The man who was called Starving John' had nothing to live on, but he had a wife and a whole bunch of children to support.
One day the cat caught a hare. John's wife managed to take it from him; and having made a savoury meal of it, she put it into a wallet and said to John, "Here, take this food before our children snatch it out of your mouth."
John set off running as fast as his legs would carry him. When he came to an olive-grove, he sat down in a hollow olive-tree to eat his hare meal. But suddenly a dreadful, old woman stood before him. She was dressed in black, had sunken, dull eyes, and withered, yellow skin, a big mouth and just a very tiny nose.
John was polite and hospitable and asked if she would share his meal.
This was just what the old woman wanted. She sat down and ate up the hare right away. John was too polite to grumble out aloud, but what he thought is another matter.
His old visitor finished her meal without leaving anything of it to him, she exclaimed, "Do you know, John, your hare was very good! - Now, let me tell you I have lived many thousands of years, for I am Death!"
John gave a start.
"Don't be afraid, John," she went on, "I don't want to hurt you. What is more, as you have treated me so well, I'll give you a good counsel in return. Become a doctor, for there's nothing like it for making money!"
"Thank you for the counsel, Mrs Death," answered John respectfully, "but if you'll promise to leave me alone for a good number of years it would be fine too. I have no idea how I can be a doctor, for I know neither Latin nor Greek; I cannot write because my hand is palsied; and I cannot read."
"You silly fellow!" answered Mrs Death. "Do you think any of that is necessary? As for those who live in this world, when I get tired of anyone, I drag him off, doctor or no doctor. Just do as I tell you to. This is all you have to do: When they call you into a bed-room, look out for me. If you see me standing at the head of the bed, you'll know it's all over for the one in bed. Then you only have to say so, and they'll find you're right. But if you don't see me there, you have only to prescribe a dose of clean water with any thing harmless you like in it, and the ill one will recover."
The ugly old lady took off, adding: "I hope you won't forget! And don't be afraid, John, until your house crumbles to pieces I will not come for you."
John returned home to his wife and told her all that had happened, His wife was sharper than him, and decided to make use of Mrs. Death's advice, and spread about everywhere the news that her husband had only to look at a patient to tell whether he would live or die.
All the neighbours, however, laughed at the idea of Starving John turning doctor in his old age, and called him "Don John" to make fun of him.
One Sunday they went so far as to arrange a practical joke to show how little John knew about doctoring. Several girls were to sit round a basket of figs, as they often did of a holiday afternoon in the fruit season. Then, all of a sudden, one of them was to give a terrible cry as if taken ill, and some of the others were to carry her off to bed, while the rest ran for Starving John, a doctor. John had no great faith in what Mrs. Death had promised, and was unwilling to expose himself to the ridicule of the girls. But at his wife's urging he went along with them, when, lo and behold, he no sooner entered the room of the pretended patient, than he saw Mrs. Death standing at the head of the bed. "The girl is very ill, too ill for me to save. She'll die before night! said John. He went home tothe laughter of the gathered neighbours, who knew what the girls were playing at.
But it so happened that the unfortunate girl had been eating the fruit too freely. She was taken ill and died that very night. And this made Starving John's fortune.
He was now called to patients near and far, and his fees flowed in like rain. No longer was he dressed in rags; his clothes were properly made by a tailor. His face grew finer, his hands became smooth, his legs as firm as marble columns, and is formerly shrivelled stomack started to bulge. He bought honourable employments for his children, and used a large sum of money to keep his house in good repair. He even paid a bricklayer to see to it that there was never so much as a tile loose, for John remembered that Mrs. Death had said she would never come to visit him before his house had crumbled to pieces.
Years rolled by, and John's fortune increased, but as the years passed, his hair fell off, and then he lost his teeth; then his spine got curved; and then he grew halt in one of his legs.
