'That was a remarkably fine dinner yesterday,' observed an old Mouse of the female sex to another who had not been at the festive gathering. 'I sat number twenty-one from the old Mouse King, so that I was not badly placed. Should you like to hear the order of the banquet? The courses were very well arranged—mouldy bread, bacon rind, tallow candle, and sausage—and then the same dishes over again from the beginning: it was just as good as having two banquets on end. There was as much joviality and agreeable jesting as in the family circle. Nothing was left but the pegs at the ends of the sausages. And the discourse turned upon these; and at last the expression, "Soup on a sausage-peg," was mentioned. Every one had heard the proverb, but no one had ever tasted the sausage-peg soup, much less knew how to prepare it. A capital toast was drunk to the inventor of the soup, and it was said he deserved to be a relieving officer. Was not that witty? And the old Mouse King stood up, and promised that the young mouse who could best prepare that soup should be his queen; and a year was allowed for the trial.'
'That was not at all bad,' said the other Mouse; 'but how does one prepare this soup?'
'Ah, how is it prepared? That is just what all the young female mice, and the old ones too, are asking. They would all very much like to be queen; but they don't want to take the trouble to go out into the world to learn how to prepare the soup, and that they would certainly have to do. But every one has not the gift of leaving the family circle and the chimney corner. Away from home one can't get cheese rinds and bacon every day. No, one must bear hunger, and perhaps be eaten up alive by a cat.'
Such were no doubt the thoughts by which most of them were scared from going out to gain information. Only four Mice announced themselves ready to depart. They were young and brisk, but poor. Each of them would go to one of the four quarters of the globe, and then it was a question which of them was favoured by fortune. Every one took a sausage-peg, so as to keep in mind the object of the journey. This was to be their pilgrim's staff.
It was at the beginning of May that they set cut, and they did not return till the May of the following year; and then only three of them appeared. The fourth did not report herself, nor was there any intelligence of her, though the day of trial was close at hand.
'Yes, there's always some drawback in even the pleasantest affair,' said the Mouse King.
And then he gave orders that all mice within a circuit of many miles should be invited. They were to assemble in the kitchen, the three travelled Mice stood in a row by themselves, while a sausage-peg, shrouded in crape, was set up as a memento of the fourth, who was missing. No one was to proclaim his opinion before the three had spoken and the Mouse King had settled what was to be said further. And now let us hear.
What the First little Mouse had seen and learned in her Travels
'When I went out into the wide world,' said the little Mouse, 'I thought, as many think at my age, that I had already learned everything; but that was not the case. Years must pass before one gets so far. I went to sea at once. I went in a ship that steered towards the north. They had told me that the ship's cook must know how to manage things at sea ; but it is easy enough to manage things when one has plenty of sides of bacon, and whole tubs of salt pork, and mouldy flour. One has delicate living on board ; but one does not learn to prepare soup on a sausage-peg. We sailed along for many days and nights ; the ship rocked fearfully, and we did not get off without a wetting. When we at last reached the port to which we were bound, I left the ship ; and it was high up in the far north.
'It is a wonderful thing, to go out of one's own corner at home, and sail in a ship, where one has a sort of corner too, and then suddenly to find oneself hundreds of miles away in a strange land. I saw great pathless forests of pine and birch, which smelt so strong that I sneezed, and thought of sausage. There were great lakes there too. When I came close to them the waters were quite clear, but from a distance they looked black as ink. White swans floated upon them : I thought at first they were spots of foam, they lay so still ; but then I saw them walk and fly, and I recognized them. They belong to the goose family — one can see that by their walk ; for no one can deny his parentage. I kept with my own kind. I associated with the forest and field mice, who, by the way, know very little, especially as regards cookery, though this was the very thing that had brought me abroad. The thought that soup might be boiled on a sausage-peg was such a startling idea to them, that it flew at once from mouth to mouth through the whole forest. They declared the problem could never be solved ; and little did I think that there, on the very first night, I should be initiated into the method of its preparation. It was in the height of summer, and that, the mice said, was the reason why the wood smelt so strongly, and why the herbs were so fragrant, and the lakes so clear and yet so dark, with the white swans on them.
'On the margin of the wood, among three or four houses, a pole as tall as the mainmast of a ship had been erected, and from its summit hung wreaths and ribbons : this was called a maypole. Men and maids danced round the tree, and sang as loudly as they could, to the violin of the fiddler. There were merry doings at sundown and in the moonlight, but I took no part in them—what has a little mouse to do with a May dance? I sat in the soft moss and held my sausage-peg fast. The moon shone especially upon one spot, where a tree stood, covered with moss so fine that I may almost venture to say it was as fine as the skin of the Mouse King; but it was of a green colour, so that it was a great relief to the eye.
