THERE was an old man of Toledo who had one son, whom he brought up in the fear of God. Now it happened that this old man had to go to a distant town of Estramadura, to receive some money of a creditor, and the creditor dying, his heirs disputed the debt, and drove the old man to a lawsuit which kept him absent many years. When at last the suit was just decided in his favour, the old man fell ill and died. Meantime the son, growing uneasy at his father's prolonged absence, arranged his affairs as well as he could, and prepared to take the journey to see after him. Calling in his three clerks, Jacinto, Gonzalo, and Diego, who were all men whom his father trusted, and whom he therefore respected, he divided his property in three parts, and to each he gave charge of one part, leaving it to each to do the best he could for him, saying, "The wisdom of your grey hairs will do better for me than any instructions my inexperience could give you."
"If the Lord bless it, it shall increase; and if He curse it, it shall not prosper," answered Jacinto, the eldest; "behold I am nothing in the matter;" and he shook his venerable head, and raised his eyes to heaven.
"Whatever I have done for your father I will continue to do for you," said Gonzalo, the second in order, and hurried back to his papers as if it was wrong to waste a moment in talking.
"I will endeavour that you shall have nothing to complain of," quietly replied Diego, the third.
The young man was pleased with what they said, and without further loss of time set out on his journey.
The weather was fair, and his father's friends by the way received him hospitably; but crossing the Sierra , a violent storm came on, and he would soon have been drenched with rain. Right glad he was to see, perched on the mountain-ledge, a hermit's cell, where he readily found shelter. In the morning, when the sky was serene again, he rose to take his leave; and as he stood on the threshold thanking the hermit for his care of him, he could not forbear pausing to admire the beauties around him. Far away stretched the plains below, studded with smiling cities and watered by the mazy windings of the rivers, and shaded by dark groves of ancient cork-trees; behind him were rocky heights reaching to the sky, presenting every degree of rich vegetation and solemn barrenness. But what attracted his sight most of all was a luxuriant plantation of fig-trees, which made a complete bower of the hermit's cell.
"How successful you are with your fig-trees!" said the traveller; "I never saw so fine a show. You have three, one as fine as the other--it is impossible to say which of them is most flourishing; and to judge by the fruit you gave me, which doubtless is their produce, they are the finest trees in Spain, and that is saying a great deal. I must add too, after your liberality with them, that you put to shame the proverb,--
"En tiempo de higos
No hay amigos ."
"For what you say of the proverb, son," replied the hermit, "I have no merit, for it is the very essence of my rule of life to call nothing my own, according to our Lord's counsel. These figs are the gift of God, to me, or to you, or to whomsoever is here to need them. But for the rest, you judge according to the measure of the inconsiderateness of your years. Nevertheless, you seem to me a good youth, and I will therefore show you something which may be of use to you in your dealings with the world. Know then that but one of these fig-trees is really what it seems; the other two are worthless. That is, worthless," he added, "as bearers of fruit, for there is nothing that God makes but has its worth, and even these trees which bear no fruit are useful to give shade, and for other purposes besides."
"You surprise me," said the young man; "I never saw trees of more equal promise!"
"Nevertheless, it is as I say; and if the season of figs were not just over, according to our Lord's saying, by their fruit you should know them, or, as you say in the world, "al freir, lo vereis ." Meantime, learn, my son, not to judge of men and things by their appearance, but wait and see what their fruit is like."
The sun was now beginning to make way above the horizon, and, fearing to be overtaken by the heat, the young man was obliged to set out on his journey without further parley than promising to visit the hermit on his return.
Great was his grief, when he arrived at the end of his journey, to find his good father had been so suddenly called away, and instead of being clasped to his bosom, to find the last earthly communication he could ever receive from him was a scrap of paper, on which, at intervals of his death agony, he had convulsively written down a few directions to guide him in entering into possession of his worldly goods, mingled with counsels to him to continue to direct all his dealings according to the fear of God.
This sudden death had thrown matters into some confusion, and it took a considerable time to set all straight again; it was some ten or eleven months before the young merchant had to re-cross the Sierra in a homeward direction.
It was a brilliant summer evening when he came upon the hermit's cell again. The old man was sitting making his meditation before the door. Occupied with grief and care, as he had been during his absence, the bereaved son had forgotten all about the fig-trees; but, on looking around, he saw that something was changed, and soon had a clear demonstration of what the hermit had told him. One noble tree was laden with the ripe green and purple fruit; the soft, downy skins seeming ready to burst with the rich and luscious burden within, while the broad leaves spread out their hands and shaded them from the too great heat, and fanned them gently when the day was sultry.
The second tree was covered with luxuriant leaves as before, but not a single ripe fig was on it--there were a few young green beginnings, but too small and sickly to have a chance of ripening that season.
The third tree was in lamentable plight; its attenuated climbers clung by habit to the rock, but the sap and life and energy were gone, and it seemed only fit to be cut down.
"Well, father, I see you were right as to the figs," said the young man, candidly. "There is only one of them that is a good tree after all--but it is wonderful how well favoured they looked last year!"
"Learn, my son, the counsel of the aged and the words of the wise," replied the hermit; "for as it is with trees, even so it is with men. There are many who seem to you alike honest and worthy to be esteemed, while their inner life is as different as was the fruit-bearing principle of these trees."
