A Merchant, who was about to set out on a journey, went to the house of a Friend, taking with him two hundred tons of iron.
"I beg of you," he said to his Friend, "that you will kindly keep this iron for me. I am about to set out on a long journey, and it may be that ill luck will befall me. If so, then I can return home and sell this iron for a large price."
The Friend took the iron, and even as the Merchant feared, it came to pass. Misfortune overtook him on the way, and he was obliged to return home. Straightway he went to the house of his Friend and demanded the iron. In the meantime the Friend had sold the iron to pay his own debts, for he believed that the Merchant would never return home. However, he put on a bold face and replied:—
"Truly, Friend, I have sad news for you. I locked the iron in a room, thinking that it was as safe there as is my own gold. But, unknown to me, there was a rat-hole in the wall, and the rats have stolen into the room and eaten all of the iron."
The Merchant, pretending that he believed this untruth, answered promptly:
"That is, indeed, sad news for me, for the iron was all that I had left. Still, I know of old that rats delight in chewing upon iron bars. I have lost much iron in this same way before, so I shall know how to bear my present ill luck."
This answer was very pleasing to the Friend, who now was sure that the Merchant believed that the rats had eaten his iron. To avoid any further suspicion, he invited the Merchant to dine with him on the morrow. The Merchant accepted and went his way. As he was passing through the city, he met one of his Friend's sons, whom he quietly took home and locked up in a room.
The next day he went to his Friend's to dine. His friend came to the door with tears streaming down his face. "You must pardon me my distress," he said to the Merchant, "but yesterday one of my children disappeared, and nothing has been heard of him since. The town-crier has been through the streets, but no trace of the child is to be found."
"I am, indeed, sorry to hear this news," replied the Merchant, "for last evening I saw a sparrow hawk flying over the city with a child in its claws. The child certainly looked very much like one of your children."
"You senseless fellow," retorted the friend, "why do you mock me in my trouble! How could a sparrow hawk carry off a child weighing fifty pounds?"
"Ah," replied the Merchant, "you must not be surprised that a sparrow hawk should carry off a child of fifty pounds in our city where rats eat up two hundred tons of iron. My friend, give me back my iron, and I will gladly restore your boy."