AHMED was the only child of the wealthiest merchant in Damascus. His father devoted his days to doing everything possible to anticipate his wishes. The boy returned his father's love with interest, and the two lived together in the utmost happiness. They were seldom apart, the father curtailing his business journeys so that he could hastily return to Damascus, and finally restricting his affairs to those which he could perform in his own home.
For safety's sake, Ahmed, whenever he was out of his father's sight, was attended, by a big negro slave, Pedro, an imposing looking person, richly attired as befitted his station and duties. Pedro was a faithful servant, and he and Ahmed were the firmest friends.
When Ahmed grew up to be a youth, his father decided to send him to Jerusalem to be educated. He did so reluctantly, knowing, however, that it was the wisest course to adopt Gently he broke the news to Ahmed, for he knew the latter would dislike to leave home. Ahmed was truly sorry to have to be parted from his father, but he kept back his tears and said bravely:
"It is thy wish, father, therefore I question it not. I know that thou desirest only my welfare."
"Well spoken, my son," said his father.
"May I take Pedro with me?" asked Ahmed.
"Nay, that would not be seemly," answered his father, gently. "It would make thee appear anxious to display thy wealth. Such ostentation will induce people to regard thee and thy father as foolish persons, possessed of more wealth than is good for the exercise of wisdom. Also, my son, thy future teaching must be not confined to the learning that wise men can impart unto thee. Thou art going to the great city to learn the ways of the world, to train thyself in self-reliance, and to prepare thyself for all the duties of manhood."
The youth was somewhat disappointed to hear this. It was the first occasion, as far as his memory served him, that his father had failed to grant his wish; but he was nevertheless flattered by the prospect of quickly becoming a man, and he answered, "I bow to thy wisdom, my father."
He left for Jerusalem, after bidding the merchant an affectionate farewell, and in the Holy City he applied himself diligently to his studies. He delighted his teachers with his cheerful attention to his lessons, and discovered a new source of happiness in learning things for himself from observation. Also, it was a pleasant sensation to conduct his own affairs, and in the great city, with its busy narrow thoroughfares and its wonderful buildings, he daily grew less homesick. Regularly he received letters by messengers from his father, and dutifully he returned, by the same means, long epistles, setting out all the big and little things that made up his life.
A year passed, and one day the usual message that Ahmed expected came to him in a strange hand-writing.
He opened it hastily, with a foreboding of evil and alarm. The writer of the letter was one of the merchant's closest friends. He said:
"O worthy son of a most worthy father, greeting to thee, and may God give thee strength to hear the terrible and sad tidings which it is my sorrowful duty to convey unto thee. Know then that it hath pleased God in his wisdom to call from this earth thy saintly father, to sit with the righteous ones in Heaven. Here in the city of Damascus there is great weeping, for thy honored father was the most upright of men, a friend to all in distress, a man whose bounteous charity to the poor and unfortunate was unsurpassed. But our grief, deep and heartfelt as it is, cannot be compared to thine. We have all lost a wise counselor, a trusty friend, a guide in all things. But thou hast lost more. Thou hast lost a father. Thou art his only son, and on thee his duties will now devolve. Know then thy profound grief we share with thee. We tender to thee our sincere sympathy, and eagerly do we await thy coming. Thou hast a noble position to occupy and a tradition to continue. We, thy father's friends and thine, O Ahmed, will assist thee."
The young man was dumbfounded when he gathered the purport of the letter. For some moments he spoke not, but sat on the ground, weeping silently. Then, remembering his father's admonitions, he promptly took up the task of settling his affairs in Jerusalem prior to his departure for Damascus.
"I will take with me," he said, "the good rabbi who has been my religious instructor, for I am not fully prepared to undertake all the duties that will fall to my lot and need some strengthening counsel."
On arrival at Damascus he was greeted by a large concourse of people who expressed their sympathy with him and spoke in terms of highest praise of his father's benevolence.
