Story type: Literature
Once upon a time there was a servant who served a wise man, and cooked for him his cabbage and his onions and his pot-herbs and his broth, day after day, time in and time out, for seven years.
In those years the servant was well enough contented, but no one likes to abide in the same place forever, and so one day he took it into his head that he would like to go out into the world to see what kind of a fortune a man might make there for himself. “Very well,” says the wise man, the servant’s master; “you have served me faithfully these seven years gone, and now that you ask leave to go you shall go. But it is little or nothing in the way of money that I can give you, and so you will have to be content with what I can afford. See, here is a little pebble, and its like is not to be found in the seven kingdoms, for whoever holds it in his mouth can hear while he does so all that the birds and the beasts say to one another. Take it–it is yours, and, if you use it wisely, it may bring you a fortune.”
The servant would rather have had the money in hand than the magic pebble, but, as nothing better was to be had, he took the little stone, and, bidding his master good-bye, trudged out into the world, to seek his fortune. Well, he jogged on and on, paying his way with the few pennies he had saved in his seven years of service, but for all of his travelling nothing of good happened to him until, one morning, he came to a lonely place where there stood a gallows, and there he sat him down to rest, and it is just in such an unlikely place as this that a man’s best chance of fortune comes to him sometimes.
As the servant sat there, there came two ravens flying, and lit upon the cross-beam overhead. There they began talking to one another, and the servant popped the pebble into his mouth to hear what they might say.
“Yonder is a traveller in the world,” said the first raven.
“Yes,” said the second, “and if he only knew how to set about it, his fortune is as good as made.”
“How is that so?” said the first raven.
“Why, thus,” said the second. “If he only knew enough to follow yonder road over the hill, he would come by-and-by to a stone cross where two roads meet, and there he would find a man sitting. If he would ask it of him, that man would lead him to the garden where the fruit of happiness grows.”
“The fruit of happiness!” said the first raven, “and of what use would the fruit of happiness be to him?”
“What use? I tell you, friend, there is no fruit in the world like that, for one has only to hold it in one’s hand and wish, and whatever one asks for one shall have.”
You may guess that when the servant understood the talk of the ravens he was not slow in making use of what he heard. Up he scrambled, and away he went as fast as his legs could carry him. On and on he travelled, until he came to the cross-roads and the stone cross of which the raven spoke, and there, sure enough, sat the traveller. He was clad in a weather-stained coat, and he wore dusty boots, and the servant bade him good-morning.
How should the servant know that it was an angel whom he beheld, and not a common wayfarer?
“Whither away, comrade,” asked the traveller.
“Out in the world,” said the servant, “to seek my fortune. And what I want to know is this–will you guide me to where I can find the fruit of happiness?”
“You ask a great thing of me,” said the other; “nevertheless, since you do ask it, it is not for me to refuse, though I may tell you that many a man has sought for that fruit, and few indeed have found it. But if I guide you to the garden where the fruit grows, there is one condition you must fulfil: many strange things will happen upon our journey between here and there, but concerning all you see you must ask not a question and say not a word. Do you agree to that?”
“Yes,” said the servant, “I do.”
“Very well,” said his new comrade; “then let us be jogging, for I have business in the town to-night, and the time is none too long to get there.”
So all the rest of that day they journeyed onward together, until, towards evening, they came to a town with high towers and steep roofs and tall spires. The servant’s companion entered the gate as though he knew the place right well, and led the way up one street and down another, until, by-and-by, they came to a noble house that stood a little apart by itself, with gardens of flowers and fruit-trees all around it. There the travelling companion stopped, and, drawing out a little pipe from under his jacket, began playing so sweetly upon it that he made one’s heart stand still to listen to the music.
Well, he played and played until, by-and-by, the door opened, and out came a serving-man. “Ho, piper!” said he, “would you like to earn good wages for your playing?”
“Yes,” said the travelling companion, “I would, for that is why I came hither.”
“Then follow me,” said the servant, and thereupon the travelling companion tucked away his pipe and entered, with the other at his heels.
The house-servant led the way from one room to another, each grander than the one they left behind, until at last he came to a great hall where dozens of servants were serving a fine feast. But only one man sat at table–a young man with a face so sorrowful that it made a body’s heart ache to look upon him. “Can you play good music, piper?” said he.
“Yes,” said the piper, “that I can, for I know a tune that can cure sorrow. But before I blow my pipe I and my friend here must have something to eat and drink, for one cannot play well with an empty stomach.”
