THERE was a little boy who once caught hold of the tail of a comet, which took him a journey all through the skies.
Do not be tiresome and ask me how he managed to catch hold of anything so high up, because I really do not know, but the fact remains that he did, and that he enjoyed it very much.
Of course he was just a little frightened at first, because he was so fearfully high up, and because the comet flew so horribly quick. But to this he soon got accustomed.
Whizz—zz—zz—the Wind rushed past his ears, asking him something. It was the North Wind; he had a very loud voice and a very cold breath, but the little boy was being whirled at such a pace that he had no time to answer, nor did he very well understand what the Wind was asking.
The little clouds tickled his toes, and one who was particularly saucy slapped his face with damp fingers—just for fun, you know—and the little boy, not in the least offended, only laughed, putting out his tongue as answer.
The little cloud tried to race him, but the comet was going so fast that she was quickly left behind, quite out of breath.
Dan, that was the name of the little boy, had only one fear, that the piece of tail he was hanging on to should break off, or that he would pull it right out like a feather out of a peacock's tail. He remembered having done that once, and how, when he had proudly brought it into the house, his mother had insisted on his throwing it away again, because she declared that peacocks' feathers were unlucky! That was a pity, because it had been so beautifully blue-green, turning to violet and bronze, and had such a lovely big eye at the end.
But the comet's tail seemed to be quite solid, and did not at all burn Dan's fingers as you might have imagined it would have done, though his face and brown curls were all shiny from its light.
Dan was simply a little peasant boy, and he had a big white fur "caciula"1 on his head, "opinci"2 on his feet and a broad leather belt round his middle, which held shirt and trousers together. Dan had always been of an adventurous spirit, but he had never imagined that he would ever take a joy-ride like this.
Once he had climbed on to the back of neighbour Vasili's old white mare. Driving his "opinci" into her sides, he had made her gallop round the enclosed field; then the old mare had suddenly kicked up her heels, and off Dan had flown over her head into a patch of cowslips, which had all laughed at him, shaking their little yellow bells; but some said nothing at all, because in falling he had squashed them quite flat.
Whizz—zz—zz—the North Wind had caught up with the comet again, and this time he came so near to Dan's ear, that although the fur "caciula" was pulled far down, he understood what he said.
"Take care," cried the North Wind, "you are not very far off from the Moon, and listen to my advice: Do not kick her nose in passing, she would not like it at all, it would make her very angry, and nobody wants to offend the Moon."
"Oh, I certainly do not!" exclaimed Dan, "I always loved her. On summer nights she used to steal in through our cottage window and wake me, so that I should come out and see how she was painting everything in silver. Our thatched roof looked like it was covered with snow, and the river seemed to ripple with her smiles."
"She is a cunning old lady," laughed the Wind, "and all through the ages she's put her moon-madness into many a heart, but be careful, you are quite near her now." And whizz—zz—zz—the Wind tore away.
And there she was, indeed, old Mother Moon, pale and as shiny as mother-of-pearl and oh, so large.
"Do go a little slower," pleaded the boy on the comet, "I'll never be so near the Moon again, and I do want to have a good look at her for once, and thank her for visits through my tiny window."
"Hello, little boy!" cried the Moon as Dan passed, "hold on tight, or you'll fall from on high! What does your mamma say about this mad excursion? I never heard of such a thing before. But you'll be quite an old man before you return again to your cottage, because a comet travels for a dreadfully long time, you know."
"Oh!" gasped Dan, "I don't want to get old and have stiff bones and a shaky voice."
"Nobody ever does want to be old," laughed the Moon, "but even old people love my light, and I am fond of silvering their bent white heads—I make them look holy, like saints."
"You always were an artist and a poet!" cried the North Wind, for whizz—zz—zz—there he was again, always mixing up into other people's affairs.
"Don't freeze the little boy's nose!" warned the Moon. "You are a cold old fellow and nobody cares about your company for too long at a time."
"I love to hurry things up a little," admitted the North Wind, "the world turns too slowly."
"Well, the comet does not seem to be going too slowly!" laughed the Moon; "that poor boy will be giddy before he has finished his round."
"And yet the comet will probably take seventy-five years before she comes back to the place she started from," observed the North Wind.
"Some do it in three or four years," said the Moon; "let us hope for the boy's sake that she is one of the quicker kind."
"I could blow him down to Earth again," declared the North Wind, "I could make his fingers so cold that he would not be able to hold on any more to that ridiculous shiny tail."
