Around a lordly old mansion was a beautiful, well-kept garden, full of all kinds of rare trees and flowers. Guests always expressed their delight and admiration at the sight of its wonders. The people from far and near used to come on Sundays and holidays and ask permission to see it. Even whole schools made excursions for the sole purpose of seeing its beauties.
Near the fence that separated the garden from the meadow stood an immense thistle. It was an uncommonly large and fine thistle, with several branches spreading out just above the root, and altogether was so strong and full as to make it well worthy of the name "thistle bush."
No one ever noticed it, save the old donkey that pulled the milk cart for the dairymaids. He stood grazing in the meadow hard by and stretched his old neck to reach the thistle, saying: "You are beautiful! I should like to eat you!" But the tether was too short to allow him to reach the thistle, so he did not eat it.
There were guests at the Hall, fine, aristocratic relatives from town, and among them a young lady who had come from a long distance—all the way from Scotland. She was of old and noble family and rich in gold and lands—a bride well worth the winning, thought more than one young man to himself; yes, and their mothers thought so, too!
The young people amused themselves on the lawn, playing croquet and flitting about among the flowers, each young girl gathering a flower to put in the buttonhole of some one of the gentlemen.
The young Scotch lady looked about for a flower, but none of them seemed to please her, until, happening to glance over the fence, she espied the fine, large thistle bush, full of bluish-red, sturdy-looking flowers. She smiled as she saw it, and begged the son of the house to get one of them for her.
"That is Scotland's flower," she said; "it grows and blossoms in our coat of arms. Get that one yonder for me, please."
And he gathered the finest of the thistle flowers, though he pricked his fingers as much in doing so as if it had been growing on a wild rosebush.
She took the flower and put it in his buttonhole, which made him feel greatly honored. Each of the other young men would gladly have given up his graceful garden flower if he might have worn the one given by the delicate hands of the Scotch girl. As keenly as the son of the house felt the honor conferred upon him, the thistle felt even more highly honored. It seemed to feel dew and sunshine going through it.
"It seems I am of more consequence than I thought," it said to itself. "I ought by rights to stand inside and not outside the fence. One gets strangely placed in this world, but now I have at least one of my flowers over the fence—and not only there, but in a buttonhole!"
To each one of its buds as it opened, the thistle bush told this great event. And not many days had passed before it heard—not from the people who passed, nor yet from the twittering of little birds, but from the air, which gives out, far and wide, the sounds that it has treasured up from the shadiest walks of the beautiful garden and from the most secluded rooms at the Hall, where doors and windows are left open—that the young man who received the thistle flower from the hands of the Scottish maiden had received her heart and hand as well.
"That is my doing!" said the thistle, thinking of the flower she had given to the buttonhole. And every new flower that came was told of this wonderful event.
"Surely I shall now be taken and planted in the garden," thought the thistle. "Perhaps I shall be put into a flowerpot, for that is by far the most honorable position." It thought of this so long that it ended by saying to itself with the firm conviction of truth, "I shall be planted in a flowerpot!"
It promised every little bud that came that it also should be placed in a pot and perhaps have a place in a buttonhole—that being the highest position one could aspire to. But none of them got into a flowerpot, and still less into a gentleman's buttonhole.
They lived on light and air, and drank sunshine in the day and dew at night. They received visits from bee and hornet, who came to look for the honey in the flower, and who took the honey and left the flower.
"The good-for-nothing fellows," said the thistle bush. "I would pierce them if I could!"
The flowers drooped and faded, but new ones always came.
"You come as if you had been sent," said the thistle bush to them. "I am expecting every moment to be taken over the fence."
A couple of harmless daisies and a huge, thin plant of canary grass listened to this with the deepest respect, believing all they heard. The old donkey, that had to pull the milk cart, cast longing looks toward the blooming thistle and tried to reach it, but his tether was too short. And the thistle bush thought and thought, so much and so long, of the Scotch thistle—to whom it believed itself related—that at last it fancied it had come from Scotland and that its parents had grown into the Scottish arms.
It was a great thought, but a great thistle may well have great thoughts.
"Sometimes one is of noble race even if one does not know it," said the nettle growing close by—it had a kind of presentiment that it might be turned into muslin, if properly treated.
The summer passed, and the autumn passed; the leaves fell from the trees; the flowers came with stronger colors and less perfume; the gardener's lad sang on the other side of the fence:
The young pine trees in the wood began to feel a longing for Christmas, though Christmas was still a long way off.
"Here I am still," said the thistle. "It seems that I am quite forgotten, and yet it was I who made the match. They were engaged, and now they are married—the wedding was a week ago. I do not make a single step forward, for I cannot."
Some weeks passed. The thistle had its last, solitary flower, which was large and full and growing down near the root. The wind blew coldly over it, the color faded, and all its glory disappeared, leaving only the cup of the flower, now grown to be as large as the flower of an artichoke and glistening like a silvered sunflower.
The young couple, who were now man and wife, came along the garden path, and as they passed near the fence, the bride, glancing over it, said, "Why, there stands the large thistle! it has no flowers now."
"Yes, there is still the ghost of the last one," said her husband, pointing to the silvery remains of the last flower—a flower in itself.
"How beautiful it is!" she said. "We must have one carved in the frame of our picture."
And once more the young man had to get over the fence, to break off the silvery cup of the thistle flower. It pricked his fingers for his pains, because he had called it a ghost. And then it was brought into the garden, and to the Hall, and into the drawing room. There stood a large picture—the portraits of the two, and in the bridegroom's buttonhole was painted a thistle. They talked of it and of the flower cup they had brought in with them—the last silver-shimmering thistle flower, that was to be reproduced in the carving of the frame.
The air took all their words and scattered them about, far and wide.
"What strange things happen to one!" said the thistle bush. "My first-born went to live in a buttonhole, my last-born in a frame! I wonder what is to become of me."
The old donkey, standing by the roadside, cast loving glances at the thistle and said, "Come to me, my sweetheart, for I cannot go to you; my tether is too short!"
But the thistle bush made no answer. It grew more and more thoughtful, and it thought as far ahead as Christmas, till its budding thoughts opened into flower.
"When one's children are safely housed, a mother is quite content to stay beyond the fence."
"That is true," said the sunshine; "and you will be well placed, never fear."
"In a flowerpot or in a frame?" asked the thistle.
"In a story," answered the sunshine. And here is the story!
Notes: This is the second volume of Andersen's fairy tales edited by J. H. Stickney.
Author: Hans Christian Andersen
Editor: J. H. Stickney
Publisher: Ginn and Company - Boston; New York; Chicago; London