The Devoted Friend by Oscar Wilde
One morning the old Water-rat put his head out of his hole.
He had bright beady eyes and stiff grey whiskers and his tail was like
a long bit of black india-rubber. The little ducks were swimming
about in the pond, looking just like a lot of yellow canaries, and their
mother, who was pure white with real red legs, was trying to teach them
how to stand on their heads in the water.
“You will never be in the best society unless you can stand
on your heads,” she kept saying to them; and every now and then
she showed them how it was done. But the little ducks paid no
attention to her. They were so young that they did not know what
an advantage it is to be in society at all.
“What disobedient children!” cried the old Water-rat;
“they really deserve to be drowned.”
“Nothing of the kind,” answered the Duck, “every
one must make a beginning, and parents cannot be too patient.”
“Ah! I know nothing about the feelings of parents,” said
the Water-rat; “I am not a family man. In fact, I have never
been married, and I never intend to be. Love is all very well
in its way, but friendship is much higher. Indeed, I know of nothing
in the world that is either nobler or rarer than a devoted friendship.”
“And what, pray, is your idea of the duties of a devoted friend?”
asked a Green Linnet, who was sitting in a willow-tree hard by, and
had overheard the conversation.
“Yes, that is just what I want to know,” said the Duck;
and she swam away to the end of the pond, and stood upon her head, in
order to give her children a good example.
“What a silly question!” cried the Water-rat. “I
should expect my devoted friend to be devoted to me, of course.”
“And what would you do in return?” said the little bird,
swinging upon a silver spray, and flapping his tiny wings.
“I don’t understand you,” answered the Water-rat.
“Let me tell you a story on the subject,” said the Linnet.
“Is the story about me?” asked the Water-rat. “If
so, I will listen to it, for I am extremely fond of fiction.”
“It is applicable to you,” answered the Linnet; and he
flew down, and alighting upon the bank, he told the story of The Devoted
“Once upon a time,” said the Linnet, “there was
an honest little fellow named Hans.”
“Was he very distinguished?” asked the Water-rat.
“No,” answered the Linnet, “I don’t think
he was distinguished at all, except for his kind heart, and his funny
round good-humoured face. He lived in a tiny cottage all by himself,
and every day he worked in his garden. In all the country-side
there was no garden so lovely as his. Sweet-william grew there,
and Gilly-flowers, and Shepherds’-purses, and Fair-maids of France.
There were damask Roses, and yellow Roses, lilac Crocuses, and gold,
purple Violets and white. Columbine and Ladysmock, Marjoram and
Wild Basil, the Cowslip and the Flower-de-luce, the Daffodil and the
Clove-Pink bloomed or blossomed in their proper order as the months
went by, one flower taking another flower’s place, so that there
were always beautiful things to look at, and pleasant odours to smell.
“Little Hans had a great many friends, but the most devoted
friend of all was big Hugh the Miller. Indeed, so devoted was
the rich Miller to little Hans, that be would never go by his garden
without leaning over the wall and plucking a large nosegay, or a handful
of sweet herbs, or filling his pockets with plums and cherries if it
was the fruit season.
“‘Real friends should have everything in common,’
the Miller used to say, and little Hans nodded and smiled, and felt
very proud of having a friend with such noble ideas.
“Sometimes, indeed, the neighbours thought it strange that
the rich Miller never gave little Hans anything in return, though he
had a hundred sacks of flour stored away in his mill, and six milch
cows, and a large flock of woolly sheep; but Hans never troubled his
head about these things, and nothing gave him greater pleasure than
to listen to all the wonderful things the Miller used to say about the
unselfishness of true friendship.
“So little Hans worked away in his garden. During the
spring, the summer, and the autumn he was very happy, but when the winter
came, and he had no fruit or flowers to bring to the market, he suffered
a good deal from cold and hunger, and often had to go to bed without
any supper but a few dried pears or some hard nuts. In the winter,
also, he was extremely lonely, as the Miller never came to see him then.