"Just you leave him alone," scolded the Moon, "you are to try none of your tricks on that little favourite of mine. You have no idea how sweet he used to look, sleeping behind the big white oven in his mother's small cottage; I used to send my whitest beam right into the crooked little corner where he lay," and the Moon laughed softly.
"I think you are really more in sympathy with my sister the South Wind," said the North Wind resentfully.
"Oh, yes, indeed I am!" teased the Moon, "and especially I like little Dan's small freckled face; it's an honest face, although the nose is rather too tilted upwards to be strictly classical."
"Well, you seem to have studied him closely," laughed the North Wind.
"And he is not the only one," smiled the Moon, "I've always been in close touch with the children of men."
Thus spoke the Moon and North Wind, whilst Dan was all too rapidly whirled past them.
The stars were getting bigger. Some were now quite large and round like small Chinese lanterns.
"I hope we shall not go bang into one of them," thought the boy; "I wonder what would happen if we did?" But I suppose the comet knew all about her track, for although they whizzed past stars of all sizes, they never touched any.
It was a bore that the comet's face was too far away from her tail, so that Dan could not have any conversation with her, which was a pity, because he really had a great many questions to ask. Especially he wanted to know how long this joy-ride would last; it was extremely enjoyable and interesting, but really he did not want to go whirling through the air till his hair was grey—his hands would certainly get tired of hanging on to this luminous tail before then. Even now they were getting a little cramped.
Oh, that was a curious-looking star they were passing! Quite unlike the others, it had several rings round it like a double or triple halo.
"I do like that star," said Dan out loud to himself; "it is quite the prettiest I have seen."
He was just passing a fluffy white cloud which brushed his face with a damp caress.
"That is Saturn," said the cloud, "and we all admire him, but it is not supposed to be lucky to be born under his sign."
Dan did not at all understand what this meant, and before he could ask, whizz! they had already left the white cloud far behind them. Really they were going a pace, too quick in fact, because there was too little time to make any acquaintances or to inform oneself about anything. This was a unique occasion for seeing the stars from near, but because the comet was in such a hurry he was certainly wasting it.
The worst would be that when he reached Earth again no one would ever believe that he had talked to the Moon, to the North Wind, and also to the fluffy clouds. There were especially Gheorghe and Ghitsa, with whom he always came home from school each day; they would, he was sure, be great unbelievers, and it was just on these two that he would like to make an impression; they, being quicker than he, so often got the better of him at school. But neither Gheorghe nor Ghitsa had ever had such an adventure as this!
Dan's speculations were brought to a sudden close by something very unexpected and rather terrifying. What were those great lights that were falling all about him? Stars, yes! Those must be Shooting Stars! Now Dan remembered quite well how, on certain summer nights, stars used suddenly to fall from their places in the sky; sometimes three, four, one after another, and how his old Granny, who loved to sit out on the "prispa"3 on warm nights, used to say to him, "Dan, make haste and wish for something when you see a star fall," and, although Dan was always bursting full of all sorts of wishes, he very seldom could form one of them quick enough before the star had disappeared.
But this was quite another business to be amongst this shower of big lights falling all around you. It really would be most disagreeable to receive one on your head. Which of the two would smash, Dan wondered, his head or the star? Of course Dan hoped it would be the star. So would you, I suppose.
But no shooting star hit the little boy, so he was able to enjoy the beautiful sight. He even had time to form a wish. It was even quite a reasonable wish: not to be smashed to pieces if anything suddenly obliged him to let go of the comet's tail. Rather clever of him to have thought of that, do you not think so? Better than wishing for a purse full of gold, or for a beautiful shiny horse, or for a packet of sticky red sugar-plums, or for a new "cojoc"4 all white leather embroidered with green and black, lined inside with nice woolly lamb. Because if on landing on Earth again he had smashed his head, neither purse, horse, sweets, nor embroidered "cojoc" would have been any good to him at all, would they?
"I wonder where they are falling to?" thought Dan, as I am sure that many of you have wondered before him.
"Whizz—zz—zz. There was the North Wind again! He really seemed to be everywhere. But, although he was chilly company, Dan was quite pleased to find him reappear, because he wanted to ask questions. Being a real busybody the North Wind kept poking his nose into everything, and was therefore exceedingly well informed.
"Where are those stars falling to?" asked the little boy, as the North Wind tore along beside him.
