Once upon a time, there was a man who had so much money he could have piled it all into a big pile and sat upon it. But he kept his money in a chest and the chest hidden, so that no one ever saw it and no one knew it existed. You may think he would have dressed elegantly, dined finely and lived in a palace, enjoying a merry life. But oh no, not this man! He wore the same clothes until there was not an unpatched spot on them, and then he wore them again for just as long. Nor did he enjoy any feasts. There were never meats or pastries at his table. He cultivated his own little vegetable garden and survived as best he could on its produce. And the house! It was a good thing that it had once been well built, for not a penny had been spent on its upkeep. The house had a living room and a bedroom, a kitchen, a cellar and an attic, but the paint was peeling and the wallpaper was curling; the hinges creaked and a chair with a broken leg rested against the wall.
And what of the master himself? He was disagreeable and cantankerous, his voice was as rotten as the tooth stubs that were left in his mouth, he had a crooked chin and a crooked back and an unkempt shock of hair surrounding a large bald patch. He had no interest in books, music, dancing or the company of others. He spent no money and wished to spend none, and he never gave anything to anyone, even the poorest of beggars. “Money! It is not as if I am rolling in gold myself,” he told them, and that was true, for his chest was actually filled with silver coins. It was clear to all that he was a scrooge, but people also thought him poor. He was a real miser.
One fine day, when the sun had been hard at work in the sky for a good while, there was a knock at the door. The master of the house made no move to open, because he was expecting no one – no one who knew him would want to come anyway, and those who did not know him would probably only come to beg or for some other equally idle purpose. So he just sat in his chair and listened. The first knock had been quiet, almost shy, from which the Miser concluded that the intruder could be got rid of simply by waiting. There was another knock, slightly louder, and the Miser crossed his arms and expected to hear one more knock followed by retreating steps. But the third knock was more insistent and it was accompanied by a pure voice calling out:
“Uncle dear, are you there? This is your niece!”
The Miser was used to hearing all sorts of excuses, but having thought about it for a while he recalled he had in actual fact had a sister. She had lived far away and some seventeen years ago she had had a daughter, but the Miser had not attended the christening, having simply sent his warm congratulations and his brotherly blessing. Since then he had heard nothing from his sister or her family.
So he was still an uncle. And there was his niece, knocking and calling out. Consequently, the Miser slowly rose from his chair, grunted, and shuffled over to the door.
“Are you at home, Uncle dear? If you are, do open the door!”
Finally, her uncle grabbed the door handle and opened. Across the threshold stood a charming, rosy-cheeked girl with plaited hair and a gingham dress. In one hand she held a sack.
“What do you want now? You’ve never remembered your uncle before!”
“Oh, my dear Uncle, I did not even know of your existence until a few weeks ago, when my mother told me on her deathbed. For sixteen years she was a widow and we supported ourselves with hard work. But then a terrible illness came over her and finally defeated her. She told me I had but one relative who could look after me until I was of age.”
“Well, that’s good. Who is that?”
“You of course, Uncle dear!”
How awful, thought the uncle.
“Oh I see! Lovely, lovely. But dear girl, I am poor and crippled and I own nothing more than this house, these belongings and a spot of land around the house. It hardly provides for me, how could it provide for you, too? Being so pretty you have probably found yourself a suitor already. If you are very keen to be married, I shall be glad to give you my blessing.”
“Oh, Uncle dear. I am still not of age, and nobody would look twice at a poor, penniless girl such as me. But you must not worry yourself, Uncle, for I have been working hard ever since I was a little girl. I can tend a garden, and I know how to sew and knit.”
“Did you inherit anything?” the uncle asked.
“Our house and garden were just enough to cover our debts and the cost of the funeral. I carry with me everything I own.”
The uncle realised that the law would require him to look after his relative. “If she is a hard worker, she could be quite useful,” he thought. “If she is lazy, I can make her go into service.”
“Well, come in then,” he said to her. “But I warn you: life here is not easy!”
“Oh, Uncle! Mother said you had a heart of gold!”
That was news to her uncle and he felt a distant irritation to know that it was not so.
