There were once three brothers who lived in the same village. One of them was very rich. He had houses and fields and barns. He had nothing to spend his money on for he had no children and his wife was as saving and hardworking as himself. The second brother was not so rich but he, too, was prosperous. He had one son and all his thought was to accumulate money and property in order to leave his son rich. He schemed and worked and slaved and made his wife do the same.
The third brother was industrious but very poor. He worked early and late and never took a holiday. He couldn’t afford to for he had a wife and ten children and only by working every hour of the day and often far into the night could he earn enough to buy food for so large a family. He was a simple man and a good man and he taught his children that the most important thing for them to do in life was to love God and be kind to their fellowmen.
Now it happened that once, when our Lord Christ was on earth testing out the hearts of men, he came in the guise of a beggar to the village where the three brothers lived. He came in a brokendown cart driving a wheezy old horse. It was cold and raining and night was falling.
The Beggar knocked at the door of the richest brother and said:
“I pray you in God’s name give shelter for the night to me and my horse.”
“What!” cried the rich man, “do you suppose I have nothing better to do than give shelter to such as you! Be off with you or I’ll call my men and have them give you the beating you deserve!”
The Beggar left without another word and went to the house of the next brother. He was civil at least to the Beggar and pretended that he was sorry to refuse him.
“I’d accommodate you if I could,” he said, “but the truth is I can’t. My house isn’t as big as it looks and I have many people dependent on me. Just go on a little farther and I’m sure you’ll find some one who will take you in.”
The Beggar turned his horse’s head and went to the tiny little house where the poor brother lived with his big family. He knocked on the door and begged for shelter.
“Come in, brother,” said the Poor Man. “We’re pretty crowded here but we’ll find a place for you.”
“And my horse,” the Beggar said; “I’m afraid to leave him out in the rain and cold.”
“We’ll stable him with my donkey,” the Poor Man said. “Do you come in here by the fire and dry off and I’ll see to the horse.”
The Poor Man pulled out his own cart until it was exposed to the rain in order to make a dry place in the shed for the Beggar’s cart. Then he led the Beggar’s gaunt horse into his tiny stable and fed him for the night out of his own slender store of oats and hay.
He and his family shared their evening meal with the Beggar and then made up for him a bed of straw near the fire where he was able to pass the night comfortably and warmly.
The next morning as he was leaving he said to the Poor Man:
“You must come sometime to my house and visit me and let me return the hospitality you have shown me.”
“Where do you live?” the Poor Man asked.
“You can always find me,” the Beggar said, “by following the tracks of my cart. You will know them because they are broader than the tracks of any other cart. You will come, won’t you?”
“Yes,” the Poor Man promised, “I will if ever I have time.”
They bade each other good-by and the Beggar drove slowly off. Then the Poor Man went to the shed to get his own cart and the first thing he saw were two large silver bolts lying on the ground.
“They must have fallen from the Beggar’s cart!” he thought to himself and he ran out to the road to see whether the Beggar were still in sight. But he and the cart had disappeared.
“I hope he has no accident on account of those bolts!” the Poor Man said.
When he went to the stable to get his donkey he found four golden horse-shoes where the Beggar’s horse had been standing.
“Four golden horse-shoes!” he exclaimed. “I ought to return them and the silver bolts at once! But I can’t to-day, I’m too busy. Well, I’ll hide them safely away and some afternoon when I have a few hours to spare I’ll follow the tracks of the cart to the Beggar’s house.”
That afternoon he met his two rich brothers and told them about the Beggar.
“Silver bolts!” cried one.
“Golden horse-shoes!” cried the other. “Take us home with you and let us see them!”
So they went home with the Poor Man and saw for themselves the silver bolts and the golden horse-shoes.
“Brothers,” the Poor Man said, “if either of you have time I wish you’d take these things and return them to the Beggar.”
They both said, no, no, they hadn’t time, but they would like to know where the Beggar lived.
“He said I could always find him,” the Poor Man said, “by following the tracks of his cart.”
“The tracks of his cart!” echoed the other two. “Show us the tracks of his cart!”
They went to the shed where the cart had been and followed the tracks out to the road. Even on the road they were easy to see for besides being wider than any other cart tracks they shone white like glistening silver.
“H’m! H’m!” murmured the two rich brothers.
“You don’t think either of you have time to follow them to the Beggar’s house?” the Poor Man said.
“No! Of course not! Of course not!” they both answered.
But in his heart each had already decided to go at once and see for himself what kind of a Beggar this was who had silver bolts in his cart and golden shoes on his horse.
The oldest brother went the very next day driving a new wagon and a fine horse. The silver tracks led through woods and fields and over hills. They came at last to a river which was spanned by a wooden bridge. It was cunningly constructed of timbers beautifully hewn. The rich man had never seen such wood used on a bridge.
