O NCE there was a poor farmer who had three sons—Peter, Paul, and Jack.
Now Peter was big, fat, red-faced, and slow; Paul was slender, awkward, and ill-natured; Jack was quick, and bright, and so little that he might have hidden himself in one of Peter's big boots.
The poor farmer had nothing in the world but a little hut that seemed ready to tumble down every time the wind blew. He worked hard, but it was all he could do to earn bread for his family.
The boys grew very fast, and by-and-by they were old enough to work. Then their father said to them, "Boys, I have taken care of you these many days when you were too little to take care of yourselves. Now I am old, and you are strong. It is time for you to go out and earn your living."
So, early the next morning, the three boys started out to seek their fortunes.
"Where shall we go?" asked Peter.
"Yes, where shall we go?" said Paul. "Things have come to a pretty pass when one can't stay at home."
"Well, I am going to the King's palace," said Jack.
"And what will you do there?" said Paul. "You are a fine fellow to be going to Kings' palaces."
"I will tell you," said Jack. "The King's palace is a very grand place. It is built of white stones and it has six glass windows on the front side of it.
"But a huge oak-tree has grown up right against the glass windows. The leaves are so many and so big that they shut out all the sunlight, and the rooms of the palace are dark even in midday."
"Well, what of that?" asked Peter.
"Yes, what of that?" growled Paul. "What have you to do with the oak?"
"The King wants it cut down," said Jack.
"Well, then, why don't his men cut it down?" asked Paul.
"They can't," said Jack. "The tree is so hard that it blunts the edge of every ax; and whenever one of its branches is cut off, two bigger ones spring out in place of it. The King has offered three bags of gold to anyone who will cut the tree down."
"How did you learn all this?" asked Peter.
"Oh, a little bird told me," said Jack. "You see, I can read and you cannot. I am going to the King's palace to see if I can't earn those bags of gold."
"Not till I try it," cried Paul; "for I am older than you."
"I should have the first trial," said Peter; "for I am older than either of you. Come along, boys, let's all go down and take a look at the big oak."
And so all three took the road that led to the King's palace.
Peter and Paul went jogging along with their hands in their pockets. They did not look either to the right or to the left.
But little Jack skipped this way and that, noticing everything by the roadside. He watched the bees buzzing among the flowers, the butterflies fluttering in the sunlight and the birds building their nests in the trees.
He asked questions about everything. "What is this? Why is this? How is this?"
But his brothers only growled and answered, "We don't know."
By and by they came to a mountain and a great forest of pine trees. Far up the side of the mountain they could hear the sound of an ax and the noise of falling branches.
"I wonder who is chopping wood up there," said Jack. "Do you know, Paul?"
"Of course I don't know," growled Paul. "Hold your tongue."
"Oh, he is always wondering," said Peter. "You would think he'd never heard an ax before."
"Well, wonder or no wonder," said Jack, "I mean to go up and see who is chopping wood."
"Go, then," said Paul. "You will tire yourself out and be left behind. But it will be a good lesson to you."
Jack did not stop to listen to these words. For he was already climbing up the mountain toward the place where the chopping was heard.
When he came to the top, what do you think he saw?
He saw a bright steel ax working all alone and cutting down a big pine tree. No man was near it.
"Good morning, Mr. Ax," he said. "I think you must be tired chopping at that old tree all by yourself."
"Ah, master," said the ax. "I have been waiting for you a long time."
"Well, here I am," said Jack; and he took the ax and put it into his pocket.
Then he ran down the mountain and soon overtook his brothers.
"Well, Mr. Why-and-How," said Paul, "what did you find up there?"
"It was really an ax that we heard," answered Jack.
"Of course it was," said Peter. "You might have saved yourself all your trouble by staying with us."
After the boys had passed through the woods they came to a great rocky place between two mountains. The path was narrow and crooked, and steep cliffs towered above it on both sides.
Soon they heard a dull sound high up on the top of a cliff. Thump! Thump! Thud! it went, like someone striking iron against stone.
"I wonder why anyone is breaking stones up there," said Jack.
"Yes, of course you wonder," growled Paul; "you are always wondering."
"It is nothing but a woodpecker tapping on a hollow tree," said Peter. "Come along, and mind your own business."
"Business or no business," said Jack, "I mean to see what is going on up there."
With these words he began to climb up the side of the cliff. But Peter and Paul stood still and laughed at him, and cried, "Good-by, Mr. Why-and-How!"
And what do you think Jack found far up on the great rock?
He found a bright steel pickax working all alone. It was so hard and sharp that when it struck a rock it went into it a foot or more.
"Good morning, Mr. Pickax," he said. "Are you not tired digging here all by yourself?"
"Ah, my master," answered the pickax, "I have been waiting for you a long time."
"Well, here I am," said Jack; and he took the pickax and put it into his other pocket.
Then he slid merrily down between the rocks to the place where Peter and Paul were resting themselves.
"Well, Mr. Why-and-How," said Paul, "what great wonder did you find up there?"
"It was really a pickax that we heard," answered Jack.
About noon the boys came to a pleasant brook. The water was cool and clear, and it flowed in shady places among reeds and flowers.
The boys were thirsty, and they stopped to drink. Then they lay down on the grass to rest.
"I wonder where this brook comes from," said Jack.
"Of course you do," growled Paul. "You are always trying to pry into things and find out where they come from. You are foolish."
"Foolish or not foolish," answered Jack, "I am going to find out all about this brook."
So, while his brothers went to sleep in the shade, he ran along up its banks, looking at this thing and that and wondering at them all.