“So be it,” said the young man; “sit down with me and eat and drink.”
So the two did without second bidding, and such food and drink the serving-man had never tasted in his life before. And while they were feasting together the young man told them his story, and why it was he was so sad. A year before he had married a young lady, the most beautiful in all that kingdom, and had friends and comrades and all things that a man could desire in the world. But suddenly everything went wrong; his wife and he fell out and quarrelled until there was no living together, and she had to go back to her old home. Then his companions deserted him, and now he lived all alone.
“Yours is a hard case,” said the travelling companion, “but it is not past curing.” Thereupon he drew out his pipes and began to play, and it was such a tune as no man ever listened to before. He played and he played, and, after a while, one after another of those who listened to him began to get drowsy. First they winked, then they shut their eyes, and then they nodded until all were as dumb as logs, and as sound asleep as though they would never waken again. Only the servant and the piper stayed awake, for the music did not make them drowsy as it did the rest. Then, when all but they two were tight and fast asleep, the travelling companion arose, tucked away his pipe, and, stepping up to the young man, took from off his finger a splendid ruby ring, as red as blood and as bright as fire, and popped the same into his pocket. And all the while the serving-man stood gaping like a fish to see what his comrade was about. “Come,” said the travelling companion, “it is time we were going,” and off they went, shutting the door behind them.
As for the serving-man, though he remembered his promise and said nothing concerning what he had beheld, his wits buzzed in his head like a hive of bees, for he thought that of all the ugly tricks he had seen, none was more ugly than this–to bewitch the poor sorrowful young man into a sleep, and then to rob him of his ruby ring after he had fed them so well and had treated them so kindly.
But the next day they jogged on together again until by-and-by they came to a great forest. There they wandered up and down till night came upon them and found them still stumbling onward through the darkness, while the poor serving-man’s flesh quaked to hear the wild beasts and the wolves growling and howling around them.
But all the while the angel–his travelling companion–said never a word; he seemed to doubt nothing nor fear nothing, but trudged straight ahead until, by-and-by, they saw a light twinkling far away, and, when they came to it, they found a gloomy stone house, as ugly as eyes ever looked upon. Up stepped the servant’s comrade and knocked upon the door–rap! tap! tap! By-and-by it was opened a crack, and there stood an ugly old woman, blear-eyed and crooked and gnarled as a winter twig. But the heart within her was good for all that. “Alas, poor folk!” she cried, “why do you come here? This is a den where lives a band of wicked thieves. Every day they go out to rob and murder poor travellers like yourselves. By-and-by they will come back, and when they find you here they will certainly kill you.”
“No matter for that,” said the travelling companion; “we can go no farther to-night, so you must let us in and hide us as best you may.”
And in he went, as he said, with the servant at his heels trembling like a leaf at what he had heard. The old woman gave them some bread and meat to eat, and then hid them away in the great empty meal-chest in the corner, and there they lay as still as mice.
By-and-by in came the gang of thieves with a great noise and uproar, and down they sat to their supper. The poor servant lay in the chest listening to all they said of the dreadful things they had done that day–how they had cruelly robbed and murdered poor people. Every word that they said he heard, and he trembled until his teeth chattered in his head. But all the same the robbers knew nothing of the two being there, and there they lay until near the dawning of the day. Then the travelling companion bade the servant be stirring, and up they got, and out of the chest they came, and found all the robbers sound asleep and snoring so that the dust flew.
“Stop a bit,” said the angel–the travelling companion–“we must pay them for our lodging.”
As he spoke he drew from his pocket the ruby ring which he had stolen from the sorrowful young man’s finger, and dropped it into the cup from which the robber captain drank. Then he led the way out of the house, and, if the serving-man had wondered the day before at that which the comrade did, he wondered ten times more to see him give so beautiful a ring to such wicked and bloody thieves.
The third evening of their journey the two travellers came to a little hut, neat enough, but as poor as poverty, and there the comrade knocked upon the door and asked for lodging. In the house lived a poor man and his wife; and, though the two were as honest as the palm of your hand, and as good and kind as rain in spring-time, they could hardly scrape enough of a living to keep body and soul together. Nevertheless, they made the travellers welcome, and set before them the very best that was to be had in the house; and, after both had eaten and drunk, they showed them to bed in a corner as clean as snow, and there they slept the night through.
