The little mermaid


Den lille havfrue

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 towns."

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, quite naked, 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 direction.

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 air. 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 sea. 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 in. 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 beings."

"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 princess.

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 bosom.

"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 you."

"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 waves."

"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 prince. 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 sake."

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 world. 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 blood. 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!"
Langt ude i havet er vandet så blåt, som bladene på den dejligste kornblomst og så klart, som det reneste glas, men det er meget dybt, dybere end noget ankertov når, mange kirketårne måtte stilles oven på hinanden, for at række fra bunden op over vandet. Dernede bor havfolkene.

Nu må man slet ikke tro, at der kun er den nøgne hvide sandbund; nej, der vokser de forunderligste træer og planter, som er så smidige i stilk og blade, at de ved den mindste bevægelse af vandet rører sig, ligesom om de var levende. Alle fiskene, små og store, smutter imellem grenene, ligesom heroppe fuglene i luften. På det allerdybeste sted ligger havkongens slot, murene er af koraller og de lange spidse vinduer af det allerklareste rav, men taget er muslingeskaller, der åbner og lukker sig, eftersom vandet går; det ser dejligt ud; thi i hver ligger strålende perler, én eneste ville være stor stads i en dronnings krone.

Havkongen dernede havde i mange år været enkemand, men hans gamle moder holdt hus for ham, hun var en klog kone, men stolt af sin adel, derfor gik hun med tolv østers på halen, de andre fornemme måtte kun bære seks. Ellers fortjente hun megen ros, især fordi hun holdt så meget af de små havprinsesser, hendes sønnedøtre. De var 6 dejlige børn, men den yngste var den smukkeste af dem alle sammen, hendes hud var så klar og skær som et rosenblad, hendes øjne så blå, som den dybeste sø, men ligesom alle de andre havde hun ingen fødder, kroppen endte i en fiskehale.

Hele den lange dag kunne de lege nede i slottet, i de store sale, hvor levende blomster voksede ud af væggene. De store ravvinduer blev lukket op, og så svømmede fiskene ind til dem, ligesom hos os svalerne flyver ind, når vi lukker op, men fiskene svømmede lige hen til de små prinsesser, spiste af deres hånd og lod sig klappe.

Uden for slottet var en stor have med ildrøde og mørkeblå træer, frugterne strålede som guld, og blomsterne som en brændende ild, i det de altid bevægede stilk og blade. Jorden selv var det fineste sand, men blåt, som svovllue. Over det hele dernede lå et forunderligt blåt skær, man skulle snarere tro, at man stod højt oppe i luften og kun så himmel over og under sig, end at man var på havets bund. I blikstille kunne man øjne solen, den syntes en purpurblomst, fra hvis bæger det hele lys udstrømmede.

Hver af de små prinsesser havde sin lille plet i haven, hvor hun kunne grave og plante, som hun selv ville; én gav sin blomsterplet skikkelse af en hvalfisk, en anden syntes bedre om, at hendes lignede en lille havfrue, men den yngste gjorde sin ganske rund ligesom solen, og havde kun blomster, der skinnede røde som den. Hun var et underligt barn, stille og eftertænksom, og når de andre søstre pyntede op med de forunderligste ting de havde fået fra strandede skibe, ville hun kun, foruden de rosenrøde blomster, som lignede solen der højt oppe, have en smuk marmorstøtte, en dejlig dreng var det, hugget ud af den hvide, klare sten og ved stranding kommet ned på havbunden. Hun plantede ved støtten en rosenrød grædepil, den voksede herligt, og hang med sine friske grene ud over den, ned mod den blå sandbund, hvor skyggen viste sig violet og var i bevægelse, ligesom grenene; det så ud, som om top og rødder legede at kysse hinanden.

Ingen glæde var hende større, end at høre om menneskeverdenen der ovenfor; den gamle bedstemoder måtte fortælle alt det hun vidste om skibe og byer, mennesker og dyr, især syntes det hende forunderligt dejligt, at oppe på jorden duftede blomsterne, det gjorde ikke de på havets bund, og at skovene var grønne og de fisk, som der sås mellem grenene, kunne synge så højt og dejligt, så det var en lyst; det var de små fugle, som bedstemoderen kaldte fisk, for ellers kunne de ikke forstå hende, da de ikke havde set en fugl.

"Når I fylder eders 15 år," sagde bedstemoderen, "så skal I få lov til at dykke op af havet, sidde i måneskin på klipperne og se de store skibe, som sejler forbi, skove og byer skal I se!" I året, som kom, var den ene af søstrene 15 år, men de andre, ja den ene var et år yngre end den anden, den yngste af dem havde altså endnu hele fem år før hun turde komme op fra havets bund og se, hvorledes det så ud hos os. Men den ene lovede den anden at fortælle, hvad hun havde set og fundet dejligst den første dag; thi deres bedstemoder fortalte dem ikke nok, der var så meget de måtte have besked om.

Ingen var så længselsfuld, som den yngste, just hun, som havde længst tid at vente og som var så stille og tankefuld. Mangen nat stod hun ved det åbne vindue og så op igennem det mørkeblå vand, hvor fiskene slog med deres finner og hale. Måne og stjerner kunne hun se, rigtignok skinnede de ganske blege, men gennem vandet så de meget større ud end for vore øjne; gled der da ligesom en sort sky hen under dem, da vidste hun, at det enten var en hvalfisk, som svømmede over hende, eller også et skib med mange mennesker; de tænkte vist ikke på, at en dejlig lille havfrue stod nedenfor og rakte sine hvide hænder op imod kølen.

Nu var da den ældste prinsesse 15 år og turde stige op over havfladen.

Da hun kom tilbage, havde hun hundrede ting at fortælle, men det dejligste, sagde hun, var at ligge i måneskin på en sandbanke i den rolige sø, og se tæt ved kysten den store stad, hvor lysene blinkede, ligesom hundrede stjerner, høre musikken og den larm og støj af vogne og mennesker, se de mange kirketårne og spir, og høre hvor klokkerne ringede; just fordi hun ikke kunne komme derop, længtes hun allermest efter alt dette.

