<< Предыдущий рассказ
Следующий рассказ >>
The Little Mermaid
Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as
the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest
glass. But it is very deep too. It goes down deeper than any anchor
rope will go, and many, many steeples would have to be stacked one
on top of another to reach from the bottom to the surface of the sea.
It is down there that the sea folk live.
Now don't suppose that there are only bare
white sands at the bottom of the sea. No indeed! The most marvelous
trees and flowers grow down there, with such pliant stalks and
leaves that the least stir in the water makes them move about as
though they were alive. All sorts of fish, large and small, dart
among the branches, just as birds flit through the trees up here.
From the deepest spot in the ocean rises the palace of the sea king.
Its walls are made of coral and its high pointed windows of the
clearest amber, but the roof is made of mussel shells that open and
shut with the tide. This is a wonderful sight to see, for every
shell holds glistening pearls, any one of which would be the pride
of a queen's crown.
The sea king down there had been a widower for
years, and his old mother kept house for him. She was a clever woman,
but very proud of her noble birth. Therefore she flaunted twelve
oysters on her tail while the other ladies of the court were only
allowed to wear six. Except for this she was an altogether
praiseworthy person, particularly so because she was extremely fond
of her granddaughters, the little sea princesses. They were six
lovely girls, but the youngest was the most beautiful of them all.
Her skin was as soft and tender as a rose petal, and her eyes were
as blue as the deep sea, but like all the others she had no feet.
Her body ended in a fish tail.
The whole day long they used to play in the
palace, down in the great halls where live flowers grew on the
walls. Whenever the high amber windows were thrown open the fish
would swim in, just as swallows dart into our rooms when we open the
windows. But these fish, now, would swim right up to the little
princesses to eat out of their hands and let themselves be petted.
Outside the palace was a big garden, with
flaming red and deep-blue trees. Their fruit glittered like gold,
and their blossoms flamed like fire on their constantly waving
stalks. The soil was very fine sand indeed, but as blue as burning
brimstone. A strange blue veil lay over everything down there. You
would have thought yourself aloft in the air with only the blue sky
above and beneath you, rather than down at the bottom of the sea.
When there was a dead calm, you could just see the sun, like a
scarlet flower with light streaming from its calyx.
Each little princess had her own small garden
plot, where she could dig and plant whatever she liked. One of them
made her little flower bed in the shape of a whale, another thought
it neater to shape hers like a little mermaid, but the youngest of
them made hers as round as the sun, and there she grew only flowers
which were as red as the sun itself. She was an unusual child, quiet
and wistful, and when her sisters decorated their gardens with all
kinds of odd things they had found in sunken ships, she would allow
nothing in hers except flowers as red as the sun, and a pretty
marble statue. This figure of a handsome boy, carved in pure white
marble, had sunk down to the bottom of the sea from some ship that
was wrecked. Beside the statue she planted a rose-colored weeping
willow tree, which thrived so well that its graceful branches shaded
the statue and hung down to the blue sand, where their shadows took
on a violet tint, and swayed as the branches swayed. It looked as if
the roots and the tips of the branches were kissing each other in
Nothing gave the youngest princess such
pleasure as to hear about the world of human beings up above them.
Her old grandmother had to tell her all she knew about ships and
cities, and of people and animals. What seemed nicest of all to her
was that up on land the flowers were fragrant, for those at the
bottom of the sea had no scent. And she thought it was nice that the
woods were green, and that the fish you saw among their branches
could sing so loud and sweet that it was delightful to hear them.
Her grandmother had to call the little birds "fish," or the princess
would not have known what she was talking about, for she had never
seen a bird.
"When you get to be fifteen," her grandmother
said, "you will be allowed to rise up out of the ocean and sit on
the rocks in the moonlight, to watch the great ships sailing by. You
will see woods and towns, too."
Next year one of her sisters would be fifteen,
but the others - well, since each was a whole year older than the
next the youngest still had five long years to wait until she could
rise up from the water and see what our world was like. But each
sister promised to tell the others about all that she saw, and what
she found most marvelous on her first day. Their grandmother had not
told them half enough, and there were so many thing that they longed
to know about.
The most eager of them all was the youngest,
the very one who was so quiet and wistful. Many a night she stood by
her open window and looked up through the dark blue water where the
fish waved their fins and tails. She could just see the moon and
stars. To be sure, their light was quite dim, but looked at through
the water they seemed much bigger than they appear to us. Whenever a
cloud-like shadow swept across them, she knew that it was either a
whale swimming overhead, or a ship with many human beings aboard it.
Little did they dream that a pretty young mermaid was down below,
stretching her white arms up toward the keel of their ship.
The eldest princess had her fifteenth
birthday, so now she received permission to rise up out of the
water. When she got back she had a hundred things to tell her
sisters about, but the most marvelous thing of all, she said, was to
lie on a sand bar in the moonlight, when the sea was calm, and to
gaze at the large city on the shore, where the lights twinkled like
hundreds of stars; to listen to music; to hear the chatter and
clamor of carriages and people; to see so many church towers and
spires; and to hear the ringing bells. Because she could not enter
the city, that was just what she most dearly longed to do.