But the next morning, before the dawning of the day, the travelling companion was stirring again. “Come,” said he; “rouse yourself, for I have a bit of work to do before I leave this place.”
And strange work it was! When they had come outside of the house, he gathered together a great heap of straw and sticks of wood, and stuffed all under the corner of the house. Then he struck a light and set fire to it, and, as the two walked away through the gray dawn, all was a red blaze behind them.
Still, the servant remembered his promise to his travelling comrade, and said never a word or asked never a question, though all that day he walked on the other side of the road, and would have nothing to say or to do with the other. But never a whit did his comrade seem to think of or to care for that. On they jogged, and, by the time evening was at hand, they had come to a neat cottage with apple and pear trees around it, all as pleasant as the eye could desire to see. In this cottage lived a widow and her only son, and they also made the travellers welcome, and set before them a good supper and showed them to a clean bed.
This time the travelling comrade did neither good nor ill to those of the house, but in the morning he told the widow whither they were going, and asked if she and her son knew the way to the garden where grew the fruit of happiness.
“Yes,” said she, “that we do, for the garden is not a day’s journey from here, and my son himself shall go with you to show you the way.”
“That is good,” said the servant’s comrade, “and if he will do so I will pay him well for his trouble.”
So the young man put on his hat, and took up his stick, and off went the three, up hill and down dale, until by-and-by they came over the top of the last hill, and there below them lay the garden.
And what a sight it was, the leaves shining and glistening like so many jewels in the sunlight! I only wish that I could tell you how beautiful that garden was. And in the middle of it grew a golden tree, and on it golden fruit. The servant, who had travelled so long and so far, could see it plainly from where he stood, and he did not need to be told that it was the fruit of happiness. But, after all, all he could do was to stand and look, for in front of them was a great raging torrent, without a bridge for a body to cross over.
“Yonder is what you seek,” said the young man, pointing with his finger, “and there you can see for yourself the fruit of happiness.”
The travelling companion said never a word, good or bad, but, suddenly catching the widow’s son by the collar, he lifted him and flung him into the black, rushing water. Splash! went the young man, and then away he went whirling over rocks and water-falls. “There!” cried the comrade, “that is your reward for your service!”
When the servant saw this cruel, wicked deed, he found his tongue at last, and all that he had bottled up for the seven days came frothing out of him like hot beer. Such abuse as he showered upon his travelling companion no man ever listened to before. But to all the servant said the other answered never a word until he had stopped for sheer want of breath. Then–
“Poor fool,” said the travelling companion, “if you had only held your tongue a minute longer, you, too, would have had the fruit of happiness in your hand. Now it will be many a day before you have a sight of it again.”
Thereupon, as he ended speaking, he struck his staff upon the ground. Instantly the earth trembled, and the sky darkened overhead until it grew as black as night. Then came a great flash of fire from up in the sky, which wrapped the travelling companion about until he was hidden from sight. Then the flaming fire flew away to heaven again, carrying him along with it. After that the sky cleared once more, and, lo and behold! The garden and the torrent and all were gone, and nothing was left but a naked plain covered over with the bones of those who had come that way before, seeking the fruit which the travelling servant had sought.
It was a long time before the servant found his way back into the world again, and the first house he came to, weak and hungry, was the widow’s.
But what a change he beheld! It was a poor cottage no longer, but a splendid palace, fit for a queen to dwell in. The widow herself met him at the door, and she was dressed in clothes fit for a queen to wear, shining with gold and silver and precious stones.
The servant stood and stared like one bereft of wits. “How comes all this change?” said he, “and how did you get all these grand things?”
“My son,” said the widow woman, “has just been to the garden, and has brought home from there the fruit of happiness. Many a day did we search, but never could we find how to enter into the garden, until, the other day, an angel came and showed the way to my son, and he was able not only to gather of the fruit for himself, but to bring an apple for me also.”
Then the poor travelling servant began to thump his head. He saw well enough through the millstone now, and that he, too, might have had one of the fruit if he had but held his tongue a little longer.
Yes, he saw what a fool he had made of himself, when he learned that it was an angel with whom he had been travelling the five days gone.
But, then, we are all of us like the servant for the matter of that; I, too, have travelled with an angel many a day, I dare say, and never knew it.
