Tales of Old Lusitania/The Oil Merchant's Donkey

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Once upon a time two students, walking along the high road, met an oil merchant leading a donkey loaded with jars full of oil. The students, being very poor and just then reduced to their last penny, were glad to fall in with such a lucky find; so they agreed together to steal the donkey with its burden, and take them to a neighbouring fair and sell them both.

While the poor man trudged along contentedly, holding the reins of his beast, which trotted behind him, one of the students quietly and cleverly slipped the donkey's bridle off its head and put it over his own, while his companion seized the donkey and marched off with it, unperceived by the owner. The student who now occupied the place of the donkey, wishing to call the merchant's attention to himself, suddenly came to a standstill. Great was the astonishment and stupefaction of the merchant when, on turning round, he found he was leading a man instead of his donkey. "Dear master," said the witty student in an affectionate tone, "I can never thank you sufficiently for having so often beaten me with your cudgel, as by that means you have gradually dispelled the enchantment that has held me bound so many years under the shape of a donkey."

When the bewildered merchant heard these words he took his hat off to the student, and said very humbly, "I have lost in you, sir, as a donkey, my only means of support; but as it cannot be helped I must have patience, and Providence will no doubt help me some other way. Being what you are, no longer a donkey but a man, I beg a thousand pardons and trust you will forgive me my treatment of you. But when you consider what a stubborn, slow, and stupid beast you were, what else could you expect? Sometimes you nearly drove me mad by your waywardness and tricks, and then, hardly knowing what I was doing, I have taken up my cudgel and beaten you. But then you must remember how often I rewarded you with a handful of hay, or a piece of bread, when you behaved well and worked hard."

"My good man, rest assured that I forgive you all the hard treatment I ever received from you," replied the student, "and the only favour I ask of you now is to let me go in peace, for you must allow it would be a great hardship for a man to be driven about like a donkey." The poor oil merchant, seeing no other remedy for his misfortune, consented to release the man, and before long they parted company, each going his own way.

When the oil merchant found himself alone, without his ass and his jars of oil, he lamented his sad lot, and wished he had never come across an enchanted donkey. He made up his mind to go and see his godfather, to tell him what had occurred, by which he was left without the means of earning his living, and to ask him at the same time to lend him some money to buy another donkey at the next fair.

His godfather was sorry to hear of his sad plight and readily lent him the money required.

The oil merchant, much comforted, went to the fair next day. He had not been there long when he saw his own beast held by a student, who, though he was the man that had carried away the beast, was unknown to him. The merchant, believing that the man had again transformed himself into a donkey, went up to the student and asked to be allowed to tell the donkey a secret, which was only intended for it to hear.

The student, though much amused at the poor man's simplicity, replied with a grave face that he was at liberty to tell his donkey as many secrets as he chose, as he would not interfere in the least.

Then the merchant went up to the donkey, put his mouth close to its ear, and cried with a loud voice these words: "I tell you what, donkey, those that do not know what you are are welcome to buy you if they choose."

(Lisbon. From a native of Almeida, Beira-Baixa.)

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