Good Gifts and a Fool's Folly.
 

Give a fool heaven and earth, and all the stars, and he will make ducks and drakes of them.

Once upon a time there was an old man, who, by thrifty living and long saving, had laid by a fortune great enough to buy ease and comfort and pleasure for a lifetime.

By-and-by he died, and the money came to his son, who was of a different sort from the father; for, what that one had gained by the labor of a whole year, the other spent in riotous living in one week.

So it came about in a little while that the young man found himself without so much as a single penny to bless himself withal. Then his fair-weather friends left him, and the creditors came and seized upon his house and his household goods, and turned him out into the cold wide world to get along as best he might with the other fools who lived there.

Now the young spendthrift was a strong, stout fellow, and, seeing nothing better to do, he sold his fine clothes and bought him a porter's basket, and went and sat in the corner of the market-place to hire himself out to carry this or that for folk who were better off in the world, and less foolish than he.

There he sat, all day long, from morning until evening, but nobody came to hire him. But at last, as dusk was settling, there came along an old man with beard as white as snow hanging down below his waist. He stopped in front of the foolish spendthrift, and stood looking at him for a while; then, at last, seeming to be satisfied, he beckoned with his finger to the young man. "Come," said he, "I have a task for you to do, and if you are wise, and keep a still tongue in your head, I will pay you as never a porter was paid before."

You may depend upon it the young man needed no second bidding to such a matter. Up he rose, and took his basket, and followed the old man, who led the way up one street and down another, until at last they came to a rickety, ramshackle house in a part of the town the young man had never been before. Here the old man stopped and knocked at the door, which was instantly opened, as though of itself, and then he entered with the young spendthrift at his heels. The two passed through a dark passage-way, and another door, and then, lo and behold! all was changed; for they had come suddenly into such a place as the young man would not have believed could be in such a house, had he not seen it with his own eyes. Thousands of waxen tapers lit the place as bright as day--a great oval room, floored with mosaic of a thousand bright colors and strange figures, and hung with tapestries of silks and satins and gold and silver. The ceiling was painted to represent the sky, through which flew beautiful birds and winged figures so life-like that no one could tell that they were only painted, and not real. At the farther side of the room were two richly cushioned couches, and thither the old man led the way with the young spendthrift following, wonder-struck, and there the two sat themselves down. Then the old man smote his hands together, and, in answer, ten young men and ten beautiful girls entered bearing a feast of rare fruits and wines which they spread before them, and the young man, who had been fasting since morning, fell to and ate as he had not eaten for many a day.

The old man, who himself ate but little, waited patiently for the other to end. "Now," said he, as soon as the young man could eat no more, "you have feasted and you have drunk; it is time for us to work."

Thereupon he rose from the couch and led the way, the young man following, through an arch door-way into a garden, in the centre of which was an open space paved with white marble, and in the centre of that again a carpet, ragged and worn, spread out upon the smooth stones. Without saying a word, the old man seated himself upon one end of this carpet, and motioned to the spendthrift to seat himself with his basket at the other end; then--

"Are you ready?" said the old man.

"Yes," said the young man, "I am."

"Then, by the horn of Jacob," said the old man, "I command thee, O Carpet! to bear us over hill and valley, over lake and river, to that spot whither I wish to go." Hardly had the words left his mouth when away flew the carpet, swifter than the swiftest wind, carrying the old man and the young spendthrift, until at last it brought them to a rocky desert without leaf or blade of grass to be seen far or near. Then it descended to where there was a circle of sand as smooth as a floor.

The old man rolled up the carpet, and then drew from a pouch that hung at his side a box, and from the box some sticks of sandal and spice woods, with which he built a little fire. Next he drew from the same pouch a brazen jar, from which he poured a gray powder upon the blaze. Instantly there leaped up a great flame of white light and a cloud of smoke, which rose high in the air, and there spread out until it hid everything from sight. Then the old man began to mutter spells, and in answer the earth shook and quaked, and a rumbling as of thunder filled the air. At last he gave a loud cry, and instantly the earth split open, and there the young spendthrift saw a trap-door of iron, in which was an iron ring to lift it by.

"Look!" said the old man. "Yonder is the task for which I have brought you; lift for me that trap-door of iron, for it is too heavy for me to raise, and I will pay you well."

And it was no small task, either, for, stout and strong as the young man was, it was all he could do to lift up the iron plate. But at last up it swung, and down below he saw a flight of stone steps leading into the earth.

The old man drew from his bosom a copper lamp, which he lit at the fire of the sandal and spice wood sticks, which had now nearly died away. Then, leading the way, with the young man following close at his heels, he descended the stairway that led down below. At the bottom the two entered a great vaulted room, carved out of the solid stone, upon the walls of which were painted strange pictures in bright colors of kings and queens, genii and dragons. Excepting for these painted figures, the vaulted room was perfectly bare, only that in the centre of the floor there stood three stone tables. Upon the first table stood an iron candlestick with three branches; upon the second stood an earthen jar, empty of everything but dust; upon the third stood a brass bowl, a yard wide and a yard deep, and filled to the brim with shining, gleaming, dazzling jewels of all sorts.

