Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales/The Bell-Deep

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For other English-language translations of this work, see The Bell Deep.

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“Ding dong, ding dong,” how the sound rises up from the Bell-deep, in the little river by the Odense on the island of Funen. “Do you call the Au a river?” “Yes; every child in the town knows the Au, which streams round the gardens, and flows under the wooden bridges, and turns the watermill wheel.”

In this river grow yellow water-lilies and brown feathery reeds, the velvet leaves of the flag droop over the stream, tall and thickly, near the monastery meadow, and where the linen is washed and bleached by rubbing and dipping.

But on the slopes of the town are gardens upon gardens, some of them filled with all sorts of pretty flowers and shrubs, forming tiny bowers and pleasure-grounds, while others have only cabbage and vegetables.

Sometimes these gardens cannot be seen at all from a distance, for the large elder trees that grow near them spread out their branches and hang over the flowing waters, which here are so deep that even an oar cannot touch the bottom.

Opposite the old nunnery is the deepest spot, and there dwells what is called the “Bell-deep,” and people say it is a “Water Spirit,” who sleeps the whole day while the sun shines on the water; but when night comes, and the moon shines, or the stars twinkle, his deep voice is heard.

He is very old; grandmamma says she has heard her own grandmother speak of him. He dwells there mostly alone, although in years gone by he had a friend in the old church bell, which then hung in the tower; but the old church and the bell, even the tower itself, are gone now, and no traces of where the building once stood can be found. It was named the Church of the Holy St. Albans.

“Ding dong, ding dong,” said the bell one evening, while the church and the tower were still standing; and while the sun was setting, and the bell swinging, it suddenly broke loose and came flying down through the air, the brilliant metal glistening in the rays of the setting sun. “Ding dong, ding dong,” said the bell, “now I can have a long sleep,” as he went plump into the river at its deepest part, which on that account is called the “Bell-deep.”

But there was neither sleep nor rest for the bell. It is still heard by the watermen, ringing and sounding at all hours, and the tones sometimes come up through the water. When they do, men say it is a sign that someone is going to die; but that is a mistake. It is only the bell talking to the water-sprite, so that now he is not alone.

“And what is the bell talking about?” Why he is as old as Methuselah. Long, long before grandmamma was born he was there, and yet the bell is a young thing compared to the water sprite, who is quite an old man. Yet he has a strange appearance with his stockings made of the skins of eels, his seal-skin coat with yellow lilies for buttons, a wreath of reeds in his hair, and seaweed twisted in his beard. How funny he looks we need not say.

“What else does the bell say?” Why it would take years and years to repeat all the stories the bell can tell. Sometimes they are short and at other times long, just as it suits him; but they are all about old days and dark days, and hard times.

One of his stories was about St. Alban’s church, when the patron saint was a monk, and once mounted up into the tower where the bell hung. He was young and handsome then, and uncommonly thoughtful. The bed of the river was at that time very broad, and the monastery meadow still a lake. He could see it all through a loop-hole of the tower, but presently he went and looked at the prospect from the green wall, which people called the Nuns’-hill. It was near the convent, in which there was not a single light burning excepting from the cell of a nun with whom he had been a long time acquainted, and at the thought of her his heart beat rapidly—“Ding dong, ding dong.”

“You must wait,” said the bell. Then the halfwitted man-servant of the bishop came up into the tower, and now the bell must tell his own tale:—

“I am made of metal,” said the bell, “and as I swung to and fro I might have beaten out his brains. The man seated himself right under me, and began playing with two sticks, as if they were musical instruments, and sung to the imaginary music.

“Now I may ring out sounds which at another time I could not even whisper,” said the bell. “I can tell of things that are locked up behind bolts and bars. The rats are eating her up alive! No one knows of it. No one hears of it. Not even while the bell is booming and ringing ‘Ding dong, ding dong,’

“In those days there lived a king whom they called Canute. He bowed low before a bishop and a monk, but when he imposed heavy taxes on the peasants and gave them hard words, they seized their weapons and hunted him like a wild deer. He sought refuge in the church, and closed the doors behind him, but the enraged peasants surrounded the church, and there he had to stay. ‘I was there,’ said the bell, ‘and I heard it all.’

“The crows, the ravens, and the magpies flew about in terror when they heard the yelling and shouting outside. They flew into the tower, and out again when they saw the crowd below, and glared into the church windows, making the most hideous cries and caws.

“King Canute was kneeling and praying before the altar. His brothers, Eric and Benedict stood by him with drawn swords, but the King’s servant, the false-hearted Blake, betrayed his master. He showed the wild crowd outside, the window through which a stone could reach his master. The stone was aimed at the King, and in a few moments he fell dead!

“The cries and yells of the incensed peasants and of the frightened birds were heard by me, and I joined in the din by singing ‘Ding dong, ding dong.’

“The church bell hangs high, and can see far and near. The language of the birds is understood by the bell, and the wind, which knows everything, roars round the tower and through the windows and loop-holes, and gets all its knowledge from the air, and the bell understands, and rings it out to the whole world, ‘Ding dong, ding dong.’

“But at last,” said the bell, “the work became too heavy for me. I could no longer ring out for the whole world to hear. I became so heavy that the beam broke, and I flew out through the air to the place where the river is deepest, and where the water sprite dwells, solitary and alone, and year by vear I tell him all I have heard and what I know. Ding dong, ding dong.”

All this is what my grandmother told me, but the bell’s deep tones have a melancholy sound when they are heard from the river by Odense.

But our mother says there is no bell in the water that can ring of itself, and that the water sprite does not live in the water, because there is no such thing as a water sprite, and when other church bells sound so sweetly, it is the air that makes them sound and not the bells alone, even when they ring loudly.

Grandmother says the bell itself told her it was the air that made it sound. So they are both agreed. Therefore take care and think before you say or do anything, and be sure it is right, for the air knows everything—it is over us,—it is in us,—and around us.

It tells of our thoughts and actions, and speaks more distinctly of them than the bell in the depths of any river could do, for it rings out in the vault of heaven, and will do so far and near, for ever and ever, even after the bells of heaven are sounding “Ding dong, ding dong.”

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