In a village in a valley not too far away from here lived a doctor, called Dr Averil. He was a good doctor who looked after his patients well. If his patients could pay, well and good, but if they were very poor, he didn’t ask them to pay at all.
As time went on, Dr Averil began to notice that more and more of his patients were sick because they didn’t have enough to eat. They had no money to buy food or medicine or warm clothes. Dr Averil was afraid that it would not be long before their children started to die from hunger, and something must be done.
He left his home and went to see the king.
Now King Esher was a greedy and selfish man. When Dr Averil told him that the poor were starving, he merely said, “What is that to me? So long as I have plenty to eat, that’s all that matters.”
Dr Averil pleaded with him. “Even a small part of the food that you throw away every day would be enough to feed a family for a month,” he said.
The king stared at Averil and said. “My dear doctor, what are you suggesting? Feeding a family for a month would cost me a great deal of money.” He turned to the Keeper of the Treasury, Count Zilf. “How much would this ridiculous plan cost, Zilf?”
Count Zilf did some calculations on a piece of paper and said, “Oh, a great deal of money, your Majesty! Why, your Majesty might have to close down your third-favourite swimming pool!”
“You see?” the king turned back to Dr Averil. “It’s completely out of the question.” And he sent the doctor away.
Dr Averil fretted and worried, until he couldn’t stand it any longer. He called together all the newspapers and journalists and reporters and said to them, “Come with me. King Esher has an important announcement to make.”
He led them to the king’s palace. When they reached the audience chamber where the king was sitting on his throne with Count Zilf beside him, Dr Averil said to the reporters, “The king has an important announcement to make. He is concerned for his people, who are poor and hungry, so out of his extremely kind and generous heart he has decided that anyone who is in need, will be given bread from the royal kitchens and vegetables from the royal gardens.”
Everyone was shocked, none more so than the king. “What’s this?” he thundered.
Count Zilf touched the king’s sleeve and whispered into his ear, “Shhhh! Do you want people to think that you are NOT extremely generous and kind-hearted?”
The king looked at all the cameras and the journalists. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to smile. “Yes, they will be given all the bread and vegetables they need,” he said.
The very next morning there was a long, long line of people outside the palace. They were all given fresh vegetables and bread. Before many weeks had passed, the people were much healthier and happier.
The king was very angry with Dr Averil. He called the wickedest sorcerers in the kingdom and told them he had an enemy that he wanted to punish. The most wicked gave a sinister chuckle and said, “I have exactly what you need.” He showed the king a large, black, metal gong. “If you wish to make your enemy very unhappy, you only have to say his name and then strike the gong once. Half of his body will be turned to wood.”
The king was very impressed. “Let me see.” He took the gong into his hands. “Like this?” he asked. Then he said Averil’s name and struck the gong.
In his house on the other side of the village, Dr Averil felt both his legs turn to wood, all the way down to his feet and his toes inside his boots. “What is happening to me?” he said. He couldn’t walk, or get up out of his chair.
When the king heard that Averil’s legs had turned to solid wood, he chuckled gleefully. It almost made up for having to empty out his third-favourite swimming pool.
As winter drew on, Dr Averil was called to visit many more sick patients. He noticed that their houses were very cold, with leaky roofs that let the rain in. The drains were blocked up and some of them had no bathrooms at all. No wonder they’re getting sick, he said to himself. He shook his head, and thought hard. Then he went to visit the king again.
“Your people are living in broken-down shacks,” he said to the king. “You should build them proper houses, with bathrooms, and windows for fresh air, and gardens for the children to run around in.”
“What?” yelled the king. “Outrageous!”
Count Zilf took out his calculator and made some calculations. “It would cost a great deal of money, your Majesty,” he said. “You would have to get rid of all but five of your sports cars to pay for it.”
“Only five sports cars? Unbelievable!” the king said. “Take your impossible demands out of my sight,” he said to Averil, “and no tricks this time, or you’ll be sorry!”
