The Original Fables of La Fontaine/The Wishes

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(Book VII.—No. 6)

When the Great Mogul held empire, there were certain little sprites who used to undertake all sorts of tasks helpful to mankind. They would do housework, stable-work, and even gardening. But if one interfered with them, all would be spoilt.

One of these friendly sprites cultivated the garden of a worthy family living near the Ganges, His duties were performed deftly and noiselessly. He loved not only his master and mistress, but the garden also. Possibly the zephyrs, who are said to be friends of the sprites, helped him in his tasks. At any rate he did his very best, and never ceased in his efforts to load his hosts with every pleasure. To prove his zeal he would have stayed with these people for ever, in spite of the natural propensity of his kind for waywardness. But his mischievous fellow-sprites fell to plotting. They induced the chief of their band to remove him to another field of labour. This the chief promised and, either by caprice or by policy, finally brought about. Orders came that the devoted worker should set out for the uttermost part of Norway, there to take charge of a house which at all times of the year was covered with snow. So from being an Indian, the poor thing became a Laplander.

"I am forced to leave you," he said to his hosts, "but for what fault of mine this has come to pass I cannot tell. I only know that go I must, and in a very little while too; a month perhaps, or maybe only a week. Make the most of the interval. Fortunately, I can fulfil three wishes for you; but not more than three."

To mankind there is nothing very out-of-the-way in merely wishing. These good people decided that their first wish should be for abundance, and straightway Abundance, by the double-handful, poured gold into their coffers; wheat into their granaries; wine into their cellars. Repletion was everywhere. But, alas, what cares of direction, what account keeping; what time and anxiety this affluence involved!

Thieves plotted against them. Great lords borrowed from them. The prince taxed them. They were, in fact, reduced to misery by this excess of good fortune. At last they could endure it no longer. "Take back this awful overplus of wealth," they cried. "Even the poor are happy in comparison with us, and poverty is more covetable than such riches. Away, then, with these treasures! And thou, sweet Moderation, mother of all peace, sister of repose, come to us again!" With these words, which made their second wish, lo! Moderation returned and they received her with open arms, once again enjoying peace.

Thus at the end of these two wishes they were exactly where they were in the first place, and so it is with all who are given to wishing, and wasting in dreams the time they had better have spent in doing. But being philosophical people they laughed, and the sprite laughed with them. To profit by his generosity when he had left them, they hazarded their third wish and asked for wisdom. Wisdom is a treasure which never embarrasses.