Oh! hvor hørte ikke den yngste søster efter, og når hun siden om aftnen stod ved det åbne vindue og så op igennem det mørkeblå vand, tænkte hun på den store stad med al den larm og støj, og da syntes hun at kunne høre kirkeklokkerne ringe ned til sig.

Året efter fik den anden søster lov til at stige op gennem vandet og svømme hvorhen hun ville. Hun dykkede op, just i det solen gik ned, og det syn fandt hun var det dejligste. Hele himlen havde set ud som guld, sagde hun, og skyerne, ja, deres dejlighed kunne hun ikke nok beskrive! røde og violette havde de sejlet hen over hende, men langt hurtigere, end de, fløj, som et langt hvidt slør, en flok af vilde svaner hen over vandet hvor solen stod; hun svømmede hen imod den, men den sank og rosenskæret slukkedes på havfladen og skyerne.

Året efter kom den tredje søster derop, hun var den dristigste af dem alle, derfor svømmede hun op ad en bred flod, der løb ud i havet. Dejlige grønne høje med vinranker så hun, slotte og gårde tittede frem mellem prægtige skove; hun hørte, hvor alle fuglene sang og solen skinnede så varmt, at hun tit måtte dykke under vandet, for at køle sit brændende ansigt. I en lille bugt traf hun en hel flok små menneskebørn; ganske nøgne løb de og plaskede i vandet, hun ville lege med dem, men de løb forskrækkede deres vej, og der kom et lille sort dyr, det var en hund, men hun havde aldrig før set en hund, den gøede så forskrækkeligt af hende, at hun blev angst og søgte ud i den åbne sø, men aldrig kunne hun glemme de prægtige skove, de grønne høje og de nydelige børn, som kunne svømme på vandet, skønt de ingen fiskehale havde.

Den fjerde søster var ikke så dristig, hun blev midt ude på det vilde hav, og fortalte, at der var just det dejligste; man så mange mile bort rundt omkring sig, og himlen ovenover stod ligesom en stor glasklokke. Skibe havde hun set, men langt borte, de så ud som strandmåger, de morsomme delfiner havde slået kolbøtter, og de store hvalfisk havde sprøjtet vand op af deres næsebor, så at det havde set ud, som hundrede vandspring rundt om.

Nu kom turen til den femte søster; hendes fødselsdag var just om vinteren og derfor så hun, hvad de andre ikke havde set første gang. Søen tog sig ganske grøn ud og rundt om svømmede der store isbjerge, hvert så ud som en perle, sagde hun, og var dog langt større end de kirketårne, menneskene byggede. I de forunderligste skikkelser viste de sig og glimrede som diamanter. Hun havde sat sig på et af de største og alle sejlere krydsede forskrækkede uden om, hvor hun sad og lod blæsten flyve med sit lange hår; men ud på aftnen blev himlen overtrukket med skyer, det lynede og tordnede, medens den sorte sø løftede de store isblokke højt op og lod dem skinne ved de røde lyn. På alle skibe tog man sejlene ind, der var en angst og gru, men hun sad rolig på sit svømmende isbjerg og så den blå lynstråle slå i siksak ned i den skinnende sø.

Den første gang en af søstrene kom over vandet, var enhver altid henrykt over det nye og smukke hun så, men da de nu, som voksne piger, havde lov at stige derop når de ville, blev det dem ligegyldigt, de længtes igen efter hjemmet, og efter en måneds forløb sagde de, at nede hos dem var dog allersmukkest, og der var man så rart hjemme.

Mangen aftenstund tog de fem søstre hinanden i armene og steg i række op over vandet; dejlige stemmer havde de, smukkere, end noget menneske, og når det da trak op til en storm, så de kunne tro, at skibe måtte forlise, svømmede de foran skibene og sang så dejligt, om hvor smukt der var på havets bund, og bad søfolkene, ikke være bange for at komme derned; men disse kunne ikke forstå ordene, de troede, at det var stormen, og de fik heller ikke dejligheden dernede at se, thi når skibet sank, druknede menneskene, og kom kun som døde til havkongens slot.

Når søstrene således om aftnen, arm i arm, steg højt op gennem havet, da stod den lille søster ganske alene tilbage og så efter dem, og det var som om hun skulle græde, men havfruen har ingen tårer, og så lider hun meget mere.

"Ak, var jeg dog 15 år!" sagde hun, "jeg ved, at jeg ret vil komme til at holde af den verden der ovenfor og af menneskene, som bygger og bor deroppe!"

Endelig var hun da de 15 år.

"Se nu har vi dig fra hånden," sagde hendes bedstemoder, den gamle enkedronning. "Kom nu, lad mig pynte dig, ligesom dine andre søstre!" og hun satte hende en krans af hvide liljer på håret, men hvert blad i blomsten var det halve af en perle; og den gamle lod 8 store østers klemme sig fast ved prinsessens hale, for at vise hendes høje stand.

"Det gør så ondt!" sagde den lille havfrue.

"Ja man må lide noget for stadsen!" sagde den gamle.

Oh! hun ville så gerne have rystet hele denne pragt af sig og lagt den tunge krans; hendes røde blomster i haven klædte hende meget bedre, men hun turde nu ikke gøre det om. "Farvel" sagde hun og steg så let og klar, som en boble, op gennem vandet.

