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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
On the Migration of Fables
By Friedrich Max Müller (1823–1900)
From ‘Chips from a German Workshop’

“COUNT not your chickens before they be hatched,” is a well-known proverb in English; and most people, if asked what was its origin, would probably appeal to La Fontaine’s delightful fable, ‘La Laitière et le Pot au Lait.’ We all know Perrette, lightly stepping along from her village to the town, and in her day-dreams selling her milk for a good sum, then buying a hundred eggs, then selling the chickens, then buying a pig, fattening it, selling it again, and buying a cow with a calf. The calf frolics about, and kicks up his legs—so does Perrette; and alas! the pail falls down, the milk is spilt, her riches gone, and she only hopes when she comes home that she may escape a flogging from her husband.  1
  Did La Fontaine invent this fable? or did he merely follow the example of Sokrates, who, as we know from the ‘Phædon,’ occupied himself in prison, during the last days of his life, with turning into verse some of the fables—or as he calls them, the myths—of Æsop.  2
  La Fontaine published the first six books of his fables in 1668; and it is well known that the subjects of most of these fables were taken from Æsop, Phædrus, Horace, and other classical fabulists,—if we may adopt this word “fabuliste,” which La Fontaine was the first to introduce into French.  3
  In 1678 a second of these six books was published, enriched by five books of new fables; and in 1694 a new edition appeared, containing one additional book, thus completing the collection of his charming poems.  4
  The fable of Perrette stands in the seventh book; and was published, therefore, for the first time in the edition of 1678. In the preface to that edition, La Fontaine says: “It is not necessary that I should say whence I have taken the subjects of these new fables. I shall only say, from a sense of gratitude, that I owe the largest portion of them to Pilpay, the Indian sage.”  5
  If then La Fontaine tells us himself that he borrowed the subjects of most of his new fables from Pilpay, the Indian sage, we have clearly a right to look to India in order to see whether, in the ancient literature of that country, any traces can be discovered of Perrette with the milk-pail.  6
  Sanskrit literature is very rich in fables and stories; no other literature can vie with it in that respect; nay, it is extremely likely that fables, in particular animal fables, had their principal source in India. In the sacred literature of the Buddhists, fables held a most prominent place. The Buddhist preachers, addressing themselves chiefly to the people, to the untaught, the uncared-for, the outcast, spoke to them as we still speak to children, in fables and parables. Many of these fables and parables must have existed before the rise of the Buddhist religion; others, no doubt, were added on the spur of the moment, just as Sokrates would invent a myth or fable whenever that form of argument seemed to him most likely to impress and convince his hearers. But Buddhism gave a new and permanent sanction to this whole branch of moral mythology; and in the sacred canon, as it was settled in the third century before Christ, many a fable received, and holds to the present day, its recognized place. After the fall of Buddhism in India, and even during its decline, the Brahmans claimed the inheritance of their enemies, and used their popular fables for educational purposes. The best known of these collections of fables in Sanskrit is the ‘Pañkatantra,’ literally the Pentateuch or Pentamerone. From it and from other sources another collection was made, well known to all Sanskrit scholars by the name of ‘Hitopadesa’; i.e., Salutary Advice. Both these books have been published in England and Germany, and there are translations of them in English, German, French, and other languages.  7
  The first question which we have to answer refers to the date of these collections; and dates in the history of Sanskrit literature are always difficult points. Fortunately, as we shall see, we can in this case fix the date of the ‘Pañkatantra’ at least, by means of a translation into ancient Persian, which was made about five hundred and fifty years after Christ, though even then we can only prove that a collection somewhat like the ‘Pañkatantra’ must have existed at that time; but we cannot refer the book, in exactly that form in which we now possess it, to that distant period.  8
  If we look for La Fontaine’s fable in the Sanskrit stories of ‘Pañkatantra,’ we do not find, indeed, the milkmaid counting her chickens before they are hatched, but we meet with the following story:—
          “There lived in a certain place a Brâhman, whose name was Svabhâvakripana, which means ‘a born miser.’ He had collected a quantity of rice by begging [this reminds us somewhat of the Buddhist mendicants], and after having dined off it, he filled a pot with what was left over. He hung the pot on a peg on the wall, placed his couch beneath, and looking intently at it all the night, he thought, ‘Ah, that pot is indeed brimful of rice. Now, if there should be a famine, I should certainly make a hundred rupees by it. With this I shall buy a couple of goats. They will have young ones every six months, and thus I shall have a whole herd of goats. Then with the goats I shall buy cows. As soon as they have calved, I shall sell the calves. Then with the cows I shall buy buffaloes; with the buffaloes, mares. When the mares have foaled, I shall have plenty of horses; and when I sell them, plenty of gold. With that gold I shall get a house with four wings. And then a Brâhman will come to my house, and will give me his beautiful daughter, with a large dowry. She will have a son, and I shall call him Somasarman. When he is old enough to be danced on his father’s knee, I shall sit with a book at the back of the stable, and while I am reading, the boy will see me, jump from his mother’s lap and run towards me to be danced on my knee. He will come too near the horse’s hoof, and full of anger, I shall call to my wife, “Take the baby; take him!” But she, distracted by some domestic work, does not hear me. Then I get up, and give her such a kick with my foot.’ While he thought this, he gave a kick with his foot, and broke the pot. All the rice fell over him, and made him quite white. Therefore I say, ‘He who makes foolish plans for the future will be white all over, like the father of Somasarman.’”
