Whosoever could do the most incredible thing was to have the King's daughter and half of his kingdom.
The young men, yes, and the old ones too, bent their heads, their muscles, and their hearts upon winning. To do what they thought was the most incredible thing, two ate themselves to death, and one died of overdrinking. Even the boys in the street practiced spitting on their own backs, which they supposed was the most incredible thing anyone could do.
On a certain day there was to be an exhibition of things most incredible and everyone showed his best work. Judges were appointed, ranging from children of three to old men of ninety. It was a grand exposition of things out of the ordinary, but everybody promptly agreed that most incredible of all was a great hall clock - an extraordinary contraption, outside and in.
When the clock struck, out came lifelike figures to tell the hour. There were twelve separate performances of these moving figures, with speaking and singing. People said that nothing so incredible had ever before been seen.
The clock struck one, and there stood Moses on the mountain, writing in the tablets of the law the first great commandment: "There is only one true God." The clock struck two, and there were Adam and Eve, just as they first met in the Garden of Eden. Were ever two people so lucky! They didn't own so much as a clothes-closet, and they didn't need one. At the stroke of three the three Holy Kings appeared. One was as black as a coal, but he couldn't help that. The sun had blackened him. These kings brought incense and precious gifts. When the stroke of four sounded, the seasons advanced in their order. Spring carried a budding bough of beech, on which a cuckoo sang. Summer had for her sign a grasshopper on a ripening ear of wheat. Autumn had only an empty stork's nest, for the birds had flown away. Winter's tame crow perched on the corner of the stove, and told old tales of bygone days. At five o'clock there was a procession of the five senses. Sight was represented by a man who made spectacles. Hearing was a noisy coppersmith. Smell was a flower girl with violets for sale. Taste came dressed as a cook. Feeling was a mourner, with crape down to his heels. As the clock struck six, there sat a gambler, throwing dice for the highest cast of all, and they fell with the sixes up. Then came the seven days of the week, or they might be the seven deadly sins. People could not be sure which they were, for they were not easy to distinguish. Next came a choir of monks, to sing the eight o'clock evensong. At the stroke of nine, the nine muses appeared. One was an astronomer, one kept the books of history, and the others were connected with the theater. Ten o'clock struck, and Moses came forth again, this time with the tables in which were written all ten of God's commandments. When the clock struck again, boys and girls danced out. They played and sang this song:
"All the way to heaven
The clock struck eleven."
And eleven it struck. Then came the stroke of twelve. Out marched the night watchman, wearing his cap and carrying his morning star - which is a truncheon tipped with spikes. He sang the old watch song:
"'Twas at the midnight hour
Our Savior He was born-"
and as he sang the roses about him unfolded into the heads of angels, with rainbow-tinted wings.
It was good to hear. It was charming to see. The whole thing was a work of extraordinary craftsmanship, and everyone agreed that it was the most incredible thing. The artist who had made it was young, generous, and sincere, a true friend, and a great help to his poor father and mother. He was altogether worthy of the Princess and of half the kingdom.
On the day that they were to proclaim who had won, the whole town was bedecked and be-draped. The Princess sat on her throne. It had been newly stuffed with horsehair for the occasion, but it was still far from comfortable or pleasant. The judges winked knowingly at the man they had chosen, who stood there so happy and proud. His fortune was made, for had he not done the most incredible thing!
"No!" a tall, bony, powerful fellow bawled out. "Leave it to me, I am the man to do the most incredible thing," and then he swung his ax at the craftsman's clock. Crack, crash, smash! There lay the whole thing. Here rolled the wheels, and there flew the hairsprings. It was wrecked and ruined. "I did that," said the lout. "My work beat his, and bowled you over, all in one stroke. I have done the most incredible thing."
"To destroy such a work of art!" said the judges. "Why it's the most incredible thing we've ever seen." And the people said so too. So he was awarded the Princess and half the kingdom, because a law is a law, even if it happens to be a most incredible one.
They blew trumpets from the ramparts and the city towers, and they announced, "The wedding will now take place." The Princess was not especially happy about it, but she looked pretty and she wore her most expensive clothes. The church was at its best by candle-light, late in the evening. The ladies of the court sang in processions, and escorted the bride. The lords sung, and accompanied the groom. From the way he strutted and swaggered along, you'd think that nothing could ever bowl him over.
Then the singing stopped. It was so still that you could have heard a pin fall in the street. But it was not quiet for long. Crash! crash! the great church doors flew open, and boom! boom! all the works of the clock came marching down the church aisle and halted between the bride and the groom.
Dead men cannot walk the earth. That's true, but a work of art does not die. Its shape may be shattered, but the spirit of art cannot be broken. The spirit of art jested, and that was no joke.
. To all appearances it stood there as if it were whole, and had never been wrecked. The clock struck one hour right after another, from one to twelve, and all the figures poured forth. First Moses came, shining as if bright flames issued from his forehead. He cast the heavy stone tablets of the law at the bridegroom's feet, and tied them to the church floor. "I cannot lift them again," said Moses, "for you have broken my arms. Stand where you are!"
Then came Adam and Eve, the three Wise Men of the East, and the four Seasons. Each told him the disagreeable truth. "Shame on you!" But he was not ashamed.