Solen var lige gået ned, idet hun løftede sit hoved op over havet, men alle skyerne skinnede endnu som roser og guld, og midt i den blegrøde luft strålede aftenstjernen så klart og dejligt, luften var mild og frisk og havet blikstille. Der lå et stort skib med tre master, et eneste sejl var kun oppe, thi ikke en vind rørte sig og rundt om i tovværket og på stængerne sad matroser. Der var musik og sang, og alt som aftnen blev mørkere, tændtes hundrede brogede lygter; de så ud, som om alle nationers flag vajede i luften. Den lille havfrue svømmede lige hen til kahytsvinduet, og hver gang vandet løftede hende i vejret, kunne hun se ind af de spejlklare ruder, hvor så mange pyntede mennesker stod, men den smukkeste var dog den unge prins med de store sorte øjne, han var vist ikke meget over 16 år, det var hans fødselsdag, og derfor skete al denne stads. Matroserne dansede på dækket, og da den unge prins trådte derud, steg over hundrede raketter op i luften, de lyste, som den klare dag, så den lille havfrue blev ganske forskrækket og dukkede ned under vandet, men hun stak snart hovedet igen op, og da var det ligesom om alle himlens stjerner faldt ned til hende. Aldrig havde hun set sådanne ildkunster. Store sole snurrede rundt, prægtige ildfisk svingede sig i den blå luft, og alting skinnede tilbage fra den klare, stille sø. På skibet selv var så lyst, at man kunne se hvert lille tov, sagtens menneskene. Oh hvor dog den unge prins var smuk, og han trykkede folkene i hånden, lo og smilede, mens musikken klang i den dejlige nat.

Det blev silde, men den lille havfrue kunne ikke vende sine øjne bort fra skibet og fra den dejlige prins. De brogede lygter blev slukket, Raketterne steg ikke mere i vejret, der lød heller ingen flere kanonskud, men dybt nede i havet summede og brummede det, hun sad i medens på vandet og gyngede op og ned, så at hun kunne se ind i kahytten; men skibet tog stærkere fart, det ene sejl bredte sig ud efter det andet, nu gik bølgerne stærkere, store skyer trak op, det lynede langt borte. Oh, det ville blive et skrækkeligt vejr! derfor tog matroserne sejlene ind. Det store skib gyngede i flyvende fart på den vilde sø, vandet rejste sig, ligesom store sorte bjerge, der ville vælte over masten, men skibet dykkede, som en svane, ned imellem de høje bølger og lod sig igen løfte op på de tårnende vande. Det syntes den lille havfrue just var en morsom fart, men det syntes søfolkene ikke, skibet knagede og bragede, de tykke planker bugnede ved de stærke stød, søen gjorde ind mod skibet, Masten knækkede midt over, ligesom den var et rør, og skibet slingrede på siden, mens vandet trængte ind i rummet. Nu så den lille havfrue, at de var i fare, hun måtte selv tage sig i agt for bjælker og stumper af skibet, der drev på vandet. Ét øjeblik var det så kullende mørkt, at hun ikke kunne øjne det mindste, men når det så lynede, blev det igen så klart, at hun kendte dem alle på skibet; hver tumlede sig det bedste han kunne; den unge prins søgte hun især efter, og hun så ham, da skibet skiltes ad, synke ned i den dybe sø. Lige straks blev hun ganske fornøjet, for nu kom han ned til hende, men så huskede hun, at menneskene ikke kan leve i vandet, og at han ikke, uden som død, kunne komme ned til hendes faders slot. Nej dø, det måtte han ikke; derfor svømmede hun hen mellem bjælker og planker, der drev på søen, glemte rent, at de kunne have knust hende, hun dykkede dybt under vandet og steg igen højt op imellem bølgerne, og kom så til sidst hen til den unge prins, som næsten ikke kunne svømme længere i den stormende sø, hans arme og ben begyndte at blive matte, de smukke øjne lukkede sig, han havde måttet dø, var ikke den lille havfrue kommet til. Hun holdt hans hoved op over vandet, og lod så bølgerne drive hende med ham, hvorhen de ville.

I morgenstunden var det onde vejr forbi; af skibet var ikke en spån at se, solen steg så rød og skinnende op af vandet, det var ligesom om prinsens kinder fik liv derved, men øjnene forblev lukkede; havfruen kyssede hans høje smukke pande og strøg hans våde hår tilbage; hun syntes, han lignede marmorstøtten nede i hendes lille have, hun kyssede ham igen, og ønskede, at han dog måtte leve.

Nu så hun foran sig det faste land, høje blå bjerge, på hvis top den hvide sne skinnede, som var det svaner, der lå; nede ved kysten var dejlige grønne skove, og foran lå en kirke eller et kloster, det vidste hun ikke ret, men en bygning var det. Citron- og appelsintræer voksede der i haven, og foran porten stod høje palmetræer. Søen gjorde her en lille bugt, der var blikstille, men meget dybt, lige hen til klippen, hvor det hvide fine sand var skyllet op, her svømmede hun hen med den smukke prins, lagde ham i sandet, men sørgede især for, at hovedet lå højt i det varme solskin.

Nu ringede klokkerne i den store hvide bygning, og der kom mange unge piger gennem haven. Da svømmede den lille havfrue længere ud bag nogle høje stene, som ragede op af vandet, lagde søskum på sit hår og sit bryst, så at ingen kunne se hendes lille ansigt, og da passede hun på, hvem der kom til den stakkels prins.

Det varede ikke længe, før en ung pige kom derhen, hun syntes at blive ganske forskrækket, men kun et øjeblik, så hentede hun flere mennesker, og havfruen så, at prinsen fik liv, og at han smilede til dem alle rundt omkring, men ud til hende smilede han ikke, han vidste jo ikke heller, at hun havde reddet ham, hun følte sig så bedrøvet, og da han blev ført ind i den store bygning, dykkede hun sorrigfuld ned i vandet og søgte hjem til sin faders slot.

Altid havde hun været stille og tankefuld, men nu blev hun det meget mere. Søstrene spurgte hende, hvad hun havde set den første gang deroppe, men hun fortalte ikke noget.

