An argosy of fables/Avianus, Abstemious, etc

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An argosy of fables
Book 1—Classical fables. Part 4—Avianus, Abstemius, etc.
1157265An argosy of fables — Book 1—Classical fables. Part 4—Avianus, Abstemius, etc.




A BOY sat weeping at the brink of a well, with his lips all puckered in apparent grief. A rascally Thief, finding him with tear-stained face, asked what had happened to make him so unhappy. The Boy then told how his rope had broken in two and let a Crock of Gold fall into the well. At once the Thief eagerly threw off his cloak; the next moment he had stripped himself and plunged to the bottom of the well. The Boy promptly wrapped the cloak around his own thin shoulders, crawled under a bramble thicket and lay there, safely hidden. When the disappointed Thief at last struggled back from his dangerous and fruitless search, he seated himself to rest beside the well, considerably sadder and wiser, and found what comfort he could in the thought:

"Any one who is so foolish as to believe that a Crock of Gold will float on the surface of water is lucky if he gets off with no worse loss than his cloak!"

(Avianus, Fable 25.)


A THIRSTY Crow found a large Water Jar, with only a little water remaining at the bottom. For some time she tried in vain to tip the Jar and pour out the water on the ground, so that she might slake her thirst. But when she found that she was only wasting her efforts, exasperation sharpened her wits. By dropping pebbles into the Jar, she gradually raised the level of the water to the brim, and was then able to drink at pleasure.

This fable teaches that it is sometimes better to imitate the Crow and attain our desires by cleverness rather than by force.

(Avianus, Fable 27.)


A FLY was seated on a racing Chariot that was being driven at full speed. In their rapid flight the feet of the horses and the rims of the whirring wheels flung up great clouds of dust. The Fly took all the credit to itself, and cried proudly:

"See what a dust I am raising!"

(Abstemius, Fable 16.)


WHY is it," asked the Eel of the Snake, "that although I'm in all respects and beyond question quite like you in appearance, men are always seeking to catch me, while they leave you in peace?"


"Because," replied the Snake, "if they went after me they would not escape unpunished."

The man who knows how to protect himself is safe from his enemies.

(Abstemius, Fable 17.)


SOME Fish were put to fry alive in a pan full of fat. "Come," said one of them, "let us jump out of here, for if we do not, we shall surely die."

The Fishes all believed this to be true, so they all leaped from the frying-pan into the fire. Their suffering now, on the live coals, was much greater, and they began to give way to bitter complaints against the Fish who had first given them the fatal advice. "Thanks to you," they said, "we have doubled our pain, without after all escaping from death."

Let us be careful, in our eagerness to escape the ills of life, that we do not incur some other and much worse evil.

(Abstemius, Fable 20.)


A YOUTH met on Old Man bent double with the weight of his years, until he was curved like a strung bow.

"Grandfather," he said mockingly, "don't you want to sell me your bow?"

"You would be wasting your money, my lad," replied the Old Man. "But if you live to be my age, Nature will give you a bow like mine, for nothing, even if you don't want it."

Let us not laugh at the infirmities of age, for they will all come upon us in turn in our own last days.

(Abstemius, Fable 21.)


A STREAM one day said to its Source, "Lazy good-for-nothing that you are! In spite of the plentiful current of water that you give, you do not nourish even the smallest fish! Throughout the whole length of my course, on the contrary, one may see more fishes, constantly darting and playing than can be found in any other stream of the same size. In this way I am of pleasure and service to the whole district. But you might as well be dead, for you sustain no life in you."

The Source, indignant at these unjust words, made no reply, but began to decrease the quantity of water that she had until now furnished to the Stream. Before long she stopped the supply of water entirely. The result was that the level of the Stream gradually fell lower and lower, until at last the water failed completely and the Stream and the fishes disappeared together.

(Abstemius, Fable 57.)


A SHARK, established at the mouth of a river, ruled over all the fishes living in its waters. As he was considerably larger and stronger than the others they humbly accepted his authority. In fact he was their King, and they treated him as such.

The Shark's pride soon outgrew his position. "Why," he asked himself, "should I not extend my kingdom?"

Taking advantage of favourable circumstances he left the river and still intent on his plan of enlarging his kingdom, swam far out to sea. "I must," he told himself, "bring all the fishes in these broad waters under my control."

He was still dreaming of conquering the whole empire of the waves, when he encountered the Whale. Chilled with horror and trembling with fear, our would-be conqueror of the seas fled back at top speed, and shamefacedly regained the mouth of the river. Since then he has had no desire to stray from his home waters.

