There were once upon a time three brothers, of whom the eldest was called Jacob, the second Frederick, and the youngest Peter. This youngest brother was made a regular butt of by the other two, and they treated him shamefully. If anything went wrong with their affairs, Peter had to bear the blame and put things right for them, and he had to endure all this ill-treatment because he was weak and delicate and couldn’t defend himself against his stronger brothers. The poor creature had a most trying life of it in every way, and day and night he pondered how he could make it better. One day, when he was in the wood gathering sticks and crying bitterly, a little old woman came up to him and asked him what was the matter; 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? Why don’t you set out and try your fortune somewhere else?’
Peter took her words to heart, and left his father’s house early one morning to try his fortune in the wide world, as the old woman had advised him. But he felt very bitterly parting from the home where he had been born, and where he had at least passed a short but happy childhood, and 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 good, my boy; but what do you mean to do now?’
Peter was at a loss what to answer, for so far he had always thought that 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’ve taken a fancy to you, and I’m sure you won’t forget me when you’ve made your fortune.’
Peter promised faithfully he wouldn’t, and the old woman continued:
‘This evening at sunset go to yonder pear-tree which you see growing at the cross roads. Underneath it you will find a man lying asleep, and a beautiful large swan will be fastened to the tree close to him. You must be careful not to waken the man, but you must unfasten the swan and take it away with you. You will find that 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 out, and then you must say, “Swan, hold fast.” Then the hand of the person who has touched the bird will be held as in a vice, and nothing will set it free, unless you touch it with this little stick which I will make you a present of. 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 won’t forget your old friend.’
Peter promised again that he wouldn’t, 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 the bird’s master.
He walked on with the swan for some time, and came at last to a building-yard where some men were busily at work. They were all lost in admiration of the bird’s beautiful plumage, and 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, and the youth seized one from the bird’s tail; instantly the swan screamed, and Peter called out, ‘Swan, hold fast,’ and do what he could the poor youth couldn’t get his hand away. The more he howled the more the others laughed, till a girl who had been washing clothes in the neighbouring stream hurried up to see what was the matter. 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 cursed young man.’
‘Most certainly I will, if that’s all you want,’ replied the sweep, and gave the girl his hand. The bird screamed.
‘Swan, hold fast,’ said Peter, and the black man was added to their number.
They soon came to a village where a fair was being held. A travelling 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 on to the swan’s tail.
‘Have you gone raving mad, Blackie?’ he asked as well as he could for laughing.
‘It’s no laughing matter,’ the sweep replied. ‘This wench has got so tight hold of me that I feel as if I were glued to her. Do set me free, like a good clown, and I’ll do you a good turn some day.’
Without a moment’s hesitation the clown grasped the black 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, who 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, in order to hand him over to the police.
Then the bird screamed, and Peter called out, ‘Swan, hold fast,’ and the dignified Mayor shared the fate of his predecessors.
The Mayoress, a long thin stick of a woman, enraged at the insult done to her husband, seized his free arm and tore at it with all her might, with the only result that she too was forced to swell the procession. After this no one else had any wish to join them.
Soon Peter saw the towers of the capital in front of him. Just before entering it, a glittering carriage came out to meet him, in which was seated a young lady as beautiful as the day, but with a very solemn and serious expression. But no sooner had she perceived the motley crowd fastened to the swan’s tail than she burst into a loud fit of 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 the poor captives cut. She ordered her carriage to be turned round and drove slowly back into the 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 marvellous train brought before him. He laughed himself when he saw them 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’ll tell you,’ answered the King; ‘a thousand gold crowns or a piece of land. Which will you choose?’
Peter decided in favour 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; and their flight, as you may imagine, 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 in the blue horizon. Peter now received a duchy as a present, and became a very great man indeed; but 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.