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The Little Mermaid

by: Hans Christian


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Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the
prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal, it is very,
very deep; so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it:
many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not
reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water
above. There dwell the Sea King and his subjects. We must
not imagine that there is nothing at the bottom of the sea
but bare yellow sand. No, indeed; the most singular flowers
and plants grow there; the leaves and stems of which are so
pliant, that the slightest agitation of the water causes
them to stir as if they had life. Fishes, both large and
small, glide between the branches, as birds fly among the
trees here upon land. In the deepest spot of all, stands the
castle of the Sea King. Its walls are built of coral, and
the long, gothic windows are of the clearest amber. The roof
is formed of shells, that open and close as the water flows
over them. Their appearance is very beautiful, for in each
lies a glittering pearl, which would be fit for the diadem
of a queen.

The Sea King had been a widower for many years, and his aged
mother kept house for him. She was a very wise woman, and
exceedingly proud of her high birth; on that account she
wore twelve oysters on her tail; while others, also of high
rank, were only allowed to wear six. She was, however,
deserving of very great praise, especially for her care of
the little sea-princesses, her grand-daughters. They were
six beautiful children; but the youngest was the prettiest
of them all; her skin was as clear and delicate as a rose-
leaf, and her eyes as blue as the deepest sea; but, like all
the others, she had no feet, and her body ended in a fish’s
tail. All day long they played in the great halls of the
castle, or among the living flowers that grew out of the
walls. The large amber windows were open, and the fish swam
in, just as the swallows fly into our houses when we open
the windows, excepting that the fishes swam up to the
princesses, ate out of their hands, and allowed themselves
to be stroked. Outside the castle there was a beautiful
garden, in which grew bright red and dark blue flowers, and
blossoms like flames of fire; the fruit glittered like gold,
and the leaves and stems waved to and fro continually. The
earth itself was the finest sand, but blue as the flame of
burning sulphur.

Over everything lay a peculiar blue radiance, as if it were
surrounded by the air from above, through which the blue sky
shone, instead of the dark depths of the sea. In calm
weather the sun could be seen, looking like a purple flower,
with the light streaming from the calyx. Each of the young
princesses had a little plot of ground in the garden, where
she might dig and plant as she pleased. One arranged her
flower-bed into the form of a whale; another thought it
better to make hers like the figure of a little mermaid; but
that of the youngest was round like the sun, and contained
flowers as red as his rays at sunset. She was a strange
child, quiet and thoughtful; and while her sisters would be
delighted with the wonderful things which they obtained from
the wrecks of vessels, she cared for nothing but her pretty
red flowers, like the sun, excepting a beautiful marble
statue. It was the representation of a handsome boy, carved
out of pure white stone, which had fallen to the bottom of
the sea from a wreck.

She planted by the statue a rose-colored weeping willow. It
grew splendidly, and very soon hung its fresh branches over
the statue, almost down to the blue sands. The shadow had a
violet tint, and waved to and fro like the branches; it
seemed as if the crown of the tree and the root were at
play, and trying to kiss each other. Nothing gave her so
much pleasure as to hear about the world above the sea. She
made her old grandmother tell her all she knew of the ships
and of the towns, the people and the animals. To her it
seemed most wonderful and beautiful to hear that the flowers
of the land should have fragrance, and not those below the
sea; that the trees of the forest should be green; and that
the fishes among the trees could sing so sweetly, that it
was quite a pleasure to hear them. Her grandmother called
the little birds fishes, or she would not have understood
her; for she had never seen birds.

“When you have reached your fifteenth year,” said the grand-
mother, “you will have permission to rise up out of the sea,
to sit on the rocks in the moonlight, while the great ships
are sailing by; and then you will see both forests and

In the following year, one of the sisters would be fifteen:
but as each was a year younger than the other, the youngest
would have to wait five years before her turn came to rise
up from the bottom of the ocean, and see the earth as we do.
However, each promised to tell the others what she saw on
her first visit, and what she thought the most beautiful;
for their grandmother could not tell them enough; there were
so many things on which they wanted information. None of
them longed so much for her turn to come as the youngest,
she who had the longest time to wait, and who was so quiet
and thoughtful. Many nights she stood by the open window,
looking up through the dark blue water, and watching the
fish as they splashed about with their fins and tails. She
could see the moon and stars shining faintly; but through
the water they looked larger than they do to our eyes. When
something like a black cloud passed between her and them,
she knew that it was either a whale swimming over her head,
or a ship full of human beings, who never imagined that a
pretty little mermaid was standing beneath them, holding out
her white hands towards the keel of their ship.