One day when he was ill, Mrs. Death sent him a bat to ask how he was doing. John did not quite like the look of the creature, and drove it away. After that he had a cough; and Mrs. Death sent an owl to say she would come and see him very soon. John drove away the owl too. After that he had a fit, and Mrs. Death sent a dog to howl at his door in order to make him understand that she was on her way. John drove away the dog too. But he got ill all the same, and then worse, and then Mrs. Death knocked at the door. John hobbled out of bed, locked the door with a bar; but Death managed to creep in under the door.
"Mrs. Death!" said John, "You told me you would not come as long as my house was not crumbling to pieces."
"Oh!" answered Death, "but it is! Your body house has been crumbling to pieces now. Your strength failed, you lost a large part of your hair, and then your teeth, and then the use of all your limbs. So the house has been crumbling away, I say."
John grumbled: "I thought you meant house when you said house. Your coming now takes me by surprise."
Death answered: "If people were better prepared for my coming, I should take fewer by surprise. Be that as it may, you got many good years to live - your wife and children too."
Long ago there lived in Spain a poor woodcutter who had an only son named Antonio. Every day the father and son went into the forest to cut wood. One day the apothecary passed by the humble hut that was their home and noticed the odour of quinine from the smoke of their evening fire. He stopped to ask about it.
"Where did you get the wood that you are burning?" he asked.
"We get it in the forest in our work as woodcutters," answered the father.
"Very well," said the apothecary. "Bring me all such wood that you find, and I will pay you twice what you are used to get for it."
Prosperous days for Antonio and his father followed. They had never known such comforts in life as they were able to buy with their increased income. On feast days Antonio was clothed like the son of a rich man.
One day in the forest, Antonio's father felled a tree. As he began cutting into it a voice called out, "Stop pulling my hair!"
Antonio's father fell to the ground in amazement. "I beg your pardon," said he. "I did not know that I was pulling anyone's hair."
"I'll pardon you on one condition," said the strange voice. "Call your son here and give him to me. I want to keep him with me as my own."
"Oh, I could not give away my only son!" said the poor woodcutter, and tears rolled down his cheeks. "I could hardly live without him."
"I'll let him visit you once a year. Hurry up and call him here!"
The voice sounded so cross that the woodcutter did not dare do otherwise than call his son. "Antonio, Antonio!" he shouted.
The boy came running up at once. "What is the matter, dear father?" he asked, as he saw his father standing there with the tears running down his face. "Have you cut your foot?"
The woodcutter did not answer, for the strange voice talked to Antonio. "My lad, your father just now insulted me by pulling my hair. He has promised to make amends by giving you to me. You are to live with me for a year, but at the end of that time you may go home to visit your family. Never fear; you will have plenty to eat and drink and plenty to wear."
Antonio rubbed his eyes. Then he suddenly saw a huge servant standing before him, beckoning him to follow where he led. Antonio followed him into a great, hollow tree, and through that, to a cave. At the end of the cave there was a door which led to a wonderful palace. In the palace was a beautiful inner court, rare plants and a fountain. There was good food for him on a table, and in the alcove a richly canopied bed. The boy ate and drank to his heart's content and then went to bed.
Days passed in the palace, but Antonio saw no one except the huge servant who had led him there. At night, however, when all the lights were out, he was often awakened by sounds of music and dancing and feasting.
The year passed by very slowly, but when the time was up he could visit his family. The huge servant sent him away with his pocket full of gold. "Be sure that you return at the end of a week," said the servant. "And be sure that you do not mention to any of your family anything at all about what happens here. If you do, things may quickly get worse!"
Antonio quickly ran through the cave and out of the hollow tree trunk. How good the forest looked once more! The smells in it were perfume to his nostrils, and the sounds of the singing birds had never been so sweet to him before. After breathing in the forest air for some minutes he hastened home. There he was greeted with great joy by his family.
Many questions about Antonio's new way of life were put him, but he steadily had in mind the warning words of the servant and only said he had plenty to eat and drink and wear and was happy there. One day, however, he was left alone with his aged grandmother for an hour, and the old woman questioned him so well she soon had drawn from him the story of the sound of music and dancing and feasting he heard at night in the palace after the lights were all out.
