ONCE UPON A TIME there was a very rich man who had a beautiful wife, and this man’s chief amusement used to be shooting with a bow and arrow, at which he was so clever that every morning he would shoot through one of the pearls in his wife’s nose-ring without hurting her at all.
One fine holiday, the Pearlshooter’s brother-in-law came to take his sister out to visit their father and mother and pay her own family a visit. When the brother saw her, he said, “Why do you look so pale, thin and miserable? Is your husband unkind to you? What is the matter?”
“No,” she answered, “my husband is kind in most of the usual ways, and I have plenty of money and jewels and as nice a house as I could wish. My only grief is that every morning he amuses himself by shooting one of the pearls from my nose-ring, and that frightens me; for I think perhaps some day he may miss his aim, and the arrow run into my face and kill me. So I am in constant terror of my life. Yet I do not like to ask him not to do it, because it gives him so much pleasure. Still, if he left off of his own accord I should be very glad of it.”
“What does he say after he shoots the pearl?” asked the brother.
“Each day,” she replied, “after he has shot the pearl, he comes to me quite happy and proud and says, ‘Was there ever a man as clever as I?’ and I answer him, ‘No, I do not think there ever was any as clever as you.’ “
“Do not say so again,” advised the brother. “Next time he asks you the question, say, ‘Yes, there are many men in the world more clever than you.'”
The Pearlshooter’s wife promised to take her brother’s advice. So the next time her husband shot the pearl from her nose-ring and said to her, “Was there ever a man as clever as I?” she answered, “Yes, there are many men in the world more clever than you.”
He said, “If so, then I will not rest till I have found them.” And he left her and went on a far journey into the jungle in order to find, if possible, a cleverer man than himself.
On and on he journeyed, until at last he came to a large river, and on the river bank sat a traveler eating his dinner. The Pearlshooter sat down beside him and the two began to talk.
After a while the Pearlshooter said to his new friend, “Why are you traveling and where are you going?”
The stranger answered, “I am a Wrestler, and the strongest man in all this country. I can do many wonderful things in the way of wrestling and carrying heavy weights, and I began to think that in all this world there was no one so clever as I; but I have lately heard of a still more wonderful man who lives in a distant country, and who is so clever that every morning he shoots one of the pearls from his wife’s nose-ring without hurting her. So I go now to find him, and learn if this is true.”
The Pearlshooter answered, “Then you need travel no further, for I am that man of whom you heard.”
The Wrestler laughed in astonishment. “Why are you traveling about then, and where are you going?” he asked.
“I,” replied the other, “am also traveling to see if in all the world I can find a cleverer man than myself; therefore, as we both have the same object, let us be as brothers, and go about together; perhaps there is still another in the world who is more clever than we.”
The Wrestler agreed; so they both started on their way together. They had not gone very far before they came to a place where three roads met, and there sat another man neither of them had ever seen before. He accosted the Wrestler and the Pearlshooter and said to them, “Who are you, friends, and where are you going?”
“We,” answered they, “are two clever men who are traveling the world to see if we can find a cleverer man than we; but who may you be, and where are you going?”
“I,” replied the third man, “am a Pundit, known as a wise man, renowned for my good head, a great thinker; and verily I thought there was not in the world a more wonderful man than I. But having heard of two men in distant lands of very great cleverness, the one of whom is a Wrestler, and the other a shooter of Pearls from his wife’s nose-ring, I go to find them and learn if the things I heard are true.”
“They are true,” said the others; “for we, O Pundit, are the very two men of whom you speak.”
At this news the Pundit was overjoyed and cried, “Then let us be as brothers; since your homes are far distant. Return with me to my house, which is close by. There you can rest, and each of us can put our various powers to the proof.” This proposal pleased the Wrestler and the Pearlshooter, who accompanied the Pundit to his house.
Now in the kitchen there was an enormous cauldron of iron, so heavy that twenty-five men could hardly move it. In the dead of night the Wrestler, to prove his great strength, got up from the veranda where he was sleeping and as quietly as possible lifted this great cauldron onto his shoulders and carried it down to the river, where he waded with it into the deepest part of the water, and there let is sink.
