Your free classic folktale for today comes from the translated collection of Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales edited and published by J. H. Stickney in 1886.
It really appeared as if something very important were going on by the duck pond, but this was not the case.
A few minutes before, all the ducks had been resting on the water or standing on their heads—for that they can do—and then they all swam in a bustle to the shore. The traces of their feet could be seen on the wet earth, and far and wide could be heard their quacking. The water, so lately clear and bright as a mirror, was in quite a commotion.
But a moment before, every tree and bush near the old farmhouse—and even the house itself with the holes in the roof and the swallows' nests and, above all, the beautiful rosebush covered with roses—had been clearly reflected in the water. The rosebush on the wall hung over the water, which resembled a picture only that everything appeared upside down, but when the water was set in motion all vanished, and the picture disappeared.
Two feathers, dropped by the fluttering ducks, floated to and fro on the water. All at once they took a start as if the wind were coming, but it did not come, so they were obliged to lie still, as the water became again quiet and at rest. The roses could once more behold their own reflections. They were very beautiful, but they knew it not, for no one had told them. The sun shone between the delicate leaves, and the sweet fragrance spread itself, carrying happiness everywhere.
"How beautiful is our existence!" said one of the roses. "I feel as if I should like to kiss the sun, it is so bright and warm. I should like to kiss the roses too, our images in the water, and the pretty birds there in their nests. There are some birds too in the nest above us; they stretch out their heads and cry 'Tweet, tweet,' very faintly. They have no feathers yet, such as their father and mother have. Both above us and below us we have good neighbors. How beautiful is our life!"
The young birds above and the young ones below were the same; they were sparrows, and their nest was reflected in the water. Their parents were sparrows also, and they had taken possession of an empty swallow's nest of the year before, occupying it now as if it were their own.
"Are those ducks' children that are swimming about? asked the young sparrows, as they spied the feathers on the water.
"If you must ask questions, pray ask sensible ones," said the mother. "Can you not see that these are feathers, the living stuff for clothes, which I wear and which you will wear soon, only ours are much finer? I should like, however, to have them up here in the nest, they would make it so warm. I am rather curious to know why the ducks were so alarmed just now. It could not be from fear of us, certainly, though I did say 'tweet' rather loudly. The thick-headed roses really ought to know, but they are very ignorant; they only look at one another and smell. I am heartily tired of such neighbors."
"Listen to the sweet little birds above us," said the roses; "they are trying to sing. They cannot manage it yet, but it will be done in time. What a pleasure it will be, and how nice to have such lively neighbors!"
Suddenly two horses came prancing along to drink at the water. A peasant boy rode on one of them; he had a broad-brimmed black hat on, but had taken off the most of his clothes, that he might ride into the deepest part of the pond; he whistled like a bird, and while passing the rosebush he plucked a rose and placed it in his hat and then rode on thinking himself very fine. The other roses looked at their sister and asked each other where she could be going, but they did not know.
"I should like for once to go out into the world," said one, "although it is very lovely here in our home of green leaves. The sun shines warmly by day, and in the night we can see that heaven is more beautiful still, as it sparkles through the holes in the sky."
She meant the stars, for she knew no better.
"We make the house very lively," said the mother sparrow, "and people say that a swallow's nest brings luck, therefore they are pleased to see us; but as to our neighbors, a rosebush on the wall produces damp. It will most likely be removed, and perhaps corn will grow here instead of it. Roses are good for nothing but to be looked at and smelt, or perhaps one may chance to be stuck in a hat. I have heard from my mother that they fall off every year. The farmer's wife preserves them by laying them in salt, and then they receive a French name which I neither can nor will pronounce; then they are sprinkled on the fire to produce a pleasant smell. Such you see is their life. They are only formed to please the eye and the nose. Now you know all about them."
As the evening approached, the gnats played about in the warm air beneath the rosy clouds, and the nightingale came and sang to the roses that the beautiful was like sunshine to the world, and that the beautiful lives forever. The roses thought that the nightingale was singing of herself, which any one indeed could easily suppose; they never imagined that her song could refer to them. But it was a joy to them, and they wondered to themselves whether all the little sparrows in the nest would become nightingales.
"We understood that bird's song very well," said the young sparrows, "but one word was not clear. What is the beautiful?"
