In the branches of a great tree, in a forest in India, lived a wise old crow in a very comfortable, well-built nest. His wife was dead, and all his children were getting their own living; so he had nothing to do but to look after himself. He led a very easy existence, but took a great interest in the affairs of his neighbours. One day, popping his head over the edge of his home, he saw a fierce-looking man stalking along, carrying a stick in one hand and a net in the other.
"That fellow is up to some mischief, I'll be bound," thought the crow: "I will keep my eye on him." The man stopped under the tree, spread the net on the ground; and taking a bag of rice out of his pocket, he scattered the grains amongst the meshes of the net. Then he hid himself behind the trunk of the tree from which the crow was watching, evidently intending to stop there and see what would happen. The crow felt pretty gore that the stranger had designs against birds, and that the stick had something to do with the matter. He was quite right; and it was not long before just what he expected came to pass.
A flock of pigeons, led by a specially fine bird who had been chosen king because of his size and the beauty of his plumage, came flying rapidly along, and noticed the white rice, but did not see the net, because it was very much the same colour as the ground. Down swooped the king, and down swept all the other pigeons, eager to enjoy a good meal without any trouble to themselves. Alas, their joy was short lived! They were all caught in the net and began struggling to escape, beating the air with their wings and uttering loud cries of distress.
The crow and the man behind the tree kept very quiet, watching them; the man with his stick ready to beat the poor helpless birds to death, the crow watching out of mere curiosity. Now a very strange and wonderful thing came to pass. The king of the pigeons, who had his wits about him, said to the imprisoned birds:
"Take the net up in your beaks, all of you spread out your wings at once, and fly straight up into the air as quickly as possible."
1. What special qualities did the king display when he gave these orders to his subjects?
2. Can you think of any other advice the king might have given?
In a moment all the pigeons, who were accustomed to obey their leader, did as they were bid; each little bird seized a separate thread of the net in his beak and up, up, up, they all flew, looking very beautiful with the sunlight gleaming on their white wings. Very soon they were out of sight; and the man, who thought he had hit upon a very clever plan, came forth from his hiding-place, very much surprised at what had happened. He stood gazing up after his vanished net for a little time, and then went away muttering to himself, whilst the wise old crow laughed at him.
When the pigeons had flown some distance, and were beginning to get exhausted, for the net was heavy and they were quite unused to carrying loads, the king bade them rest awhile in a clearing of the forest; and as they all lay on the ground panting for breath, with the cruel net still hampering them, he said:
"What we must do now is to take this horrible net to my old friend Hiranya the mouse, who will, I am quite sure, nibble through the strings for me and set us all free. He lives, as you all know, near the tree where the net was spread, deep underground; but there are many passages leading to his home, and we shall easily find one of the openings. Once there, we will all lift up our voices, and call to him at once, when he will be sure to hear us." So the weary pigeons took up their burden once more, and sped back whence they had come, greatly to the surprise of the crow, who wondered at their coming back to the very place where misfortune had overtaken them. He very soon learnt the reason, and got so excited watching what was going on, that he hopped out of his nest and perched upon a branch where he could see better. Presently a great clamour arose, one word being repeated again and again: "Hiranya! Hiranya! Hiranya."
"Why, that's the name of the mouse who lives down below there!" thought the crow. "Now, what good can he do? I know, I know," he added, as he remembered the sharp teeth of Hiranya. "That king of the pigeons is a sensible fellow. I must make friends with him."
Very soon, as the pigeons lay fluttering and struggling outside one of the entrances to Hiranya's retreat, the mouse came out. He didn't even need to be told what was wanted, but at once began to nibble the string, first setting free the king, and then all the rest of the birds. "A friend in need is a friend indeed," cried the king; "a thousand thousand thanks!" And away he flew up into the beautiful free air of heaven, followed by the happy pigeons, none of them ever likely to forget the adventure or to pick up food from the ground without a good look at it first.
3. What was the chief virtue displayed by the mouse on this occasion?
4. Do you think it is easier to obey than to command?
The mouse did not at once return to his hole when the birds were gone, but went for a little stroll, which brought him to the ground still strewn with rice, which he began to eat with great relish. "It's an ill wind," he said to himself, "which brings nobody any good. There's many a good meal for my whole family here."
