There was once an old man whom Fortune (whose own eyes are bandaged) had deprived of his sight. She had taken his hearing also, so that he was deaf. Poor he had always been, and as Time had stolen his youth and strength from him, they had only left a light burden for Death to carry when he should come the old man's way.
But Love (who is blind also) had given the Blind Man a Dog, who led him out in the morning to a seat in the sun under the crab-tree, and held his hat for wayside alms, and brought him safely home at sunset.
The Dog was wise and faithful--as dogs often are--but the wonder of him was that he could talk. In which will be seen the difference between dogs and men, most of whom can talk; whilst it is a matter for admiration if they are wise and faithful.
One day the Mayor's little son came down the road, and by the hand he held his playmate Aldegunda.
"Give the poor Blind Man a penny," said she.
"You are always wanting me to give away my money," replied the boy peevishly. "It is well that my father is the richest man in the town, and that I have a whole silver crown yet in my pocket."
But he put the penny into the hat which the Dog held out, and the Dog gave it to his master.
"Heaven bless you," said the Blind Man.
"Amen," said the Dog.
"Aldegunda! Aldegunda!" cried the boy, dancing with delight. "Here is a dog who can talk. I would give my silver crown for him. Old man, I say, old man! Will you sell me your dog for a silver crown?"
"My master is deaf as well as blind," said the Dog.
"What a miserable old creature he must be," said the boy compassionately.
"Men do not smile when they are miserable, do they?" said the Dog; "and my master smiles sometimes--when the sun warms right through our coats to our bones; when he feels the hat shake against his knee as the pennies drop in; and when I lick his hand."
"But for all that, he is a poor wretched old beggar, in want of everything," persisted the boy. "Now I am the Mayor's only son, and he is the richest man in the town. Come and live with me, and I will give the Blind Man my silver crown. I should be perfectly happy if I had a talking dog of my own."
"It is worth thinking of," said the Dog. "I should certainly like a master who was perfectly happy. You are sure that there is nothing else that you wish for?"
"I wish I were a man," replied the boy. "To do exactly as I chose, and have plenty of money to spend, and holidays all the year round."
"That sounds well," said the Dog. "Perhaps I had better wait till you grow up. There is nothing else that you want, I suppose?"
"I want a horse," said the boy, "a real black charger. My father ought to know that I am too old for a hobby-horse. It vexes me to look at it."
"I must wait for the charger, I see," said the Dog. "Nothing vexes you but the hobby-horse, I hope?"
"Aldegunda vexes me more than anything," answered the boy, with an aggrieved air; "and it's very hard when I am so fond of her. She always tumbles down when we run races, her legs are so short. It's her birthday to-day, but she toddles as badly as she did yesterday, though she's a year older."
"She will have learned to run by the time that you are a man," said the Dog. "So nice a little lady can give you no other cause of annoyance, I am sure?"
The boy frowned.
"She is always wanting something. She wants something now, I see. What do you want, Aldegunda?"
"I wish--" said Aldegunda, timidly,--"I should like--the blind man to have the silver crown, and for us to keep the penny, if you can get it back out of the hat."
"That's just the way you go on," said the boy, angrily. "You always think differently from me. Now remember, Aldegunda, I won't marry you when you grow big, unless you agree with what I do, like the wife in the story of 'What the Goodman does is sure to be right.'"
On hearing this Aldegunda sobbed till she burst the strings of her hat, and the boy had to tie them afresh.
"I won't marry you at all if you cry," said he.
But at that she only cried the more, and they went away bickering into the green lanes.
As to the old man, he had heard nothing; and when the dog licked his withered hand he smiled.
Many a time did the boy return with his playmate to try and get the Talking Dog. But the Dog always asked if he had yet got all that he wanted, and, being an honorable child, the boy was too truthful to say that he was content when he was not.
"The day that you want nothing more but me I will be your dog," it said. "Unless, indeed, my present master should have attained perfect happiness before you."
"I am not afraid of that," said the boy.
In time the Mayor died, and his widow moved to her native town and took her son with her.
Years passed, and the Blind Man lived on; for when one gets very old and keeps very quiet in his little corner of the world, Death seems sometimes to forget to remove him.
Years passed, and the Mayor's son became a man, and was strong and rich, and had a fine black charger. Aldegunda grew up also. She was very beautiful, wonderfully beautiful, and Love (who is blind) gave her to her old playmate.
The wedding was a fine one, and when it was over the bridegroom mounted his black charger and took his bride behind him, and rode away into the green lanes.
"Ah, what delight!" he said. "Now we will ride through the town where we lived when we were children; and if the Blind Man is still alive, you shall give him a silver crown; and if the Talking Dog is alive, I shall claim him, for to-day I am perfectly happy and want nothing."
Aldegunda thought to herself--"We are so happy, and have so much, that I do not like to take the Blind Man's dog from him;" but she did not dare to say so. One--if not two--must bear and forbear to be happy even on one's wedding day.
By-and-bye they rode under the crab-tree, but the seat was empty. "What has become of the Blind Man?" the Mayor's son asked of a peasant who was near.
"He died two days ago," said the peasant. "He is buried to-day, and the priest and chanters are now returning from the grave."
"And the Talking Dog?" asked the young man.
"He is at the grave now," said the peasant; "but he has neither spoken nor eaten since his master died."
"We have come in the nick of time," said the young man triumphantly, and he rode to the churchyard.
By the grave was the dog, as the man had said, and up the winding path came the priest and his young chanters, who sang with shrill, clear voices--"Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord."
"Come and live with me, now your old master is gone," said the young man, stooping over the dog. But he made no reply.
"I think he is dead, sir," said the grave-digger.
"I don't believe it," said the young man fretfully. "He was an Enchanted Dog, and he promised I should have him when I could say what I am ready to say now. He should have kept his promise."
But Aldegunda had taken the dog's cold head into her arms, and her tears fell fast over it.
"You forget," she said; "he only promised to come to you when you were happy, if his old master were not happier first; and, perhaps--"
"I remember that you always disagree with me," said the young man, impatiently. "You always did do so. Tears on our wedding-day, too! I suppose the truth is that no one is happy."
Aldegunda made no answer, for it is not from those one loves that he will willingly learn that with a selfish and imperious temper happiness never dwells.
And as they rode away again into the green lanes, the shrill voices of the chanters followed them--"Blessed are the dead. Blessed are the dead."
Thank you for reading!