Upon the last house in a little town there stood a stork’s nest. The stork-mother sat in the nest, with her four young ones, which stuck out their heads, with their little black beaks, for their beaks had not yet become red. Not far off, upon the ridge of the house roof, stood the stork-father, as stiffly and proudly as possible; he had tucked up one leg under him, for though that was rather inconvenient, still he was standing as sentinel. One might have fancied that he was carved out of wood, he stood so stock still.
“It looks, certainly, very consequential,” thought he to himself, “that my wife should have a sentinel to her nest! Nobody need know that I am her husband; they will think, of course, that I commanded the sentinel to stand here. It looks so very proper!” And having thus thought, he continued to stand on one leg.
A troop of little boys were playing down in the street below, and when they saw the storks, the boldest lad amongst them began to sing, and at last they all sang together, that old rhyme about the storks, which the children in Denmark sing; but they sang it now, because it had just come into their heads:—
“Stork, stork on one leg,
Fly home to thy egg;
Mrs. Stork she sits at home,
With four great, big young ones;
The eldest shall be hung,
The second have its neck wrung;
The third shall be burned to death,
The fourth shall be murdered!”
“Only hear what those lads sing!” said the little storks; “they sing that we shall be hanged and burned!”
“Do not vex yourselves about that,” said the stork-mother; “don’t listen to them, and then it does not matter.”
But the boys continued to sing, and they pointed with their fingers to the stork; there was one boy, however, among them, and his name was Peter, and he said that it was a sin to make fun of the storks, and he would not do it.
The stork-mother consoled her young ones thus: “Don’t annoy yourselves about that. Look how funnily your father stands on one leg!”
“We are so frightened!” said the young ones, and buried their heads down in the nest.
The next day, when the children assembled again to play, they saw the storks, and they began their verse:—
“The second have its neck wrung;
The third shall be burned to death!”
“Shall we be hanged and burned?” asked the young storks.
“No, certainly not!” said the mother. “You will learn to fly; I will exercise you; and so we shall take you out into the meadows, and go a visiting to the frogs, that make courtesies to us in the water; they sing—’koax! koax!’ and so we eat them up; that is a delight!”
“And how so?” asked the young storks.
“All the storks which are in the whole country assemble,” said the mother, “and so the autumn manœuvres begin; every one must be clever at flying; that is of great importance, for those that cannot fly are pecked to death by the general, with his beak; and, therefore, it is well to learn something before the exercise begins.”
“And so we really may be murdered! as the boys said; and hark! now they are singing it again.”
“Listen to me, and not to them!” said the stork-mother. “After the great manœuvre, we fly away to the warm countries—O, such a long way off, over mountains and woods! We fly to Egypt, where there are three-cornered stone houses, which go up in a point above the clouds; they are called pyramids, and are older than any stork can tell. There is a river which overflows its banks, and so the country becomes all mud. One goes in the mud, and eats frogs.”
“O!” said all the young ones.
“Yes, that is so delightful! One does nothing at all but eat, all day long; and whilst we are so well off, in this country there is not a single green leaf upon the trees; here it is, then, so cold; and the very clouds freeze into pieces, and fall down in little white rags!”
That was the snow which she meant, but she could not explain it more intelligibly.
“Will it freeze the naughty boys into bits?” asked the young ones.
“No, it will not freeze them into bits, but it will pretty nearly do so; and they will be obliged to sit in dark rooms and cough. You, on the contrary, all that time, can be flying about in the warm countries, where there are flowers and warm sunshine!”
Some time had now passed, and the young ones were so large that they could stand up in the nest and look about them, and the stork-father came flying every day with nice little frogs and snails, and all the stork-delicacies which he could find. O, it was extraordinary what delicious morsels he got for them. He stretched out his head, clattered with his beak, as if it had been a little rattle, and thus he told them tales about the marshes.
“Listen to me; now you must learn to fly,” said the stork-mother, one day; and so all the four young ones were obliged to get out of the nest upon the ridge of the house; and how dizzy they were; how they balanced themselves with their wings, and for all that were very near falling!
“Look at me,” said the mother, “you must hold your heads thus! and thus must you set your wings! Now! one, two! one, two! This it is which must help you out into the world!”
With this she flew a little way, and the young ones made a little clumsy hop—bump!—there lay they, for their bodies were heavy.
“I cannot fly!” said one of the young ones; “it’s no use my trying!” and crept up to the nest again.
“Wilt thou be frozen to death here, when winter comes?” asked the mother. “Shall the boys come and hang thee, and burn thee, and wring thy neck? Shall I go and call them?”
“O, no!” said the young stork; and so hopped again on the roof, like the others.
On the third day after that it could regularly fly a little, and so they thought that they could now rest awhile in the air. They tried to do so, but—bump!—there they tumbled, and so they were obliged to flutter their wings again.
The boys were now down in the street once more, and sung their rhyme:—
“Stork, stork, fly.”
“Shall not we fly down and peck their eyes out?” said the young ones.
“No, let them be,” said the mother, “and listen to me, that is far wiser. One, two, three! Now we fly round, higher than ever! One, two, three! Now to the left of the chimney!—see, that was very well done! and the last stroke of the wings was so beautiful and correct, that I will give you leave to go down to the marsh with me, to-morrow! There will come a great number of pleasant stork-families there, with their children; let me have the happiness of seeing that mine are the nicest, and that they can make a bow and courtesy; that looks so well, and gains respect!”
“But shall we not have revenge on the naughty boys?” inquired the young storks.
“Let them sing what they like!” said the mother; “you will fly amid the clouds, go to the land of the pyramids, when they must freeze, and neither have a green leaf left, nor a sweet apple!”
“Yes, but we will be revenged!” whispered they one to another, and then went out again to exercise.
Of all the boys in the street there was not one who sung the jeering rhymes about the storks so much as he who first began it; and he was a very little one, and was not more than six years old. The young storks thought to be sure that he must be a hundred years old, for he was so much larger than either their mother or their father; and they, poor things, knew nothing about how old children and great men might be. All their revenge, they determined, should be taken upon this boy; he was the first to begin, and he it was who always sang. The young storks were very much irritated, and the more they were determined on revenge, the less they said of it to their mother. Their mother, they thought, would at last grant their wishes, but they would leave it till the last day they were in the country.
“We must see how you conduct yourselves in the great manœuvre,” said the mother; “if you fail in that, then the general will run you through with his beak, and then the boys will be right in one way, at least. Now let us see.”
“Yes, thou shalt see!” said the young ones; and so they took great pains and practised every day, and flew so beautifully and so lightly that it was charming to see them.
Now came the autumn; and all the storks began to assemble to fly away into the warm countries, while we have winter. That was a manœuvre! Over wood and town went they, just to see how they could fly. The young storks performed so expertly that they could discern very well both frogs and snakes. That was the very best test of skill. “Frogs and snakes, therefore, they should eat;” and they did so.
“Now let us have revenge,” said they.
“Leave off talking of revenge,” said the mother. “Listen to me, which is a great deal better. Do not you remember the good little boy who said, when the others sung, ‘that it was a sin to make fun of the storks?’ let us reward him, that is better than having revenge.”
“Yes, let us reward him,” said the young storks.
“He shall have, next summer, a nice little sister, such a beautiful little sister as never was seen!—Will not that be a reward for him?” said the mother.
“It will,” said the young ones; “a sweet little sister he shall have!”
“And as he is called Peter,” continued the mother, “so shall you also be called Peter altogether.”
And that which she said was done. The little boy had the loveliest of little sisters next year; and, from that time, all the storks in Denmark were called Peter; and so are they to this day.