Mangen aften og morgen steg hun op der, hvor hun havde forladt prinsen. Hun så, hvor havens frugter modnedes og blev afplukket, hun så, hvor sneen smeltede på de høje bjerge, men prinsen så hun ikke, og derfor vendte hun altid endnu mere bedrøvet hjem. Der var det hendes eneste trøst, at sidde i sin lille have og slynge sine arme om den smukke marmorstøtte, som lignede prinsen, men sine blomster passede hun ikke, de voksede, som i et vildnis, ud over gangene og flettede deres lange stilke og blade ind i træernes grene, så der var ganske dunkelt.

Til sidst kunne hun ikke længere holde det ud, men sagde det til en af sine søstre, og så fik straks alle de andre det at vide, men heller ingen flere, end de og et par andre havfruer, som ikke sagde det uden til deres nærmeste veninder. En af dem vidste besked, hvem prinsen var, hun havde også set stadsen på skibet, vidste, hvorfra han var, og hvor hans kongerige lå.

"Kom lille søster!" sagde de andre prinsesser, og med armene om hinandens skuldre steg de i en lang række op af havet foran, hvor de vidste prinsens slot lå.

Dette var opført af en lysegul glinsende stenart, med store marmortrapper, én gik lige ned i havet. Prægtige forgyldte kupler hævede sig over taget, og mellem søjlerne, som gik rundt om hele bygningen, stod marmorbilleder, der så ud, som levende. Gennem det klare glas i de høje vinduer så man ind i de prægtigste sale, hvor kostelige silkegardiner og tæpper var ophængte, og alle væggene pyntede med store malerier, som det ret var en fornøjelse at se på. Midt i den største sal plaskede et stort springvand, strålerne stod højt op mod glaskuplen i loftet, hvorigennem solen skinnede på vandet og på de dejlige planter, der voksede i det store bassin.

Nu vidste hun, hvor han boede, og der kom hun mangen aften og nat på vandet; hun svømmede meget nærmere land, end nogen af de andre havde vovet, ja hun gik helt op i den smalle kanal, under den prægtige marmoraltan, der kastede en lang skygge hen over vandet. Her sad hun og så på den unge prins, der troede, han var ganske ene i det klare måneskin.

Hun så ham mangen aften sejle med musik i sin prægtige båd, hvor flagene vajede; hun tittede frem mellem de grønne siv, og tog vinden i hendes lange sølvhvide slør og nogen så det, tænkte de, det var en svane, som løftede vingerne.

Hun hørte mangen nat, når fiskerne lå med blus på søen, at de fortalte så meget godt om den unge prins, og det glædede hende, at hun havde frelst hans liv, da han halvdød drev om på bølgerne, og hun tænkte på, hvor fast hans hoved havde hvilet på hendes bryst, og hvor inderligt hun da kyssede ham; han vidste slet intet derom, kunne ikke engang drømme om hende.

Mere og mere kom hun til at holde af menneskene, mere og mere ønskede hun at kunne stige op imellem dem; deres verden syntes hun var langt større, end hendes; de kunne jo på skibe flyve hen over havet, stige på de høje bjerge højt over skyerne, og landene, de ejede, strakte sig, med skove og marker, længere, end hun kunne øjne. Der var så meget hun gad vide, men søstrene vidste ikke at give svar på alt, derfor spurgte hun den gamle bedstemoder og hun kendte godt til den højere verden, som hun meget rigtigt kaldte landene oven for havet.

"Når menneskene ikke drukner," spurgte den lille havfrue, "kan de da altid leve, dør de ikke, som vi hernede på havet?"

"Jo!" sagde den gamle, "de må også dø, og deres levetid er endogså kortere end vor. Vi kan blive tre hundrede år, men når vi så hører op at være til her, bliver vi kun skum på vandet, har ikke engang en grav hernede mellem vore kære. Vi har ingen udødelig sjæl, vi får aldrig liv mere, vi er ligesom det grønne siv, er det engang skåret over, kan det ikke grønnes igen! Menneskene derimod har en sjæl, som lever altid, lever, efter at legemet er blevet jord; den stiger op igennem den klare luft, op til alle de skinnende stjerner! ligesom vi dykker op af havet og ser menneskenes lande, således dykker de op til ubekendte dejlige steder, dem vi aldrig får at se."

"Hvorfor fik vi ingen udødelig sjæl?" sagde den lille havfrue bedrøvet, "jeg ville give alle mine tre hundrede år, jeg har at leve i, for blot én dag at være et menneske og siden få del i den himmelske verden!"

"Det må du ikke gå og tænke på!" sagde den gamle, "vi har det meget lykkeligere og bedre, end menneskene deroppe!"

"Jeg skal altså dø og flyde som skum på søen, ikke høre bølgernes musik, se de dejlige blomster og den røde sol! Kan jeg da slet intet gøre, for at vinde en evig sjæl!" -

"Nej!" sagde den gamle, "kun når et menneske fik dig så kær, at du var ham mere, end fader og moder; når han med hele sin tanke og kærlighed hang ved dig, og lod præsten lægge sin højre hånd i din med løfte om troskab her og i al evighed, da flød hans sjæl over i dit legeme og du fik også del i menneskenes lykke. Han gav dig sjæl og beholdt dog sin egen. Men det kan aldrig ske! Hvad der just er dejligt her i havet, din fiskehale, finder de hæsligt deroppe på jorden, de forstår sig nu ikke bedre på det, man må dér have to klodsede støtter, som de kalder ben, for at være smuk!"

Da sukkede den lille havfrue og så bedrøvet på sin fiskehale.

"Lad os være fornøjede," sagde den gamle, "hoppe og springe vil vi i de tre hundrede år, vi har at leve i, det er såmænd en god tid nok, siden kan man des fornøjeligere hvile sig ud i sin grav. I aften skal vi have hofbal!"