"They are not really stars," roared the North Wind, "they are Meteors. They look like stars, though, and come from somewhere near the Sun. Although they are really stones, they catch fire as they fall, because of the tremendous speed with which they whizz through air towards Earth. But call them stars if you like; everybody does, except learned pedants, and those who live near them as I do."
"Do they ever tumble on people's heads?" queried the boy.
"They sometimes fall on people's fields," said the North Wind; "then they simply look like black stars, and sometimes they are still burning hot, but I have never heard of their killing anyone; they certainly would, if they fell upon anybody's head."
"I'm pleased they're generally so far off," confessed the boy.
"And that one can wish something when they fall," whistled the Wind, and was gone.
But whizz—zz—zz, here he was back again.
"I rushed back," cried the North Wind, "because it seems to me that your comet is taking a very irregular course. There is something queer about it; perhaps she's nervous because you are hanging on to her tail, and that upsets her usual equilibrium. Somehow she now seems to me to be rushing towards the Sun. If she does that I'm afraid there will be disaster, because she'll melt into the Sun and disappear, and where will you be then, little Dan?"
"I don't know," said Dan. "And what would happen, for instance, if I let go?"
"Like the Meteors, you would probably be set alight by your rapid friction against the air as you fell, and somebody would no doubt, seeing you fall, call out, 'Oh, there goes a shooting star, let's wish something,' and they would never know that it was only a human little boy, whizzing at a tremendous speed from Heaven to Earth."
"But what would happen to me?" insisted Dan; "would I burn up, or would I be smashed to little bits on reaching the ground?"
"I don't suppose you would look much like a black stone," admitted the Wind, "but you might look like... well, I don't know what! And I think I won't try to illustrate it—it might not be a very encouraging picture." And the North Wind showed signs of rushing away.
"Wait a moment!" cried Dan breathlessly. "What do you advise me to do if my comet really becomes giddy and begins to fly the wrong way? Had I better just let myself be swallowed up by the Sun, or should I let go at the last moment and just see what happens?"
"That would probably be best," agreed the Wind, "there are more things in Heaven and Earth... I have forgotten the rest of the quotation. And one parting piece of advice: If your lady with the shining tail is really becoming fantastic, as it seems to me that she is, keep your eyes well open, because you will probably pass Venus, and she is quite the most beautiful thing we have in this part of the skies, except perhaps the Milky Way, which I wish your erratic conductress had thought of visiting. From near, the Milky Way is not white as you see it from Earth, but quite the most stupendous road of light that any brain can imagine. But Venus in Olympia, or Venus in the skies, is well worth staring at with two open eyes. And yours are big enough, my boy," roared the North Wind, before disappearing God knows whither.
"Oh, dear, oh, dear," sighed Dan, "all this does not look as though it would end in a very comfortable way. But I suppose it's no good fussing—I'm in a rather helpless situation, anyhow, and I suppose I must just await events and lose my head as little as possible."
Dan being a real little peasant, with a real peasant's capacity for accepting situations, was not as worried as perhaps you and I would have been.
But certainly it was getting warmer! Did that mean that they were really and truly coming nearer the Sun? Oh, dear, so he must prepare himself for any eventuality. What would it feel like to be absorbed in the Sun? What was the Sun made of? Nothing but light? Or was its substance a flame? And suddenly Dan imagined to himself a great round ocean of flames, a sort of waves of flames, not very red—but golden, and very blindingly bright. It was a beautiful vision, so beautiful, in fact, that in a way it quite deadened the fear of being swallowed up.
And then suddenly there shone really the most beautiful star he had ever seen—brilliantly, gloriously radiant, much the most beautiful that they had passed as yet.
Venus! yes, that must be Venus, and the North Wind had not exaggerated, because indeed she was lovely beyond description, much more golden than the Moon, and she actually had a smile on her face. Was that her voice?
"Little boy," she said, "you really are very high up. Do you not think it rather dangerous? Comets are capricious things, their habits have given much trouble to the wise men who study the stars, whilst I, in spite of the reputation I had amongst the Gods, am very steady on the path assigned to me—I rush round and round the Sun in my appointed time and I never try to wander anywhere else. We are not really stars, you know, but planets; stars twinkle when you look at them from the Earth, but we planets are quite still. The Sun is a star, you know, and all the other stars are suns—but you would never, never be able to count them, there are such innumerable quantities."
