It was a tradition we had, and though my heart wasn’t in it, I felt I had to carry it on. A man can bear his burden of troubles alone, and should, but a boy? Who could deprive a now motherless child of a bedtime story? And so I entered the room, with the candlelight flickering its shadows on the beamed ceiling. The evening was warm, but even so, Carl Phillip huddled under a blanket. He needed either comfort or protection; it may be he needed both.
“Are you well, my son?”
“And what troubles you?”
“Georg told me that we would have to move. He says that the house is too big, and there’s no one to take care of us, and that paying a woman to do the cooking and cleaning will be too expensive. So we’ll have to move away and live somewhere else, and I don’t want that. I want to stay in our house!”
Ahh—so that’s what had been troubling him. I assumed my father’s voice, and told him the story as my father had told me, and as his father had told him. Had his father told my grandfather the story? Very likely—who knew who first had concocted it? Indeed, perhaps no one had invented it: it may simply have been always part of us, as old as language itself. And so I began….
One day, in a town not far from here, there lived an old woman who was very rich. Each day, she counted her money, and each day—despite any amount she had spent—she became richer. At first, counting her money took only an hour or two in the morning, but gradually—and as she became richer—it took longer, so that she often spent all of her morning counting her money.
As she grew richer, she became obsessed with accuracy, and thus she began to recount the money, and then recount again, until she was satisfied that every last pfennig was accounted for. Then she went out to do her shopping, but the prices! They seemed to be higher and higher ever day, and so she began to make sacrifices. She no longer ate meat, but instead had a bit of cheese. Grapes were an impossible luxury—apples would have to do. At last, even though her fortune was growing rapidly, she no longer bought anything at all, but instead began lurking at the back of the stores. At the fishmonger, she retrieved skeletons with which to make stock; at the greengrocer, she ate the fruit that had begun to rot.
Still her fortune was growing mightily. She had never had friends in the neighborhood, but now the thought began to obsess her: what if something should happen to her money? Worse, what if someone tried to steal her money? She lived in terror of poverty, and resolved to trust no one.
In the house next to hers lived a young woman with her husband and six children. Each day, she noticed the old lady, and each day she saw that she was thinner. The old lady’s dress grew shabby—there was no money to buy a new one, and even if they were, the price of fabric! So the young lady began to cook a bit extra every day, and she would send one of the children over to leave the food on the old lady’s threshold. She sewed a new dress for the lady as well, and when the weather turned cold, made her a thick warm coat as well.
The townspeople saw all of this, and knew that the old lady could easily afford the finest meats, the choicest wines, and ermine coats. They knew as well that the younger woman often went unfed, since she had her six children and her husband to feed. And as the winter snows began to fall, they saw that the young woman had only her threadbare slippers to go to the shops in.
Still the money grew and grew, still the old lady refused to spend a nickel. She ate only the food given her by her poor neighbor, and she talked to no one. Completely alone, she began talking to herself, muttering to herself; a rumor started that she was a witch, and spread like fire through the village.
The money was now flooding in—daily, it took three or four men hours to bring in the cases of bullion that she was reaping. The safe was full, soon the rooms were full, at last there was no room without boxes on boxes of money—so much money that she could not count it all. The old lady grew suspicious—what if some of the boxes had no money, but instead rocks from the river? She demanded that every box be opened, and each pfennig counted and recounted. At last, there was room for only one more box, which she had put high on a stack of other boxes on a table in the center of the room. She stood before it, thinking how little money she had, really, and how easily she might lose the pittance she had.
Just then the table began to wobble (there had never been enough money to repair its legs) and then suddenly, the table collapsed, and the old lady—so rich and so poor—was crushed and died instantly, under her enormous pile of money.
The villagers heard the crash, and rushed to the house of the old lady. They stood amazed at the huge amount of money lying everywhere, and instantly the fights burst out. Each person had a claim to the money—each person had befriended the old lady, each person had been told by the old lady that the money would be theirs, each person had a sick child or a leaky roof or a baby on the way, and how would she feed it? And so they argued bitterly, though really there was enough money for everyone. Only the young neighbor, who had fed and clothed the elderly lady for years, was silent. Indeed, she was in the corner of the room, crying softly.
As the fights grew ever more fierce, an elegant coach drawn by eight jet-black stallions drew up to the house. A handsome man of fifty years alighted, and went to the house of the young neighbor, knocking on her door for entry. The young woman went out to greet him at her house. They entered the house only to come out of it again in five minutes. She appeared grave and worried; he strode across the lawn, marched into the house, and called for order. The battles for the money had grown ferocious.
“Stop,” he cried, “there is but one person who has claim to the money, for it was I who sent it to her, as I can prove, from these bank rolls here.” He showed them the rolls, and then pointed to the young woman, whose face was graver than ever.
Ever afterward, the town debated the circumstances surrounding the event. Had the man sent the money to the wrong house, as some believed? Had he known that the young woman’s sole interest was the older woman’s welfare, and not her money? Some even believed that he had sent the money to the older woman as a kind of test; if so, had she passed?
What is known?
The stranger departed. The townspeople returned to their homes. The younger woman summoned her children, who gathered up the lifeless body of the older woman they had never known, and took her to their house, to await her burial. The younger woman was alone in the house, with all the gold she now possessed. She stayed for a moment, and then left the house, never to return, and left the front door…