Det var også en pragt, som man aldrig ser den på jorden. Vægge og loft i den store dansesal var af tykt men klart glas. Flere hundrede kolossale muslingeskaller, rosenrøde og græsgrønne, stod i rækker på hver side med en blå brændende ild, som oplyste den hele sal og skinnede ud gennem væggene, så at søen der udenfor var ganske oplyst; man kunne se alle de utallige fisk, store og små, som svømmede hen imod glasmuren, på nogle skinnede skællene purpurrøde, på andre syntes de sølv og guld. Midt igennem salen flød en bred rindende strøm, og på denne dansede havmænd og havfruer til deres egen dejlige sang. Så smukke stemmer har ikke menneskene på jorden. Den lille havfrue sang skønnest af dem alle, og de klappede i hænderne for hende, og et øjeblik følte hun glæde i sit hjerte, thi hun vidste, at hun havde den skønneste stemme af alle på jorden og i havet! Men snart kom hun dog igen til at tænke på verden oven over sig; hun kunne ikke glemme den smukke prins og sin sorg over ikke at eje, som han, en udødelig sjæl. Derfor sneg hun sig ud af sin faders slot, og mens alt derinde var sang og lystighed, sad hun bedrøvet i sin lille have. Da hørte hun valdhorn klinge ned igennem vandet, og hun tænkte, "nu sejler han vist deroppe, ham som jeg holder mere af end fader og moder, ham som min tanke hænger ved og i hvis hånd jeg ville lægge mit livs lykke. Alt vil jeg vove for at vinde ham og en udødelig sjæl! Mens mine søstre danser derinde i min faders slot, vil jeg gå til havheksen, hende jeg altid har været så angst for, men hun kan måske råde og hjælpe!"

Nu gik den lille havfrue ud af sin have hen imod de brusende malstrømme, bag hvilke heksen boede. Den vej havde hun aldrig før gået, der voksede ingen blomster, intet søgræs, kun den nøgne grå sandbund strakte sig hen imod malstrømmene, hvor vandet, som brusende møllehjul, hvirvlede rundt og rev alt, hvad de fik fat på, med sig ned i dybet; midt imellem disse knusende hvirvler måtte hun gå, for at komme ind på havheksens distrikt, og her var et langt stykke ikke anden vej, end over varmt boblende dynd, det kaldte heksen sin tørvemose. Bag ved lå hendes hus midt inde i en sælsom skov. Alle træer og buske var polypper, halv dyr og halv plante, de så ud, som hundredhovedede slanger, der voksede ud af jorden; alle grene var lange slimede arme, med fingre som smidige orme, og led for led bevægede de sig fra roden til den yderste spidse. Alt hvad de i havet kunne gribe fat på, snoede de sig fast om og gav aldrig mere slip på. Den lille havfrue blev ganske forskrækket stående der udenfor; hendes hjerte bankede af angst, nær havde hun vendt om, men så tænkte hun på prinsen og på menneskets sjæl, og da fik hun mod. Sit lange flagrende hår bandt hun fast om hovedet, for at polypperne ikke skulle gribe hende deri, begge hænder lagde hun sammen over sit bryst, og fløj så af sted, som fisken kan flyve gennem vandet, ind imellem de hæslige polypper, der strakte deres smidige arme og fingre efter hende. Hun så, hvor hver af dem havde noget, den havde grebet, hundrede små arme holdt det, som stærke jernbånd. Mennesker, som var omkommet på søen og sunket dybt derned, tittede, som hvide benrade frem i polyppernes arme. Skibsror og kister holdt de fast, skeletter af landdyr og en lille havfrue, som de havde fanget og kvalt, det var hende næsten det forskrækkeligste.

Nu kom hun til en stor slimet plads i skoven, hvor store, fede vandsnoge boltrede sig og viste deres stygge hvidgule bug. Midt på pladsen var rejst et hus af strandede menneskers hvide ben, der sad havheksen og lod en skrubtudse spise af sin mund, ligesom menneskene lader en lille kanariefugl spise sukker. De hæslige fede vandsnoge kaldte hun sine små kyllinger og lod dem vælte sig på hendes store, svampede bryst.

"Jeg ved nok, hvad du vil!" sagde havheksen, "det er dumt gjort af dig! alligevel skal du få din vilje, for den vil bringe dig i ulykke, min dejlige prinsesse. Du vil gerne af med din fiskehale og i stedet for den have to stumper at gå på ligesom menneskene, for at den unge prins kan blive forlibt i dig og du kan få ham og en udødelig sjæl!" I det samme lo heksen så højt og fælt, at skrubtudsen og snogene faldt ned på jorden og væltede sig der. "Du kommer netop i rette tid," sagde heksen, "i morgen, når sol står op, kunne jeg ikke hjælpe dig, før igen et år var omme. Jeg skal lave dig en drik, med den skal du, før sol står op, svømme til landet, sætte dig på bredden der og drikke den, da skilles din hale ad og snerper ind til hvad menneskene kalde nydelige ben, men det gør ondt, det er som det skarpe sværd gik igennem dig. Alle, som ser dig, vil sige, du er det dejligste menneskebarn de har set! du beholder din svævende gang, ingen danserinde kan svæve som du, men hvert skridt du gør, er som om du trådte på en skarp kniv, så dit blod må flyde. Vil du lide alt dette, så skal jeg hjælpe dig?"

"Ja!" sagde den lille havfrue med bævende stemme, og tænkte på prinsen og på at vinde en udødelig sjæl.

"Men husk på," sagde heksen, "når du først har fået menneskelig skikkelse, da kan du aldrig mere blive en havfrue igen! du kan aldrig stige ned igennem vandet til dine søstre og til din faders slot, og vinder du ikke prinsens kærlighed, så han for dig glemmer fader og moder, hænger ved dig med sin hele tanke og lader præsten lægge eders hænder i hinanden, så at I bliver mand og kone, da får du ingen udødelig sjæl! den første morgen efter at han er gift med en anden, da må dit hjerte briste, og du bliver skum på vandet."

"Jeg vil det!" sagde den lille havfrue og var bleg, som en død.