From the very first day, the girl set diligently to work and submitted without complaint to her uncle’s orders. She brought a breath of fresh air into the house, which for her uncle meant that she learned to understand just from the look on his face what she was to do next. With her hard work, the girl made the vegetable garden flourish – so much so that soon she was able to sell some of her produce at the market. She made such a profit that she could buy wool from which she knit scarves and sweaters to sell. The Miser was not blind to his niece’s success and gave her less and less money. One day, when her uncle, looking miserable, offered her a single paltry copper, she sweetly said:
“No, dear Uncle, you no longer have to share what little you have. I am making enough money for us to survive on, even to live comfortably. I will take care of the finances – after all, you gave me a home!”
The Miser had not heard such good news in years. So she provided for both of them.
Some time later, the girl was hanging up curtains she had sewn. Looking tenderly at her uncle, who sat in a corner in his new shirt, she asked:
“Dear Uncle, won’t you let me clean the living room? I could make my sleeping nook a little more homely. At the same time I could clean your bedroom and the kitchen, too! Everything would sparkle, and the new curtains and tablecloths would look better.”
Until then she had been satisfied with sweeping and doing the dishes. Her uncle had never even thought of the house being cleaned properly. He was very concerned about his money-chest.
“It will be too much trouble for you,” he said.
“Oh, not at all,” the girl replied. “I am used to cleaning. And Uncle must have noticed how a woman’s touch can transform the house.”
“Very well,” the uncle said. “But don’t do it today. Leave it until tomorrow.”
“That’s an even better idea, because then I can spend all day cleaning,” the girl said and went off to the market.
The Miser breathed a sigh of relief. He had one day to hide the chest. Almost running to his bed, he opened the locked box underneath it, which held the rusty chest that was as wide as a man’s arms and heavy as sin. When he tried to pull it out, it would not budge. Grabbing it with two hands he was able to shift it a little, or else it was the old man himself who shifted. With a lot of effort he was finally able to move the chest onto the floor. Puffing and panting, pushing, pulling and kicking, the Miser dragged the chest from the bedroom into the living room and to the cellar door. On the cellar stairs he had to work twice as hard, struggling with both ends of the chest on each step. By the time the chest was finally in the furthest corner of the cellar, sweat was pouring off the old man in rivers, and his heart was beating as if it were minting coins. It was a long time since he had worked so hard for his money.
So the evening came, and then morning and the next day. The girl tackled the cleaning with vigour and, without complaining about his sore limbs, her uncle got out of the way. On returning to the house in the afternoon, he hardly recognised it – so tidy, clean and charming had she made it. All the windows had curtains, all the tables had cloths, and all the chairs had cushions.
“But how much did all this cost?”, her uncle cried out.
“Dear Uncle, I made it myself by working! Please don’t worry yourself about money, I will save the rest. And soon I will make more!”
The Miser fairly purred with contentment and gladly sat down to a table set with a pot of steaming meaty soup.
“Dear Uncle, may I ask one thing of you?”, the girl said timidly, and seeing the suspicious look on her uncle’s face, she added: “Oh, it is nothing to do with expenses! I would simply like to keep the house clean from now on, too.”
“You may,” he answered, eagerly ladling soup onto his plate.
“Thank you, dear Uncle! Next I will clean the cellar. It is terribly dusty. The spider webs are so large you could weave curtains out of them!”
The soup ladle clunked onto the plate as the Miser gazed at his niece, ashen-faced.
“You have been to the cellar?” he asked, with his voice trembling.
“I only had a little look, but I couldn’t see anything for all the dust. So I thought tomorrow I could continue my cleaning down there.”
The colour gradually returned to the uncle’s face as he spooned soup into his mouth.
“Very well, but don’t do it tomorrow. It would be best for you to spend some time outside, to keep your cheeks rosy,” he said.
“What a good idea! Tomorrow I will go to the market and the day after I will clean the cellar.”
So the evening came, and then morning, and the next day. The girl got up early and cheerfully went to market. Soon afterwards, the Miser arose, cursing. He rushed down to the cellar and began to drag at his chest. It was no easier than the previous time, and he had to labour twice as hard to get his chest up to the attic.
