ONCE on a time all the birds came to the jolly magpie and asked her to teach them how to build nests, for the magpie was the cleverest of all of them at building. She put them all around her and began to show them how to do it. First she took some mud and made a round cake with it.
"Oh, that's how it's done," said the thrush; and away it flew, and that is how thrushes build their nests.
Then the magpie took some twigs and arranged them around in the mud.
"Now I know all about it," said the blackbird, and off he flew; and that's how the blackbirds make their nests to this very day.
Then the magpie put another layer of mud over the twigs.
"Oh, that's quite obvious," said the wise owl, and away he flew; and owls have never made better nests since.
After this the magpie took some twigs and twined them around the outside.
"The very thing!" said the sparrow, and off he went; so sparrows make rather slovenly nests to this day.
Well, then the agpie took some feathers and stuff and lined the nest very comfortably with it.
"That suits me," cried the starling, and off he flew; and very comfortable nests have starlings.
So it went on, every bird taking away some knowledge of how to build nests, but none of them waiting to the end. Meanwhile the magpie went on working and working without looking up till the only bird that remained was the turtle-dove, and that hadn't paid any attention all along, but only kept on saying: "Take two, Taffy, take two-o-o-o."
At last the Magpie heard this just as she was putting a twig across. So she said: " One is enough."
But the turtle-dove kept on saying: " Take two, Taffy, take two-o-o-o."
Then the Magpie grew angry and said: " One is enough, I tell you."
Still the turtle-dove cried: "Take two, Taffy, take two-o-o-o."
At last, and at last, the Magpie looked up and saw nobody near her but the turtle-dove, and then she grew very angry and refused to teach any more.
And that is why all the birds build their nests in different ways up to this day. Each one made off, you see, as soon as he thought he had learned the magpie's secret, and each is perfectly contented with his own way.
THERE once came to England a famous foreign professor, and before he came he gave notice that he would examine the students of all the colleges in England. After a time he had visited all but Cambridge, and he was on his road there to examine publicly the whole university. Great was the bustle in Cambridge to prepare to receive the professor, and great also were the fears of the students. They dreaded the time when they must prove what they had mastered before one so famous for his learning. As his arrival approached their fears increased, and at last they determined to try some expedient which might avert the impending trial. To this end several of the students were disguised in the habits of common labourers, and spread in groups of two or three at convenient distances from each other along the road by which the professor was expected.
He had in his carriage arrived at the distance of a few miles from Cambridge when he met the first of these groups of labourers, and the coachman drew up his horses to ask of them the distance. The professor was astonished to hear them answer in Latin. He proceeded on his way, and after driving about half a mile, met with another group of labourers at work on the road, to whom a similar question was put by the coachman. The professor was still more astonished to hear them give answer in Greek.
"Ah," thought he, "they must be good scholars at Cambridge, when even the common labourers on the roads talk Latin and Greek. It won't do to examine them in the same way as other people."
So all the rest of the way he was musing on the mode of examination he should adopt, and just as he reached the outskirts of the town, he decided that he would examine them by signs. As soon, therefore, as he had got out of his carriage, he lost no time in making known this novel method of examination.
Now the students had never thought that their stratagem would result in anything like that, and they were sadly disappointed.
There was one student in particular who had been studying very hard, and who was expected by everybody to gain the prize at the examination, and, as the idlest student in the university had the same chance of guessing the signs of the professor as himself, he was in very low spirits about it.
When the day of examination arrived, instead of attending it, he was walking sadly and mournfully by the banks of the river, near the mill, and it happened that the miller, who was a merry fellow, and used to talk with this student as he passed the mill in his walks, saw him, and asked him what was the matter with him. Then the student told him all about it, and how the great professor was going to examine by signs, and how he was afraid that he should not get through the examination.
"Oh! if that's all," said the miller, "don't be low about the matter. Did you never hear that a clown may sometimes teach a scholar wisdom? Only let me put on your clothes, with your cap and gown, and I'll go to the examination instead of you; and if I succeed you shall have the credit of it, and if I fail I will tell them who I am."
"But," said the student, "everybody knows that I have but one eye."