'All at once, the most charming little people came marching forth. They were only tall enough to reach to my knee. They looked like men, but were better proportioned: they called themselves elves, and had delicate clothes on, of flower leaves trimmed with the wings of flies and gnats, which had a very good appearance. Directly they appeared, they seemed to be seeking for something—I knew not what; but at last some of them came towards me, and the chief pointed to my sausage-peg, and said, "That is just such a one as we want—it is pointed—it is capital!" and the longer he looked at my pilgrim's staff the more delighted he became.
'"I will lend it," I said, "but not to keep."
'"Not to keep!" they all repeated; and they seized the sausage-peg, which I gave up to them, and danced away to the spot where the fine moss grew; and here they set up the peg in the midst of the green. They wanted to have a maypole of their own, and the one they now had, seemed cut out for them; and they decorated it so that it was beautiful to behold.
'First, little spiders spun it round with gold thread, and hung it all over with fluttering veils and flags, so finely woven, bleached so snowy white in the moonshine, that they dazzled my eyes. They took colours from the butterfly's wing, and strewed these over the white linen, and flowers and diamonds gleamed upon it, so that I did not know my sausage-peg again: there is not in all the world such a maypole as they had made of it. And now came the real great party of elves. They were quite without clothes, and looked as dainty as possible; and they invited me to be present; but I was to keep at a distance, for I was too large for them.
'And now began such music! It sounded like thousands of glass bells, so full, so rich, that I thought the swans were singing. I fancied also that I heard the voice of the cuckoo and the blackbird, and at last the whole forest seemed to join in. I heard children's voices, the sound of bells, and the song of birds; the most glorious melodies—and all came from the elves' maypole, namely, my sausage-peg. I should never have believed that so much could come out of it; but that depends very much upon the hands into which it falls. I was quite touched. I wept, as a little mouse may weep, with pure pleasure.
'The night was far too short; but it is not longer up yonder at that season. In the morning dawn the breeze began to blow, the mirror of the forest lake was covered with ripples, and all the delicate veils and flags fluttered away in the air. The waving garlands of spiders' web, the hanging bridges and balustrades, and whatever else they are called, flew away as if they were nothing at all. Six elves brought me back my sausage-peg, and asked me at the same time if I had any wish that they could gratify; so I asked them if they could tell me how soup was made on a sausage-peg.
'"How we do it? " asked the chief of the elves, with a smile. " Why, you have just seen it. I fancy you hardly knew your sausage-peg again?"
'"You only mean that as a joke," I replied. And then I told them in so many words, why I had undertaken a journey, and what hopes were founded on it at home. "What advantage," I asked, "can it be to our Mouse King, and to our whole powerful state, from the fact of my having witnessed all this festivity? I cannot shake it out of the sausage-peg, and say, 'Look, here is the peg, now the soup will come.' That would be a dish that could only be put on the table when the guests had dined."
'Then the elf dipped his little finger into the cup of a blue violet, and said to me,
'"See here! I will anoint your pilgrim's staff; and when you go back home to the castle of the Mouse King, you have but to touch his warm breast with the staff, and violets will spring forth and cover its whole staff, even in the coldest winter-time. And so I think I've given you something to carry home, and a little more than something!"'
But before the little Mouse said what this 'something more' was, she stretched her staff out towards the King's breast, and in very truth the most beautiful bunch of violets burst forth; and the scent was so powerful that the Mouse King incontinently ordered the mice who stood nearest the chimney to thrust their tails into the fire and create a smell of burning, for the odour of the violets was not to be borne, and was not of the kind he liked.
'But what was the "something more", of which you spoke?' asked the Mouse King.
'Why,' the little Mouse answered, 'I think it is what they call effect!' and herewith she turned the staff round, and lo! there was not a single flower to be seen upon it; she only held the naked skewer, and lifted this up like a music baton. '"Violets," the elf said to me, "are for sight, and smell, and touch. Therefore it yet remains to provide for hearing and taste!"'
And now the little Mouse began to beat time; and music was heard, not such as sounded in the forest among the elves, but such as is heard in the kitchen. There was a bubbling sound of boiling and roasting; and all at once it seemed as if the sound were rushing through every chimney, and pots or kettles were boiling over. The fire-shovel hammered upon the brass kettle, and then, on a sudden, all was quiet again. They heard the quiet subdued song of the tea-kettle, and it was wonderful to hear—they could not quite tell if the kettle were beginning to sing or leaving off; and the little pot simmered, and the big pot simmered, and neither cared for the other: there seemed to be no reason at all in the pots. And the little Mouse flourished her baton more and more wildly; the pots foamed, threw up large bubbles, boiled over, and the wind roared and whistled through the chimney. Oh! it became so terrible that the little Mouse lost her stick at last.
'That was a heavy soup!' said the Mouse King. 'Shall we not soon hear about the preparation?'
'That was all,' said the little Mouse, with a bow.
'That all! Then we should be glad to hear what the next has to relate,' said the Mouse King.
What the Second little Mouse had to tell
'I was born in the palace library,' said the second Mouse. 'I and several members of our family never knew the happiness of getting into the dining-room, much less into the store-room; on my journey, and here to-day, are the only times I have seen a kitchen. We have indeed often been compelled to suffer hunger in the library, but we got a good deal of knowledge. The rumour penetrated even to us, of the royal prize offered to those who could cook soup upon a sausage-peg; and it was my old grandmother who thereupon ferreted out a manuscript, which she certainly could not read, but which she had heard read out, and in which it was written: "Those who are poets can boil soup upon a sausage-peg." She asked me if I were a poet. I felt quite innocent of that, and then she told me I must go out, and manage to become one. I again asked what was required for that, for it was as difficult for me to find that out as to prepare the soup; but grandmother had heard a good deal of reading, and she said that three things were especially necessary: "Understanding, imagination, feeling—if you can go and get these into you, you are a poet, and the sausage-peg affair will be quite easy to you."
'And I went forth, and marched towards the west, away into the wide world, to become a poet.
'Understanding is the most important thing in every affair. I knew that, for the two other things are not held in half such respect, and consequently I went out first to seek understanding. Yes, where does that dwell? "Go to the ant and be wise," said the great King of the Jews; I knew that from the library; and I never stopped till I came to the first great ant-hill, and there I placed myself on the watch, to become wise.
'The ants are a respectable people. They are understanding itself. Everything with them is like a well-worked sum, that comes right. To work and to lay eggs, they say, is to live while you live, and to provide for posterity; and accordingly that is what they do. They were divided into the clean and the dirty ants. The rank of each is indicated by a number, and the ant queen is number one; and her view is the only correct one, she has absorbed all wisdom; and that was important for me to know. She spoke so much, and it was all so clever, that it sounded to me like nonsense. She declared her ant-hill was the loftiest thing in the world; though close by it grew a tree, which was certainly loftier, much loftier, that could not be denied, and therefore it was never mentioned. One evening an ant had lost herself upon the tree; she had crept up the stem—not up to the crown, but higher than any ant had climbed until then; and when she turned, and came back home, she talked of something far higher than the ant-hill that she had found; but the other ants considered that an insult to the whole community, and consequently she was condemned to wear a muzzle, and to continual solitary confinement. But a short time afterwards another ant got on the tree, and made the same journey and the same discovery: and this one spoke about it with caution and indefiniteness, as they said; and as, moreover, she was one of the pure ants and very much respected, they believed her; and when she died they erected an egg-shell as a memorial of her, for they had a great respect for the sciences. I saw,' continued the little Mouse, 'that the ants are always running to and fro with their eggs on their backs. One of them once dropped her egg; she exerted herself greatly to pick it up again, but she could not succeed. Then two others came up, and helped her with all their might, insomuch that they nearly dropped their own eggs over it; but then they stopped helping at once, for each should think of himself first—the ant queen had declared that by so doing they exhibited at once heart and understanding.
'"These two qualities," she said, "place us ants on the highest step among all reasoning beings. Understanding must and shall be the predominant thing, and I have the greatest share of understanding." And so saying, she raised herself on her hind legs, so that she was easily to be recognized. I could not be mistaken, and I ate her up. Go to the ant and be wise—and I had got the queen!
