T HE well was deep, and so the rope was long, and the wheel went heavily round, before one could hoist the bucket over the side of the well. The sun could not see its face in the water, however brightly it shone, but as far as it could shine there were green weeds growing between the stones.
A family of the toad race dwelt here. They were emigrants; indeed, they had all come plump down in the person of the old toad-mother, who was still alive. The green frogs who swam in the water had been at home here ever so much longer, but they acknowledged their cousins, and called them the "well-guests." The latter, however, had no thoughts of ever flitting; they made themselves very comfortable here on the dry land, as they called the wet stones.
Dame Frog had once traveled, riding in the bucket as it went up; but the light was too much for her, and gave her spasm in the eyes; luckily, she got out of the bucket. She fell with a frightful splash in the water, and lay up for three days with the backache. She had not much to tell about the upper world, but one thing she did know, and so did all the others now—that the well was not the whole world. Dame Toad might have told them a thing or two more, but she never answered any questions, and so they left off asking any.
"Nasty, ugly, squat, and fat she is!" said the young Green Frogs; "and her brats are getting just like her."
"Maybe so!" said Dame Toad, "but one of them has a jewel in its head, or else I have it myself."
The Green Frogs listened and stared, and as they did not like to hear that, they made faces and went to the bottom. But the young Toads stretched their hind legs out of sheer pride. Each of them thought it had the jewel, and so they all kept their heads quite still; but at last they began to ask what sort of a thing they had to be proud of, and what a jewel was exactly.
"It is something so splendid and so precious," said Dame Toad, "that I cannot describe it; it is something that one wears to please one's self, and that others fret to death after. But don't ask questions; I sha'n't answer them."
"Well, I have not got the jewel," said the smallest Toad, which was as ugly as ugly could be. "How should I have anything so splendid? And if it vexed others, why, it could not please me. No; all I want is to get up to the well-side and have one peep out; that would be glorious!"
"Better stay where you are," said the old one. "Here you are at home, and you know what it's like. Keep clear of the bucket or it may squash you. And even if you get safe into it you may fall out again, and it is not every one that can fall so luckily as I did and keep legs and eggs all safe and sound."
"Quack!" said the little one; and that means the same as when we men say "Alack!"
It did so long to get up to the well-side and look out; it felt quite a yearning after the green things up yonder. And so next morning, as the bucket was going up, when it happened to stop for an instant before the stone where the Toad sat, the little creature quivered through and through and edged into the bucket. It sank to the bottom of the water, which was presently drawn up and poured out.
"Phuh, botheration!" said the man, when he saw it; "it is the ugliest I have ever seen." He kicked with his wooden shoe at the Toad, which was near being crippled, but managed to escape into the middle of some tall stinging-nettles. It saw stalks side by side around it, and it looked upward too. The sun shone on the leaves; they were quite transparent. For the Toad it was the same as it is for us men when we come all at once into a great forest where the sun is shining between leaves and branches.
"It is much prettier here than down in the well! One might well stop here for one's whole lifetime," said the little Toad. It lay there one hour, it lay there two. "Now I wonder what there is outside; as I have gone so far, I may as well go further." And it crawled as fast as it could crawl, till it came out into the full sunshine and got powdered with dust as it marched across a high-road.
"This is something like being on dry land," said the Toad. "I am getting almost too much of a good thing; it tickles right into me."
Now it came to a ditch; the forget-me-not grew here, and the meadow-sweet; beyond it was a hedge of white-thorn and elder-bushes, and the convolvulus crept and hung about it. Here were fine colors to be seen! And yonder flew a butterfly. The Toad thought that it was a flower which had broken loose in order to look about it in the world; it really seemed so very natural.
"If one could only get along like that!" said the Toad, "Quack—alack! Oh, how glorious!"