Oh, how intently the youngest sister listened.
After this, whenever she stood at her open window at night and
looked up through the dark blue waters, she thought of that great
city with all of its clatter and clamor, and even fancied that in
these depths she could hear the church bells ring.
The next year, her second sister had
permission to rise up to the surface and swim wherever she pleased.
She came up just at sunset, and she said that this spectacle was the
most marvelous sight she had ever seen. The heavens had a golden
glow, and as for the clouds - she could not find words to describe
their beauty. Splashed with red and tinted with violet, they sailed
over her head. But much faster than the sailing clouds were wild
swans in a flock. Like a long white veil trailing above the sea,
they flew toward the setting sun. She too swam toward it, but down
it went, and all the rose-colored glow faded from the sea and sky.
The following year, her third sister ascended,
and as she was the boldest of them all she swam up a broad river
that flowed into the ocean. She saw gloriously green, vine-colored
hills. Palaces and manor houses could be glimpsed through the
splendid woods. She heard all the birds sing, and the sun shone so
brightly that often she had to dive under the water to cool her
burning face. In a small cove she found a whole school of mortal
children, paddling about in the water quite naked. She wanted to
play with them, but they took fright and ran away. Then along came a
little black animal - it was a dog, but she had never seen a dog
before. It barked at her so ferociously that she took fright
herself, and fled to the open sea. But never could she forget the
splendid woods, the green hills, and the nice children who could
swim in the water although they didn't wear fish tails.
The fourth sister was not so venturesome. She
stayed far out among the rough waves, which she said was a marvelous
place. You could see all around you for miles and miles, and the
heavens up above you were like a vast dome of glass. She had seen
ships, but they were so far away that they looked like sea gulls.
Playful dolphins had turned somersaults, and monstrous whales had
spouted water through their nostrils so that it looked as if
hundreds of fountains were playing all around them.
Now the fifth sister had her turn. Her
birthday came in the wintertime, so she saw things that none of the
others had seen. The sea was a deep green color, and enormous
icebergs drifted about. Each one glistened like a pearl, she said,
but they were more lofty than any church steeple built by man. They
assumed the most fantastic shapes, and sparkled like diamonds. She
had seated herself on the largest one, and all the ships that came
sailing by sped away as soon as the frightened sailors saw her there
with her long hair blowing in the wind.
In the late evening clouds filled the sky.
Thunder cracked and lightning darted across the heavens. Black waves
lifted those great bergs of ice on high, where they flashed when the
On all the ships the sails were reefed and
there was fear and trembling. But quietly she sat there, upon her
drifting iceberg, and watched the blue forked lightning strike the
Each of the sisters took delight in the lovely
new sights when she first rose up to the surface of the sea. But
when they became grown-up girls, who were allowed to go wherever
they liked, they became indifferent to it. They would become
homesick, and in a month they said that there was no place like the
bottom of the sea, where they felt so completely at home.
On many an evening the older sisters would
rise to the surface, arm in arm, all five in a row. They had
beautiful voices, more charming than those of any mortal beings.
When a storm was brewing, and they anticipated a shipwreck, they
would swim before the ship and sing most seductively of how
beautiful it was at the bottom of the ocean, trying to overcome the
prejudice that the sailors had against coming down to them. But
people could not understand their song, and mistook it for the voice
of the storm. Nor was it for them to see the glories of the deep.
When their ship went down they were drowned, and it was as dead men
that they reached the sea king's palace.
On the evenings when the mermaids rose through
the water like this, arm in arm, their youngest sister stayed behind
all alone, looking after them and wanting to weep. But a mermaid has
no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.
"Oh, how I do wish I were fifteen!" she said.
"I know I shall love that world up there and all the people who live
And at last she too came to be fifteen.
"Now I'll have you off my hands," said her
grandmother, the old queen dowager. "Come, let me adorn you like
your sisters." In the little maid's hair she put a wreath of white
lilies, each petal of which was formed from half of a pearl. And the
old queen let eight big oysters fasten themselves to the princess's
tail, as a sign of her high rank.
"But that hurts!" said the little mermaid.
"You must put up with a good deal to keep up
appearances," her grandmother told her.
Oh, how gladly she would have shaken off all
these decorations, and laid aside the cumbersome wreath! The red
flowers in her garden were much more becoming to her, but she didn't
dare to make any changes. "Good-by," she said, and up she went
through the water, as light and as sparkling as a bubble.
The sun had just gone down when her head rose
above the surface, but the clouds still shone like gold and roses,
and in the delicately tinted sky sparkled the clear gleam of the
evening star. The air was mild and fresh and the sea unruffled. A
great three-master lay in view with only one of all its sails set,
for there was not even the whisper of a breeze, and the sailors
idled about in the rigging and on the yards. There was music and
singing on the ship, and as night came on they lighted hundreds of
such brightly colored lanterns that one might have thought the flags
of all nations were swinging in the air.
