Once upon a time there was a handsome hen who lived like a great lady in the poultry yard of a rich farmer, surrounded by numerous family that clucked about her, and none of which clamored more loudly or picked up the corn faster than a poor little deformed and crippled chicken. This was precisely the one that the mother loved best. It is the way with all mothers; the weakest and most unsightly are always the favorites. This misshapen creature had but one eye, one wing, and one leg in good condition; it might have been thought that Solomon had executed his memorable sentence on Coquerico, for that was the name of the wretched chicken, and cut him in two with his famous sword. When a person is one-eyed, lame, and one-armed, he may reasonably be expected to be modest; but our Castilian ragamuffin was prouder than his father, the best spurred, most elegant, bravest, and most gallant cock to be seen from Burgos to Madrid. He thought himself a phoenix of grace and beauty, and passed the best part of the day in admiring himself in the brook. If one of his brothers ran against him by accident, he abused him, called him envious and jealous, and risked his only remaining eye in battle; if the hens clucked on seeing him, he said it was to hide their spite because he did not condescend to look at them.
One day, when he was more puffed up with vanity than usual, he resolved no longer to remain in such a narrow sphere, but to go out into the world, where he would be better appreciated.
"My lady mother," said he, "I am tired of Spain; I am going to Rome to see the Pope and cardinals."
"What are you thinking of, my poor child!" cried his mother. "Who has put such a folly into your head? Never has one of our family been known to quit his country, and, for this reason, we are the honor of our race, and are proud of our genealogy. Where will you find a poultry yard like this—mulberry trees to shade you, a whitewashed hen roost, a magnificent dunghill, worms and corn everywhere, brothers that love you, and three great dogs to guard you from the foxes? Do you not think that at Rome itself you will regret the ease and plenty of such a life?"
Coquerico shrugged his crippled wing in token of disdain. "You are a simple woman, my good mother," said he; "everything is accounted worthy of admiration by him who has never quitted his dunghill. But I have wit enough to see that my brothers have no ideas, and that my cousins are nothing but rustics. My genius is stifling in this hole; I wish to roam the world and seek my fortune."
"But, my son, have you never looked in the brook?" resumed the poor hen. "Don't you know that you lack an eye, a leg, and a wing? To make your fortune, you need the eyes of a fox, the legs of a spider, and the wings of a vulture. Once outside these walls, you are lost."
"My good mother," replied Coquerico, "when a hen hatches a duck, she is always frightened on seeing it run to the water. You know me no better. It is my nature to succeed by my wit and talent. I must have a public capable of appreciating the charms of my person; my place is not among inferior people."
"My son," said the hen, seeing all her counsels useless, "my son, listen at least to your mother's last words. If you go to Rome, take care to avoid St. Peter's Church; the saint, it is said, dislikes cocks, especially when they crow. Shun, moreover, certain personages called cooks and scullions; you will know them by their paper caps, and their tucked-up sleeves, and the great knives which they wear at their sides. They are licensed assassins, who track our steps without pity, and cut our throats without giving us time to cry mercy. And now, my child," she added, raising her claw, "receive my blessing. May St. James, the patron saint of pilgrims, protect thee!"
Coquerico pretended not to see the tear that trembled in his mother's eye, nor did he trouble himself any more about his father, who bristled his plumage and seemed about to call him back. Without caring for those whom he left behind, he glided through the half-open door, and, once outside, flapped his only wing and crowed three times, to celebrate his freedom—"Cock-a-doodle-doo!"
As he half-flew, half-hopped over the fields, he came to the bed of a brook which had been dried up by the sun. In the middle of the sands, however, still trickled a tiny thread of water, so small that it was choked by a couple of dead leaves that had fallen into it.
"My friend," exclaimed the Streamlet at the sight of our traveler, "my friend, you see my weakness; I have not even the strength to carry away these leaves which obstruct my passage, much less to make a circuit, so completely am I exhausted. With a stroke of your beak you can restore me to life. I am not an ingrate; if you oblige me, you may count on my gratitude the first rainy day, when the water from heaven shall have restored my strength."
"You are jesting?" said Coquerico. "Do I look like one whose business it is to sweep the brooks? Apply to those of your own sort." And, with his sound leg, he leaped across the Streamlet.
"You will remember me when you least expect it," murmured the Brook, but with so feeble a voice that it was lost on the proud cock.