"Oh, nothing of any consequence," replied the mother sparrow. "It is something relating to appearances over yonder at the nobleman's house. The pigeons have a house of their own, and every day they have corn and peas spread for them. I have dined there with them sometimes, and so shall you by and by, for I believe the old maxim—'Tell me what company you keep, and I will tell you what you are.' Well, over at the noble house there are two birds with green throats and crests on their heads. They can spread out their tails like large wheels, and they reflect so many beautiful colors that it dazzles the eyes to look at them. These birds are called peacocks, and they belong to the beautiful; but if only a few of their feathers were plucked off, they would not appear better than we do. I would myself have plucked some out had they not been so large."
"I will pluck them," squeaked the youngest sparrow, who had as yet no feathers of his own.
In the cottage dwelt two young married people, who loved each other very much and were industrious and active so that everything looked neat and pretty around them. Early on Sunday mornings the young wife came out, gathered a handful of the most beautiful roses, and put them in a glass of water, which she placed on a side table.
"I see now that it is Sunday," said the husband, as he kissed his little wife. Then they sat down and read in their hymn books, holding each other's hands, while the sun shone down upon the young couple and upon the fresh roses in the glass.
"This sight is really too wearisome," said the mother sparrow, who from her nest could look into the room; and she flew away.
The same thing occurred the next Sunday; and indeed every Sunday fresh roses were gathered and placed in a glass, but the rose tree continued to bloom in all its beauty. After a while the young sparrows were fledged and wanted to fly, but the mother would not allow it, and so they were obliged to remain in the nest for the present, while she flew away alone. It so happened that some boys had fastened a snare made of horsehair to the branch of a tree, and before she was aware, her leg became entangled in the horsehair so tightly as almost to cut it through. What pain and terror she felt! The boys ran up quickly and seized her, not in a very gentle manner.
"It is only a sparrow," they said. However they did not let her fly, but took her home with them, and every time she cried they tapped her on the beak.
In the farmyard they met an old man who knew how to make soap for shaving and washing, in cakes or in balls. When he saw the sparrow which the boys had brought home and which they said they did not know what to do with, he said, "Shall we make it beautiful?"
A cold shudder passed over the sparrow when she heard this. The old man then took a shell containing a quantity of glittering gold leaf from a box full of beautiful colors and told the youngsters to fetch the white of an egg, with which he besmeared the sparrow all over and then laid the gold leaf upon it, so that the mother sparrow was now gilded from head to tail. She thought not of her appearance, but trembled in every limb. Then the soap maker tore a little piece out of the red lining of his jacket, cut notches in it, so that it looked like a cock'scomb, and stuck it on the bird's head.
"Now you shall see gold-jacket fly," said the old man, and he released the sparrow, which flew away in deadly terror with the sunlight shining upon her. How she did glitter! All the sparrows, and even a crow, who is a knowing old boy, were startled at the sight, yet they all followed it to discover what foreign bird it could be. Driven by anguish and terror, she flew homeward almost ready to sink to the earth for want of strength. The flock of birds that were following increased and some even tried to peck her.
"Look at him! look at him!" they all cried. "Look at him! look at him!" cried the young ones as their mother approached the nest, for they did not know her. "That must be a young peacock, for he glitters in all colors. It quite hurts one's eyes to look at him, as mother told us; 'tweet,' this is the beautiful." And then they pecked the bird with their little beaks so that she was quite unable to get into the nest and was too much exhausted even to say "tweet," much less "I am your mother." So the other birds fell upon the sparrow and pulled out feather after feather till she sank bleeding into the rosebush.
"You poor creature," said the roses, "be at rest. We will hide you; lean your little head against us."
The sparrow spread out her wings once more, then drew them in close about her and lay dead among the roses, her fresh and lovely neighbors.
"Tweet," sounded from the nest; "where can our mother be staying? It is quite unaccountable. Can this be a trick of hers to show us that we are now to take care of ourselves? She has left us the house as an inheritance, but as it cannot belong to us all when we have families, who is to have it?"
"It won't do for you all to stay with me when I increase my household with a wife and children," remarked the youngest.
"I shall have more wives and children than you," said the second.
"But I am the eldest," cried a third.
