Fairy tales and stories (Andersen, Tegner)/The Little Mermaid
THE LITTLE MERMAID
DOWN BELOW THE SURFACE OF THE SEA LIVE THE MERMEN AND THE MERMAIDS.
THE LITTLE MERMAID
FAR out at sea the water is as blue as the petals of the most beautiful cornflower, and as clear as the purest crystal, but it is very deep—deeper than any cable can reach. Many church towers would have to be placed one on the top ot another to reach from the bottom to the surface of the sea. Down there live the mermen and the mermaids.
Now you must not think that there is only the bare, white sandy bottom down there. No, the most wonderful trees and plants grow there, the stalks and leaves of which are so pliable that the least movement of the water sets them in motion, just as if they were alive. All the fishes, big and small, glide in and out among the branches, just as the birds do up above in the air. In the deepest place of all lies the palace of the Sea King, the walls of which are of corals and the long, pointed windows of clearest amber, but the roof is made of mussel shells, which open and shut with the motion of the water. It is a lovely sight, for in each shell lie pearls, a single one of which would be a great gem in a queen's crown.
The Sea King had been a widower for many years, but his old mother kept house for him. She was a wise woman, but very proud of her noble rank, and therefore she used to wear twelve oysters on her tail, while other grand folks were allowed to wear only six.
In other respects she deserved great praise, especially because she was so very fond of the sea princesses, her granddaughters. They were six beautiful children, but the youngest was the most beautiful of them all. Her skin was as clear and as delicate as a rose-petal, and her eyes as blue as the deepest sea, but, like all the others, she had no feet. Her body ended in a fish's tail.
All day long they played in the large halls of the palace, where living flowers grew out of the walls. The large amber windows were opened, and the fishes then swam into them, just as the swallows fly in to us when we open the windows; but the fishes swam right up to the little princesses, ate from their hands, and let themselves be stroked.
Outside the palace was a large garden with fiery-red and dark-blue trees; the fruits beamed like gold and the flowers like burning flames, because they continually moved their stalks and leaves to and fro. The ground itself was of the finest sand, but as blue as sulphur flames. A strange blue light shone upon everything down there. It was easier to believe that one was high up in the air, with only the blue sky above and beneath one, than that one was at the bottom of the sea.
In calm weather one could see the sun, which looked like a purple flower from the cup of which all the light streamed forth.
Each of the young princesses had her own little plot in the garden, where she might dig and plant as she pleased. One gave her flower-bed the shape of a whale, another preferred hers to resemble a little mermaid; but the youngest made hers quite round like the sun, and grew only flowers that gleamed red like the sun itself. She was a strange child, quiet and thoughtful; and when her other sisters decked themselves out with the most wonderful things which thev obtained from wrecked ships, she cared only for her flowers, which were like the sun up yonder, and for a beautiful marble statue, a beautiful boy hewed out of pure white stone, which had sunk to the bottom of the sea from a wreck. She planted close by the statue a rose-colored weeping willow, which grew luxuriantly, and hung its fresh branches right over it down to the blue, sandy ground. Its shadow was violet and moved to and fro like its branches. It looked as if the top and the roots played at kissing one another.
Nothing gave her greater joy than to hear about the world above and its people. Her old grandmother had to tell her all she knew about ships and towns, about human beings and animals. What seemed to her particularly strange and beautiful was that up on the earth the flowers gave out a fragrance which they did not do at the bottom of the sea, and that the woods were green, and the fish, which were to be seen there among the branches, could sing so loudly and beautifully that it did one's heart good to hear them. It was the little birds that her grandmother used to call fishes, for otherwise the mermaids would not have understood her, as they had never seen a bird.
"When you are fifteen years old," said her grandmother, "you will be allowed to rise to the surface of the sea and sit on the rocks in the moonlight and look at the big ships which sail past; and forests and towns you shall also see."
The following year one of the sisters would be fifteen, but the others—well, each of them was a year younger than the other, so the youngest would have to wait five long years before she could venture up from the bottom of the sea and have a look at the world above. But they promised to tell one another what they had seen on the first day and found to be most beautiful; for their grandmother had not told them enough, there was so much they wanted to know more about.
No one longed more that her time should come than the youngest, who had the longest time to wait, and who was so quiet and thoughtful.
Many a night did she stand at the open window, looking up through the dark-blue water, where the fishes were beating about with their tails and fins. She could see the moon and the stars shining, although somewhat indistinctly, but through the water they appeared much larger than to our eves. If something like a black cloud passed between her and the moon, she knew it was either a whale swimming above her, or a ship sailing past with many people on board; they could have no idea that a lovely little mermaid was standing below them, stretching her white hands up toward the keel of their ship.
