Once, in former times, there lived in a certain city in India a poor oil-seller, called Déna, who never could keep any money in his pockets; and when this story begins he had borrowed from a banker, of the name of Lena, the sum of one hundred rupees; which, with the interest Lena always charged, amounted to a debt of three hundred rupees. Now Déna was doing a very bad business, and had no money with which to pay his debt, so Lena was very angry, and used to come round to Déna’s house every evening and abuse him until the poor man was nearly worried out of his life. Lena generally fixed his visit just when Déna’s wife was cooking the evening meal, and would make such a scene that the poor oil-seller and his wife and daughter quite lost their appetites, and could eat nothing. This went on for some weeks, till, one day, Déna said to himself that he could stand it no longer, and that he had better run away; and, as a man cannot fly easily with a wife and daughter, he thought he must leave them behind. So that evening, instead of turning into his house as usual after his day’s work, he just slipped out of the city without knowing very well where he was going.
At about ten o’clock that night Déna came to a well by the wayside, near which grew a giant peepul tree; and, as he was very tired, he determined to climb it, and rest for a little before continuing his journey in the morning. lip he went and curled himself so comfortably amongst the great branches that, overcome with weariness, he fell fast asleep. Whilst he slept, some spirits, who roam about such places on certain nights, picked up the tree and flew away with it to a far-away shore where no creature lived, and there, long before the sun rose, they set it down. Just then the oil-seller awoke; but instead of finding himself in the midst of a forest, he was amazed to behold nothing but waste shore and wide sea, and was dumb with horror and astonishment. Whilst he sat up, trying to collect his senses, he began to catch sight here and there of twinkling, flashing lights, like little fires, that moved and sparkled all about, and wondered what they were. Presently he saw one so close to him that he reached out his hand and grasped it, and found that it was a sparkling red stone, scarcely smaller than a walnut. He opened a corner of his loincloth and tied the stone in it; and by-and-by he got another, and then a third, and a fourth, all of which he tied up carefully in his cloth. At last, just as day was breaking, the tree rose, and, flying rapidly through the air, was deposited once more by the well where it had stood the previous evening.
When Déna had recovered a little from the fright which the extraordinary antics of the tree had caused him, he began to thank Providence that he was alive, and, as his love of wandering had been quite cured, he made his way back to the city and to his own house. Here he was met and soundly scolded by his wife, who assailed him with a hundred questions and reproaches. As soon as she paused for breath, Déna replied:
‘I have only this one thing to say, just look what I have got !’ And, after carefully shutting all the doors, he opened the corner of his loin-cloth and showed her the four stones, which glittered and flashed as he turned them over and over.
‘Pooh !’ said his wife, ‘the silly pebbles ! If it was something to eat, now, there’d be some sense in them; but what’s the good of such things?’ And she turned away with a sniff, for it had happened that the night before, when Lena had come round as usual to storm at Déna, he had been rather disturbed to find that his victim was from home, and had frightened the poor woman by his threats. Directly, however, he heard that Déna had come back, Lena appeared in the doorway. For some minutes he talked to the oil-seller at the top of his voice, until he was tired, then Déna said:
‘If your honour would deign to walk into my humble dwelling, I will speak.’
So Lena walked in, and the other, shutting as before all the doors, untied the corner of his loin-cloth and showed him the four great flashing stones.
‘This is all,’ said he, ‘that I have in the world to set against my debt, for, as your honour knows, I haven’t a penny, but the stones are pretty !’
Now Lena looked and saw at once that these were magnificent rubies, and his mouth watered for them; but as it would never do to show what was in his mind, he went on:
‘What do I care about your stupid stones ? It is my money I want, my lawful debt which you owe me, and I shall get it out of you yet somehow or another, or it will be the worse for you.’
To all his reproaches Déna could answer nothing, but sat with his hands joined together beseechingly, asking for patience and pity. At length Lena pretended that, rather than have a bad debt on his hand, he would be at the loss of taking the stones in lieu of his money; and, whilst Déna nearly wept with gratitude, he wrote out a receipt for the three hundred rupees; and, wrapping the four stones in a cloth, he put them into his bosom, and went off to his house.
‘How shall I turn these rubies into money ?’ thought Lena, as he walked along; ‘I daren’t keep them, for they are of great value, and if the rajah heard that I had them he would probably put me into prison on some pretence and seize the stones and all else that I have as well. But what a bargain I have got ! Four rubies worth a king’s ransom, for one hundred rupees ! Well, well, I must take heed not to betray my secret.’ And he went on making plans. Presently he made up his mind what to do, and, putting on his cleanest clothes, he set off to the house of the chief wazir, whose name was Mush, and, after seeking a private audience, he brought out the four rubies and laid them before him.
The wazir’s eyes sparkled as he beheld the splendid gems.
‘Fine, indeed,’ murmured he. ‘I can’t buy them at their real value; but, if you like to take it, I will give you ten thousand rupees for the four.’
To this the banker consented gratefully; and, handing over the stones in exchange for the rupees, he hurried home, thanking his stars that he had driven such a reasonable bargain and obtained such an enormous profit.
After Lena had departed the wazir began casting about in his mind what to do with the gems; and very soon determined that the best thing to do was to present them to the rajah, whose name was Kahré. Without losing a moment, he went that very day to the palace, and sought a private interview with the rajah; and when he found himself alone with his royal master, he brought the four jewels and laid them before him.
