MORE than a hundred and sixty-eight years ago, there lived a curious personage called "Old Riddler." His real name was unknown to the people in that part of the country where he dwelt; but this made no difference, for the name given him was probably just as good as his own. Indeed, I am quite sure that it was better, for it meant something, and very few people have names that mean anything.
He was called Old Riddler for two reasons. In the first place, he was an elderly man; secondly, he was the greatest fellow to ask riddles that you ever heard of. So this name fitted him very well.
Old Riddler had some very peculiar characteristics,—among others, he was a gnome. Living underground for the greater part of his time, he had ample opportunities of working out curious and artful riddles, which he used to try on his fellow-gnomes; and if they liked them, he would go above ground and propound his conundrums to the country people, who sometimes guessed them, but not often.
The fact is, that those persons who wished to be on good terms with the old gnome never guessed his riddles. They knew that they would please him better by giving them up.
He took such a pleasure in telling the answers to his riddles that no truly kind-hearted person would deprive him of it by trying to solve them.
"You see," as Old Riddler used to say, when talked to on the subject, "if I take all the trouble to make up these riddles, it's no more than fair that I should be allowed to give the answers."
So the old gnome, who was not much higher than a two-year old child, though he had quite a venerable head and face, was very much encouraged by the way the people treated him, and when a person happened to be very kind and appreciative, and gave a good deal of attention to one of his conundrums, that person would be pretty sure, before long, to feel glad that he had met Old Riddler.
There were thousands of ways in which the gnomes could benefit the country-folks, especially those who had little farms or gardens. Sometimes Old Riddler, who was a person of great influence in his tribe, would take a company of gnomes under the garden of some one to whom he wished to do a favor, and they would put their little hands up through the earth and pull down all the weeds, root-foremost, so that when the owner went out in the morning, he would find his garden as clear of weeds as the bottom of a dinner-plate.
Of course, any one who has habits of this kind must eventually become a general favorite, and this was the case with Old Riddler.
One day he made up a splendid riddle, and, after he had told it to all the gnomes, he hurried up to propound it to some human person.
He was in such haste that he actually forgot his hat, although it was late in the fall, and he wore his cloak. He had not gone far through the fields before he met a young goose-girl, named Lois. She was a poor girl, and was barefooted; and as Old Riddler saw her in her scanty dress, standing on the cold ground, watching her geese, he thought to himself: "Now I do hope that girl has wit enough to understand my riddle, for I feel that I would like to get interested in her."
So, approaching Lois, he made a bow and politely asked her: "Can you tell me, my good little girl, why a ship full of sailors, at the bottom of the sea, is like the price of beef?"
The goose-girl began to scratch her head, through the old handkerchief she wore instead of a bonnet, and tried to think of the answer.
"Because it's 'low,'" said she, after a minute or two.
"Oh, no!" said the gnome. "That's not it. You can give it up, you know, if you can't think of the answer."
"I know!" said Lois. "Because it's sunk."
"Not at all," said Old Riddler, a little impatiently. "Now come, my good girl, you'd much better give it up. You will just hack at the answer until you make it good for nothing."
"Well, what is it?" said Lois.
"I will tell you," said the gnome. "Now, pay attention to the answer: Because it has gone down. Don't you see?" asked the old fellow, with a gracious smile.
"Yes, I see," said the goose-girl, scratching her head again; "but my answer was nearly as good as yours."
"Oh, dear me!" said Old Riddler, "that won't do. It's of no use at all to give an answer that is nearly good enough. It must be exactly right, or it's worthless. I am afraid, young girl, that you don't care much for riddles."
"Yes I do," said the goose girl; "I make 'em."
"Make them?" exclaimed Old Riddler, in great surprise.
"Yes," replied Lois, "I'm out here all day with these geese, and I haven't anything else to do, and so I make riddles. Do you want to hear one of them?"
"Yes, I would like it very much indeed," said the gnome.