The eldest princess was now fifteen years of age, and might venture up to the surface of the water. When she came back, she had hundreds of things to tell; but the loveliest of all, she said, was to lie in the moonlight on a sand-bank when the sea was calm, and see the big city close to the coast, where the lights were twinkling like hundreds of stars, to hear the music and the noise and rattle of the carriages and people, to see the many church towers and steeples, and hear the bells ringing. Just because she could not get there, she longed most of all for this.
Oh, how the youngest sister listened to every word! And when, later on in the evening, she stood by the open window and looked up through the dark-blue water, she thought of the large city with all its noise and bustle, and then she thought she could hear the church bells ringing down where she was.
The year after the second sister was allowed to go to the surface and to swim about where she pleased. She emerged above the water just as the sun was setting, and this sight she found to be the loveliest of all. The whole of the heavens looked like gold, she said; and the clouds—well—she could not sufficiently describe their glory! Red and purple, they had sailed past above her head, but much more rapidly than the clouds flew a flock of wild swans, like a long white veil, over the water toward where the sun stood; she swam toward it, but it sank below the horizon, and the rosy hue on the water and the clouds vanished.
The year after the third sister came up to the surface; she was the boldest of them all, and swam up a broad river which ran into the sea. She saw beautiful green hills, covered with vines; palaces and houses peeped out between the mighty trees of the forests, and she heard how all the birds were singing. The sun shone so warm that she often had to dive under the water to cool her burning face. In a little bay she came across a whole flock of children, who ran and splashed about, quite naked, in the water; she wanted to play with them, but they ran away in great fright, when a little black animal—it was a dog, but she had never seen one before—began barking so terribly at her that she became frightened and made her way back to the open seas. But she could never forget the mighty forests, the green hills, and the beautiful children who could swim about in the water, although they had no fish's tail.
The fourth sister was not so daring; she remained far out at sea among the wild waves; and there, she said, was certainly the loveliest place one could see for many miles around, and above rose the heavens liks a big glass bell. She had seen ships, but they were far away and looked like sea-gulls; the lively dolphins had made somersaults, and the great whales had spouted water from their nostrils till it seemed as if there were a hundred fountains all around.
Now came the fifth sister's turn; her birthday was in the winter, and therefore she saw what the others had not seen the first time. The sea looked quite green, and great icebergs were floating about, each looking like a pearl, she said, and yet they were much larger than the church towers built by men. They were of the most wonderful shapes, and glittered like diamonds. She had settled herself on one of the largest of them, and all the ships with their terror-stricken crews eluded the place where she sat, and let the wind play with her long hair. But toward evening the sky became overcast with clouds; it thundered and lightened, and the dark waves lifted the big ice blocks high up, while they shone brightly at every flash of lightning. All the ships' sails were reefed, the minds of those on board were filled with fear and anxiety; but she sat quietly on her floating iceberg, and saw the blue flashes of forked lightning strike down into the glittering sea.
When the sisters came to the surface of the water the first time, they were always delighted with all the new and beautiful sights they saw; but now, when they, as grown-up girls, were allowed to go up when they liked, they became indifferent and longed to be home again, and after a month had passed they said it was best, after all, down at their place, and, besides, it was much more pleasant at home.
Many an evening the five sisters would take one another by the arm and ascend together to the surface. They had beautiful voices—more beautiful than any human being; and when a storm was gathering, and they expected ships would be wrecked, they swam in front of the ships, and sang so sweetly of the delights to be found at the bottom of the sea, and told the sailors not to be afraid of coming down there. But the sailors could not understand their language: they believed it was the storm. Nor did they ever see the splendors down there; for when the ships went down the men were drowned, and reached the palace of the Sea King only as corpses.
When, in the evenings, the sisters thus rose, arm in arm, high up through the water, the little sister would stand all alone looking after them, feeling as if she could cry; but a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffered all the more.
"Oh, if I were only fifteen! she said. "I know I shall love the world up above, and all the people who live and dwell there."
At last she was fifteen years old.
"Well, now you are off our hands," said her grandmother, the old queen-dowager. "Come here, let me deck you like your other sisters." And she put a wreath of white lilies in her hair; every leaf in the flowers was half a pearl. The old lady ordered eight large oysters to hang on to the princess's tail, to show her high rank.
"But it hurts so!" said the little mermaid.
"Well, one has to suffer for appearances," said the old lady.
Oh, how gladly would she not have shaken off all this finery and put aside the heavy wreath! The red flowers in her garden would have suited her much better, but she dared not make any change now. "Farewell!" she said, and rose through the water as light and bright as a bubble.
The sun had just set as she lifted her head above the sea, but all the clouds still gleamed like roses and gold, and in the middle of the pale-red sky the evening star shone bright and beautiful. The air was mild and fresh, and the sea calm.