As soon as the eldest was fifteen, she was allowed to rise
to the surface of the ocean. When she came back, she had
hundreds of things to talk about; but the most beautiful,
she said, was to lie in the moonlight, on a sandbank, in the
quiet sea, near the coast, and to gaze on a large town
nearby, where the lights were twinkling like hundreds of
stars; to listen to the sounds of the music, the noise of
carriages, and the voices of human beings, and then to hear
the merry bells peal out from the church steeples; and
because she could not go near to all those wonderful things,
she longed for them more than ever. Oh, did not the youngest
sister listen eagerly to all these descriptions? and
afterwards, when she stood at the open window looking up
through the dark blue water, she thought of the great city,
with all its bustle and noise, and even fancied she could
hear the sound of the church bells, down in the depths of
the sea.

In another year the second sister received permission to
rise to the surface of the water, and to swim about where
she pleased. She rose just as the sun was setting, and this,
she said, was the most beautiful sight of all. The whole sky
looked like gold, while violet and rose-colored clouds,
which she could not describe, floated over her; and, still
more rapidly than the clouds, flew a large flock of wild
swans towards the setting sun, looking like a long white
veil across the sea. She also swam towards the sun; but it
sunk into the waves, and the rosy tints faded from the
clouds and from the sea.

The third sister’s turn followed; she was the boldest of
them all, and she swam up a broad river that emptied itself
into the sea. On the banks she saw green hills covered with
beautiful vines; palaces and castles peeped out from amid
the proud trees of the forest; she heard the birds singing,
and the rays of the sun were so powerful that she was
obliged often to dive down under the water to cool her
burning face. In a narrow creek she found a whole troop of
little human children, un clothed, and sporting about in the
water; she wanted to play with them, but they fled in a
great fright; and then a little black animal came to the
water; it was a dog, but she did not know that, for she had
never before seen one. This animal barked at her so terribly
that she became frightened, and rushed back to the open sea.
But she said she should never forget the beautiful forest,
the green hills, and the pretty little children who could
swim in the water, although they had not fish’s tails.

The fourth sister was more timid; she remained in the midst
of the sea, but she said it was quite as beautiful there as
nearer the land. She could see for so many miles around her,
and the sky above looked like a bell of glass. She had seen
the ships, but at such a great distance that they looked
like sea-gulls. The dolphins sported in the waves, and the
great whales spouted water from their nostrils till it
seemed as if a hundred fountains were playing in every

The fifth sister’s birthday occurred in the winter; so when
her turn came, she saw what the others had not seen the
first time they went up. The sea looked quite green, and
large icebergs were floating about, each like a pearl, she
said, but larger and loftier than the churches built by men.
They were of the most singular shapes, and glittered like
diamonds. She had seated herself upon one of the largest,
and let the wind play with her long hair, and she remarked
that all the ships sailed by rapidly, and steered as far
away as they could from the iceberg, as if they were afraid
of it. Towards evening, as the sun went down, dark clouds
covered the sky, the thunder rolled and the lightning
flashed, and the red light glowed on the icebergs as they
rocked and tossed on the heaving sea. On all the ships the
sails were reefed with fear and trembling, while she sat
calmly on the floating iceberg, watching the blue lightning,
as it darted its forked flashes into the sea.

When first the sisters had permission to rise to the
surface, they were each delighted with the new and beautiful
sights they saw; but now, as grown-up girls, they could go
when they pleased, and they had become indifferent about it.
They wished themselves back again in the water, and after a
month had passed they said it was much more beautiful down
below, and pleasanter to be at home. Yet often, in the
evening hours, the five sisters would twine their arms round
each other, and rise to the surface, in a row.

They had more beautiful voices than any human being could
have; and before the approach of a storm, and when they
expected a ship would be lost, they swam before the vessel,
and sang sweetly of the delights to be found in the depths
of the sea, and begging the sailors not to fear if they sank
to the bottom. But the sailors could not understand the
song, they took it for the howling of the storm. And these
things were never to be beautiful for them; for if the ship
sank, the men were drowned, and their dead bodies alone
reached the palace of the Sea King.

When the sisters rose, arm-in-arm, through the water in this
way, their youngest sister would stand quite alone, looking
after them, ready to cry, only that the mermaids have no
tears, and therefore they suffer more. “Oh, were I but
fifteen years old,” said she: “I know that I shall love the
world up there, and all the people who live in it.”

At last she reached her fifteenth year. “Well, now, you are
grown up,” said the old dowager, her grandmother; “so you
must let me adorn you like your other sisters;” and she
placed a wreath of white lilies in her hair, and every
flower leaf was half a pearl. Then the old lady ordered
eight great oysters to attach themselves to the tail of the
princess to show her high rank.

“But they hurt me so,” said the little mermaid.

