There was once a guileless and simple-minded countryman. Anybody thought they could get the better of him. One day his wife said to him: "Jan, put on your best smock and your soundest clogs, and go to the market to try and sell our calf. She is a good calf and you ought to get at least a hundred francs for her."
Away went Jan, along the road to the market town, with the calf behind him. He felt quite glad to be out on this fine spring day, and he hummed a merry tune as he plodded along. Three students who were lounging at the door of an inn saw him pass, and, marking his air of simplicity, thought it would be good fun to play a joke on him, so one of them went up to him and said:
"Good morning, friend! How much are you asking for your goat?"
"Goat?" answered the peasant in surprise. "This is not a goat, but a calf!"
"Indeed!" said the student politely. "And who told you that?"
"It was my wife," answered the peasant. 'Jan,' she said, 'go to the market and try to sell our calf,' I am sure she said calf. I could not make a mistake about such a thing!"
"Your wife was playing a joke on you," said the student. "Anybody can see that is a goat. If you don't believe me, ask the next person you meet on the road." And he went off, laughing.
Jan continued his walk, a little troubled in his mind, and before very long he saw the second of the students coming towards him. "Stay a minute, sir," he cried. "Do you mind looking at this animal and telling me what sort of a creature it is?"
"Why, a goat, of course," answered the student.
"You're wrong," said the peasant. "It's a calf. My wife says so, and she could not be mistaken!"
"Have it your own way!" replied the student, "but if you'll take my advice you won't pretend that animal is a calf when you get to the market, unless you want to be hooted out of the town!"
"Ah!" said Jan, and he went on his way, muttering to himself, and casting many a troubled glance at the innocent calf who ambled along peacefully behind him. "If it is a goat it ought to have horns," he said to himself. And it hasn't got any horns. But if it is a calf it will have horns when it grows to be a cow. Perhaps it is a goat-calf. I wonder whether goat-calves have horns!" And he continued to puzzle his poor brains about the matter until he was suddenly interrupted by a shout from the side of the road. The shout came from the third student, who had been waiting for him.
"Hallo, you there!" cried the student. "How much do you want for your goat?"
"Goat? Goat?"murmured the peasant in dismay.
"Here, take the thing. If it's a goat, I don't want it, for I was sent to market to sell a calf. You may have it for nothing. I'll give it to you!" And so saying, he pushed the cord into the student's hand. Then turning his back without another word, he retraced his steps towards home.
When his wife heard what had happened she was furious. "You stupid lout! she cried, "could you not see that you were being made a fool of?" And she called him all the names she could lay her tongue to, till the poor fellow blushed and hung his head for shame. Her anger did not last long, however, for she was a good woman and she knew that her husband's simplicity was not his fault, but his misfortune. Fortunately, she had quite enough wits for them both, and instead of wasting more time in reproaches, she set to work to think how she might pay back the practical jokers in their own coin. It did not take her long to think of a plan, and as the first step towards carrying it out, she put on her bonnet and went off to the town, where she called at three inns, paying at each of them for a dinner for four persons, the dinner to be eaten on the next market day. Returning home, she explained the plan to her husband and gave him very exact instructions as to the part he was to play.
When the next market day came round Jan set off for the town, and by the door of the very first inn on the road he met the three students. They exchanged a sly smile when they saw him, and one of them said: "Good morning, good fellow. And how do you find yourself today? I notice that you have no goat with you this time."
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed Jan, "that was a good joke you played on me, but I bear you no ill-will for it. Come in and drink a glass of wine. I'm in funds this morning and I'll willingly stand treat."
The students accepted Jan's offer with enthusiasm, for they belonged to that class of men who are always thirsty. Accordingly the four went into the tavern; and Jan called for wine. When the time came to pay for it, he called the serving-maid, and taking off his cap, spun it round three times on his finger. "Madam," said he, "everything is paid for, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir, and thank you very much," answered the serving-maid.
The three students watched this procedure with a good deal of surprise, but Jan carried off the whole affair as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "Now, my friends," said he, "the doctors say it is bad to drink on an empty stomach. What do you say to a good meal?"
"Excellent," cried the students.
"Very well then, come along with me to the next inn, and you shall have one."
