|The Wonder Clock|
|by Howard Pyle|
|\"Four and twenty marvellous tales, one for each hour of the day,\" retold in a novel and entertaining manner by a master of the form. While drawing on German, English, and Scandinavian folk literature for many of his characters and plots, Pyle reworks the material in an imaginative way, crafting the tales in his own inimitable style. Equally engaging are the numerous woodcuts that accompany the stories and enliven the narrative. Ages 8-12 |
THE SWAN MAIDEN
NCE there was a king who had a pear-tree which bore four-and-twenty golden
pears. Every day he went into the garden and counted them to see that
none were missing.
But, one morning, he found that a pear had been taken during the night,
and thereat he was troubled and vexed to the heart, for the pear-tree was
as dear to him as the apple of his eye. Now, the king had three sons, and
so he called the eldest prince to him.
"See," said he, "if you will watch my pear-tree to-night, and will find me
the thief who stole the pear, you shall have half of my kingdom now, and
the whole of it when I am gone."
You can guess how the prince was tickled at this: oh, yes, he would watch
the tree, and if the thief should come he should not get away again as
Well, that night he sat down beside the tree, with his gun across his
knees, to wait for the coming of the thief.
He waited and waited, and still he saw not so much as a thread or a
hair. But about the middle of the night there came the very prettiest
music that his ears had ever heard, and before he knew what he was about
he was asleep and snoring until the little leaves shook upon the tree.
 When the morning came and he awoke, another pear was gone, and he could
tell no more about it than the man in the moon.
The next night the second son set out to watch the pear-tree. But he
fared no better than the first. About midnight came the music, and in
a little while he was snoring till the stones rattled. When the morning
came another pear was gone, and he had no more to tell about it than his
The third night it was the turn of the youngest son, and he was more
clever than the others, for, when the evening came, he stuffed his ears
full of wax, so that he was as deaf as a post. About midnight, when the
music came, he heard nothing of it, and so he stayed wide awake. After
the music had ended he took the wax out of his ears, so that he might
listen for the coming of the thief. Presently there was a loud clapping
and rattling, and a white swan flew overhead and lit in the pear-tree
above him. It began picking at one of the pears, and then the prince
raised his gun to shoot at it. But when he looked along the barrel it
was not a swan that he saw up in the pear-tree, but the prettiest girl
that he had ever looked upon.
"Don't shoot me, King's son! Don't shoot me!" cried she.
But the prince had no thought of shooting her, for he had never seen
such a beautiful maiden in all of his days. "Very well," said he,
"I will not shoot, but, if I spare your life, will you promise to be
my sweetheart and to marry me?"
"That may be as may be," said the Swan Maiden. "For listen! I serve
the witch with three eyes. She lives on the glass hill that lies
beyond the seven high mountains, the seven deep valleys, and the
seven wide rivers; are you man enough to go that far?"
"Oh, yes," said the prince, "I am man enough for that and more too."
"That is good," said the Swan Maiden, and thereupon she jumped down
from the pear-tree to the earth. Then she became a swan again, and
bade the king's son to mount upon her back at the roots of her wings.
When he had done as she had told him, she sprang into the air and flew
away, bearing him with her.
On flew the swan, and on and on, until, by and by, she said, "What do
you see, king's son?"
"I see the grey sky above me and the dark earth below me, but nothing
else," said he.
After that they flew on and on again, until, at last, the Swan Maiden
said, "What do you see now, king's son?"
 "I see the grey sky above me and the dark earth below me, but nothing
else," said he.
So once more they flew on until the Swan Maiden said, for the third
time, "And what do you see by now, king's son?"
But this time the prince said, "I see the grey sky above me and the
dark earth below me, and over yonder is a glass hill, and on the hill
is a house that shines like fire."
"That is where the witch with three eyes lives," said the Swan Maiden;
"and now listen: when she asks you what it is that you came for, ask
her to give you the one who draws the water and builds the fire; for
that is myself."
So, when they had come to the top of the hill of glass, the king's son
stepped down to the ground, and the swan flew over the roof.