A large ship with three masts was lying close to her, with only one sail set. Not a breath of wind stirred, and the sailors were lying idly about among the rigging and across the yards. There was music and song aboard, and as the evening became darker hundreds of gaily colored lanterns were lighted. It looked as if the flags of all nations were waving in the air. The little mermaid swam right up to the cabin window, and every time the waves lifted her up she could look in through the polished panes and see many finely dressed people standing in the cabin. But the handsomest of all was the young prince with the large black eyes. He could not be more than sixteen years old. It was his birthday which was being celebrated with all these festivities. The sailors were dancing on deck, and when the young prince stepped out a hundred rockets shot up into the air, making everything look as bright as by daylight, so that the little mermaid became quite frightened and dived under the water. But she soon put her head above the water again, and it then seemed to her as if all the stars of heaven were falling down upon her. Such showers of fire she had never seen before.
Large suns whizzed round and round, and gorgeous fiery fishes flew about in the blue air, while everything was reflected in the calm, smooth sea. The ship was so brilliantly lighted up that even the smallest ropes could be seen distinctly, and the people on board still more so. How handsome the young prince was! He pressed the hands of the men and laughed and smiled, while the music rang out in the beautiful night.
It was late, but the little mermaid could not turn her eyes away from the ship and the handsome prince. The brightly colored lanterns were being extinguished, the rockets did not rise any more into the air, nor were any more cannons fired; but below in the sea a rumbling and buzzing sound was heard. The little mermaid sat rocking up and down on the waves so that she could look into the cabin. But the ship was beginning to make greater headway; one sail after another was unfurled, and the billows now rose higher and higher; large clouds were gathering, and far away flashes of lightning were seen. Oh, what terrible weather was coming on! The sailors had now to take in the sails; the big ship rushed at full speed through the wild seas; the waves rose like big black rocks, as if they would throw over the masts; but the ship dived just like a swan between them, only to be lifted up again on the top of the towering billows.
The little mermaid thought this was tine sport, but the sailors were of a different opinion. The ship creaked and groaned, the massive planks gave way to the violent shocks of the seas against the ship, the masts snapped in two just like reeds, and the ship rolled to and fro, while the seas penetrated into the hold. The little mermaid now understood that the ship was in danger, and she herself had to beware of the beams and fragments of the ship that were drifting about in the water. At one moment it was so pitch-dark that she could not see a single object; but the next, when it lightened, she could see so clearly again that she recognized all the people on the ship. All were looking out for themselves as best they could. She looked anxiously for the young prince, and she saw him just as the ship was going down, sinking into the deep sea. She was at first greatly pleased, for now he would come down to her; but then she remembered that human beings cannot live in the water, and that it would only be his dead body that could come down to her father's palace. No, he must not die; and she therefore swam about among the beams and planks that were drifting about in the water, quite forgetting that they might have crushed her to death. She dived down deep under the water, and rose again high up among the waves. She came at last to the young prince, who could hardly swim any longer in the stormy sea. His arms and legs began to fail him, his beautiful eyes closed, and he would have met his death had not the little mermaid come to his assistance. She kept his head above water, and let the waves drift with her and the prince whither they liked.
In the early morning the bad weather was over, and not a splinter was to be seen of the ship. The sun rose red and shining out of the water, and it seemed to bring back life to the prince's cheeks; but his eyes remained closed. The mermaid kissed his high, fair forehead, and stroked back his wet hair. She thought he was like the marble statue down in her garden. She kissed him and wished that he might live.
THE SHIP WAS BEGINNING TO MAKE GREATER HEADWAY; LARGE CLOUDS WERE GATHERING AND FLASHES OF LIGHTNING WERE SEEN. THE LITTLE MERMAID NOW UNDERSTOOD THAT THE SHIP WAS IN DANGER.
She now saw in front of her the mainland, with lofty blue mountains, on the top of which the white snow looked as bright as if large flocks of swans had settled there. Down by the shore were beautiful green forests, in front of which lay a church or a convent, she did not know which, only that it was a building. Lemon- and orange-trees grew in the garden, and before the gate stood lofty palm-trees. The sea formed here a little bay, where the water was quite smooth and calm, but of great depth right up to the rocky shore where the fine white sand had been washed up. Thither the little mermaid swam with the handsome prince, and placed him on the sand, taking great care that his head should lie raised in the sunshine.
The bells in the large white building now began ringing, and a number of young girls came out into the garden. The little mermaid then swam some distance farther out to a place behind some high rocks which rose out of the water, and covered her head and her shoulders with sea foam, so that no one could see her little face; and from here she watched to see who would discover the poor prince.
She had not long to wait before a young girl came to the place. She seemed quite frightened, but only for a moment; then she fetched some people, and the mermaid saw how the prince came back to life, and that he smiled to all around him; but he did not send a smile in her direction, for how could he know that she had saved him? She became very sad, and when he was brought into the great building she dived under the water and returned to her father's palace, greatly distressed in mind.
