An unfortunate chain of events while hunting left a king lost and dependent on a lowly charcoal-maker.
Somewhat overawed by their unexpected guest, the charcoal-maker and his wife served the king as best they could, which was far from what the king was accustomed to.
Amazed that his hosts could seem content in such circumstances, the king ventured to ask the charcoal-maker how much he earned for a day of work. The answer astounded him.
“How do you survive with so little?” the king asked.
Smiling, the charcoal maker said, “I don’t just make enough to survive. On that income I also pay off a debt, invest for the future and still find enough left over to throw out the window.”
The king couldn’t believe this and asked the meaning of the poor man’s riddle.
“Your majesty, my mother brought me up, and now I care for her in her old age. In this way I am paying off a debt. I raise my son with the hope that he will do the same for me. In this way I am investing for the future. I also have a daughter, and put aside an amount for her dowry, which, as you know, is the same as throwing money out the window.”
This answer pleased the king greatly, and he gave the charcoal maker a gold coin for his hospitality.
“Can you keep a secret, charcoal-maker?”
“Until you allow me to speak of it again.”
“Very good. You may speak of it again– when you have seen my face 100 times.”
The charcoal maker agreed, and guided the king back to the road.
As soon as he returned home, the king set the charcoal-maker’s riddle before his entire court, promising the position of royal counselor to the person able to come up with the correct answer.
While others guessed futilely, a crafty courtier rode until he came to the charcoal-maker the king had spoken of.
Taking ten gold coins from the purse at his belt, he handed them to the poor man, demanding he tell the answer to his riddle. The charcoal maker accepted the coins, looking closely at each of them, but then shook his head.
“I have given my word,” the honest man said. “I am not at liberty to speak.”
The wealthy courtier poured more gold into the charcoal-maker’s hand– 25, 50, 80 pieces of gold. The poor man looked closely at each one, but continued to shake his head and refused to answer the riddle.
“Surely 100-gold pieces is enough for any honest man?” the crooked courtier demanded, tipping the last of his purse on the ground before the charcoal-maker.
The charcoal-maker, slowly and deliberately picked each coin off the ground and looked hard at it. Then he nodded. And told the whole story.
Delighted at his own cleverness and the new position that would soon be his, the courtier rode back to the palace and whispered his answer in the king’s ear.
“There is no way you could have thought of that alone,” said the king, and he returned, furious, to the charcoal-maker’s hut.
“You promised not to tell,” the king raged. “You will lose your life.”
“Your majesty,” the charcoal-maker protested, “I did not promise not to speak. Remember, you said I was free to speak of the riddle once I had seen your face 100-times.”
“Yes, and I would have remembered–” began the king, when the humble charcoal-maker held up a handful of the gold coins, each stamped with the king’s likeness.
At this the king had to laugh, and he brought the charcoal-maker back to court to tell the answer to the riddle himself. Then he sent the crafty courtier home in disgrace, and sent the charcoal-maker home with three bags of gold.
“One for your debt, one to invest, and one to throw out the window.”