Rap! tap! tap! he knocked at the door, and the old witch herself came
and opened it.
"And what do you want here?" said she.
"I want the one who draws the water and builds the fire," said the prince.
At this the old witch scowled until her eyebrows met.
"Very well," said she, "you shall have what you want if you can clean
my stables to-morrow between the rise and the set of the sun. But I
tell you plainly, if you fail in the doing, you shall be torn to pieces
body and bones."
But the prince was not to be scared away with empty words. So the next
morning the old witch came and took him to the stables where he was to
do his task. There stood more than a hundred cattle, and the stable
had not been cleaned for at least ten long years.
"There is your work," said the old witch, and then she left him.
Well, the king's son set to work with fork and broom and might and main,
but—prut!—he might as well have tried to bale out the great ocean with
At noontide who should come to the stable but the pretty Swan Maiden herself.
"When one is tired, one should rest for a while," said she; "come and lay
your head in my lap."
The prince was glad enough to do as she said, for nothing was to be gained
by working at that task. So he laid his head in her lap, and she combed
his hair with a golden comb till he fell fast asleep. When he awoke the
Swan Maiden was gone, the sun was setting, and the stable was as clean
as a plate. Presently he heard the old witch coming, so up he
and began clearing away a straw here and a speck there, just as though he
was finishing the work.
"You never did this by yourself!" said the old witch, and her brows grew
as black as a thunder-storm.
"That may be so, and that may not be so," said the king's son, "But you
lent no hand to help; so now may I have the one who builds the fire and
draws the water?"
At this the old witch shook her head. "No," said she, "there is more to
be done yet before you can have what you ask for. If you can thatch the
roof of the stable with bird feathers, no two of which shall be of the
same color, and can do it between the rise and the set of sun to-morrow,
then you shall have your sweetheart and welcome. But if you fail your
bones shall be ground as fine as malt in the mill."
Very well; that suited the king's son well enough. So at sunrise he
arose and went into the fields with his gun; but if there were birds
to be shot, it was few of them that he saw; for at noontide he had but
two, and they were both of a color. At that time who should come to him
but the Swan Maiden.
"One should not tramp and tramp all day with never a bit of rest," said
she; "come hither and lay your head in my lap for a while."
The prince did as she bade him, and the maiden again combed his hair with
a golden comb until he fell asleep. When he awoke the sun was setting,
and his work was done. He heard the old witch coming, so up he jumped
to the roof of the stable and began laying a feather here and a feather
there, for all the world as though he were just finishing his task.
"You never did that work alone," said the old witch.
"That may be so, and that may not be so," said the prince; " all the
same, it was none of your doing. So now may I have the one who draws
the water and builds the fire?"
But the witch shook her head. "No," said she, "there is still another
task to do before that. Over yonder is a fir-tree; on the tree is a
crow's nest, and in the nest are three eggs. If you can harry that
nest to-morrow between the rising and the setting of the sun, neither
breaking nor leaving a single egg, you shall have that for which you
Very well; that suited the prince. The next morning at the rising of
the sun he started off to find the fir-tree, and there was no trouble
in the finding I can tell you, for it was more than a hundred feet
high, and as smooth as glass from root to tip. As for climbing it,
he might as well have
 tried to climb a moonbeam, for in spite
of all his trying he did nothing but slip and slip. By and by came
the Swan Maiden as she had come before.
"Do you climb the fir-tree?" said she.
"None too well," said the king's son.
"Then I may help you in a hard task," said she.
She let down the braids of her golden hair, so that it hung down all
about her and upon the ground, and then she began singing to the wind.
She sang and sang, and by and by the wind began to blow, and, catching
up the maiden's hair, carried it to the top of the fir-tree, and there
tied it to the branches. Then the prince climbed the hair and so reached
the nest. There were the tree eggs; he gathered them, and then he came
down as he had gone up. After that the wind came again and loosed the
maiden's hair from the branches, and she bound it up as it was before.