For eight days and nights it lingered by the ditch and felt no want of food. The ninth day it thought, "Farther—forward!" But was there anything more beautiful to be found then? Perhaps a little toad or some green frogs; there had been a sound in the wind last night as if there were "cousins" in the neighborhood.
"It is a fine thing to live—to come up out of the well, to lie in stinging-nettles, to creep along a dusty road, and to rest in a wet ditch! But forward still; let us find out frogs or a little toad; one cannot do without them, after all; nature, by itself, is not enough for one!" And so it set out again on its wanderings.
It came to a field and a large pond with rushes round it; it took a look inside.
"It is too wet for you here, isn't it?" said the Frogs, "but you are quite welcome. Are you a he or a she?—not that it matters; you are welcome all the same."
And so it was invited to a concert in the evening—a family concert, great excitement and thin voices—we all know that sort of thing. There were no refreshments except drink; but that was free to all—the whole pond, if they pleased.
"Now I shall travel farther," said the little Toad. It was always craving after something better.
It saw the stars twinkle, so large and so clear; it saw the new moon shine; it saw the sun rise higher and higher.
"I think I am still in the well, in a larger well; I must get higher up! I feel a restlessness, a longing!" And when the moon had grown full and round, the poor creature thought: "Can that be the bucket which is being let down, and which I must pop into if I wish to get higher up? Or is the sun the great bucket? How great it is, and how beaming! It could hold all of us together. I must watch for my opportunity. What a brightness in my head! I do not believe that the jewel can shine better. The jewel! I have it not, and shall not cry after it. No; higher still in glitter and gladness! I feel an assurance, and yet a fear; it is a hard step to take, but it must be taken. Forward! right on along the highroad!"
And it stepped out as well as such a crawling creature can till it came to the great thoroughfare where the men lived. Here there were flower gardens and cabbage gardens. It turned aside to rest in a cabbage garden.
"What a number of different beings there are, which I know nothing about, and how great and blessed is the world! But one must keep looking about one instead of sitting always in the same corner." And so it sidled into the cabbage garden. "How green it is here, how pretty it is here!"
"That I know well enough," said the Caterpillar, on the leaf. "My leaf is the largest here; it covers half the world—but as for the world, I can do without it."
"Cluck! cluck!" said somebody, and fowls came tripping into the cabbage garden. The foremost hen was long-sighted; she spied out the worm on the curly leaf and pecked at it so that it fell to the ground, where it lay twisting and turning. The Hen looked first with one eye and then with the other, for she could not make out what was to be the end of all this wriggling.
"It does not do this of its own accord," thought the Hen, and lifted her head for a finishing-stroke. The Toad grew so frightened that it crawled right up against the Hen.
"So it has friends to fight for it," said she; "just look at the crawler!" And the Hen turned tail. "I sha'n't trouble myself about the little green mouthful; it only gives one a tickling in the throat." The other fowls were of the same opinion, and away they went.
"I have wriggled away from her," said the Caterpillar; "it is good to have presence of mind; but the hardest task remains, to get up on to my cabbage-leaf. Where is it?"
And the little Toad came forward and expressed its sympathies. It was glad of its own ugliness that had frightened away the Hen.
"What do you mean by that?" asked the Caterpillar. "I got rid of her myself, I tell you. You are very unpleasant to look at! Mayn't I be allowed to get back into my own? Now I smell cabbage. Now I am near my leaf. There is nothing so beautiful as what is one's own. I must go higher up still."
"Yes, higher up!" said the little Toad; "higher up! It feels just as I feel;
but it is not in good humor
The stork sat in his nest on the farmer's roof; he clattered, and the stork-mother clattered.
"How high they live," thought the Toad. "Pity that one can't get up there!"
There were two young students lodging in the farm-house; one of them was a poet, the other a naturalist. The one sang and wrote in gladness of all that God had created, even as its image was reflected in his heart; he sang it out short and clear, and rich in resounding verses. The other took hold of the thing itself; aye, and split it up, if necessary. He treated our Lord's creation like some vast piece of arithmetic; he subtracted, multiplied, wished to know it outside and inside, and to talk of it with reason, nothing but reason; and he talked of it in gladness, too, and cleverly. They were good, glad-hearted men, both of them.