‘Oh, ho !’ said the rajah, ‘these are priceless gems, and you have done well to give them to me. In return I give you and your heirs the revenues of ten villages.’
Now the wazir was overjoyed at these words, but only made his deepest obeisance; and, whilst the king put the rubies into his turban, hurried away beaming with happiness at the thought that for ten thousand rupees he had become lord of ten villages. The rajah was also equally pleased, and strolled off with his new purchases to the women’s quarters and showed them to the queen, who was nearly out of her mind with delight. Then, as she turned them over and over in her hands, she said: ‘Ah if I had eight more such gems, what a necklace they would make ! Get me eight more of them or I shall die !’
‘Most unreasonable of women,’ cried the rajah, ‘where am I to get eight more such jewels as these ? I gave ten villages for them, and yet you are not satisfied !’
‘What does it matter ?’ said the rani; ‘do you want me to die ? Surely you can get some more where these came from ?’ And then she fell to weeping and wailing until the rajah promised that in the morning he would make arrangements to get some more such rubies, and that if she would be patient she should have her desire.
In the morning the rajah sent for the wazir, and said that he must manage to get eight more rubies like those he had brought him the day before, ‘and if you don’t I shall hang you,’ cried the rajah, for he was very cross. The poor wazir protested in vain that he knew not where to seek them; his master would not listen to a word he said.
‘You must,’ said he; ‘the rani shall not die for the want of a few rubies! Get more where those came from.’
The wazir left the palace, much troubled in mind, and bade his slaves bring Lena before him. ‘Get me eight more such rubies as those you brought yesterday,’ commanded the wazir, directly the banker was shown into his presence. ‘Eight more, and be quick, or I am a dead man.’
‘But how can I ?’ wailed Lena; ‘rubies like those don’t grow upon bushes !’
‘Where did you get them from?’ asked the wazir.
‘From Déna, the oil-seller,’ said the banker.
‘Well, send for him and ask him where he got them,’ answered the wazir. ‘I am not going to hang for twenty Dénas !’ And more slaves were sent to summon Déna.
When Déna arrived he was closely questioned, and then all three started to see the rajah, and to him Déna told the whole story.
‘What night was it that you slept in the peepul tree ?’ demanded the rajah.
‘I can’t remember,’ said Déna; ‘but my wife will know.’
Then Déna’s wife was sent for, and she explained that it was on the last Sunday of the new moon.
Now everyone knows that it is on the Sunday of the new moon that spirits have special power to play pranks upon mortals. So the rajah forbade them all, on pain of death, to say a word to anyone; and declared that, on the next Sunday of the new moon, they four — Kahré, Mush, Lena and Déna — would go and sit in the peepul tree and see what happened.
The days dragged on to the appointed Sunday, and that evening the four met secretly, and entered the forest. They had not far to go before they reached the peepul tree, into which they climbed as the rajah had planned. At midnight the tree began to sway, and presently it moved through the air.
‘See, sire,’ whispered Déna, ‘the tree is flying !’
‘Yes, yes,’ said the rajah, ‘you have told the truth. Now sit quiet, and we shall see what happens.’
Away and away flew the tree with the four men clinging tightly to its branches, until at last it was set down by the waste sea-shore where a great wide sea came tumbling in on a desert beach. Presently, as before, they began to see little points of light that glistened like fires all around them. Then Déna thought to himself:
‘Think ! last time I only took four that came close to me, and I got rid of all my debt in return. This time I will take all I can get and be rich !’
‘If I got ten thousand rupees for four stones,’ thought Lena, ‘I will gather forty now for myself, and become so wealthy that they will probably make me a wazir at least !’
‘For four stones I received ten villages,’ Musli was silently thinking; ‘now I will get stones enough to purchase a kingdom, become a rajah, and employ wazirs of my own !’
And Kahré thought: ‘What is the good of only getting eight stones? Why, here are enough to make twenty necklaces; and wealth means power !’
Full of avarice and desire, each scrambled down from the tree, spread his cloth, and darted hither and thither picking up the precious jewels, looking the while over his shoulder to see whether his neighbour fared better than be. So engrossed were they in the business of gathering wealth that the dawn came upon them unawares; and suddenly the tree rose up again and flew away, leaving them upon the sea-shore staring after it, each with his cloth heavy with priceless jewels.
Morning broke in the city, and great was the consternation in the palace when the chamberlains declared that the rajah had gone out the evening before and had not returned.
‘Ah !’ said one, ‘it is all right ! Musli wazir will know where he is, for it was he who was the king’s companion.’
Then they went to the wazir’s house, and there they learnt that the wazir had left it the evening before and had not returned; ‘but,’ said a servant, ‘Lena the banker will know where he is, for it was with him that Mush went.’
Then they visited the house of Lena, and there they learnt that the banker had gone out the evening before, and that he too had not returned; but the porter told them that he was accompanied by Déna the oil-seller, so he would know where they were.
So they departed to Déna’s house, and Déna’s wife met them with a torrent of reproaches and wailings, for Déna too had gone off the evening before to Lena’s house and had not returned.
In vain they waited, and searched — never did any of the hapless four return to their homes; and the confused tale which was told by Déna’s wife was the only clue to their fate.
To this day, in that country, when a greedy man has overreached himself, and lost all in grasping at too much, folks say:
‘All has he lost ! — neither Déna, nor Lena, nor Mush, nor Kahré remain.’ And not five men in a hundred know how the proverb began, nor what it really signifies.