Laughing in their sleeves at the peasant's simplicity, the students followed. Arrived at the inn, Jan ordered dinner for four, and a heap of good things were put on the table. After the repast, he called the serving-maid to him, took off his cap as before, and twirled it round three times on his finger. "Now then," said he, "everything is paid for, isn't that so?"
"Certainly, sir," answered the serving-maid, "and I am very much obliged to you."
At this the three students opened their eyes even wider than before, but Jan took not the slightest notice of their astonishment.
"What do you say, friends," he asked, "shall we go on to the town together and wash the dinner down with a glass of ale each?"
"As many as you please," answered the students joyfully, and so they followed Jan to the town, where he entered a third tavern and ordered drinks all round. Then, taking off his cap once again, he twirled it round three times on his finger, and said to the innkeeper: "Everything is paid for, isn't it, my good man?"
"Certainly, sir," said the innkeeper, bowing.
But this was more than the curiosity of the students could stand.
"Look here, mate," said one of them, "how is it that you are able to get food and drink for nothing everywhere you go, simply by twirling your cap in people's faces?"
"Oh, that's easily explained," answered Jan, "This is a magic cap. It was left to me by my great-great-grandmother, who was a witch.So I have heard say. If I twirl it on my finger, and say, 'Everything is paid for,' well, everything is paid for! You understand me?"
"Perfectly," said the student. "My faith, but that is a wonderful cap – the very thing to have when one goes a journey! Will you sell it to me?"
"How much will you give me for it?" asked Jan.
"Two hundred francs!"
"Nonsense! Do you think I am going to brave my wife's anger for a paltry two hundred francs?"
"Well then, three hundred."
"Not enough! My wife says it is worth a fortune."
Jan shook his head doubtfully, and, seeing his hesitation, the student cried:
"Come now, we'll give you five hundred, and not a penny more. You'd better accept, or you'll lose your chance."
"Well then, hand over the money. I don't know what my wife will say, but . . ."
"She'll give you a kiss for making such a splendid bargain," cried the student, pushing a bag of coins into Jan's hand and snatching the magic cap. "Hurry off home as fast as you can to tell her the good news!" Then the three went away, laughing, slapping each other on the back in their joy at having got the better of the simple peasant.
That afternoon the students, eager to take advantage of the qualities of the magic cap, invited about fifty of their friends to a splendid feast at the largest inn in the town. Everybody who was invited came, as you may imagine, and the resources of the innkeeper were taxed to the utmost to supply the hungry and thirsty crowd with all that they wanted.
When the feast was ended, the student who had Jan's cap called the host, and twirling it three times round his finger, said: "Now, sir, everything is paid for, isn't it?"
"Paid for?" cried the innkeeper. "What do you mean? I haven't seen the colour of your money yet."
At this reply the student's face fell, but one of his companions snatched the cap from his hands. "Idiot," he said, "you twirled the cap the wrong way! I was watching the peasant carefully, and he twisted it like this." So saying, he gave the cap a twirl and said: "Now then, my good sir, I think you will agree that everything is paid for."
"I don't know whether you are trying to play a joke on me?" answered the innkeeper grimly, "but your idea of humour is not mine. You had better pay up at once, before I call the police!"
"Here, let me try," cried the third; and in his turn he twirled the cap, and, fixing the host with his eye, repeated that everything was paid for.
At this the innkeeper flew into a passion, and made such a fuss that the room was in an uproar. It was only by promising to pay him at once that the innkeeper could be quietened down and prevented from calling the police. The banquet cost a good round sum, and as the three students had no money left, their invited guests had to promise to pay the innkeeper, which they did with much grumbling. Afterwards they took their three hosts outside and dipped them into the horse-trough to punish them for their bad taste in playing practical jokes on their friends.
And a few miles away, in their little cottage, Jan and his wife sat counting the five hundred francs he had got for his greasy old and ragged cap. His great-great-grandmother had not left it to him, but maybe it looked like it.
1539. "Cleverness and Gullibility."
Jan and Jannette were brother and sister. They lived near a big wood, and every day they used to go to play there, fishing for sticklebacks in the streams and making necklaces of red berries.
One day they wandered farther from their home than usual, and all of a sudden they came to a brook crossed by a pretty red bridge. On the other side of the bridge, half hidden among the trees, they espied the roofs of a little pink cottage, which, when they came closer, they found to be built entirely of sugar-candy! Here was a delightful find for a little boy and girl who loved sweet-stuff! They lost no time in breaking off pieces of the roof and popping them into their mouths.
