In a village in Hindustan there once lived a merchant who, although he rose early, worked hard, and rested late, remained very poor; and ill-luck so dogged him that he determined at last to go to some distant country and there to try his fortune. Twelve years passed by; his luck had turned, and now he had gathered great wealth, so that having plenty to keep him in comfort for the rest of his days, he thought once more of his native village, where he desired to spend the remainder of his life among his own people. In order to carry his riches with him in safety over the many weary miles that lay between him and his home, he bought some magnificent jewels, which he locked up in a little box and wore concealed upon his person; and, so as not to draw the attention of the thieves who infested the highways and made their living by robbing travellers, he started off in the poor clothes of a man who has nothing to lose.
Thus prepared, he travelled quickly, and within a few days' journey from his own village came to a city where he determined to buy better garments and—now that he was no longer afraid of thieves—to look more like the rich man he had become. In his new raiment he approached the city, and near the great gate he found a bazaar where, amongst many shops filled with costly silks, and carpets, and goods of all countries, was one finer than all the rest. There, amidst his goods, spread out to the best advantage, sat the owner smoking a long silver pipe, and thither the merchant bent his steps, and saluting the owner politely, sat down also and began to make some purchases. Now, the proprietor of the shop, Beeka Mull by name, was a very shrewd man, and as he and the merchant conversed, he soon felt sure that his customer was richer than he seemed, and was trying to conceal the fact. Certain purchases having been made, he invited the new-comer to refresh himself and in a short time they were chatting pleasantly together. In the course of the conversation Beeka Mull asked the merchant whither he was travelling, and hearing the name of the village, he observed:
'Ah, you had better be careful on that road—it's a very bad place for thieves.'
The merchant turned pale at these words. It would be such a bitter thing, he thought, just at the end of his journey to be robbed of all the fortune he had heaped up with such care. But this bland and prosperous Beeka Mull must surely know best, so presently he said:
'Lala-ji, could you oblige me by locking up for me a small box for a short while? When once I get to my village I could bring back half-a-dozen sturdy men of my own kinsfolk and claim it again.'
The Lala shook his head. 'I could not do it,' replied he. 'I am sorry; but such things are not my business. I should be afraid to undertake it.'
'But,' pleaded the merchant, 'I know no one in this city, and you must surely have some place where you keep your own precious things. Do this, I pray you, as a great favour.'
Still Beeka Mull politely but firmly refused; but the merchant, feeling that he had now betrayed the fact that he was richer than he seemed, and being loth to make more people aware of it by inquiring elsewhere, continued to press him, until at last he consented. The merchant produced the little box of jewels, and Beeka Mull locked it up for him in a strong chest with other precious stones; and so, with many promises and compliments, they parted.
In a place like an Eastern bazaar, where the shops lie with wide open fronts, and with their goods displayed not only within but without on terraces and verandahs raised a few feet above the public roadway, such a long talk as that between Beeka Mull and the merchant could not but attract some attention from the other shop-keepers in the narrow street. If the merchant had but known it, nearly every shop-owner in that district was a thief, and the cleverest and biggest of all was Beeka Mull. But he did not know it, only he could not help feeling a little uneasy at having thus parted with all his wealth to a stranger. And so, as he wandered down the street, making a purchase here and there, he managed in one way and another to ask some questions about the honesty of Beeka Mull, and each rascal whom he spoke to, knowing that there was some good reason in the question, and hoping to get in return some share of the spoils, replied in praise of Beeka Mull as a model of all the virtues.
In this way the merchant's fears were stilled, and, with a comparatively light heart, he travelled on to his village; and within a week or so returned to the city with half-a-dozen sturdy young nephews and friends whom he had enlisted to help him carry home his precious box.
At the great market-place in the centre of the city the merchant left his friends, saying that he would go and get the box of jewels and rejoin them, to which they consented, and away he went. Arrived at the shop of Beeka Mull, he went up and saluted him.
'Good-day, Lala-ji,' said he. But the Lala pretended not to see him. So he repeated the salutation. 'What do you want?' snapped Beeka Mull; 'you've said your “good-day” twice, why don't you tell me your business?'