The little mermaid swam right up to the window
of the main cabin, and each time she rose with the swell she could
peep in through the clear glass panes at the crowd of brilliantly
dressed people within. The handsomest of them all was a young Prince
with big dark eyes. He could not be more than sixteen years old. It
was his birthday and that was the reason for all the celebration. Up
on deck the sailors were dancing, and when the Prince appeared among
them a hundred or more rockets flew through the air, making it as
bright as day. These startled the little mermaid so badly that she
ducked under the water. But she soon peeped up again, and then it
seemed as if all the stars in the sky were falling around her. Never
had she seen such fireworks. Great suns spun around, splendid
fire-fish floated through the blue air, and all these things were
mirrored in the crystal clear sea. It was so brilliantly bright that
you could see every little rope of the ship, and the people could be
seen distinctly. Oh, how handsome the young Prince was! He laughed,
and he smiled and shook people by the hand, while the music rang out
in the perfect evening.
It got very late, but the little mermaid could
not take her eyes off the ship and the handsome Prince. The brightly
colored lanterns were put out, no more rockets flew through the air,
and no more cannon boomed. But there was a mutter and rumble deep
down in the sea, and the swell kept bouncing her up so high that she
could look into the cabin.
Now the ship began to sail. Canvas after
canvas was spread in the wind, the waves rose high, great clouds
gathered, and lightning flashed in the distance. Ah, they were in
for a terrible storm, and the mariners made haste to reef the sails.
The tall ship pitched and rolled as it sped through the angry sea.
The waves rose up like towering black mountains, as if they would
break over the masthead, but the swan-like ship plunged into the
valleys between such waves, and emerged to ride their lofty heights.
To the little mermaid this seemed good sport, but to the sailors it
was nothing of the sort. The ship creaked and labored, thick timbers
gave way under the heavy blows, waves broke over the ship, the
mainmast snapped in two like a reed, the ship listed over on its
side, and water burst into the hold.
Now the little mermaid saw that people were in
peril, and that she herself must take care to avoid the beams and
wreckage tossed about by the sea. One moment it would be black as
pitch, and she couldn't see a thing. Next moment the lightning would
flash so brightly that she could distinguish every soul on board.
Everyone was looking out for himself as best he could. She watched
closely for the young Prince, and when the ship split in two she saw
him sink down in the sea. At first she was overjoyed that he would
be with her, but then she recalled that human people could not live
under the water, and he could only visit her father's palace as a
dead man. No, he should not die! So she swam in among all the
floating planks and beams, completely forgetting that they might
crush her. She dived through the waves and rode their crests, until
at length she reached the young Prince, who was no longer able to
swim in that raging sea. His arms and legs were exhausted, his
beautiful eyes were closing, and he would have died if the little
mermaid had not come to help him. She held his head above water, and
let the waves take them wherever the waves went.
At daybreak, when the storm was over, not a
trace of the ship was in view. The sun rose out of the waters, red
and bright, and its beams seemed to bring the glow of life back to
the cheeks of the Prince, but his eyes remained closed. The mermaid
kissed his high and shapely forehead. As she stroked his wet hair in
place, it seemed to her that he looked like that marble statue in
her little garden. She kissed him again and hoped that he would
She saw dry land rise before her in high blue
mountains, topped with snow as glistening white as if a flock of
swans were resting there. Down by the shore were splendid green
woods, and in the foreground stood a church, or perhaps a convent;
she didn't know which, but anyway it was a building. Orange and
lemon trees grew in its garden, and tall palm trees grew beside the
gateway. Here the sea formed a little harbor, quite calm and very
deep. Fine white sand had been washed up below the cliffs. She swam
there with the handsome Prince, and stretched him out on the sand,
taking special care to pillow his head up high in the warm sunlight.
The bells began to ring in the great white
building, and a number of young girls came out into the garden. The
little mermaid swam away behind some tall rocks that stuck out of
the water. She covered her hair and her shoulders with foam so that
no one could see her tiny face, and then she watched to see who
would find the poor Prince.
In a little while one of the young girls came
upon him. She seemed frightened, but only for a minute; then she
called more people. The mermaid watched the Prince regain
consciousness, and smile at everyone around him. But he did not
smile at her, for he did not even know that she had saved him. She
felt very unhappy, and when they led him away to the big building
she dived sadly down into the water and returned to her father's
She had always been quiet and wistful, and now
she became much more so. Her sisters asked her what she had seen on
her first visit up to the surface, but she would not tell them a
Many evenings and many mornings she revisited
the spot where she had left the Prince. She saw the fruit in the
garden ripened and harvested, and she saw the snow on the high
mountain melted away, but she did not see the Prince, so each time
she came home sadder than she had left. It was her one consolation
to sit in her little garden and throw her arms about the beautiful
marble statue that looked so much like the Prince. But she took no
care of her flowers now. They overgrew the paths until the place was
a wilderness, and their long stalks and leaves became so entangled
in the branches of the tree that it cast a gloomy shade.