“‘There is no good in my going to see little Hans as
long as the snow lasts,’ the Miller used to say to his wife, ‘for
when people are in trouble they should be left alone, and not be bothered
by visitors. That at least is my idea about friendship, and I
am sure I am right. So I shall wait till the spring comes, and
then I shall pay him a visit, and he will be able to give me a large
basket of primroses and that will make him so happy.’
“‘You are certainly very thoughtful about others,’
answered the Wife, as she sat in her comfortable armchair by the big
pinewood fire; ‘very thoughtful indeed. It is quite a treat
to hear you talk about friendship. I am sure the clergyman himself
could not say such beautiful things as you do, though he does live in
a three-storied house, and wear a gold ring on his little finger.’
“‘But could we not ask little Hans up here?’ said
the Miller’s youngest son. ‘If poor Hans is in trouble
I will give him half my porridge, and show him my white rabbits.’
“‘What a silly boy you are’! cried the Miller;
‘I really don’t know what is the use of sending you to school.
You seem not to learn anything. Why, if little Hans came up here,
and saw our warm fire, and our good supper, and our great cask of red
wine, he might get envious, and envy is a most terrible thing, and would
spoil anybody’s nature. I certainly will not allow Hans’
nature to be spoiled. I am his best friend, and I will always
watch over him, and see that he is not led into any temptations.
Besides, if Hans came here, he might ask me to let him have some flour
on credit, and that I could not do. Flour is one thing, and friendship
is another, and they should not be confused. Why, the words are
spelt differently, and mean quite different things. Everybody
can see that.’
“‘How well you talk’! said the Miller’s Wife,
pouring herself out a large glass of warm ale; ‘really I feel
quite drowsy. It is just like being in church.’
“‘Lots of people act well,’ answered the Miller;
‘but very few people talk well, which shows that talking is much
the more difficult thing of the two, and much the finer thing also’;
and he looked sternly across the table at his little son, who felt so
ashamed of himself that he hung his head down, and grew quite scarlet,
and began to cry into his tea. However, he was so young that you
must excuse him.”
“Is that the end of the story?” asked the Water-rat.
“Certainly not,” answered the Linnet, “that is
“Then you are quite behind the age,” said the Water-rat.
“Every good story-teller nowadays starts with the end, and then
goes on to the beginning, and concludes with the middle. That
is the new method. I heard all about it the other day from a critic
who was walking round the pond with a young man. He spoke of the
matter at great length, and I am sure he must have been right, for he
had blue spectacles and a bald head, and whenever the young man made
any remark, he always answered ‘Pooh!’ But pray go
on with your story. I like the Miller immensely. I have
all kinds of beautiful sentiments myself, so there is a great sympathy
“Well,” said the Linnet, hopping now on one leg and now
on the other, “as soon as the winter was over, and the primroses
began to open their pale yellow stars, the Miller said to his wife that
he would go down and see little Hans.
“‘Why, what a good heart you have’! cried his Wife;
‘you are always thinking of others. And mind you take the
big basket with you for the flowers.’
“So the Miller tied the sails of the windmill together with
a strong iron chain, and went down the hill with the basket on his arm.
“‘Good morning, little Hans,’ said the Miller.
“‘Good morning,’ said Hans, leaning on his spade,
and smiling from ear to ear.
“‘And how have you been all the winter?’ said the
“‘Well, really,’ cried Hans, ‘it is very
good of you to ask, very good indeed. I am afraid I had rather
a hard time of it, but now the spring has come, and I am quite happy,
and all my flowers are doing well.’
“‘We often talked of you during the winter, Hans,’
said the Miller, ‘and wondered how you were getting on.’
“‘That was kind of you,’ said Hans; ‘I was
half afraid you had forgotten me.’
“‘Hans, I am surprised at you,’ said the Miller;
‘friendship never forgets. That is the wonderful thing about
it, but I am afraid you don’t understand the poetry of life.
How lovely your primroses are looking, by-the-bye”!
“‘They are certainly very lovely,’ said Hans, ‘and
it is a most lucky thing for me that I have so many. I am going
to bring them into the market and sell them to the Burgomaster’s
daughter, and buy back my wheelbarrow with the money.’