"You may find out about these things and tell me all about them next year when you visit us," said his grandmother. "When you return there, take a candle with you and some matches. The next time you hear merry sounds in the palace in the dark, light your candle and see what is going on."
At the end of the week Antonio went back to the forest and through the hollow tree trunk into the cave. He knocked at the door at the end of the cave. The servant opened it at once.
"I am glad you returned promptly," said the servant. Antonio fidgeted and did not dare tell the servant what he had said to his grandmother.
"You know, if you mentioned anything to anyone you should tell me at once. I might be able to help you now, but soon it will be too late," said the servant and eyed Antonio suspiciously.
When Antonio went to bed that night, he put the candle and matches under his pillow in the richly canopied bed. He slept soundly for a time, but at last woke up, for there were sounds all about him in the palace. He cautiously lighted the candle his grandmother had given him, and the sounds suddenly ceased. He went from one room to another, but the candlelight revealed no one until he saw someone was sleeping in the bed in one of the alcoves. The most beautiful maiden he had ever seen lay on the bed. She was fast asleep.
Antonio quietly crept up to her side. As he leaned over the bed to look more closely at her lovely face, a drop of wax ran down the candle. It fell on the face of the sleeping girl.
Suddenly the girl, the great palace and everything in it disappeared, and Antonio found himself standing alone in the middle of the forest with a lighted candle in his hand.
The little candle soon burned itself out. Antonio could not find his way out of the forest in the darkness, and crawled into the hollow tree and spent the rest of the night there.
Towards morning Antonio heard two turtles talking together outside the hollow tree. One turtle said to the other: "Do you remember the enchanted palace which opened from the door at the end of the cave beyond this hollow tree?"
"Indeed," said the turtle. "Great feasts are held there in the darkness of the midnight hour."
"Did you know that the enchanted palace has been destroyed?"
"Destroyed! What happened?"
"The daughter of the king was sleeping there, and wax from a lighted candle fell on her cheek. Her beauty is ruined forever."
"A lighted candle, did you say? Who had a lighted candle in that place of darkness?"
"It was a woodcutter's son who lived in the enchanted palace who did it. He has lost a beautiful bride, for at the end of three years he was to marry her."
"Isn't there any cure for the burns on the face of the princess? "
"If someone gets a fistful of pearls from freshwater mussels, slowly boils the pearls over the fire, and then grinds the pearls into powder in a mortar, he could use the powder in a salve that would heal the burns and restore the beauty of the princess. Otherwise the princess will have to hide away in the royal castle and never go out except at night and then under a heavy veil to hide her disfigured face."
Antonio waited to hear no more. He knew where to find mussels in large numbers, for he had been around in the forest since he was just a little boy. He managed to find many mussels with pearls in them and took the pearls with him home. As soon as it was daylight, he started to cook the pearls over his mother's fire, ground them into powder in his mother's mortar and then made a paste. When this was done he went to the royal palace. He was dressed in a suit and a wig he had borrowed from his old friend, the apothecary.
"I am here to heal the burns on the face of the princess. I will make her beautiful again," said Antonio to the attendants.
The royal physicians had already tried many sorts of salves and remedies, but it only had made the princess look worse. So when Antonio was led into her room, she hid her face and said:
"It's no use."
Antonio asked the attendants to withdraw from the room. Then he whispered into the ear of the princess who he was, and then put the paste on the burns. They were healed! The princess became as lovely as when he had bent over her sleeping form with the lighted candle in his hand.
"I will marry no one except the apothecary who has healed my burns," said the princess when she stood before her father, the king. She was radiant in her restored beauty.
The woodcutter's son married the princess and became the friend and protector of the turtles and wildlife of the kingdom. It was proclaimed: "People are not allowed to kill turtles in this land." It was easier said than done, though.