"Well, then, here's one: "If the roofs of houses were flat instead of slanting, why would the rain be like a chained dog?"
"Give it up," said Old Riddler.
"Because it couldn't run off," answered Lois.
"Very good, very good," said the gnome. "Why, that's nearly as good as some of mine. And now, my young friend, did n't you feel pleased to have me give up that riddle and let you tell me the answer, straight and true, just as you knew it ought to be?"
"Oh, yes!" said the goose-girl.
"Well, then," continued Old Riddler, "remember this: What pleases you will often please other people. And never guess another riddle."
Lois, although a rough country girl, was touched by the old man's earnestness and his gentle tones.
"I never will," said she.
"That's a very well-meaning girl," said Old Riddler to himself as he walked away, "although she hasn't much polish. I'll come sometimes and help her a little with her conundrums."
Old Riddler had a son named Huckleberry. He was a smart, bright young fellow, and resembled his father in many respects. When he went home, the old gnome told his son about Lois, and tried to impress on his mind the same lesson he had taught the young girl. Huckleberry was a very good little chap, but he was quick-witted and rather forward, and often made his father very angry by guessing his riddles; and so he needed a good deal of parental counsel.
Nearly all that night Huckleberry thought about what his father had told him. But not at all as Old Riddler intended he should.
"What a fine thing it must be," said Huckleberry to himself "to go out into the world and teach people things. I'm going to try it myself."
So, the next day, he started off on his mission. The first person he saw was a very small girl playing under a big oak-tree.
When the small girl saw the young gnome, she was frightened and drew back, standing up as close against the tree as she could get.
But up stepped Master Huckleberry, with all the airs and graces he could command.
"Can you tell me, my little miss," said he, "why an elephant with a glass globe of gold-fish tied to his tail is like a monkey with one pink eye and one of a mazarine blue?"
"No," said the small girl, "I don't know. Go away!"
"Oh," said Huckleberry, "perhaps that's too hard for you. I know some nice little ones, in words of one syllable. Why is a red man with a green hat like a good boy who has a large duck in a small pond?"
"Go away!" said the small girl. "I came here to pick flowers. I don't know riddles."
"Perhaps that one was too easy," said Huckleberry, kindly. "I have all sorts. Here is one with longer words, divided into syllables. I'll say it slowly for you: What is the dif-fer-ence be-tween a mag-nan-i-mous ship-mate and the top-most leaf-let on your grand-mo-ther's bar-ber-ry bush?"
"I haven't got any grandmother," said she.
"Oh, well!" any grandmother will do," said Huckleberry.
"I can't guess it," said the small girl, who was now beginning to lose her fear of the funny little fellow. "I never guessed any riddles. I'm not old enough."
"Very well, then," said Huckleberry, "I'll tell you what I'll do. Let's sit down here under the tree, and I'll tell you one of father's riddles, and give you the answer. His riddles are better than mine, because none of mine have any answers. I don't put answers to them, for I can never think of any good ones. I met a boy once, and told him a lot of my riddles; and he learned them and went about asking people to guess them; and when the people gave them up, he couldn't tell them the answers, because there were none, and that made everybody mad. He told one of the riddles to his grandmother,—I think it was the one about the pink-eyed monkey and the wagon-load of beans——"
"No," said the small girl; "the elephant and the gold-fish was the other part of the pink-eyed monkey one."