"Why are you so much more perfect than others?" enquired the boy.
"I have a reputation to keep up because of my name," laughed Venus. "Then I've always my face wrapped up in a transparent veil of lovely white clouds. I fill my clouds with light and they, absorbing my glory, make me still brighter, as they form a sort of halo around me, which intensifies my light. It is just a trick."
"Really a very clever trick," said Dan.
"Yes, yes," agreed Venus, but her voice was becoming fainter as the travellers began leaving her behind, "I'm not called Venus for nothing, the Eternal Feminine lives in my heart."
This last observation was quite incomprehensible to Dan, nor had he much time to ponder over it, as events were coming to a pitch. They were now whizzing past another star, much less beautiful than Venus, which Dan would have been told was Mercury, if there had been anyone there to tell him so, and now an enormous and dazzling glare was beginning to envelop the boy and his disconcerting leader.
Dan began blinking his eyes: he could keep them open no more—certainly they were approaching something very bright—soon he would be obliged to close them quite, and that was a pity, because Dan dearly wanted to see as much as he could of everything.
Oooof! But it was getting hot! His hands were quite sticky, and he felt perspiration beginning to trickle down his cheeks, over his throat into his shirt, there meeting other warm little rivulets which all ran together down into his trousers. Dan could not help wondering if they were dripping off the tips of his "opinci" like dew-drops. What funny thoughts one has at moments when one is feeling frightened! Because now our poor little peasant was beginning to feel very frightened—some sort of end was coming near, but what sort would it be?
Oh, dear! oh, dear! but this was getting really suffocating, too horribly hot for words; now he had to keep his eyes tight shut, but even then he felt as if daggers were piercing his lids.
"Please, please, dear Comet," he gasped, "please, please don't go right into the Sun; oh, I can't bear it, please, please..." and with all his might Dan began tugging at the comet's tail. "Oh, come away, please, don't go on any further, do turn another way, I'm parching up, I'm burning, I'm..." and with a convulsive wrench the boy, who was becoming desperate, put all his feeble strength into a last exasperated pull.
Crack! What was that! Something had given way, and Dan felt that he was falling, falling, whirling through the air, his two hands still clutching something that he was holding fast with all his might.
Down, down! It was getting cooler, Dan could now open his eyes. He was whirling, at a colossal pace, through the air, and in his hands he was still clutching with all his might a few luminous shreds of the comet's tail, but the comet herself was gone....
Down, down, tumbled our little explorer, down, down—how much further would he still have to fall? Was he appearing to those upon Earth as a shooting star, as a Meteor? Dan did not forget that that was the correct name for them, because the sound of it pleased him. Down, down—and was that the North Wind laughing? Of course he would laugh; he was very intelligent and well-informed, but of course no one ever expected him to have much sympathy with anybody's troubles, he was too rough and hard and blusterous for that! Down, down....
But what was that! Dan rubbed his eyes; surely he was dreaming? Where in the world was he? What was that white light? Why did it seem so very familiar?
Dan looked at his hands; they were still clenched together, as though holding something tight—tight! There were no shreds of light between his fingers, but his hands looked quite white—regular ghost-hands, like Granny's hands, in the moonlight, when she pointed to the stars.
"Where have I tumbled?" gasped Dan—"and thank goodness none of my bones are broken, I have not even turned into a black stone! What did the North Wind call them? Me-Me-Mete..." really Dan could not remember.
"What are you talking about?" said a rough voice from somewhere out of the dark; it was a scolding voice, but not at all like the voice of the North Wind.
"Go to sleep," grumbled another voice, and surely that was Mother's voice; and then someone howled, a real baby's wail; the sound of a tiny child who is feeling hungry and wants to be fed.
Dan sat up suddenly, rubbed his eyes with all his might—and was it to be believed? There he was, actually seated behind the huge white oven, in his habitual narrow little corner, and through the tight-shut window the Moon was flooding the clean but lowly hut with a regular river of silvery light.
"That is really funny," declared Dan out loud. "Who would have ever thought that I would drop down just exactly into my own narrow little corner behind the stove! And I was not dreaming," declared Dan pugnaciously, "it was all as real as real could be, I can still quite well see Venus's lovely smile...."
"Will you be quiet?" scolded his father's voice again; "be quiet and go to sleep."
So Dan turned over, curling himself up on the old sack upon which he was lying, and went to sleep.
1 "Caciula," peasant's fur cap or