“Pride must suffer pain,” replied the old lady. Oh, how
gladly she would have shaken off all this grandeur, and laid
aside the heavy wreath! The red flowers in her own garden
would have suited her much better, but she could not help
herself: so she said, “Farewell,” and rose as lightly as a
bubble to the surface of the water. The sun had just set as
she raised her head above the waves; but the clouds were
tinted with crimson and gold, and through the glimmering
twilight beamed the evening star in all its beauty. The sea
was calm, and the air mild and fresh. A large ship, with
three masts, lay becalmed on the water, with only one sail
set; for not a breeze stiffed, and the sailors sat idle on
deck or amongst the rigging. There was music and song on
board; and, as darkness came on, a hundred colored lanterns
were lighted, as if the flags of all nations waved in the

The little mermaid swam close to the cabin windows; and now
and then, as the waves lifted her up, she could look in
through clear glass window-panes, and see a number of well-
dressed people within. Among them was a young prince, the
most beautiful of all, with large black eyes; he was sixteen
years of age, and his birthday was being kept with much
rejoicing. The sailors were dancing on deck, but when the
prince came out of the cabin, more than a hundred rockets
rose in the air, making it as bright as day. The little
mermaid was so startled that she dived under water; and when
she again stretched out her head, it appeared as if all the
stars of heaven were falling around her, she had never seen
such fireworks before. Great suns spurted fire about,
splendid fireflies flew into the blue air, and everything
was reflected in the clear, calm sea beneath.

The ship itself was so brightly illuminated that all the
people, and even the smallest rope, could be distinctly and
plainly seen. And how handsome the young prince looked, as
he pressed the hands of all present and smiled at them,
while the music resounded through the clear night air.

It was very late; yet the little mermaid could not take her
eyes from the ship, or from the beautiful prince. The
colored lanterns had been extinguished, no more rockets rose
in the air, and the cannon had ceased firing; but the sea
became restless, and a moaning, grumbling sound could be
heard beneath the waves: still the little mermaid remained
by the cabin window, rocking up and down on the water, which
enabled her to look in. After a while, the sails were
quickly unfurled, and the noble ship continued her passage;
but soon the waves rose higher, heavy clouds darkened the
sky, and lightning appeared in the distance. A dreadful
storm was approaching; once more the sails were reefed, and
the great ship pursued her flying course over the raging

The waves rose mountains high, as if they would have
overtopped the mast; but the ship dived like a swan between
them, and then rose again on their lofty, foaming crests. To
the little mermaid this appeared pleasant sport; not so to
the sailors. At length the ship groaned and creaked; the
thick planks gave way under the lashing of the sea as it
broke over the deck; the mainmast snapped asunder like a
reed; the ship lay over on her side; and the water rushed

The little mermaid now perceived that the crew were in
danger; even she herself was obliged to be careful to avoid
the beams and planks of the wreck which lay scattered on the
water. At one moment it was so pitch dark that she could not
see a single object, but a flash of lightning revealed the
whole scene; she could see every one who had been on board
excepting the prince; when the ship parted, she had seen him
sink into the deep waves, and she was glad, for she thought
he would now be with her; and then she remembered that human
beings could not live in the water, so that when he got down
to her father’s palace he would be quite dead. But he must
not die.

So she swam about among the beams and planks which strewed
the surface of the sea, forgetting that they could crush her
to pieces. Then she dived deeply under the dark waters,
rising and falling with the waves, till at length she
managed to reach the young prince, who was fast losing the
power of swimming in that stormy sea. His limbs were failing
him, his beautiful eyes were closed, and he would have died
had not the little mermaid come to his assistance. She held
his head above the water, and let the waves drift them where
they would.

In the morning the storm had ceased; but of the ship not a
single fragment could be seen. The sun rose up red and
glowing from the water, and its beams brought back the hue
of health to the prince’s cheeks; but his eyes remained
closed. The mermaid kissed his high, smooth forehead, and
stroked back his wet hair; he seemed to her like the marble
statue in her little garden, and she kissed him again, and
wished that he might live.

Presently they came in sight of land; she saw lofty blue
mountains, on which the white snow rested as if a flock of
swans were lying upon them. Near the coast were beautiful
green forests, and close by stood a large building, whether
a church or a convent she could not tell. Orange and citron
trees grew in the garden, and before the door stood lofty
palms. The sea here formed a little bay, in which the water
was quite still, but very deep; so she swam with the
handsome prince to the beach, which was covered with fine,
white sand, and there she laid him in the warm sunshine,
taking care to raise his head higher than his body.

Then bells sounded in the large white building, and a number
of young girls came into the garden. The little mermaid swam
out farther from the shore and placed herself between some
high rocks that rose out of the water; then she covered her
head and neck with the foam of the sea so that her little
face might not be seen, and watched to see what would become
of the poor prince.

She did not wait long before she saw a young girl approach
the spot where he lay. She seemed frightened at first, but
only for a moment; then she fetched a number of people, and
the mermaid saw that the prince came to life again, and
smiled upon those who stood round him. But to her he sent no
smile; he knew not that she had saved him. This made her
very unhappy, and when he was led away into the great
building, she dived down sorrowfully into the water, and
returned to her father’s castle. She had always been silent
and thoughtful, and now she was more so than ever.

