Long years ago there lived a poor labouring man who never knew what it was to sleep in peace. Whether the times were good or bad, he was haunted by fears for the morrow, and this constant worrying caused him to look so thin and worn that the neighbouring farmers hesitated to give him work. He was steady and frugal, and had never been known to waste his time in the village inn, or indulge in foolish pleasures—in fact, a worthier man could not be found, and his friends agreed in saying that he certainly deserved success, though this never came his way.
One day as he sat by the roadside with his head on his hands, a kindly and charitable doctor from the town close by stopped his carriage to ask him what was the matter.
“You seem in trouble, my good man,” he said. “Tell me what I can do to help you.”
Encouraged by the sympathy in his voice, “Weeping John,” as he was called, poured out his woes, to which the doctor listened with much attention.
“If I should fall sick,” the poor man finished by saying, “what would happen to my little children, and the wife whom I love more dearly than life itself? They would surely starve, for even as it is they often go hungry to bed. Surely a more unfortunate man has never been born—I toil early and late, and this is my reward.” And once more he buried his face in his hands, while bitter sobs shook his ill-clad shoulders.
“Come, come!” said the doctor briskly. “Get up at once, man, and I will do my best for you. I can see that if you do not kill worry, worry will kill you.” Helping the poor fellow into his carriage, he told the coachman to drive straight home, and when they arrived at his comfortable mansion, he led him into his surgery.
“See here,” he cried, pointing to a shining bar in a glass case, “that bar of gold was bequeathed to me by my father, who was once as poor as you are now. By means of the strictest economy, and hard work, he managed to save sufficient money to purchase this safeguard against want. When it came to me, I, too, was poor, but by following his example, and keeping a brave heart, in cloud and storm as well as sunshine, I have now amassed a fortune that is more than sufficient for my needs. Therefore, I will now hand over to you the bar of gold, since I no longer require it. Its possession will give you confidence for the future. Do not break into it if you can avoid it, and remember that sighing and weeping should be left to weak women and girls.”
The labourer thanked him with much fervour, and hiding the bar of gold beneath his coat, sped joyfully homeward.
As he and his wife sat over the fire, which they were now no longer afraid to replenish, he told her all that the good doctor had said, and they agreed that unless the worst came to the worst, they would never touch that bar of gold.
“The knowledge that we have it, safely hidden in the cellar,” said his wife, “will keep from us all anxiety. And now, John, you must do your best to make a fortune, so that we may be able to hand it on to our dear children.”
From that day John was a changed man. He sang and whistled merrily as he went about his work, and bore himself like a prosperous citizen. His cheeks filled out, and his eye grew bright; no longer did he waste his leisure in lamentations, but dug and planted his little garden until it yielded him richly of the fruits of the earth, and the proceeds helped to swell the silver coins in his good wife’s stocking. The farmer who had before employed him when short of hands, was so impressed with his altered looks that he took him permanently into his service, and with regular food and sufficient clothing John’s delicate children grew strong and hardy.
“That bar of gold has brought us luck,” he would sometimes say blithely to his wife, who held her tongue like a wise woman, although she was tempted to remind him that the “luck” had come since he had given up weeping and lamentations concerning the future.
One summer’s evening, long afterwards, as they sat in the wide porch, while their grandchildren played in the meadow beyond, and the lowing of the cows on their peaceful farm mingled with the little people’s merry shouts, a stranger came up the pathway and begged for alms. Though torn and tattered, and gaunt with hunger, he had an air of gentleness and refinement, and, full of compassion, the worthy couple invited him in to rest. They set before him the best they had, and when he tried to express his gratitude, John laid his hand on his shoulder.
“My friend,” he said, “Providence has been good to us, and blessed the labour of our hands. In times gone by, however, I was as wretched as you appeared to be when you crossed the road, and it is owing to a stranger’s kindness that I am in my present position.” He went on to tell him of the bar of gold, and, after a long look at his wife, who nodded her head as if well pleased, he went and fetched it from the cellar, where it had lain hidden all these years.
“There!” he exclaimed. “I am going to give it to you. I shall not want it now, and my children are all well settled. It is fitting that you should have it, since your need is very great.”
Now the stranger understood the science of metals, for he was a learned man who had fallen on evil times. As he took the gleaming bar in his hands, while murmuring his astonished thanks, he knew by its weight that it was not gold.
“You have made a mistake, my friends,” he cried. “This bar is not what you think it, though I own that most men would be deceived.”
Greatly surprised, the old woman took it from him, and polished it with her apron in order to show him how brightly it gleamed. As she did so, an inscription appeared, which neither she nor her husband had noticed before. Both listened with great interest as the stranger read it out for them.
“It is less a matter of actual want,” it ran, “than the fear of what the morrow will bring, which causes the unhappiness of the poor. Then tread the path of life with courage, for it is clear that at last you will reach the end of your journey.”
When the stranger paused there was a dead silence, for the old man and woman were thinking many things, and words do not come quickly when one is deeply moved. At last John offered the stranger a tremulous apology for the disappointment he must now be suffering through their innocent mistake.
“On the contrary,” he replied warmly, “the lesson that bar has taught me is worth far more than any money that you could give me. I shall make a new start in life, and, remembering that we fail through fear, will henceforth bear myself as a brave man should.”
So saying, he bade them adieu, and passed out into the fragrant twilight.