Hans Christian Andersen

April 2, 1805 - August 4, 1875

 

The Wild Swans

by Hans Christian Andersen

Far, far from here, in the land whither the swallows fly when with us it is winter, there dwelt a King, who had eleven sons, and one daughter named Elise. The eleven brothers, princes all, went to school with stars on their breast, and swords at their side. They wrote on golden tablets with pencils of diamond; and they could read in any book, and out of any book: you heard in a moment that they were Princes. Their sister Elise sat on a little stool of looking-glass, and had a picture-book that had cost half a kingdom.

What a happy life the children led! but it was not to last long. --

Their father, the King of the whole country, married a wicked Queen, who treated the children very ill. On the very first day they felt the difference. There was a great festival at the palace, and the children played at visiting; but instead of having roasted apples and cakes, as formerly, the Queen gave them only sand in little saucers, and said, they must fancy it was something good to eat.

The following week she sent little sister Elise to some peasants in the country; and it was not long before she had something bad of the Princes to tell the King, so that he no longer cared much about them.

Be off! go into the world, and take care of yourselves! said the wicked Queen. Fly off in the shape of large dumb birds! But yet she could not make it quite so bad as she wished; and into eleven beautiful white swans were the Princes changed.

With a strange cry, they flew out of the windows of the palace, and disappeared over the park and the wood.

It was still very early in the morning when they passed by the place where Elise was lying asleep in the peasant's cottage. They flew in circles round the roof, turned their long necks here and there, and beat the air with their wings; but nobody heard or saw them, and they were obliged to continue their flight up into the clouds, and over the wide world. Then they flew to the great gloomy wood, which extended to the sea-shore.

Poor little Elise stood in the peasant's room, and played with a green leaf; for it was the only thing she had to play with. She made a hole in the leaf, and through it peeped at the sun; and it seemed to her as though she saw the bright eyes of her brothers; and as often as the warm sunbeams fell on her cheeks, she thought of her brothers' kisses.

Each day passed like the other. If the wind blew through the great rose-tree before the house, it whispered to the roses, Who is more lovely than ye are? But the roses shook their heads and said, Elise is far more lovely! And if the old wife sat on a Sunday before the cottage-door, and read in her book of hymns, the wind turned over the leaves, and said to the book, Who is more pious than thou?Elise! answered the hymn-book; and what the roses and the hymn-book said was quite true.

When Elise was fifteen years old, she was to return home; but as soon as the Queen saw how beautiful she was, she took such an aversion to her that she would have liked to change her into a wild swan like her brothers. However, she did not dare to do so, because the King wanted to see his daughter.

One morning early, the Queen went into her bath, which was of marble, and ornamented with soft cushions and costly carpets. She took three toads, kissed them, and said to one of them, Do thou sit on the head of Elise when she goes to bathe, that she may become as lazy and drowsy as thou art.Sit thou on her forehead, said she to another, that she may grow as ugly as thou art, so that her father may not recognize her.Do thou lie in her bosom, said she to the third, that her heart may be tainted, and that she may grow wicked, and be her own punishment.

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Then she put the toads into the clear water, which immediately assumed a greenish color; and she called Elise, undressed her, and made her step into the bath, and put her head under the water. And then one toad sat in her hair, the other on her forehead, and the third on her bosom; but Elise did not seem to remark it. When she left the bath there swam three red poppies on the water; and had the animals not been poisonous, and kissed by the witch, they would have been turned into roses, from tarrying a while on Elise's heart and head. She was too pious for witchcraft to have any power over her.

When the wicked Queen saw this, she rubbed the child all over with walnut-juice, till she was of a dark-brown color; smeared her lonely face with a stinking ointment, and made her fine long hair hang in wild confusion. To recognize the beautiful Elise was now impossible.

When her father saw her he started, and said that she was not his daughter. Nobody knew her again, except the house-dog and the swallow; but they were poor creatures, who had nothing to say in the matter.

Poor Elise wept bitterly, and thought of her eleven brothers, not one of whom did she see at the palace. Much afflicted, she stole away, and walked across field and moor to the large forest. She knew not whither she wanted to go; but she was very dejected, and had such a longing after her brothers, who, no doubt, had been turned adrift in the world, too; them would she seek, and she was determined to find them.

She had not been long in the forest before night came on, and she lost her way in the dark. So she laid herself down in the soft moss, said her evening prayer, and leaned her head on the stump of a tree. It was so still in the forest, the air was so mild, and around in the grass and on the moss there gleamed the green light of many hundred glow-worms; and when she gently touched one of the branches with her hand, the radiant insects came down to her like falling stars.

The whole night she dreamed of her brothers: they played again like children, wrote on golden tablets with pencils of diamond, and looked at the pretty picture-book that had cost half a kingdom; but on the tablets they did not merely write as formerly, strokes and O's; no, now they described the bold deeds that they had accomplished, and the strange fortunes they had experienced; and in the picture-book all was animated -- the birds sang, the men stepped out of the book and spoke with Elise and her brothers: but when she turned over a leaf, in they jumped again directly, in order that the pictures might not get into confusion.

When Elise awoke, the sun was already high in the heaven: it is true she could not see it, the high trees interwove their leafy branches so closely; but the sunbeams played upon them, and looked like a waving golden gauze. There was such a fragrance from the verdure; and the birds almost perched on Elise's shoulder. She heard the water splashing; for there were many considerable brooks which all met in a pond with a beautiful sandy bottom: 'tis true thick bushes grew all around it; but the deer had broken a broad way through, and on this path Elise went to the water. It was so clear, that if the boughs and the bushes had not been waved backwards and forwards by the wind, one would have been forced to believe that they were painted, and lay down at the bottom, so distinctly was every leaf reflected, those that glowed in the sunlight as well as those which lay in the shade.