Presently he was joined by the old crow, who had flown down from his perch unnoticed by Hiranya, and now addressed him in his croaky voice:
"Hiranya," he said, "for that I know is your name, I am called Laghupatin and I would gladly have you for a friend. I have seen all that you did for the pigeons, and have come to the conclusion that you are a mouse of great wisdom, ready to help those who are in trouble, without any thought of yourself."
"You are quite wrong," squeaked Hiranya. "I am not so silly as you make out. I have no wish to be your friend. If you were hungry, you wouldn't hesitate to gobble me up. I don't care for that sort of affection."
With that Hiranya whisked away to his hole, pausing at the entrance, when he knew the crow could not get at him, to cry, "You be off to your nest and leave me alone!"
The feelings of the crow were very much hurt at this speech, the more that he knew full well it was not exactly love for the mouse, which had led him to make his offer, but self-interest: for who could tell what difficulties he himself might some day be in, out of which the mouse might help him? Instead of obeying Hiranya, and going back to his nest, he hopped to the mouse's hole, and putting his head on one side in what he thought was a very taking manner, he said:
"Pray do not misjudge me so. Never would I harm you! Even if I did not wish to have you for a friend, I should not dream of gobbling you up, as you say, however hungry I might be. Surely you are aware that I am a strict vegetarian, and never eat the flesh of other creatures. At least give me a trial. Let us share a meal together, and talk the matter over."
5. Can a friendship be a true one if the motive for it is self-interest?
6. Would it have been wise or foolish for the mouse to agree to be friends with the crow?
Hiranya, on hearing the last remark of Laghupatin, hesitated, and in the end he agreed that he would have supper with the crow that very evening. "There is plenty of rice here," he said, "which we can eat on the spot. It would be impossible for you to get into my hole, and I am certainly not disposed to visit you in your nest." So the two at once began their meal, and before it was over they had become good friends. Not a day passed without a meeting, and when all the rice was eaten up, each of the two would bring something to the feast. This had gone on for some little time, when the crow, who was fond of adventure and change, said one day to the mouse: "Don't you think we might go somewhere else for a time? I am rather tired of this bit of the forest, every inch of which we both know well. I've got another great friend who lives beside a fine river a few miles away, a tortoise named Mandharaka; a thoroughly good, trustworthy fellow he is, though rather slow and cautious in his ways. I should like to introduce you to him. There are quantities of food suitable for us both where he lives, for it is a very fruitful land. What do you say to coming with me to pay him a visit?"
"How in the world should I get there?" answered Hiranya. "It's all very well for you, who can fly. I can't walk for miles and miles. For all that I too am sick of this place and would like a change."
"Oh, there's no difficulty about that," replied Laghupatin. "I will carry you in my beak, and you will get there without any fatigue at all." To this Hiranya consented, and very early one morning the two friends started off together.
7. Is love of change a good or a bad thing?
8. What did Hiranya's readiness to let Laghupatin carry him show?
After flying along for several hours, the crow began to feel very tired. He was seized too with a great desire to hear his own voice again. So he flew to the ground, laid his little companion gently down, and gave vent to a number of hoarse cries, which quite frightened Hiranya, who timidly asked him what was the matter.
"Nothing whatever," answered Laghupatin, "except that you are not quite so light as I thought you were, and that I need a rest; besides which, I am hungry and I expect you are. We had better stop here for the night, and start again early to-morrow morning." Hiranya readily agreed to this, and after a good meal, which was easily found, the two settled down to sleep, the crow perched in a tree, the mouse hidden amongst its roots. Very early the next day they were off again, and soon arrived at the river, where they were warmly welcomed by the tortoise. The three had a long talk together, and agreed never to part again. The tortoise, who had lived a great deal longer than either the mouse or the crow, was a very pleasant companion; and even Laghupatin, who was very fond of talking himself, liked to listen to his stories of long ago.