Now in that house there lived an old wolf whose name was Garon. He was paralysed in one leg, and could not run very fast, but in all other respects he was as fierce and strong as he had been in his youth. When he heard Jan and Jannette breaking off bits of his roof he growled out, "Who is touching my Sugar-Candy House?"
Then he came limping out to see who it was, but by that time the children were safely hidden in the woods.
"Who dares to touch my Sugar-Candy House?" roared the wolf again.
"It could be the wind so mild, the wind so mild!"
This satisfied the old wolf, and back he went to his house, grumbling.
The next day Jan and Jannette once again crossed over the little red bridge, and broke some more candy from the wolf's house. Out came Garon again, bristling all over.
"Who is touching my Sugar-Candy House?" he roared.
And Jan and Jannette replied:
"It could be the wind so mild, the wind so mild!"
"Very well," said the wolf, and went back again, but this time there was a gleam of suspicion in his eye.
The next day was stormy. Hardly had Jan and Jannette reached the Sugar-Candy House than the wolf came out and surprised them just when they were breaking a piece off his window-sill.
"Oho!" said he, and sprang at Jan and Jannette, who took to their heels and ran off as fast as their legs could carry them. Garon pursued them at a good speed in spite of his stiff paw, and although he never gained on them, yet he kept them in sight and refused to give up the chase. The children looked back once or twice, and saw that the wolf was still following them, but they were not very much afraid, because they were confident of their ability to outrun him.
All of a sudden they found their way barred by a river. There was no bridge across it, and the water was very deep. What were they to do? Nearer and nearer came the wolf!"
In the middle of the river some ducks were swimming, and Jan called out to them: "Little ducks! Little ducks! Carry us over the river on your backs, for if you don't the wolf will get us!"
The ducks came swimming up, and Jan and Jannette climbed each on to the back of one, and were carried safely over to the other bank.
Soon the wolf, in his turn, came to the river. He had seen how the children had managed to cross, and roared out at the ducks in a terrible voice, "Come and carry me, or I'll eat you all up!"
"We'll carry you a long way," answered the ducks, and came swimming to the bank. Garon balanced himself on four of them, one paw on the back of each. But they did not have in mind to carry the old wolf to the other bank, for they did not like him or his kind, and they resented the impolite way he asked them a favour. So, at a given signal from the leader, all the ducks dived in midstream and left old Garon struggling in the water. Three times he went down and three times he came up, but the fourth time he sank, he never came up again.
That was the end of old Garon. I don't know what became of his Sugar-Candy House, but if you could find the wood, and the sun had not melted the candy, or the rain washed it away, you might break a bit of it off for yourselves.
There was once a man named Jaco Peter. He was so poor that he had not two pennies to rub together. His clothes were rags, his boots were shocking, and his house was a miserable hovel hardly fit for a dog. The only friend poor Peter had in the world was a big, red fox that he called Reynard.
One day Peter was walking along the road. He was looking out for stray scraps of food which he could pick up for his dinner when he met Reynard. The fox was out to spy around a farmhouse where there were some fine, fat chickens.
"Peter," said Reynard, "you look miserable today! What is the matter?"
Peter said gloomily. "It is my bad luck. I have found nothing today but two cabbage-stalks and a half-gnawed bone, and the bone has no marrow in it."
"Why do you eat such stuff?" asked Reynard disgustedly. "Look at me - I am just as poor as you, yet I live on the best that can be got! And how do I do it, Peter? Why, by using my wits! Cheer up, you may be a man of fortune yet, for I'll take your case in hand myself!"
Reynard stood by his word. The same day he called at the king's palace and asked if he might borrow a bushel measure. Such an unusual request from a fox caused some amazement- Servants went to tell the king himself about it. He sent for Reynard and asked him what he wanted with such a thing.
Reynard answered: "Jaco Peter might want to measure some money with it."
"Very well," said the king, "you may take the measure, but I would like to have it back when you have done with it, if you do not mind."
Off went Reynard with the bushel basket, and the same night, having stuck a couple of pennies to the bottom of it with a bit of grease, he sent it back with a message to say that he could need a larger one.
In reply, the king sent a two-bushel measure, and after a time Reynard sent this back also, asking politely for a larger one still. "That friend of yours must be rich," said the king. "What did you say his name was? Lord Jaco Peter? I do not seem to remember a lord of that name in my dominions!"