A little farther on, Coquerico saw the Wind lying breathless on the ground.
"Dear Coquerico, come to my aid," it cried; "here on earth we should help each other. You see to what I am reduced by the heat of the day; I, who in former times uprooted the olive trees and lashed the waves to frenzy, lie here well nigh slain by the dog star. I suffered myself to be lulled to sleep by the perfume of the roses with which I was playing; and lo! here I am, stretched almost lifeless upon the ground. If you will raise me a couple of inches with your beak and fan me a little with your wing, I shall have the strength to mount to yonder white clouds which I see in the distance, where I shall receive aid enough from my family to keep me alive till I gain fresh strength from the next whirlwind."
"My lord," answered the spiteful Coquerico, "your excellency has more than once amused himself by playing tricks at my expense. It is not a week since your lordship glided like a traitor behind me, and diverted himself by opening my tail like a fan and covering me with confusion in the face of nations. Have patience, therefore, my worthy friend; mockers always have their turn; it does them good to repent, and to learn to respect those whose birth, wit, and beauty should screen them from the jests of a fool." And Coquerico, bristling his plumage, crowed three times in his shrillest voice and proudly strutted onward.
A little farther on he came to a newly mown field, where the farmers had piled up the weeds in order to burn them. Coquerico approached a smoking heap, hoping to find some stray kernels of corn, and saw a little flame which was charring the green stalks without being able to set them on fire.
"My good friend," cried the Flame to the newcomer, "you are just in time to save my life; I am dying for want of air. I cannot imagine what has become of my cousin, the Wind, who cares for nothing but his own amusement. Bring me a few dry straws to rekindle my strength, and you will not have obliged an ingrate."
"Wait a moment," said Coquerico, "and I will serve you as you deserve, insolent fellow that dares ask my help!" And behold! he leaped on the heap of dried weeds, and trampled it down till he smothered both Flame and smoke; after which he exultingly shouted three times "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" and flapped his wings, as if he had done a great deed.
Proudly strutting onward and crowing, Coquerico at last arrived at Rome, the place to which all roads lead. Scarcely had he reached the city when he hastened to the great church of St. Peter. Grand and beautiful as it was, he did not stop to admire it, but, planting himself in front of the main entrance, where he looked like a fly among the great columns, he raised himself on tiptoe and began to shout "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" only to enrage the saint and disobey his mother.
He had not yet ended his song when one of the Pope's guards, who chanced to hear him, laid hands on the insolent wretch who dared thus to insult the saint, and carried him home in order to roast him for supper.
"Quick!" said he to his wife on entering the house, "give me some boiling water; here is a sinner to be punished."
"Pardon, pardon, Madam Water!" cried Coquerico. "O good and gentle Water, the best and purest thing in the world, do not scald me, I pray you!"
"Did you have pity on me when I implored your aid, ungrateful wretch?" answered the Water, boiling with indignation. And with a single gush it inundated him from head to foot, and left not a bit of down on his body.
The unhappy Coquerico stripped of all his feathers, the soldier took him and laid him on the gridiron.
"O Fire, do not burn me!" cried he, in an agony of terror. "O beautiful and brilliant Fire, the brother of the Sun and the cousin of the Diamond, spare an unhappy creature; restrain thy ardor and soften thy flame; do not roast me!"
"Did you have pity on me when I implored your aid, ungrateful wretch?" answered the Fire, and, fiercely blazing with anger, in an instant it burned Coquerico to a coal.
The soldier, seeing his roast chicken in this deplorable condition, took him by the leg and threw him out of the window. The Wind bore the unhappy fowl to a dunghill, where it left him for a moment.
"O Wind," murmured Coquerico, who still breathed, "oh, kindly zephyr, protecting breeze, behold me cured of my vain follies; let me rest on the paternal dunghill."
"Let you rest!" roared the Wind. "Wait and I will teach you how I treat ingrates." And with one blast it sent him so high in the air that, as he fell back, he was transfixed by a steeple.
There St. Peter was awaiting him. With his own hand he nailed him to the highest steeple in Rome, where he is still shown to travelers. However high placed he may be, all despise him because he turns with the slightest wind; black, dried up, stripped of his feathers, and beaten by the rain, he is no longer called Coquerico, but Weathercock; and thus expiates, and must expiate eternally, his disobedience, vanity, and wickedness.