Her sisters asked her what she had seen during her first
visit to the surface of the water; but she would tell them
nothing. Many an evening and morning did she rise to the
place where she had left the prince. She saw the fruits in
the garden ripen till they were gathered, the snow on the
tops of the mountains melt away; but she never saw the
prince, and therefore she returned home, always more
sorrowful than before. It was her only comfort to sit in her
own little garden, and fling her arm round the beautiful
marble statue which was like the prince; but she gave up
tending her flowers, and they grew in wild confusion over
the paths, twining their long leaves and stems round the
branches of the trees, so that the whole place became dark
and gloomy.

At length she could bear it no longer, and told one of her
sisters all about it. Then the others heard the secret, and
very soon it became known to two mermaids whose intimate
friend happened to know who the prince was. She had also
seen the festival on board ship, and she told them where the
prince came from, and where his palace stood.

“Come, little sister,” said the other princesses; then they
entwined their arms and rose up in a long row to the surface
of the water, close by the spot where they knew the prince’s
palace stood. It was built of bright yellow shining stone,
with long flights of marble steps, one of which reached
quite down to the sea. Splendid gilded cupolas rose over the
roof, and between the pillars that surrounded the whole
building stood life-like statues of marble. Through the
clear crystal of the lofty windows could be seen noble
rooms, with costly silk curtains and hangings of tapestry;
while the walls were covered with beautiful paintings which
were a pleasure to look at.

In the centre of the largest saloon a fountain threw its
sparkling jets high up into the glass cupola of the ceiling,
through which the sun shone down upon the water and upon the
beautiful plants growing round the basin of the fountain.
Now that she knew where he lived, she spent many an evening
and many a night on the water near the palace. She would
swim much nearer the shore than any of the others ventured
to do; indeed once she went quite up the narrow channel
under the marble balcony, which threw a broad shadow on the
water. Here she would sit and watch the young prince, who
thought himself quite alone in the bright moonlight. She saw
him many times of an evening sailing in a pleasant boat,
with music playing and flags waving. She peeped out from
among the green rushes, and if the wind caught her long
silvery-white veil, those who saw it believed it to be a
swan, spreading out its wings.

On many a night, too, when the fishermen, with their
torches, were out at sea, she heard them relate so many good
things about the doings of the young prince, that she was
glad she had saved his life when he had been tossed about
half-dead on the waves. And she remembered that his head had
rested on her bosom, and how heartily she had kissed him;
but he knew nothing of all this, and could not even dream of
her. She grew more and more fond of human beings, and wished
more and more to be able to wander about with those whose
world seemed to be so much larger than her own.

They could fly over the sea in ships, and mount the high
hills which were far above the clouds; and the lands they
possessed, their woods and their fields, stretched far away
beyond the reach of her sight. There was so much that she
wished to know, and her sisters were unable to answer all
her questions. Then she applied to her old grandmother, who
knew all about the upper world, which she very rightly
called the lands above the sea.

“If human beings are not drowned,” asked the little mermaid,
“can they live forever? do they never die as we do here in
the sea?”

“Yes,” replied the old lady, “they must also die, and their
term of life is even shorter than ours. We sometimes live to
three hundred years, but when we cease to exist here we only
become the foam on the surface of the water, and we have not
even a grave down here of those we love. We have not
immortal souls, we shall never live again; but, like the
green sea-weed, when once it has been cut off, we can never
flourish more. Human beings, on the contrary, have a soul
which lives forever, lives after the body has been turned to
dust. It rises up through the clear, pure air beyond the
glittering stars. As we rise out of the water, and behold
all the land of the earth, so do they rise to unknown and
glorious regions which we shall never see.”

“Why have not we an immortal soul?” asked the little mermaid
mournfully; “I would give gladly all the hundreds of years
that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day,
and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that
glorious world above the stars.”

“You must not think of that,” said the old woman; “we feel
ourselves to be much happier and much better off than human

“So I shall die,” said the little mermaid, “and as the foam
of the sea I shall be driven about never again to hear the
music of the waves, or to see the pretty flowers nor the red
sun. Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?”

“No,” said the old woman, “unless a man were to love you so
much that you were more to him than his father or mother;
and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon
you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he
promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul
would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in
the future happiness of mankind. He would give a soul to you
and retain his own as well; but this can never happen. Your
fish’s tail, which amongst us is considered so beautiful, is
thought on earth to be quite ugly; they do not know any
better, and they think it necessary to have two stout props,
which they call legs, in order to be handsome.”

Then the little mermaid sighed, and looked sorrowfully at
her fish’s tail. “Let us be happy,” said the old lady, “and
dart and spring about during the three hundred years that we
have to live, which is really quite long enough; after that
we can rest ourselves all the better. This evening we are
going to have a court ball.”

It is one of those splendid sights which we can never see on
earth. The walls and the ceiling of the large ball-room were
of thick, but transparent crystal. May hundreds of colossal
shells, some of a deep red, others of a grass green, stood
on each side in rows, with blue fire in them, which lighted
up the whole saloon, and shone through the walls, so that
the sea was also illuminated.