By the roadside beyond the bridge there was a pigsty with one trough full of corn and another full of water. There were two sows in the sty and they were fighting each other and tearing at each other and paying no attention whatever to all the good food in the trough.
A little farther on there was another river and over it another wonderful bridge, this one made entirely of stone.
Beyond it the rich man came to a meadow where there was a hayrick around which two angry bulls were chasing each other and goring each other until the blood spurted.
“I wonder some one doesn’t stop them!” the rich man thought to himself.
The next river had an iron bridge, more beautiful than the rich man had ever supposed an iron bridge could be.
Beyond the iron bridge there was a field and a bush and two angry rams that were chasing each other around the bush and fighting. Their horns cracked as they met and their hides were torn and bleeding where they had gored each other.
“I never saw so many angry fighting animals!” the rich man thought to himself.
The next bridge glowed in the sun like the embers of a fire for it was built entirely of shining copper—copper rivets, copper plates, copper beams, nothing but copper.
The silver tracks led over the copper bridge into a broad valley. By the roadside there was a high crossbar from which depended heavy cuts of meat—lamb and pork and veal. Two large bitch dogs were jumping at the meat and then snarling and snapping at each other.
The next bridge was the loveliest of them all for it was built of white gleaming silver.
The rich man climbed down from his wagon and examined it closely.
“It would be worth a man’s while to carry home a piece of this bridge!” he muttered to himself.
He tried the rivets, he shook the railing. At last he found four loose bolts which he was able to pull out. The four together were so heavy that he was scarcely able to lift them. He looked cautiously about and when he saw that no one was looking, he slipped them one by one into the bottom of his wagon and covered them with straw. Then he turned his horse’s head and drove home as fast as he could. It was midnight when he got there and nobody about to spy on him as he hid the silver bolts in the hay.
The next day when he went out alone to gloat over his treasure he found instead of four heavy silver bolts four pieces of wood!
So that’s what the rich brother got for following the silver tracks.
A day or two later without saying a word to any one, the second brother decided that he would follow the silver tracks and have a look at the strange Beggar whose cart had silver bolts and whose wheezy horse had golden shoes.
“Perhaps if I keep my wits about me I’ll be able to pick up a few golden horse-shoes. Not many boys inherit golden horse-shoes from their fathers!”
Well, the second brother went over exactly the same route and saw exactly the same things. He crossed all those wonderful bridges that his brother had crossed—the wooden bridge, the stone bridge, the iron bridge, the copper bridge, the silver bridge, and he saw all those angry animals still trying to gore each other to death.
He didn’t stop at the silver bridge for he thought to himself:
“Perhaps the next bridge will be golden and if it is I may be able to break off a piece of it!”
Beyond the silver bridge was another broad valley and the second brother saw many strange sights as he drove through. There was a man standing alone in a field and trying to beat off a flock of ravens that were swooping down and pecking at his eyes. Near him was an old man with snow-white hair who was making loud outcries to heaven praying to be delivered from the two oxen who were munching at his white hair as though it were so much hay. They ate great wisps of it and the more they ate the more grew out.
There was an apple-tree heavily laden with ripe fruit and a hungry man forever reaching up and plucking an apple. The apples were apples of Sodom and always as the hungry man raised each new one to his mouth it turned to ashes.
In another place a thirsty man was reaching with a dipper into a well and always, just as he was about to scoop up some water, the well moved away from under the dipper.
“What a strange country this is!” thought the second brother as he drove on.
At last he reached the next bridge and sure enough it was shining gold! Every part of it—bolts and beams and pillars, all were gold. In great excitement the second brother climbed down from his wagon and began pulling and wrenching at various parts of the bridge hoping to find some loose pieces which he could break off. At last he succeeded in pulling out four long bolts which were so heavy he could scarcely lift them. After looking about in all directions to make sure that no one saw him, he put them into his wagon and covered them up with straw. Then he drove homewards as fast as he could.
“Ha! Ha!” he chuckled as he hid the golden bolts in the barn. “My son will now be a richer man than my brother!”
He could scarcely sleep with thinking of his golden treasure and at the first light of morning he slipped out to the barn. Imagine his rage when he found in the straw four bolts of wood!
So that was all the second brother got for following the silver tracks.
Well, years went by and the Poor Man worked day after day and all day and often far into the night. Some of his children died and the rest grew up and went out into the world and married and made homes of their own. Then at last his good wife died and the time came when the Poor Man was old and all alone in the world.
One night as he sat on his doorstep thinking of his wife and of his children when they were little and of all the years he had worked for them to keep them fed and clothed, he happened to remember the Beggar and the promise he had made to visit him sometime.
“And to think of all the years I’ve kept his golden horse-shoes and his silver bolts! Well, he’ll forgive me, I know,” thought the Poor Man, “for he’ll understand that I’ve always been too busy up to this time ever to follow the tracks of his cart. I wonder are they still there.”