Finally she couldn't bear it any longer. She
told her secret to one of her sisters. Immediately all the other
sisters heard about it. No one else knew, except a few more mermaids
who told no one - except their most intimate friends. One of these
friends knew who the Prince was. She too had seen the birthday
celebration on the ship. She knew where he came from and where his
"Come, little sister!" said the other
princesses. Arm in arm, they rose from the water in a long row,
right in front of where they knew the Prince's palace stood. It was
built of pale, glistening, golden stone with great marble
staircases, one of which led down to the sea. Magnificent gilt domes
rose above the roof, and between the pillars all around the building
were marble statues that looked most lifelike. Through the clear
glass of the lofty windows one could see into the splendid halls,
with their costly silk hangings and tapestries, and walls covered
with paintings that were delightful to behold. In the center of the
main hall a large fountain played its columns of spray up to the
glass-domed roof, through which the sun shone down on the water and
upon the lovely plants that grew in the big basin.
Now that she knew where he lived, many an
evening and many a night she spent there in the sea. She swam much
closer to shore than any of her sisters would dare venture, and she
even went far up a narrow stream, under the splendid marble balcony
that cast its long shadow in the water. Here she used to sit and
watch the young Prince when he thought himself quite alone in the
On many evenings she saw him sail out in his
fine boat, with music playing and flags a-flutter. She would peep
out through the green rushes, and if the wind blew her long silver
veil, anyone who saw it mistook it for a swan spreading its wings.
On many nights she saw the fishermen come out
to sea with their torches, and heard them tell about how kind the
young Prince was. This made her proud to think that it was she who
had saved his life when he was buffeted about, half dead among the
waves. And she thought of how softly his head had rested on her
breast, and how tenderly she had kissed him, though he knew nothing
of all this nor could he even dream of it.
Increasingly she grew to like human beings,
and more and more she longed to live among them. Their world seemed
so much wider than her own, for they could skim over the sea in
ships, and mount up into the lofty peaks high over the clouds, and
their lands stretched out in woods and fields farther than the eye
could see. There was so much she wanted to know. Her sisters could
not answer all her questions, so she asked her old grandmother, who
knew about the "upper world," which was what she said was the right
name for the countries above the sea.
"If men aren't drowned," the little mermaid
asked, "do they live on forever? Don't they die, as we do down here
in the sea?"
"Yes," the old lady said, "they too must die,
and their lifetimes are even shorter than ours. We can live to be
three hundred years old, but when we perish we turn into mere foam
on the sea, and haven't even a grave down here among our dear ones.
We have no immortal soul, no life hereafter. We are like the green
seaweed - once cut down, it never grows again. Human beings, on the
contrary, have a soul which lives forever, long after their bodies
have turned to clay. It rises through thin air, up to the shining
stars. Just as we rise through the water to see the lands on earth,
so men rise up to beautiful places unknown, which we shall never
"Why weren't we given an immortal soul?" the
little mermaid sadly asked. "I would gladly give up my three hundred
years if I could be a human being only for a day, and later share in
that heavenly realm."
"You must not think about that," said the old
lady. "We fare much more happily and are much better off than the
folk up there."
"Then I must also die and float as foam upon
the sea, not hearing the music of the waves, and seeing neither the
beautiful flowers nor the red sun! Can't I do anything at all to win
an immortal soul?"
"No," her grandmother answered, "not unless a
human being loved you so much that you meant more to him than his
father and mother. If his every thought and his whole heart cleaved
to you so that he would let a priest join his right hand to yours
and would promise to be faithful here and throughout all eternity,
then his soul would dwell in your body, and you would share in the
happiness of mankind. He would give you a soul and yet keep his own.
But that can never come to pass. The very thing that is your
greatest beauty here in the sea - your fish tail - would be
considered ugly on land. They have such poor taste that to be
thought beautiful there you have to have two awkward props which
they call legs."
The little mermaid sighed and looked unhappily
at her fish tail.
"Come, let us be gay!" the old lady said. "Let
us leap and bound throughout the three hundred years that we have to
live. Surely that is time and to spare, and afterwards we shall be
glad enough to rest in our graves. - We are holding a court ball
This was a much more glorious affair than is
ever to be seen on earth. The walls and the ceiling of the great
ballroom were made of massive but transparent glass. Many hundreds
of huge rose-red and grass-green shells stood on each side in rows,
with the blue flames that burned in each shell illuminating the
whole room and shining through the walls so clearly that it was
quite bright in the sea outside. You could see the countless fish,
great and small, swimming toward the glass walls. On some of them
the scales gleamed purplish-red, while others were silver and gold.
Across the floor of the hall ran a wide stream of water, and upon
this the mermaids and mermen danced to their own entrancing songs.