Innumerable fishes, great and small, swam past the crystal
walls; on some of them the scales glowed with a purple
brilliancy, and on others they shone like silver and gold.
Through the halls flowed a broad stream, and in it danced
the mermen and the mermaids to the music of their own sweet
singing. No one on earth has such a lovely voice as theirs.
The little mermaid sang more sweetly than them all. The
whole court applauded her with hands and tails; and for a
moment her heart felt quite gay, for she knew she had the
loveliest voice of any on earth or in the sea.

But she soon thought again of the world above her, for she
could not forget the charming prince, nor her sorrow that
she had not an immortal soul like his; therefore she crept
away silently out of her father’s palace, and while
everything within was gladness and song, she sat in her own
little garden sorrowful and alone. Then she heard the bugle
sounding through the water, and thought—“He is certainly
sailing above, he on whom my wishes depend, and in whose
hands I should like to place the happiness of my life. I
will venture all for him, and to win 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 much afraid,
but she can give me counsel and help.”

And then the little mermaid went out from her garden, and
took the road to the foaming whirlpools, behind which the
sorceress lived. She had never been that way before: neither
flowers nor grass grew there; nothing but bare, gray, sandy
ground stretched out to the whirlpool, where the water, like
foaming mill-wheels, whirled round everything that it
seized, and cast it into the fathomless deep.

Through the midst of these crushing whirlpools the little
mermaid was obliged to pass, to reach the dominions of the
sea witch; and also for a long distance the only road lay
right across a quantity of warm, bubbling mire, called by
the witch her turfmoor. Beyond this stood her house, in the
centre of a strange forest, in which all the trees and
flowers were polypi, half animals and half plants; they
looked like serpents with a hundred heads growing out of the
ground. The branches were long slimy arms, with fingers like
flexible worms, moving limb after limb from the root to the
top. All that could be reached in the sea they seized upon,
and held fast, so that it never escaped from their clutches.

The little mermaid was so alarmed at what she saw, that she
stood still, and her heart beat with fear, and she was very
nearly turning back; but she thought of the prince, and of
the human soul for which she longed, and her courage
returned. She fastened her long flowing hair round her head,
so that the polypi might not seize hold of it. She laid her
hands together across her bosom, and then she darted forward
as a fish shoots through the water, between the supple arms
and fingers of the ugly polypi, which were stretched out on
each side of her. She saw that each held in its grasp
something it had seized with its numerous little arms, as if
they were iron bands. The white skeletons of human beings
who had perished at sea, and had sunk down into the deep
waters, skeletons of land animals, oars, rudders, and chests
of ships were lying tightly grasped by their clinging arms;
even a little mermaid, whom they had caught and strangled;
and this seemed the most shocking of all to the little

She now came to a space of marshy ground in the wood, where
large, fat water-snakes were rolling in the mire, and
showing their ugly, drab-colored bodies. In the midst of
this spot stood a house, built with the bones of shipwrecked
human beings. There sat the sea witch, allowing a toad to
eat from her mouth, just as people sometimes feed a canary
with a piece of sugar. She called the ugly water-snakes her
little chickens, and allowed them to crawl all over her

“I know what you want,” said the sea witch; “it is very
stupid of you, but you shall have your way, and it will
bring you to sorrow, my pretty princess. You want to get rid
of your fish’s tail, and to have two supports instead of it,
like human beings on earth, so that the young prince may
fall in love with you, and that you may have an immortal
soul.” And then the witch laughed so loud and disgustingly,
that the toad and the snakes fell to the ground, and lay
there wriggling about.

“You are but just in time,” said the witch; “for after
sunrise to-morrow I should not be able to help you till the
end of another year. I will prepare a draught for you, with
which you must swim to land tomorrow before sunrise, and sit
down on the shore and drink it. Your tail will then
disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and
you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through
you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest
little human being they ever saw. You will still have the
same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will
ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will
feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the
blood must flow. If you will bear all this, I will help

“Yes, I will,” said the little princess in a trembling
voice, as she thought of the prince and the immortal soul.

“But think again,” said the witch; “for when once your shape
has become like a human being, you can no more be a mermaid.
You will never return through the water to your sisters, or
to your father’s palace again; and if you do not win the
love of the prince, so that he is willing to forget his
father and mother for your sake, and to love you with his
whole soul, and allow the priest to join your hands that you
may be man and wife, then you will never have an immortal
soul. The first morning after he marries another your heart
will break, and you will become foam on the crest of the

“I will do it,” said the little mermaid, and she became pale
as death.

“But I must be paid also,” said the witch, “and it is not a
trifle that I ask. You have the sweetest voice of any who
dwell here in the depths of the sea, and you believe that
you will be able to charm the prince with it also, but this
voice you must give to me; the best thing you possess will I
have for the price of my draught. My own blood must be mixed
with it, that it may be as sharp as a two-edged sword.”