  I shall at once proceed to read you the same story, though slightly modified, from the ‘Hitopadesa.’ The ‘Hitopadesa’ professes to be taken from the ‘Pañkatantra’ and some other books; and in this case it would seem as if some other authority had been followed. You will see, at all events, how much freedom there was in telling the old story of the man who built castles in the air.
          “In the town of Devîkotta there lived a Brâhman of the name of Devasarman. At the feast of the great equinox he received a plate full of rice. He took it, went into a potter’s shop, which was full of crockery, and overcome by the heat, he lay down in a corner and began to doze. In order to protect his plate of rice he kept his stick in his hand, and began to think: ‘Now, if I sell this plate of rice, I shall receive ten cowries [kapardaka]. I shall then, on the spot, buy pots and plates, and after having increased my capital again and again, I shall buy and sell betel-nuts and dresses till I become enormously rich. Then I shall marry four wives, and the youngest and prettiest of the four I shall make a great pet of. Then the other wives will be so angry, and begin to quarrel. But I shall be in a great rage, and take a stick, and give them a good flogging.’ While he said this, he flung his stick away; the plate of rice was smashed to pieces, and many of the pots in the shop were broken. The potter, hearing the noise, ran into the shop, and when he saw his pots broken, he gave the Brâhman a good scolding, and drove him out of his shop. Therefore I say, ‘He who rejoices over plans for the future will come to grief, like the Brâhman who broke the pots.’”
  In spite of the change of a Brahman into a milkmaid, no one, I suppose, will doubt that we have here in the stories of the ‘Pañkatantra’ and ‘Hitopadesa’ the first germs of La Fontaine’s fable. But how did that fable travel all the way from India to France? How did it doff its Sanskrit garment, and don the light dress of modern French? How was the stupid Brahman born again as the brisk milkmaid, cotillon simple et souliers plats?  11
  It seems a startling case of longevity, that while languages have changed, while works of art have perished, while empires have risen and vanished again, this simple children’s story should have lived on, and maintained its place of honor and its undisputed sway in every school-room of the East and every nursery of the West. And yet it is a case of longevity so well attested that even the most skeptical would hardly venture to question it. We have the passport of these stories viséd at every place through which they have passed, and as far as I can judge, parfaitement en règle. The story of the migration of these Indian fables from East to West is indeed wonderful; more wonderful and more instructive than many of the fables themselves. Will it be believed that we, in this Christian country, and in the nineteenth century, teach our children the first, the most important lessons of worldly wisdom,—nay, of a more than worldly wisdom,—from books borrowed from Buddhists and Brahmans, from heretics and idolaters; and that wise words spoken a thousand,—nay, two thousand—years ago, in a lonely village of India, like precious seed scattered broadcast over the world, still bear fruit a hundred and a thousand fold in that soil which is most precious before God and man,—the soul of a child? No lawgiver, no philosopher, has made his influence felt so widely, so deeply, and so permanently as the author of these children’s fables. But who was he? We do not know. His name, like the name of many a benefactor of the human race, is forgotten. We only know he was an Indian—a “nigger,” as some people would call him—and that he lived at least two thousand years ago.  12
  No doubt, when we first hear of the Indian origin of these fables, and of their migration from India to Europe, we wonder whether it can be so; but the fact is, that the story of this Indo-European migration is not, like the migration of the Indo-European languages, myths, and legends, a matter of theory, but of history; and that it was never quite forgotten, either in the East or in the West. Each translator, as he handed on his treasure, seems to have been anxious to show how he came by it.  13