"He is not one of those nobles," said Reynard glibly. "He will soon come to pay his respects to your Majesty, for he comes to ask for the hand of your daughter in marriage."
"That is a thing one must consider," answered the king, "but in the meantime I will gladly give your friend an audience."
Away went Reynard in high feather and recounted to Jaco Peter all that had happened. "Listen," said he, "you shall marry the princess and sit at the king's right hand!"
Peter looked down at his clothes with big and small holes in them, and made a grimace: "My toes are sticking out of my boots and there are holes in my breeches."
"Never mind about that," Reynard answered. "Just leave everything to me."
The next day, when the time came for the pair to set out for the palace, Reynard said to his friend: "Now listen well. Close by the king's palace there is a big muddy puddle in the middle of the road. When you come to that puddle I want you to trip over yourself and fall plump into it. Don't let there be any half measures! Get right into the mud wallow in it, and smear yourself from head to foot!"
"But why . . .?" asked Peter.
"Never mind about why. Do as I tell you!"
Poor Peter did all as the fox wanted him to do. When they reached the puddle he pretended to slip, and fell into it, covering himself with a thick layer of mud. At sight of the happening Reynard began to cry out in dismay, and the guards at the king's palace, who had seen the accident, came running up to offer their aid.
"Did you fall?" asked one of them politely.
Peter was wiping the mud out of his mouth and could not answer, but the fox cried: "Of course! Run to the palace quickly and borrow a change of clothes, for he is on his way to visit the king. What he needs is some robes worthy of a lord's great estate."
Away went the guards, and told the king's chamberlain about what had happened on the road outside the castle. A few minutes later they returned, bearing with them a magnificent robe of cloth-of-gold, beautifully embroidered and sewn with precious stones. Then they led Peter to a chamber, where he bathed himself and donned his new finery. Unfortunately the chamberlain had forgotten to send any shoes, so Peter's toes were sticking out of his boots under his magnificent gown.
"Never mind," said Reynard, "you must keep your feet out of sight under all those robes," and led him before the king, who was immensely taken with how Jaco Peter looked.
"Tell me," he said to Reynard after greetings had been exchanged, "why does your friend keep staring at his clothes. One would think he was not used to them!"
Reynard smiled. "As a matter of fact, your Majesty," he answered, "he is not. This dress of his came out of your Majesty's wardrobe, for he had the ill-fortune to spoil his own on the way here, falling into a puddle. The gown is good enough, as it goes, but my friend is used to something different. I would wager a thousand crowns he is thinking this very moment that he has never been clad in such a way before in his life! Is it not so?" he added, turning to Peter.
Peter gave a grin and a nod of the head, and the affair passed without further comment, but on their way in to dinner Reynard seized the opportunity to warn his friend against further faulty manners. But, as the saying goes, it is no use trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and no sooner were they seated at table, and Peter saw the magnificent golden dishes, the delicate cut glass, and the fine candle sticks, than he opened his eyes wide, and gave exclaimed in astonishment.
"What is the matter?" asked the king, staring at him.
"I crave your Majesty's pardon," said Reynard. My friend is a little overwhelmed, for your customs are new to him. In his own place, you see, he is used to other dishes. Come, come, sir," he added, clapping Peter on the shoulder, "it will do you good to live the simple life. Spartan fare, Spartan fare!"
Peter rolled his eyes and grinned again, before falling to, with a fairly good appetite, on the rich food spread before him.
"This lord must certainly be of rich," thought the king. "True, he has certain curious tricks of manner, such as supping his gravy with a table-knife, but what does a little thing like that matter! In other countries, other ways! That is a very good proverb."
After dinner was over Reynard broached the matter of Peter's marriage with the king's daughter, and the king said yes on her behalf. He begged Reynard and his friend to remain at the palace as his guests until the ceremony should take place, and gave them a magnificent suite of rooms.
A week later Peter and the princess were married. The poor man could hardly believe his good luck as he stood before the altar dressed in gorgeous robes. All he could do was to stare like one who is dazed, and Reynard had to nudge him from behind to get him to make the responses.
After the wedding a splendid feast was held. Jaco Peter was made a nobleman of the country after marrying the princess. All the greatest and wealthiest lords in the kingdom were invited, and then the king's carriages arrived to take the happy pair to Lord Peter's castle.