She had always been quiet and thoughtful, but now she became more so than ever. Her sisters asked her what she had seen on her first visit up above, but she would not tell them anything.
Many an evening and morning she visited the place where she had left the prince. She saw how the fruits in the garden ripened and were plucked, she saw how the snow melted on the lofty mountains; but the prince she did not see, and therefore she always returned home still more sorrowful than before. Her only comfort was to sit in her little garden and throw her arms round the beautiful marble statue which resembled the prince. She neglected her flowers, which soon grew, as if in a wilderness, over the paths, and twined their long stalks and leaves around the branches of the trees till the place became quite dark.
At last she could endure it no longer, and told her story to one of her sisters, and then all the other sisters got to know it; but no one else knew anything except themselves and a couple of other mermaids, who did not speak about it to any one except to their nearest and dearest friends. One of these knew who the prince was. She had also seen the festivities on board the ship, and knew where he came from, and where his kingdom lay.
"Come along with us, little sister," said the other princesses, and with their arms around each other's shoulders they ascended to the surface in front of the place where the prince's palace lay.
It was built of a kind of light-yellow shining stone, with large flights of marble stairs, one of which went right down to the sea.
Magnificent gilt cupolas rose above the roof, and between the columns which surrounded the whole building stood marble statues which looked as if they were alive. Through the clear glass in the lofty windows one could see into the most magnificent halls, with costly silk curtains and tapestries. On the walls hung large paintings, which it was a pleasure to look at. In the middle of the largest hall a big fountain was playing, its jets reaching right up into the glass cupola of the ceiling, through which the sun shone on the water, and on the beautiful plants which grew in the large basin.
Now she knew where he lived, and many an evening and night did she come there. She swam much nearer the shore than any of the others had dared to do; she even went right up the narrow canal under the splendid marble balcony which threw a long shadow out over the water. Here she would sit and look at the young prince, who believed he was all alone in the bright moonlight.
Many an evening she saw him sailing in his magnificent boat, with music and waving flags on board, while she peeped out from among the green rushes; and if the wind caught hold of her long silver-white veil, any one who saw it thought it was a swan which was spreading out its wings.
Many a night when the fishermen were out at sea fishing by torch-light, she heard the many good things they said about the young prince, and she rejoiced to think she had saved his life when he was floating half dead on the billows, and she called to mind how heavily his head had rested on her bosom, and how passionately she had kissed him; but he knew nothing at all about this, and could not even dream of her.
More and more she came to love human beings; more and more she wished to be able to be among them. Their world, she thought, was far larger than hers. They could fly across the seas in their ships, and they could climb the lofty mountains, high above the clouds; and the countries they possessed, with forests and fields, stretched farther than her eyes could reach. There was so much she wanted to know, but her sisters could not answer everything; so she asked the old grandmother, who knew the upper world well, as she rightly called the countries above the sea.
"If human beings are not drowned," asked the little mermaid, "can they go on living forever? Do they not die as we die down here in the sea?"
"Yes," said the old lady, "they must also die, and their term of life is even shorter than ours. We can live to be three hundred years old; but when we then cease to exist we only become foam on the water, and have not even a grave down here among our dear ones. We have not an immortal soul; we shall never live again. We are like the green rushes: when once cut down we can never live again. Human beings, however, have a soul which lives forever—which lives after the body has become dust: it rises up through the clear air, up to all the shining stars. Just as we rise up out of the sea and see the countries of the world, so do they ascend to unknown beautiful places which we shall never see."
"Why did we not receive an immortal soul?" asked the little mermaid in a sad tone. "I would give all the hundreds of years I have to live to be a human being only for a day, and afterward share the joys of the upper world!"
"You must not go on thinking of that," said the old lady; "we are much happier and better off than the human beings up there."
"So I must die and float as foam upon the sea! I shall not hear the music of the billows, or see the beautiful flowers and the red sun! Can I, then, do nothing at all to win an immortal soul?"
"No," said the old queen-dowager. "Only if a man came to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother, if he clung to you with all his heart and all his love, and let the parson put his right hand into yours with a promise to be faithful to you here and for all eternity, then his soul would flow into your body, and you would also partake of the happiness of mankind. He would give you his soul and still retain his own. But that can never happen. What we here in the sea consider most beautiful, our fish's tail, they would consider ugly upon earth. They do not understand any better. Up there you must have two clumsy supports which they call legs to be considered beautiful."
Then the little mermaid sighed, and looked sadly at her fish's tail.
"Let us be satisfied with our lot," said the old lady; "we will frisk and leap about during the three hundred years we have to live in. That is surely long enough. After that one can rest all the more contentedly in one's grave. This evening we are going to have a court ball."