Then they all became angry, beat each other with their wings, pecked with their beaks, till one after another bounced out of the nest. There they lay in a rage, holding their heads on one side and twinkling the eye that looked upward. This was their way of looking sulky.
They could all fly a little, and by practice they soon learned to do so much better. At length they agreed upon a sign by which they might be able to recognize each other in case they should meet in the world after they had separated. This sign was to be the cry of "tweet, tweet," and a scratching on the ground three times with the left foot.
The youngster who was left behind in the nest spread himself out as broad as ever he could; he was the householder now. But his glory did not last long, for during that night red flames of fire burst through the windows of the cottage, seized the thatched roof, and blazed up frightfully. The whole house was burned, and the sparrow perished with it, while the young couple fortunately escaped with their lives.
When the sun rose again, and all nature looked refreshed as after a quiet sleep, nothing remained of the cottage but a few blackened, charred beams leaning against the chimney, that now was the only master of the place. Thick smoke still rose from the ruins, but outside on the wall the rosebush remained unhurt, blooming and fresh as ever, while each flower and each spray was mirrored in the clear water beneath.
"How beautifully the roses are blooming on the walls of that ruined cottage," said a passer-by. "A more lovely picture could scarcely be imagined. I must have it."
And the speaker took out of his pocket a little book full of white leaves of paper (for he was an artist), and with a pencil he made a sketch of the smoking ruins, the blackened rafters, and the chimney that overhung them and which seemed more and more to totter; and quite in the foreground stood the large, blooming rosebush, which added beauty to the picture; indeed, it was for the sake of the roses that the sketch had been made. Later in the day two of the sparrows who had been born there came by.
"Where is the house?" they asked. "Where is the nest? Tweet, tweet; all is burned down, and our strong brother with it. That is all he got by keeping the nest. The roses have escaped famously; they look as well as ever, with their rosy cheeks; they do not trouble themselves about their neighbors' misfortunes. I won't speak to them. And really, in my opinion, the place looks very ugly"; so they flew away.
On a fine, bright, sunny day in autumn, so bright that any one might have supposed it was still the middle of summer, a number of pigeons were hopping about in the nicely kept courtyard of the nobleman's house, in front of the great steps. Some were black, others white, and some of various colors, and their plumage glittered in the sunshine. An old mother pigeon said to her young ones, "Place yourselves in groups! place yourselves in groups! it has a much better appearance."
"What are those little gray creatures which are running about behind us?" asked an old pigeon with red and green round her eyes. "Little gray ones, little gray ones," she cried.
"They are sparrows—good little creatures enough. We have always had the character of being very good-natured, so we allow them to pick up some corn with us; they do not interrupt our conversation, and they draw back their left foot so prettily."
Sure enough, so they did, three times each, and with the left foot too, and said "tweet," by which we recognize them as the sparrows that were brought up in the nest on the house that was burned down.
"The food here is very good," said the sparrows; while the pigeons strutted round each other, puffed out their throats, and formed their own opinions on what they observed.
"Do you see the pouter pigeon?" asked one pigeon of another. "Do you see how he swallows the peas? He takes too much and always chooses the best of everything. Coo-oo, coo-oo. How the ugly, spiteful creature erects his crest." And all their eyes sparkled with malice. "Place yourselves in groups, place yourselves in groups. Little gray coats, little gray coats. Coo-oo, coo-oo."
So they went on, and it will be the same a thousand years hence.
The sparrows feasted bravely and listened attentively; they even stood in ranks like the pigeons, but it did not suit them. So having satisfied their hunger, they left the pigeons passing their own opinions upon them to each other and slipped through the garden railings. The door of a room in the house, leading into the garden, stood open, and one of them, feeling brave after his good dinner, hopped upon the threshold crying, "Tweet, I can venture so far."
"Tweet," said another, "I can venture that, and a great deal more," and into the room he hopped.
The first followed, and, seeing no one there, the third became courageous and flew right across the room, saying: "Venture everything, or do not venture at all. This is a wonderful place—a man's nest, I suppose; and look! what can this be?"
