James Baldwin (1841 – 1925)
James Baldwin was born in Indiana, United States and made a career as an educator and administrator in that state starting at the age of 24.
He served as the superintendent of Indiana's school system for eighteen years and then went on to become a widely published textbook editor and children's author in the subjects of legends, mythology, biography, and literature, among others. He wrote more than fifty books, the most famous of which include Fifty Famous Stories Retold (1896) and Abraham Lincoln, a True Life (1904)
source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Baldwin_%28editor_and_author%29
THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES
There was once a king whose name was Dionysius. He was so unjust and cruel that he won for himself the name of tyrant. He knew that almost everybody hated him, and so he was always in dread lest some one should take his life.
But he was very rich, and he lived in a fine palace where there were many beautiful and costly things, and he was waited upon by a host of servants who were always ready to do his bidding. One day a friend of his, whose name was Damocles, said to him,
"How happy you must be ! You have here everything that any man could wish."
"Perhaps you would like to change places with me," said the tyrant.
"No, not that, O king !" said Damocles; "but I think, that, if I could only have your riches and your pleasures for one day, I should not want any greater happiness."
"Very well," said the tyrant. "You shall have them."
And so, the next day, Damocles was led into the palace, and all the servants were bidden to treat him as their master. He sat down at a table in the banquet hall, and rich foods were placed before him. Nothing was wanting that could give him pleasure. There were costly wines, and beautiful flowers, and rare perfumes, and delightful music. He rested himself among soft cushions, and felt that he was the happiest man in all the world.
Then he chanced to raise his eyes toward the ceiling. What was it that was dangling above him, with its point almost touching his head? It was a sharp sword, and it was hung by only a single horse-hair. What if the hair should break ? There was danger every moment that it would do so.
The smile faded from the lips of Damocles. His face became ashy pale. His hands trembled. He wanted no more food; he could drink no more wine; he took no more delight in the music. He longed to be out of the palace, and away, he cared not where.
"What is the matter ?" said the tyrant.
"That sword! that sword !" cried Damocles. He was so badly frightened that he dared not move.
"Yes," said Dionysius, "I know there is a sword above your head, and that it may fall at any moment. But why should that trouble you ? I have a sword over my head all the time. I am every moment in dread lest something may cause me to lose my life."
"Let me go," said Damocles. "I now see that I was mistaken, and that the rich and powerful are not so happy as they seem. Let me go back to my old home in the poor little cottage among the mountains."
And so long as he lived, he never again wanted to be rich, or to change places, even for a moment, with the king.
THE STORY OF WILLIAM TELL
The people of Switzerland were not always free and happy as they are today. Many years ago a proud tyrant, whose name was Gessler, ruled over them, and made their lot a bitter one indeed.
One day this tyrant set up a tall pole in the public square, and put his own cap on the top of it; and then he gave orders that every man who came into the town should bow down before it. But there was one man, named William Tell, who would not do this. He stood up straight with folded arms, and laughed at the swinging cap. He would not bow down to Gessler himself.
When Gessler heard of this, he was very angry. He was afraid that other men would disobey, and that soon the whole country would rebel against him. So he made up his mind to punish the bold man.
William Tell's home was among the mountains, and he was a famous hunter. No one in all the land could shoot with bow and arrow so well as he. Gessler knew this, and so he thought of a cruel plan to make the hunter's own skill bring him to grief. He ordered that Tell's little boy should be made to stand up in the public square with an apple on his head; and then he bade Tell shoot the apple with one of his arrows.
Tell begged the tyrant not to have him make this test of his skill. What if the boy should move ? What if the bow-man's hand should tremble ? What if the arrow should not carry true ?
"Will you make me kill my boy ?" he said.
"Say no more," said Gessler. "You must hit the apple with your one arrow. If you fail, my soldiers shall kill the boy before your eyes."
Then, without another word, Tell fitted the arrow to his bow. He took aim, and let it fly. The boy stood firm and still. He was not afraid, for he had all faith in his father's skill.
The arrow whistled through the air. It struck the apple fairly in the center, and carried it away. The people who saw it shouted with joy.
As Tell was turning away from the place, an arrow which he had hidden under his coat dropped to the ground.
"Fellow !" cried Gessler, "what mean you with this second arrow ?"
"Tyrant !" was Tell's proud answer, "this arrow was for your heart if I had hurt my child."
And there is an old story, that, not long after this, Tell did shoot the tyrant with one of his arrows; and thus he set his country free.
THE STORY OF CINCINNATUS
There was a man named Cincinnatus who lived on a little farm not far from the city of Rome. He had once been rich, and had held the highest office in the land; but in one way or another he had lost all his wealth. He was now so poor that he had to do all the work on his farm with his own hands. But in those days it was thought to be a noble thing to till the soil.
Cincinnatus was so wise and just that every-body trusted him, and asked his advice; and when any one was in trouble, and did not know what to do, his neighbors would say:
"Go and tell Cincinnatus. He will help you."