'Don't you remember me?' asked the merchant.
'Remember you?' growled the other; 'no, why should I? I have plenty to do to remember good customers without trying to remember every beggar who comes whining for charity.'
When he heard this the merchant began to tremble.
'Lala-ji!' he cried, 'surely you remember me and the little box I gave you to take care of? And you promised—yes, indeed, you promised very kindly—that I might return to claim it, and——'
'You scoundrel,' roared Beeka Mull, 'get out of my shop! Be off with you, you impudent scamp! Every one knows that I never keep treasures for anyone; I have trouble enough to do to keep my own! Come, off with you!' With that he began to push the merchant out of the shop; and, when the poor man resisted, two of the bystanders came to Beeka Mull's help, and flung the merchant out into the road, like a bale of goods dropped from a camel. Slowly he picked himself up out of the dust, bruised, battered, and bleeding, but feeling nothing of the pain in his body, nothing but a dreadful numbing sensation that, after all, he was ruined and lost! Slowly he dragged himself a little further from where the fat and furious Beeka Mull still stood amongst his disordered silks and carpets, and coming to a friendly wall he crouched and leant against it, and putting his head into his hands gave himself up to an agony of misery and despair. There he sat motionless, like one turned to stone, whilst darkness fell around him; and when, about eleven o'clock that night, a certain gay young fellow named Kooshy Ram passed by with a friend, he saw the merchant sitting hunched against the wall, and remarked: 'A thief, no doubt.' 'You are wrong,' returned the other, 'thieves don't sit in full view of people like that, even at night.' And so the two passed on, and thought no more of him. About five o'clock next morning Kooshy Ram was returning home again, when, to his astonishment, he saw the miserable merchant still sitting as he had seen him sit hours before. Surely something must be the matter with a man who sat all night in the open street, and Kooshy Ram resolved to see what it was; so he went up and shook the merchant gently by the shoulder. 'Who are you?' asked he—'and what are you doing here—are you ill?' 'Ill?' said the merchant in a hollow voice, 'yes; ill with a sickness for which there is no medicine.' 'Oh, nonsense!' cried Kooshy Ram. 'Come along with me, I know a medicine that will cure you, I think.' So the young man seized the merchant by the arm, and hoisting him to his feet, dragged him to his own lodging; where he first of all gave him a large glass of wine, and then, after he had refreshed him with food, bade him tell his adventures. Meanwhile the merchant's companions in the market-place, being dull-witted persons, thought that as he did not return he must have gone home by himself; and as soon as they were tired of waiting they went back to their village and left him to look after his own affairs. He would therefore have fared badly had it not been for his rescuer, Kooshy Ram, who, whilst still a boy, had been left a great deal of money with no one to advise him how to spend it. He was high-spirited, kind-hearted, and shrewd into the bargain; but he threw away his money like water, and generally upon the nearest thing or person in his way, and that, alas! most often was
himself! Now, however, he had taken it into his head to befriend this miserable merchant, and he meant to do it; and on his side the merchant felt confidence revive, and without further ado told all that had happened.
Kooshy Ram laughed heartily at the idea of any stranger entrusting his wealth to Beeka Mull.
'Why, he is the greatest rascal in the city,' he cried, 'unless you believe what some of them say of me! Well, there is nothing to be done for the present, but just to stay here quietly, and I think that at the end of a short time I shall find a medicine which will heal your sickness.' At this the merchant again took courage, and a little ease crept into his heart as he gratefully accepted his new friend's invitation.
A few days later Kooshy Ram sent for some friends to see him, and talked with them long, and, although the merchant did not hear the conversation, he did hear shouts of laughter as though at some good joke; but the laughter echoed dully in his own heart, for the more he considered the more he despaired of ever recovering his fortune from the grasp of Beeka Mull.
One day, soon after this, Kooshy Ram came to him and said:
'You remember the wall where I found you that night, near Beeka Mull's shop?'
'Yes, indeed I do,' answered the merchant.