"Men mig må du også betale!" sagde heksen, "og det er ikke lidet, hvad jeg forlanger. Du har den dejligste stemme af alle hernede på havets bund, med den tror du nok at skulle fortrylle ham, men den stemme skal du give mig. Det bedste du ejer vil jeg have for min kostelige drik! mit eget blod må jeg jo give dig deri, at drikken kan blive skarp, som et tveægget sværd!"

"Men når du tager min stemme," sagde den lille havfrue, "hvad beholder jeg da tilbage?"

"Din dejlige skikkelse," sagde heksen, "din svævende gang og dine talende øjne, med dem kan du nok bedåre et menneskehjerte. Nå, har du tabt modet! ræk frem din lille tunge, så skærer jeg den af, i betaling, og du skal få den kraftige drik!"

"Det ske!" sagde den lille havfrue, og heksen satte sin kedel på, for at koge trolddrikken. "Renlighed er en god ting!" sagde hun og skurede kedlen af med snogene, som hun bandt i knude; nu ridsede hun sig selv i brystet og lod sit sorte blod dryppe derned, Dampen gjorde de forunderligste skikkelser, så man måtte blive angst og bange. Hvert øjeblik kom heksen nye ting i kedlen, og da det ret kogte, var det, som når krokodillen græder. Til sidst var drikken færdig, den så ud som det klareste vand!

"Der har du den!" sagde heksen og skar tungen af den lille havfrue, som nu var stum, kunne hverken synge eller tale.

"Dersom polypperne skulle gribe dig, når du går tilbage igennem min skov," sagde heksen, "så kast kun en eneste dråbe af denne drik på dem, da springer deres arme og fingre i tusinde stykker!" men det behøvede den lille havfrue ikke, Polypperne trak sig forskrækkede tilbage for hende, da de så den skinnende drik, der lyste i hendes hånd, ligesom det var en funklende stjerne. Således kom hun snart igennem skoven, mosen og de brusende malstrømme.

Hun kunne se sin faders slot; blussene var slukket i den store dansesal; de sov vist alle derinde, men hun vovede dog ikke at søge dem, nu hun var stum og ville for altid gå bort fra dem. Det var, som hendes hjerte skulle gå itu af sorg. Hun sneg sig ind i haven, tog én blomst af hver af sine søstres blomsterbed, kastede med fingeren tusinde kys hen imod slottet og steg op igennem den mørkeblå sø.

Solen var endnu ikke kommet frem, da hun så prinsens slot og besteg den prægtige marmortrappe. Månen skinnede dejligt klart. Den lille havfrue drak den brændende skarpe drik, og det var, som gik et tveægget sværd igennem hendes fine legeme, hun besvimede derved og lå, som død. Da solen skinnede hen over søen, vågnede hun op, og hun følte en sviende smerte, men lige for hende stod den dejlige unge prins, han fæstede sine kulsorte øjne på hende, så hun slog sine ned og så, at hendes fiskehale var borte, og at hun havde de nydeligste små, hvide ben, nogen lille pige kunne have, men hun var ganske nøgen, derfor svøbte hun sig ind i sit store, lange hår. Prinsen spurgte, hvem hun var, og hvorledes hun var kommet her, og hun så mildt og dog så bedrøvet på ham med sine mørkeblå øjne, tale kunne hun jo ikke. Da tog han hende ved hånden og førte hende ind i slottet. Hvert skridt hun gjorde, var, som heksen havde sagt hende forud, som om hun trådte på spidse syle og skarpe knive, men det tålte hun gerne; ved prinsens hånd steg hun så let, som en boble, og han og alle undrede sig over hendes yndige, svævende gang.

Kostelige klæder af silke og musselin fik hun på, i slottet var hun den skønneste af alle, men hun var stum, kunne hverken synge eller tale. Dejlige slavinder, klædte i silke og guld, kom frem og sang for prinsen og hans kongelige forældre; en sang smukkere end alle de andre og prinsen klappede i hænderne og smilede til hende, da blev den lille havfrue bedrøvet, hun vidste, at hun selv havde sunget langt smukkere! hun tænkte, "Oh han skulle bare vide, at jeg, for at være hos ham, har givet min stemme bort i al evighed!"

Nu dansede slavinderne i yndige svævende danse til den herligste musik, da hævede den lille havfrue sine smukke hvide arme, rejste sig på tåspidsen og svævede hen over gulvet, dansede, som endnu ingen havde danset; ved hver bevægelse blev hendes dejlighed endnu mere synlig, og hendes øjne talte dybere til hjertet, end slavindernes sang.

Alle var henrykte derover, især prinsen, som kaldte hende sit lille hittebarn, og hun dansede mere og mere, skønt hver gang hendes fod rørte jorden, var det, som om hun trådte på skarpe knive. Prinsen sagde, at hun skulle alletider være hos ham, og hun fik lov at sove uden for hans dør på en fløjlspude.

Han lod hende sy en mandsdragt, for at hun til hest kunne følge ham. De red gennem de duftende skove, hvor de grønne grene slog hende på skulderen og de små fugle sang bag friske blade. Hun klatrede med prinsen op på de høje bjerge, og skønt hendes fine fødder blødte, så de andre kunne se det, lo hun dog deraf og fulgte ham, til de så skyerne sejle nede under sig, som var det en flok fugle, der drog til fremmede lande.

Hjemme på prinsens slot, når om natten de andre sov, gik hun ud på den brede marmortrappe, og det kølede hendes brændende fødder, at stå i det kolde søvand, og da tænkte hun på dem dernede i dybet.

En nat kom hendes søstre arm i arm, de sang så sorrigfuldt, idet de svømmede over vandet, og hun vinkede af dem, og de kendte hende og fortalte, hvor bedrøvet hun havde gjort dem alle sammen. Hver nat besøgte de hende siden, og en nat så hun, langt ude, den gamle bedstemoder, som i mange år ikke havde været over havet, og havkongen, med sin krone på hovedet, de strakte hænderne hen mod hende, men vovede sig ikke så nær landet, som søstrene.

