The Jewish Fairy Book (Gerald Friedlander)/The Wise Merchant

The Jewish Fairy Book by Gerald Friedlander
II. The Wise Merchant (from the Midrash Rabbah)



THERE once lived a merchant who had an only son. Wherever the father went his son accompanied him, for the former was somewhat advanced in years and the son did not like his father to travel alone. In those days traveling was not a pleasure. It made no difference whether one went by land or sea, robbers were rarely absent. The father and son dealt in precious jewels, and it once happened that they set out on a sea voyage. They earned with them a large box full of valuable gems.

Father and son occupied one cabin and they had the large box placed there for safety. One of the crew had discovered that the merchant had very valuable treasures in his cabin. He told this to the rest of the crew, who were a gang of thieves. It happened by chance that when the crew were discussing this matter, the old merchant overheard part of their conversation. This is what he heard,—

"Now we have a splendid opportunity of becoming very wealthy."

"How so?" cried the rest.

"Why, I was this morning in the cabin of the merchant and his son to find out what they have in their box. I found the key in the lock and I opened the box. It is full of pearls and diamonds."

"What do you propose?" they asked him. "Speak, for you are our leader."

"My plan," he answered, "is very simple. Tomorrow when we are on the high seas, far away from the coast, one of us will start a conversation with the merchant and lead him to the side of the ship. I will keep watch, and when he is looking out to sea, I will run across the deck and fall against him and throw him into the water. When the son learns of his father's death he will be overwhelmed with grief. It will then be very easy for one of us to enter the cabin and to remove the jewels from the box, leaving the latter in its place in the cabin."

"How about the spoil?" they asked.

"Naturally we will divide," said he, "all we obtain quite fairly. There are seven of us and we will each have an equal share. This will be enough. We shall all be rich, and we can give up our wretched life on the water and start afresh when we reach port."

"We agree," they cried unanimously.

The merchant had not lost a single word of this very interesting proposal. He smiled and said to himself,—

"Well does the proverb say: 'Man proposes, but God disposes.' How am I to outwit these thieves?"

He walked up and down the deck, thinking as hard as he could. He then looked for his son, whom he found in the cabin. They had made a mutual agreement that one of them should spend the best part of the day in the cabin, to keep an eye on their treasure.

"My son," said he, "by God's mercy I have discovered a villainous plot. The crew on board are a gang of thieves and murderers. I have overheard part of their plan. I firmly believe that I did so by God's will, for the Almighty watches over all of us and sends us warning when danger threatens us. My life is in danger and our fortune likewise. Let us act with great caution. If you promise to do exactly as I tell you, I think all will be well."

"I promise, dear father; what am I to do?"

"We must pretend to quarrel. You are to begin by being very insolent to me. I, of course, will rebuke you. Pay no heed to my rebuke, but abuse me and insult me. I will again rebuke you and then I will strike you, calling you 'a rebellious son worthy of death.' Pay no heed, but raise your hand as though you intended to strike me. Our quarrel will attract the attention of the crew, and when they are eye-witnesses I will rush away to the cabin and bring forth the large box which contains our fortune. I will turn to the crew and cry aloud: 'See how I now punish my rebellious son. This box is full of jewels, it is all our fortune. I had rather be a beggar than allow such a wicked son to go unpunished. Into the sea I cast our wealth, which I earned with the sweat of my brow.' I shall then throw the box into the sea, and whilst I am about to do this I will open the lid and let them see the jewels, as otherwise they will imagine that I am bluffing them."

"Will you really throw all the jewels into the sea, dear father?"

"Of course I will, dear boy."

"But we shall be poor."

"Better poor and alive than rich and dead. Do you agree, my boy?"

"Yes, I will do exactly as you have told me."

They immediately began to play their part, for they realized that the sooner the jewels were overboard the safer it would be. They went on deck and began to talk in an excited manner. High words began to pass between them. The crew listened. At last they began to abuse one another and the quarrel seemed so serious that all the crew assembled to look on and enjoy the fun. When the father struck the son, they seemed to the crew to be two madmen. But they could hardly believe their eyes when they saw the old man dragging the precious jewel box across the deck.

"What's he going to do now?" they asked one another in bated breath. "Perhaps he will scatter the gems over the deck and we shall have a lovely scramble."

They watched with strained eyes every movement of the merchant.

"Look, look!" they shouted, "the madman is throwing the whole box, worth millions, overboard."

The rest of the voyage was spent in peace and safety. There was now no reason to kill the merchant. When they came to port, the merchant and his son hastened to the magistrates and laid a charge of attempted murder and robbery against the entire crew. The police came on board and arrested the rogues. When the case came before the magistrates, the merchant said he would be satisfied with the repayment of the value of the jewels which he had so wisely sacrificed in order to save his life. The magistrates agreed to this proposal, and ordered the crew to refund the sum demanded. They found ways and means to do this, so that the merchant had not only saved his life but, at the same time, he had managed to save his fortune.

Eccles. Rabbah, Eccles. iii. 6.