No such display of splendor has ever been witnessed on earth. The walls and ceiling in the large ball-room were of thick but transparent glass. Several hundreds of colossal mussel-shells, pink and grass-green, were placed in rows on each side, with blue fires, which lighted up the whole hall and shone through the walls, so that the sea outside was quite lit up. One could see all the innumerable fishes, great and small, swimming up to the glass walls. On some the scales shone in purple, and on others they appeared to be silver and gold.
Through the middle of the hall flowed a broad stream, in which the mermen and mermaids danced to their own song. Such beautiful voices the inhabitants of the earth never possessed. The little mermaid sang the most beautifully of all, and they clapped their hands to her, and for a moment she felt joyful at heart, for she knew that she had the loveliest voice of any to be found on earth or in the sea. But soon she began again to think of the world above. She could not forget the handsome prince, and her sorrow at not possessing an immortal soul like his. She therefore stole out of her father's palace, and while everybody was merry and singing she sat sad at heart in her little garden. Suddenly she heard the sound of a bugle through the water, and she thought to herself, "Now he is out sailing—he whom I love more than father and mother, he to whom my thoughts cling, and in whose hands I would place the happiness of my life. I will risk everything to win him and an immortal soul. While my sisters are dancing in my father's palace I will go to the sea witch, of whom I have always been so frightened. She may advise and help me."
The little mermaid then went out of her garden toward the roaring whirlpools behind which the witch lived. She had never been that way before. Neither flowers nor seaweed grew there. Only the bare, gray sandy bottom could be seen stretching away to the whirlpools where the water whirled round like roaring mill-wheels, tearing everything they got hold of down with them into the abyss below. She had to make her way through these roaring whirlpools to get into the sea witch's district, and for a long distance there was no other way than over hot, bubbling mud, which the witch called her turf-moor. Behind it lay her house, in the middle of a weird forest. All trees and bushes were polyps, half animal, half plant. They looked like hundred-headed snakes growing out of the ground. All the branches were long slimy arms with fingers like wiry worms, and they moved, joint by joint, from the root to the outermost point. They twisted themselves firmly around everything they could seize hold of in the sea, and never released their grip. The little mermaid stood quite frightened before all this, her heart beat with fear, and she was nearly turning back, but then she thought of the prince and man's immortal soul, and this gave her courage. She twisted her long, flowing hair tightly round her head, so that the polyps should not seize her by it, crossed both her hands on her breast, and then darted forward as rapidly as fish can shoot through the water, in between the polyps, which stretched out their wiry arms and fingers after her. She noticed how they all held something which they had seized—held with a hundred little arms as if with iron bands. The white skeletons of people who had perished at sea and sunk to the bottom could be seen firmly fixed in the arms of the polyps, together with ships' rudders and sea chests, skeletons of land animals, and a little mermaid whom they had caught and strangled. This was the most terrible sight of all to her.
She now came to a large slimy place in the forest, where great fat water snakes were rolling about, showing their ugly whitish-yellow bellies. In the middle of the open space stood a house built of the white bones of the people who had been wrecked. There the sea witch was sitting, while a toad was eating out of her mouth, just as a human being lets a little canary bird eat sugar from his mouth. The ugly, fat water snakes she called her little chickens, and allowed them to crawl all over her bosom.
THERE THE SEA WITCH WAS SITTING, WHILE A TOAD WAS EATING OUT OF HER MOUTH AND THE WATER-SNAKES WERE CRAWLING OVER HER BOSOM.
"I know what you want," said the witch; "it is very stupid of you. But you shall have your way, for it is sure to bring you unhappiness, my pretty princess. You want to get rid of your fish's tail and to have two stumps instead to walk upon, like human beings, so that the young prince may fall in love with you, and that you may get him and an immortal soul." And then the witch laughed so loudly and horribly that the toad and the snakes fell down to the ground, where they rolled about.
"You come only just in time," said the witch, "for after sunrise to-morrow I should not be able to help you till another year had passed. I will make a drink for you, with which you must proceed to land before the sun rises, and then sit down on the shore and drink it, when your tail will be parted in two and shrink to what human beings call pretty legs; but it will cause you great pain—you will feel as if a sharp sword went through you. Every one who sees you will say you are the most beautiful human child they have seen. You will keep your graceful walk, no dancer will be able to float about like you; but at every step you take you will feel as if you stepped on a sharp knife, and as if your blood must flow. If you will suffer all this, I will help you."
"Yes," said the little mermaid, in a trembling voice, thinking only of the prince and of winning an immortal soul.
"But remember," said the witch, "when once you have assumed the human form, you can never become a mermaid again. You will never be able to descend through the water to your sisters, or to your father's palace, and if you do not win the prince's love so that he forgets his father and mother for your sake and clings to you with all his heart, and lets the parson join your hands making you man and wife, then you will not receive an immortal soul. The first morning after he has married another your heart will break, and you will become foam on the water."