'Well,' continued Kooshy Ram, 'this afternoon you must go and stand in that same spot and watch; and when someone gives you a signal, you must go up to Beeka Mull and salute him and say, “Oh, Lala-ji, will you kindly let me have back that box of mine which you have on trust?”'
'What's the use of that?' asked the merchant. 'He won't do it any more now than he would when I asked him before.'
'Never mind!' replied Kooshy Ram, 'do exactly what I tell you, and repeat exactly what I say, word for word, and I will answer for the rest.'
So, that afternoon, the merchant at a certain time went and stood by the wall as he was told. He noticed that Beeka Mull saw him, but neither took any heed of the other. Presently up the bazaar came a gorgeous palanquin like those in which ladies of rank are carried about. It was borne by four bearers well dressed in rich liveries, and its curtains and trappings were truly magnificent. In attendance was a grave-looking personage whom the merchant recognized as one of the friends who visited Kooshy Ram; and behind him came a servant with a box covered with a cloth upon his head.
The palanquin was borne along at a smart pace and was set down at Beeka Mull's shop. The fat shop-keeper was on his feet at once, and bowed deeply as the gentleman in attendance advanced.
'May I inquire,' he said, 'who this is in the palanquin that deigns to favour my humble shop with a visit? And what may I do for her?'
The gentleman, after whispering at the curtain of the palanquin, explained that this was a relative of his who was travelling, but as her husband could go no further with her, she desired to leave with Beeka Mull a box of jewels for safe custody. Lala bowed again to the ground. 'It was not,' he said, 'quite in his way of business; but of course, if he could please the lady, he would be most happy, and would guard the box with his life.' Then the servant carrying the box was called up; the box was unlocked, and a mass of jewellery laid open to the gaze of the enraptured Lala, whose mouth watered as he turned over the rich gems.
All this the merchant had watched from the distance, and now he saw—could he be mistaken?—no, he distinctly saw a hand beckoning through the curtain on that side of the palanquin away from the shop. 'The signal! Was this the signal?' thought he. The hand beckoned again, impatiently it seemed to him. So forward he went, very quietly, and saluting Beeka Mull, who was sitting turning over the contents of this amazing box of jewels which fortune and some fools were putting into his care, he said:
'Oh, Lala-ji, will you kindly let me have back that box of mine which you have on trust?'
The Lala looked up as though he had been stung; but quickly the thought flashed through his mind that if this man began making a fuss again he would lose the confidence of these new and richer customers; so he controlled himself, and answered:
'Dear me, of course, yes! I had forgotten all about it.' And he went off and brought the little box and put it into the merchant's trembling hands. Quickly the latter pulled out the key, which hung by a string round his neck, and opened the box; and when he saw that his treasures were all there he rushed into the road, and, with the box under his arm, began dancing like a madman, with great shouts and screams of laughter. Just then a messenger came running up and, saluting the gentleman attending the palanquin, he said:
'The lady's husband has returned, and is prepared to travel with her, so that there is no necessity to deposit the jewels.' Whereat the gentleman quickly closed and relocked the box, and handed it back to the waiting servant. Then from the palanquin came a yell of laughter, and out jumped—not a lady—but Kooshy Ram, who immediately ran and joined the merchant in the middle of the road and danced as madly as he. Beeka Mull stood and stared stupidly at them; then, with a shrill cackle of laughter, he flung off his turban, bounced out into the road with the other two, and fell to dancing and snapping his fingers until he was out of breath.
'Lala-ji,' said the gentleman who had played the part of the relative attendant on the palanquin, 'why do you dance? The merchant dances because he has recovered his fortune; Kooshy Ram dances because he is a madman and has tricked you; but why do you dance?'
'I dance,' panted Beeka Ram, glaring at him with a bloodshot eye, 'I dance because I knew thirteen different ways of deceiving people by pretending confidence in them. I didn't know there were any more, and now here's a fourteenth! That's why I dance!'
Punjâbi Story, Major Campbell, Feroshepore.
FOOTNOTE:  'Lala' is a complimentary title: 'ji' a polite affix; the expression is somewhat equivalent to 'Dear Sir.'