Once upon a time a flea, a grasshopper, and a jumping goose wanted to see which one could jump the highest; so they invited the whole world, and even a few others, to come to a festival to watch the test. They were three famous jumpers indeed, and they all met together in a big room.
"I'll give my daughter to the one who jumps the highest," said the King. "It seems so stingy to have these fellows jump for nothing."
The flea was the first to be introduced. He had such beautiful manners and bowed right and left, for he had noble blood in him, and besides, he was accustomed to move in human society, and that makes a great difference.
Among the other children in the charity school was a little Jewish girl, clever and good-in fact, the brightest of them all. But there was one class she could not attend, the one where religion was taught, for she was in a Christian school.
During the hour of this class, she had her geography book before her to study, or did her arithmetic, but the lessons were quickly learned, and then, though the book might still be open before her, she did not read from it; she listened. And the teacher soon noticed that she listened more intently than any of the rest.
"Study your book," said the teacher, gently yet earnestly. But she looked back at him with her black, eager eyes, and when he put his questions to her as well as the rest he found she knew more than all the others. She had listened, understood, and kept his words.
"It's a dreadful story!" said a hen, and she said it in a part of town, too, where it had not taken place. "It's a dreadful story to happen in a henhouse. I'm afraid to sleep alone tonight; it's a good thing there are many of us on the perch!" And then she told a story that made the feathers of the other hens stand on end and the rooster's comb fall. It's quite true!
But we will begin at the beginning and tell what had happened in a henhouse at the other end of town.
A duck arrived from Portugal. Some people said she came from Spain, but that doesn't really matter. She was called the Portuguese; she laid eggs, and was killed and dressed and cooked; that's the story of her life. But all the ducklings that were hatched from her eggs were also called Portuguese, and there's some distinction in that. At last there was only one left of her whole family in the duck yard - a yard to which the hens also had access, and where the cock strutted about with endless arrogance.
"His loud crowing annoys me," said the Portuguese Duck. "But there's no denying he's a handsome bird, even if he isn't a drake. Of course, he should moderate his voice, but that's an art that comes from higher education, such as the little songbirds over in our neighbours lime trees have. How sweetly they sing; There's something so touching over their melodies; I call it Portugal. If I only had a little songbird like that I'd be a kind and good mother to him, for that's in my blood - my Portuguese blood!"
Father and mother and all the brothers and sisters had gone to the theater; only little Anna and her grandfather were left at home.
"We'll put on a play, too," he said, "and it can start right away."
"But we don't have any theater!" said little Anna. "And we haven't anybody to do the acting. My old doll can't, because she looks dreadful, and my new one mustn't, because she'd rumple her new dress."
Near the river Gudenaa in the forest of Silkeborg, a great ridge of land rises. This ridge is called Aasen, and it resembles a large ball. Below it, on the western side, stands a little farmhouse surrounded by very poor land; in fact, the sand of the soil can be seen through the sparse rye and wheat that grow there.
We are speaking of a time some years ago, when the people who lived there cultivated the fields, and kept three sheep, a pig, and two oxen. To put it briefly, they supported themselves very well, with enough to live on if they took things in their stride; yes, and they were even well enough off to have kept a couple of horses, but, like the neighboring farmers, they said, "A horse eats itself up" - it eats as much as it earns. In summer Jeppe-Jens cultivated his small field, and in the winter he made wooden shoes; and at that time he had a journeyman assistant who, like him, knew how to make the wooden shoes strong, light, and fashionable. Their carved shoes and spoons brought in good money, and therefore no one could call the Jeppe-Jenses poor people.
The story we have for you here is really divided into two parts. The first part could be omitted, but it gives us some preliminary information which is useful.
We were staying at a manor house in the country, and it happened that the owner was absent for a day or so. Meanwhile a lady with a pug dog arrived from the next town; come, she explained, to dispose of the shares in her tannery. She had her certificates with her, and we advised her to seal them in an envelope and to write on it the address of the proprietor of the estate, "General War Commissary, Knight," etc.
The biggest leaf we have in this country is certainly the burdock leaf. If you hold one in front of your little stomach, it's just like a real apron; and in rainy weather, if you lay it on your head, it does almost as well as an umbrella. It's really amazingly large. Now, a burdock never grows alone; no, when you see one you'll always see others around it. It's a splendid sight; and all this splendor is nothing more than food for snails-the big white snails which the fine people in olden days used to have made into fricassees. When they had eaten them, they would smack their lips and say, "My! How good that is!" For somehow they had the idea that the snails tasted delicious. You see, these snails lived on the burdock leaves, and that's why the burdock was first grown.
There was a certain old manor house where the people didn't eat snails any more. The snails had almost died out, but the burdock hadn't. These grew and grew on all the walks and flower beds-they couldn't be stopped-until the whole place was a forest of burdocks. Here and there stood an apple or a plum tree, but except for that, people wouldn't have thought there had ever been a garden there. Everywhere was burdock, and among the burdocks lived the last two incredibly old snails!
There was a little sea fish of good family, the name of which I don't remember; that the more learned will have to tell you. This little fish had eighteen hundred brothers and sisters, all the same age; they didn't know their father or mother, so they had to care for themselves and swim about on their own, but that was a lot of fun. They had plenty of water to drink - the entire ocean. They didn't think about their food; that was sure to come their way. Each did as he pleased; each would have his own story, but then none of them thought about that.
The sun shone down into the water, making it light and clear. It was a world full of the strangest creatures, some of them enormously big, with great, horrible mouths that could sallow all the eighteen hundred brothers and sisters, but none of them thought about that, either, for none of them had ever been swallowed.