Old King Cole was not always a king, nor was he born a member of any royal family. It was only chance--"hard luck" he used to call it--that made him a king at all.
He had always been a poor man, being the son of an apple peddler, who died and left him nothing but a donkey and a fiddle. But that was enough for Cole, who never bothered his head about the world's goods, but took things as they came and refused to worry about anything.
So, when the house he lived in, and the furniture, and even the applecart were sold to pay his father's debts, and he found himself left with the old fiddle that nobody wanted and the old donkey that no one would have--it being both vicious and unruly--he uttered no word of complaint. He simply straddled the donkey and took the fiddle under his arm and rode out into the world to seek his fortune.
When he came to a village he played a merry tune upon the fiddle and sang a merry song with it, and the people gave him food most willingly. There was no trouble about a place to sleep, for if he was denied a bed he lay down with the donkey in a barn, or even on the village green, and making a pillow of the donkey's neck he slept as soundly as anyone could in a bed of down.
And so he continued riding along and playing upon his fiddle for many years, until his head grew bald and his face was wrinkled and his bushy eyebrows became as white as snow. But his eyes never lost their merry twinkle, and he was just as fat and hearty as in his younger days, while, if you heard him singing his songs and scraping upon the old fiddle, you would know at once his heart was as young as ever.
He never guided the donkey, but let the beast go where it would, and so it happened that at last they came to Whatland, and entered one day the city where resided the King of that great country.
Now, even as Cole rode in upon his donkey the King of Whatland lay dying in his palace, surrounded by all the luxury of the court. And as he left no heir, and was the last of the royal line, the councilors and wise men of Whatland were in a great quandary as to who should succeed him. But finally they bethought themselves of the laws of the land, and upon looking up the records they found in an old book a law that provided for just such a case as this.
"If the King dies," so read the law, "and there be no one to succeed to the throne, the prime minister shall be blinded and led from the palace into the main street of the city. And he shall stretch out his arms and walk about, and the first person he touches shall be crowned as King of the land."
The councilors were greatly pleased when they found this law, for it enabled them to solve the problem that confronted them. So when the King had breathed his last they blindfolded the prime minister and led him forth from the palace, and he began walking about with outstretched arms seeking someone to touch.
Of course the people knew nothing of this law, nor even that the old King was dead, and seeing the prime minister groping about blindfolded they kept out of his way, fearing they might be punished if he stumbled against them. But Cole was then riding along on the donkey, and did not even know it was the prime minister who was feeling about in such a funny way. So he began to laugh, and the minister, who had by this time grown tired of the game, heard the laugh and came toward the stranger and touched him, and immediately all the wise men and the councilors fell down before him and hailed him as King of Whatland!
Thus did the wandering fiddler become King Cole, and you may be sure he laughed more merrily than ever when they explained to him his good fortune.
They carried him within the palace and dressed him in purple and fine linen, and placed a crown of gold upon his bald head and a jeweled scepter in his wrinkled hand, and all this amused old King Cole very much. When he had been led to the great throne room and placed upon the throne of gold (where the silken cushions felt very soft and pleasant after his long ride upon the donkey's sharp back) the courtiers all knelt before him and asked what commands he wished to give, since everyone in the kingdom must now obey his slightest word.