THERE WERE ONCE upon a time three brothers; the eldest was called Jacob, the second Frederick, and the youngest Peter. This youngest brother was treated shamefully by the other two. If anything went wrong Peter had to bear the blame and put things right for them. He had to endure all this ill treatment because he was weak and delicate and could not defend himself against his stronger brothers. One day, when he was in the woods gathering sticks, a little old woman came up to him and he told her all his troubles.
‘Come, my good youth,’ said the old dame, when he had finished his tale of woe, ‘isn’t the world wide enough? Set out and try your fortune elsewhere:
Peter took her words to heart and left his father’s house early one morning. But he felt very bitterly parting from the home where he had been born, and where at least he had passed a happy childhood. Sitting down on a hill he gazed once more fondly on his native place.
Suddenly the little old woman stood before him and, tapping him on the shoulder, said, ‘So far so good, my boy. What do you mean to do now?’
Peter was at a loss what to answer, for he had always thought fortune would drop into his mouth like a ripe cherry. The old woman, who guessed his thoughts, laughed kindly, and said:
‘I’ll tell you what you must do, for I have taken a fancy to you. I am sure you will not forget me when you have made your fortune.’
Peter promised faithfully he would not, and the old woman continued, ‘This evening, at sunset, go to yonder pear tree growing at the crossroads. Under it you will find a man lying asleep, and a beautiful large swan will be fastened to the tree close to him. Be careful not to waken the man, but unfasten the swan and take it away with you. Everyone will fall in love with its beautiful plumage, and you must allow anyone who likes to pull out a feather. But as soon as the swan feels as much as a finger on it, it will scream. Then you must say, “Swan, hold fast.” The hand of the person who has touched the bird will be held and nothing will set it free, unless you touch it with this little stick, of which I make you a present. When you have captured a whole lot of people in this way, lead your train straight on with you. You will come to a big town where a princess lives who has never been known to laugh. If you can only make her laugh your fortune is made. Then I beg you will not forget your old friend.’
Peter promised again that he would not, and at sunset he went to the tree the old woman had mentioned. The man lay there fast asleep, and a large beautiful swan was fastened to the tree beside him by a red cord. Peter loosed the bird and led it away with him without disturbing its sleeping master.
He walked on with the swan for some time and came, at last, to a yard where some men were busily at work. They were all lost in admiration of the bird’s beautiful plumage. One forward youth, who was covered with clay from head to foot, called out:
‘Oh, if I’d only one of those feathers how happy I should be!’
‘Pull one out then,’ said Peter kindly. The youth seized one from the bird’s tail. Instantly the swan screamed, and Peter called out, ‘Swan, hold fast.’ And do what he would the poor youth could not get his hand away. The more he howled the more the others laughed, till a girl who had been washing clothes in the neighboring stream hurried up. When she saw the poor boy fastened to the swan she felt so sorry for him that she stretched out her hand to free him. The bird screamed.
‘Swan, hold fast,’ called out Peter, and the girl was caught also.
When Peter had gone on for a bit with his captives, they met a chimney sweep, who laughed loudly over the extraordinary troop, and asked the girl what she was doing.
‘Oh, dearest John,’ replied the girl, ‘give me your hand and set me free from this young man:
‘Most certainly, I will,’ replied the sweep, and gave the girl his hand. The bird screamed.
‘Swan, hold fast,’ said Peter, and the sweep was added to their number.
They soon came to a village where a fair was being held. A traveling circus was giving a performance and the clown was just doing his tricks. He opened his eyes wide with amazement when he saw the remarkable trio fastened to the swan’s tail.
‘Have you gone raving mad, Blackie?’ he asked as well as he could for laughing.
When the bird screamed, Peter called, ‘Swan, hold fast!’
‘It is no laughing matter,’ the sweep replied. ‘This wench has so tight hold of me I feel as if I were glued to her. Do set me free, like a good clown, and I shall do you a good turn some day.’
Without a moment’s hesitation the clown grasped the outstretched hand. The bird screamed.
‘Swan, hold fast,’ called out Peter, and the clown became the fourth of the party.
Now in the front row of the spectators sat the respected and popular mayor of the village. He was much put out by what he considered nothing but a foolish trick. So much annoyed was he that he seized the clown by the hand and tried to tear him away, to hand him over to the police.
Then the bird screamed, and Peter called out, ‘Swan, hold fast,’ and the dignified mayor was caught fast as the others were.
The mayoress, a long thin stick of a woman, enraged at the insult done her husband, seized his free arm and tore at it with all her might. The only result was that she too was forced to join the procession. After this no one else had any wish to aid them.
Soon Peter saw the towers of the capital in front of him. Just before entering the city, a glittering carriage came out to meet him. In it was a young lady as beautiful as the day, but with a very solemn and serious expression. No sooner had she perceived the motley crowd fastened to the swan’s tail than she burst into loud laughter, in which she was joined by all her servants and ladies-in-waiting.
‘The princess has laughed at last!” they all cried with joy.
She stepped out of her carriage to look more closely at the wonderful sight and laughed again over the capers of the poor captives. She ordered her carriage to be turned round and drove slowly back into town, never taking her eyes off Peter and his procession.
When the king heard the news that his daughter had actually laughed, he was more than delighted and had Peter and his marvelous train brought before him. When he saw them he laughed till the tears rolled down his cheeks.
‘My good friend,’ he said to Peter, ‘do you know what I promised the person who succeeded in making the princess laugh?’
‘No, I don’t,’ said Peter.
‘Then I will tell you,’ answered the king. ‘A thousand gold crowns or a piece of land. Which will you choose?’
Peter decided in favor of the land. Then he touched the youth, the girl, the sweep, the clown, the mayor and the mayoress with his little stick, and they were all free again and ran away home as if a fire were burning behind them. Their flight gave rise to renewed merriment.
Then the princess felt moved to stroke the swan, at the same time admiring its plumage. The bird screamed.
‘Swan, hold fast,’ called out Peter, and so he won the princess for his bride. But the swan flew up into the air and vanished into the blue horizon. Peter now received a duchy as a present and became a very great man indeed. He did not forget the little old woman who had been the cause of all his good fortune and appointed her as head housekeeper to him and his royal bride in their magnificent castle.