the king beheld the mirror, he screamed and threw his arms up to cover his eyes. Then he fell dead on the spot!
For a long time no one moved. Then, one by one, each member of his retinue came forward to examine the body. They could hardly believe their cruel master was no more. And each one, after gazing upon the king, could not resist glancing at the mirror to see what had frightened the king to death. And each one, after looking into the mirror, shook his head in puzzlement and walked away.
The last of the king’s retainers, after looking upon the king’s corpse and peering into the mirror, also shook his head in puzzlement. However, rather than walk away, he turned to the abbot and said, “I don’t understand. What did he see?”
“No man may know what another man sees,” replied the abbot, “for all who gaze upon this mirror see only the truth of their own soul.”