Peter, Pete and Peterkin
By Hans Christian Andersen (1868)
It is incredible what children know nowadays. One is almost at a loss to say what there is that they do not know.
That the stork has fetched them out of the well or out of the mill-dam, and brought them as little children to their father and mother, is now such an old story, that they don’t believe it, and yet it is the only true one.
But how do the children come to be in the mill-dam and the well ? Ah, every one does not know that, but still some do. Have you ever really looked at the sky, on a clear starry night, and seen the many shooting-stars ? It is as if a star fell and vanished. The most learned cannot explain what they do not know themselves ! but it can be explained when one knows it. It is just as if a little Christmas candle fell from the sky and was extinguished ; it is a soul -spark from Our Father, which travels down towards the earth, and when it comes into our closer, heavier atmosphere the brightness vanishes, and there remains only what our eyes have not the power to see, for it is something much finer than our air, it is a heavenchild which is sent, a little angel, but without wings, for the little one shall become a man. Quietly it glides through the air, and the wind carries it into a flower, it may be a violet, a dandelion, a rose or a ragged robin, there it lies
and makes itself strong. It is light and airy ; a fly might fly away with it, or at any rate a bee, and they come by turns to search for the sweetness in the flower. If now the air-child should lie in their way, they do not whisk it out, they have not the heart to do that ; they lay it in the sun, on a water-lily leaf, and from there it crawls and creeps down into the water, where it sleeps and grows, till the stork can see it, and fetches it to a human family, which wishes for such a sweet little one ; but whether it is sweet or not, depends on whether the little one has drunk of the clear spring, or has swallowed mud or duck-weed the wrong way : that makes it so earthy. The stork takes the first he sees, without making any choice. One comes into a good house to matchless parents ; another comes to hard people in great poverty ; it would have been much better to stay in the mill-dam.
The little ones do not remember at all what they dreamt about under the water-lily leaf, where in the evening the frogs sang to them, ‘ Croak, croak, creek, creek,’ which means in the language of men, ‘ Will you see now, if you can sleep and dream ! ‘ They cannot remember either in which flower they first lay, or how it smelt, and yet there is something in them, when they grow up, which says, 1 This is the flower we like best/ and that is the one they lay in as air-children.
The stork becomes a very old bird, and always pays attention to how things go with the little ones he has brought, and how they behave in the world. He cannot really do anything for them, or change their lot, as he has his own family to care for, but he never lets them slip out of his thoughts.
I know an old, very honest stork, who has a great deal of knowledge, and has brought many little ones, and knows their stories, in which there is always a little mud and duck-weed from the mill-dam. I begged him to give a little life-sketch of one of them, and so he said that I should get three for one from Peterson’s house.
It was a particularly nice family, Peterson’s. The man was one of the town’s two and thirty men, and that was a distinction : he lived for the two and thirty, and went with the ‘ two and thirty. The stork came there, and brought a little Peter, for so the child was called. Next year the stork came again with another one ; him they called Pete, and when the third was brought, he got the name of Peterkin, for in the names Peter, Pete, and Peterkin, lies the name Peterson.
There were thus three brothers, three shooting-stars cradled each in his own flower, laid under the water-lily leaf in the mill-dam, and brought from there to the family Peterson, whose house is at the corner, as you know.
They grew up both in body and soul, and then they wished to be something still greater than the two and thirty men.
Peter said that he would be a robber. He had seen the play of ‘ Era Diavolo ‘, and made up his mind for the robber-business as the most delightful in the world.
Pete would be a rattle-man, and Peterkin, who was such a good, sweet child, round and plump, but who bit his nails (that was his only fault), Peterkin would be ‘ Father ‘. That is what each of them said when any one asked what they wanted to be in the world.
And then they went to school. One became dux, and one became dunce, and one was betwixt and between ; but for all that they might be equally good and equally clever, and that they were, said their very clear-sighted parents.
They went to children’s balls ; they smoked cigars when no one saw them ; they grew in learning and knowledge.