The next day, when his niece was toiling away in the basement, the Miser was too tired to go anywhere. Instead, he went around the vegetable garden admiring his niece’s handiwork. He was particularly pleased by the fact that she had not planted flowers in any place that could be filled with useful plants.
At dinnertime, when they both sat around another steaming pot of food, the Miser spared no words in praising his niece’s diligence and skill.
“Thank you, dear Uncle! Now we may use the cellar to store all kinds of things, as it is clean and welcoming enough even for a woman. I have just one more request,” she said tenderly, but seeing the glimmer of doubt in her uncle’s eyes, she quickly added: “But it will not cause any expenses. As you probably know, I have not yet gone through the whole house. The attic is also full of grime and cobwebs.”
“Have you been to the attic?” he asked, pale as death.
“I only had a little look, because it was terribly untidy. But I could clean it up tomorrow.”
I suppose then she’ll sweep the chimney, he thought gloomily. But scooping meat from the pan he calmed a little, and colour returned to his face bit by bit.
“Fine,” the uncle said. “But don’t do it tomorrow. You need to spend another day out of doors.”
“That is an excellent idea. Tomorrow I will go to the market, and clean the attic the day after that.”
So the evening came, and then morning, and the next day. The girl rose early to pick and sort her goods for sale, and then she left. Fuming, her uncle rose from his bed and climbed the stairs to the attic. There he sat in desperation for a while, wondering where to hide his chest. He had the idea of burying it in the ground. Gathering all his energy and might, he jubilantly dragged the chest all the way out. Having reached the garden, he took a look around. He could not bury the chest just anywhere. The vegetable garden could easily be ruined, and there weren’t enough flowers under which to hide it. The only option was a lonely pear tree growing on the garden’s edge. The Miser fetched a heavy, rusty shovel from the cellar, which he used to dig a hole at the foot of the pear tree. When the hole was ready, he dropped the chest to the bottom. As he was filling the hole back in, it began to rain. First the drops were few and far between, but by the time he was levelling out the ground it was pouring down. The whole garden turned to mud, but he thought it was a good thing as it meant he did not need to cover his tracks. Soon you could not tell that anything had been dragged or dug.
On returning to the house, the girl found her uncle in bed, coughing and completely drenched.
“Oh, my dear Uncle! Did you have to tend the garden in such weather? I could have done it tomorrow.”
The Miser fell seriously ill and his niece had her hands full looking after him, so the cleaning of the attic was delayed by two weeks. His temperature ran high at times. He was delirious and she feared she would lose him. Even a doctor was summoned. Eventually the old man got better but he never made a full recovery. His steps became slow and his whole being was somehow enfeebled, so he took to spending his days sitting in a chair looking out at the garden.
Within a couple of years, the niece grew to be a very attractive and rather wealthy young woman, and she was fairly showered with proposals of marriage. She rejected them all, saying that she would look after her uncle for the rest of her life if she had to. It was for the rest of his life that she looked after him, however, for he suddenly passed away. The girl wept bitterly for her uncle and held a very fine funeral for him – after all, he had left her his house and garden. But where should he be buried?
“He spent his last years gazing out at that pear tree,” she said. “He often seemed to smile a little as he did, so that tree must have been somehow dear to him. Let us bury him at its foot!”
Six men carried the uncle’s coffin while four dug his grave. They had not got very far when their spades hit something hard.
“Is it a rock?” one of the diggers wondered.
“Let’s see,” another said and levered out the chest. Breaking open the lock, the men cried out.
“Miss! You have become a very wealthy woman! Here is a chest full of silver coins.”
“Gentlemen, please, we are burying my beloved uncle. My heart is heavy and nothing worldly can lighten it. But each of you must take a handful – no, two handfuls – and then lift out the chest and finish digging the grave.”
Having done as they were bid, the men picked up the uncle’s coffin to let it down into the grave. The niece kissed the lid of the coffin and said:
“Be careful with the coffin, gentlemen, for my uncle was a real treasure: we may have dug out silver from the earth, but what we are putting in is pure gold.”
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