"Yonder sits a fine specimen of a toad," said the Naturalist; "I must have it in spirit."
"You have two already," said the Poet. "Let it sit in peace, and enjoy itself."
"But it is so beautifully ugly!" said the other.
"Yes, if we could find the jewel in its head," said the Poet, "then I myself might lend a hand in splitting it up."
"The jewel!" said the other. "Much you know about natural history!"
"But is there not something very fine, at least, in the popular belief that the toad, the ugliest of creatures, often hides in its head the most precious of all jewels? Is it not much the same with men? Was there not such a jewel hidden in Æsop and Socrates, too?"
The Toad heard nothing more; and even so far it did not understand half of it. The two friends went on, and it escaped being put into spirit.
"They were talking about the jewel, too," said the Toad. "I am just as well without it; otherwise I should have got into trouble."
There was a clattering upon the farmer's roof. Father Stork was delivering a lecture to his family while they all looked down askant at the two young men in the cabbage garden.
"Man is the most conceited of creatures," said the Stork. "Hark, how they are going on—clatter, clatter—and yet they cannot rattle off a regular tattoo. They puff themselves up with notions of their eloquence—their language. A rare language indeed; it shifts from one jabber to another, at every day's journey. Our language we can talk the whole world over, whether in Denmark or in Egypt. As for flying, they can't manage it at all. They push along by means of a contrivance which they call a railway, but there they often get their necks broken. It gives me the shivers in my bill when I think of it. The world can exist without men. What good are they to us? All that we want are frogs and earth-worms."
"That was a grand speech now," thought the little Toad. "What a great man he is, and how high he sits—higher than I have ever seen any one before; and how well he can swim!" it exclaimed, as the Stork took flight through the air with outstretched wings.
And Mother Stork talked in the nest. She told of the land of Egypt, of the water of the Nile, and of the first-rate mud that was to be found in foreign parts; it sounded quite fresh and charming in the ears of the little Toad.
"I must go to Egypt," it said. "Oh, if the Stork would only give me a lift, or one of the young ones might take me. I would do the youngster some service in my turn on his wedding-day. I am sure I shall get to Egypt, for I am so lucky; and all the longing and the yearning which I feel; surely this is better than having a jewel in one's head."
And it had it—the true jewel; the eternal longing and yearning to go upward, ever upward. This was the jewel, and it shone within it, shone with gladness and beamed with desire.
At that very moment came the Stork. He had seen the Toad in the grass, and he swooped down and took hold of the little creature, not over-tenderly. The bill pinched; the wind whistled; it was not quite comfortable. But still it was going upward and away to Egypt, it knew; and that was why its eyes glittered till it seemed as if a spark flew out of them.
The body was dead, the Toad was killed. But the spark out of its eyes, what became of that?
The sunbeam took it; the sunbeam bore away the jewel from the head of the Toad. Whither?
You must not ask the Naturalist; rather ask the Poet. He will tell it you as a fairy tale; and the Caterpillar will take a share in it, and the Stork family will take a share in it. Think, the Caterpillar will be changed and become a beautiful butterfly! The Stork family will fly over mountains and seas far away to Africa, and yet find the shortest way home again to the Danish land, to the same spot, to the same roof! Yes, it is all nearly too much like a fairy tale —and yet it is true. You may fairly ask the Naturalist about the truth of it; he will admit that, and, indeed, you know it yourself, for you have seen it.
But the jewel in the Toad's head? Look for it in the sun; look at it if you can.
The splendor is too strong. We have not yet eyes that can look into all the glories which God hath revealed; but some day we shall have them, and that will be the most beautiful fairy tale of all, for we ourselves shall take a share in it.