"I will do it," said the little mermaid, and turned as pale as death.
"But you will have to pay me as well," said the witch; "and it is not a trifle I ask. You have the loveliest voice of all down here at the bottom of the sea, and with that you think of course you will be able to enchant him, but that voice you must give to me. I will have the best thing you possess for my precious draught. I shall have to give you my own blood in it, so that the draught may become as sharp as a double-edged sword."
"But if you take away my voice," said the little mermaid, "what have I then left?"
"Your beautiful form," said the witch, "your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes. 'With these you can surely infatuate a human heart. Put out your little tongue and I will cut it off as my payment, and you shall then have the powerful draught."
"So be it,' said the little mermaid; and the witch put the caldron on the fire to boil the magic draught. "Cleanliness is a virtue!" she said, and took the snakes and tied them in a knot to scour out the caldron with. She then slashed her chest and let her black blood drop into the caldron. The steam formed itself into the most fantastic figures, so that one could not help being frightened and scared. Every moment the witch threw some new ingredients into the caldron, and when it began to boil it sounded like the weeping of a crocodile. At last the draught was ready, and it looked like the purest water.
"There it is," said the witch, and cut off the little mermaid's tongue. She was now dumb, and could neither sing nor speak.
"If the polyps should get hold of you when you pass through my forest," said the witch, "then throw just a single drop of this draught over them, and their arms and fingers will be rent in a thousand pieces." But there was no need for the little mermaid to do so, for the polyps drew back from her in fear when they saw the sparkling draught which shone in her hand as if it were a glittering star. Thus she quickly got through the forest, the marsh, and the roaring whirlpools.
She could see her father's palace. The lights in the great ball-room were extinguished. All were now, no doubt, asleep; but she did not venture to go with them now that she was dumb and was going away from them forever. It seemed as if her heart would break with sorrow. She crept into the garden and took a flower from each of her sisters' flowerbeds, threw a thousand kisses with her hand to the palace, and swam up through the dark blue waters.
The sun had not yet risen when she saw the prince's palace and arrived at the magnificent marble steps, but the moon was shining bright and clear. The little mermaid drank the strong and fiery draught; she felt as if a two-edged sword went through her delicate frame; she fell down in a swoon, and lay like one dead. When the sun began to shine across the waters she came to herself and felt a burning pain. But right in front of her stood the handsome young prince. He looked at her so fixedly with his coal-black eyes that she cast down her own, and then discovered that her fish's tail had vanished, and that she had the prettiest little white feet that any young girl could possess. But she was quite unclothed, and she therefore wrapped herself in her long, luxuriant hair. The prince asked her who she was, and how she got there; and she looked at him so mildly and yet so sadly with her dark blue eyes, for speak she could not. He then took her by the hand and led her into the palace. As the witch had told her, each step she made was as if she was treading on the points of awls and sharp knives; but she bore it gladly. Holding the prince's hand, she walked as lightly as a soap-bubble, and he and all the people at court were surprised at her graceful walk.
Costly clothes of silk and muslin were now brought to her, in which she arrayed herself. She was the most beautiful of all in the palace, but she was dumb, and could neither sing nor speak. Lovely female slaves, dressed in silk and gold, appeared and sang before the prince and his royal parents. One of them sang more beautifully than all the others, and the prince clapped his hands and smiled at her. This made the little mermaid sad, for she knew that she had been able to sing far more beautifully, and thought to herself: "Oh, if he could only know that I have given away my voice forever to be near him!"
The slaves now began dancing graceful aerial dances to the most lovely music. Then the little mermaid lifted up her lovely white arms, raised herself on the tips of her toes, and glided over the door, dancing as no one yet had danced. At each movement her beauty became more apparent, and her eyes spoke more deeply to the heart than the song of the slave girls.
All were delighted with her, especially the prince, who called her his little foundling; and she went on dancing more and more, although each time her feet touched the ground she felt as if she were treading on sharp knives. The prince said she should always remain with him, and she was allowed to sleep on a velvet cushion outside his door. He had a male costume made for her, so that she could accompany him on horseback. They rode through the fragrant forests, where the green branches brushed against her shoulders and the little birds sang behind the fresh leaves. She climbed the lofty mountains with the prince; and although her tender feet bled so that the others could see it, she only laughed and followed him until they could see the clouds floating below them as if they were a flock of birds flying away to foreign lands.
At night, when all the others at the prince's palace slept, she went down to the broad marble steps, where it cooled her burning feet to stand in the cold sea-water, while she thought of all dear to her far down in the deep.
One night her sisters came arm in arm, singing most mournfully as they glided over the water. She beckoned to them, and they recognized her, and told her how sad she had made them all. After that they visited her every night; and one night she saw far away her old grandmother, who had not been to the surface for many years, and the sea king with his crown on his head. They stretched out their hands toward her, but did not venture so near land as her sisters.