Just in front of the sparrows stood the ruins of the burned cottage; roses were blooming over it, and their reflection appeared in the water beneath, and the black, charred beams rested against the tottering chimney. How could it be? How came the cottage and the roses in a room in the nobleman's house? And then the sparrows tried to fly over the roses and the chimney, but they only struck themselves against a flat wall. It was a picture—a large, beautiful picture which the artist had painted from the little sketch he had made.
"Tweet," said the sparrows, "it is really nothing, after all; it only looks like reality. Tweet, I suppose that is the beautiful. Can you understand it? I cannot."
Then some persons entered the room and the sparrows flew away. Days and years passed. The pigeons had often "coo-oo-d"—we must not say quarreled, though perhaps they did, the naughty things! The sparrows had suffered from cold in the winter and lived gloriously in summer. They were all betrothed, or married, or whatever you like to call it. They had little ones, and each considered its own brood the wisest and the prettiest.
One flew in this direction and another in that, and when they met they recognized each other by saying "tweet" and three times drawing back the left foot. The eldest remained single; she had no nest nor young ones. Her great wish was to see a large town, so she flew to Copenhagen.
Close by the castle, and by the canal, in which swam many ships laden with apples and pottery, there was to be seen a great house. The windows were broader below than at the top, and when the sparrows peeped through they saw a room that looked to them like a tulip with beautiful colors of every shade. Within the tulip were white figures of human beings, made of marble—some few of plaster, but this is the same thing to a sparrow. Upon the roof stood a metal chariot and horses, and the goddess of victory, also of metal, was seated in the chariot driving the horses.
It was Thorwaldsen's museum. "How it shines and glitters," said the maiden sparrow. "This must be the beautiful,—tweet,—only this is larger than a peacock." She remembered what her mother had told them in her childhood, that the peacock was one of the greatest examples of the beautiful. She flew down into the courtyard, where everything also was very grand. The walls were painted to represent palm branches, and in the midst of the court stood a large, blooming rose tree, spreading its young, sweet, rose-covered branches over a grave. Thither the maiden sparrow flew, for she saw many others of her own kind.
"Tweet," said she, drawing back her foot three times. She had, during the years that had passed, often made the usual greeting to the sparrows she met, but without receiving any acknowledgment; for friends who are once separated do not meet every day. This manner of greeting was become a habit to her, and to-day two old sparrows and a young one returned the greeting.
"Tweet," they replied and drew back the left foot three times. They were two old sparrows out of the nest, and a young one belonging to the family. "Ah, good day; how do you do? To think of our meeting here! This is a very grand place, but there is not much to eat; this is the beautiful. Tweet!"
A great many people now came out of the side rooms, in which the marble statues stood, and approached the grave where rested the remains of the great master who carved them. As they stood round Thorwaldsen's grave, each face had a reflected glory, and some few gathered up the fallen rose leaves to preserve them. They had all come from afar; one from mighty England, others from Germany and France. One very handsome lady plucked a rose and concealed it in her bosom. Then the sparrows thought that the roses ruled in this place, and that the whole house had been built for them—which seemed really too much honor; but as all the people showed their love for the roses, the sparrows thought they would not remain behindhand in paying their respects.
"Tweet," they said, and swept the ground with their tails, and glanced with one eye at the roses. They had not looked at them very long, however, before they felt convinced that they were old acquaintances, and so they actually were. The artist who had sketched the rosebush and the ruins of the cottage had since then received permission to transplant the bush and had given it to the architect, for more beautiful roses had never been seen. The architect had planted it on the grave of Thorwaldsen, where it continued to bloom, the image of the beautiful, scattering its fragrant, rosy leaves to be gathered and carried away into distant lands in memory of the spot on which they fell.
"Have you obtained a situation in town?" then asked the sparrows of the roses.
The roses nodded. They recognized their little brown neighbors and were rejoiced to see them again.
"It is very delightful," said the roses, "to live here and to blossom, to meet old friends, and to see cheerful faces every day. It is as if each day were a holiday."
"Tweet," said the sparrows to each other. "Yes, these really are our old neighbors. We remember their origin near the pond. Tweet! how they have risen, to be sure. Some people seem to get on while they are asleep. Ah! there's a withered leaf. I can see it quite plainly."
And they pecked at the leaf till it fell, but the rosebush continued fresher and greener than ever. The roses bloomed in the sunshine on Thorwaldsen's grave and thus became linked with his immortal name.