There was a great number of them, you may be sure, and they made an imposing appearance.
Then the doors of the audience chamber were thrown open, and the wealthy ladies who aspired to being queen of Quok came trooping in. The king looked them over with much anxiety, and decided they were each and all old enough to be his grandmother, and ugly enough to scare away the crows from the royal cornfields. After which he lost interest in them.
But the rich ladies never looked at the poor little king squatting upon his stool. They gathered at once about the chief counselor, who acted as auctioneer.
"How much am I offered for the coronet of the queen of Quok?" asked the counselor, in a loud voice.
"Where is the coronet?" inquired a fussy old lady who had just buried her ninth husband and was worth several millions.
"There isn't any coronet at present," explained the chief counselor, "but whoever bids highest will have the right to wear one, and she can then buy it."
"Oh," said the fussy old lady, "I see." Then she added: "I'll bid fourteen dollars."
"Fourteen thousand dollars!" cried a sour-looking woman who was thin and tall and had wrinkles all over her skin--"like a frosted apple," the king thought.
The bidding now became fast and furious, and the poverty-stricken courtiers brightened up as the sum began to mount into the millions.
"He'll bring us a very pretty fortune, after all," whispered one to his comrade, "and then we shall have the pleasure of helping him spend it."
The king began to be anxious. All the women who looked at all kind-hearted or pleasant had stopped bidding for lack of money, and the slender old dame with the wrinkles seemed determined to get the coronet at any price, and with it the boy husband. This ancient creature finally became so excited that her wig got crosswise of her head and her false teeth kept slipping out, which horrified the little king greatly; but she would not give up.
At last the chief counselor ended the auction by crying out:
"Sold to Mary Ann Brodjinsky de la Porkus for three million, nine hundred thousand, six hundred and twenty-four dollars and sixteen cents!" And the sour-looking old woman paid the money in cash and on the spot, which proves this is a fairy story.
The king was so disturbed at the thought that he must marry this hideous creature that he began to wail and weep; whereupon the woman boxed his ears soundly. But the counselor reproved her for punishing her future husband in public, saying:
"You are not married yet. Wait until to-morrow, after the wedding takes place. Then you can abuse him as much as you wish. But at present we prefer to have people think this is a love match."
The poor king slept but little that night, so filled was he with terror of his future wife. Nor could he get the idea out of his head that he preferred to marry the armorer's daughter, who was about his own age. He tossed and tumbled around upon his hard bed until the moonlight came in at the window and lay like a great white sheet upon the bare floor. Finally, in turning over for the hundredth time, his hand struck against a secret spring in the headboard of the big mahogany bedstead, and at once, with a sharp click, a panel flew open.
The noise caused the king to look up, and, seeing the open panel, he stood upon tiptoe, and, reaching within, drew out a folded paper. It had several leaves fastened together like a book, and upon the first page was written:
"When the king is in trouble This leaf he must double And set it on fire To obtain his desire."
This was not very good poetry, but when the king had spelled it out in the moonlight he was filled with joy.
"There's no doubt about my being in trouble," he exclaimed; "so I'll burn it at once, and see what happens."
He tore off the leaf and put the rest of the book in its secret hiding place. Then, folding the paper double, he placed it on the top of his stool, lighted a match and set fire to it.
It made a horrid smudge for so small a paper, and the king sat on the edge of the bed and watched it eagerly.