Once upon a time, there was a Raja and a rich merchant, and they each had one son. The two boys went to the same school and in the course of time became great friends; they were always together out of school hours; the merchant’s son would take his meals at the Raja’s palace or the Raja’s son would eat with his friend at the merchant’s house.
One day the two youths began a discussion as to whether wealth or wisdom was the more powerful: the Raja’s son said that wealth was most important, while the merchant’s son declared for wisdom; the discussion waxed hot and neither would yield his opinion. At last the merchant’s son declared; “It is of no use for us to argue like this, let us put it to the test: let us both go to some far country and take service with some master for a year, and try whether wealth or wisdom is the more successful.” The Prince agreed to this plan and they fixed a day for starting.
Then they both went home and collected what money they could lay hands on and, when the time arrived, started off early one morning. After they had traveled some distance the Prince began to think of how his parents must be searching for him, for he had said nothing about his going away; but the merchant’s son comforted him by saying that he had left word of their intentions at his home, and his relations would tell the Raja; so they continued on their way, and after a time they came to a certain country where the merchant’s son proposed that they should look for employment. But now that it had come to the point, the prince did not like the idea of becoming a servant and he said that he would live on the money which he had brought with him, and which would last for a year or two. “You may do as you like” answered his friend “but for my part, I must look for work.” So he went to a village and found employment as a teacher in a school; his pupils gave him his food and also some small wages so that he had enough to live on, without spending any of the money he had brought with him.
Meanwhile, the Raja’s son hired a house in the village and began to lead a riotous life; in a very short time He had wasted all his money on his evil companions and was reduced to absolute starvation; for when his money came to an end, all his so-called friends deserted him. Thin and wretched, he went to the merchant’s son and asked him either to take him back to his father’s home or to find his work. His friend agreed to find him some employment, and after a little inquiry heard of a farmer who wanted a servant to take a bullock out to graze and to fill a trough with water once a day. The prince thought that he could easily manage that amount of work, so he went to the farmer and engaged himself as his servant.
The terms of service were these: If the prince threw up his work one of his little fingers was to be cut off, but if the farmer dismissed him while he was working well then the farmer was to lose a little finger; and if the prince grazed the bullock and filled the trough with water regularly, he was to get as much cooked rice as would cover a plantain leaf, but if he did not do the work he was to get only what would go on a tamarind leaf. The prince readily agreed to these terms, for he thought that the work would not take him more than an hour or two. But unhappily for him, things did not turn out as he expected.
On the first morning he took the bullock out to graze, but the animal would not eat; whenever it saw any other cattle passing, it would gallop off to join them, and when the prince had run after it and brought it back, nothing would make it graze quietly; it kept running away in one direction or another with the prince in pursuit. So, at last, he had to bring it home and shut it up in the cow-shed and even that he found difficult.
Then they set him to filling the trough, and he found that he could not do that either, for the trough had a hole in the bottom and had been set over the mouth of an old well; and as fast as the prince poured the water in, it ran away, but he was too stupid to see what was the matter and went on pouring till he was quite tired out; so as he had not completed the tasks set him, he only got a tamarind leaf full of rice for his supper; this went on every day and the prince began to starve, but he was afraid to run away and tell his troubles to the merchant’s son, lest he should have his little finger cut off.
But the merchant’s son had not forgotten his friend and began to wonder why the Prince kept away from him. So one day he went to pay him a visit and was horrified to find him looking so ill and starved; when he heard how the prince was only getting a tamarind leaf full of rice every day, because he could not perform the task set him, he offered to change places with the Prince and sent him off to teach in the school while he himself stayed with the farmer.
The next morning the merchant’s son took the bullock out to graze and he also found that the animal would not graze quietly but spent its time in chasing the other cattle, so at noon he brought it home and set to work to fill the trough; he soon found the hole in the bottom through which the water escaped and stopped it up with a lump of clay and then he easily filled the trough to the brim. Then in the afternoon, he took the bullock out again to graze and when he brought it back at sunset he was given a plantain leaf full of rice; this meant more food than he could possibly eat in a day.