The wise man knows when he is well off and guards himself against foolish ambition.

(Abstemius, Fable 82.)


A BEAR, quarrelling with his Mate, became so violent in his rage that with his claws he scratched out both her eyes. He was so sorry afterwards for having done this that he gnawed off all his claws with his teeth. Later, he came back to his cave and tried to make up the quarrel:

"My dear," he said, "for your sake I have deprived myself of my best weapons of war."

"What good does that do me?" answered his Mate, "now that you have scratched out my eyes, and I am blind!"

Repentance is powerless to undo injuries when once done.

(Abstemius, Fable 147.)


ONCE upon a time the Mice being sadly distressed by the persecution of the Cat, resolved to call a meeting, to decide upon the best means of getting rid of this continual annoyance. Many plans were discussed and rejected; at last a young Mouse got up and proposed that a Bell should be hung round the Cat's neck, that they might for the future always have notice of her coming, and so be able to escape. This proposition was hailed with the greatest applause, and was agreed to at once unanimously. Upon which an old Mouse, who had sat silent all the while, got up and said that he considered the contrivance most ingenious, and that it would, no doubt, be quite successful; but he had only one short question to put, namely, which of them it was who would Bell the Cat?

It is one thing to propose, another to execute.

(Abstemius, Fable 195. Thomas James' translation.)


AN Abbot, having caught a Flea, said to him, "At last I have caught you. Many a time have you bitten me; now that I have you I will never let you go, but shall put you to death." "Holy Father," said the Flea, "since you are going to kill me, place me in the palm of your hand, so that I may freely confess my sins to you."

The Abbot, moved by pious pity, placed the Flea in the middle of his palm. The Flea at once made a great jump, and by his jump, escaped. The Abbot called loudly to him to return and confess his sins, but the Flea would not return.

There are many people who finding themselves in a tight place, promise much, but when set at liberty fail to keep their promises.


A CRANE once quarrelled with his Mate, and pecked out one of her eyes. Afterwards, feeling much ashamed of having done her such a terrible injury, he prepared to leave home and travel to a far-distant country. A Crow, meeting him just as he was setting forth, asked the reason for his journey. The Crane replied that he had pecked out his Mate's eye with his beak, and that because of his shame he felt that he must leave the country.

The Crow replied, "Have you not still got the same beak?" The Crane answered in surprise: "Certainly I have."

"Then," said the Crow, "where will you flee to? Because, wherever you go you must carry your beak with you!"

A man cannot run away from his conscience.

(Odo of Sherington.)


THE Toad which lives on land once asked the Frog, which lives in the pond, to give her some water to drink. "Surely," said the Frog, and she gave her all the water she wanted. Later the Frog, being hungry, asked the Toad to give her something to eat. The Toad answered: "No, indeed, I won't. I am so afraid that there won't be enough food for myself that half the time I don't eat sufficient for my own good."

Generosity is wasted on a selfish nature.

(Odo of Sherington.)


WE should do well to imitate the example of the Stork, who was carrying home an eel, as dinner for herself and her children. A Cat, who was fond of fish but hated to wet his feet, seeing the Stork, said to her:

"Most beautiful of all birds, with your brilliant red beak and the whitest of feathers, pray tell me, is your beak as red on the inside as it is on the outside?"

But the Stork would not reply nor even open her mouth, because she did not wish to drop the eel. This made the Cat angry, and he began to abuse the Stork roundly, saying:

"You surely must be deaf or at least dumb! Can't you answer me, you miserable beast? Is it possible that you eat snakes, which are poisonous, unclean creatures? Every clean animal likes clean food, but you evidently prefer yours foul and unclean. You certainly must be the filthiest of all birds!"

But the Stork, never answering a word, kept steadily on her way, holding fast to the eel.

(Odo of Sherington.)


AMONG the Birds there is one known as the Bird of Saint Martin, which is no larger than a Wren, and whose legs are long and slender like reeds. It happened once at the festival of Saint Martin, when the sun was shining brightly, that the little Bird of Saint Martin flung itself down upon the ground beside a tree and rolling over kicked its legs high in the air exclaiming:

"There, if the Heavens should fall I could hold them up with my legs!"

Just then a single leaf fell from a branch of the tree and fluttered down upon the Bird. The latter sprang up, half dead with fear, and flew away crying shrilly, "Oh, Saint Martin, Saint Martin, save your little Bird!"

There are many like this Bird of Saint Martin, whose faith is strong in times of safety, but weak in times of danger.

(Odo of Sherington.)