Dag for dag blev hun prinsen kærere, han holdt af hende, som man kan holde af et godt, kært barn, men at gøre hende til sin dronning, faldt ham slet ikke ind, og hans kone måtte hun blive, ellers fik hun ingen udødelig sjæl, men ville på hans bryllupsmorgen blive skum på søen.

"Holder du ikke mest af mig, blandt dem alle sammen!" syntes den lille havfrues øjne at sige, når han tog hende i sine arme og kyssede hendes smukke pande.

"Jo, du er mig kærest," sagde prinsen, "thi du har det bedste hjerte af dem alle, du er mig mest hengiven, og du ligner en ung pige jeg engang så, men vistnok aldrig mere finder. Jeg var på et skib, som strandede, bølgerne drev mig i land ved et helligt tempel, hvor flere unge piger gjorde tjeneste, den yngste der fandt mig ved strandbredden og reddede mit liv, jeg så hende kun to gange; hun var den eneste, jeg kunne elske i denne verden, men du ligner hende, du næsten fortrænger hendes billede i min sjæl, hun hører det hellige tempel til, og derfor har min gode lykke sendt mig dig, aldrig vil vi skilles!" - "Ak, han ved ikke, at jeg har reddet hans liv!" tænkte den lille havfrue, "jeg bar ham over søen hen til skoven, hvor templet står, jeg sad bag skummet og så efter, om ingen mennesker ville komme. Jeg så den smukke pige, som han holder mere af, end mig!" og havfruen sukkede dybt, græde kunne hun ikke. "Pigen hører det hellige tempel til, har han sagt, hun kommer aldrig ud i verden, de mødes ikke mere, jeg er hos ham, ser ham hver dag, jeg vil pleje ham, elske ham, ofre ham mit liv!"

Men nu skal prinsen giftes og have nabokongens dejlige datter! fortalte man, derfor er det, at han udruster så prægtigt et skib. Prinsen rejser for at se nabokongens lande, hedder det nok, men det er for at se nabokongens datter, et stort følge skal han have med; men den lille havfrue rystede med hovedet og lo; hun kendte prinsens tanker meget bedre, end alle de andre. "Jeg må rejse!" havde han sagt til hende, "jeg må se den smukke prinsesse, mine forældre forlange det, men tvinge mig til at føre hende her hjem, som min brud, vil de ikke! jeg kan ikke elske hende! hun ligner ikke den smukke pige i templet, som du ligner, skulle jeg engang vælge en brud, så blev det snarere dig, mit stumme hittebarn med de talende øjne!" og han kyssede hendes røde mund, legede med hendes lange hår og lagde sit hoved ved hendes hjerte, så det drømte om menneskelykke og en udødelig sjæl.

"Du er dog ikke bange for havet, mit stumme barn!" sagde han, da de stod på det prægtige skib, som skulle føre ham til nabokongens lande; og han fortalte hende om storm og havblik, om sælsomme fisk i dybet og hvad dykkeren der havde set, og hun smilede ved hans fortælling, hun vidste jo bedre, end nogen anden, besked om havets bund.

I den måneklare nat, når de alle sov, på styrmanden nær, som stod ved roret, sad hun ved rælingen af skibet og stirrede ned igennem det klare vand, og hun syntes at se sin faders slot, øverst deroppe stod den gamle bedstemoder med sølvkronen på hovedet og stirrede op igennem de stride strømme mod skibets køl. Da kom hendes søstre op over vandet, de stirrede sorrigfuldt på hende og vred deres hvide hænder, hun vinkede ad dem, smilede og ville fortælle, at alt gik hende godt og lykkeligt, men skibsdrengen nærmede sig hende og søstrene dykkede ned, så han blev i den tro, at det hvide, han havde set, var skum på søen.

Næste morgen sejlede skibet ind i havnen ved nabokongens prægtige stad. Alle kirkeklokker ringede, og fra de høje tårne blev blæst i basuner, mens soldaterne stod med vajende faner og blinkende bajonetter. Hver dag havde en fest. Bal og selskab fulgte på hinanden, men prinsessen var der endnu ikke, hun opdroges langt derfra i et helligt tempel, sagde de, der lærte hun alle kongelige dyder. Endelig indtraf hun.

Den lille havfrue stod begærlig efter at se hendes skønhed, og hun måtte erkende den, en yndigere skikkelse havde hun aldrig set. Huden var så fin og skær, og bag de lange mørke øjenhår smilede et par sortblå trofaste øjne!

"Det er dig!" sagde prinsen, "dig, som har frelst mig, da jeg lå som et lig ved kysten!" og han trykkede sin rødmende brud i sine arme. "Oh jeg er alt for lykkelig!" sagde han til den lille havfrue. "Det bedste, det jeg aldrig turde håbe, er blevet opfyldt for mig. Du vil glæde dig ved min lykke, thi du holder mest af mig blandt dem alle!" Og den lille havfrue kyssede hans hånd, og hun syntes alt at føle sit hjerte briste. Hans bryllupsmorgen ville jo give hende døden og forvandle hende til skum på søen.

Alle kirkeklokker ringede, herolderne red om i gaderne og forkyndte trolovelsen. På alle altre brændte duftende olie i kostelige sølvlamper. Præsterne svingede røgelseskar og brud og brudgom rakte hinanden hånden og fik biskoppens velsignelse. Den lille havfrue stod i silke og guld og holdt brudens slæb, men hendes øre hørte ikke den festlige musik, hendes øje så ikke den hellige ceremoni, hun tænkte på sin dødsnat, på alt hvad hun havde tabt i denne verden.

Endnu samme aften gik brud og brudgom ombord på skibet, kanonerne lød, alle flagene vajede, og midt på skibet var rejst et kosteligt telt af guld og purpur og med de dejligste hynder, der skulle brudeparret sove i den stille, kølige nat.