"Now, listen," said she to the prince: "when the old witch asks you for
the three crow's eggs which you have gathered, tell her that they belong
to the one who found them. She will not be able to take them from you,
and they are worth something, I can tell you."
At sunset the old witch came hobbling along, and there sat the prince
at the foot of the fir-tree. "Have you gathered the crow's eggs?"
said she. "Yes," said the prince, "here they are in my handkerchief.
And now may I have the one who draws the water and builds the fire?"
"Yes," said the old witch, "you may have her; only give me my crow's eggs."
"No," said the prince, "the crow's eggs are none of yours, for they
belong to him who gathered them."
When the old witch found that she was not to get her crow's eggs in
that way, she tried another, and began using words as sweet as honey.
Come, come, there should be no hard feeling between them. The prince
had served her faithfully, and before he went home with what he had come
for he should have a good supper, for it is ill to travel on an empty stomach.
So she brought the prince into the house, and then she left him while she
went to put the pot on the fire, and to sharpen the bread knife on the
While the prince sat waiting for the witch, there came a tap at the door,
and whom should it be but the Swan Maiden.
"Come," said she, "and bring the three eggs with you, for the
 that the old witch is sharpening is for you, and so
is the great pot on the fire, for she means to pick your bones
in the morning."
She led the prince down into the kitchen; there they made a figure
out of honey and barley-meal, so that it was all soft and sticky;
then the maiden dressed the figure in her own clothes and set it
in the chimney-corner by the fire.
After that was done, she became a swan again, and, taking the prince
upon her back, she flew away, over hill and over dale.
As for the old witch, she sat on the stone door-step, sharpening her
knife. By and by she came in, and, look as she might, there was no
prince to be found.
Then if anybody was ever in a rage it was the old with; off she went,
storming and fuming, until she came to the kitchen. There sat the
woman of honey and barley-meal beside the fire, dressed in the maiden's
clothes, and the old woman thought that it was the girl herself. "Where
is your sweetheart?" said she; but to this the woman of honey and
barley-meal answered never a word.
 "How now! are you dumb?" cried the old witch; "I will see whether I
cannot bring speech to your lips." She raised
struck, and so hard was the blow that her hand stuck fast to the honey
and barley-meal. "What!" cried she, will
you hold me?"—slap!—she
struck with the other hand, and it too stuck fast. So there she was,
and, for all that I know, she is sticking to the woman of honey and
barley-meal to this day.
As for the Swan Maiden and the prince, they flew over the seven high
mountains, the seven deep valleys, and the seven wide rivers, until
they came near to the prince's home again. The Swan Maiden lit in a
great wide field, and there she told the prince to break open one of
the crow's eggs. The prince did as she bade him, and what should he
find but the most beautiful little palace, all of pure gold and silver.
He set the palace on the ground, and it grew and grew and grew until it
covered as much ground as seven large barns. Then the Swan Maiden told
him to break another egg, and he did as she said, and what should come
out of it but such great herds of cows and sheep that they covered the
meadow far and near. The Swan Maiden told him to break the third egg,
and out of it came scores and scores of servants all dressed in
That morning, when the king looked out of his bedroom window, there
stood the splendid castle of silver and gold. Then he called all of
his people together, and they rode over to see what it meant. On the
way they met such herds of fat sheep and cattle that the king had never
seen the like in all of his life before; and when he came to the fine
castle, there were two rows of servants dressed in clothes of silver
and gold, ready to meet him. But when he came to the door of the
castle, there stood the prince himself. Then there was joy and
rejoicing, you may be sure! only the two elder brothers looked
down in the mouth, for since the young prince had found the thief
who stole the golden pears, their father's kingdom was not for them.
But the prince soon set their minds at rest on that score, for he had
enough and more than enough of his own.
After that the prince and the Swan Maiden were married, and a grand
wedding they had of it, with music of fiddles and kettle-drums, and
plenty to eat and to drink. I, too, was there; but all of the good
red wine ran down over my tucker, so that not a drop of it passed my
lips, and I had to come away empty.
And that is all.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics