Fairy Tales

by Archibald Lampman

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley


 

Hans Fingerhut’s Frog-lesson.


A Fairy Tale

 

        Long ago, almost out of recollection, there lived in a
small town in a woody German valley a poet named Hans Fingerhut. He had come from the far north somewhere, and
had travelled many years with his harp from court to court and
hall to hall, buying his bread with songs that the gentlefolk at
 

 

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first were never tired of hearing. But Hans Fingerhut’s desires were of the largest. He longed for unlimited good living, sym- pathy, and above all, for praise. But it seemed to him that the further he travelled the less the world had to give him. Other
poets received as much praise as he; and those who were of
 

 

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better figure and bearing were more successful in many things than he. Many a rebuff and many an ill deed befell him. Then
his songs began to grow peevish and querulous, and men
would no longer listen to them as they had done to the fresh
and joyous ones of his youth. His querulousness grew to
 

 

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anger. His harp-strings no longer trembled to the recital of wonderful and beautiful things; but shrieked and thundered
with songs full of wrath and bitterness. The great people
turned him from their gates; and in despair he broke his harp, rented a stall in the town, and became a tailor—for he had
 

 

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been apprenticed to that trade in his youth. All day he sewed
and stitched, and scowled at the passers-by, and half the night
he wandered about the streets, scrawling satires on the gates
of all whom the people honored. Nothing prospered with him. Often as he sat and sewed, great songs seemed to come to him,
 

 

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beautiful visions and thoughts that dawned on him and strove
to combine with the restless melody in his soul; but the remembrance of his disappointments and forlorn condition
always turned them into chants so dreadful and ferocious that
little children were afraid to pass his door. At such times his
 

 

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cutting and sewing all went wrong, and people refused to pay
him for his shapeless work.
     At last one day, driven to distraction, he left his stall and
passed away out of the town, determined never to return. Everything seemed to mock him as he walked; the blue sky
 

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and the fresh green earth, the song of the birds, the piping of
the crickets and grasshoppers, the wind in the trees and the
clink of the cow-bell, all so full of fair delight and content-
ment. The farther he went the fiercer he grew. He cursed the  heavens and the earth and all happy and beautiful things in
 

 

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them.
     At last he came to a forest and then to a little stream run-
ning among stones and fallen moss-grown trees. More than
ever the cheery ripple and murmur of the water angered him.
It seemed to say to him—"How very miserable you are, to be
 

 

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sure, Hans Fingerhut, you dishevelled outcast; see how happy
I am and how delightfully I sing." And Hans Fingerhut began
to fling stones into the stream; but it never heeded. Every stone that he flung made the water ripple and dance and sing the merrier, and the bigger the stones the louder the song. Then he
 

 

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seized a great stick and stirred the stream, and raised thick clouds of mud, so that the water ran away yellow and foul; but
the song never ceased. At last in his rage he leaped into it him- self, and kicked and danced, and lashed the water with his
stick till he was tired. But when he was done the stream still
 

 

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rippled round his legs in perfect contentment. Weary, wet and distracted, he laid himself down on the bank among the ferns,
and after a long while fell into a sound sleep.
     He had not been long asleep, he thought, when something pricked him sharply on the end of the nose, and he awoke with
 

 

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a great start, for behold, there stood beside him a more curious and beautiful little elf than he had ever described in any of his
old-time songs. He was not more than a foot high. He wore for
a hat a big thistle bloom, hollowed out on the underside so as
to fit his head. His jerkin was made of the white petals of the
 

 

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water-lily, wonderfully pieced together, and buttoned with
crimson seeds. His hose and stockings were made of the down
of the most delicate alder catkins, woven in an elfin loom; his shoes of the thickest golden petals of the marsh-marigold,
laced with silver threads of flax; around his shoulders was cast
 

 

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for a mantle a great leaf of the water-lily, and in his hand he
held a sprig of thistle, with the spiked blade of which he had pricked Hans Fingerhut on the nose. He had little keen, calm
blue eyes, a soft yellow beard that reached to his waist, and
long yellow hair that hung and curled in delicate fringes over
 

 

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the great green water-lily mantle.
     The elf looked very sternly at Hans Fingerhut. "Wretched mortal," he said, "you have disturbed my beautiful stream, because it retains forever the peace and gladness which you by your own fault have lost; because it sings to you, as you once
 

 

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sang imperfectly in your youth; because it teaches you a won- derful lesson, which you are now too blind and degraded to understand. In your songs long ago you interpreted the song of
the stream more than once, but not rightly. Do you know it
now?" "No," answered Hans Fingerhut, "I have no heart now-
 

 

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adays to interpret anything but what is dark and dismal."
"Then," said the elf, "I will turn you into a frog and you must
remain a frog until you find out the meaning of the stream
song." So saying he pricked the poet again with the end of the thistle staff and Hans Fingerhut sank down into a great frog,
 

 

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with webbed feet, wide ugly mouth, and staring eyes.
     The elf was gone and for many hours Hans sat on the bank
of the stream utterly stunned and wretched; he felt himself so clumsy and ugly, and more than ever useless. The grass, which
a few hours ago he had brushed aside with his strong feet, now
 

 

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towered high above his head, and the thick weeds hung so
close and rank around and above him that he could scarcely
think of penetrating them. At last, however, he grew very hun-
gry and fell to snapping at the flies and mosquitoes. Presently
as the evening drew on he heard the innumerable voices of the
 

 

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frogs, at first sharp and fitful and at last swelling into a steady thunder far away down the stream. Finally he jumped into the stream, and all that night journeyed down with the curling
water to a great marsh, where thousands of the other frogs
were congregated. The stream flowed by itself through the flat
 

 

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watery waste, and Hans, knowing that he must discover the meaning of its song, kept generally near to its bank.
     For many days he sat among the long coarse grasses, lis-
tening intently to the ripple in the reeds, snapping now and
then at the gnats and flies, and keeping a vigilant lookout for
 

 

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the long-legged cranes that waded sometimes in the shallows
or passed low over the marshes with wide heavy wings, or sometimes perched themselves on the limbs of dead trees and peered remorselessly down into the deep grasses. At times he grew fierce and restless, and jumping away into the pools out-
 

 

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did all the other frogs in the marsh in the depth and harshness
of his discordant bellowings. Here it was just as it had been
before with him. The thick grass teased and impeded him, flies were hard to catch, and the long-billed cranes haunted him perpetually. There was no satisfaction in life anywhere, so he
 

 

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lifted up his discordant voice and reviled the marsh and the
cranes and the frogs, and, when he was tired, went back and listened wearily to the mysterious song of the stream.
     One day he said to himself, "I know the song of the
stream," and instantly the little elf appeared beside him, and
 

 

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pricked him with his thistle wand. "What, then, is the song of
the stream?" he said. Hans Fingerhut answered very humbly,
"I am very weary and confused and can hardly grasp the
meaning of anything, but it seems to me the water says this: ‘I
see the green earth round me, and the blue sky above me, and
 

 

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the sweet stars at night. The wind murmurs in the trees and
many little birds sing—more than I can count. The voice of the frogs and the sigh of the gnats, the call of the water hen and
the chatter of the wild goose are pleasant. All these things and many others are joyous; why should I be sad? Because every-
 

 

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thing is glad so am I glad.’" "That is good," said the elf, "but
it is not the song of the stream: you must find out the stream
song." But before he vanished the little elf, seeing how
pinched and hungry Hans looked, waved his wand and
brought out of the grasses a swarm of rich plump gnats, so
 

 

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thick that Hans had no difficulty in catching two or three of
them at a time, and so enjoyed the first square meal he had had since he became a frog.
     Many days Hans sat beside the stream, either listening and thinking or rending the drowsy air with his lonely and cheer-
 

 

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less bellowings. The other frogs would have nothing to do
with him; nay, even sat around sometimes and abused him, for
there was something uncanny about Hans Fingerhut. He
talked often to himself in a tongue unknown to them. Some-
times he wept in silence—a thing which astonished them very
 

 

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much, for no other frogs could weep—and then he was very clumsy at catching flies, and was grown quite starved and thin.
     Again, Hans Fingerhut said to himself, "I know the song of
the stream," and immediately the elf was beside him. "What,
then, is the stream song?" he said. "More than ever I doubt
 

 

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myself, for I am very tired," said Hans humbly, "but it seems
now to me that the stream song is this, ‘My way is slow and crooked and hard to go.The grey stones and the reeds impede me. The sun dries me up. The cattle come down and trample
in me and fill me with mud. The millers dam me and turn me
 

 

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and disturb me with their eternal wheels. I have need to do something to keep my heart up against all these things. I sing gladly, therefore, as the weary weaver may sing to cheer him-
self at his loom.’" "You have wandered farther away from the stream song," said the elf; "you must wait yet till you find it
 

 

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out. Why how thin you are, poor Hans Fingerhut," he added
quite kindly, and waving his wand, brought up from the earth
a host of worms, which Hans devoured with hungry rapidity.
     Once more after many days, Hans Fingerhut said to him-
self, "I know the song of the stream," and the little elf said:
 

 

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"What then is the stream song?" And he answered more hum-
bly than ever, "The world is wretched and men are wretched,
and I more wretched than all. Alas! it seems to me now that
the stream song is not joyous at all, but very patient and sad.
It seems to me to say, ‘The stream course is long and weary,
 

 

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and I have to go on and on, no rest, or quiet forever; but yet
there is no use in fretting, so I sing, not angrily, but sadly and sweetly, as the elves of the hill do on summer evenings under
their mounds, making beautiful, hopeless music. Those who imagine my songs to be joyous only think so because they
 

 

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themselves for the time are joyous.’"
     "Nay, Hans Fingerhut, you are farther from the stream
song than ever," said the elf, and vanished; not, however,
before he had refreshed poor Hans with a larger feast of flies
and worms than ever.
 

 

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     Hans Fingerhut sat beside the stream again for many days utterly wretched, and wished that he might die. He took no
more heed of the cranes and scarcely ever looked for a fly or a worm, for he could make nothing of the stream song, and it
went round and round in his head till he thought he must go
 

 

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mad. He had no heart left even to bellow.
     At last he determined to go back up the stream to the place where he first became a frog, and see if he could not make something of it in the coolness and stillness of the forest. It
took him many days to make the journey, he was grown so
 

 

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weak and tired. At last one moonlight night he came to the
bank where he had flung stones in the stream, and in his envi-
ous rage pelted the clear curling water. As he sat on the bank
with his big ugly head fallen down between his shoulders he thought it was marvelously beautiful in the moonlight; and the
 

 

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murmur of the water, mingled with the sigh of the midges,
seemed to him the loveliest song he had ever heard; neither
merry nor sad, but happy and peaceful. Then he wept, and the tears ran down over a stone into a dark eddy, and gathered against a small jutting ledge. And Hans did not see for a long
 

 

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time that from each tear drop sprang a delicate little fairy no
larger than a gnat, and that they formed a ring on the stream, shining in the moonlight, and that the ring grew ever wider and wider as the drops ran down. At last he heaved a great sob and two specially large tears, trickling down and joining together,
 

 

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passed out into the middle of the ring and became a fairy much larger and even more beautiful than the rest. Hans started and looked down wonderingly into the glimmering ring and heard
a sweet small voice come up from the shining water. What it
said was this: "Poor Hans Fingerhut, you have endured
 

 

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enough and are very weary. Shall we sing you the song of the stream in your own mortal tongue?" Hans Fingerhut’s eyes
looked down now bright and wet with joy and gratitude, and
he tried to smile, forgetting that he had a frog’s mouth, which
is not made to smile, so he contented himself with saying,
 

 

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"Ah, I must die soon, if I do not hear the stream song."
     And the fairy ring widened till it touched either bank, and
began to go round with a motion so soft and delicate, and each link was so small and beautiful that Hans would have been entranced and stupified with wonder and delight had his mind
 

 

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not been set with all its faculties to catch the fairy song. Then
the fairy who stood in the middle waved her wand and the little song rose up scarcely louder than the voice of the midges, yet
so distinct that Hans Fingerhut’s frog-ears caught every word
of it. This was the song they sang—the song of the water
 

 

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drops; for Hans used often to repeat it afterwards, and all the
good children in the town knew it well:—

By silent forest and field and mossy stone
    We come from the wooded hill and we go to the sea;
We labor and sing sweet songs, but we never moan,

 

 


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For our mother the sea is calling us cheerily;
We have heard her calling us many and many a day,
From the cool grey stones and the white sand far away.

The way is long, and winding and slow is the track;
    The sharp rocks fret us; the eddies work us delay;
 

 


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But we sing sweet songs to our mother and answer her back,
    Sweetly we answer our mother, gladly repay.
Oh, we hear her, we hear her, singing wherever we roam,
Far, far away in the silence calling us home.

Poor mortal, your ears are dull and you cannot hear;
 

 


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    But we, we hear it, the breast of our mother abeat,
Low, far away, sweet and solemn and clear,
    Under the hush of the night, under the noontide heat.
Gladly we sing for our mother, for so we shall please her best,
Songs of beauty and peace, freedom and infinite rest.
 

 

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We sing and sing through the grass and the stones and the        reeds,
    And we never grow tired though we journey ever and aye,
Dreaming and dreaming, wherever the long way leads,
    Of the far cool rocks and the rush of the wind and the     
    spray.
Under the sun and the stars we glitter and dance and are free,
 

 

 

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For we dream and dream of our mother, the width of the shel-        tering sea.

As the last echoes of the song died away the fairy ring faded
off into the quiet moonshine. Only the larger fairy remained in
the middle, and it was no longer the fairy but the little elf of
the thistle, looking more beautiful and wise than ever. "Do you

 

 

 

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know now the stream song?" said he, and no frog’s voice ever sounded so sweetly as Hans Fingerhut’s as he repeated word
for word the fairy song of the stream. "Was I not right," said
the elf, "when I said that the water drops sing forever as you,
too, once sang imperfectly in your youth? Night and day, as
 

 

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they journey, they feel the far off strength and grandeur of the
sea, calling and beckoning them on, and the song that they
sing is neither weary nor sad, but perfectly happy and peace-
ful. So everything in the world has something great and noble
to strive towards. You, too, Hans Fingerhut, gifted above most
 

 

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men, have your sea to seek without ceasing—a wondrous and absorbing sea of strength and beauty and peace.You can never come to it, but you can approach ever nearer and nearer.If you understand this rightly, the troubles and vexations of life, all
its trials and difficulties will no longer fret you, but only arm
 

 

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you with the wide knowledge and power." So saying the elf
once more pricked Hans Fingerhut on the nose with his thistle
staff and Hans again became a man.
     All night long Hans sat beside the stream in the moonlight,
very quiet and thoughtful, listening to the eternal ripple of the
 

 

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water. It seemed to him that he could now render the sweet,
joyous voice distinctly into words, and the murmur ever
seemed to say:—

"Oh, we hear her, we hear her, singing wherever we roam,
Far, far away in the silence, calling us home."

 

 


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     At last the dawn came and Hans Fingerhut went down to
the stream and bathed his face and hands, taking the utmost
care never to disturb its clearness, and he blessed the stream
and turned away homeward through the forest. The voices of
the birds came soft and muffled out of the cool trees, and the
 

 

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bells of the waking cattle sounded fitfully across the far off
hills. As he passed out of the woods the sun rose, and the birds broke into full chorus; the laborers began to go afield and anon
the grasshoppers piped in the warm grass. All these things no longer made Hans Fingerhut angry, but only seemed to him so
 

 

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many different versions of the stream song. They seemed to
say to him, "Ah, Hans Fingerhut, you have changed and
become like us again. We are all happy and peaceful, for we
have all something noble and beautiful to work for. We long to
hear you sing." So Hans came to the town, and the noise and
 

 

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stir of the streets were become quite pleasant to him. He no longer walked with his usual defiant stride, downcast face and scowling brow. The portly figures and round faces of the busy burghers, and the well-filled purses at their girdles no longer
made him fierce and envious, but he greeted them all with a
 

 

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quiet and pleasant "good morning."
     All that day, and many days, he sat in his stall and sewed
and stitched diligently and sang so many glad, beautiful songs
at his work that the little children, instead of making a long cir-
cuit to escape his door,as they had been wont to do, came and
 

 

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gathered round him now and listened to his singing, with
delight and wonder in their eyes. Hans Fingerhut thanked the
little children, knowing that what they loved must be good,
and he became very fond of them, for there was something of
the freshness and beauty of the stream song about them. He
 

 

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bought cakes and sweetmeats for them out of his savings, and sang and played on his harp for them in the intervals of his
work. The fame of his singing spread, and the halls of the great were opened to him again. But from that day the great songs
that he made were nothing like his former ones. There was
 

 

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never anything bitter and complaining in them. They were all
sweet and beautiful and wise. He would receive no reward for them, nor did he ask the favour of anyone. When others
received higher praise than he, he never envied them in the
least, for he knew that what he sang was just such as the Great
 

 

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Father had given him. So ends the story of Hans Fingerhut and
his frog lesson.