  Several writers who have treated of the origin and spreading of Indo-European stories and fables, have mixed up two or three questions which ought to be treated each on its own merits.  14
  The first question is, whether the Aryans, when they broke up their pro-ethnic community, carried away with them, not only their common grammar and dictionary, but likewise some myths and legends, which we find that Indians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Germans, Slaves, when they emerge into the light of history, share in common? That certain deities occur in India, Greece, and Germany, having the same names and the same character, is a fact that can no longer be denied. That certain heroes, too, known to Indians, Greeks, and Romans, point to one and the same origin, both by their name and by their history, is a fact by this time admitted by all whose admission is of real value. As heroes are in most cases gods in disguise, there is nothing very startling in the fact that nations who had worshiped the same gods should also have preserved some common legend of demigods or heroes,—nay, even, in a later phase of thought, of fairies and ghosts. The case however becomes much more problematical when we ask whether stories also—fables told with a decided moral purpose—formed part of that earliest Aryan inheritance? This is still doubted by many who have no doubts whatever as to common Aryan myths and legends; and even those who, like myself, have tried to establish by tentative arguments the existence of common Aryan fables, dating from before the Aryan separation, have done so only by showing a possible connection between ancient popular saws and mythological ideas, capable of a moral application. To any one, for instance, who knows how, in the poetical mythology of the Aryan tribes, the golden splendor of the rising sun leads to conceptions of the wealth of the Dawn in gold and jewels, and her readiness to shower them upon her worshipers, the modern German proverb “Morgenstunde hat Gold im Munde” 1 seems to have a kind of mythological ring; and the stories of benign fairies, changing everything into gold, sound likewise like an echo from the long-forgotten forest of our common Aryan home….  15
  In order to gain a commanding view of the countries traversed by these fables, let us take our position at Bagdad in the middle of the eighth century, and watch from that central point the movements of our literary caravan in its progress from the far East to the far West. In the middle of the eighth century, during the reign of the great Khalif Almansur, Abdallah ibn Almokaffa wrote his famous collection of fables, the ‘Kalila and Dimnah,’ which we still possess. The Arabic text of these fables has been published by Sylvestre de Sacy, and there is an English translation of it by Mr. Knatchbull, formerly professor of Arabic at Oxford. Abdallah ibn Almokaffa was a Persian by birth, who, after the fall of the Omeyyades, became a convert to Mohammedanism, and rose to high office at the court of the Khalifs. Being in possession of important secrets of State, he became dangerous in the eyes of the Khalif Almansur, and was foully murdered. In the preface, Abdallah ibn Almokaffa tells us that he translated these fables from Pehlevi, the ancient language of Persia; and that they had been translated into Pehlevi (about two hundred years before his time) by Barzûyeh, the physician of Khosru Nushirvan, the King of Persia, the contemporary of the Emperor Justinian. The King of Persia had heard that there existed in India a book full of wisdom; and he had commanded his Vezier, Buzurjmihr, to find a man acquainted with the languages both of Persia and India. The man chosen was Barzûyeh. He traveled to India, got possession of the book, translated it into Persian, and brought it back to the court of Khosru. Declining all rewards beyond a dress of honor, he only stipulated that an account of his own life and opinions should be added to the book. This account, probably written by himself, is extremely curious. It is a kind of ‘Religio Medici’ of the sixth century; and shows us a soul dissatisfied with traditions and formularies, striving after truth, and finding rest only where many other seekers after truth have found rest before and after him,—in a life devoted to alleviating the sufferings of mankind.  16