Now there lived among the mountains, not far away, a tribe of fierce, half-wild men, who were at war with the Roman people. They persuaded another tribe of bold warriors to help them, and then marched toward the city, plundering and robbing as they came. They boasted that they would tear down the walls of Rome, and burn the houses, and kill all the men, and make slaves of the women and children.
At first the Romans, who were very proud and brave, did not think there was much danger. Every man in Rome was a soldier, and the army which went out to fight the robbers was the finest in the world. No one staid at home with the women and children and boys but the white-haired "Fathers," as they were called, who made the laws for the city, and a small company of men who guarded the walls.
Everybody thought that it would be an easy thing to drive the men of the mountains back to the place where they belonged.
But one morning five horsemen came riding down the road from the mountains. They rode with great speed; and both men and horses were covered with dust and blood. The watchman at the gate knew them, and shouted to them as they gal-loped in. Why did they ride thus ? and what had happened to the Roman army ?
They did not answer him, but rode into the city and along the quiet streets; and everybody ran after them, eager to find out what was the matter. Rome was not a large city at that time; and soon they reached the market place where the white-haired Fathers were sitting. Then they leaped from their horses, and told their story.
"Only yesterday," they said, "our army was marching through a narrow valley between two steep mountains. All at once a thou-sand savage men sprang out from among the rocks before us and above us. They had blocked up the way; and the pass was so narrow that we could not fight. We tried to come back; but they had blocked up the way on this side of us too. The fierce men of the mountains were before us and behind us, and they were throwing rocks down upon us from above. We had been caught in a trap. Then ten of us set spurs to our horses; and five of us forced our way through, but the other five fell before the spears of the mountain men. And now, O Roman Fathers! send help to our army at once, or every man will be slain, and our city will be taken."
"What shall we do ?" said the white-haired Fathers. "Whom can we send but the guards and the boys ? and who is wise enough to lead them, and thus save Rome ?"
All shook their heads and were very grave; for it seemed as if there was no hope. Then one said, "Send for Cincinnatus. He will help us."
Cincinnatus was in the field plowing when the men who had been sent to him came in great haste. He stopped and greeted them kindly, and waited for them to speak.
"Put on your cloak, Cincinnatus," they said, "and hear the words of the Roman people."
Then Cincinnatus wondered what they could mean. "Is all well with Rome ?" he asked; and he called to his wife to bring him his cloak.
She brought the cloak; and Cincinnatus wiped the dust from his hands and arms, and threw it over his shoulders. Then the men told their errand.
They told him how the army with all the noblest men of Rome had been en-trapped in the mountain pass. They told him about the great danger the city was in. Then they said, "The people of Rome make you their ruler and the ruler of their city, to do with everything as you choose; and the Fathers bid you come at once and go out against our enemies, the fierce men of the mountains."
So Cincinnatus left his plow standing where it was, and hurried to the city. When he passed through the streets, and gave orders as to what should be done, some of the people were afraid, for they knew that he had all power in Rome to do what he pleased. But he armed the guards and the boys, and went out at their head to fight the fierce mountain men, and free the Roman army from the trap into which it had fallen.
A few days afterward there was great joy in Rome. There was good news from Cincinnatus. The men of the mountains had been beaten with great loss. They had been driven back into their own place.
And now the Roman army, with the boys and the guards, was coming home with banners flying, and shouts of victory; and at their head rode Cincinnatus. He had saved Rome.
Cincinnatus might then have made himself king; for his word was law, and no man dared lift a finger against him. But, before the people could thank him enough for what he had done, he gave back the power to the white-haired Roman Fathers, and went again to his little farm and his plow.
He had been the ruler of Rome for sixteen days.
THE UNGRATEFUL GUEST
Among the soldiers of King Philip there was a poor man who had done some brave deeds. He had pleased the king in more ways than one, and so the king put a good deal of trust in him.
One day this soldier was on board of a ship at sea when a great storm came up. The winds drove the ship upon the rocks, and it was wrecked. The soldier was cast half-drowned upon the shore; and he would have died there, had it not been for the kind care of a farmer who lived close by.
When the soldier was well enough to go home, he thanked the farmer for what he had done, and promised that he would repay him for his kindness.
But he did not mean to keep his promise. He did not tell King Philip about the man who had saved his life. He only said that there was a fine farm by the seashore, and that he would like very much to have it for his own. Would the king give it to him?
"Who owns the farm now?" asked Philip.
"Only a churlish farmer, who has never done anything for his country," said the soldier.
"Very well, then," said Philip. "You have served me for a long time, and you shall have your wish. Go and take the farm for yourself."
And so the soldier made haste to drive the farmer from his house and home. He took the farm for his own.
The poor farmer was stung to the heart by such treatment. He went boldly to the king, and told the whole story from beginning to end.
King Philip was very angry when he learned that the man whom he had trusted had done so base a deed. He sent for the soldier in great haste; and when he had come, he caused these words to be burned in his forehead:
"THE UNGRATEFUL GUEST."