Peter was stubborn from his earliest days, as of course a robber must be ; he was a very naughty boy, but his mother said that was because he suffered from worms ; naughty children have always worms ; mud in the stomach. His self-will and stubbornness one day spent themselves on his mother’s new silk dress.
‘Don’t push the coffee-table, my lamb,’ she had said; you might upset the cream -jug, and I should get a stain on my new silk dress.’ And the ‘lamb ‘ took the creamjug with a firm hand, and emptied it right into mother’s lap, who could not help saying, ‘ My lamb, my lamb, that was not considerate of you, my lamb ! ‘ But the child had a will, she must admit. Will shows character, and that is so promising for a mother. He might certainly have become a robber, but he did not become it literally ; he only came to look like a robber ; went about with a soft hat, bare neck, and long, loose hair ; he was going to be an artist, but only got into the clothes of one, and also looked like a hollyhock ; all the people he drew, looked like hollyhocks, they were so long and lanky. He was very fond of that flower ; he had in fact lain in a hollyhock, the stork said.
Pete had lain in a buttercup. He looked so buttery round the corners of his mouth, and was yellow-skinned ; one might believe that if he was cut in the cheek, butter would come out. He seemed born to be a butter-man, and might have been his own sign-board, but inwardly he was a ‘ rattle-man ‘ ; he was the musical portion of the Peterson family, ‘ but enough for all of them together,’ said the neighbours. He composed seventeen new polkas in a week, and made an opera out of them with trumpet and rattle. Oh, how lovely it was !
Peterkin was white and red, little and common-looking ; he had lain in a daisy. He never hit out when the other boys struck him ; he said that he was the most sensible, and the most sensible always gives way. He collected first slate-pencils, then seals, then he got a little cabinet of natural curiosities, in which was the skeleton of a stickleback, three blind young rats in spirits, and a stuffed mole. Peterkin had a taste for the scientific and an eye for nature, and that was delightful for the parents, and for Peterkin too. He would rather go into the woods than the school, and preferred nature to discipline. His brothers were already engaged to be married, while he still lived only to complete his collection of the eggs of water-fowls. He very soon knew more about beasts than about human beings, and even thought that we could not approach the beasts in that which we set highest ‘ love.’ He saw that when the hen-nightingale sat hatching her eggs, the father nightingale sat and sang the whole night to his little wife, ‘ Cluck, cluck, jug, jug, jug.’ Peterkin could never have done that, nor devoted himself to the task. When the mother stork lay in the nest with the young ones, the father stork stood on the roof the whole night on one leg : Peterkin could not have stood like that for one hour. And when he one day observed the spider’s web and what was in it, he quite gave up all thought of matrimony. Mr. Spider weaves to catch thoughtless flies, young and old, blood-filled and wind-dried ; he lives to weave and nourish his family, but Mrs. Spider lives for Father alone.
She eats him up from sheer love ; she eats his heart, his head, his stomach, only his long thin legs remain behind in the web, where he sat with the task of supporting the whole family. That is the simple truth, straight out of natural history. Peterkin saw that and thought it over ; ‘ to be loved by one’s wife like that, to be eaten by her in violent love. No ; no human being goe’S as far as that ; and would it be desirable ? ‘
Peter determined never to marry ! never to give or to take a kiss ; that might look like the first step towards matrimony. But still he got one kiss, the one we all get, the great hearty kiss of Death. When we have lived long enough, Death gets the order ‘ Kiss away ! ‘ and so the person is gone. There flashes from our Lord a sun-blink, so strong that one is almost blinded. The soul of man, which came like a meteor, flies hence again like a meteor, but not to rest in a flower or to dream under a water-lily leaf. It has more important things before it, it flies into the great land of Eternity, but how things are there, or what it looks like, no one can tell. No one has seen into it, not even the stork, however far he can see, and however much he may know. Nor did he know any more about Peterkin, though he did about Peter and Pete ; but I have heard enough about them, and so have you ; so I said ‘ Thanks ‘ to the stork for this time ; but now he demands for this common little story three frogs and a young snake ; he takes his payment in victuals. Will you pay ? I won’t ! I have neither frogs nor young snakes.