Day by day the prince became more fond of her. He loved her as one loves a good, dear child, but he never thought of making her his queen. She would have to become his wife, otherwise she would not receive an immortal soul, and would be turned into froth on the sea on the morning of his wedding-day.
"Do you not love me most of them all?" the eyes of the little mermaid seemed to say when he took her in his arms and kissed her beautiful forehead.
"Yes, you are most dear to me," said the prince, "for you have the best heart of all of them. You are the most devoted to me, and you are like a young girl whom I once saw, but whom I fear I shall never find again. I was on board a ship which was wrecked, and the waves washed me ashore close to a holy temple, where several young maidens were in attendance. The youngest of them found me on the shore and saved my life. I saw her only twice. She was the only one I could love in the world; but you are like her, and you have almost driven her image out of my mind. She belongs to the holy temple, and therefore my good fortune has sent you to me. We shall never part."
"Alas! he does not know that I saved his life," thought the little mermaid. "I carried him across the sea to the forest where the temple stands. I sat behind the foam and watched for some one to come. I saw the beautiful maiden whom he loves more than me." And the mermaid sighed deeply, since she could not cry. "The maiden belongs to the holy temple, he told me. She will never come out into the world. They do not see each other any more. I am with him, and see him every day. I will cherish him, love him, and give my life for him."
But then she heard that the prince was to be married to the beautiful daughter of the neighboring king, and that was the reason he was fitting out such a splendid ship. The prince was going to visit the countries of the neighboring king, it was said; but it was to see the king's daughter, and he was going to have a great suite with him. But the little mermaid shook her head and smiled. She knew the prince's thoughts better than all the others.
"I must go," he had said to her. "I must see the beautiful princess. My parents demand it; but they will not compel me to bring her home as my bride. I cannot love her. She is not like the beautiful girl in the temple, whom you are so like. If, some day, I were to choose a bride, I would rather choose you, my dumb foundling with the eloquent eyes." And he kissed her rosy lips, played with her long hair, and laid his head on her heart, while she dreamed of human happiness and an immortal soul.
"You are not afraid of the sea, my dumb child," said he, as they stood on board the noble ship which was to carry him to the country of the neighboring king; and he told her about storms and calms, about strange fishes in the deep, and what the divers had seen there; and she smiled at his stories, for she knew, of course, more than any one else about the wonders of the deep.
In the moonlight night, when all were asleep except the steersman who stood at the helm, she sat on the gunwale of the ship, looking down into the clear water. She thought she saw her father's palace, and in the uppermost part of it her old grandmother, with the silver crown on her head, gazing up through the turbulent current caused by the keel of the ship. Just then her sisters came up to the surface, staring sorrowfully at her and wringing their white hands. She beckoned to them, smiled, and wanted to tell them that she was well and happy, but the ship's boy came up to her, and the sisters dived down, so that he remained in the belief that the white objects he had seen were the foam on the sea.
The following morning the ship sailed into the harbor of the beautiful city of the neighboring king. All the church bells were ringing, and from the lofty towers trumpets were being blown, while the soldiers were standing with flying colors and glittering bayonets. Every day there was a festival. Balls and parties followed one another; but the princess had not as yet appeared. She was being brought up at a holy temple far away, they said, where she learned every royal virtue. At last she came.
The little mermaid was very anxious to see her beauty, and she had to acknowledge that a more beautiful being she had never seen. Her skin was so fine and clear, and from behind her long dark eyelashes shone a pair of dark blue, faithful eyes.
"It is you," said the prince—"you who saved my life when I lay like a corpse on the shore." And he folded his blushing bride in his arms.
"Oh, I am far too happy!" he said to the little mermaid. "My highest wish, that which I never dared to hope for, has been fulfilled. You will rejoice at my happiness, for you love me more than all of them." And the little mermaid kissed his hand, and felt already as if her heart were breaking. His wedding morning would bring death to her, and change her into foam on the sea.
All the church bells were ringing, and heralds rode about the streets proclaiming the betrothal. On all the altars fragrant oil was burning in costly silver lamps. The priests swung jars with incense, and the bride and bridegroom joined hands and received the blessing of the bishop. The little mermaid stood dressed in silk and gold, holding the bride's train, but her ears did not hear the festive music, and her eyes did not see the holy ceremony. She was thinking only of the approaching night, which meant death to her, and of all she had lost in this world.
The very same evening the bride and the bridegroom went on board the ship, the cannons roared, all the flags were waving, and in the middle of the deck a royal tent of purple and gold, with the most sumptuous couches, had been erected. There should the bridal pair rest during the quiet, cool night.
The sails swelled in the wind, and the ship glided smoothly and almost motionless over the bright sea.