Such beautiful voices are not to be heard among the people who live
on land. The little mermaid sang more sweetly than anyone else, and
everyone applauded her. For a moment her heart was happy, because
she knew she had the loveliest voice of all, in the sea or on the
land. But her thoughts soon strayed to the world up above. She could
not forget the charming Prince, nor her sorrow that she did not have
an immortal soul like his. Therefore she stole out of her father's
palace and, while everything there was song and gladness, she sat
sadly in her own little garden.
Then she heard a bugle call through the water,
and she thought, "That must mean he is sailing up there, he whom I
love more than my father or mother, he of whom I am always thinking,
and in whose hands I would so willingly trust my lifelong happiness.
I dare do anything to win him and to gain an immortal soul. While my
sisters are dancing here, in my father's palace, I shall visit the
sea witch of whom I have always been so afraid. Perhaps she will be
able to advise me and help me."
The little mermaid set out from her garden
toward the whirlpools that raged in front of the witch's dwelling.
She had never gone that way before. No flowers grew there, nor any
seaweed. Bare and gray, the sands extended to the whirlpools, where
like roaring mill wheels the waters whirled and snatched everything
within their reach down to the bottom of the sea. Between these
tumultuous whirlpools she had to thread her way to reach the witch's
waters, and then for a long stretch the only trail lay through a hot
seething mire, which the witch called her peat marsh. Beyond it her
house lay in the middle of a weird forest, where all the trees and
shrubs were polyps, half animal and half plant. They looked like
hundred-headed snakes growing out of the soil. All their branches
were long, slimy arms, with fingers like wriggling worms. They
squirmed, joint by joint, from their roots to their outermost
tentacles, and whatever they could lay hold of they twined around
and never let go. The little mermaid was terrified, and stopped at
the edge of the forest. Her heart thumped with fear and she nearly
turned back, but then she remembered the Prince and the souls that
men have, and she summoned her courage. She bound her long flowing
locks closely about her head so that the polyps could not catch hold
of them, folded her arms across her breast, and darted through the
water like a fish, in among the slimy polyps that stretched out
their writhing arms and fingers to seize her. She saw that every one
of them held something that it had caught with its hundreds of
little tentacles, and to which it clung as with strong hoops of
steel. The white bones of men who had perished at sea and sunk to
these depths could be seen in the polyps' arms. Ships' rudders, and
seamen's chests, and the skeletons of land animals had also fallen
into their clutches, but the most ghastly sight of all was a little
mermaid whom they had caught and strangled.
She reached a large muddy clearing in the
forest, where big fat water snakes slithered about, showing their
foul yellowish bellies. In the middle of this clearing was a house
built of the bones of shipwrecked men, and there sat the sea witch,
letting a toad eat out of her mouth just as we might feed sugar to a
little canary bird. She called the ugly fat water snakes her little
chickabiddies, and let them crawl and sprawl about on her spongy
"I know exactly what you want," said the sea
witch. "It is very foolish of you, but just the same you shall have
your way, for it will bring you to grief, my proud princess. You
want to get rid of your fish tail and have two props instead, so
that you can walk about like a human creature, and have the young
Prince fall in love with you, and win him and an immortal soul
besides." At this, the witch gave such a loud cackling laugh that
the toad and the snakes were shaken to the ground, where they lay
"You are just in time," said the witch. "After
the sun comes up tomorrow, a whole year would have to go by before I
could be of any help to you. J shall compound you a draught, and
before sunrise you must swim to the shore with it, seat yourself on
dry land, and drink the draught down. Then your tail will divide and
shrink until it becomes what the people on earth call a pair of
shapely legs. But it will hurt; it will feel as if a sharp sword
slashed through you. Everyone who sees you will say that you are the
most graceful human being they have ever laid eyes on, for you will
keep your gliding movement and no dancer will be able to tread as
lightly as you. But every step you take will feel as if you were
treading upon knife blades so sharp that blood must flow. I am
willing to help you, but are you willing to suffer all this?"
"Yes," the little mermaid said in a trembling
voice, as she thought of the Prince and of gaining a human soul.
"Remember!" said the witch. "Once you have
taken a human form, you can never be a mermaid again. You can never
come back through the waters to your sisters, or to your father's
palace. And if you do not win the love of the Prince so completely
that for your sake he forgets his father and mother, cleaves to you
with his every thought and his whole heart, and lets the priest join
your hands in marriage, then you will win no immortal soul. If he
marries someone else, your heart will break on the very next
morning, and you will become foam of the sea."
"I shall take that risk," said the little
mermaid, but she turned as pale as death.
"Also, you will have to pay me," said the
witch, "and it is no trifling price that I'm asking. You have the
sweetest voice of anyone down here at the bottom of the sea, and
while I don't doubt that you would like to captivate the Prince with
it, you must give this voice to me. I will take the very best thing
that you have, in return for my sovereign draught. I must pour my
own blood in it to make the drink as sharp as a two-edged sword."