That night the servant lodged with the widow and her son, and the next day he started back home again upon the way he had travelled before. By evening he had reached the place where the house of the poor couple stood–the house that he had seen the angel set fire to. There he beheld masons and carpenters hard at work hacking and hewing, and building a fine new house. And there he saw the poor man himself standing by giving them orders. “How is this,” said the travelling servant; “I thought that your house was burned down?”
“So it was, and that is how I came to be rich now,” said the one-time poor man. “I and my wife had lived in our old house for many a long day, and never knew that a great treasure of silver and gold was hidden beneath it, until a few days ago there came an angel and burned it down over our heads, and in the morning we found the treasure. So now we are rich for as long as we may live.”
The next morning the poor servant jogged along on his homeward way more sad and downcast than ever, and by evening he had come to the robbers’ den in the thick woods, and there the old woman came running to the door to meet him. “Come in!” cried she; “come in and welcome! The robbers are all dead and gone now, and I use the treasure that they left behind to entertain poor travellers like yourself. The other day there came an angel hither, and with him he brought the ring of discord that breeds spite and rage and quarrelling. He gave it to the captain of the band, and after he had gone the robbers fought for it with one another until they were all killed. So now the world is rid of them, and travellers can come and go as they please.”
Back jogged the travelling servant, and the next day came to the town and to the house of the sorrowful young man. There, lo and behold! Instead of being dark and silent, as it was before, all was ablaze with light and noisy with the sound of rejoicing and merriment. There happened to be one of the household standing at the door, and he knew the servant as the companion of that one who had stolen the ruby ring. Up he came and laid hold of the servant by the collar, calling to his companions that he had caught one of the thieves. Into the house they hauled the poor servant, and into the same room where he had been before, and there sat the young man at a grand feast, with his wife and all his friends around him. But when the young man saw the poor serving-man he came to him and took him by the hand, and set him beside himself at the table. “Nobody except your comrade could be so welcome as you,” said he, “and this is why. An enemy of mine one time gave me a ruby ring, and though I knew nothing of it, it was the ring of discord that bred strife wherever it came. So, as soon as it was brought into the house, my wife and all my friends fell out with me, and we quarrelled so that they all left me. But, though I knew it not at that time, your comrade was an angel, and took the ring away with him, and now I am as happy as I was sorrowful before.”
By the next night the servant had come back to his home again. Rap! tap! tap! He knocked at the door, and the wise man who had been his master opened to him. “What do you want?” said he.
“I want to take service with you again,” said the travelling servant.
“Very well,” said the wise man; “come in and shut the door.”
And for all I know the travelling servant is there to this day. For he is not the only one in the world who has come in sight of the fruit of happiness, and then jogged all the way back home again to cook cabbage and onions and pot-herbs, and to make broth for wiser men than himself to sup.
That is the end of this story.
“I like your story, holy sir,” said the Blacksmith who made Death sit in a pear-tree. “Ne’th’less, it hath indeed somewhat the smack of a sermon, after all. Methinks I am like my friend yonder,” and he pointed with his thumb towards Fortunatus; “I like to hear a story about treasures of silver and gold, and about kings and princes–a story that turneth out well in the end, with everybody happy, and the man himself married in luck, rather than one that turneth out awry, even if it hath an angel in it.”
“Well, well,” said St. George, testily, “one cannot please everybody. But as for being a sermon, why, certes, my story was not that–and even if it were, it would not have hurt thee, sirrah.”
“No offence,” said the Blacksmith; “I meant not to speak ill of your story. Come, come, sir, will you not take a pot of ale with me?”
“Why,” said St. George, somewhat mollified, “for the matter of that, I would as lief as not.”
“I liked the story well enough,” piped up the little Tailor who had killed seven flies at a blow. “Twas a good enough story of its sort, but why does nobody tell a tale of good big giants, and of wild boars, and of unicorns, such as I killed in my adventures you wot of?”
Old Ali Baba had been sitting with his hands folded and his eyes closed. Now he opened them and looked at the Little Tailor. “I know a story,” said he, “about a Genie who was as big as a giant, and six times as powerful. And besides that,” he added, “the story is all about treasures of gold, and palaces, and kings, and emperors, and what not, and about a cave such as that in which I myself found the treasure of the forty thieves.”
The Blacksmith who made Death sit in the pear-tree clattered the bottom of his canican against the table. “Aye, aye,” said he, “that is the sort of story for me. Come, friend, let us have it.”
“Stop a bit,” said Fortunatus; “what is this story mostly about?”
“It is,” said Ali Baba, “about two men betwixt whom there was–“