  There is another account of the journey of this Persian physician to India. It has the sanction of Firdúsi, in the great Persian epic, the ‘Shah Nâmeh’; and it is considered by some as more original than the one just quoted. According to it, the Persian physician read in a book that there existed in India trees or herbs supplying a medicine with which the dead could be restored to life. At the command of the King he went to India in search of those trees and herbs; but after spending a year in vain researches, he consulted some wise people on the subject. They told him that the medicine of which he had read as having the power to restore men to life, had to be understood in a higher and more spiritual sense; and that what was really meant by it were ancient books of wisdom preserved in India, which imparted life to those who were dead in their folly and sins. Thereupon the physician translated these books, and one of them was the collection of fables,—the ‘Kalila and Dimnah.’  17
  It is possible that both these stories were later inventions; the preface also by Ali, the son of Alshah Farési, in which the names of Bidpai and King Dabshelim are mentioned for the first time, is of later date. But the fact remains that Abdallah ibn Almokaffa, the author of the oldest Arabic collection of our fables, translated them from Pehlevi, the language of Persia at the time of Khosru Nushirvan; and that the Pehlevi text which he translated was believed to be a translation of a book brought from India in the middle of the sixth century. That Indian book could not have been the ‘Pañkatantra’ as we now possess it, but must have been a much larger collection of fables: for the Arabic translation, the ‘Kalilah and Dimnah,’ contains eighteen chapters instead of the five of the ‘Pañkatantra’; and it is only in the fifth, the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, and the tenth chapters that we find the same stories which form the five books of the Pañkatantra in the textus ornatior….  18
  In this Arabic translation, the story of the Brahman and the pot of rice runs as follows:—
          “A religious man was in the habit of receiving every day from the house of a merchant a certain quantity of butter [oil] and honey; of which, having eaten as much as he wanted, he put the rest into a jar, which he hung on a nail in a corner of the room, hoping that the jar would in time be filled. Now as he was leaning back one day on his couch, with a stick in his hand, and the jar suspended over his head, he thought of the high price of butter and honey, and said to himself, ‘I will sell what is in the jar, and buy with the money which I obtain for it ten goats; which producing each of them a young one every five months, in addition to the produce of the kids as soon as they begin to bear, it will not be long before there is a great flock.’ He continued to make his calculations, and found that he should at this rate, in the course of two years, have more than four hundred goats. ‘At the expiration of the term I will buy,’ said he, ‘a hundred black cattle, in the proportion of a bull or a cow for every four goats. I will then purchase land, and hire workmen to plow it with the beasts, and put it into tillage; so that before five years are over, I shall no doubt have realized a great fortune by the sale of the milk which the cows will give, and of the produce of my land. My next business will be to build a magnificent house, and engage a number of servants, both male and female; and when my establishment is completed, I will marry the handsomest woman I can find, who, in due time becoming a mother, will present me with an heir to my possessions, who, as he advances in age, shall receive the best masters that can be procured; and if the progress which he makes in learning is equal to my reasonable expectations, I shall be amply repaid for the pains and expense which I have bestowed upon him; but if, on the other hand, he disappoints my hopes, the rod which I have here shall be the instrument with which I will make him feel the displeasure of a justly offended parent.’ At these words he suddenly raised the hand which held the stick towards the jar, and broke it, and the contents ran down upon his head and face.”