A CERTAIN Tom Cat had lately acquired a beautiful Wife who contemptuously laughed at his requests that she would stay at home, and persisted in going out for long walks with other Cats. The Cat complained to his friends about his Wife's love of gaiety, and one of his friends gave him this advice:

"Singe her fur in splotches here and there, and she will be glad enough to stay at home!"

The Tom Cat followed this advice, and the beautiful Wife ceased her roaming and stayed at home.

Personal vanity often leads us into temptation.

(Odo of Sherington.)


IT happened once on a time that the Animals met together in Council. The Frog being unable himself to attend sent his only son, who in his haste forgot to wear his new shoes. So the Frog looked around for some swift messenger to take them to the Council. Presently he saw the Hare, which is a strong swift runner, so he called to him and made a bargain with him to carry the new shoes to his son. The Hare, however, objected, "How am I to know which is your son among so many animals at the Council?"

The Frog replied, "Look for the one that is the most beautiful among all the Animals,—for that is my son."

"Then it must be the Peacock," said the Hare, "or perhaps the Dove, who is your son?"

"Certainly not," answered the Frog, "for the flesh of the Dove is dark, and the Peacock has ugly feet."

"Then tell me, pray," said the Hare, "what does your son look like?"

"He is very like me," replied the Frog. "He has a head like mine, a stomach like mine, legs and feet like mine; in short, he is my own beautiful son. Take the shoes to him."

Because he loved his son, the Frog thought him beautiful. Love is blind.

(Odo of Sherington. Fable 13.)


A CERTAIN Ass had noticed that bread and oats and corn, and other good things were often given to the Pigs, although they did no work, and after they had eaten they would lie down and sleep. The Ass said to himself, "These Pigs lead an easy life; they eat and drink and do nothing else whatever, while I toil all day long and eat very little. I will pretend that I am sick." Accordingly, he lay down upon the ground and remained comfortably stretched out, but with his eyes closed as though sick. His master, finding him on the ground, tried first to rouse him with a whip; but the Ass refused to move. He merely groaned and continued to lie at his ease. Then the master said to his wife, "Evidently our Ass is sick." The wife replied, "In that case let us give him some oats and corn and bread, and leave him a pail of water." They did as the wife had suggested; and although at first the Ass ate but sparingly, his appetite increased, and presently he began to grow fat, and said to himself, "I surely am having an easy life!" Meanwhile, the Pigs had been sufficiently fattened, and the master sent for the butcher who came with axe and knife and killed and dressed the Pigs. When he saw this, the Ass was filled with terror, and thought surely that they would kill him too now that he was fat. "Far rather," he said to himself, "would I labour and lead my former life of toil than be idle and fattened like the Pigs for the butcher!" So going forth from the stable the Ass pranced and frolicked around his master, who promptly put him back to his former work.

(Odo of Sherington.)


ONCE upon a time when the Wolf and the Hare chanced to meet, the former said, "Friend Hare, among all animals you are the most timid. Would you ever dare enter into any kind of contest with any other animal?"

At which the Hare replied, "Yes, indeed I would, even with you, friend Wolf, big as you are and I so small!"

The Wolf was indignant and said hotly: "I will bet ten gold pieces against one that I can give you a good thrashing."

The Hare accepted the terms of the challenge, and they took their places on the battle ground. The Wolf rushed straight at the Hare intending to seize and devour him. The Hare nimbly darted aside and took to his heels, running at top speed, while the Wolf followed as best he could. After a long chase back and forth and round and round, the Wolf at last, utterly tired out, stopped in his course and flung himself on the ground unable to run a step further. Then the Hare said to him, "Friend Wolf, you are beaten, and have measured your length upon the ground."

The Wolf retorted, "Indeed I am not beaten, for you did not even wait to meet my attack."

To which the Hare rejoined, "What sort of a fight would it have been had I waited for you, since you are three times my size, and have only to open your mouth to swallow me whole? I have no other way of fighting than that of running away, and since I have beaten you at that, pay me what you owe."

The Wolf still refused to pay, and the argument grew hot and fierce until at last the matter was referred to the Lion who held that the Hare, having fought by the best means he knew, had fairly won.

(Odo of Sherington.)


LEAD one day, puffed up with pride, went to Gold and said boldly, "Why do you think yourself so much better than me, brother Gold? Am I not made of the same material? Are we not both members of the family of metals? By what right then do you look down upon me? Do you not see that I am highly esteemed by the world as well as yourself? Come with me and be tried by fire, and you will see that I, too, have sterling qualities." To this Gold replied: "I know, brother Lead, that you are a metal equally with myself. For the same creator made us both, and we each remain as he made us. I wish you no harm. Keep the rights that are yours and go your way. But if you insist upon challenging me to the test of fire, come with me and we will prove ourselves, and it will be clearly shown what are your true qualities and your rightful victory." When the two metals entered together the fire, the Lead promptly melted and vanished. But the Gold was purified and came forth even brighter than before.