After having accomplished this feat, he returned to the Pundit’s house as quietly as he had left it. Rolling himself up in his blanket, he fell fast asleep.
But though he had come ever so softly, the Pundit’s wife heard him. Waking her husband, she said, “My dear, I hear footsteps as of people creeping quietly about the house and not wishing to be heard. Perhaps there are thieves here! Let us go and see; it’s strange they should choose such a bright moonlit night.”
And they both got up quickly and walked about the house. They found nothing, however, out of order, nor any signs of anything having been touched or disarranged, until they came to the kitchen. And indeed, at first they thought all was as they left it there, when, just as they were leaving, the Pundit’s wife cried out to him, “Why, what has become of the great cauldron? I never thought of looking to see if that was safe; for it did not seem possible that it could be moved.”
And they both looked inside the house and outside, but the cauldron was nowhere to be seen. At last, however, they discovered deep footprints in the sand close to the kitchen door, as of someone who had been carrying a very heavy weight, and these they traced down to the riverside.
Then the Pundit said, “Someone immensely strong has evidently done this, for here are the footprints of one man only; and he must have buried the cauldron in the water, for see, there is no continuation of the footprints on the other side. I wonder who can have done it? Let’s go and see that our two guests are asleep; perhaps the Wrestler played us this trick to prove his great strength.”
And with his wife, he went into the veranda where the Pearlshooter and the Wrestler lay rolled up in their blankets, fast asleep. First, they looked at the Pearlshooter; but on seeing him, the Pundit shook his head saying, “No, he certainly has not done this thing.” They then looked at the Wrestler, and the cunning Pundit licked the skin of the sleeping man. Turning to his wife, he whispered, “This is assuredly the man who stole the cauldron and put it in the river, for he must have been but lately up to his neck in fresh water, since there is no taste of salt on his skin from his foot even to his shoulders. Tomorrow I will surprise him by showing him I know this.”
And so saying, the Pundit crept back into the house followed by his wife.
Next morning early, as soon as it was light, the Pearlshooter and the Wresler were accosted by their host, who said to them, “Let us go down to the river and bathe, for I cannot offer you a bath, since the great cauldron, in which we generally wash, has been mysteriously carried away last night.”
“Where can it have gone?” said the Wrestler.
“Ah, where indeed?” answered the Pundit, and he led them down to where the cauldron had been put into the river by the Wrestler the night before, and wading about in the water until he found it, pointed it out to him, saying, “See friend, how far this cauldron traveled!”
The Wrestler was much surprised to find that the Pundit knew where the cauldron was hidden, and said, “Who could have put it there?”
“I will tell you,” answered the Pundit, “I think it was you!”
And then he related how he had determined the Wrestler was the one who moved the cauldron, and the Wrestler and the Pearlshooter were both much astonished at the Pundit’s wisdom in having found this out; and the Pearlshooter said to himself, “Both these men are certainly more clever than I.”
Then the three clever men returned to the house and were very happy and joyful, and amused themselves laughing and talking the rest of the day. When evening came, the Pundit said to the Wrestler, “Let’s have a royal feast tonight, friend Strongman. Go and catch the fattest of those goats that we see upon the hills yonder, and we will cook it for our dinner.”
The Wrestler ran on and on until he reached the flock of goats which were browsing on the hillside. Now, just at that moment a wicked Demon came by that way, and on seeing the Wrestler looking at the goats (to see which seemed the finest to take home to dinner) he thought, “If I can make him choose me and take me home with him for his dinner, I’ll be able to make him my dinner instead, and who knows who else might be there to be my dessert?”
So, quick as thought, the Demon changed himself into a very handsome goat. When the Wrestler saw this goat so much taller and finer and fatter than all the rest, he ran and caught him and tucked him under his arm to carry him home for dinner. The goat kicked and jumped about, and tried to butt more fiercely than the Wrestler had ever known any mortal goat to do before, but still he held him tight, and brought him in triumph to the Pundit’s door. The Pundit heard him coming, and ran out to meet him. When he saw the goat, he started back quite frightened, for the Wrestler was holding it so tight that its eyes were almost starting out of its head, and they were fiery and evil-looking, and burning like two living coals, and the Pundit saw at once that it was in fact a Demon, and no goat, that his friend held. He thought quickly, “If I appear to be frightened, this cruel Demon will get into the house and devour us all. I must try to intimidate him.”