“But if you take away my voice,” said the little mermaid,
“what is left for me?”

“Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your
expressive eyes; surely with these you can enchain a man’s
heart. Well, have you lost your courage? Put out your little
tongue that I may cut it off as my payment; then you shall
have the powerful draught.”

“It shall be,” said the little mermaid.

Then the witch placed her cauldron on the fire, to prepare
the magic draught.

“Cleanliness is a good thing,” said she, scouring the vessel
with snakes, which she had tied together in a large knot;
then she pricked herself in the breast, and let the black
blood drop into it. The steam that rose formed itself into
such horrible shapes that no one could look at them without
fear. Every moment the witch threw something else into the
vessel, and when it began to boil, the sound was like the
weeping of a crocodile. When at last the magic draught was
ready, it looked like the clearest water. “There it is for
you,” said the witch. Then she cut off the mermaid’s tongue,
so that she became dumb, and would never again speak or
sing. “If the polypi should seize hold of you as you return
through the wood,” said the witch, “throw over them a few
drops of the potion, and their fingers will be torn into a
thousand pieces.” But the little mermaid had no occasion to
do this, for the polypi sprang back in terror when they
caught sight of the glittering draught, which shone in her
hand like a twinkling star.

So she passed quickly through the wood and the marsh, and
between the rushing whirlpools. She saw that in her father’s
palace the torches in the ballroom were extinguished, and
all within asleep; but she did not venture to go in to them,
for now she was dumb and going to leave them forever, she
felt as if her heart would break. She stole into the garden,
took a flower from the flower-beds of each of her sisters,
kissed her hand a thousand times towards the palace, and
then rose up through the dark blue waters. The sun had not
risen when she came in sight of the prince’s palace, and
approached the beautiful marble steps, but the moon shone
clear and bright.

Then the little mermaid drank the magic draught, and it
seemed as if a two-edged sword went through her delicate
body: she fell into a swoon, and lay like one dead. When the
sun arose and shone over the sea, she recovered, and felt a
sharp pain; but just before her stood the handsome young

He fixed his coal-black eyes upon her so earnestly that she
cast down her own, and then became aware that her fish’s
tail was gone, and that she had as pretty a pair of white
legs and tiny feet as any little maiden could have; but she
had no clothes, so she wrapped herself in her long, thick
hair. The prince asked her who she was, and where she came
from, and she looked at him mildly and sorrowfully with her
deep blue eyes; but she could not speak.

Every step she took was as the witch had said it would be,
she felt as if treading upon the points of needles or sharp
knives; but she bore it willingly, and stepped as lightly by
the prince’s side as a soap-bubble, so that he and all who
saw her wondered at her graceful-swaying movements. She was
very soon arrayed in costly robes of silk and muslin, and
was the most beautiful creature in the palace; but she was
dumb, and could neither speak nor sing.

Beautiful female slaves, dressed in silk and gold, stepped
forward and sang before the prince and his royal parents:
one sang better than all the others, and the prince clapped
his hands and smiled at her. This was great sorrow to the
little mermaid; she knew how much more sweetly she herself
could sing once, and she thought, “Oh if he could only know
that! I have given away my voice forever, to be with him.”

The slaves next performed some pretty fairy-like dances, to
the sound of beautiful music. Then the little mermaid raised
her lovely white arms, stood on the tips of her toes, and
glided over the floor, and danced as no one yet had been
able to dance. At each moment her beauty became more
revealed, and her expressive eyes appealed more directly to
the heart than the songs of the slaves. Every one was
enchanted, especially the prince, who called her his little
foundling; and she danced again quite readily, to please
him, though each time her foot touched the floor it seemed
as if she trod on sharp knives.

The prince said she should remain with him always, and she
received permission to sleep at his door, on a velvet
cushion. He had a page’s dress made for her, that she might
accompany him on horseback. They rode together through the
sweet-scented woods, where the green boughs touched their
shoulders, and the little birds sang among the fresh leaves.
She climbed with the prince to the tops of high mountains;
and although her tender feet bled so that even her steps
were marked, she only laughed, and followed him till they
could see the clouds beneath them looking like a flock of
birds travelling to distant lands. While at the prince’s
palace, and when all the household were asleep, she would go
and sit on the broad marble steps; for it eased her burning
feet to bathe them in the cold sea-water; and then she
thought of all those below in the deep.

Once during the night her sisters came up arm-in-arm,
singing sorrowfully, as they floated on the water. She
beckoned to them, and then they recognized her, and told her
how she had grieved them. After that, they came to the same
place every night; and once she saw in the distance her old
grandmother, who had not been to the surface of the sea for
many years, and the old Sea King, her father, with his crown
on his head. They stretched out their hands towards her, but
they did not venture so near the land as her sisters did.

