Outside the paper mill, masses of rags lay piled in high stacks; they had been gathered from far and wide. Every rag had a tale to tell, and told it, too; but we can't listen to all of them. Some of the rags were native; others came from foreign countries.
Now here lay a Danish rag beside a rag from Norway; one was decidedly Danish, the other decidedly Norse, and that was the amusing part about the two, as any good Dane or Norwegian could tell you. They could understand each other well enough, though the two languages were as different, according to the Norwegian, as French and Hebrew. "We go to the hills for our language, and there get it pure and firsthand, while the Dane cooks up some sort of a suckling-sweet lingo!"
A prize was offered - or rather two prizes, a large one and a small one - for the greatest speed shown, not in just one race, but by one who had been racing for the whole year.
"I won the first prize," said the Hare. "Of course, one can expect justice when one's own family and good friends are members of the jury; but for the Snail to have received the second prize I consider almost an insult to me!"
"No," assured the Fence Rail, who had been witness to the distribution of prizes. "You have to consider diligence and good will. Several very worthy persons made that remark to me, and I quite agree with it. Of course, the Snail took a whole six months to cross the threshold, but he broke his thighbone in his haste, for haste it was for him. He devoted himself entirely to this race; and he even ran with his house on his back. All this is very commendable, and so he was awarded second prize."
On board the steamer was an elderly man with such a joyful face that if it didn't belie him he must have been the happiest person on earth. In fact, he said he was the happiest; I heard it from his own mouth. He was a Dane, a countryman of mine, and a traveling theatrical producer. His whole company was with him and lay in a large box, for he was the proprietor of a puppet show. He said that his natural cheerfulness had been enlightened by a Polytechnic student, and the experiment had left him completely happy. At first I didn't understand what he meant, but later he explained the whole thing to me, and here is the story.
At dawn, when the clouds are red, a great star shines, the beautiful morning star. Her beams tremble on the white wall, as if she would like to write there the story of all she has seen during the thousands of years she has watched our revolving earth.
Listen to one of her stories.
A little while ago - a few centuries ago, which, though a long time to you men, is just a little while to me - my beams watched a young artist. He lived in the papal state, in one of the world's great cities, Rome. Many things there have changed since those days, but they haven't changed as quickly as the human being changes from childhood to old age. The eternal city was then, as it is now, a city of ruins. The fig tree and the laurel tree grew among the overturned marble columns and over the destroyed baths, their walls still inlaid with gold. The Coliseum was a ruin. Church bells rang, and fragrant incense filled the air, while processions with magnificent canopies and lighted candles passed through the streets. It was a beautiful church service honoring the great and inspired arts. The world's greatest painter, Raphael, and the greatest sculptor of his time, Michelangelo, lived in Rome then. The Pope himself admired them both and honored them with his visits. Indeed, art was acknowledged, honored, and rewarded; but not all great and noble things were known and seen in those days, any more than they are now.
Once there was a Prince who wanted to marry a Princess. Only a real one would do. So he traveled through all the world to find her, and everywhere things went wrong. There were Princesses aplenty, but how was he to know whether they were real Princesses? There was something not quite right about them all. So he came home again and was unhappy, because he did so want to have a real Princess.
One evening a terrible storm blew up. It lightened and thundered and rained. It was really frightful! In the midst of it all came a knocking at the town gate. The old King went to open it.
There was a miserably poor woman. She was very sad, for she had nothing to eat, and her husband was dead and had to be buried, but she was so poor that she could not afford to buy a coffin. And no one would help her, not a single person, and so she wept and prayed to the good Lord to help her, for He is so good to us all.
The window was open, and a tiny little bird flew into the room. It was a canary bird that had escaped from its cage and flown over all the rooftops, and now, having come in through the poor woman's window, it sat by the head of the dead man and sang so beautifully. It was as if it wanted to say to the woman, "You must no be so sad. Can't you hear how happy I am!"
Dear Charles Dickens once told us the story of the pig, and since that time it has put us in a good humor just to hear one grunt. Saint Anthony took the pig under his protection; and when we think of "the prodigal son," our thoughts promptly carry us into the midst of a pigsty.
And it was, as a matter of fact, in front of a pigsty that our carriage stopped, over in Sweden. Out near the highway, close beside the house, the farmer had put his pigsty, and another like it could scarcely have been found in the world. It had been an old state carriage; the seats had been removed and the wheels taken off so that the body of the old coach stood on its stomach. And four pigs were shut up inside it. Whether these were the first that had ever been in there, one couldn't ascertain; but that this had been born to be a state coach, there was every evidence of, even to the damask rag that hung down from the roof and that indeed bore witness of having seen better days. This is true, every blessed word.
It is autumn, and we are standing on the ramparts of the citadel, gazing at the ships on the sound and the distant coast of Sweden rising beyond, bright in the evening sunlight. Behind us the ramparts drop abruptly; growing below us are stately trees whose golden leaves are falling from their branches. Down below them are dark and gloomy buildings with wooden palisades, and inside, where the sentry paces back and forth, it is dreary and dark. But behind the grated windows it is still darker and drearier, for here are confined the most hardened criminals, the convict slaves.
A sunbeam from the setting sun creeps into the bare dungeon, for the sun shines on good and evil alike. A sullen, savage prisoner glares bitterly at the cold sunbeam. Then a tiny bird flutters against his grated window, for the bird too sings for the evil as well as for the good. For a moment it twitters softly, "Qvivit," then remains perched on the grating, fluttering its wings, plucking a feather from its breast, and ruffling up its plumage.
Beneath the tree of knowledge in the garden of paradise stood a rosebush. And here, in the first rose, a bird was born. His plumage was beautiful, his song glorious, and his flight was like the flashing of light. But when Eve plucked the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and she and Adam were driven from paradise, a spark fell from the flaming sword of the angel into the nest of the bird and set it afire. The bird perished in the flames, but from the red egg in the nest there flew a new bird, the only one of its kind, the one solitary phoenix bird. The legend tells us how he lives in Arabia and how every century he burns himself to death in his nest, but each time a new phoenix, the only one in the world, flies out from the red egg.
The bird darts about as swift as light, beautiful in color, glorious in song. When a mother sits beside her infant's cradle, he settles on the pillow and forms a glory with his wings about the head of the child. He flies through the room of contentment and brings sunshine into it, and he makes the violets on the humble cupboard smell sweet.
There once was a man who held an office that required good penmanship. While he filled the office ably otherwise, he was incapable of good penmanship. So he advertised in the newspaper for someone with a fine handwriting; and so many applied that the applications could have filled a whole bucket. But one was all he needed. And so he chose the first he came to, one with a script as beautiful as that of the finest writing machine. The man in office was an excellent writer. And when his writings appeared in the handsome lettering, everyone said, "That is beautifully written."
"That's my work," said the fellow, whose mind wasn't worth a penny.