Tell Me a Story by Amy Friedman and Meredith Johnson

IN A BEGGAR'S HEART (a Sicilian tale)

Once upon a time, a man built a beautiful house high atop a hill. When he died, he left his fortune and the house to his son, Antonio, who began to spend the money immediately. Antonio spent money so quickly and so carelessly that one year after his father's death, he had nothing left -- nothing but the house.

And so he sold the house, and he began to wander from town to town. After that money was gone, he became a beggar.

One day, as he was walking along a country road, a handsome man stopped him to talk. Antonio was a friendly fellow. He talked to everyone. So, naturally, he talked to this man, not realizing this fellow was actually the devil.

After they had chatted for a while, the devil asked, "Would you like to be wealthy again? Would you like to lead a pleasant, easy, luxurious life?"

"Of course," Antonio answered. "Who wouldn't?"

"Well, then, I'll make you a deal," the devil said, and he handed Antonio a purse. "Whenever you wish for money, all you need to do is ask the purse and it shall give you all you want. But the charm works only if you make me a promise."

"Certainly," Antonio said. "Whatever you ask."

"For three years, you will not comb or wash or shave or change your clothes. If you do this faithfully, on the first day of the new year, you shall own the purse forever."

Antonio never worried about the future, so he eagerly accepted the deal. He and the devil parted ways, and Antonio began to make his way through the world. He carried the purse in his pocket, and he always had whatever he needed. So pleased was he with his new fortune, he never even noticed how dirty he was, or how his clothes had turned to rags, or that people did not like to stand near him.

He walked from town to town, city to city and country to country. One morning, he stopped on the doorstep of a palace to shake off some dust.

When the maid saw the beggar at the door, she ran to her master to tell him, and a moment later the master called out the window, "Be gone at once!"

Antonio looked up at the window. "You needn't be rude," he said. "I'm not a beggar. If I wished, I could force your whole family out of this palace! I could buy it from you on the spot!"

The man laughed.

"Go ahead, laugh," Antonio said. "But I'll prove you wrong. Ask anything you wish."

The man was sure Antonio was only a beggar and a mad one at that, but he decided to play along with this joke.

"Very well," the man said, "let us write up a contract," and he led Antonio inside and drew up an arrangement. "Within eight days, you shall pay me with 40 bags of gold. If you can, you may have my palace."

Antonio signed the agreement and went off to a nearby inn. He rented two rooms, and then he said to his purse, "Fill one of these rooms with sacks of gold."

He slept in the second room. Eight days later, the other room was so full, not one more coin could fit inside.

A few moments later, there was a knock at the door. The man had shown up, fulfilling his end of the deal. "I'm here for my money," he said, laughing.

But Antonio opened the door wide and showed him the roof full of gold.

The astonished man could not speak. He shook his head, for he knew he could not break his word. And so he took his 40 sacks of gold and moved his family away. The next day, Antonio moved into the palace.

Word soon spread of the strange beggar who had purchased a palace with sacks of gold. When the king heard the story of this man who seemed to have endless wealth, he decided he must meet the fellow. He would ask to borrow some money.

And so the king sent his servant to visit Antonio.

"The king wishes to borrow some money," the servant told Antonio.

"Certainly, whatever you need," Antonio said, and the next day, he sent the king two dozen sacks of gold.

The king took what he needed and sent his servant to return the rest.

When the servant returned the bags, Antonio's feelings were hurt. "Tell the king if he refuses to take my money, you will keep it yourself."

The servant rode back to the castle and gave the king this news.

The king was mystified. "This man has been so generous," he told the queen, "I wish to offer him the hand of our eldest daughter in marriage."

The queen liked this idea, and told the servant to deliver Antonio the news.

Antonio happily accepted the offer, and the king announced the engagement the next day.

When the princess learned she was to marry a dirty beggar, she was furious. "Never!" she said. "Never, never! I would rather die!"

The king insisted. "Dear daughter, beggar though he may be, he is the most generous man I've ever known. You must marry him. I gave my word."

"I will not!" said the eldest daughter, but her younger sister stepped forward. "Father, I shall marry the beggar in my sister's place," she said. "The beggar shall marry a princess."

And soon it was settled.

"Our wedding day shall be on the second day of the new year," Antonio told the king, for the pact with the devil was to end on New Year's Day, and he wished to have time to wash off the dirt of three years.

And so on the first morning of the new year, when the pact ended, Antonio cut his hair and burned his rags. He drew a bath, and he sat in the bathtub for hours until he was clean. He slept well that night. That next morning, he dressed in beautiful clothes. A carriage he'd hired arrived to pick him up, so he'd go to the castle in style.

When the family saw how handsome Antonio was, the elder daughter grew sick with envy. She grew so sick that she became blind. But the youngest daughter rejoiced in her good fortune.

Antonio and the princess married, and when the old king died, Antonio became king. He lived happily ever after with his beloved wife and the purse that had always given him what he needed. And when they had children, the princess taught them well.

"Remember, do not judge anyone by outward appearance," she said. "After all, in a beggar's heart, there may well be a prince."