There was once a man who had nothing but a poor hut on the edge of a little river; he earned his living by fishing for fish; but as there was scarcely any in this river, he did not gain much, and lived almost on nothing but bread and water. Yet he was content in his poverty, because he desired nothing but what he had. One day, he took a fancy to him to see the town, and he resolved to go there the next day. As he was thinking of making this journey, he met a traveler who asked him if he was far away to a village, to find a house where he could sleep.
“Twelve miles,” replied the fisherman, “and it is very late; if you want to spend the night in my cabin, I offer it with all my heart.”
The traveler accepted his proposal, and the fisherman, who wished to regale him, lit a fire to cook some small fish. While he was preparing supper, he sang, laughed, and appeared in a very good humor.
“How happy you are!” said his host, “to be able to entertain; I would give all that I possess to the world, to be as cheerful as you.”
“And who stops you?” said the fisherman, “my joy does not cost me anything, and I have never had cause to be sad. Do you have some great sorrow, which does not allow you to rejoice?“
“Alas,” replied the traveler, “everyone thinks me the happiest of men. I was a merchant, and I gained great property, but I had not a moment’s rest. I was always afraid that they would bankrupt me, that my merchandise would not be spoiled, that the ships I had on the sea should be wrecked; so I left the business to try to be more quiet, and bought a commission to the king. At first I had the happiness of pleasing the prince, I became his favorite, and I thought I was going to be happy; but I soon knew that I was more a slave to the prince than his favorite. It was necessary to renounce at all times my inclinations, to follow his own. He loved hunting and I the rest; yet I was obliged to run with him through the woods all day long: I returned to the palace, very tired, and with a great desire to go to bed. Not at all, the king’s mistress gave a ball, a feast; they did me the honor to pray for his court to the king; I went there enraged; but the friendship of the prince consoled me a little. About a fortnight ago he had thought of speaking with an air of friendship to one of the lords of his court, he had given him two commissions, and said he thought he was a very honest man. From that moment I saw that I was lost, and spent several nights without sleeping.“
“But,” said the fisherman, interrupting his host, “did the king make you a bad face, and no longer love you?”
“Pardon me,” replied the man, “the king made me more friends than usual; but think that he did not love me any more alone, and that everyone said that this lord would become a second favorite. You feel that this is unbearable, so I have failed to die of grief. I retired yesterday evening to my sad room, and when I was alone, I began to weep. All of a sudden, I saw a great man, with a very agreeable countenance, who said to me, ’Azael, I have pity on your misery, will you become tranquil, renounce the love of wealth and desire of honor.’ ’Alas! Lord,’ I said to this man, ’I would wish it with all my heart; but how can we succeed?’ ’Leave the court,’ he said to me, ’and walk for two days by the first road which will open before your eyes; the madness of a man prepares you for a spectacle capable of curing you forever of ambition. When you have walked for two days, come back on your steps, and firmly believe that it will be up to you to live cheerfully and quietly.’ I have already walked a whole day to obey this man, and I shall go on to-morrow; but I have great difficulty in hoping for the rest he has promised me.”
The fisherman having listened to this story, could not help admiring the madness of this ambitious man, who made his happiness depend on the prince’s looks and words.
“I shall be delighted to see you again, and to learn your cure,” he said to the traveler; “finish your journey, and in two days come back to my cabin; I will travel too; I have never been to the city, and I imagine that I shall amuse myself a great deal of all the trouble that must be.“
“You have a bad thought here,” said the traveler; “since you are happy now, why do you seek to make yourself miserable? Your cabin seems sufficient to you today, but when you have seen the palaces of the great, it will seem to you very small and very puny. You are content with your coat, because it covers you; but it will hurt your heart when you have examined the superb clothes of the rich.“
“Sir,” said the fisherman to his guest, “you speak like a book, use these fine reasons to learn not to be angry when you look at others, or when you speak to them. The world is full of those people who counsel others, while they can not govern themselves.”
The traveler replied nothing, because it is not honest to contradict the people in their house, and the next day he continued his journey, while the fisherman began his journey. At the end of two days, the traveler Azael, who had met nothing extraordinary, returned to the cabin. He found the fisherman sitting at his door, his head resting in his hand, and his eyes fixed on the ground.
“What do you think?“ Azael asked.
“I think I am very unhappy,” replied the fisherman. “What have I done to God for making me so poor while there are so many men so rich and content?”
At that moment the man who had commanded Azael to walk for two days, and who was an angel, appeared.
“Why did not you follow Azael’s advice?“ he said to the fisherman. “The sight of the magnificence of the city has aroused in you the avarice and ambition, they have driven away the joy and peace. Moderate your desires, and you will find these precious advantages.“
“That is very easy for you to say,” replied the fisherman; “but it is not possible for me, and I feel that I shall always be unhappy, unless it please God to change my situation.“
“It would be for your loss,” said the angel. “Believe me, wish only what you have.“
“You speak well,” replied the fisherman, “you will not prevent me from wishing for another situation.”
“God sometimes hears the wishes of the ambitious,” replied the angel; “but it is in his anger, and to punish him.“
“What do you care,” said the fisherman. “If it were merely to wish, I would not trouble myself with your threats.“
“Since you want to lose yourself,” said the angel, “I consent: you may wish three things, God will grant them to you.”
The fisherman, transported with joy, desired that his cabin should be changed into a magnificent palace, and his wish was at once fulfilled. The fisherman, after having admired this palace, wished that the little river which was before his door should be changed into a great sea, and at once his wish was fulfilled. He had a third to do; he dreamed of it for some time, and then he desired that the little boat should be changed into a superb vessel loaded with gold and diamonds. As soon as he saw the ship, he ran to admire the riches of which he had become master; but scarcely had he entered, when a great storm arose. The fisherman wanted to return to the shore and go down to the shore, but there was no way. It was then that he cursed his ambition: useless regrets, the sea engulfed him with all his riches, and the angel said to Azael:
“Let this example make you wise. The end of this man is almost always that of the ambitious. The court where you now live, is a famous sea by shipwrecks and storms; whilst you can still reach the shore, you will one day wish to do so.”
Azael, frightened, promised to obey the angel, and kept his word. He left the court, and came to live in the country, where he married a girl who had more virtue than beauty and fortune. Instead of seeking to increase his great wealth, he applied himself only to enjoying it with moderation, and to distribute the superfluous to the poor. He then saw himself happy and contented, and never passed any day without thanking God for having cured him of avarice and ambition, which had hitherto poisoned all the happiness of his life.