There are many men like the Lead, who are puffed up with empty pride, and believe that they have great qualities which they have not; but when put to the test they are reduced to nothing, as the Lead was when tried by fire.

(Nicholas Pergamenus, Dialogi Creaturarum, No. 19.)


THERE was once an excellent Key which opened and closed its Lock so smoothly that it was prized highly by its master. After a time, however, the ungrateful Lock tried to quarrel with the Key, saying: "You plague of my existence! Why are you continually molesting me, day and night, thrusting yourself upon me and wrenching me backward and forward? Cease this annoyance or I will twist you out of shape and cast you aside." The Key replied: "You speak foolishly, sister, since it is through me that you are guarded and kept from harm. If you choose to thrust me out, you yourself will be discarded and broken," But the Lock refused to be placated by these words, but on the contrary closed her Key-hole entirely, and refused the Key admission. Consequently, the master found that, in spite of his excellent Key, he was unable to open his door. At this the master became very angry and tore off the offending Lock, breaking it to pieces. Hereupon the Key taunted the Lock, and said: "Nothing is more vulgar than family quarrels. Besides, it is the part of wisdom to keep on good terms with those on whom you depend for a living."

(Nicholas Pergamenus, Dialogi Creaturarum, No. 23.)


WHEN a certain Frog saw a Crab swimming along close to the river bank, he said to himself, "Who is this ugly, misshapen creature which dares to muddy the water of my river? Since I am such a strong and powerful Frog, ruling over both land and water, I will at once approach the intruder and drive him away." So saying, the Frog gave a leap, which brought him in front of the Crab, and said: "Are you not ashamed, you wretched creature, to invade and trouble my peaceful waters? Dingy, insignificant beast that you are, do you not blush to befoul this bright, clear-running stream?" The Crab, meanwhile, continued to scuttle backward, according to his habit, and answered: "Do not speak to me in that tone, brother, because I would much rather continue to live in peace and friendship with you. Therefore do not try to pick a quarrel with me." The Frog, seeing that the Crab continued to scuttle backward, thought that he did so from fear, and accordingly, became more hostile in word and action, saying: "Don't try to run away from me you coward, for you cannot escape me! This very day I shall feed your flesh to the fishes." The Crab, seeing plainly that he could not escape, faced around and seized the Frog, and tore him to pieces with his powerful claws, saying, "He who finds that he cannot avoid a quarrel owes it to himself to put up a bold fight."

(Nicholas Pergamenus, Dialogi Creaturarum, No. 47.)


A MILLER and his Son were driving their Ass to a neighbouring fair to sell him. They had not gone far when they met with a troop of girls returning from the town, talking and laughing. "Look there!" cried one of them, "did you ever see such fools, to be trudging along the road on foot, when they might be riding!" The old Man, hearing this, quietly bade his Son get on the Ass, and walked along merrily by the side of him. Presently they came up to a group of old men in earnest debate. "There!" said one of them, "it proves what I was a-saying. What respect is shown to old age in these days? Do you see that idle young rogue riding, while his old father has to walk?—Get down, you scapegrace! and let the old Man rest his weary limbs." Upon this the Father made his Son dismount, and got up himself. In this manner they had not proceeded far when they met a company of women and children. "Why, you lazy old fellow!" cried several tongues at once, "how can you ride upon the beast, while that poor little lad can hardly keep pace by the side of you. The good-natured Miller stood corrected, and immediately took up his Son behind him. They had now almost reached the town. "Pray, honest friend," said a townsman, "is that Ass your own?" "Yes," says the old Man. "O! One would not have thought so," said the other, "by the way you load him. Why, you two fellows are better able to carry the poor beast than he you!" "Anything to please you," said the old Man; "we can but try." So, alighting with his Son, they tied the Ass's legs together, and by the help of a pole endeavoured to carry him on their shoulders over a bridge that led to the town. This was so entertaining a sight that the people ran out in crowds to laugh at it; till the Ass, not liking the noise nor his situation, kicked asunder the cords that bound him, and, tumbling off the pole, fell into the river. Upon this the old Man, vexed and ashamed, made the best of his way home again—convinced that by endeavouring to please everybody he had pleased nobody, and lost his Ass into the bargain.

(Faernus, Fables, Vol. V, No. 20. Thomas James' translation.)