THERE WAS once an old man with four sons. He lived to a great age, and a time came when he divided all his goods among them. "I will pass my remaining days among my children," he thought.
So the old man went to live with his eldest son. At first the eldest son treated his father with respect. "It is only right and proper that we should give food and shelter to our father," he said. "We should care for him and clothe him."
So it was for a time. The eldest son was a good son to his father. But after a while he began to regret his hospitality and was rough to his father and sometimes even shouted at him. The old man no longer had his own place in the house as in the beginning. His clothes went unmended, and no one cut his food for him. The eldest son regretted that he had undertaken to care for the old man and began to resent every morsel of bread that his father ate.
At last there was no choice for the old man. He left the house and went to his second son. But he soon discovered that he had only exchanged wheat for straw. Whenever he began to eat, his son and daughter-in-law looked sour and muttered something disagreeable between their teeth. The woman scolded the old man constantly, saying, "It was hard enough for us to make both ends meet before you came. And now we have to keep an old man in the bargain."
The old father soon had enough of this, and he went to his third son. There it was the same, and he moved on to his youngest son. His youngest son was no different from the others.
The old man moved from the house of one to the house of the other, and he was glad to leave them all. Each one of the sons threw the burden of keeping their father on one of the others. There were great arguments among them as to who should take the responsibility. One had one good excuse, and another had another, and so none of them would keep him. This one had a lot of children, that one had a scold for a wife, this house was too small, that one was too poor. "Go where you will, old man," they said, "only don't come to us."
The old man wept before his children and didn't know which way to turn. He struggled no more, but let them do with him as they wished. So all four sons met to decide what to do. At last they agreed among themselves that the best thing the old man could do would be to go away to school somewhere. "There will be a bench for him to sit on there ," they said, "and he can take something to eat in his knapsack." They told the old man about it. But the old man didn't want to go to school. He begged his children not to send him there, and he wept again.
"My eyes are growing dim," he said. "I can hardly see the world around me. How then can I see the tiny black print in a book? Moreover, I have never learned my letters in all my long life. How can I begin now? How can a clerk be made out of old man on the point of death?'
But there was no use in talking. His children had decided that he would have to go to school, and they sent him on his way.
As he passed through the forest on the way to the next town he met a nobleman driving along in a carriage. The old man stepped aside to let the carriage pass and stood respectfully at edge of the road. But the nobleman stopped his horses and came out of the carriage. He asked the old man where he was going
"To school," the old man replied.
"To school, old father? Surely at your age you should be resting at ease in your house."
So the old man spoke of his misery, tears running down face. When the nobleman heard the story, he was full of compassion. He thought for a while, and then he said, "Well, good father, it is certain that school is not the place for you. Weep no more, and do not let your soul be troubled. I will help you."
He took from his belt a silk purse, the kind that only the rich men would carry. And he poured something into the purse till it was almost full to the brim. He tied it closely, and placed it in a wooden box from his carriage.
"Take this home," he said, "and tell your children these word . . ." The nobleman instructed the old man what to say. The old man thanked him with deep gratitude and went back the way he had come. When he returned to his children, they saw him carrying the box under his arm. When one carries a heavy box, there is always something in it. The old man's sons and their wives didn't protest this time. They rushed out to meet him to find out what treasure he was bringing back from the forest. Some of them even said, 'Come and rest, father, you must be tired," "Eat, father, you must be hungry."
Then the old man told his tale, as instructed by his friend in the forest. "My dear children," he began. "Long, long ago, when I was young and knocked about the world a bit, I made a little money. I thought I would save it for the future, for of course a person never knows what will happen. So I went into the forest and dug a hole under an oak tree, and there I hid my little store of money. I didn't bother about the money afterwards, because I had such good children. But when you sent me to school I passed by this very same oak tree, and I said to myself, "I wonder if these few silver pieces have been waiting for their owner all this time!" So I dug and found them, and I have brought them home. I shall keep them till I die. But after my death, whoever shall have been found to cherish me the most, whoever has given me the kindest treatment, he shall be given the greater part of what is in this box. So now, dear children, receive me back. Which of you will be kind to your old father - for money?"
Then the brothers fell all over each other to be kind to the old man. One said, "Live in my house!" Another said, "No, in my house!" They fed him well and tended his clothes and were solicitous for his welfare. And this is the way it remained till the old man died at last. Then the sons made haste to get hold of the box and began to argue about who had been kindest and deserved the largest share of what was in it. People in the village were called on to judge the matter. At last it was agreed that all four sons had been equally kind to their father since he returned from the forest, and that they should share the legacy equally.
The sons gave their father a magnificent funeral and made a tremendous banquet for the mourners in the village. The sons gave money to the church and asked the priest to say forty days of prayers. Each trying to outdo the other, they gave still more money gifts to the church to pay for a requiem.
When the ceremonies were over they hastened to the box to open it. They found within it a magnificent silk purse. They shook it, and it tinkled deliciously. Then they untied the purse and emptied its contents out on the table. They could not believe their eyes. It was nothing but bits of glass!
When it dawned on the brothers that the treasure was worthless, they became angry and began to argue. But the people of the village began to laugh.
'See what you have gained by sending your helpless old father to school!" they said. "He was a long time in getting his learning. But what he learned, he learned well!'
Ukrainian - From Cossack Fairy-Tales and Folk-Tales, by R. Nisbet Bain, Lawrence and Bullen, 1894. In this tale one may detect the folk-version of the king Lear theme, with sons rather than daughters acting as the ungrateful children.