Now there came a comet with its shiny nucleus and its menacing tail. People from the great castles and people from the poor huts gazed at it. So did the crowd in the street, and so did the man who went his solitary way across the pathless heath. Everyone had his own thoughts. "Come and look at the omen from heaven. Come out and see this marvelous sight," they cried, and everyone hastened to look.
But a little boy and his mother still stayed inside their room. The tallow candle was burning and the mother thought she saw a bit of wood-shaving in the light. The tallow formed a jagged edge around the candle, and then it curled. The mother believed these were signs that her son would soon die. The wood-shaving was circling toward him. This was an old superstition, but she believed it. The little boy lived many more years on earth. Indeed he lived to see the comet return sixty years later.
Out in the country there was an old mansion where an old squire lived with his two sons, who were so witty that they thought themselves too clever for words. They decided to go out and propose to the King's daughter, which they were at liberty to do, for she had announced publicly that she would take for a husband the man who had the most to say for himself.
The two brothers made their preparations for eight days beforehand. That was all the time they had, but it was enough, for they had many accomplishments, and everyone knows how useful they can be. One of them knew the whole Latin dictionary by heart and the town's newspaper for three years - so well that he could repeat it backward or forward. The other had learned all the articles of law and knew what every alderman must know; consequently, he was sure he could talk of governmental affairs, and besides this he could embroider suspenders, for he was very gentle and also clever with his fingers.
There was a large party for children at the house of the merchant; rich people's children and important people's children were all there. Their host, the merchant, was a learned man; his father had insisted that he have a college education. You see, his father had been only a cattle dealer, but he had always been honest and thrifty. This business had brought him a fortune, and his son, the merchant, had later managed to increase this fortune. Clever as he was, he also had a kind heart, but there was less talk about his heart than about his money. His house was always full of guests; some who had "blue blood," as it is called, and some who had mind; some who had both, and some who had neither. But this time it was a children's party, with children's prattle; and children say what they mean. Among the guests was a pretty little girl, most absurdly proud that her father was a groom of the bedchamber. The servants had taught her this arrogance, not her parents; they were much too sensible.
"I'm a child of the chamber," she said. She might as well have been a child of the cellar, for no one can help his birth. Then she explained to the other children that she had "birth," and insisted that anyone who didn't have "birth" from the beginning couldn't in any way get it; it did no good to study or be ever so industrious if you didn't have "birth." And as for people whose names ended with "sen," she declared, "They'll never amount to anything. You must put your arms out at the side and keep them, these 'sen' people, at a distance, like this!" And with this she stretched her delicate little arms with the elbows turned out to show what she meant-and the little arms were very pretty. Sweet child!
There was sorrow in the house; there was sorrow in every heart, for the youngest child, a four-year-old boy, the joy and future hope of his parents, was dead. They had two older daughters, the eldest of whom was to be confirmed that year; sweet, good girls, they both were; but the child one has lost is always the most precious, and this was not only the youngest but the only son. It was indeed a heavy affliction. The sisters grieved as the young grieve, awed by the sorrow of their parents; the father's head bowed in grief; but most of all the mother suffered.
Night and day she had cared for the sick child, nursed it, carried it with her, guarded it constantly until it was a part of herself. She could not conceive that he was dead, that he should be laid in a coffin and rest in a dark grave. God would never take her child from her, she thought; when it happened, however, and was a certainty, she cried aloud in her agony, "God had known nothing of this! He has heartless servants here upon earth; they do as they like and pay no heed to the prayers of a mother!"
Chicken Grethe was the only human tenant of the fine new house that was built for the hens and ducks on the estate. It was built where the old baronial castle had stood with its tower, crow's-perch gable, moat, and drawbridge. Close by was a complete wilderness of trees and bushes. This had been the garden, running down to a big lake which was now a marsh. Rooks, crows, and jackdaws - a whole horde of screeching, cawing birds, hovered over the trees. The flock did not seem to diminish but rather to increase when one fired among them. They could be heard even inside the poultry house where Chicken Grethe sat with the ducklings waddling about her wooden shoes. She knew each chicken and every duck from the moment it hatched. She took pride in her chickens and her ducks, and in the fine house that had been built for them.
Her little room was clean and tidy. Her mistress, who owned the chicken house, insisted upon neatness, for she frequently brought distinguished visitors to see "the barracks of her hens and ducks," as she called the place.
There was once a big wax candle who had the highest opinion of his merits.