So in a bold voice, the Pundit cried, “Oh Wrestler! Foolish friend! What have you done? We asked you to fetch a fat goat for our dinner, and here you have only brought one wretched little Demon. If you could not find any goats, while you were about it you might as well have brought more Demons, for we are hungry people. My children are each accustomed to eating one Demon a day, my wife eats three, and I myself eat twelve, and here you have only brought one between us all! What were you thinking?”
At hearing these reproaches the Wrestler was so much astonished that he dropped the Demon goat, who, for his part, was so frightened at the Pundit’s words, that he came crawling along quite humbly upon his knees, saying, “Oh, sir! Do not eat me, do not eat me, and I will give you anything you like in the world. Only let me go, and I will fetch you mountains of treasure, rubies and diamonds, and gold and precious stones beyond all count. Do not eat me; only let me go!”
“No, no,” said the Pundit, “I know what you’d do. You’ll just run away and never return. We are very hungry. What do we want for gold and precious stones> But we want a good dinner, and will certainly eat you.”
The Demon thought all that the Pundit said must be true, since he spoke so fearlessly and naturally. So he only repeated more earnestly, “Only do let me go, I promise to return and bring you all the riches that you could ever desire.”
The Pundit was too wise to seem glad, so he said sternly, “Very well, you may go; but unless you return quickly, and bring the treasure you promise, be you in the uttermost part of the earth, we will find you and eat you, for we are more powerful than you and all your fellows.”
The Demon, who had just experienced how much stronger the Wrestler was than ordinary men, and then heard from the Pundit’s own lips of his love for eating Demons, thought himself exceedingly lucky to have escaped their clutches. Returning to his own land, he fetched from the Demons’ storehouse a vast amount of precious things with which he was flying away with all speed, when several of his comrades caught hold of him, and in angry tones asked where he was carrying away so much of their treasure?
The Demon answered, “I take it to save my life; for while wandering round the world I was caught by terrible creatures who threatened to eat me unless I brought the treasure.”
“We should like to see such dreadful creatures,” said they, “for we never before heard of any mortals who could devour Demons.”
To which he replied, “These are not ordinary mortals, I tell you. They are the fiercest creatures I ever saw, and would devour our Rajah himself, did they get the chance. One of them said that he daily eats twelve Demons, that his wife eats three, and each of his children one.”
At hearing this, they agreed to let him go for the time; but the Demon Rajah commanded him to return with all speed the next day, that the matter might be further discussed in solemn council.
When, after three days’ absence, the Demon returned to the Pundit’s house with the treasure, the Pundit angrily said to him, “Why have you been so long away? You promised to return as soon as possible.”
He answered, “All my fellow Demons detained me, and would hardly let me go, they were so angry at my bringing you so much treasure. Though I told them how great and powerful you are, they would not believe me, but will, as soon as I return, judge me in solemn council for serving you.”
“Where is your solemn council held?” asked the Pundit.
“Oh, very far away,” answered the Demon, “in the depths of the jungle, where our Rajah daily holds his court.”
“I and my friends should like to see that place, and your Rajah, and all his court,” said the Pundit. “You must take us with you when you go, for we have absolute mastery over all Demons, even over the Rajah himself, and unless you do as we command, we shall be very angry.”
“Very well,” answered the Demon, for he felt quite frightened at the Pundit’s fierce words, “mount on my back and I’ll take you there.”
So the Pundit, the Wrestler, and the Pearlshooter all mounted the Demon, and he flew away with them, on and on, as fast as wings could cut the air, till they reached the great jungle where the council was to be held. There he placed them all on the top of a high tree just over the Demon Rajah’s throne. In a few minutes the Pearlshooter, the Wrestler, and the Pundit heard a rushing noise, and thousands and thousands of Demons filled the place, covering the ground as far as the eye could reach, and thronging chiefly around the Rajah’s throne, but they did not notice the men up in the tree above them.