All the figures of all the hours marched out of the clock, and they grew wondrous big. There was scarcely room for the living people. And at the stroke of twelve out strode the watchman, with his cap and his many-spiked morning star. There was a strange commotion. The watchman went straight to the bridegroom, and smote him on the forehead with his morning star.
"Lie where you are," said the watchman. "A blow for a blow. We have taken out vengeance and the master's too, so now we will vanish."
And vanish they did, every cogwheel and figure. But the candles of the church flared up like flowers of fire, and the gilded stars under the roof cast down long clear shafts of light, and the organ sounded though no man had touched it. The people all said that they had lived to see the most incredible thing.
"Now," the Princess commanded, "summon the right man, the craftsman who made the work of art. He shall be my husband and my lord."
He stood beside her in the church. All the people were in his train. Everyone was happy for him, everyone blessed him, and there was no one who was envious. And that was the most incredible thing.
What did the whole family say? Well listen first to what little Marie said.
It was little Marie's birthday, the most wonderful of all days, she imagined. All her little boy friends and girl friends came to play with her, and she wore her prettiest dress, the one Grandmother, who was now with God, had sewn for her before she went up into the bright, beautiful heaven. The table in little Marie's room was loaded with presents; there was the prettiest little kitchen, with everything that belongs to a kitchen, and a doll that could close its eyes and say "Ouch!" when you pinched its stomach; yes, and there was also a picture book, with the most wonderful stories, to be read when one could read! But to have many birthdays was more wonderful than all the stories in the book.
"Yes, it's wonderful to be alive," said little Marie. And her godfather added that it was the most beautiful of all fairy tales.
In the next room were both her brothers; they were big boys, one of them nine years old, the other eleven. They thought it was wonderful to be alive, too; that is, to live in their own way, not to be a baby like Marie, but to be real smart schoolboys, to get A's on their report cards, to have friendly fights with their comrades, to go skating in the winter and bicycling in the summer, to read about the days of knighthood, with its castles, its drawbridges, and its dungeons, and to hear about new discoveries in Central Africa. On the latter subject, however, one of the boys felt very sad in that he feared everything might be discovered before he grew up, and then there would be no adventure left for him. But Godfather said, "Life itself is the most wonderful adventure, and you have a part in it yourself."
These children lived on the first floor of the house; in the flat above them lived another branch of the family, also with children, but these all had long since been shaken from their mother's apron strings, so big were they; one son was seventeen, and another twenty, but the third one was very old, said little Marie; he was twenty-five, and engaged to be married. They were all very well off, had nice parents, good clothes, and were well educated, and they knew what they wanted. "Look forward," they said. "Away with all the old fences! Let's have an open view into the wide world! That's the greatest thing we know of! Godfather is right - life is the most wonderful fairy tale!"
Father and Mother, both older people - naturally, they would have to be older than the children - said, with smiling lips and smiling eyes and hearts, "How young these young people are! Things usually don't happen in this world just as they expect them to, yet life goes on. Life is a strange and wonderful adventure."
On the next floor - a little closer to heaven, as we say when people live in an attic - lived Godfather. He was old, and yet so young in mind, always in a good humor, and he certainly could tell stories, many and long ones. He had traveled the world over, and his room was filled with pretty tokens from every country. Pictures were hung from ceiling to floor, and some of the windowpanes were of red or yellow glass; if one looked through them, the whole world lay in sunshine, however gray the weather might be outside. Green plants grew in a large glass case, and in an enclosure therein swam goldfish; they looked at one as if they knew many things they didn't care to talk about. There was always a sweet fragrance of flowers, even in the wintertime. And then a great fire blazed in the fireplace; it was such a pleasure to sit and look into it and hear how it crackled and spat.
"It refreshes old memories to me, " said Godfather. And to little Marie there seemed to appear many pictures in the fire.
But in the big bookcase close by stood real books; one of these Godfather often read, and this he called the Book of Books; it was the Bible. In it was pictured the history of the world and the history of all mankind, of the creation, the flood, the kings, and the King of Kings.
"All that has happened and all that will happen is written in this book," said Godfather; "so infinitely much in one single book! Just think of it! Yes, everything that a human being has to pray for is entered there, and said in a few words in the prayer 'Our Father'! It is the drop of mercy! It is the pearl of comfort from God. It is laid as a gift on the baby's cradle, laid on the child's heart. Little child, keep it safely; don't ever lose it, however big you may grow, and you will never be left alone on life's changeful way; it will shine within you and you will never be lost!"
Godfather's eyes radiated joy. Once, in his youth, they had wept, "and this was also good," he said. "That was a time of trial, when everything looked dark and gray. Now I have sunshine within me and around me. The older one grows, the clearer one sees, in both prosperity and misfortune, that our Lord always is with us and that life is the most beautiful of all fairy tales, and this He alone can give us - and so it will be into eternity."
"Yes, it is wonderful to be alive!" said little Marie.
So said also the small and the big boys, as well as Father and Mother and the whole family - but first of all, Godfather, who had had so much experience and was the oldest of them all. He knew all stories, all the fairy tales. And it was right from the bottom of his heart that he said, "Life is the most wonderful fairy tale of all!"