Now what was to be done? Lord Peter's castle was a broken-down hovel at the edge of the forest. He shivered with fear when he thought of what the princess would say when she saw it, with its mud floor, and its furniture consisting of one chair with no back, one battered table, and a heap of brushwood covered with a ragged pallet which served as a bed. Could Reynard overcome this difficulty too?
Reynard could, and he did! The coaches, with Reynard sitting proudly on the box of the foremost, drove on, past the hovel and soon the whole cortege halted before the gates of an enchanted castle that Reynard had borrowed from the fairies of the forest. There Lord Jaco Peter and his bride lived for many happy years. They had six children, three boys and three girls, and Reynard was the friend of them all.
There once was a poor farmer. He earned a living by gathering dead wood in the forest, and he had a donkey as big as himself to carry it. Perhaps by this you will be able to recognise him.
One day the farmer hitched his donkey into the shafts of his little cart and went off as usual to the wood for his day's toil. Arrived there, he tied the donkey to a tree and then, by way of the cart, climbed the trunk in order to break off some dead branches that he had noticed above. As he sat there, legs astraddle on the branch, busily breaking away the dead wood, along through the forest came a lord dressed in fine clothes, with his manservant behind him.
"Hallo, my man!" cried the lord, "if you don't come down from that tree rather soon, you'll get a tumble. The branch you are sitting on is cracked."
"Cracked, is it?" answered the farmer. "Well, so much the worse for me." And he went on calmly with his work.
The lord went away shrugging his shoulders at the farmer's stupidity. And sure enough, before he had gone very far, crack! crack! the branch broke, and down fell the farmer to the foot of the tree. The fall gave him a fine blow on the nose, which at once swelled almost to the size of a turnip.
"My word," muttered the farmer, tenderly feeling the sore place, "that man must have been a sorcerer! He can foretell the future! He said I'd fall and I certainly have fallen! I must run after him and ask him to tell me something else. This is a chance not to be missed!"
So off he ran as fast as his bruised limbs would allow, in pursuit of the lord, and after a while came up to him. "Hi, sir, wait a minute!" he cried. "You told me the truth about the tree. The branch broke right enough and I fell on my nose. Won't you tell me something else?"
"Willingly," answered the lord, "and I hope this time that you will heed what I say. Take care not to load your donkey too heavily, for if you do so he will bray, and if he brays three times in I predict that you will die."
To himself and his servant the lord muttered in a low voice: "Some time."
The farmer did not hear that. "Oh dear me!" sighed the farmer. "Each prediction about my future seems to be unhappy. Nevertheless, I am very much obliged to you, sir. Thank you and good day." And he took off his cap and bowed to the lord, and lurched off back to his tree.
For a long time he worked busily and found so much wood that his little cart soon became full. Then he remembered what the lord had told him about loading his donkey too heavily, but he was so avaricious that he could not make up his mind to stop. "One more branch won't make any difference," he kept on saying as he piled more and more wood into the cart. At last the poor donkey could stand no more and, lifting his head, he uttered a loud "Hee haw!"
At this the farmer turned pale with fright. "Stop, stop! What are you doing?" he cried. "Oh, my dear little ass, I beg you not to bray again. I will not put another branch into the cart. We will go home straight away and you shall have carrots for supper!"
So saying, he climbed to his seat and shook the reins as a signal for departure. The donkey pulled and pulled, but the cart would not move an inch, although he strained his muscles to the utmost. Finding all his efforts vain, the donkey turned his head and once again brayed loudly in protest.
"Oh, dear me, that's twice!" cried the farmer, jumping down from his perch. "If he brays one more time I'm a dead man. Do you hear that, little ass? For goodness sake, keep silent until we reach home! I'll help you pull the cart!"
Freed of the farmer's weight, the load for a time was easier to pull, but at the end of another ten minutes the weight began to tell again. The donkey stopped and brayed loudly for the third time.
"That's finished it!" cried the farmer. "I am dead!" And he fell flat to the ground.
Left to himself, the donkey wandered slowly on, dragging the load behind him. Soon he came to the gates of the town, where the guard took him and put him into the enclosure. After a time, as nobody claimed him, he was sold.
Meanwhile the farmer lay where he had fallen. After some time a carriage drove up, and the coachman was forced to pull in his horses because of the body that lay stretched across the road.