"Never mind that," said the miller; "I can easily put a black patch over one of mine."
So they changed clothes, and the miller went to the professor's examination in the student's cap and gown, with a patch on his eye.
Well, just as the miller entered the lecture-room, the professor had tried all the other students, and nobody could guess the meaning of his signs or answer his questions. So the miller stood up, and the professor, putting his hand in his coat pocket, drew out an apple, and held it up towards him. The miller likewise put his hand in his pocket and drew out a crust of bread, which he in like manner held out towards the professor. Then the professor put the apple in his pocket and pointed at the miller with one finger: the miller in return pointed at him with two: the professor pointed with three; and the miller held out his clenched fist.
"Right!" said the professor; and he adjudged the prize to the miller.
The miller made all haste to communicate these good tidings to his friend the student, who was waiting at the mill; and the student, having resumed his own clothes, hastened back to hear the prize given out to him. When he arrived at the lecture-room the professor was on his legs explaining to the assembled students the meaning of the signs which himself and the student who had gained the prize made use of.
"First," said he, "I held out an apple, signifying thereby the fall of mankind through Adam's sin, and he very properly held up a piece of bread, which signified that by Christ, the bread of life, mankind was regenerated. Then I held out one finger, which meant that there is one God in the Trinity; he held out two fingers, signifying that there are two; I held out three fingers, meaning that there are three; and he held out his clenched fist, which was as much as to say that the three are one."
Well, the student who got the prize was sadly puzzled to think how the miller knew all this, and as soon as the ceremony of publishing the name of the successful candidate was over he hastened to the mill, and told him all the professor had said.
"Ah!" said the miller, "I'll tell you how it was. When I went in, the professor looked mighty fierce, and he put his hand in his pocket, and fumbled about for some time, and at last he pulled out an apple, and be held it out as though he would throw it at me. Then I put my hand in my pocket, and could find nothing but an old crust of bread, and so I held it out in the same way, meaning that if he threw the apple at me I would throw the crust at him. Then he looked still more fiercely, and held out his one finger, as much as to say he would poke my one eye out, and I held two fingers, meaning that if he poked out my one eye I would poke out his two, and then be held out three of his fingers, as though he would scratch my face, and I clenched my fist and shook it at him, meaning that if he did I would knock him down. And then he said I deserved the prize."
ONCE on a time a jolly good king married a lovely princess, and she could swim. No couple were ever so happy; but before their honeymoon was over they were forced to part, for the king had to ride off to war in a far country. Thus he left his young wife alone at home. She shed some tears of farewell while her husband tried to soothe her with words of comfort and counsel. He warned her, above else, never to leave the castle and not to speak for long with strangers, to beware of evil counsellors, and to be on her guard against strange women.
The queen said she would obey in all the four matters.
So when the king set out on his expedition she shut herself up with her ladies in her own apartments, and spent her time in spinning and weaving and in thinking of her husband. Often she felt sad and lonely, and it happened that one day while she was seated at the window, letting salt tears drop on her work, an old woman, a kind, homely-looking old body, stepped up to the window, and, leaning on her crutch, said to the queen in a friendly-looking, flattering voice:
"Why so sad and cast down? You should not mope all day in your rooms. Come out into the green garden, and hear the birds sing with joy among the trees. See the butterflies fluttering above the flowers, and hear the bees and insects hum. Watch the sunbeams chase the dew-drops through the rose-leaves and in the lily-cups. Well, the brightness outside could drive away your gloom."
These were good and coaxing words. The queen resisted them anyway, for she remembered the promise she had given her royal husband. But at last she thought to herself: After all, what harm would it do to relax in the sunshine and wander in a lovely garden, instead of remaining all day in this room?
And so, in all ignorance, the queen followed the nice-looking old woman out into the garden and listened to her smooth, flattering words. In the middle of the garden there was a pond of crystal-clear water, and he old woman said to the queen:
"The day is so warm, and the water in the pond looks very cool and inviting. Wouldn't you like to bathe in it?'
"No, I think not," answered the queen; but the next moment she regretted her words, and thought to herself: Why shouldn't I bathe in that cool, fresh water? No harm could come of it.