Then the Rajah ordered that the Evil Spirit, who had taken of their treasure to give to mortals, should be brought to judgment, and when they had dragged the culprit into their midst, they accused him, and having proved him guilty, would have punished him; but he defended himself stoutly, saying, “Noble Rajah, those who forced me to fetch them treasure were no ordinary mortals, but great and terrible; they said they eat many Demons; the man eats twelve a day, his wife three, and each of his children one. He said, moreover, that he and his friends were more powerful than us all, and ruled your majesty as absolutely as we are ruled by you.”
The Demon Rajah answered, “He said this? Let us see these great people of whom you speak, and we will believe you, but until then –.”
At this moment the tree upon which the Pundit, the Pearlshooter and the Wrestler were sitting broke, and down they all tumbled; first, the Wrestler, then the Pearlshooter, and lastly, the Pundit, upon the head of the Demon Rajah as he sat in judgement. They seemed to have come down from the sky, so suddenly did they appear, and being very much alarmed at their awkward position, determined to take the aggressive. So the Wrestler kicked and beat the Rajah with all his might and main, and the Pearlshooter did likewise, while the Pundit, who was perched up a little higher than the others, cried, “So be it, so be it. We will eat him first for dinner, and afterwards we will eat all the other Demons. What a feast we will have today!”
The Evil Spirits hearing this, one and all flew away from the confusion, and left their Rajah to his fate, while he cried, “Oh spare me! Spare me! I see it is all true, only let me go, and I will give you as much treasure as you like.”
“No, no,” said the Pundit, “don’t listen to him, friends, we will eat him for dinner.”
And the Wrestler and the Pearlshooter kicked and beat him harder than before.
Then the Demon cried again, “Let me go! Let me go!”
“No, no,” they answered, and they chastised him vigorously for the space of an hour, until, at last, fearing they should get tired, the Pundit said, “The treasure would be no use to us here in the jungle, but if you brought us a very great deal to our own house, we might give up eating you for dinner today; you must, however, give us great compensation, for we are all very hungry. What’s more, we don’t want to hear about your eating humans anymore, for there is nothing that makes us more angry than that.”
To this the Demon Rajah gladly agreed. Calling together his scattered subjects, he ordered them to take the three valiant men home again, and convey the treasure to the Pundit’s house. The little Demons obeyed his orders with much fear and trembling, but they were very willing to do their best to get the Pundit, the Pearlshooter, and the Wrestler out of Demon-land, who for their parts were no less anxious to go.
When they got home, the Pundit said, “You shall not go until the engagement is fulfilled.” Instantly Demons without number filled the house with riches. When they had accomplished their task and had solemnly promised never to eat humans anymore, they all flew away, fearing greatly the terrible Pundit and his friends, who talked of eating Demons as men would eat almonds and raisins.
So, by never showing that he was afraid, this brave Pundit saved his family from being eaten by these Evil Spirits, and saved countless other humans who would have faced a terrible fate by the Demons. What’s more, he also got a vast amount of treasure. This he divided into three equal portions: a third he gave to the Wrestler, a third to the Pearlshooter, and a third he kept himself, after which he sent his friends with many kindly words back to their own homes. So the Pearlshooter returned to his house laden with gold and jewels of priceless worth.
When he got home, the Pearlshooter called his wife and gave her the treasure. Said he: “I have been on a far journey, and brought back all these treasures for you. I have learned that your words were true, since in the world there are men far more clever than I; for mine is a cleverness that did no one any good and might even harm yourself, my dear wife. Whereas a certain Pundit and a Wrestler whom I met are clever in a way that others benefit from it. If not for them, I should not have gained these riches. I will shoot the pearl from your nose-ring no more.” And he never did.
From the story "How the Three Clever Men Outwitted the Demons" from Old Deccan Days by Mary Frere, published 1868, pp. 297-308.
Retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2006. All rights reserved.