"I," he said, "am made of the purest wax, cast in the best mold. I burn more brilliantly than any other candle, and I outlast them all. I belong in the high chandelier or the silver candlestick."
"What a delightful life you must lead," the tallow candle admitted. "I am only tallow. Just a tallow dip. But it's a comfort to think how much better off I am than the taper. He's only dipped twice, while I am dipped eight times to make a thick and respectable candle of me. I'm satisfied. To be sure it would be better to be born of wax than of tallow, and a lucky thing to be shaped in a mold, but one isn't asked how he wants to be born. Your place is in the big rooms with glass chandeliers. Mine is in the kitchen. But kitchen is a good place too. All the food in the house comes from there."
The butterfly wanted a sweetheart, and naturally he wanted one of the prettiest of the dear little flowers. He looked at each of them; there they all sat on their stalks as quiet and modest as little maidens ought to sit before they are engaged; but there were so many to choose from that it would be quite difficult to decide. So the Butterfly flew down to the Daisy, whom the French call "Marguerite." They know she can tell fortunes. This is the way it's done: the lovers pluck off the little petals one by one, asking questions about each other, "Does he love me from the heart? A little? A lot? Or loves he not at all?" - or something like that; everyone asks in his own language. So the Butterfly also came to ask, but he wouldn't bite off the leaves; instead he kissed each one in turn, thinking that kindness is the best policy.
"Sweet Miss Marguerite Daisy," he said, "you're the wisest woman of all the flowers - you can tell fortunes! Tell me, should I choose this one or that one? Which one am I to have? When you have told me, I can fly straight to her and propose."
When after a thunderstorm you pass by a field in which buckwheat is growing, you will very often notice that the buckwheat appears quite blackened and singed as if a fire had swept over it. The farmer will tell you, "It got that from lightning." But why and how did it happen?
I'll tell you the story as the sparrow told it to me, and he heard it from an old willow tree that stands beside a buckwheat field. And who could possibly know better than that old willow tree, for he still stands there? He is such a respectable and dignified tree, but is old and crippled, with grass and brambles growing out of a cleft in his middle. He bends forward, with his branches hanging down to the ground as if they were long green hair.
In the narrow, crooked street, among several shabby dwellings, stood a very tall and very narrow house, the framework of which had given so that it was out of joint in every direction. Only poor people lived here, and poorest of all were those who lived in the attic. Outside the small attic window an old, bent bird cage hung in the sunshine; it didn't even have a real bird glass, but had only a bottle neck, upside down, with a cork in its mouth, and filled with water. At the open window stood an old maid who had just been decking the cage with chickweed; the little canary in it hopped from perch to perch and sang with all his might.
"Yes, you may well sing!" said the Bottle Neck. Of course, it didn't say it audibly, as we're able to, for a bottle neck cannot speak, but it thought it, just as when we humans speak inwardly. "Yes, you may well sing - you, with your limbs whole! But what if you had lost your lower half as I have, and had only a neck and a mouth left, and then had a cork stuffed into you! You certainly wouldn't sing then! But it's good that somebody is pleased. I have no reason to sing, and I can't anyway; I could once, when I was a whole bottle, and someone rubbed me with a cork; they used to call me a real lark then, 'the grand lark.' Didn't I sing that day in the woods when the furrier's daughter became engaged? I can remember it as though it were yesterday. When I come to think of it, I've lived through many things; I've been through fire and water - down in the black earth, and higher up than most people. And now I hang here on the outside of the cage in the air and sunshine. It might be worth while to hear my story, but I'm not going to tell it aloud, because I can't!"
We've recently made a little journey, and already we want to make a longer one. Where? To Sparta, or Mycenae, or Delphi? There are hundreds of places whose names make the heart pound with the love of travel. On horseback we climb mountain paths, through shrubs and brush. A single traveler looks like a whole caravan. He rides in front with his guide; a pack horse carries luggage, tent, and provisions; a couple of soldiers guard the rear for his protection. No inn with soft beds awaits him at the end of a tiring day's journey; often the tent is his roof in nature's great wilderness, and the guide cooks him his supper-a pilau of rice, fowl, and curry. Thousands of gnats swarm around the little tent. It is a miserable night, and tomorrow the route will head across swollen streams. Sit tight on your horse lest you are washed away!
What reward is there for these hardships? The greatest! The richest! Nature reveals herself here in all her glory; every spot is history; eye and mind alike are delighted. The poet can sing of it, the painter portray it in splendid pictures; but neither can reproduce the air of reality that sinks deep into the soul of the spectator, and remains there.