"Now," said the old man to the spendthrift, "I will do to you as I promised: I will pay you as never man was paid before for such a task. Yonder upon those three stone tables are three great treasures: choose whichever one you will, and it is yours."

"I shall not be long in choosing," cried the young spendthrift. "I shall choose the brass bowl of jewels."

The old man laughed. "So be it," said he. "Fill your basket from the bowl with all you can carry, and that will be enough, provided you live wisely, to make you rich for as long as you live."

The young man needed no second bidding, but began filling his basket with both hands, until he had in it as much as he could carry.

Then the old man, taking the iron candlestick and the earthen jar, led the way up the stairway again. There the young man lowered the iron trap-door to its place, and so soon as he had done so the other stamped his heel upon the ground, and the earth closed of itself as smooth and level as it had been before.

The two sat themselves upon the carpet, the one upon the one end, and the other upon the other. "By the horn of Jacob," said the old man, "I command thee, O Carpet! to fly over hill and valley, over lake and river, until thou hast brought us back whence we came."

Away flew the carpet, and in a little time they were back in the garden from which they had started upon their journey; and there they parted company. "Go thy way, young man," said the old graybeard, "and henceforth try to live more wisely than thou hast done heretofore. I know well who thou art, and how thou hast lived. Shun thy evil companions, live soberly, and thou hast enough to make thee rich for as long as thou livest."

"Have no fear," cried the young man, joyfully. "I have learned a bitter lesson, and henceforth I will live wisely and well."

So, filled with good resolves, the young man went the next day to his creditors and paid his debts; he bought back the house which his father had left him, and there began to lead a new life as he had promised.

But a gray goose does not become white, nor a foolish man a wise one.

At first he led a life sober enough; but by little and little he began to take up with his old-time friends again, and by-and-by the money went flying as merrily as ever, only this time he was twenty times richer than he had been before, and he spent his money twenty times as fast. Every day there was feasting and drinking going on in his house, and roaring and rioting and dancing and singing. The wealth of a king could not keep up such a life forever, so by the end of a year and a half the last of the treasure was gone, and the young spendthrift was just as poor as ever. Then once again his friends left him as they had done before, and all that he could do was to rap his head and curse his folly.

At last, one morning, he plucked up courage to go to the old man who had helped him once before, to see whether he would not help him again. Rap! tap! tap! he knocked at the door, and who should open it but the old man himself. "Well," said the graybeard, "what do you want?"

"I want some help," said the spendthrift; and then he told him all, and the old man listened and stroked his beard.

"By rights," said he, when the young man had ended, "I should leave you alone in your folly; for it is plain to see that nothing can cure you of it. Nevertheless, as you helped me once, and as I have more than I shall need, I will share what I have with you. Come in and shut the door."

He led the way, the spendthrift following, to a little room all of bare stone, and in which were only three things--the magic carpet, the iron candlestick, and the earthen jar. This last the old man gave to the foolish spendthrift. "My friend," said he, "when you chose the money and jewels that day in the cavern, you chose the less for the greater. Here is a treasure that an emperor might well envy you. Whatever you wish for you will find by dipping your hand into the jar. Now go your way, and let what was happened cure you of your folly."

"It shall," cried the young man; "never again will I be so foolish as I have been!" And thereupon he went his way with another pocketful of good resolves.

The first thing he did when he reached home was to try the virtue of his jar. "I should like," said he, "to have a handful of just such treasure as I brought from the cavern over yonder." He dipped his hand into the jar, and when he brought it out again it was brimful of shining, gleaming, sparkling jewels. You can guess how he felt when he saw them.

Well, this time a whole year went by, during which the young man lived as soberly as a judge. But at the end of the twelvemonth he was so sick of wisdom that he loathed it as one loathes bitter drink. Then by little and little he began to take up with his old ways again, and to call his old cronies around, until at the end of another twelvemonth things were a hundred times worse and wilder than ever; for now what he had he had without end.

One day, when he and a great party of roisterers were shouting and making merry, he brought out his earthen-ware pot to show them the wonders of it; and to prove its virtue he gave to each guest whatever he wanted. "What will you have?"--"A handful of gold."--"Put your hand in and get it!"--"What will you have?"--"A fistful of pearls."--"Put your fist in and get them!"--"What will you have?"--"A necklace of diamonds."--"Dip into the jar and get it." And so he went from one to another, and each and every one got what he asked for, and such a shouting and hubbub those walls had never heard before.

Then the young man, holding the jar in his hands, began to dance and to sing: "O wonderful jar! O beautiful jar! O beloved jar!" and so on, his friends clapping their hands, and laughing and cheering him. At last, in the height of his folly, he balanced the earthen jar on his head, and began dancing around and around with it to show his dexterity.