As the days passed, she loved the prince more fondly, and he
loved her as he would love a little child, but it never came
into his head to make her his wife; yet, unless he married
her, she could not receive an immortal soul; and, on the
morning after his marriage with another, she would dissolve
into the foam of the sea.

“Do you not love me the best of them all?” the eyes of the
little mermaid seemed to say, when he took her in his arms,
and kissed her fair forehead.

“Yes, you are dear to me,” said the prince; “for you have
the best heart, and you are the most devoted to me; you are
like a young maiden whom I once saw, but whom I shall never
meet again. I was in a ship that was wrecked, and the waves
cast me ashore near a holy temple, where several young
maidens performed the service. The youngest of them found me
on the shore, and saved my life. I saw her but twice, and
she is the only one in the world whom I could love; but you
are like her, and you have almost driven her image out of my
mind. She belongs to the holy temple, and my good fortune
has sent you to me instead of her; and we will never part.”

“Ah, he knows not that it was I who saved his life,” thought
the little mermaid. “I carried him over the sea to the wood
where the temple stands: I sat beneath the foam, and watched
till the human beings came to help him. I saw the pretty
maiden that he loves better than he loves me;” and the
mermaid sighed deeply, but she could not shed tears. “He
says the maiden belongs to the holy temple, therefore she
will never return to the world. They will meet no more:
while I am by his side, and see him every day. I will take
care of him, and love him, and give up my life for his

Very soon it was said that the prince must marry, and that
the beautiful daughter of a neighboring king would be his
wife, for a fine ship was being fitted out. Although the
prince gave out that he merely intended to pay a visit to
the king, it was generally supposed that he really went to
see his daughter. A great company were to go with him. The
little mermaid smiled, and shook her head. She knew the
prince’s thoughts better than any of the others.

“I must travel,” he had said to her; “I must see this
beautiful princess; my parents desire it; but they will not
oblige me to bring her home as my bride. I cannot love her;
she is not like the beautiful maiden in the temple, whom you
resemble. If I were forced to choose a bride, I would rather
choose you, my dumb foundling, with those expressive eyes.”
And then he kissed her rosy mouth, played with her long
waving 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 the deck of the noble ship which was to carry them
to the country of the neighboring king. And then he told her
of storm and of calm, of strange fishes in the deep beneath
them, and of what the divers had seen there; and she smiled
at his descriptions, for she knew better than any one what
wonders were at the bottom of the sea.

In the moonlight, when all on board were asleep, excepting
the man at the helm, who was steering, she sat on the deck,
gazing down through the clear water. She thought she could
distinguish her father’s castle, and upon it her aged
grandmother, with the silver crown on her head, looking
through the rushing tide at the keel of the vessel. Then her
sisters came up on the waves, and gazed at her mournfully,
wringing their white hands. She beckoned to them, and
smiled, and wanted to tell them how happy and well off she
was; but the cabin-boy approached, and when her sisters
dived down he thought it was only the foam of the sea which
he saw.

The next morning the ship sailed into the harbor of a
beautiful town belonging to the king whom the prince was
going to visit. The church bells were ringing, and from the
high towers sounded a flourish of trumpets; and soldiers,
with flying colors and glittering bayonets, lined the rocks
through which they passed. Every day was a festival; balls
and entertainments followed one another.

But the princess had not yet appeared. People said that she
was being brought up and educated in a religious house,
where she was learning every royal virtue. At last she came.
Then the little mermaid, who was very anxious to see whether
she was really beautiful, was obliged to acknowledge that
she had never seen a more perfect vision of beauty. Her skin
was delicately fair, and beneath her long dark eye-lashes
her laughing blue eyes shone with truth and purity.

“It was you,” said the prince, “who saved my life when I lay
dead on the beach,” and he folded his blushing bride in his
arms. “Oh, I am too happy,” said he to the little mermaid;
“my fondest hopes are all fulfilled. You will rejoice at my
happiness; for your devotion to me is great and sincere.”

The little mermaid kissed his hand, and felt as if her heart
were already broken. His wedding morning would bring death
to her, and she would change into the foam of the sea. All
the church bells rung, and the heralds rode about the town
proclaiming the betrothal. Perfumed oil was burning in
costly silver lamps on every altar. The priests waved the
censers, while the bride and bridegroom joined their hands
and received the blessing of the bishop. The little mermaid,
dressed in silk and gold, held up the bride’s train; but her
ears heard nothing of the festive music, and her eyes saw
not the holy ceremony; she thought of the night of death
which was coming to her, and of all she had lost in the

On the same evening the bride and bridegroom went on board
ship; cannons were roaring, flags waving, and in the centre
of the ship a costly tent of purple and gold had been
erected. It contained elegant couches, for the reception of
the bridal pair during the night. The ship, with swelling
sails and a favorable wind, glided away smoothly and lightly
over the calm sea. When it grew dark a number of colored
lamps were lit, and the sailors danced merrily on the deck.

