Once upon a time there was a poor man digging ditches by the main road. And believe it or not, one day the king himself went by and asked the poor man :
“Tell me, my dear, what´s your pay for this hard work?“
“Ha, your Highness, I get three coppers a day.“
The astonished king asked how he could live on just three coppers to make ends meet.
"Well, your Highness, if only to live, that would be fine, but out of the three coppers I return one, I lend one and only the third one is for me to get by.“
The king did not understand. Indeed, however he tried, he couldn´t think how this could be possible, to return, to lend and live with just three coppers.
“Well, your Highness“, said the poor man, “it is like this. I look after my old father, he is the one who I return, for he brought me up. But I also have a little son, and he is the one to whom I lend it, so that he can return it to me when I am old. And I only need the last third copper for myself.“
“Well then, if that is so“, said the delighted king, “you know, I have twelve councillors at home, and the more I give them, the more they complain that they have very little to get by. I ´ll give them this puzzle you just told me. But, alas, if they come to ask you about it, do not tell them, until you see my picture.“ As he said that he gave the peasant a handful of ducats and went home.
As soon as he arrived at the palace, he asked his twelve councillors to come before him.
“You“, he tells them, “why are you unable to live on the amount of money I pay you¬? There is a man in this country who lives on only three coppers a day, and he is able to return one, to lend one and keep only the third one for himself and still, he is an honest man! Now, if you are so wise, tell me, how this is possible? You have until the day after tomorrow to answer my question. If you cannot, you´ll be banished from the country. No longer will you eat my bread for free!“
The disappointed councillors discussed the problem, but each of them wanted to be wiser than the other, but none of them wanted to be indebted to the bright peasant. The days went by and in the third morning, when they were supposed to be standing before the king, they still had no answer to the puzzle. Since they couldn´t be helped, they decided to find the poor man, for he was the one who could give them a clue. And so they went to him.
Begging, threatening, they forced him to tell them the answer about the three coppers, but he was not frightened by them, and told them about the king´s order which would not allow him to say anything until he saw the king´s picture. Only if they brought it to him, would he give them an answer. “How can we, poor sinners, bring you the king´s picture now¬?“, cried the councillors, “ the king won´t let us!“ “If you can´t even work that out, then I certainly won´t give you the answer“, said the peasant.
They promised him the moon, brought him a fortune, arguing that he now had so much that he didn´t need the king´s pardon, only to get the answer from him. But he wouldn´t tell. Only when he had enough of mocking these clueless men, from his pocket, he pulled one of the king´s ducats, which the king had given him and said:
“Here, can you see, is the king´s picture, I can see it well. I don´t have to worry about trespassing the king´s order. So I can tell you the answer.“ And so he did.
It couldn´t have been easier for the councillors to talk to the king on the third day after the poor man had shared his mind. But the king sensed there was a problem, so he ordered the poor man to come before him and asked him: “Tell me, how could an honest man like you disobey my command?“
“I didn´t trespass anything, your Highness, for I was quiet as a mouse until I saw your fair picture. Here, I have it still with me, it was you who gave it to me“, and he showed the ducat with the king´s picture on it and told the king the whole story with the councillors, how they threatened and begged him, gave him gifts, but he only ridiculed them. “Dear me, if you are so bright, that you have more wisdom than my twelve councillors, no more will you be digging ditches, now you will live in my court like an honourable man and sit in my council.“
“And you“, he turned to the councillors, “shame on you! What should I do with you now? Not only will I not increase your pay, but I will take from what you already get!“
They never came to ask for more money again.