"But, father, will not the good be known by their good deeds and maxims, and the bad by their evil lives and counsels?"
"Even so, my son, but the difficulty is to discern which are good and which evil. This is not so easy as you seem to think; for instance, you see two men both apparently pious and charitable, while the one who appears most so, very possibly only gives his money to the poor that he may stand well with the world, that the poor may look up to him, and say, 'There goes one who is like a king among us;' the other, whose liberality you noticed less, drops his hardly-spared coin noiselessly into the capillo , and sallies forth perhaps in dead of night to carry his alms to those who would blush to receive such assistance by day. One man appears to you calm and placid because he is of a phlegmatic nature, and has no effort to make in order to appear equable and ever patient; while another, whom you judge to be hasty and passionate, may be all the while struggling to conquer a hot and violent temperament which requires the courage of a hero to keep it within bounds."
"I see your moral, father," replied the young man; "and I have no doubt I often judge of men as I judged your fig-trees."
"That one," continued the hermit, pointing to the one whose fruit was even then affording a delicious meal to the birds, for the hermit called nothing his own, and the birds of heaven were welcome to share his stock, "that one was always a good and fruitful tree, and its praise is among its people, for you will find many a village about here which boasts a graft from the hermit's fig. The second one, which presented so fair a show, has something amiss which it hitherto has passed my skill to find out--though I have one remedy more to try, which may recover it. And the third had a worm at the root which destroyed its vital power."
The young man passed on his way next day, and, as he journeyed, the figs of which the good hermit had given him ample provision put him in mind of his parable, and set him musing on its application. These musings weaving themselves in with his anticipations of the condition of his affairs at home, he began to consider whether the three clerks, to whom he had entrusted his property, were in any way like the fig-trees, and whether Providence had not sent him this lesson to be his guide in his future conduct.
Possessed with this idea, he resolved to put them to the test. The sun and air of the mountains had dyed his skin; sorrow had marked his face with lines of care and tinged his hair with grey. By means of a false beard and a travelling merchant's dress he reckoned he could be safe from recognition, and as a stranger learn their respective worth from their own lips.
Equipped in his disguise he presented himself at his own house, and found all three in their place, with every evidence of diligent application. So he opened the terms of his pretended business to them, and found them all ready to negotiate with him, each in his degree--each conducted his matter with every token of due shrewdness and integrity.
It had been part of his plan to tell them the news of their master's death, and try them by watching the effect of this intelligence upon them, but when he saw all so well-ordered he judged there was no need for further trial, and so contented himself with resuming his own attire and returning in his own person to the house.
The clerks greeted him with a joyful welcome, and received the news of his father's death with becoming expressions of sorrow, and the young man congratulated himself on having such trusty stewards of his goods.
After he had been back a day or two, he requested them to prepare for him the account of what they had done since he left, so that he might know how his affairs stood, and once more assume the direction of them. The proposal received a ready assent, and a day was fixed for going into the matter. But when the appointed day came, what was his astonishment to find only Diego in his place? His accounts were ready and all in good order; he had administered faithfully the portion of property entrusted to him, and handed it back increased by the efforts of his prudence and skill.
From Gonzalo he found a letter informing him that he had had the misfortune to be unlucky in his speculations with his property, and had lost the whole of it, consequently he had no account to render. Losing patience at this attempt at deceit, the young man had him brought before him, and asked him how he dared tell him so, when he knew that only so many days before he had been negotiating with a merchant he knew, and he named the name he had assumed in his disguise. Gonzalo was not at all disconcerted: "Oh, that business was done with my own money; though I was unlucky with yours, fate would have it that I should be very successful with my own, and out of my own earnings I have created a capital which I have multiplied an hundredfold."
When the young man heard this unblushing statement, he was filled with indignation, and insisted on taking him before the judge. But it was all to no purpose, Gonzalo had managed his fraud so cleverly that it could not be proved against him; he had to be let go scotfree.
As for Jacinto, he never showed himself at all, nor left any explanation. He had remained up to the hour, trading with the benefit of his master's name and capital, but the moment there had been talk of giving up accounts he had gathered up all that was in his charge, and fled with it out of the country.
More grieved by the faithlessness of those he had trusted than by the loss of his gold, the young man shut himself into his chamber, to muse upon what had befallen him, and upon the uncertainty both of friendship and riches. When he reflected on the temptations which money had offered to Gonzalo and Jacinto, he was appalled at the thought of those which might be in store for him, if he continued in the pursuit of business. He thought of the peaceful hermit, whose warning parable had just received such a striking illustration. He thought of his placid content with the weather--such as God sends it--to warm him, and the fruits of the earth--such as God gives them--to nourish him. He thought of him far removed from contentions and greed of gain, and sharing his frugal meal with the stranger, the wayfarer, and the birds of heaven.
When he came down from his chamber, he called Diego to him, and commended him for his faithfulness and diligence. "And," said he, "I now give you full possession of all that you have so justly administered. For me, I have chosen a life free from care, where I shall have no use for money."
But when Diego heard it, he said, "Nay, but I will go with thee. To save my master's goods for his son was my work on earth; now that is fulfilled, no desire have I to continue amid its weariness and perils."
So they left the money to found an hospital where poor orphan children might be taken in and taught the way that is right. And they went into the Sierra, and built them huts and planted them fig-trees, and passed their time in holy meditation and in praising God.