After the funeral, Ahmed called the leading townspeople together to hear his father's will read, for he was certain that many gifts to charities would be announced. Such was the case, and there were subdued murmurs of applause when the amounts were read forth.
Then suddenly the friend who had written to the young man and was reading the will, paused.
"I fear there must be a mistake," he said, in a whisper to Ahmed.
"Go on," urged the assembled people, and the man read in a strange voice:
"And now, having as I hope, faithfully performed my duty to the poor, I bequeath the rest of my possessions unto my devoted negro slave, Pedro."
"Pedro!" cried the astonished crowd.
They looked at the massive figure of the black attendant, but he stood motionless and impassive, betraying no sign whatsoever of joy or surprise.
Ahmed could not conceal his bewilderment.
"Is naught left unto me?" he managed to ask.
"Yes," returned his friend, and amid a sudden silence, he continued to read: "This bequest is subject to the following proviso: that one thing be given to my son before the division of my property, the same to be selected by him within twenty-four hours of the reading of this will unto him."
The crowd melted away with mutterings of sympathy mingled with astonishment, but out of earshot of Ahmed, all said the merchant must have been mad to draw up so absurd a testament. Ahmed himself could hardly realize the great blow that had befallen him. He consulted with his father's friend and the rabbi, but, although they re-read the document many times, they could find no fault or flaw in it.
"Legally, this is correct and in perfect order and cannot be altered," said the friend.
"My father must have made a foolish mistake and must have misplaced the two words 'son' and 'slave,'" said Ahmed, bitterly.
"That does not so appear," said the rabbi; "thy father was a scholar and wise man. Speak not hastily, and above all act not rashly without thought. I would counsel thee to sleep over this matter, and in the morning we shall solve this puzzle."
Ahmed, who was exhausted with grief and rage and surprise, soon fell into a deep sleep, and when he awoke the rabbi was reciting his morning prayers.
"It is a beautiful day," he said, when he had finished. "The sun shines on thy happiness, Ahmed."
Ahmed was too depressed to make any comment, nor was he completely satisfied when the rabbi assured him all would be well.
"I have pondered deeply and long over thy father's words," he said. "I sat up through the night until the dawn, and I have been impelled to the conclusion that thy father was truly a wise man."
Ahmed interrupted with a gesture of disapproval. The rabbi took no notice but proceeded quietly: "Thy father must have feared that in thy absence after his death and pending thy possible delay in returning hither, slaves and others might rob thee of thy inheritance. Pedro, I have discovered, knew of the terms of the will. By informing him and making his strange will, thy father, O fortunate Ahmed, made sure of thy inheritance unto thee."
"I understand not," muttered Ahmed.
"It is perfectly clear," said the rabbi. "As soon as thou art ready, thou shalt make thy choice of one thing. Do as I bid thee, and thou shalt see thy father's wisdom."
Ahmed had no option but to agree. He could find no solution himself, and wretched though he felt, reason told him that his father loved him and that the rabbi was renowned for shrewdness.
The townspeople gathered early to hear Ahmed make his choice of one thing--and one only--from his father's possessions. Ahmed looked less troubled than they expected, the rabbi wore his most benign expression, and Pedro stationed himself in his usual place at the door, statuesque, obedient, and expressionless as ever.
Ahmed held up his hand to obtain silence.
"Acting under the terms of my father's will," he said, solemnly, "at this moment when all, before division, belongs to his estate, I choose but one of my father's possessions--Pedro, the black slave."
Then everybody saw the wisdom of the strange will, for with Pedro, Ahmed became possessed of his father's vast wealth.
To Pedro, who still stood motionless, Ahmed said, "And thou, my good friend, shalt have thy freedom and possessions sufficient to keep thee in comfort for the rest of thy days."
"I desire naught but to serve thee," Pedro answered, "I wish to remain the faithful attendant of one who will follow nobly in the footsteps of thy father."
So everybody was satisfied.