Sejlene svulmede i vinden, og skibet gled let og uden stor bevægelse hen over den klare sø.

Da det mørknedes, tændtes brogede lamper og søfolkene dansede lystige danse på dækket. Den lille havfrue måtte tænke på den første gang hun dykkede op af havet og så den samme pragt og glæde, og hun hvirvlede sig med i dansen, svævede, som svalen svæver når den forfølges, og alle tiljublede hende beundring, aldrig havde hun danset så herligt; det skar som skarpe knive i de fine fødder, men hun følte det ikke; det skar hende smerteligere i hjertet. Hun vidste, det var den sidste aften hun så ham, for hvem hun havde forladt sin slægt og sit hjem, givet sin dejlige stemme og daglig lidt uendelige kvaler, uden at han havde tanke derom. Det var den sidste nat, hun åndede den samme luft som han, så det dybe hav og den stjerneblå himmel, en evig nat uden tanke og drøm ventede hende, som ej havde sjæl, ej kunne vinde den. Og alt var glæde og lystighed på skibet til langt over midnat, hun lo og dansede med dødstanken i sit hjerte. Prinsen kyssede sin dejlige brud, og hun legede med hans sorte hår, og arm i arm gik de til hvile i det prægtige telt.

Der blev tyst og stille på skibet, kun styrmanden stod ved roret, den lille havfrue lagde sine hvide arme på rælingen og så mod øst efter morgenrøden, den første solstråle, vidste hun, ville dræbe hende. Da så hun sine søstre stige op af havet, de var blege, som hun; deres lange smukke hår flagrede ikke længere i blæsten, det var afskåret.

"Vi har givet det til heksen, for at hun skulle bringe hjælp, at du ikke denne nat skal dø! Hun har givet os en kniv, her er den! ser du hvor skarp? Før sol står op, må du stikke den i prinsens hjerte, og når da hans varme blod stænker på dine fødder, da vokser de sammen til en fiskehale og du bliver en havfrue igen, kan stige ned i vandet til os og leve dine tre hundrede år, før du bliver det døde, salte søskum. Skynd dig! Han eller du må dø, før sol står op! Vor gamle bedstemoder sørger, så hendes hvide hår er faldet af, som vort faldt for heksens saks. Dræb prinsen og kom tilbage! Skynd dig, ser du den røde stribe på himlen? Om nogle minutter stiger solen, og da må du dø!" og de udstødte et forunderligt dybt suk og sank i bølgerne.

Den lille havfrue trak purpurtæppet bort fra teltet, og hun så den dejlige brud sove med sit hoved ved prinsens bryst, og hun bøjede sig ned, kyssede ham på hans smukke pande, så på himlen, hvor morgenrøden lyste mere og mere, så på den skarpe kniv og fæstede igen øjnene på prinsen, der i drømme nævnede sin brud ved navn, hun kun var i hans tanker, og kniven sitrede i havfruens hånd, men da kastede hun den langt ud i bølgerne, de skinnede røde, hvor den faldt, det så ud, som piblede der blodsdråber op af vandet. Endnu engang så hun med halvbrustne blik på prinsen, styrtede sig fra skibet ned i havet, og hun følte, hvor hendes legeme opløste sig i skum.

Nu steg solen frem af havet. Strålerne faldt så mildt og varmt på det dødskolde havskum og den lille havfrue følte ikke til døden, hun så den klare sol, og oppe over hende svævede hundrede gennemsigtige, dejlige skabninger; hun kunne gennem dem se skibets hvide sejl og himlens røde skyer, deres stemme var melodi, men så åndig, at intet menneskeligt øre kunne høre den, ligesom intet jordisk øje kunne se dem; uden vinger svævede de ved deres egen lethed gennem luften. Den lille havfrue så, at hun havde et legeme som de, det hævede sig mere og mere op af skummet.

"Til hvem kommer jeg!" sagde hun, og hendes stemme klang som de andre væsners, så åndigt, at ingen jordisk musik kan gengive det.

"Til luftens døtre!" svarede de andre. "Havfruen har ingen udødelig sjæl, kan aldrig få den, uden hun vinder et menneskes kærlighed! Af en fremmed magt afhænger hendes evige tilværelse. Luftens døtre har heller ingen evig sjæl, men de kan selv ved gode handlinger skabe sig en. Vi flyver til de varme lande, hvor den lumre pestluft dræber menneskene; der vifter vi køling. Vi spreder blomsternes duft gennem luften og sender vederkvægelse og lægedom. Når vi i tre hundrede år har stræbt at gøre det gode, vi kan, da får vi en udødelig sjæl og tager del i menneskenes evige lykke. Du stakkels lille havfrue har med hele dit hjerte stræbt efter det samme, som vi, du har lidt og tålt, hævet dig til luftåndernes verden, nu kan du selv gennem gode gerninger skabe dig en udødelig sjæl om tre hundrede år."

Og den lille havfrue løftede sine klare arme op mod Guds sol, og for første gang følte hun tårer. På skibet var igen støj og liv, hun så prinsen med sin smukke brud søge efter hende, vemodig stirrede de på det boblende skum, som om de vidste, hun havde styrtet sig i bølgerne. Usynlig kyssede hun brudens pande, smilede til ham og steg med de andre luftens børn op på den rosenrøde sky, som sejlede i luften.

"Om tre hundrede år svæver vi således ind i Guds rige!"

"Også tidligere kan vi komme der!" hviskede én. "Usynligt svæver vi ind i menneskenes huse, hvor der er børn, og for hver dag vi finder et godt barn, som gør sine forældre glæde og fortjener deres kærlighed, forkorter Gud vor prøvetid. Barnet ved ikke, når vi flyver gennem stuen, og når vi da af glæde smiler over det, da tages et år fra de tre hundrede, men ser vi et uartigt og ondt barn, da må vi græde sorgens gråd, og hver tåre lægger en dag til vor prøvetid!"

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