"But if you take my voice," said the little
mermaid, "what will be left to me?"
"Your lovely form," the witch told her, "your
gliding movements, and your eloquent eyes. With these you can easily
enchant a human heart. Well, have you lost your courage? Stick out
your little tongue and I shall cut it off. I'll have my price, and
you shall have the potent draught."
"Go ahead," said the little mermaid.
The witch hung her caldron over the flames, to
brew the draught. "Cleanliness is a good thing," she said, as she
tied her snakes in a knot and scoured out the pot with them. Then
she pricked herself in the chest and let her black blood splash into
the caldron. Steam swirled up from it, in such ghastly shapes that
anyone would have been terrified by them. The witch constantly threw
new ingredients into the caldron, and it started to boil with a
sound like that of a crocodile shedding tears. When the draught was
ready at last, it looked as clear as the purest water.
"There's your draught," said the witch. And
she cut off the tongue of the little mermaid, who now was dumb and
could neither sing nor talk.
"If the polyps should pounce on you when you
walk back through my wood," the witch said, "just spill a drop of
this brew upon them and their tentacles will break in a thousand
pieces." But there was no need of that, for the polyps curled up in
terror as soon as they saw the bright draught. It glittered in the
little mermaid's hand as if it were a shining star. So she soon
traversed the forest, the marsh, and the place of raging whirlpools.
She could see her father's palace. The lights
had been snuffed out in the great ballroom, and doubtless everyone
in the palace was asleep, but she dared not go near them, now that
she was stricken dumb and was leaving her home forever. Her heart
felt as if it would break with grief. She tip-toed into the garden,
took one flower from each of her sisters' little plots, blew a
thousand kisses toward the palace, and then mounted up through the
dark blue sea.
The sun had not yet risen when she saw the
Prince's palace. As she climbed his splendid marble staircase, the
moon was shining clear. The little mermaid swallowed the bitter,
fiery draught, and it was as if a two-edged sword struck through her
frail body. She swooned away, and lay there as if she were dead.
When the sun rose over the sea she awoke and felt a flash of pain,
but directly in front of her stood the handsome young Prince, gazing
at her with his coal-black eyes. Lowering her gaze, she saw that her
fish tail was gone, and that she had the loveliest pair of white
legs any young maid could hope to have. But she was naked, so she
clothed herself in her own long hair.
The Prince asked who she was, and how she came
to be there. Her deep blue eyes looked at him tenderly but very
sadly, for she could not speak. Then he took her hand and led her
into his palace. Every footstep felt as if she were walking on the
blades and points of sharp knives, just as the witch had foretold,
but she gladly endured it. She moved as lightly as a bubble as she
walked beside the Prince. He and all who saw her marveled at the
grace of her gliding walk.
Once clad in the rich silk and muslin garments
that were provided for her, she was the loveliest person in all the
palace, though she was dumb and could neither sing nor speak.
Beautiful slaves, attired in silk and cloth of gold, came to sing
before the Prince and his royal parents. One of them sang more
sweetly than all the others, and when the Prince smiled at her and
clapped his hands, the little mermaid felt very unhappy, for she
knew that she herself used to sing much more sweetly.
"Oh," she thought, "if he only knew that I
parted with my voice forever so that I could be near him."
Graceful slaves now began to dance to the most
wonderful music. Then the little mermaid lifted her shapely white
arms, rose up on the tips of her toes, and skimmed over the floor.
No one had ever danced so well. Each movement set off her beauty to
better and better advantage, and her eyes spoke more directly to the
heart than any of the singing slaves could do.
She charmed everyone, and especially the
Prince, who called her his dear little foundling. She danced time
and again, though every time she touched the floor she felt as if
she were treading on sharp-edged steel. The Prince said he would
keep her with him always, and that she was to have a velvet pillow
to sleep on outside his door.
He had a page's suit made for her, so that she
could go with him on horseback. They would ride through the sweet
scented woods, where the green boughs brushed her shoulders, and
where the little birds sang among the fluttering leaves.
She climbed up high mountains with the Prince,
and though her tender feet bled so that all could see it, she only
laughed and followed him on until they could see the clouds driving
far below, like a flock of birds in flight to distant lands.
At home in the Prince's palace, while the
others slept at night, she would go down the broad marble steps to
cool her burning feet in the cold sea water, and then she would
recall those who lived beneath the sea. One night her sisters came
by, arm in arm, singing sadly as they breasted the waves. When she
held out her hands toward them, they knew who she was, and told her
how unhappy she had made them all. They came to see her every night
after that, and once far, far out to sea, she saw her old
grandmother, who had not been up to the surface this many a year.
With her was the sea king, with his crown upon his head. They
stretched out their hands to her, but they did not venture so near
the land as her sisters had.
Day after day she became more dear to the
Prince, who loved her as one would love a good little child, but he
never thought of making her his Queen. Yet she had to be his wife or
she would never have an immortal soul, and on the morning after his
wedding she would turn into foam on the waves.