The stream became narrower and narrower until at last it was not broader than his hand. And when he came to the very beginning of it, what do you think he found?
He found a walnut shell out of which the water was spouting as from a fountain.
"Good morning, Mr. Spring," said Jack. "Are you not tired staying here all alone in this little nook where nobody comes to see you?"
"Ah, my master," answered the spring in the walnut shell, "I have been waiting a long time for you."
"Well, here I am," said Jack; and he took the walnut shell and put it into his cap.
His brothers were just waking up when he rejoined them.
"Well, Mr. Why-and-How," said Peter, "did you find where the brook comes from?"
"Indeed, I did," answered Jack. "It spouts up from a spring."
"You are too smart for this world," growled Paul.
"Smart or not smart," said Jack, "I have seen what I wished to see, and I have learned what I wished to learn."
At last the three boys came to the King's palace. They saw the great oak that darkened the windows, and on the gateposts they saw a big poster printed in red and black letters.
"See there, Jack," said Paul. "Read that, and tell us what it says."
"Yes, I wonder what it says," said Jack, laughing. And this is what he
Know all men by these presents: If anyone will cut down this oak-tree and carry it away, the King will give him three bags full of gold. If anyone will dig a well in the courtyard so as to supply the palace with water, he may wed the King's daughter and the King will give him half of everything.
The King has said it and it shall be done.
"Better and better," said Peter. "There are three tasks instead of one, and the prize is more than double."
"But it will take someone smarter than you to win it," said Paul; and he stroked his head gently.
"It will take someone stronger than you," answered Peter; and he rolled up his shirt-sleeves and swung his big arms around till their muscles stood out like whipcords.
The boys went into the courtyard. There they saw another placard posted over the door of the great hallway.
"Read that, Jack," said Paul. "Read it and tell us what it says."
"Yes," said Jack, "I wonder what it says."
Know all men by these presents: If anyone shall try to cut down the oak and shall not succeed, he shall have both his ears cut off. If anyone shall try to dig the well and shall not succeed, he shall have his nose cut off. The King in his goodness has so commanded, and it shall be done.
"Worse and worse," said Peter. "But hand me an ax, and I will show you what I can do."
The sharpest ax in the country was given him. He felt its edge; he swung it over his shoulder. Then he began to chop on the oak with all his might; but as soon as a bough was cut off, two bigger and stronger ones grew in its place.
"I give it up," said Peter. "It cannot be done."
And the King's guards seized him and led him away to prison.
"To-morrow his ears shall come off," said the King.
"It was all because he was so awkward," said Paul. "Now, see what a skilful man can do."
He took the ax and walked carefully round the tree. He saw a root that was partly out of the ground, and chopped it off. All at once two other roots much bigger and stronger grew in its place.
He chopped at these, but the ax was dulled, and with all his skill he could not cut them off.
"Enough!" cried the King; and the guards hurried him also to jail.
Then little Jack came forward.
"What does that wee bit of a fellow want?" asked the King. "Drive him away, and if he doesn't wish to go, cut off his ears at once."
But Jack was not one whit afraid. He bowed to the King and said, "Please let me try. It will be time enough to cut off my ears when I have failed."
"Well, yes, it will, I suppose," said the King. "So go to work quickly and be done with it."
Jack took the bright steel ax from his pocket. He set it up by the tree and said, "Chop, Mr. Ax! Chop!"
You should have seen the chips fly.
The little ax chopped and cut and split, this way and that, right and left, up and down. It moved so fast that nobody could keep track of it, and there was no time for new twigs to grow.
In fifteen seconds the great oak tree was cut in pieces and piled up in the King's courtyard, ready for firewood in the winter.
"What do you think of that?" asked Jack, as he bowed again to the King.
"You have done wonders, my little man," said the King. "But the well must be dug or I shall take off your ears."
"Kindly tell me where you would like to have the well," said Jack, bowing again.
A place in the courtyard was pointed out. The King sat in his great chair on a balcony above, and by him sat his beautiful daughter, the Princess. They wanted to see the little fellow dig.
Jack took the pickax from his other pocket. He set it down on the spot that had been pointed out.
"Now, Mr. Pickax, dig! dig!" he cried.
You should have seen how the rocks flew.
In fifteen minutes a well a hundred feet deep was dug.
"What do you think of that?" asked Jack.
"It is a fine well," said the King, "but it has no water in it."
Jack felt in his cap for his walnut shell. He took it out and dropped it softly to the bottom of the well. As he did so he shouted, "Now, Mr. Spring, spout! spout!"
The water spouted out of the walnut shell in a great stream. It filled the well. It ran over into the King's garden.
All the people shouted, and the Princess clapped her hands.
With his cap in his hands Jack went and kneeled down before the King. "Sire," he said, "do you think that I have won the prize?"
"Most certainly I do," answered the King; and he bade his servants bring the three bags of gold and pour the coins out at Jack's feet.
"But, father," said the Princess, "have you forgotten the other part of the prize?" and she blushed very red.
"Oh no," said the King; "but you both are very young. When you are a few years older, we shall have a pretty wedding in the palace. Are you willing to wait, young man?"
"I am willing to obey you in everything," answered Jack; "but I wonder if I might not ask you for one other little favour?"
"Say on; and be careful not to ask too much," answered the King.
"May it please you, then," said Jack, "to pardon my two brothers?"
The King nodded, and in a short time Peter and Paul were brought around into the courtyard.
"Well, brothers," said Jack kindly, "I wonder if I was very foolish when I wanted to know all about things."
"You have certainly been lucky," said Paul; "and I am glad of it."
"You have saved our ears," said Peter, "and we are all lucky."