HERE was a rich man who lived on a hill, and a poor man who lived down in the valley, and they were brothers, the one was older and the other younger. The one lived in a grand house and the other in a little, rickety, tumbledown hut, and the one was covetous and greedy and the other was kind and merciful. All the same, it was a merry life that the poor brother led of it, for each morning when he took a drink he said, "Thank Heaven for clear water;" and when the day was bright he said, "Thank Heaven for the warm sun that shines on us all;" and when it was wet it was, "Thank Heaven for the gentle rain that makes the green grass grow."
One day the poor brother was riding in the forest, and there he met the rich brother, and they jogged along the way together. The one rode upon a poor, old, spavined, white horse, and the other rode upon a fine, prancing steed.
By and by they met an old woman, and it was all that she could do to hobble along the way she was going.
"Dear, good, kind gentlemen," said she, "do help a poor old body with a penny or two, for it is nothing I have in the world, and life sits heavy on old shoulders."
The rich brother was for passing along as though he heard never a word of what she said, but the poor brother had a soft heart, and reined in his horse.
"It is only three farthings that I have in the world," said he; "but such as they are you are welcome to them," and he emptied his purse into her hand.
"You shall not have the worst of the bargain," said the old woman; "here is something that is worth the having," and she gave him a little black stone about as big as a bean. Then off she went with what he had given her.
"See, now," said the rich brother, "that is why you are so poor as hardly to be able to make both ends meet in the world."
"That may be so, or may not be so," said the poor brother; "all the same, mercy is better than greed."
How the elder did laugh at this, to be sure! "Why, look," says he, "here I am riding upon a grand horse with my pockets full of gold and silver money, and there you are astride of a beast that can hardly hobble along the road, and with never a copper bit in your pocket to jingle against another."
Yes; that was all true enough; nevertheless, the younger brother stuck to it that mercy was better than greed, until, at last, the other flew into a mighty huff.
"Very well," says he, "I will wager my horse against yours that I am right, and we will leave it to the first body we meet to settle the point."
Well, that suited the poor brother, and he was agreed to do as the other said.
So by and by they met a grand lord riding along the road with six servants behind him; and would he tell whether mercy or greed were the best for a body in this world?
The rich lord laughed and laughed. "Why," said he, "greed is the best, for if it were otherwise, and I had only what belonged to me, I should never be jogging along through the world with six servants behind me."
So off he rode, and the poor brother had to give up his horse to the other, who had no more use for it than I have for five more fingers. "All the same," says the poor brother, "mercy is better than greed." Goodness! What a rage the rich brother fell into, to be sure! "There is no teaching a simpleton," said he; "nevertheless, I will wager all the money in my purse against your left eye that greed is better than mercy, and we will leave it to the next body we meet, since you are not content with the other."
That suited the younger brother well enough, and on they jogged until they met a rich merchant driving a donkey loaded with things to sell. And would he judge between them whether mercy or greed were the best for a body?
"Poof!" says the merchant, "what a question to ask! All the world knows that greed is the best. If it were not for taking the cool end of the bargain myself, and leaving the hot end for my neighbor to hold, it is little or nothing that I should have in the world to call my own." And off he went whither he was going.
"There," says the rich brother, "now perhaps you will be satisfied;" and he put out the poor man's left eye.
But no, the other still held that mercy was better than greed; and so they made another wager of all the rich man had in the world against the poor man's right eye.
This time it was a poor ploughman whom they met, and would he tell whether mercy or greed were the best?
"Prut!" said he, "any simpleton can tell that greed is the best, for all the world rides on the poor man's shoulders, and he is able to bear the burden the least of all."
Then the rich man put out the poor man's right eye; "for," says he, "a body deserves to be blind who cannot see the truth when it is as plain as a pikestaff."
But still the poor man stuck to it that mercy was the best. So the rich man rode away and left him in his blindness.
As all was darkness to his eyes, he sat down beside the road at the first place he could find, and that was underneath the gallows where three wicked robbers had been hung. While he sat there two ravens came flying, and lit on the gallows above him. They began talking to one another, and the younger brother heard what they said, for he could understand the speech of the birds of the air and of the beasts of the field, just as little children can, because he was innocent.
And the first raven said to the second raven, "Yonder, below, sits a fellow in blindness, because he held that mercy was better than greed."
And the second raven said to the first, "Yes, that is so, but he might have his sight again if he only knew enough to spread his handkerchief upon the grass, and bathe his eyes in the dew which falls upon it from the gallows above."
And the first raven said to the second, "That is as true as that one and one make two; but there is more to tell yet, for in his pocket he carries a little black stone with which he may open every door that he touches. Back of the oak-tree yonder is a little door; if he would but enter thereat he would find something below well worth the having."
That was what the two ravens said, and then they flapped their wings and flew away.
As for the younger brother, you can guess how his heart danced at what he heard. He spread his handkerchief on the grass, and by and by, when night came, the dew fell upon it until it was as wet as clothes on the line. He wiped his eyes with it, and when the dew touched the lids they were cured, and he could see as well and better than ever.
By and by the day broke, and he lost no time in finding the door back of the oak-tree. He touched the lock with the little black stone, and the door opened as smoothly as though the hinges were greased.
There he found a flight of steps that led down into a pit as dark as a beer vault. Down the steps he went, and on and on until, at last, he came to a great room, the like of which his eyes had never seen before. In the centre of the room was a statue as black as ink; in one hand it held a crystal globe which shone with a clear white light, so that it dazzled one's eyes to look upon it; in the other hand it held a great diamond as big as a hen's egg. Upon the breast of the statue were written these words in letters of gold:
"WHAT THOU DESERVEST
THAT THOU SHALT HAVE."