"Don't you love me best of all?" the little
mermaid's eyes seemed to question him, when he took her in his arms
and kissed her lovely forehead.
"Yes, you are most dear to me," said the
Prince, "for you have the kindest heart. You love me more than
anyone else does, and you look so much like a young girl I once saw
but never shall find again. I was on a ship that was wrecked, and
the waves cast me ashore near a holy temple, where many young girls
performed the rituals. The youngest of them found me beside the sea
and saved my life. Though I saw her no more than twice, she is the
only person in all the world whom I could love. But you are so much
like her that you almost replace the memory of her in my heart. She
belongs to that holy temple, therefore it is my good fortune that I
have you. We shall never part."
"Alas, he doesn't know it was I who saved his
life," the little mermaid thought. "I carried him over the sea to
the garden where the temple stands. I hid behind the foam and
watched to see if anyone would come. I saw the pretty maid he loves
better than me." A sigh was the only sign of her deep distress, for
a mermaid cannot cry. "He says that the other maid belongs to the
holy temple. She will never come out into the world, so they will
never see each other again. It is I who will care for him, love him,
and give all my life to him."
Now rumors arose that the Prince was to wed
the beautiful daughter of a neighboring King, and that it was for
this reason he was having such a superb ship made ready to sail. The
rumor ran that the Prince's real interest in visiting the
neighboring kingdom was to see the King's daughter, and that he was
to travel with a lordly retinue. The little mermaid shook her head
and smiled, for she knew the Prince's thoughts far better than
anyone else did.
"I am forced to make this journey," he told
her. "I must visit the beautiful Princess, for this is my parents'
wish, but they would not have me bring her home as my bride against
my own will, and I can never love her. She does not resemble the
lovely maiden in the temple, as you do, and if I were to choose a
bride, I would sooner choose you, my dear mute foundling with those
telling eyes of yours." And he kissed her on the mouth, fingered her
long hair, and laid his head against her heart so that she came to
dream of mortal happiness and an immortal soul.
"I trust you aren't afraid of the sea, my
silent child ' he said, as they went on board the magnificent vessel
that was to carry them to the land of the neighboring King. And he
told her stories of storms, of ships becalmed, of strange deep-sea
fish, and of the wonders that divers have seen. She smiled at such
stories, for no one knew about the bottom of the sea as well as she
In the clear moonlight, when everyone except
the man at the helm was asleep, she sat on the side of the ship
gazing down through the transparent water, and fancied she could
catch glimpses of her father's palace. On the topmost tower stood
her old grandmother, wearing her silver crown and looking up at the
keel of the ship through the rushing waves. Then her sisters rose to
the surface, looked at her sadly, and wrung their white hands. She
smiled and waved, trying to let them know that all went well and
that she was happy. But along came the cabin boy, and her sisters
dived out of sight so quickly that the boy supposed the flash of
white he had seen was merely foam on the sea.
Next morning the ship came in to the harbor of
the neighboring King's glorious city. All the church bells chimed,
and trumpets were sounded from all the high towers, while the
soldiers lined up with flying banners and glittering bayonets. Every
day had a new festivity, as one ball or levee followed another, but
the Princess was still to appear. They said she was being brought up
in some far-away sacred temple, where she was learning every royal
virtue. But she came at last.
The little mermaid was curious to see how
beautiful this Princess was, and she had to grant that a more
exquisite figure she had never seen. The Princess's skin was clear
and fair, and behind the long, dark lashes her deep blue eyes were
smiling and devoted.
"It was you!" the Prince cried. "You are the
one who saved me when I lay like a dead man beside the sea." He
clasped the blushing bride of his choice in his arms. "Oh, I am
happier than a man should be!" he told his little mermaid. "My
fondest dream - that which I never dared to hope - has come true.
You will share in my great joy, for you love me more than anyone
The little mermaid kissed his hand and felt
that her heart was beginning to break. For the morning after his
wedding day would see her dead and turned to watery foam.
All the church bells rang out, and heralds
rode through the streets to announce the wedding. Upon every altar
sweet-scented oils were burned in costly silver lamps. The priests
swung their censers, the bride and the bridegroom joined their
hands, and the bishop blessed their marriage. The little mermaid,
clothed in silk and cloth of gold, held the bride's train, but she
was deaf to the wedding march and blind to the holy ritual. Her
thought turned on her last night upon earth, and on all she had lost
in this world.