"I wonder," said the tortoise, whose name was Mandharaka, to the mouse, "that you are not afraid to travel about as you have done, with your soft little body unprotected by any armour. Look how different it is for me; it is almost impossible for any of the wild creatures who live near this river to hurt me, and they know it full well. See how thick and strong my armour is. The claws even of a tiger, a wild cat or an eagle, could not penetrate it. I am very much afraid, my little friend, that you will be gobbled up some fine day, and Laghupatin and I will seek for you in vain."
"Of course," said the mouse, "I know the truth of what you say; but I can very easily hide from danger—much more easily than you or Laghupatin. A tuft of moss or a few dead leaves are shelter enough for me, but big fellows like you and the crow can be quite easily seen. Nobody saw me when the pigeons were all caught except Laghupatin; and I would have kept out of his sight if I had not known that he did not care to eat mice."
In spite of the fears of Mandharaka, the mouse and the crow lived as his guests for a long time without any accident; and one day they were suddenly joined by a new companion, a creature as unlike any one of the three friends as could possibly be imagined. This was a very beautiful deer, who came bounding out of the forest, all eager to escape from the hunters, by whom he had been pursued, but too weary to reach the river, across which he had hoped to be able to swim to safety. Just as he reached the three friends, he fell to the ground, almost crushing the mouse, who darted away in the nick of time. Strange to say, the hunters did not follow the deer; and it was evident that they had not noticed the way he had gone.
The tortoise, the crow and the mouse were all very sorry for the deer, and, as was always the case, the crow was the first to speak. "Whatever has happened to you?" he asked. And the deer made answer:
"I thought my last hour had come this time, for the hunters were close upon me; and even now I do not feel safe."
"I'll fly up and take a look 'round," said Laghupatin; and off he went to explore, coming back soon, to say he had seen the hunters disappearing a long distance off, going in quite another direction from the river. Gradually the deer was reassured, and lay still where he had fallen; whilst the three friends chatted away to him, telling him of their adventures. "What you had better do," said the tortoise, "is to join us. When you have had a good meal, and a drink from the river, you will feel a different creature. My old friend Laghupatin will be the one to keep watch for us all, and warn us of any danger approaching; I will give you the benefit of my long experience; and little Hiranya, though he is not likely to be of any use to you, will certainly never do you any harm."
9. Is it a good thing to make friends easily?
10. What was the bond of union between the crow, the mouse, the tortoise and the deer?
The deer was so touched by the kind way in which he had been received, that he agreed to stop with the three friends; and for some weeks after his arrival all went well. Each member of the party went his own way during the day-time, but all four met together in the evening, and took it in turns to tell their adventures. The crow always had the most to say, and was very useful to the deer in warning him of the presence of hunters in the forest. One beautiful moonlight night the deer did not come back as usual, and the other three became very anxious about him. The crow flew up to the highest tree near and eagerly sought for some sign of his lost friend, of whom he had grown very fond. Presently he noticed a dark mass by the river-side, just where the deer used to go down to drink every evening. "That must be he," thought the crow; and very soon he was hovering above the deer, who had been caught in a net and was struggling in vain to get free.
The poor deer was very glad indeed to see the crow, and cried to him in a piteous voice: "Be quick, be quick, and help me, before the terrible hunters find me and kill me."
"I can do nothing for you myself," said the crow, "but I know who can. Remember who saved the pigeons!" And away he flew to fetch little Hiranya, who with the tortoise was anxiously awaiting his return. Very soon Laghupatin was back by the river-side with the little mouse in his beak; and it did not take long for Hiranya, who had been despised by the deer and the tortoise as a feeble little thing, to nibble through the cords and save the life of the animal a hundred times as big as himself.
How happy the deer was when the cruel cords were loosed and he could stretch out his limbs again! He bounded up, but took great care not to crush the mouse, who had done him such a service. "Never, never, never," he said, "shall I forget what you have done for me. Ask anything in my power, and I will do it."
"I want nothing," said Hixanya, "except the joyful thought of having saved you."