“‘Buy back your wheelbarrow? You don’t mean
to say you have sold it? What a very stupid thing to do’!
“‘Well, the fact is,’ said Hans, ‘that I
was obliged to. You see the winter was a very bad time for me,
and I really had no money at all to buy bread with. So I first
sold the silver buttons off my Sunday coat, and then I sold my silver
chain, and then I sold my big pipe, and at last I sold my wheelbarrow.
But I am going to buy them all back again now.’
“‘Hans,’ said the Miller, ‘I will give you
my wheelbarrow. It is not in very good repair; indeed, one side
is gone, and there is something wrong with the wheel-spokes; but in
spite of that I will give it to you. I know it is very generous
of me, and a great many people would think me extremely foolish for
parting with it, but I am not like the rest of the world. I think
that generosity is the essence of friendship, and, besides, I have got
a new wheelbarrow for myself. Yes, you may set your mind at ease,
I will give you my wheelbarrow.’
“‘Well, really, that is generous of you,’ said
little Hans, and his funny round face glowed all over with pleasure.
‘I can easily put it in repair, as I have a plank of wood in the
“‘A plank of wood’! said the Miller; ‘why,
that is just what I want for the roof of my barn. There is a very
large hole in it, and the corn will all get damp if I don’t stop
it up. How lucky you mentioned it! It is quite remarkable
how one good action always breeds another. I have given you my
wheelbarrow, and now you are going to give me your plank. Of course,
the wheelbarrow is worth far more than the plank, but true, friendship
never notices things like that. Pray get it at once, and I will
set to work at my barn this very day.’
“‘Certainly,’ cried little Hans, and he ran into
the shed and dragged the plank out.
“‘It is not a very big plank,’ said the Miller,
looking at it, ‘and I am afraid that after I have mended my barn-roof
there won’t be any left for you to mend the wheelbarrow with;
but, of course, that is not my fault. And now, as I have given
you my wheelbarrow, I am sure you would like to give me some flowers
in return. Here is the basket, and mind you fill it quite full.’
“‘Quite full?’ said little Hans, rather sorrowfully,
for it was really a very big basket, and he knew that if he filled it
he would have no flowers left for the market and he was very anxious
to get his silver buttons back.
“‘Well, really,’ answered the Miller, ‘as
I have given you my wheelbarrow, I don’t think that it is much
to ask you for a few flowers. I may be wrong, but I should have
thought that friendship, true friendship, was quite free from selfishness
of any kind.’
“‘My dear friend, my best friend,’ cried little
Hans, ‘you are welcome to all the flowers in my garden.
I would much sooner have your good opinion than my silver buttons, any
day’; and he ran and plucked all his pretty primroses, and filled
the Miller’s basket.
“‘Good-bye, little Hans,’ said the Miller, as he
went up the hill with the plank on his shoulder, and the big basket
in his hand.
“‘Good-bye,’ said little Hans, and he began to
dig away quite merrily, he was so pleased about the wheelbarrow.
“The next day he was nailing up some honeysuckle against the
porch, when he heard the Miller’s voice calling to him from the
road. So he jumped off the ladder, and ran down the garden, and
looked over the wall.
“There was the Miller with a large sack of flour on his back.
“‘Dear little Hans,’ said the Miller, ‘would
you mind carrying this sack of flour for me to market?’
“‘Oh, I am so sorry,’ said Hans, ‘but I am
really very busy to-day. I have got all my creepers to nail up,
and all my flowers to water, and all my grass to roll.’
“‘Well, really,’ said the Miller, ‘I think
that, considering that I am going to give you my wheelbarrow, it is
rather unfriendly of you to refuse.’
“‘Oh, don’t say that,’ cried little Hans,
‘I wouldn’t be unfriendly for the whole world’; and
he ran in for his cap, and trudged off with the big sack on his shoulders.
“It was a very hot day, and the road was terribly dusty, and
before Hans had reached the sixth milestone he was so tired that he
had to sit down and rest. However, he went on bravely, and as
last he reached the market. After he had waited there some time,
he sold the sack of flour for a very good price, and then he returned
home at once, for he was afraid that if he stopped too late he might
meet some robbers on the way.
