ONCE upon a time something happened. If it had not happened, it would not be told.
There was once a man who prayed daily to God to grant him riches. One day his numerous and frequent prayers found our Lord in the mood to listen to them. When the man had grown rich he did not want to die, so he resolved to go from country to country and settle wherever he heard that the people lived forever. He prepared for his journey, told his wife his plan, and set off.
In every country he reached he asked whether people ever died there, and went on at once if he was told that they did. At last he arrived in a land where the inhabitants said they did not know what dying meant. The traveler, full of joy, asked:
"But are there not immense crowds of people here, if none of you die?"
"No, there are no immense crowds," was the reply, "for you see, every now and then somebody comes and calls one after another, and whoever follows him, never returns."
"And do people see the person who calls them?" asked the traveler.
"Why shouldn't they see him?" he was answered.
The man could not wonder enough at the stupidity of those who followed the person that called them, though they knew that they would be obliged to stay where he took them. Returning home, he collected all his property, and with his wife and children, went to settle in the country where people did not die but were called by a certain person and never came back. He had therefore firmly resolved that neither he nor his family would ever follow any body who called them, no matter who it might be.
So, after he had established himself and arranged all his business affairs, he advised his wife and all his family on no account to follow any one who might call them, if, as he said, they did not want to die.
So they gave themselves up to pleasure, and in this way spent several years. One day, when they were all sitting comfortably in their house, his wife suddenly began to call:
"I'm coming, I'm coming!"
And she looked around the room for her fur jacket. Her husband instantly started up, seized her by the hand, and began to reproach her.
"So you don't heed my advice? Stay here, if you don't want to die."
"Don't you hear how he is calling me? I'll only see what he wants and come back at once."
And she struggled to escape from her husband's grasp and go.
He held her fast and managed to bolt all the doors in the room. When she saw that, she said:
"Let me alone, husband, I don't care about going now."
The man thought she had come to her senses and given up her crazy idea, but before long the wife rushed to the nearest door, hurriedly opened it, and ran out. Her husband followed, holding her by her fur sack and entreating her not to go, for she would never return. She let her hands fall, bent backward, then leaned a little forward and suddenly threw herself back, slipping off her sack and leaving it in her husband's grasp, who stood stock still staring after her as she rushed on, screaming with all her might:
"I'm coming, I'm coming."
When he could see her no longer, the husband collected his senses, went back to the house, and said:
"If you are mad and want to die, go in God's name, I can't help you; I've told you often enough that you must follow no one, no matter who called you."
Days passed, many days; weeks, months, years followed, and the peace of the man's household was not disturbed again.
But at last one morning, when he went to his barber's as usual to be shaved, just as he had the soap on his chin, and the shop was full of people, he began to shout:
"I won't come, do you hear, I won't come!"
The barber and his customers all stared in amazement. The man, looking toward the door, said again: "Take notice, once for all, that I won't come, and go away from there."
Afterward he cried:
"Go away, do you hear, if you want to get off with a whole skin, for I tell you a thousand times I won't come."
Then, as if some one was standing at the door constantly calling him, he grew angry and raved at the person for not leaving him in peace. At last he sprang up and snatched the razor from the barber's hand, crying:
"Give it to me, that I may show him what it is to continually annoy people."
And he ran at full speed after the person who, he said, was calling him, but whom nobody else could see. The poor barber, who did not want to lose his razor, followed. The man ran, the barber pursued, till they passed beyond the city limits, and, just outside of the town, the man fell into a chasm from which he did not come out again, so he also, like all the rest, followed the voice that called him.
The barber, who returned home panting for breath, told everybody he met what had happened and so the belief spread through the country that the people, who had gone away and not returned, had fallen into that gulf, for until then no one had known what became of those who followed the person that summoned them.
When a throng set out to visit the scene of misfortune, to see the insatiable gulf which swallowed up all the people and yet never had enough, nothing was found; it looked as if, since the beginning of the world, nothing had been there except a broad plain, and from that time the population of the neighborhood began to die like the human beings in the rest of the earth.