By this time the tortoise had crept to the river-bank, and he too was glad that the deer had been saved. He praised the mouse, and declared that he would never again look down upon him. Then the four started to go back to their usual haunt in the forest; the deer, the crow, and the mouse soon arriving there quite safely, whilst the tortoise, who could only get along very slowly, lagged behind. Now came the time for him to find out that armour was not the only thing needed to save him from danger. He had not got very far from the riverbank before the cruel hunter who had set the net to catch the deer, came to see if he had succeeded. Great was his rage when he found the net lying on the ground, but not exactly where he had left it. He guessed at once that some animal had been caught in it and escaped after a long struggle. He looked carefully about and noticed that the cords had been bitten through here and there. So he suspected just what had happened, and began to search about for any creature who could have done the mischief.
There was not a sign of the mouse, but the slow-moving tortoise was soon discovered, and pouncing down upon him, the hunter rolled him up in another net he had with him, and carried him off, "It's not much of a prize," said the hunter to himself, "but better than nothing. I'll have my revenge on the wretched creature anyhow, as I have lost the prey I sought."
11. Which of the four friends concerned in this adventure do you admire most?
12. What was the chief mistake made by the tortoise?
When the tortoise in his turn did not come home, the deer, the crow and the mouse were very much concerned. They talked the matter over together and decided that, however great the risk to themselves, they must go back and see what had become of their friend. This time the mouse travelled in one of the eats of the deer, from which he peeped forth with his bright eyes, hoping to see the tortoise toiling along in his usual solemn manner; whilst the crow, also on the watch, flew along beside them. Great was the surprise and terror of all three when, as they came out of the forest, they saw the hunter striding along towards them, with the tortoise in the net under his arm. Once more the little mouse showed his wisdom. Without a moment's hesitation he said to the deer: "Throw yourself on the ground and pretend to be dead; and you," he added to the crow, "perch on his head and bend over as if you were going to peck out his eyes."
Without any idea what Hiranya meant by these strange orders, but remembering how he had helped in other dangers, the two did as they were told; the poor deer feeling anything but happy lying still where his enemy was sure to see him, and thereby proving what a noble creature he was. The hunter did, see him very soon, and thinking to himself, "After all I shall get that deer," he let the tortoise fall, and came striding along as fast as he could.
Up jumped the deer without waiting to see what became of the tortoise, and sped away like the wind. The hunter rushed after him, and the two were soon out of sight. The tortoise, whose armour had saved him from being hurt by his fall, was indeed pleased when he saw little Hiranya running towards him. "Be quick, be quick!" he cried, "and set me free." Very soon the sharp teeth of the mouse had bitten through the meshes of the net, and before the hunter came back, after trying in vain to catch the deer, the tortoise was safely swimming across the river, leaving the net upon the ground, whilst the crow and the mouse were back in the shelter of the forest.
"There's some magic at work here," said the hunter when, expecting to find the tortoise where he had left him, he discovered that his prisoner had escaped. "The stupid beast could not have got out alone," he added, as he picked up the net and walked off with it. "But he wasn't worth keeping anyhow."
That evening the four friends met once more, and talked over all they had gone through together. The deer and the tortoise were full of gratitude to the mouse, and could not say enough in his praise, but the crow was rather sulky, and remarked: "If it had not been for me, neither of you would ever have seen Hiranya. He was my friend before he was yours."
"You are right," said the tortoise, "and you must also remember that it was my armour which saved me from being killed in that terrible fall."
"Your armour would not have been of much use to you, if the hunter had been allowed to carry you to his home," said the deer. "In my opinion you and I both owe our lives entirely to Hiranya. He is small and weak, it is true, but he has better brains than any of the rest of us, and I for one admire him with all my heart. I am glad I trusted him and obeyed him, when he ordered me to pretend to be dead, for I had not the least idea how that could help the tortoise."
"Have it your own way," croaked the crow, "but I keep my own opinion all the same. But for me you would never have known my dear little Hiranya."
In spite of this little dispute the four friends were soon as happy together as before the adventure of the tortoise. They once more agreed never to part and lived happily together for many years, as they had done ever since they first met.
13. What were the chief differences in the characters of the four friends?
14. Are those who are alike or unlike in character more likely to remain friends?
15. How would you describe a true friend?
16. What fault is more likely than any other to lead to loss of friendship?
Notes: The nine stories in this book were translated from Sanskrit - an ancient Indian language.
Translator: S. M. Mitra
Editor: Nancy Bell
Publisher: Macmillan and Co., London