Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales/The Bell, or Nature's Music

For other English-language translations of this work, see The Bell (Andersen).

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In the narrow streets of a large city, towards evening, when the setting sun threw a golden light over roof and chimney, there might sometimes be heard, by one and another, a strange tone, something like the sound of a church bell. Only for a moment, however, for the continual rumbling of carriages and the hum of voices often drowned the tone. Still, people would say, “The evening bell is sounding, for it is sunset.” Those who wandered outside the town after sunset, where the houses stood at greater distances from each other, could see the evening sky in all its beauty, and hear the sound of the bell much more clearly. It was as if the tones came rom a cathedral lying in the still depths of the fragrant forest, and people looked in that direction with solemnized feelings.

After some time, one said to another, “Is there a church in the wood yonder? That bell has a singularly fine tone; shall we go a little nearer and listen?” And the rich people drove there, and the poor walked, but the way seemed long and interminable, for they were no nearer to the tones of the bell. By a number of willow-trees, which grew on the borders of the forest, they sat down, and glanced up at the long branches, and fancied they were really in the green wood. A pastrycook from the town came amongst them, and pitched a tent, and then came another and hung a bell over his tent, which he had covered with tar to protect it from the rain, but the clapper was wanting.

When the people returned home they said it had been all very romantic, which was really more than merely taking tea. Three persons, however, declared that they had been to the very end of the wood; they had always heard the sound of the bell, but it appeared to them as if it came from the town. One of them wrote a song about it, and said that the bell was like the voice of a mother singing to a good and beloved child. No melody could be more beautiful than the sound of the bell.

The emperor was informed of this matter, and promised that whoever really found out what the sound came from should have the title of “Bell-ringer to the world,” even if it should prove that there was no bell in the case.

Many went to the wood because of the good entertainment there, but only one returned with a sort of explanation. None of them had gone far enough into the forest, nor, indeed, had he; yet he said that the bell-like sound proceeded from a large owl who lived in a hollow tree, and who was the owl of wisdom, and constantly striking its head against the trunk; but whether the sound came from the owl’s head, or from the trunk of the tree, he could not say with certainty. However, he was appointed “Bell-ringer to the world,” and every year wrote a little treatise upon the subject, which left people who read it as wise as they were before.

On a certain day a confirmation was held at a church in the town. The clergyman spoke well and earnestly, and the candidates were deeply moved. It was a very important day for them. From children they at once became grown people. The childish soul seemed to have assumed the sense and feeling of mature age. It was a glorious summer day, and as the confirmed children walked out of the town there sounded from the deep wood the great, mysterious bell. A wish arose to go and see what it was, in all of them excepting three. One of these, a girl, wanted to go home to try on a ball dress; for she was invited to this ball on the occasion of her confirmation, or she would not have thought of going. The second was a poor boy, who had borrowed the coat and boots of his landlord’s son to be confirmed in, and he had to return by a certain time. The third said that he never went to a strange place, unless his parents were with him; that he always had been a good child, and that he would continue to be so, even after his confirmation, and therefore no one was to laugh at him; but they did laugh at him, notwithstanding. So these three did not go, but the others stepped on, while the sun shone, the birds sung, and the newly-confirmed sang also, and held each other’s hands; for they had not yet any position in life, but were all equal in the eyes of God that day of their confirmation. Two of the youngest soon became tired, and returned home; and then two little girls sat down to weave garlands of flowers, and went no farther. And when at last the rest reached the willow-trees, where the confectioner’s tent was pitched, they said, “Now we are really a long way out, there is no bell; it does not exist at all, people only fancy it.”

Then suddenly the bell sounded so beautifully and solemnly that four or five determined to go still deeper into the forest. The trees grew so closely together, and the leafy branches hung down so low, that it was really very difficult to go forward. Forest lilies and anemones grew high from the ground, and blooming convolvulus and blackberry blossoms hung in long garlands from tree to tree, while the nightingale sung and the sunbeams glanced through the trees. It was all beautiful to see, but the path was not fit for girls, who would have torn their clothes to pieces. There lay large blocks of stone, overgrown with moss of various colours, and the fresh springwater bubbled forth, and seemed to utter the words, “Gurgle, gurgle.”

“That cannot be the bell,” said one of the newly confirmed; and he laid himself down and listened. ‘‘It should be studied carefully,” said he; so he remained behind, and let the others go forward.