"Come," he cried, thinking that the farmer was drunk, "rouse yourself! Get up, unless you want to be run over!"
"I can't get up!" moaned the farmer.
"Because I'm dead!"
"Dead, are you?" cried the coachman, jumping from his seat in anger. "Well I've something here that will bring you to life again!" And he took his whip and - in less than ten seconds the farmer was dancing and prancing about all over the road.
Having thus effectively brought the dead man to life, he remounted his box and drove off grumbling.
In the roadway the farmer continued to dance about until he felt less pain after the whipping he had got. Then he looked around, and for the first time missed his donkey.
"Dear, dear, dear! he cried, one trouble after another! When I was dead I wished I was alive; now I'm alive I wish I was dead again, for I'm sore all over, and I've lost my ass. Whatever shall I do?"
Groaning and grumbling, he set off along the road in search of his animal. After a time he came to the gates of the town, where a sentry was standing with his long spear on his shoulder. "Good morning, good man," said the farmer. "Have you seen my little ass?"
"Your ass!" answered the sentry, smiling, and played a joke on him: "The only ass that has passed through these gates today has already become mayor!"*
"What? Mayor!" cried the farmer. "My ass? Tell me quickly where the mayor lives. I must go to him at once!"
The amused sentry now pointed out the way to the mayor's house, and the farmer hastened to the place. Arrived at the door, he sounded the great bell - Darlindindin! - and a maidservant appeared.
"Is the mayor at home?" asked the farmer.
Yes, he was at home, and the maidservant led the farmer to the room where he sat behind a big table loaded with documents.
"Good morning, ass!" said the farmer, with a grin of delight that twisted his swollen and discoloured features.
"Eh! what, what!" stammered the mayor, turning purple with anger.
"I beg your pardon," said the farmer, "I should have said, "Good morning, Mr. Ass," for you have become a great man now, while I am still a poor woodcutter. I don't envy you your good fortune, I am sure, although your promotion has left me without a donkey. Since you have become such a great lord, won't you give me back the ten florins you cost me, so that I may buy another?"
At this the mayor's exploded in rage. Leaping over the table with one bound, he seized the hapless farmer by the collar of his coat, threw open the door, and, with one mighty kick sent him sprawling from top to bottom of the stairs.
* Ass: (1) donkey; (2) a foolish or ridiculously pompous person.
At one time the birds decided to have a king. It was the eagle's idea: he thought of it one day when he was standing on the lofty crag by his nest, gazing out on the plain below, and saw the kingly lion beside a dried-up stream. "Earth-bound creature!" thought the eagle. "Who are you to reign over us who cleave the air with wings and fly a long way too! He who is lordliest among the birds should rule the birds, and I am he!"
So thinking, the eagle spread his wings and soared high into the air and soon sent messengers near and far to gather all the birds so that he might tell them what he had come up with.
The birds came to answer the summons. The sky was dark with them, so dark that the animals on the earth below feared a dreadful storm was coming, and took shelter in their caves and holes. From north, south, east, and west birds came; over mountains, valleys, and plains; birds of all sorts and sizes, from the little humming-bird to the condor and the vulture. The ostrich left the burning plains where he loves to roam, and raced to the meeting-place. The seabirds and penguins all came, and the other birds between north and south. All the sorts cried in their own way, even with dialects, so there was plenty of calling, crowing, cooing, screaming, whistling, warbling, chirping and chattering. The air was filled with the sound of the birds a long way off.
When all the birds were gathered the eagle spoke: "Listen," said he, "I have called you together so that we may choose a king, such as the four-legged animals have. So it seems to me that the kingly crown should be given to the one among us who is fit for ruling all of us. What do you say? Shall we test this matter and let him who can come nearest to the sun be king?"
The result of the speech was that one bird spoke against another, disagreeing about the test.
"What is flight compared to song?" asked the nightingale. "Let the sweetest singer among us reign."
The canary and the song thrush and the blackcap all agreed with the nightingale, but they were shouted down.
"Beauty, beauty!" cried the peacock. "That is the test! A king should wear resplendent robes!" He spread his gorgeous tail.
"There speaks wisdom," gobbled the turkey, turning red in the face, and strutting up and down. "What do you say, brother," he asked a colourful cock. "Shall we arrange it so?"
