Have you ever seen a very old chest, black with age, and covered with outlandish carved ornaments and curling leaves? Well, in a certain parlor there was just such a chest, handed down from some great-grandmother. Carved all up and down it, ran tulips and roses-odd-looking flourishes-and from fanciful thickets little stags stuck out their antlered heads.
Right in the middle of the chest a whole man was carved. He made you laugh to look at him grinning away, though one couldn’t call his grinning laughing. He had hind legs like a goat’s, little horn on his forehead, and a long beard. All his children called him «General Headquarters-Hindquarters-Gives-Orders-Front-and-Rear-Sergeant-Billygoat-Legs.» It was a difficult name to pronounce and not many people get to be called by it, but he must have been very important or why should anyone have taken trouble to carve him at all?
However, there he stood, forever eyeing a delightful little china shepherdess on the table top under the mirror. The little shepherdess wore golden shoes, and looped up her gown fetchingly with a red rose. Her hat was gold, and even her crook was gold. She was simply charming!
Close by her stood a little chimney-sweep, as black as coal, but made of porcelain too. He was as clean and tidy as anyone can be, because you see he was only an ornamental chimney-sweep. If the china-makers had wanted to, they could just as easily have turned him out as a prince, for he had a jaunty way of holding his ladder, and his cheeks were as pink as a girl’s. That was a mistake, don’t you think? He should have been dabbed with a pinch or two of soot.
He and the shepherdess stood quite close together. They had both been put on the table where they stood and, having been placed there, they had become engaged because they suited each other exactly. Both were young, both were made of the same porcelain, and neither could stand a shock.
Near them stood another figure, three times as big as they were. It was an old Chinaman who could nod his head. He too was made of porcelain, and he said he was the little shepherdess’s grandfather. But he couldn’t prove it. Nevertheless he claimed that this gave him authority over her, and when General-Headquarters-Hindquarters-Gives-Orders-Front-and-Rear-Sergeant-Billygoat-Legs asked for her hand in marriage, the old Chinaman had nodded consent.
«There’s a husband for you!» the old Chinaman told the shepherdess. «A husband who, I am inclined to believe, is made of mahogany. He can make you Mrs. General-Headquarters-Hindquarters-Gives-Orders-Front-and-Rear-Sergeant-Billygoat-Legs. He has the whole chest full of silver, and who knows what else he’s got hidden away in his secret drawers?»
«But I don’t want to go and live in the dark chest,» said the little shepherdess. «I have heard people say he’s got eleven china wives in there already.»
«Then you will make twelve,» said the Chinaman. «Tonight, as soon as the old chest commences to creak I’ll marry you off to him, as sure as I’m a Chinaman.» Then he nodded off to sleep. The little shepherdess cried and looked at her true love, the porcelain chimney-sweep.
«Please let’s run away into the big, wide world,» she begged him, «for we can’t stay here.»
«I’ll do just what you want me to,» the little chimney-sweep told her. «Let’s run away right now. I feel sure I can support you by chimney-sweeping.»
«I wish we were safely down off this table,» she said. «I’ll never be happy until we are out in the big, wide world.»
He told her not to worry, and showed her how to drop her little feet over the table edge, and how to step from one gilded leaf to another down the carved leg of the table. He set up his ladder to help her, and down they came safely to the floor. But when they glanced at the old chest they saw a great commotion. All the carved stags were craning their necks, tossing their antlers, and turning their heads. General-Headquarters-Hindquarters-Gives-Orders-Front-and -Rear-Sergeant-Billygoat-Legs jumped high in the air, and shouted to the old Chinaman, «They’re running away! They’re running away!»
This frightened them so that they jumped quickly into a drawer of the window-seat. Here they found three or four decks of cards, not quite complete, and a little puppet theatre, which was set up as well as it was possible to do. A play was in progress, and all the diamond queens, heart queens, club queens, and spade queens sat in front row and fanned themselves with the tulips they held in their hands. Behind them the knaves lined up, showing that they had heads both at the top and at the bottom, as face cards do have. The play was all about two people, who were not allowed to marry, and it made the shepherdess cry because it was so like her own story.
«I can’t bear to see any more,» she said. «I must get out of this drawer at once.» But when they got back to the floor and looked up at the table, they saw the old Chinaman was wide awake now. Not only his head, but his whole body rocked forward. The lower part of his body was one solid piece, you see.
