A stork had built his nest on the roof of the last house in a little town. The mother-stork was sitting on the nest with her little ones, who stuck out their little black beaks, which had not turned red yet. The father-stork stood a little way off on the ridge of the roof, erect and stiff, with one leg drawn up under him, so as at least to be at some trouble while standing sentry. One might have thought he was carved out of wood, he stood so still!
"It will look so grand for my wife to have a sentry on guard by the nest!" he thought. "People won't know that I am her husband, I daresay they think I have orders to stand there—it looks smart!" and so he remained standing on one leg.
A party of children were playing in the street, and when they saw the stork, one of the boldest boys, followed by the others, sang the old song about the storks, but he sang it just as it came into his head,
"Hark! what are the boys singing?" said the little storks; "they say we are to be hanged and burnt!"
"Don't bother your heads about them!" said the mother-stork; "don't listen to them and then it won't do you any harm."
But the boys went on singing and pointing their fingers at the storks; only one boy, whose name was Peter, said that it was a shame to make fun of the creatures and he would take no part in it.
The mother bird comforted her little ones saying, "Do not trouble yourselves about it, look at your father how quietly he stands, and on one leg too!"
"But we are so frightened," said the young ones, burying their heads in the nest.
The next day when the children came back to play and they saw the storks they began their old song,
"Are we to be hanged and burnt?" asked the little storks.
"No, certainly not!" said the mother; "you are to learn to fly, see if I don't drill you, then we will go into the fields and visit the frogs; they curtsey in the water to us and sing 'Koax, Koax,' and then we gobble them up; that's a treat if you like!"
"And what next?" asked the young ones.
"Oh, then all the storks in the country assemble for the autumn manœuvres, and you will have to fly your best, for the one who cannot fly will be run through the body by the general's beak, so you must take good care to learn something when the drills begin."
"After all then we may be staked just as the boys said, and listen, they are singing it again now!"
"Listen to me and not to them," said the mother stork. "After the grand manœuvres we shall fly away to the warm countries, ever such a way off, over the woods and moun-tains. We go to Egypt where they have three-cornered houses the points of which reach above the clouds; they are called Pyramids, and they are older than any stork can imagine. Then there is a river which overflows its banks and all the land round turns to mud. You walk about in mud devouring frogs."
"Oh!" said all the young ones.
"Yes, it is splendid, you do nothing but eat all day; while we are so well off there, there is not a leaf on the trees in this country, and it is so cold that the clouds freeze all to pieces and fall down in little bits."
She meant snow, but did not know how to describe it any better.
"Do the naughty boys freeze to pieces?" asked the young storks.
"No, they don't freeze to pieces, but they come very near to it and have to sit moping in dark rooms; you, on the other hand, fly about in strange countries, in the warm sunshine among flowers."
Some time passed and the little ones were big enough to stand up in the nest and look about them. The father stork flew backwards and forwards every day, with nice frogs and little snakes, and every kind of delicacy he could find. It was so funny to see the tricks he did to amuse them; he would turn his head right round on to his tail, and he would clatter with his beak, as if it was a rattle. And then he told them all the stories he heard in the swamps.
"Well, now you must learn to fly," said the mother stork one day; and all the young ones had to stand on the ridge of the roof. Oh, how they wobbled about trying to keep their balance with their wings, and how nearly they fell down.
"Now look at me," said the mother; "this is how you must hold your heads! And move your legs so! one, two, one, two, this will all help you to get on in the world."
Then she flew a little way, and the young ones made a clumsy little hop, and down they came with a bump, for their bodies were too heavy.
"I don't want to fly," said one of the young ones, creeping down into the nest again. "I don't care about going to the warm countries."
"Do you want to freeze to death here when the winter comes? Shall the boys come and hang or burn or stake you? I will soon call them!"
"No, no," said the young one, hopping up on to the roof again, just like the others.
By the third day they could all fly fairly well; then they thought they could hover in the air, too, and they tried it, but flop!—they soon found they had to move their wings again.
Then the boys began their song again:
"Shall we fly down and pick their eyes out?" asked the young ones.
"No, leave them alone," said their mother; "only pay attention to me, that is much more important. One, two, three, now we fly to the right; one, two, three, now to the left, and round the chimney! that was good. That last stroke of the wings was so pretty and the flap so well done that I will allow you to go to the swamp with me tomorrow! Several nice storks go there with their children; now just let me see that mine are the nicest. Don't forget to carry your heads high; it looks well, and gives you an air of importance."
"But are we not to have our revenge on the naughty boys?" asked the young storks.
"Let them scream as much as they like; you will fly away with the clouds to the land of the pyramids, while they will perhaps be freezing. There won't be a green leaf or a sweet apple here then!"
"But we will have our revenge!" they whispered to each other, and then they began their drilling again.
Of all the boys in the street, not one was worse at making fun of the storks than he who first began the derisive song. He was a tiny little fellow, not more than six years old. It is true, the young storks thought he was at least a hundred, for he was so much bigger than their father and mother, and they had no idea how old children and grown-up people could be. They reserved all their vengeance for the boy who first began to teaze them, and who never would leave off. The young storks were frightfully irritated by the teazing, and the older they grew the less they would stand it. At last their mother was obliged to promise that they should have their revenge, but not till the last day before they left.
"We shall first have to see how you behave at the manoeuvres! If you come to grief and the general has to run you through the breast with his beak, the boys will after all be right, at least in one way! Now let us see!"
"That you shall!" said the young ones; and didn't they take pains. They practised every day, till they could fly as lightly as any feather; it was quite a pleasure to watch them.
Then came the autumn; all the storks began to assemble, before they started on their flight to the warm countries, where they spend their winters.
Those were indeed manœuvres! They had to fly over woods and towns, to try their wings, because they had such a long journey before them. The young storks did everything so well, that they got no end of frogs and snakes as prizes. They had the best characters, and then they could eat the frogs and snakes afterwards, which you may be sure they did.
"Now we shall have our revenge!" they said.
"Yes, certainly," said the mother stork. "My plan is this, and I think it is the right one! I know the pond where all ihe little human babies lie, till the storks fetch them, and give them to their parents. The pretty little creatures lie there asleep, dreaming sweet dreams, sweeter than any they ever dream afterwards. Every parent wishes for such a little baby, and every child wants a baby brother or sister. Now we fly to the pond and fetch a little brother or sister for each of those children who did not join in singing that horrid song, or in making fun of the storks. But those who sang it shall not have one."
"But what about that bad wicked boy who first began the song!" shrieked the young storks; "what is to be done to him?"
"In the pond there is a little dead baby, it has dreamed itself to death, we will take it to him, and then he will cry, because we have brought him, a little dead brother. But you have surely not forgotten the good boy, who said 'It is a shame to make fun of the creatures!' We will take both a brother and a sister to him, and because his name is Peter, you shall all be called Peter too."
It happened just as she said, and all the storks are called Peter to this day.