He went out to the roadside and peered down and how it happened I don’t know, but to his dim eyes at least there were the silver tracks as clear as ever.
“Good!” cried the Poor Man. “To-morrow morning bright and early I’ll hitch up the donkey and visit my old friend, the Beggar!”
So the next day he took out the silver bolts and the golden horse-shoes from the place where he had kept them hidden all these years and he put them in a bag. Then he hitched his old donkey to his old cart and started out to follow the silver tracks to the Beggar’s home.
Well, he saw just exactly the same things that his brothers had seen those many years before: all those terrible fighting animals and all those unfortunate men.
“I’ll have to remember and ask the Beggar what ails all these creatures,” he thought to himself.
Like his brothers he passed over the wooden bridge and the stone bridge and the iron bridge and the copper bridge and the silver bridge and even the golden bridge. Beyond the golden bridge he came to a Garden that was surrounded by a high wall of diamonds and rubies and sapphires and all kinds of precious stones that blazed as brightly as the sun itself. The silver tracks turned in at the garden gate which was locked.
The poor man climbed down from his cart, unhitched the donkey, and set him out to graze on the tender grass that grew by the wayside.
Then he took the bag that held the golden horse-shoes and the silver bolts and he went to the garden gate. It was a very wonderful gate of beaten gold set with precious stones. For a moment the Poor Man wondered if he dare knock at so rich a gate, then he remembered that his friend the Beggar was inside and he knew that he would be made welcome.
It was the Beggar himself who opened the gate. When he saw the Poor Man he smiled and held out his hands and said:
“Welcome, dear friend! I have been waiting for you all these years! Come in and I will show you my Garden.”
So the Poor Man went inside. And first of all he gave the Beggar his golden horse-shoes and his silver bolts.
“Forgive me,” he said, “for keeping them so long, but I’ve never had time until now to return them.”
The Beggar smiled.
“I knew, dear friend, that they were safe with you and that you would bring them some day.”
Then the Beggar put his arm over the Poor Man’s shoulder and led him through the Garden showing him the wonderful golden fruits and beautiful flowers. They sat them down beside a fountain of crystal water and while they listened to the songs of glorious birds they talked together and the Poor Man asked about the strange things he had seen along the road.
“All those animals,” the Beggar said, “were once human beings who instead of fearing God and being kind to their fellowmen passed all their time fighting and cheating and cursing. The two sows were two sisters-in-law who hated each other bitterly. The two bulls and the two rams were neighbors who fought for years and years over the boundary lines of their farms and now they keep on fighting through eternity. The two bitches were two sisters who fought until they died over the inheritance left them by their father. The old man whose hair the oxen eat was a farmer who always pastured his cattle on his neighbors’ fields. Now he has his reward. The man at whose eyes the ravens peck was an ungrateful son who mistreated his parents. The man with the awful thirst that can never be quenched was a drunkard, and the one at whose lips the apples turn to ashes was a glutton.”
So they talked on together, the Poor Man and the Beggar, until it was late afternoon and the Beggar said:
“And now, dear friend, you will sup with me as I once supped with you.”
“Thank you,” the Poor Man said, “I will. But let me first go out and see how my donkey is.”
“Very well,” the Beggar said, “go. But be sure to come back for I shall be waiting for you.”
So the Poor Man went out the garden gate and looked for his donkey. But the donkey was gone.
“He must have started home,” the Poor Man thought. “I’ll hurry and overtake him.”
So he started back afoot the way he had come. He went on and on but saw no donkey. He crossed the golden bridge and the silver bridge and the copper bridge and the iron bridge and the stone bridge and last of all the wooden bridge, but still there was no donkey.
“He must have got all the way home,” he thought.
When the Poor Man reached his native village things looked different. Houses that he remembered had disappeared and others had taken their places. He couldn’t find his own little house at all. He asked the people he met and they knew nothing about it. And they knew nothing about him, either, not even his name. And nobody even knew about his sons. At last he did meet one old man who remembered the family name and who told him that many years before the last of the sons had gone to another village to live.
“There’s no place here for me,” the Poor Man thought. “I better go back to my friend the Beggar and stay with him. No one else wants me.”
So once again he followed the silver tracks all that long way over all those bridges and when at last he reached the garden gate he was very tired, for he was old and feeble now. It was all he could do to give one faint little knock. But the Beggar heard him and came running to let him in. And when he saw him, how tired he was and how feeble, he put his arm around him and helped him into the Garden and he said:
“You shall stay with me now forever and we shall be very happy together.”
And the Poor Man when he looked in the Beggar’s face to thank him saw that he was not a beggar at all but the Blessed Christ Himself. And then he knew that he was in the Garden of Paradise.