On three sides of the room sat three statues, and at the feet of each statue stood a heavy chest:
The first statue was of gold, and over its head were written these words:
"WHO CHOOSES HERE TAKES
THE BEST THAT THE EARTH HAS TO GIVE."
The second statue was of silver, and over its head were written these words:
"WHO CHOOSES HERE TAKES
WHAT THE RICH MAN LOVES."
The third statue was of dull lead, and over its head was written:
"WHO CHOOSES HERE TAKES
WHAT HE SHOULD HAVE."
The man touched the chest at the feet of the golden statue with the little black stone. And—click! clack!—up flew the lid, and the chest was full of all kinds of precious stones.
"Pugh!" says the younger brother; "and if this is the best that the world has to give, it is poor enough." And he shut down the lid again.
He touched the chest at the feet of the silver statue with his little black stone, and it was full of gold and silver money.
"Pish!" says he; "and if this is what the rich man loves, why, so do not I." And he shut down the lid again.
Last of all he touched the chest at the feet of the leaden statue.
In it was a book, and the letters on it said that whoever read within would know all that was worth the knowing. Beside the book was a pair of spectacles, and whoever set them astride of his nose might see the truth without having to rub the glasses with his pocket-handkerchief. But the best of all in the chest was an apple, and whoever ate of it would be cured of sorrow and sickness.
"Hi!" said the younger brother, "but these are worth the having, for sure and certain." And he put the spectacles upon his nose and the apple and the book in his pocket. Then off he went, and the spectacles showed him the way, although it was as crooked as sin and as black as night.
So by and by he came out into the blessed sunlight again, and at the same place where he had gone in.
Off he went to his own home as fast as his legs could carry him, and you can guess how the rich brother stared when he saw the poor brother back in that town again, with his eyesight as good as ever.
As for the poor brother, he just turned his hand to being a doctor; and there has never been one like him since that day, for not only could he cure all sickness with his apple, but he could cure all sorrow as well. Money and fame poured in on him; and whenever trouble lit on his shoulders he just put on his spectacles and looked into the business, and then opened the book of wisdom and found how to cure it. So his life was as happy as the day was long; and a body can ask for no more than that in this world here below.
One day the rich brother came and knocked at the other's door. "Well, brother," say he, "I am glad to see you getting along so well in the world. Let us let bygones be bygones and live together as we should, for I am sorry for what I did to you."
Well, that suited the younger brother well enough; he bore no malice against the other, for all that had been done had turned out for the best. All the same, he was more sure than ever now that mercy was better than greed.
The elder brother twisted up his face at this, as though the words were sour; all the same, he did not argue the question, for what he had come for was to find why the world had grown so easy with the other all of a sudden. So in he came, and they lit their pipes and sat down by the stove together.
He was a keen blade, was the elder brother, and it was not long before he had screwed the whole story out of the other.
"Dear, dear, dear!" said he, "I only wish I could find a black pebble like that one of yours."
"It would do you no good if you had it," said the younger brother, "for I have brought away all that is worth the having. All the same, if you want my black pebble now you are welcome to it."
Did the elder brother want it! Why, of course he wanted it, and he could not find words enough to thank the younger.
Off he went, hot-foot, to find the door back of the oak-tree; "For," said he to himself, "I will bring something back better worth the having than a musty book, an old pair of spectacles, and a red apple."
He touched the door with the black stone, and it opened for him just as it had for the younger brother.
Down the steps he went, and on and on and on, until by and by he came to the room where the statues were. There was the black statue holding out the crystal ball and the diamond as big as a hen's egg, and there sat the golden statue and the silver statue and the leaden statue, just as they had sat when the younger brother had been there, only there was nothing in the chest at the feet of the leaden statue.
The rich brother touched the lock of the chest in front of the silver statue. Up flew the lid, and there lay all the gold and silver money.
"Yes," says he, "that is what the rich man loves, sure enough. Nevertheless, there may be something else that is better worth the having." So he let the money lay where it was.
He touched the chest in front of the golden statue. Up flew the lid, and he had to blink and wink his eyes because the precious stones dazzled them so.
"Yes," says he, "this is the best the world has to give, and there is no gainsaying that; all the same, there may be something better worth the having than these."
So he looked all about the room, until he saw the golden letters on the breast of the black statue that stood in the middle. First he read the words:
"WHAT THOU DESERVEST
THAT THOU SHALT HAVE."
And then he saw the great diamond that the statue held in its left hand.
"Why," said he, "it is as plain as daylight that I deserve this precious stone, for not being so simple as my brother, and taking what I could find without looking for anything better."
So up he stepped and took the diamond out of the statue's hand.
Crash!—and all was darkness, darker than the darkest midnight; for, as quick as a wink, the black statue let the crystal globe of light fall from its right hand upon the stone floor, where it broke into ten thousand pieces.
And now the rich brother might wander up and wander down, but wander as he chose he could never find his way out of that place again, for the darkness shut him in like a blanket.
So, after all, mercy and temperance were better in the long run than greed and covetousness, in spite of what the great lord and the rich merchant and the poor ploughman had said.
Maybe I have got this story twisted awry in the telling; all the same, Tommy Pfouce says that it is a true-enough story, if you put on your spectacles and look at it from the right side.