«The old Chainman’s coming!» cried the little Shepherdess, who was so upset that she fell down on her porcelain knees.
«I have an idea,» said the chimney-sweeper. «We’ll hide in the pot-pourri vase in the corner. There we can rest upon rose petals and lavender, and when he finds us we can throw salt in his eyes.»
«It’s no use,» she said. «Besides, I know the pot-pourri vase was once the old Chainman’s sweetheart, and where there used to be love a little affection is sure to remain. No, there’s nothing for us to do but to run away into the big wide world.»
«Are you really so brave that you’d go into the wide world with me?» asked the chimney-sweep. «Have you thought about how big it is, and that we can never come back here?»
«I have,» she said.
The chimney-sweep looked her straight in the face and said, «My way lies up through the chimney. Are you really so brave that you’ll come with me into the stove, and crawl through the stovepipe? It will take us to the chimney. Once we get there, I’ll know what to do. We shall climb so high that they’ll never catch us, and at the very top there’s an opening into the big wide world.»
He led her to the stove door.
«It looks very black in there,» she said. But she let him lead her through the stove and through the stovepipe, where it was pitch-black night.
«Now we’ve come to the chimney,» he said. «And see! See how the bright star shines over our heads.»
A real star, high up in the heavens, shone down as if it wished to show them the way. They clambered and scuffled, for it was hard climbing and terribly steep-way, way up high! But he lifted her up, held her safe, and found the best places for her little porcelain feet. At last they reached the top of the chimney, where they sat down. For they were so tired, and no wonder!
Overhead was the starry sky, and spread before them were all the housetops in the town. They looked out on the big wide world. The poor shepherdess had never thought it would be like that. She flung her little head against the chimney-sweep, and sobbed so many tears that the gilt washed off her sash.
«This is too much,» she said. «I can’t bear it. The wide world is too big. Oh! If I only were back on my table under the mirror. I’ll never be happy until I stand there again, just as before. I followed you faithfully out into the world, and if you love me the least bit you’ll take me right home.»
The chimney-sweep tried to persuade her that it wasn’t sensible to go back. He talked to her about the old Chinaman, and of General-Headquarters-Hindquarters-Gives-Orders-Front-and-Rear-Sergeant-Billygoat-Legs, but she sobbed so hard and kissed her chimney-sweep so much that he had to do as she said, though he thought it was the wrong thing to do.
So back down the chimney they climbed with great difficulty, and they crawled through the wretched stovepipe into the dark stove. Here they listened behind the door, to find out what was happening in the room. Everything seemed quiet, so they opened the door and-oh, what a pity! There on the floor lay the Chinaman, in three pieces. When he had come running after them, he tumbled off the table and smashed. His whole back had come off in one piece, and his head had rolled into the corner. General-Headquarters-Hindquarters-Gives-Orders-Front-and-Rear-Sergeant-Billygoat-Legs was standing where he always stood, looking thoughtful.
«Oh, dear,» said the little shepherdess, «poor old grandfather is all broken up, and it’s entirely our fault. I shall never live through it.» She wrung her delicate hands.
«He can be patched,» said the chimney-sweep. «He can be riveted. Don’t be so upset about him. A little glue for his back and a strong rivet in his neck, and he will be just as good as new, and just as disagreeable as he was before.»
«Will he, really?» she asked, as they climbed back to their old place on the table.
«Here we are,» said the chimney-sweep. «Back where we started from. We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble.»
«Now if only old grandfather were mended,» said the little shepherdess. «Is mending terribly expensive?»
He was mended well enough. The family had his back glued together, and a strong rivet put through his neck. That made him as good as new, except that never again could he nod his head.
«It seems to me that you have grown haughty since your fall, though I don’t see why you should be proud of it,» General-Headquarters-Hindquarters-Gives-Orders-Front-and-Rear-Sergeant-Billygoat-Legs complained. «Am I to have her, or am I not?»
The chimney-sweep and the little shepherdess looked so pleadingly at the old Chinaman, for they were deathly afraid he would nod. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. And neither did he care to tell anyone that, forever and a day, he’d have to wear a rivet in his neck.
So the little porcelain people remained together. They thanked goodness for the rivet in grandfather’s neck, and they kept on loving each other until the day they broke.