"Bright feathers are only surface stuff!" cackled the ostrich. "Is our king only to be looked at, or is he to do nothing all day but chirp and twitter foolish songs? As for flying, I found my wings of so little use that I gave up using them long ago. My idea is that we should settle this matter by a running race!"
And so the birds went on quarrelling and disputing until at last the eagle called for silence, and, addressing the company again insisted on his own plan. He spoke sternly, and as all the birds went in fear of his curved beak and sharp talons, there were no more objections to it.
It was agreed that the trial should take place at once, and the cock was chosen to give the signal for the start. Very proud of the honour, he stationed himself on a little grassy knoll, and having ascertained that everybody was ready, gave a loud and clarion call. "Up, up we go," he cried.
There was the sound as of a rushing mighty wind as all the birds sprang into the air. Only the eagle remained in his place, looking after the others a little contemptuously. He thought he could surpass them all, and allowed them at least a five minutes' start. Then, leisurely, he spread his wings and soared.
Up, up, up he went; he overtook the stragglers on the fringe of the crowd, passed through the thickest press, and outdistanced the foremost flyer of them all – a goose. Still up and up he soared, until the birds flying far below were hidden by the clouds. Then he hung for a moment, motionless on extended wings, for he was a little wearied by his efforts.
All of a sudden he heard above his head, a tiny twit, twit, twit, and looking up, saw, to his surprise, the golden-crested wren, one of the smallest of the birds, flying merrily above him.
"I have outdistanced you. I am king! I am king!" cried the wren in joy.
"We will see," said the eagle grimly, "It isn't over yet," and once again he beat his mighty wings and soared.
At the end of a further five minutes, he stopped again, only to hear, as before, the wren's cheerful twitter above him. Again and again the same thing happened. Try as he might, the eagle could not outdistance the tiny bird, and at last, worn out with his exertions, he had to give up the contest, and glide down to the earth again. He was crestfallen.
The little wren had defeated the mighty eagle by a trick! When the eagle started on its flight the wren was safely perched on his back. There he clung until the eagle stopped rising, when it was an easy matter for the wren to rise from the eagle back and fly a yard or two higher, time after time until the great bird was exhausted.
Nobody suspected the trick that the wren had played, but the other birds were very indignant when they heard the wren declare that he had won the contest. "You, king!" they cried. "A tiny bird like you! It would be a disgrace to us. We would rather be ruled by the cackling and high-flying goose or vigilant eagle! Away with you before we tear you to pieces!"
The wren was as perky as you please, and for only answer he flew to the boughs of a tree, from where he looked down on them all with his head on one side, chirping, "I am king! I am king. Bow down and pay respect!"
A great cry of anger arose. "Kill him! Kill him!" screamed the hawk. Tear him to pieces!"
"You will have to catch me first!" twittered the wren, and as the hawk made a rush at him, he popped into a hole in the trunk of a tree - a hole so small that nobody could get at him. From the shelter of that safe retreat he kept on gibing at the birds, issuing commands and asserting that he was their king.
What was to be done? Nobody could get at the wren, and yet all the birds felt that he should be punished for his impudence. They consulted with each other, and it was decided to set the owl as a guard at the mouth of the wren's hole.
"Sooner or later," said the eagle, "he will have to come out in order to get food, and then we will have him. If, however, he chooses to stay where he is, let him; either way our purpose will be served."
So the owl mounted guard by the hole in the trunk of the tree, and having given him the most careful instructions not on any account to let the wren escape, the other birds flew away. All that day the owl remained vigilant at his post, and though the wren put his head out of the hole a hundred times, he always found his guard keeping careful watch.
Night fell, and a great silence fell on the woods, but still the owl kept awake for hour after hour, watching with unwinking eyes. At last, towards morning, his vigilance relaxed a little. His head sank forward on his breast; and he fell fast asleep. Hardly had his eyes closed than, rip! the wren darted out of his hole, and the next moment he had vanished among the trees.
When the birds returned the next morning they were furious to find that their prisoner had escaped.
"Unfaithful servant," they cried to the owl, "you have betrayed your trust!" And they fell on the owl to put him to death. With some difficulty he managed to escape, but ever since that time the birds chase the owl wherever they see him, for they are still angry with him. To keep out of their way he has to hide during the day and venture out only at night, when all the other birds are fast asleep.
As for the golden-crested wren, he is known as the kinglet, or little king, to this day.