When it grew dark gaily colored lanterns were lighted, and the sailors danced merry dances on the deck. The little mermaid could not help thinking of the first time she rose out of the sea and saw the same splendor and merriment, and she joined in the dance, whirling round and round like the swallows when they are pursued. All applauded her. Never before had she danced so charmingly. Her tender feet felt as if they were being pierced by sharp knives, but she did not feel this; her heart suffered from a far more terrible pain. She knew it was the last evening she should see him for whom she had left her relations and her home, for whom she had given up her beautiful voice, and had daily suffered infinite agonies, of which he had no idea. It was the last night she would breathe the same air as he, and see the deep sea and the starlit sky. An eternal night without thoughts and dreams awaited her, who had no soul, who could never gain one. On board the ship the rejoicings and the merriment went on until far beyond midnight. She laughed and danced while the thoughts of death were uppermost in her mind. The prince kissed his lovely bride, and she played with his black locks, and arm in arm they went to rest in the magnificent tent.
Everything then became quiet on the ship, only the steersman was standing at the helm, and the little mermaid laid her white arms on the gunwale and gazed toward the east for the first blush of the morning. The first ray of the sun, she knew, would be her death. Then she saw her sisters rising from the sea. They were as pale as she, and their long, beautiful hair no longer waved in the wind. It had been cut off.
"We have given it to the witch, that she might help you, that you may not die this night. She has given us a knife; here it is. See how sharp it is! Before the sun rises you must plunge it into the prince's heart, and when his warm blood touches your feet they will grow together to a fish's tail, and you will become a mermaid again, and can go down with us into the sea and live your three hundred years before you become the dead salt froth on the sea. Make haste! He or you must die before the sun rises. Our old grandmother is mourning so much for you that her white hair has fallen off, just as ours fell under the scissors of the witch. Kill the prince and come back with us. Make haste! Do you see the red streak on the sky? In a few minutes the sun will rise, and then you must die." And the sisters gave a strange, deep sigh and vanished in the waves.
The little mermaid drew back the purple curtain of the tent, and saw the beautiful bride asleep with her head resting on the prince's breast. She bent down, kissed him on his beautiful forehead, and looked at the sky, where the gleam of the morning was growing brighter and brighter. She glanced at the sharp knife, and again fixed her eyes on the prince, who just then whispered the name of his bride in his dreams. He thought only of her. The knife trembled in the hand of the little mermaid—then she suddenly flung it far away into the waves, which gleamed red where it fell. The bubbles that rose to the surface looked like drops of blood. Once more she looked with dimmed eyes at the prince, and then threw herself from the ship into the sea. She felt her body dissolving itself into foam.
The sun now rose above the horizon, its rays falling so mild and warm on the deadly cold sea foam that the little mermaid did not feel the pangs of death. She saw the bright sun, and above her floated hundreds of beautiful transparent beings, through whom she could see the white sails of the ships and the red clouds in the sky. Their voice was melodious, but so spiritual that no human ear could hear it, just as no human eye could see them. They had no wings, but soared lightly through the air. The little mermaid now discovered that she had a body like theirs, and that she was gradually rising out of the foam.
"Where am I going?" she asked. And her voice sounded like that of the other beings, so spiritual that no earthly music could reproduce it.
"To the daughters of the air," replied the others. "A mermaid has not an immortal soul, and can never gain one unless she wins the love of a man. Her eternal existence depends upon the power of another. Neither have the daughters of the air any immortal soul, but they can win one by their good deeds. We fly to the warm countries, where the close, pestilent air kills human beings. There we waft cool breezes to them. We spread the perfume of the flowers through the air, and distribute health and healing. When for three hundred years we have striven to do all the good we can, we receive an immortal soul, and can share in the eternal happiness of mankind. You, poor little mermaid, have with all your heart striven to reach the same goal as we. You have suffered and endured, and raised yourself to the world of spirits. Now you can, by good deeds, obtain an immortal soul after three hundred years."
And the little mermaid lifted her transparent arms toward the sun, and for the first time she felt tears coming into her eyes.
On the ship there was again life and merriment. She saw the prince with his beautiful bride searching for her. Sorrowfully they looked at the bubbling foam, as if they knew that she had thrown herself into the sea. Invisibly she kissed the bride's forehead. She gave the prince a smile, and rose with the other children of the air on the rosy cloud which sailed through space. "After three hundred years we shall thus float into the kingdom of heaven."
"We may yet get there earlier," whispered one of them. "Invisibly we float into the houses of mankind, where there are children; and for every day on which we find a good child who brings joy to his parents and deserves their love, our time of probation is shortened. The child does not know when we fly through the room, and when we smile with joy at such a good child, then a year is taken off the three hundred. But if we see a bad and wicked child, we must weep tears of sorrow, and for every tear a day is added to our time of trial."