The one who could do the most incredible thing should have the king’s daughter and the half of his kingdom.
The young men, and even the old ones, strained all their thoughts, sinews, and muscles; two ate themselves to death, and one drank until he died, to do the most incredible thing according to their own taste, but it was not in this way it was to be done. Little boys in the streets practised spitting on their own backs, they considered that the most incredible thing.
On a certain day an exhibition was to be held of what each had to show as the most incredible. The judges who were chosen were children from three years old to people up in the sixties. There was a whole exhibition of incredible things, but all soon agreed that the most incredible was a huge clock in a case marvellously designed inside and out.
On the stroke of every hour living figures came out, which showed what hour was striking: there were twelve representations in all, with moving figures and with music and conversation.
“That was the most incredible thing,” the people said.
The clock struck one, and Moses stood on the mountain and wrote down on the tables of the law the first commandment, “There is only one true God.”
The clock struck two, and the garden of Eden appeared, where Adam and Eve met, happy both of them, without having so much as a wardrobe; they did not need one either.
On the stroke of three, the three kings from the East were shown; one of them was coal-black, but he could not, help that,—the sun had blackened him. They came with incense and treasures.
On the stroke of four came the four seasons: spring with a cuckoo on a budding beech-bough; summer with a grasshopper on a stalk of ripe corn; autumn with an empty stork’s nest-the birds were flown; winter with an old crow which could tell stories in the chimney-corner, old memories.
When the clock struck five, the five senses appeared sight as a spectacle-maker, hearing as a coppersmith, smell sold violets and woodruff, taste was cook, and feeling was an undertaker with crape down to his heels.
The clock struck six; and there sat a gambler who threw the dice, and the highest side was turned up and showed six.
Then came the seven days of the week, or the seven deadly sins, people were not certain which; they belonged to each other and were not easily distinguished.
Then came a choir of monks and sang the eight o’clock service.
On the stroke of nine came the nine muses; one was busy with astronomy; one with historical archives; the others belonged to the theatre.
On the stroke of ten, Moses again came forward with the tables of the law, on which stood all God’s commandments, and they were ten.
The clock struck again; then little boys and girls danced and hopped about. They played a game, and sang, “Two and two and seven, the clock has struck eleven.”
When twelve struck the watchman appeared with his fur cap and halberd: he sang the old watch verse:
“Twas at the midnight hour
Our Saviour He was born.”
And while he sang, roses grew and changed into angel-beads borne on rainbow-coloured wings.
It was charming to hear, and lovely to see. The whole was a matchless work of art—the most incredible thing, every one said.
The designer of it was a young man, good-hearted and happy as a child, a true friend, and good to his old parents; he deserved the Princess and the half of the kingdom.
The day of decision arrived; the whole of the town had a holiday, and the Princess sat on the throne, which had got new horse-hair, but which was not any more comfortable. The judges round about looked very knowingly at he one who was to win, and he stood glad and confident; his good fortune was certain, he had made the most incredible thing.
“No, I shall do that now!” shouted just then a long bony fellow. “I am the man for the most incredible thing,” and he swung a great axe at the work of art.
“Crash, crash!” and there lay the whole of it. Wheels and springs flew in all directions; everything was destroyed.
“That I could do!” said the man. “My work has overcome his and overcome all of you. I have done the most incredible thing.”
“To destroy such a work of art!” said the judges. “Yes, certainly that is the most incredible thing.”
All the people said the same, and so he was to have the Princess and the half of the kingdom, for a promise is a promise, even if it is of the most incredible kind.
It was announced with trumpet-blast from the ramparts and from all the towers that the marriage should be celebrated. The Princess was not quite pleased about it, but she looked charming and was gorgeously dressed. The church shone with candles; it shows best late in the evening. The noble maidens of the town sang and led the bride forward; the knights sang and accompanied the bridegroom. He strutted as if he could never be broken.
Now the singing stopped and one could have heard a pin fall, but in the midst of the silence the great church door flew open with a crash and clatter, and boom! boom! the whole of the clock-work came marching up the passage and planted itself between the bride and bridegroom. Dead men cannot walk again, we know that very well, but a work of art can walk again; the body was knocked to pieces, but not the spirit; the spirit of the work walked, and that in deadly earnest.
The work of art stood there precisely as if it were whole and untouched. The hours struck, the one after the other, up to twelve, and the figures swarmed forward; first Moses: flames of fire seemed to flash from his forehead; he threw the heavy stone tables down on the feet of the bridegroom and pinned them to the church floor.
“I cannot lift them again,” said Moses, “you have knocked my arm off! Stand as you stand now!”
Then came Adam and Eve, the wise men from the East, and the four Seasons; each of these told him unpleasant truths, and said “For shame!”
But he was not in the least ashamed.
All the figures which each stroke of the clock had to exhibit came out of it, and all increased to a terrible size; there seemed scarcely to he room for the real people; and when at the stroke of twelve the watchman appeared with his fur cap and halberd, there was a wonderful commotion; the watchman walked straight up to the bridegroom and struck him on the forehead with his halberd.
“Lie there,” he said, “like for like! we are avenged and our master as well! we vanish!”
And so the whole work disappeared; but the candles round about in the church became great bouquets, and the gilded stars on the ceiling of the church sent out long, clear beams, and the organ played of itself. All the people said it was the most incredible thing they had ever experienced.
“Will you then summon the right one!” said the Princess, “the one who made the work of art; let him be my lord and husband.”
And he stood in the church with the whole of the people for his retinue. All were glad and all blessed him; there was not one who was jealous—and that was the most incredible thing of all.