  You will have observed the coincidences between the Arabic and the Sanskrit versions; but also a considerable divergence, particularly in the winding up of the story. The Brahman and the holy man both build their castles in the air; but while the former kicks his wife, the latter only chastises his son. How this change came to pass we cannot tell. One might suppose that at the time when the book was translated from Sanskrit into Pehlevi, or from Pehlevi into Arabic, the Sanskrit story was exactly like the Arabic story, and that it was changed afterwards. But another explanation is equally admissible; viz., that the Pehlevi or the Arabic translator wished to avoid the offensive behavior of the husband kicking his wife, and therefore substituted the son as a more deserving object of castigation.  20
  We have thus traced our story from Sanskrit to Pehlevi, and from Pehlevi to Arabic; we have followed it in its migrations from the hermitages of Indian sages to the court of the kings of Persia, and from thence to the residence of the powerful Khalifs at Bagdad. Let us recollect that the Khalif Almansur, for whom the Arabic translation was made, was a contemporary of Abderrahman, who ruled in Spain; and that both were but little anterior to Harun al Rashid and Charlemagne. At that time, therefore, the way was perfectly open for these Eastern fables, after they had once reached Bagdad, to penetrate into the seats of Western learning, and to spread to every part of the new empire of Charlemagne. They may have done so, for all we know; but nearly three hundred years pass before these fables meet us again in the literature of Europe. The Carlovingian empire had fallen to pieces, Spain had been rescued from the Mohammedans, William the Conqueror had landed in England, and the Crusades had begun to turn the thoughts of Europe towards the East, when, about the year 1080, we hear of a Jew of the name of Symeon, the son of Seth, who translated these fables from Arabic into Greek. He states in his preface that the book came originally from India, that it was brought to King Chosroes of Persia, and then translated into Arabic…. The Greek text has been published, though very imperfectly, under the title of ‘Stephanites and Ichnelates.’ Here our fable is told as follows:—
          “It is said that a beggar kept some honey and butter in a jar close to where he slept. One night he thought thus within himself: ‘I shall sell this honey and butter for however small a sum; with it I shall buy ten goats, and these in five months will produce as many again. In five years they will become four hundred. With them I shall buy one hundred cows, and with them I shall cultivate some land. And what with their calves and the harvests, I shall become rich in five years, and build a house with four wings, ornamented with gold, and buy all kinds of servants and marry a wife. She will give me a child, and I shall call him Beauty. It will be a boy, and I shall educate him properly; and if I see him lazy, I shall give him such a flogging with this stick!’ With these words he took a stick that was near him, struck the jar, and broke it, so that the honey and milk ran down on his beard.”
  This Greek translation might, no doubt, have reached La Fontaine; but as the French poet was not a great scholar, least of all a reader of Greek MSS., and as the fables of Symeon Seth were not published till 1697, we must look for other channels through which the old fable was carried along from East to West….  22
  The fact is, these fables had found several other channels, through which, as early as the thirteenth century, they reached the literary market of Europe, and became familiar as household words, at least among the higher and educated classes….  23
  But Perrette with the milk-pail has not yet arrived at the end of her journey…. Remember that in all our wanderings we have not yet found the milkmaid, but only the Brahman or the religious man. What we want to know is, who first brought about this metamorphosis.  24
  No doubt La Fontaine was quite the man to seize on any jewel which was contained in the Oriental fables, to remove the cumbersome and foreign-looking setting, and then to place the principal figure in that pretty frame in which most of us have first become acquainted with it. But in this case the charmer’s wand did not belong to La Fontaine, but to some forgotten worthy, whose very name it will be difficult to fix upon with certainty.  25
  We have as yet traced three streams only, all starting from the Arabic translation of Abdallah ibn Almokaffa,—one in the eleventh, another in the twelfth, a third in the thirteenth century,—all reaching Europe, some touching the very steps of the throne of Louis XIV., yet none of them carrying the leaf which contained the story of ‘Perrette,’ or of the ‘Brahman,’ to the threshold of La Fontaine’s home. We must therefore try again.  26
  After the conquest of Spain by the Mohammedans, Arabic literature had found a new home in Western Europe; and among the numerous works translated from Arabic into Latin or Spanish, we find towards the end of the thirteenth century (1289) a Spanish translation of our fables, called ‘Calila é Dymna.’ In this the name of the philosopher is changed from Bidpai to Bundobel. This, or another translation from Arabic, was turned into Latin verse by Raimond de Beziers in 1313 (not published).  27
  Lastly, we find in the same century another translation from Arabic straight into Latin verse, by Baldo, which became known under the name of ‘Æsopus Alter.’  28
  From these frequent translations, and translations of translations, in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, we see quite clearly that these Indian fables were extremely popular, and were in fact more widely read in Europe than the Bible, or any other book. They were not only read in translations, but having been introduced into sermons, homilies, and works on morality, they were improved upon, acclimatized, localized, till at last it is almost impossible to recognize their Oriental features under their homely disguises.  29
  I shall give you one instance only.  30
  Rabelais, in his ‘Gargantua,’ gives a long description of how a man might conquer the whole world. At the end of this dialogue, which was meant as a satire on Charles V., we read:—
          “There was here present at that time an old gentleman well experienced in the wars,—a stern soldier, and who had been in many great hazards,—named Echephron, who, hearing this discourse, said: ‘J’ay grand peur que toute ceste entreprise sera semblable à la farce du pot au laict duquel un cordavanier se faisoit riche par resverie, puis le pot cassé, n’eut de quoy disner.’” (I fear me that this great undertaking will turn out like the farce of the pot of milk, which made the shoemaker rich in imagination till he broke the pot, and had to go without his dinner.)