'I now proceeded nearer to the before-mentioned lofty tree. It was an oak, and had a great trunk and a far-spreading top, and was very old. I knew that a living being dwelt here, a Dryad as it is called, who is born with the tree, and dies with it. I had heard about this in the library; and now I saw an oak tree and an oak girl. She uttered a piercing cry when she saw me so near. Like all females, she was very much afraid of mice; and she had more ground for fear than others, for I might have gnawed through the stem of the tree on which her life depended. I spoke to her in a friendly and intimate way, and bade her take courage. And she took me up in her delicate hand; and when I had told her my reason for coming out into the wide world, she promised me that perhaps on that very evening I should have one of the two treasures of which I was still in quest. She told me that Phantasy was her very good friend, that he was beautiful as the god of love, and that he rested many an hour under the leafy boughs of the tree, which then rustled more strongly than ever over the pair of them. He called her his Dryad, she said, and the tree his tree, for the grand gnarled oak was just to his taste, with its root burrowing so deep in the earth and the stem and crown rising so high out in the fresh air, and knowing the beating snow, and the sharp wind, and the warm sunshine, as they deserve to be known. "Yes," the Dryad continued, "the birds sing aloft there and tell of strange countries; and on the only dead bough the stork has built a nest which is highly ornamental, and, moreover, one gets to hear something of the land of the pyramids. All that is very pleasing to Phantasy; but it is not enough for him: I myself must tell him of life in the woods, when I was little, and the tree such a delicate thing that a stinging-nettle overshadowed it—and I have to tell everything, till now that the tree is great and strong. Sit you down under the green woodruff, and pay attention; and when Phantasy comes, I shall find an opportunity to pinch his wings, and to pull out a little feather. Take that—no better is given to any poet—and it will be enough for you!"
'And when Phantasy came the feather was plucked, and I seized it,' said the little Mouse. 'I held it in water, till it grew soft. It was very hard to digest, but I nibbled it up at last. It is not at all easy to gnaw oneself into being a poet, there are so many things one must take into oneself. Now I had these two things, imagination and understanding, and through these I knew that the third was to be found in the library; for a great man has said and written that there are romances whose sole and single use is that they relieve people of their superfluous tears, and that they are, in fact, like sponges sucking up human emotion. I remembered a few of these old books, which had always looked especially palatable, and were much thumbed and very greasy, having evidently absorbed a great deal of feeling into themselves.
'I betook myself back to the library, and devoured nearly a whole novel—that is, the essence of it, the soft part, for I left the crust or binding. When I had digested this, and a second one in addition, I felt a stirring within me, and I ate a bit of a third romance, and now I was a poet. I said so to myself, and told the others also. I had headache, and stomach-ache, and I can't tell what aches besides. I began thinking what kind of stories could be made to refer to a sausage-peg; and many pegs came into my mind—the ant queen must have had a particularly fine understanding. I remembered the man who took a white peg in his mouth, and then both he and the peg were invisible. I thought of being screwed up a peg, of standing on one's own pegs, and of driving a peg into one's own coffin. All my thoughts ran upon pegs; and when one is a poet (and I am a poet, for I have worked most terribly hard to become one) a person can make poetry on these subjects. I shall therefore be able to wait upon you every day with a poem or a history—and that's the soup I have to offer.'
'Let us hear what the third has to say,' said the Mouse King.
'Peep! peep!' was heard at the kitchen door, and a little Mouse—it was the fourth of them, the one whom they looked upon as dead—shot in like an arrow. She toppled the sausage-peg with the crape covering over. She had been running day and night, and had travelled on the railway, in the goods train, having watched her opportunity, and yet she had almost come too late. She pressed forward, looking very much rumpled, and she had lost her sausage-peg, but not her voice, for she at once took up the word, as if they had been waiting only for her, and wanted to hear none but her, and as if everything else in the world were of no consequence. She spoke at once, and spoke fully: she had appeared so suddenly that no one found time to object to her speech or to her, while she was speaking. And now let us hear her.
What the Fourth Mouse, who spoke before the Third had spoken, had to tell
I went immediately to the largest town,' she said; 'the name has escaped me—I have a bad memory for names. From the railway I was carried, with some confiscated goods, to the council-house, and there I ran into the dwelling of the jailer. The jailer was talking of his prisoners, and especially of one, who had spoken unconsidered words. These words had given rise to others, and these latter had been written down and recorded.
'"The whole thing is soup on a sausage-peg," said the jailer; "but the soup may cost him his neck."