Dr Averil went home and thought about how much his wooden legs ached and how he could no longer walk or swim or ride his bike, and how he could only move about using a wheelchair. Then he thought about his patients with their bad chests and their children with terrible illnesses, and he made up his mind.
He called the reporters and journalists again, and he told them, “King Esher is such a just and compassionate man that he is going to build new houses for all the poor people. No more leaky roofs or damp floors or smelly drains. “
The news was announced in all the newspapers, and so of course the king had to go through with it, or it would have seemed that he was not a just or a compassionate man. Rows of tidy new houses were built, with windows and bathrooms, and a small garden at the back so the children could run around, and people could grow their own vegetables.
King Esher had to sell all but five of his sports cars to pay for the houses. He ground his teeth and said in a rage, “I told that interfering doctor that he would be sorry!” And he struck the gong.
Its reverberations rang out across the country to the very house where Averil was sitting in his wheelchair by the fire. All at once his arms and his body turned to solid wood, everything but his face, his hands and his heart.
“What is happening to me?” he cried. But he was a doctor, and a very clever man, and he knew that this was no sickness or disease. “It must be the king’s doing,” he thought.
His back and his legs hurt constantly, and he could hardly bend his arms to feed himself any more, yet he still took care of his patients as well as he could. As the months went by and spring came, Dr Averil noticed that people were much healthier and happier, now that they had warm, dry houses, and gardens to grow their own food.
Then one day an old patient came to see the doctor, with a long gash along his arm. “How did you get this?” Dr Averil asked him.
“I have a new job in a factory,” the man said, “but I don’t know which machines are dangerous, and so I injured my arm.”
The doctor said, “Aren’t there signs saying ‘Danger’?”
“There may be,” the man said, “but I can’t read. There are no schools for poor people like us, only for the wealthy.”
“No schools?” Dr Averil said. “But everyone should be able to go to school and learn to read and write.” He gathered up his courage and went to see the king once more.
“So, it’s you, Averil,” the king said, chuckling to see the doctor in a wheelchair, unable to move his arms or his legs. “What do you want this time?” He was sure that the doctor would not dare try to trick him again, for it would be certain death for him if he did.
“The poor cannot read or write,” Dr Averil said. “They need schools where they can learn.”
“Schools?” blustered the king. “Absolutely impossible! Why, they might learn to read, and then they would start having ideas and opinions. That would never do!”
“Never!” agreed Count Zilf. He was adding up sums on a white table-cloth. “Very expensive,” he said, “very, very expensive. If your Majesty had to build a school, there would hardly be enough money left in the treasury to go on holidays more than three or four times a year.”
The king was horrified. “Holidays only three or four times a year? Unthinkable! Go home, and forget about this preposterous idea, or you’ll be VERY sorry.” He pointed to the black gong and nodded knowingly.
Then Dr Averil knew for certain that King Esher was responsible for what had happened to him. He went home, but he could not allow the king’s threats to stop him doing what he knew was right. He thought about his hands, and his face, and most especially his heart, and he sighed deeply. Then he called the journalists and reporters and told them, “King Esher in his great wisdom and foresight knows that his people need to be educated, so he is going to build a new school for anyone who wants to learn.”
The exciting news went out to everyone at once. The people gathered to cheer in the streets and wave flags with the king’s picture on them, but the king’s anger blazed. “Averil has gone too far this time,” he snarled. He pointed with a finger shaking with rage. “Strike the gong, three times!”
The gong was struck, once, twice, three times. Its sound rang through the streets, making the children shiver and the trees shed their leaves. Dr Averil felt the vibrations through his wooden legs, his wooden back and his arms. Then first his left hand and then his right hand turned to solid wood, then his head and his face. Lastly his beating heart turned to solid wood and stopped dead.
But his heart was so full of love that it could not be contained. It split the wood open, and life-giving blood poured out into every vein. His hands, his arms, his body, his legs and his feet were living flesh once more.
He sprang to his feet and gave thanks with a joyful heart. And so he lived out the rest of his long, happy life.
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