That same evening, the bride and bridegroom
went aboard the ship. Cannon thundered and banners waved. On the
deck of the ship a royal pavilion of purple and gold was set up, and
furnished with luxurious cushions. Here the wedded couple were to
sleep on that calm, clear night. The sails swelled in the breeze,
and the ship glided so lightly that it scarcely seemed to move over
the quiet sea. All nightfall brightly colored lanterns were lighted,
and the mariners merrily danced on the deck. The little mermaid
could not forget that first time she rose from the depths of the sea
and looked on at such pomp and happiness. Light as a swallow pursued
by his enemies, she joined in the whirling dance. Everyone cheered
her, for never had she danced so wonderfully. Her tender feet felt
as if they were pierced by daggers, but she did not feel it. Her
heart suffered far greater pain. She knew that this was the last
evening that she ever would see him for whom she had forsaken her
home and family, for whom she had sacrificed her lovely voice and
suffered such constant torment, while he knew nothing of all these
things. It was the last night that she would breathe the same air
with him, or look upon deep waters or the star fields of the blue
sky. A never-ending night, without thought and without dreams,
awaited her who had no soul and could not get one. The merrymaking
lasted long after midnight, yet she laughed and danced on despite
the thought of death she carried in her heart. The Prince kissed his
beautiful bride and she toyed with his coal-black hair. Hand in
hand, they went to rest in the magnificent pavilion.
A hush came over the ship. Only the helmsman
remained on deck as the little mermaid leaned her white arms on the
bulwarks and looked to the east to see the first red hint of
daybreak, for she knew that the first flash of the sun would strike
her dead. Then she saw her sisters rise up among the waves. They
were as pale as she, and there was no sign of their lovely long hair
that the breezes used to blow. It had all been cut off.
'We have given our hair to the witch," they
said, "so that she would send you help, and save you from death
tonight. She gave us a knife. Here it is. See the sharp blade!
Before the sun rises, you must strike it into the Prince's heart,
and when his warm blood bathes your feet they will grow together and
become a fish tail. Then you will be a mermaid again, able to come
back to us in the sea, and live out your three hundred years before
you die and turn into dead salt sea foam. Make haste! He or you must
die before sunrise. Our old grandmother is so grief-stricken that
her white hair is falling fast, just as ours did under the witch's
scissors. Kill the Prince and come back to us. Hurry! Hurry! See
that red glow in the heavens! In a few minutes the sun will rise and
you must die." So saying, they gave a strange deep sigh and sank
beneath the waves.
The little mermaid parted the purple curtains
of the tent and saw the beautiful bride asleep with her head on the
Prince's breast. The mermaid bent down and kissed his shapely
forehead. She looked at the sky, fast reddening for the break of
day. She looked at the sharp knife and again turned her eyes toward
the Prince, who in his sleep murmured the name of his bride. His
thoughts were all for her, and the knife blade trembled in the
mermaid's hand. But then she flung it from her, far out over the
waves. Where it fell the waves were red, as if bubbles of blood
seethed in the water. With eyes already glazing she looked once more
at the Prince, hurled herself over the bulwarks into the sea, and
felt her body dissolve in foam.
The sun rose up from the waters. Its beams
fell, warm and kindly, upon the chill sea foam, and the little
mermaid did not feel the hand of death. In the bright sunlight
overhead,she saw hundreds of fair ethereal beings. They were so
transparent that through them she could see the ship's white sails
and the red clouds in the sky. Their voices were sheer music, but so
spirit-like that no human ear could detect the sound, just as no eye
on earth could see their forms. Without wings, they floated as light
as the air itself. The little mermaid discovered that she was shaped
like them, and that she was gradually rising up out of the foam.
'Who are you, toward whom I rise?" she asked,
and her voice sounded like those above her, so spiritual that no
music on earth could match it.
"We are the daughters of the air," they
answered. "A mermaid has no immortal soul, and can never get one
unless she wins the love of a human being. Her eternal life must
depend upon a power outside herself. The daughters of the air do not
have an immortal soul either, but they can earn one by their good
deeds. We fly to the south, where the hot poisonous air kills human
beings unless we bring cool breezes. We carry the scent of flowers
through the air, bringing freshness and healing balm wherever we go.
When for three hundred years we have tried to do all the good that
we can, we are given an immortal soul and a share in mankind's
eternal bliss. You, poor little mermaid, have tried with your whole
heart to do this too. Your suffering and your loyalty have raised
you up into the realm of airy spirits, and now in the course of
three hundred years you may earn by your good deeds a soul that will
The little mermaid lifted her clear bright
eyes toward God's sun, and for the first time her eyes were wet with
On board the ship all was astir and lively
again. She saw the Prince and his fair bride in search of her. Then
they gazed sadly into the seething foam, as if they knew she had
hurled herself into the waves. Unseen by them, she kissed the
bride's forehead, smiled upon the Prince, and rose up with the other
daughters of the air to the rose-red clouds that sailed on high.
"This is the way that we shall rise to the
kingdom of God, after three hundred years have passed."
"We may get there even sooner," one spirit
whispered. "Unseen, we fly into the homes of men, where there are
children, and for every day on which we find a good child who
pleases his parents and deserves their love, God shortens our days
of trial. The child does not know when we float through his room,
but when we smile at him in approval one year is taken from our
three hundred. But if we see a naughty, mischievous child we must
shed tears of sorrow, and each tear adds a day to the time of our