The Happy Family
T HE biggest leaf here in the country is certainly the burdock leaf. Put one in front of your waist and it's just like an apron; and if you lay it upon your head it is almost as good as an umbrella, for it is quite remarkably large. A burdock never grows alone; where there is one tree there are several more. It's splendid to behold! and all this splendor is snails' meat—the great white snails which the grand people in old times used to have made into fricassees; and when they had eaten them they would say, "H'm! how good that is!" for they had the idea that it tasted delicious. These snails lived on burdock leaves, and that's why burdocks were sown.
Now there was an old estate on which people ate snails no longer. The snails had died out, but the burdocks had not. These latter grew and grew on all the walks and in all the beds—there was no stopping them; the place became a complete forest of burdocks. Here and there stood an apple or a plum tree; but for this nobody would have thought a garden had been there. Everything was burdock, and among the burdocks lived the two last ancient Snails.
They did not know themselves how old they were, but they could very well remember that there had been a great many more of them, that they had descended from a foreign family, and that the whole forest had been planted for them and theirs. They had never been away from home, but it was known to them that something existed in the world called the manor-house, and that there one was boiled, and one became black and was laid upon a silver dish; but what was done afterward they did not know. Moreover, they could not imagine what that might be, being boiled and laid upon a silver dish; but it was stated to be fine and particularly grand! Neither the Cockchafer, nor the Toad, nor the Earth-worm, whom they questioned about it, could give them any information, for none of their own kind had ever been boiled and laid on silver dishes.
The old white Snails were the grandest in the world; they knew that! The forest was there for their sake, and the manor-house too so that they might be boiled and laid on silver dishes.
They led a very retired and happy life; and, as they themselves were childless, they had adopted a little common Snail, which they brought up as their own child. But the little thing would not grow, for it was only a common Snail, though the old people, and particularly the Mother, declared one could easily see how he grew. And when the Father could not see it she requested him to feel the little Snail's shell; and he felt it, and acknowledged that she was right.
One day it rained very hard.
"Listen how it's drumming on the burdock leaves—rum-dum-dum! rum-dum-dum!" said the Father Snail.
"That's what I call drops," said the Mother. "It's coming straight down the stalks. You'll see it will be wet here directly. I'm only glad that we have our good houses, and that the little one has his own. There has been more done for us than for any other creature; one can see very plainly that we are the grand folks of the world! We have houses from our birth, and the burdock forest has been planted for us; I should like to know how far it extends and what lies beyond it."
"There's nothing," said the Father Snail, "that can be better than here at home; I have nothing at all to wish for."
"Yes," said the Mother; "I should like to be taken to the manor-house and boiled and laid upon a silver dish; that has been done to all our ancestors, and you may be sure it's quite a distinguished honor."
"The manor-house has perhaps fallen in," said the Father Snail, "or the forest of burdocks may have grown over it so that the people can't get out at all. You need not be in a hurry—but you always hurry so, and the little one is beginning just the same way. Has he not been creeping up that stalk these three days? My head quite aches when I look up at him."
"You must not scold him," said the Mother Snail. "He crawls very deliberately. We shall have much joy in him; and we old people have nothing else to live for. But have you ever thought where we shall get a wife for him? Don't you think that farther in the wood there may be some more of our kind?"
"There may be black snails there, I think," said the old man—"black snails without houses!—but they're too vulgar. And they're conceited, for all that. But we can give the commission to the ants; they run to and fro as if they had business; they're sure to know of a wife for our young gentleman."
"I certainly know the most beautiful of brides," said one of the Ants; "but I fear she would not do, for she is the Queen!"
"That does not matter," said the two old Snails. "Has she a house?"
"She has a castle!" replied the Ant—"the most beautiful ant's castle, with seven hundred passages."
"Thank you," said the Mother Snail; "our boy shall not go into an ant-hill. If you know of nothing better we'll give the commission to the White Gnats; they fly far about in rain and sunshine, and they know the burdock wood inside and outside."
"We have a wife for him," said the Gnats. "A hundred man-steps from here a little Snail with a house is sitting on a gooseberry-bush; she is quite alone, and old enough to marry. It's only a hundred man-steps from here."
"Yes, let her come to him," said the old people. "He has a whole burdock forest, and she has only a bush."
And so they brought the little maiden Snail. Eight days passed before she arrived, but that was the rare circumstance about it, for by this one could see that she was of the right kind.
And then they had a wedding. Six glow-worms lighted as well as they could: with this exception it went very quietly, for the old Snail people could not bear feasting and dissipation. But a capital speech was made by the Mother Snail. The father could not speak, he was so much moved. Then they gave the young couple the whole burdock forest for an inheritance, and said what they had always said—namely, that it was the best place in the world, and that the young people, if they lived honorably and increased and multiplied, would some day be taken with their children to the manor-house and boiled black and laid upon a silver dish. And when the speech was finished the old people crept into their houses and never came out again, for they slept.
The young Snail pair now ruled in the forest, and had a numerous progeny. But as the young ones were never boiled and put into silver dishes, they concluded that the manor-house had fallen in and that all the people in the world had died out. And as nobody contradicted them, they must have been right. And the rain fell down upon the burdock leaves to play the drum for them; and the sun shone to color the burdock forest for them; and they were happy, very happy—the whole family was happy, uncommonly happy!