'Now, this gave me an interest in the prisoner,' continued the Mouse, 'and I watched my opportunity and slipped into his prison—for there's a mouse-hole to be found behind every locked door. The prisoner looked pale, and had a great beard and bright sparkling eyes. The lamp smoked, but the walls were so accustomed to that, that they grew none the blacker for it. The prisoner scratched pictures and verses in white upon the black ground, but I did not read them. I think he found it tedious, and I was a welcome guest. He lured me with bread crumbs, with whistling, and with friendly words: he was glad to see me, and I got to trust him, and we became friends. He shared with me his bread and water, gave me cheese and sausage; I lived well, but I must say that it was especially the good society that kept me there. He let me run upon his hand, his arm, and into his sleeve; he let me creep about in his beard, and called me his little friend. I really got to love him, for these things are reciprocal. I forgot my mission in the wide world, forgot my sausage-peg in a crack in the floor—it's lying there still. I wished to stay where I was, for if I went away the poor prisoner would have no one at all, and that's having too little, in this world. I stayed, but he did not stay. He spoke to me very mournfully the last time, gave me twice as much bread and cheese as usual, and kissed his hand to me; then he went away, and never came back. I don't know his history.
'"Soup on a sausage-peg!" said the jailer, to whom I now went; but I should not have trusted him. He took me in his hand, certainly, but he popped me into a cage, a treadmill. That's a horrible engine, in which you go round and round without getting any farther; and people laugh at you into the bargain.
'The jailer's granddaughter was a charming little thing, with a mass of curly hair that shone like gold, and such merry eyes, and such a smiling mouth!
'"You poor little mouse," she said, as she peeped into my ugly cage; and she drew out the iron rod, and forth I jumped to the window board, and from thence to the roof spout. Free! free! I thought only of that, and not of the goal of my journey.
'It was dark, and night was coming on. I took up my quarters in an old tower, where dwelt a watchman and an owl. I trusted neither of them, and the owl least. That is a creature like a cat, who has the great failing that she eats mice. But one may be mistaken, and so was I, for this was a very respectable, well-educated old owl: she knew more than the watchman, and as much as I. The young owls were always making a racket; but "Do not make soup on a sausage-peg" were the hardest words she could prevail on herself to utter, she was so fondly attached to her family. Her conduct inspired me with so much confidence, that from the crack in which I was crouching I called out "Peep!" to her. This confidence of mine pleased her hugely, and she assured me I should be under her protection, and that no creature should be allowed to do me wrong; she would reserve me for herself, for the winter, when there would be short commons.
'She was in every respect a clever woman, and explained to me how the watchman could only "whoop" with the horn that hung at his side, adding, "He is terribly conceited about it, and imagines he's an owl in the tower. Wants to do great things, but is very small—soup on a sausage-peg!"
'I begged the owl to give me the recipe for this soup, and then she explained the matter to me.
'"Soup on a sausage-peg," she said, "was only a human proverb, and was understood in different ways: Each thinks his own way the best, but the whole really signifies nothing."
'"Nothing!" I exclaimed. I was quite struck. Truth is not always agreeable, but truth is above everything; and that's what the old owl said. I now thought about it, and readily perceived that if I brought what was above everything I brought something far beyond soup on a sausage-peg. So I hastened away, that I might get home in time, and bring the highest and best, that is above everything—namely, the truth. The mice are an enlightened people, and the King is above them all. He is capable of making me Queen, for the sake of truth.'
'Your truth is a falsehood,' said the Mouse who had not yet spoken. 'I can prepare the soup, and I mean to prepare it.'
How it was prepared
'I did not travel,' the third Mouse said. 'I remained in my country—that's the right thing to do. There's no necessity for travelling; one can get everything as good here. I stayed at home. I've not learned what I know from supernatural beings, or gobbled it up, or held converse with owls. I have what I know through my own reflections. Will you just put that kettle upon the fire and get water poured in up to the brim! Now make up the fire, that the water may boil—it must boil over and over! Now throw the peg in. Will the King now be pleased to dip his tail in the boiling water, and to stir it round? The longer the King stirs it, the more powerful will the soup become. It costs nothing at all—no further materials are necessary, only stir it round!'
'Cannot any one else do that?' asked the Mouse King.
'No,' replied the Mouse. 'The power is contained only in the tail of the Mouse King.'
And the water boiled and bubbled, and the Mouse King stood close beside the kettle—there was almost danger in it—and he put forth his tail, as the mice do in the dairy, when they skim the cream from a pan of milk, and afterwards lick the tail; but he only got his into the hot steam, and then he sprang hastily down from the hearth.
'Of course—certainly you are my Queen,' he said. 'We'll wait for the soup till our golden wedding, so that the poor of my subjects may have something to which they can look forward with pleasure for a long time.'
And soon the wedding was held. But many of the mice said, as they were returning home, that it could not be really called soup on a sausage-peg, but rather soup on a mouse's tail. They said that some of the stories had been very cleverly told; but the whole thing might have been different. 'I should have told it so—and so—and so!'
Thus said the critics, who are always wise—after the fact.