This is clearly our story; only the Brahman has as yet been changed into a shoemaker only, and the pot of rice or the jar of butter and honey into a pitcher of milk. Fortunately, we can make at least one step further,—a step of about two centuries. This step backwards brings us to the thirteenth century, and there we find our old Indian friend again, and this time really changed into a milkmaid. The book I refer to is written in Latin, and is called ‘Dialogus Creaturarum optime moralizatus’; in English, the ‘Dialogue of Creatures Moralized.’ It was a book intended to teach the principles of Christian morality by examples taken from ancient fables. It was evidently a most successful book, and was translated into several modern languages. There is an old translation of it in English, first printed by Rastell, and afterwards reprinted in 1816. I shall read you from it the fable in which, as far as I can find, the milkmaid appears for the first time on the stage, surrounded already by much of that scenery which, four hundred years later, received its last touches at the hand of La Fontaine.
          “DIALOGO C.—For as it is but madnesse to trust to moche in surete, so it is but foly to hope to moche of vanyteys, for vayne be all erthly thinges longynge to men, as sayth Davyd, Psal. xciiii.: Wher of it is tolde in fablys that a lady uppon a tyme delyvered to her mayden a galon of mylke to sell at a cite, and by the way, as she sate and restid her by a dyche side, she began to thinke that with the money of the mylke she wold bye an henne, the which shulde bringe forth chekyns, and when they were growyn to hennys she wolde sell them and by piggis, and eschaunge them in to shepe, and the shepe in to oxen, and so whan she was come to richesse she sholde be maried right worshipfully unto some worthy man, and thus she reioycid. And whan she was thus mervelously comfortid and ravisshed inwardly in her secrete solace, thinkynge with howe greate ioye she shuld be ledde towarde the chirche with her husbond on horsebacke, she sayde to her self: ‘Goo we, goo we.’ Sodaynlye she smote the ground with her fote, myndynge to spurre the horse, but her fote slypped, and she fell in the dyche, and there lay all her mylke, and so she was farre from her purpose, and never had that she hopid to have.”
  Here we have arrived at the end of our journey. It has been a long journey across fifteen or twenty centuries, and I am afraid our following Perrette from country to country, and from language to language, may have tired some of my hearers. I shall, therefore, not attempt to fill the gap that divides the fable of the thirteenth century from La Fontaine. Suffice it to say, that the milkmaid, having once taken the place of the Brahman, maintained it against all comers. We find her as Doña Truhana in the famous ‘Conde Lucanor,’ the work of the Infante Don Juan Manuel who died in 1347; the grandson of St. Ferdinand, the nephew of Alfonso the Wise; though himself not a king, yet more powerful than a king; renowned both by his sword and by his pen, and possibly not ignorant of Arabic, the language of his enemies. We find her again in the ‘Contes et Nouvelles’ of Bonaventure des Periers, published in the sixteenth century,—a book which we know that La Fontaine was well acquainted with. We find her, after La Fontaine, in all the languages of Europe.  32
  You see now before your eyes the bridge on which our fables came to us from East to West. The same bridge which brought us Perrette brought us hundreds of fables, all originally sprung up in India, many of them carefully collected by Buddhist priests and preserved in their sacred canon, afterwards handed on to the Brahmanic writers of a later age, carried by Barzûyeh from India to the court of Persia, then to the courts of the Khalifs at Bagdad and Cordova, and of the Emperors at Constantinople. Some of them no doubt perished on their journey, others were mixed up together, others were changed till we should hardly know them again. Still, if you once know the eventful journey of Perrette, you know the journey of all the other fables that belong to this Indian cycle. Few of them have gone through so many changes; few of them have found so many friends, whether in the courts of kings or in the huts of beggars. Few of them have been to places where Perrette has not also been. This is why I selected her and her passage through the world as the best illustration of a subject which otherwise would require a whole course of lectures to do it justice.  33
Note 1. “The morning hour has gold in its mouth:”—“Early to bed and early to rise, Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” [back]

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