"Oh, it don't make any difference," said Huckleberry. "I don't join my riddles together the same way every time. Sometimes I use the gold-fish and elephant with the last part of one riddle, and sometimes with another. As there's no answer, it don't matter. I begin a good many of my best riddles with the elephant, for it makes a fine opening. But, as I was going to tell you, this boy told one of my riddles to his grandmother, and she liked it very much; but when she found out that there was no answer to it, she gave him a good box on the ear, and that boy has never liked me since. But now I'll tell you a story. That is, it's like a story, but it's really a riddle. Father made it, and everybody thinks it's one of his best. There was once a fair lady of renown who was engaged to be married to a prince. And when the wedding day came round—they were to be married in one of the prince's palaces in the mountains—she was so long getting dressed—you see she dressed in one of her father's palaces, down in the valley—that she was afraid she would be late; so as soon as her veil was pinned on, she ran down to the stables, threw a wolf-skin on the back of one of the fieriest of the chargers, and springing on him, she dashed away. She was n't used to harnessing horses, and was in such a hurry that she forgot all about the bridle, and so, as she was dashing away, she found she couldn't steer the animal, and he didn't go any where near the prince's palace, but galloped on, and on, and on, every minute taking her farther and farther away from where she wanted to go. She could n't turn the charger, and she could n't stop him, though she tore off pieces of her veil and tried to put them around his nose, but it was no good. So when the wedding-party had waited, and waited, and waited, the prince got angry and married another lady, and nobody knows where the fair lady of renown went to, although there are some people who say that she's a-galloping yet, and trying to get her veil around the charger's nose. Now, why was it that that fair lady of renown never married? Answer: Because she had no bridal. You can say either bri-d-a-l or bri-d-l-e, because they both sound alike, and if she had had either one of them, she would have been married. This is a pretty long riddle, but it's easier than mine, because it's all fixed up right, with the answer to it and everything. You like it better than mine, don't you?"
The small girl did not answer, and when Huckleberry looked around, he saw that she was asleep.
"Poor little thing!" said Huckleberry, softly, to himself. "I guess I gave her a little too much riddle to begin with. Her mind isn't formed enough yet. But it's pretty hard on me. I wanted to teach somebody something, and here she's gone to sleep. I wish I could find that goose-girl. If father could teach her something, I'm sure I could."
So he went walking through the fields, and pretty soon he saw Lois, standing among her geese, who were feeding on the grass.
Huckleberry skipped up to her as lively as a cricket.
"Can you tell me," said he, "why an elephant with a glass globe of gold-fish tied to his tail is like the Lord High Admiral of the British Isles?"
"Was the globe of gold-fish all the elephant owned?" asked the goose-girl, thoughfully.
"Yes," said Huckleberry. "But I don't see what that's got to do with it."
"Then the answer is," said Lois, without noticing this last remark, "because all his property is entailed."
"Well, I de-clare!" cried Huckleberry, opening his eyes as wide as they would go, "if you didn't guess it! Why, I didn't know it had an answer."
"I wish it hadn't had an answer," said the goose-girl, suddenly stamping her foot. "I wish there had never been any answer to it in the whole world. It was only yesterday that I promised Old Riddler that I would never guess another riddle, and here I've done it! It's too bad!"
"I don't think it is," cried Huckleberry, waving his little cap around by the tassel. "It's all very well for father not to want people to guess his riddles, because they've got answers and he knows what they are. But I would never have known that any of mine had an answer if you hadn't guessed this one. If you had had a riddle like this one, wouldn't you have been glad to have some one tell you the answer?"
"Yes, I would," said Lois.
"Well, then, my good girl, remember this: If a thing gives you pleasure, it's very likely that it will give somebody else pleasure. So let somebody else have a chance, and the next time you hear a riddle that you think the owner has no answer for, guess it for him, if you can." Good-by!"
And away went Master Huckleberry, skipping and singing and snapping his fingers and twirling his cap, until he came to a wide crack in the ground, when he rolled himself up like a huckleberry dumpling, and went tumbling and bouncing down into the underground home of the gnomes.
"Get out of the way!" said he to the gnomes he passed, as he proudly strode to his father's apartments. "I'm going to make a report. For the first time in my life I've taught somebody something."
When Huckleberry left her, the goose-girl stood silently in the midst of her geese. Her brow was overcast.
"How's anybody to do two things that can't both be done?" she exclaimed at last. "I'll have nothing more to do with riddles as long as I live."