Thus all the world was made to know of the mean act by which the soldier had tried to enrich himself; and from that day until he died all men shunned and hated him.
KING ALFRED AND THE BEGGAR
At one time the Danes drove King Alfred from his kingdom, and he had to lie hidden for a long time on a little is-land in a river.
One day, all who were on the island, except the king and queen and one servant, went out to fish. It was a very lonely place, and no one could get to it except by a boat. About noon a ragged beggar came to the king's door, and asked for food.
The king called the servant, and asked, "How much food have we in the house ?"
"My lord," said the servant, "we have only one loaf and a little wine."
Then the king gave thanks to God, and said, "Give half of the loaf and half of the wine to this poor man."
The servant did as he was bidden. The beggar thanked the king for his kindness, and went on his way.
In the afternoon the men who had gone out to fish came back. They had three boats full of fish, and they said, "We have caught more fish today than in all the other days that we have been on this island."
The king was glad, and he and his people were more hopeful than they had ever been before.
When night came, the king lay awake for a long time, and thought about the things that had happened that day. At last he fancied that he saw a great light like the sun; and in the midst of the light there stood an old man with black hair, holding an open book in his hand.
It may all have been a dream, and yet to the king it seemed very real indeed. He looked and wondered, but was not afraid.
"Who are you ?" he asked of the old man.
"Alfred, my son, be brave," said the man; "for I am the one to whom you gave this day the half of all the food that you had. Be strong and joyful of heart, and listen to what I say. Rise up early in the morning and blow your horn three times, so loudly that the Danes may hear it.
By nine o'clock, five hundred men will be around you ready to be led into battle. Go forth bravely, and within seven days your enemies shall be beaten, and you shall go back to your kingdom to reign in peace."
Then the light went out, and the man was seen no more.
In the morning the king arose early, and crossed over to the mainland. Then he blew his horn three times very loudly; and when his friends heard it they were glad, but the Danes were filled with fear.
At nine o'clock, five hundred of his bravest soldiers stood around him ready for battle. He spoke, and told them what he had seen and heard in his dream; and when he had finished, they all cheered loudly, and said that they would follow him and fight for him so long as they had strength.
So they went out bravely to battle; and they beat the Danes, and drove them back into their own place. And King Alfred ruled wisely and well over all his people for the rest of his days.
A LACONIC ANSWER
Many miles beyond Rome there was a famous country which we call Greece. The people of Greece were not united like the Romans; but instead there were several states, each of which had its own rulers.
Some of the people in the southern part of the country were called Spar-tans, and they were noted for their simple habits and their bravery. The name of their land was Laconia, and so they were sometimes called Lacons.
One of the strange rules which the Spartans had, was that they should speak briefly, and never use more words than were needed. And so a short answer is often spoken of as being laconic; that is, as being such an answer as a Lacon would be likely to give.
There was in the northern part of Greece a land called Mac´e-don; and this land was at one time ruled over by a warlike king named Philip.
Philip of Macedon wanted to become the master of all Greece. So he raised a great army, and made war upon the other states, until nearly all of them were forced to call him their king. Then he sent a letter to the Spartans in Laconia, and said, "If I go down into your country, I will level your great city to the ground."
In a few days, an answer was brought back to him. When he opened the letter, he found only one word written there.
That word was "IF."
It was as much as to say, "We are not afraid of you so long as the little word 'if' stands in your way."
DIOGENES THE WISE MAN
At Corinth, in Greece, there lived a very wise man whose name was Diogenes. Men came from all parts of the land to see him and hear him talk.
But wise as he was, he had some very queer ways. He did not believe that any man ought to have more things than he really needed; and he said that no man needed much. And so he did not live in a house, but slept in a tub or barrel, which he rolled about from place to place. He spent his days sitting in the sun, and saying wise things to those who were around him.
At noon one day, Diogenes was seen walking through the streets with a lighted lantern, and looking all around as if in search of something.
"Why do you carry a lantern when the sun is shining ?" some one said.
"I am looking for an honest man," answered Diogenes.
When Alexander the Great went to Corinth, all the foremost men in the city came out to see him and to praise him. But Diogenes did not come; and he was the only man for whose opinions Alexander cared.
And so, since the wise man would not come to see the king, the king went to see the wise man. He found Diogenes in an out of the way place, lying on the ground by his tub. He was enjoying the heat and the light of the sun.
When he saw the king and a great many people coming, he sat up and looked at Alexander. Alexander greeted him and said:
"Diogenes, I have heard a great deal about your wisdom. Is there anything that I can do for you ?"
"Yes," said Diogenes. "You can stand a little on one side, so as not to keep the sunshine from me."
This answer was so different from what he expected, that the king was much surprised. But it did not make him angry; it only made him admire the strange man all the more. When he turned to ride back, he said to his officers:
"Say what you will; if I were not Alexander, I would like to be Diogenes."