They came to a cottage built with the bark of trees and branches; a large tree loaded with wild apples stretched itself over the roof, which was covered with roses, as if it would pour a blessing upon it. The long branches drooped just over the gable, and to the end of one hung a little bell. Could this be the bell they had heard? They all with one voice agreed that it must be, excepting one, who said, “that this bell was too small to be heard at such a distance, and had a very different sound to the one that touched men’s hearts so deeply.” He who spoke thus was a king’s son, and the others said that persons of that sort always wanted to be thought wiser than anyone else. Therefore, they allowed him to go on alone, and the farther he went the more his mind was impressed with the solitude of the forest; but still he heard the little bell that had so pleased the others, and sometimes the wind carried towards him sounds from the confectioner’s tent, and he could hear his late companions singing over their tea.

But the deep tones of the bell became louder and stronger, sometimes as if an organ were playing in unison with them, and these sounds were at the left side, where the heart is placed. Something rustled in the bushes, and then a little boy stood before the king’s son; he wore wooden shoes, and his jacket was so small that the sleeves did not reach to his wrists. They knew each other; the boy was one of those who had been confirmed, but who could not accompany the rest because he had to return home with the coat and boots which the landlord’s son had lent him. He had done this, and had started again in his wooden shoes and his old clothes, for he had heard the bell sound so deeply and solemnly that he felt he must go on.

“We can go together,” said the king’s son.

But the poor newly confirmed boy in the wooden shoes was quite ashamed; he pulled down the short sleeves of his jacket, and said he feared he could not walk fast enough; besides, he remarked, the bell should be sought for on the right hand, for there the space was larger and more beautiful.

“Then we shall not meet again,” said the king’s son, nodding to the poor boy as he went into the deepest depths of the forest, where the brambles tore his poor, shabby clothes, and scratched his face, his hands, and his feet, till they bled.

The king’s son also had a few rough scratches, but the sun shone brightly on his path, and it is he whom we must follow, for he was an active youth. “I must and will find the bell,” said he, “though I have to go to the end of the world for it.”

Some ugly apes sat in the branches of the trees and grinned at him, showing all their teeth. “Shall we beat him?” said they; “Shall we thrash him? he is a king’s son.”

But he went on undaunted, deeper and still deeper into the forest, where the most wonderful flowers grew. White lilies like stars, with ruby-red stamens; tulips, as blue as the sky, sparkling as they were moved by the wind; apple-trees, on which the apples shone with coloured reflected light like soap-bubbles: only think how these flowers and trees must have gleamed in the sunshine! Through openings in the branches could be seen beautiful green meadows, where the hart and the hind were sporting on the soft grass. Stately oaks and noble beech-trees; and where the bark of any tree had split, long tendrils of green climbing plants grew out of the crevices. There were also large tracts of land, interspersed with quiet lakes, on whose smooth surface white swans skimmed and flapped their wings. The king’s son frequently stood still and listened, for he sometimes fancied the sound of the bell came to him from one of the lakes, but after a few moments he would feel sure it could not be from any other place than the forest. The sun went down; the atmosphere reflected the red light from the sky like fire; silence reigned in the forest. Then he sank on his knees, and sung his evening hymn. “I shall never find what I am seeking,” he said; “the sun is going down, and night, dark night approaches. Yet once more perhaps I may see the round red sun before he disappears beneath the horizon. I will climb upon these rocks, for they are higher than the highest trees.” Then he contrived to climb upon the wet rocks by seizing upon the roots and creeping-plants that grew near them; watersnakes were wriggling about, and the toads seemed to bay at him, yet he reached the highest point before the sun had quite set. Oh, what a beautiful prospect lay before him! The sea—the glorious, magnificent sea—rolling its great billows towards him, while the sun stood like a large altar of fire, just at the spot where sea and sky met, and then everything melted together into one glowing tint. The forest sang, there was music in the foaming sea, and his heart joined in the universal anthem. All nature was one great, holy church, of which the trees and the floating clouds were the pillars, flowers and grass the many-coloured velvet carpet, and the heavens themselves the lofty, vaulted roof. Then the glowing colours faded away, the sun sunk to rest, and millions of stars lighted up the expanse like diamond lamps. The king’s son stretched forth his arms towards heaven, towards the sea, and towards the forest.

Suddenly, from a road at the right hand, came the poor newly confirmed boy with the short jacket and the wooden shoes; he too had come just in time, and had arrived at the same place by a different road. And they ran to meet each other, and stood hand-in-hand in the great temple of nature and poetry. And above them sounded the invisible, holy bell—Nature’s music; and happy spirits floated around them singing hallelujahs of joy.

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