Smash! crash! The precious jar lay in fifty pieces of the stone floor, and the young man stood staring at the result of his folly with bulging eyes, while his friends roared and laughed and shouted louder than ever over his mishap. And again his treasure and his gay life were gone.

But what had been hard for him to do before was easier now. At the end of a week he was back at the old man's house, rapping on the door. This time the old man asked him never a word, but frowned as black as thunder.

"I know," said he, "what has happened to you. If I were wise I should let you alone in your folly; but once more I will have pity on you and will help you, only this time it shall be the last." Once more he led the way to the stone room, where were the iron candlestick and the magic carpet, and with him he took a good stout cudgel. He stood the candlestick in the middle of the room, and taking three candles from his pouch, thrust one into each branch. Then he struck a light, and lit the first candle. Instantly there appeared a little old man, clad in a long white robe, who began dancing and spinning around and around like a top. He lit the second candle, and a second old man appeared, and round and round he went, spinning like his brother. He lit the third candle, and a third old man appeared. Around and around and around they spun and whirled, until the head spun and whirled to look at them. Then the old graybeard gripped the cudgel in his hand. "Are you ready?" he asked.

"We are ready, and waiting," answered the three. Thereupon, without another word, the graybeard fetched each of the dancers a blow upon the head with might and main--One! two! three! crack! crash! jingle!

Lo and behold! Instead of the three dancing men, there lay three great heaps of gold upon the floor, and the spendthrift stood staring like an owl. "There," said the old man, "take what you want, and then go your way, and trouble me no more."

"Well," said the spendthrift, "of all the wonders that ever I saw, this is the most wonderful! But how am I to carry my gold away with me, seeing I did not fetch my basket?"

"You shall have a basket," said the old man, "if only you will trouble me no more. Just wait here a moment until I bring it to you."

The spendthrift was left all alone in the room; not a soul was there but himself. He looked up, and he looked down, and scratched his head. "Why," he cried aloud, "should I be content to take a part when I can have the whole?"

To do was as easy as to say. He snatched up the iron candlestick, caught up the staff that the old man had left leaning against the wall, and seated himself upon the magic carpet. "By the horn of Jacob," he cried, "I command thee, O Carpet! to carry me over hill and valley, over lake and river, to a place where the old man can never find me."

Hardly had the words left his mouth than away flew the carpet through the air, carrying him along with it; away and away, higher than the clouds and swifter than the wind. Then at last it descended to the earth again, and when the young spendthrift looked about him, he found himself in just such a desert place as he and the old man had come to when they had found the treasure. But he gave no thought to that, and hardly looked around him to see where he was. All that he thought of was to try his hand at the three dancers that belonged to the candlestick. He struck a light, and lit the three candles, and instantly the three little old men appeared for him just as they had for the old graybeard. And around and around they spun and whirled, until the sand and dust spun and whirled along with them. Then the young man grasped his cudgel tightly.

Now, he had not noticed that when the old man struck the three dancers he had held the cudgel in his left hand, for he was not wise enough to know that great differences come from little matters. He griped the cudgel in his right hand, and struck the dancers with might and main, just as the old man had done. Crack! crack! crack! one; two; three.

Did they change into piles of gold? Not a bit of it! Each of the dancers drew from under his robe a cudgel as stout and stouter than the one the young man himself held, and, without a word, fell upon him and began to beat and drub him until the dust flew. In vain he hopped and howled and begged for mercy, in vain he tried to defend himself; the three never stopped until he fell to the ground, and laid there panting and sighing and groaning; and then they left and flew back with the iron candlestick and the magic carpet to the old man again. At last, after a great while, the young spendthrift sat up, rubbing the sore places; but when he looked around not a sign was to be seen of anything but the stony desert, without a house or a man in sight.

Perhaps, after a long time, he found his way home again, and perhaps the drubbing he had had taught him wisdom; the first is a likely enough thing to happen, but as for the second, it would need three strong men to tell it to me a great many times before I would believe it.

You may smile at this story if you like, but, all the same, as certainly as there is meat in an egg-shell, so is there truth in this nonsense. For, "Give a fool heaven and earth," say I, "and all the stars, and he will make ducks and drakes of them."

Fortunatus lifted his canican to his lips and took a long, hearty draught of ale. "Methinks," said he, "that all your stories have a twang of the same sort about them. You all of you, except my friend the Soldier here, play the same tune upon a different fiddle. Nobody comes to any good."

St. George drew a long whiff of his pipe, and then puffed out a cloud of smoke as big as his head. "Perhaps," said he to Fortunatus, "you know of a story which turns out differently. If you do, let us have it, for it is your turn now."

"Very well," said Fortunatus, "I will tell you a story that turns out as it should, where the lad marries a beautiful princess and becomes a king into the bargain."

"And what is your story about?" said the Lad who fiddled for Jew in the bramble-bush."

"It is," said Fortunatus, "about--