So saying, she slipped off her robes and stepped into the water. But as soon as her feet touched the cool ripples the old woman pushed her into the deep water, calling out:
"Swim along from now on, white duck, and enter the nearest beaver pond for a long time!"
Then the queen was changed into a duck and swam to the beaver pond very close to that castle. And the old witch took on the form of the queen like a garb and clothed herself in her costumes. For a long time she sat among the court ladies and waited for the king to return. And suddenly one day the tramp of horses' hoofs was heard. Dogs were barking, and the old woman who had changed herself into a lovely queen, hastened forward to meet the royal carriages. Then she threw her arms round the king's neck and hugged and kissed him. In the great joy of welcome the king didn't know that the woman in his arms was not his own dear wife, but a wicked old hag.
In the meantime, outside the castle walls, the poor white duck swam up and down the pond and laid three eggs near it. And one morning two little fluffy ducklings and a little ugly drake came out of the eggs. The white duck brought the little creatures up. They paddled after her in the pond, caught fish and hopped on the bank and waddled about. Now and then they ruffled their feathers saying "quack, quack" as they strutted about on the green banks of the pond. But their mother used to warn them not to stray too far, telling them that a dangerous queen lived in the castle beyond the garden. She added,
"She has ruined me, there is a risk that she will do her best to ruin you."
But the young ones didn't listen very well to their mother. One day as they were playing about the garden, they strayed close up to the castle windows. The old hag that played the queen, at once recognised them by their smell. She ground her teeth with anger, but all the same hid her feelings. Pretending to be kind she called them to her and joked with them. Then she led them into a lovely room, where she gave them solid food to eat, and showed them a soft cushion they were to sleep on for a little while.
Then went down into the palace kitchens and told the servants to sharpen the knives,
"Make a great fire ready, and hang a large kettle full of water over it," the false queen ordered.
In the meantime the two little ducklings had fallen asleep, and the little drake lay between them, covered up by their wings, to be kept warm under their feathers. But the little drake that lay between them, couldn't sleep that while. He lay there wide awake. Then, all of a sudden he heard the witch come to the door late in the night and say:
"Little ones, are you asleep?'
The little drake answered:
"No, for sharp is the knife that's whetted to take our life;
"They're not asleep yet," muttered the false queen to herself; and she walked up and down in the passage. Then she came back to the door, saying:
"Little ones, are you asleep?'
Again the little drake answered:
"No, for sharp is the knife that's whetted to take our life;
"Just the same answer," muttered the witch; "I think I'll go in and have a little look."
She opened the door softly. Then she saw the two little ducklings were sound asleep. At once she killed them.
Next morning the white duck wandered round the pond while looking for her little ones. But no matter how she called and searched, she couldn't find any trace of them. At last she fluttered up out of the water and flew to the castle to inspect more. There, laid out on the marble floor of the court, dead and stone cold, were her three children. She cried sadly:
"Quack, quack, quack!
The king heard these sad complaints and called to the false queen:
"Wife, what a wonder? Listen to that white duck."
But the false queen answered,
"What do you mean, husband? There's nothing wonderful in a duck's quacking."
Then she made the servants chase the duck out of the courtyard. But no matter how much they tried, they couldn't get rid of the duck. And what is more, she often came back to the spot where her children lay, crying out loud:
"Quack! A tactless woman changed me into a white duck,
The king heard these words and began to suspect that he had been deceived somehow.
"Catch that duck, and bring it here," he commanded. But the white duck would not let herself be caught by servants. Then the king himself stepped down among them, and all of a sudden the duck fluttered down into his hands. As he stroked her wings she was changed into a beautiful woman. He could see it was his dear wife.
She was happy to tell him that he could find a hidden bottle in her nest in the garden. It contained some drops from the spring of healing that she had come upon without letting anyone know. The bottle was brought to her and the ducklings and little drake were sprinkled with the water.
In a flash of lightning three lovely children rose from the dead ducks and the drake. It was as might be suspected. The king and queen were overjoyed to see their children take shape like that. Since then they all lived happily together in the lovely castle a little away from here.
But the evil old hag was taken by the king's command and came to no good end. That's what they say.