He was determined that the bullock should not give him any more trouble, so the next morning when he took it out to graze, he took with him a thick rope and tethered the animal to a tree; this saved him all the trouble of running after it, but it was clear that it would not get enough to eat in that way, so he made up his mind to get rid of it altogether, and when he took it out in the afternoon, he took with him a small ax and drove the bullock to a place where a herd of cattle was grazing and then knocked it on the head with the ax and threw the body into a ravine nearby. Then he hid the ax and ran off to his master and told him that the bullock had started fighting with another animal in the herd and had been pushed over the edge of the ravine and killed by the fall. The farmer went out to see for himself and when he found the dead body lying in the ravine he could not but believe the story, and had no fault to find with his cunning servant.
A few days later, as the rice crop was ripe, the farmer told the merchant’s son to go to the fields to reap the rice. “How shall I reap it?” asked he. “With a sickle,” replied the farmer. “Then it will be the sickle and not I, that reaps it” “As you like,” said the farmer, “you go along with the sickle, no doubt it knows all about it;” so they got him a sickle and he went off to the fields. When he got there, he noticed how bright the sickle looked, and when he touched it, he found it quite hot from being carried in the sun. “Dear, dear,” said he, “I cannot let this sickle reap the rice: it is so hot that it must have very bad fever; I will let it rest in the shade until it gets better,” so he laid it down in a shady spot and began to stroll about. Presently up came the farmer, and was very angry to find no work going on. “Did I send you out to stroll about, or to start cutting the rice?” roared he. “To cut the rice,” answered the merchant’s son, “but the sickle has fallen ill with high fever and is resting in the shade; come and feel how hot it is.” “You are nothing but an idiot,” answered the farmer. “You are no good here; go back home and start a fire in the big house and boil some water by the time I get back.” The merchant’s son was only on the lookout for an excuse to annoy the farmer and the words used by the farmer were ambiguous; so he went straight back to the farm and set the biggest house on fire. The farmer saw the conflagration and came rushing home and asked the merchant’s son what on earth he meant by doing such mischief. “I am only doing exactly what you told me; nothing would induce me to disobey any order of yours, my worthy master.”
The farmer had nothing more to say; his words would bear the construction put upon them by the merchant’s son, and he was afraid to dismiss him lest he should have to lose his little finger; so he made up his mind to get rid of this inconvenient servant in another way, and the next day he called him and told him that he must send word to his father-in-law of the unfortunate burning of the house, and the merchant’s son must carry the letter.
The latter accordingly set off with the letter, but on the road, he thought that it would be just as well to see what the letter was really about; so he opened it and found that it contained a request from the farmer to his father-in-law to kill the bearer of the letter immediately on his arrival. The merchant’s son at once tore this up and wrote another letter in the farmer’s name: saying that the bearer of the letter was a most excellent servant and he wished him to marry into the family; but that as he himself had no daughters he hoped that his father-in-law would give him one of his daughters to wife. Armed with this he proceeded on his journey. The father-in-law was rather surprised at the contents of the letter and asked the merchant’s son if he knew what it was about; he protested complete ignorance: the farmer had told him nothing, and as he was only a poor cowherd, of course, he could not read. This set suspicion at rest; the wedding was at once arranged and duly took place, and the merchant’s son settled down to live with his wife’s family.
After a time the farmer got news of what had happened, and when he saw how the merchant’s son had always been sharp enough to get the better of him, he began to fear that in the end he would be made to cut off his finger; so he sought safety in flight. He ran away from his house and home and was never heard of more.
When news of this came to the ears of the merchant’s son, he set out to visit his old friend the Prince and found him still teaching in the little village school. “What do you think now,” he asked him, “is wisdom or money the better. By my cleverness, I got the better of that farmer; he had to give me more rice than I could eat. I killed his bullock, I set fire to his house, and I got a wife without expending a pice on my marriage; while you have spent all the money you brought with you from home, and have met with nothing but starvation and trouble; what good has your money done you?” The Prince had not a word to answer.
Two or three days later the Prince proposed that they should go back to their parents; his friend agreed but said that he must first inform his wife’s relations, so they went back to the village where the merchant’s son had married, and while they were staying there the Prince caught sight of a Raja’s daughter and fell violently in love with her.
Learning of the Prince’s state of mind the merchant’s son undertook to arrange the match; so he sent his wife to the Raja’s daughter with orders to talk of nothing but the virtues and graces of the Prince who was staying at their house. Her words had their due effect and the Raja’s daughter became so well disposed towards the Prince, that when one day she met him, she also fell violently in love with him and felt that she could not be happy unless she became his wife. So the wedding duly took place, and then the Prince and the merchant’s son with their respective wives returned to their fathers’ houses.