The little mermaid could not help thinking of her first
rising out of the sea, when she had seen similar festivities
and joys; and she joined in the dance, poised herself in the
air as a swallow when he pursues his prey, and all present
cheered her with wonder. She had never danced so elegantly
before. Her tender feet felt as if cut with sharp knives,
but she cared not for it; a sharper pang had pierced through
her heart. She knew this was the last evening she should
ever see the prince, for whom she had forsaken her kindred
and her home; she had given up her beautiful voice, and
suffered unheard-of pain daily for him, while he knew
nothing of it.

This was the last evening that she would breathe the same
air with him, or gaze on the starry sky and the deep sea; an
eternal night, without a thought or a dream, awaited her:
she had no soul and now she could never win one. All was joy
and gayety on board ship till long after midnight; she
laughed and danced with the rest, while the thoughts of
death were in her heart.

The prince kissed his beautiful bride, while she played with
his raven hair, till they went arm-in-arm to rest in the
splendid tent. Then all became still on board the ship; the
helmsman, alone awake, stood at the helm. The little mermaid
leaned her white arms on the edge of the vessel, and looked
towards the east for the first blush of morning, for that
first ray of dawn that would bring her death. She saw her
sisters rising out of the flood: they were as pale as
herself; but their long beautiful hair waved no more in the
wind, and had been cut off.

“We have given our hair to the witch,” said they, “to obtain
help for you, that you may not die to-night. She has given
us a knife: here it is, see it is very sharp. Before the sun
rises you must plunge it into the heart of the prince; when
the warm blood falls upon your feet they will grow together
again, and form into a fish’s tail, and you will be once
more a mermaid, and return to us to live out your three
hundred years before you die and change into the salt sea
foam. Haste, then; he or you must die before sunrise. Our
old grandmother moans so for you, that her white hair is
falling off from sorrow, as ours fell under the witch’s
scissors. Kill the prince and come back; hasten: do you not
see the first red streaks in the sky? In a few minutes the
sun will rise, and you must die.” And then they sighed
deeply and mournfully, and sank down beneath the waves.

The little mermaid drew back the crimson curtain of the
tent, and beheld the fair bride with her head resting on the
prince’s breast. She bent down and kissed his fair brow,
then looked at the sky on which the rosy dawn grew brighter
and brighter; then she glanced at the sharp knife, and again
fixed her eyes on the prince, who whispered the name of his
bride in his dreams. She was in his thoughts, and the knife
trembled in the hand of the little mermaid: then she flung
it far away from her into the waves; the water turned red
where it fell, and the drops that spurted up looked like

She cast one more lingering, half-fainting glance at the
prince, and then threw herself from the ship into the sea,
and thought her body was dissolving into foam. The sun rose
above the waves, and his warm rays fell on the cold foam of
the little mermaid, who did not feel as if she were dying.

She saw the bright sun, and all around her floated hundreds
of transparent beautiful beings; she could see through them
the white sails of the ship, and the red clouds in the sky;
their speech was melodious, but too ethereal to be heard by
mortal ears, as they were also unseen by mortal eyes. The
little mermaid perceived that she had a body like theirs,
and that she continued to rise higher and higher out of the
foam. “Where am I?” asked she, and her voice sounded
ethereal, as the voice of those who were with her; no
earthly music could imitate it.

“Among the daughters of the air,” answered one of them. “A
mermaid has not an immortal soul, nor can she obtain one
unless she wins the love of a human being. On the power of
another hangs her eternal destiny. But the daughters of the
air, although they do not possess an immortal soul, can, by
their good deeds, procure one for themselves. We fly to warm
countries, and cool the sultry air that destroys mankind
with the pestilence. We carry the perfume of the flowers to
spread health and restoration. After we have striven for
three hundred years to all the good in our power, we receive
an immortal soul and take part in the happiness of mankind.
You, poor little mermaid, have tried with your whole heart
to do as we are doing; you have suffered and endured and
raised yourself to the spirit-world by your good deeds; and
now, by striving for three hundred years in the same way,
you may obtain an immortal soul.”

The little mermaid lifted her glorified eyes towards the
sun, and felt them, for the first time, filling with tears.
On the ship, in which she had left the prince, there were
life and noise; she saw him and his beautiful bride
searching for her; sorrowfully they gazed at the pearly
foam, as if they knew she had thrown herself into the waves.
Unseen she kissed the forehead of her bride, and fanned the
prince, and then mounted with the other children of the air
to a rosy cloud that floated through the aether.

“After three hundred years, thus shall we float into the
kingdom of heaven,” said she. “And we may even get there
sooner,” whispered one of her companions. “Unseen we can
enter the houses of men, where there are children, and for
every day on which we find a good child, who is the joy of
his parents and deserves their love, our time of probation
is shortened. The child does not know, when we fly through
the room, that we smile with joy at his good conduct, for we
can count one year less of our three hundred years. But when
we see a naughty or a wicked child, we shed tears of sorrow,
and for every tear a day is added to our time of trial!”

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