“‘It has certainly been a hard day,’ said little
Hans to himself as he was going to bed, ‘but I am glad I did not
refuse the Miller, for he is my best friend, and, besides, he is going
to give me his wheelbarrow.’
“Early the next morning the Miller came down to get the money
for his sack of flour, but little Hans was so tired that he was still
“‘Upon my word,’ said the Miller, ‘you are
very lazy. Really, considering that I am going to give you my
wheelbarrow, I think you might work harder. Idleness is a great
sin, and I certainly don’t like any of my friends to be idle or
sluggish. You must not mind my speaking quite plainly to you.
Of course I should not dream of doing so if I were not your friend.
But what is the good of friendship if one cannot say exactly what one
means? Anybody can say charming things and try to please and to
flatter, but a true friend always says unpleasant things, and does not
mind giving pain. Indeed, if he is a really true friend he prefers
it, for he knows that then he is doing good.’
“‘I am very sorry,’ said little Hans, rubbing his
eyes and pulling off his night-cap, ‘but I was so tired that I
thought I would lie in bed for a little time, and listen to the birds
singing. Do you know that I always work better after hearing the
“‘Well, I am glad of that,’ said the Miller, clapping
little Hans on the back, ‘for I want you to come up to the mill
as soon as you are dressed, and mend my barn-roof for me.’
“Poor little Hans was very anxious to go and work in his garden,
for his flowers had not been watered for two days, but he did not like
to refuse the Miller, as he was such a good friend to him.
“‘Do you think it would be unfriendly of me if I said
I was busy?’ he inquired in a shy and timid voice.
“‘Well, really,’ answered the Miller, ‘I
do not think it is much to ask of you, considering that I am going to
give you my wheelbarrow; but of course if you refuse I will go and do
“‘Oh! on no account,’ cried little Hans and he
jumped out of bed, and dressed himself, and went up to the barn.
“He worked there all day long, till sunset, and at sunset the
Miller came to see how he was getting on.
“‘Have you mended the hole in the roof yet, little Hans?’
cried the Miller in a cheery voice.
“‘It is quite mended,’ answered little Hans, coming
down the ladder.
“‘Ah’! said the Miller, ‘there is no work
so delightful as the work one does for others.’
“‘It is certainly a great privilege to hear you talk,’
answered little Hans, sitting down, and wiping his forehead, ‘a
very great privilege. But I am afraid I shall never have such
beautiful ideas as you have.’
“‘Oh! they will come to you,’ said the Miller,
‘but you must take more pains. At present you have only
the practice of friendship; some day you will have the theory also.’
“‘Do you really think I shall?’ asked little Hans.
“‘I have no doubt of it,’ answered the Miller,
‘but now that you have mended the roof, you had better go home
and rest, for I want you to drive my sheep to the mountain to-morrow.’
“Poor little Hans was afraid to say anything to this, and early
the next morning the Miller brought his sheep round to the cottage,
and Hans started off with them to the mountain. It took him the
whole day to get there and back; and when he returned he was so tired
that he went off to sleep in his chair, and did not wake up till it
was broad daylight.
“‘What a delightful time I shall have in my garden,’
he said, and he went to work at once.
“But somehow he was never able to look after his flowers at
all, for his friend the Miller was always coming round and sending him
off on long errands, or getting him to help at the mill. Little
Hans was very much distressed at times, as he was afraid his flowers
would think he had forgotten them, but he consoled himself by the reflection
that the Miller was his best friend. ‘Besides,’ he
used to say, ‘he is going to give me his wheelbarrow, and that
is an act of pure generosity.’
“So little Hans worked away for the Miller, and the Miller
said all kinds of beautiful things about friendship, which Hans took
down in a note-book, and used to read over at night, for he was a very
“Now it happened that one evening little Hans was sitting by
his fireside when a loud rap came at the door. It was a very wild
night, and the wind was blowing and roaring round the house so terribly
that at first he thought it was merely the storm. But a second
rap came, and then a third, louder than any of the others.
“‘It is some poor traveller,’ said little Hans
to himself, and he ran to the door.
“There stood the Miller with a lantern in one hand and a big
stick in the other.
“‘Dear little Hans,’ cried the Miller, ‘I
am in great trouble. My little boy has fallen off a ladder and
hurt himself, and I am going for the Doctor. But he lives so far
away, and it is such a bad night, that it has just occurred to me that
it would be much better if you went instead of me. You know I
am going to give you my wheelbarrow, and so, it is only fair that you
should do something for me in return.’
“‘Certainly,’ cried little Hans, ‘I take
it quite as a compliment your coming to me, and I will start off at
once. But you must lend me your lantern, as the night is so dark
that I am afraid I might fall into the ditch.’
“‘I am very sorry,’ answered the Miller, ‘but
it is my new lantern, and it would be a great loss to me if anything
happened to it.’
“‘Well, never mind, I will do without it,’ cried
little Hans, and he took down his great fur coat, and his warm scarlet
cap, and tied a muffler round his throat, and started off.
“What a dreadful storm it was! The night was so black
that little Hans could hardly see, and the wind was so strong that he
could scarcely stand. However, he was very courageous, and after
he had been walking about three hours, he arrived at the Doctor’s
house, and knocked at the door.
“‘Who is there?’ cried the Doctor, putting his
head out of his bedroom window.
“‘Little Hans, Doctor.’
“’What do you want, little Hans?’
“‘The Miller’s son has fallen from a ladder, and
has hurt himself, and the Miller wants you to come at once.’
“‘All right!’ said the Doctor; and he ordered his
horse, and his big boots, and his lantern, and came downstairs, and
rode off in the direction of the Miller’s house, little Hans trudging
“But the storm grew worse and worse, and the rain fell in torrents,
and little Hans could not see where he was going, or keep up with the
horse. At last he lost his way, and wandered off on the moor,
which was a very dangerous place, as it was full of deep holes, and
there poor little Hans was drowned. His body was found the next
day by some goatherds, floating in a great pool of water, and was brought
back by them to the cottage.
“Everybody went to little Hans’ funeral, as he was so
popular, and the Miller was the chief mourner.
“‘As I was his best friend,’ said the Miller, ‘it
is only fair that I should have the best place’; so he walked
at the head of the procession in a long black cloak, and every now and
then he wiped his eyes with a big pocket-handkerchief.
“‘Little Hans is certainly a great loss to every one,’
said the Blacksmith, when the funeral was over, and they were all seated
comfortably in the inn, drinking spiced wine and eating sweet cakes.
“‘A great loss to me at any rate,’ answered the
Miller; ‘why, I had as good as given him my wheelbarrow, and now
I really don’t know what to do with it. It is very much
in my way at home, and it is in such bad repair that I could not get
anything for it if I sold it. I will certainly take care not to
give away anything again. One always suffers for being generous.’”
“Well?” said the Water-rat, after a long pause.
“Well, that is the end,” said the Linnet.
“But what became of the Miller?” asked the Water-rat.
“Oh! I really don’t know,” replied the Linnet;
“and I am sure that I don’t care.”
“It is quite evident then that you have no sympathy in your
nature,” said the Water-rat.
“I am afraid you don’t quite see the moral of the story,”
remarked the Linnet.
“The what?” screamed the Water-rat.
“Do you mean to say that the story has a moral?”
“Certainly,” said the Linnet.
“Well, really,” said the Water-rat, in a very angry manner,
“I think you should have told me that before you began.
If you had done so, I certainly would not have listened to you; in fact,
I should have said ‘Pooh,’ like the critic. However,
I can say it now”; so he shouted out “Pooh” at the
top of his voice, gave a whisk with his tail, and went back into his
“And how do you like the Water-rat?” asked the Duck,
who came paddling up some minutes afterwards. “He has a
great many good points, but for my own part I have a mother’s
feelings, and I can never look at a confirmed bachelor without the tears
coming into my eyes.”
“I am rather afraid that I have annoyed him,” answered
the Linnet. “The fact is, that I told him a story with a
“Ah! that is always a very dangerous thing to do,” said
And I quite agree with her.