When Elise saw her face in the water she was much frightened, so brown and ugly did she look; but when she wetted her little hand and rubbed her eyes and forehead, the white skin appeared again; and Elise laid her clothes aside and stepped into the fresh water, -- a more lovely royal child than she was not to be found in the whole world.

After she had dressed herself and braided her long hair, she went to the bubbling spring, drank out of the hollow of her hand, and wandered farther into the wood -- she herself knew not whither. She thought of her brothers, thought of the ever-watchful and good God, Who would certainly not forsake her; for it was He Who made the wild apples to grow, to give food to the hungry; and He showed her a tree whose branches bent down under the weight of the fruit. Here she dined, put props under the branches, and then went into the thickest part of the wood. It was so still there that she heard her own footsteps, and the rustle of every withered leaf that bent beneath her feet. Not a bird was to be seen, not a sunbeam penetrated the thick foliage-roof; and the high trunks stood so near together, that when she looked straight forward, a grating of wooden beams seemed to close around her: oh, it was a solitude such as Elise had never known! And the night was so dark -- not a single glow-worm shone! Much afflicted, she lay down to sleep; and there it seemed to her as if the boughs above her parted, and the ever-watchful and good God looked down upon her with an eye of love, and a thousand little angels peeped forth to gaze at her from the clouds.

On awaking the next morning, she did not know if it were a dream, or if it had really happened.

She went a few steps further on, when she met an old woman with a basket full of berries. The old woman gave her some. Elise asked her if she had not seen eleven Princes riding through the wood.

No, answered the woman; but yesterday I saw eleven swans, with golden crowns on their heads, swim down the stream near here.

And she led Elise to a hill, at whose foot a brook flowed winding along; the trees on either bank stretched their, long leafy branches towards each other, and where on account of their natural growth they were unable to meet, the roots had loosened themselves from the earth and hung interwoven over the water.

Elise bade the old woman farewell, and walked on by the side of the brook to the spot where it flowed into the great and open sea.

The whole sea lay spread out before the maiden; but not a sail, not a boat was to be seen : how was she to go on? She looked at the countless pebbles on the shore; they were all smooth and rounded by the water; glass, iron, stones -- all that lay on the shore had received this form from the water; and yet it was much softer than her little delicate hand. It rolls on untiringly, and even what is hard is made smooth. Not less untiring will I be: thanks for the lesson, ye clear rolling waves; some day, so my heart tells me, ye will bear me to where my dear brothers are!

On the sea-weed which was washed up on the shore lay eleven white swans feathers; Elise collected them into a nosegay: some drops were hanging on them, but whether dew or tears it was impossible to distinguish.

On the shore it was very solitary, but she felt it not; for the sea presented an eternal change -- more in one single hour than the lakes could show in a whole year. If a black cloud came, it was as if the sea would say, I, too, can look gloomy; and then the wind blew, and the waves turned their white sides outermost; but if the clouds looked red, and the winds slept, then the sea was like a rose-leaf -- now it was green, now white; but however still it might rest, there was on the shore a gentle motion, and the water heaved slightly, like a sleeping infant's bosom.

As the sun was going down, Elise saw eleven wild swans, with golden crowns on their heads, flying towards the land: they flew one behind the other, and looked like a long white pennon. Then Elise climbed up the hill, and hid herself behind some bushes; the swans alighted close to her, and fluttered their large white wings.

The sun sank into the water, and suddenly the swan-like forms disappeared, and eleven handsome Princes, Elise's brothers, stood before her. She uttered a loud cry for although they were greatly changed, Elise knew -- felt they were her brothers; and she threw herself in their arms, calling them by name; and the brothers were so happy when they saw and recognized their dear little sister, who was now grown so tall and beautiful. They laughed and wept; and they had soon told each other how ill their step-mother had treated them all.

We fly as wild swans, said the eldest of the brothers, as long as the sun is above the horizon; but when he has set we appear in our human form again. We must, therefore, take good heed at such time to have a resting-place; for were we flying then in the clouds, we should drop down as men into the deep below. This is not our dwelling-place: a land as beautiful as this lies beyond the sea; but the way is long, -- we must cross the vast ocean, and there is no island on our passage where we could pass the night: there is but a small solitary rock that rises out of the waves; it is only large enough for us to stand side by side upon it, and so to take our rest: if the sea be troubled, then the water dashes high over our heads. But yet we thank Heaven for even this resting-place: there we pass the night in our human form; and without this cliff we should never be able to visit our beloved country; for it takes two of the longest days of the year to accomplish our flight. Once a year only are we permitted to revisit the home of our fathers: we may stay here eleven days; and then we fly over the large forest, whence we can espy the palace in which our father dwells, and where we were born; whence we can see the high tower of the church in which our mother lies. Here the very trees and bushes seem familiar to us; here the wild horses still dash over the plains as when we saw them in our childhood; the charcoal-burner sings the same old tune to which we danced in our youth; -- all here has charms for us, and here we have found thee, dear little sister! Two days more are we permitted to stay, and then we must away over the sea to a pleasant land; but, lovely as it is, it is not the country of our birth. And thou, Elise, how can we take thee with us -- we have neither ship nor boat?

Oh, how can I set ye free? said their sister. And so they spoke together nearly the whole night; a few hours only were given to sleep.

The next morning Elise was awakened by the rustling of swans' wings rushing by over her head. Her brothers were again changed into swans, and flew around in large circles, and at last they were far, far off. But one of them, the youngest, stayed with her; he laid his head on her lap, and she stroked his large white wings: the whole day they stayed together. Towards evening the others returned; and when the sun was gone down, there they stood again in their natural shapes.

Tomorrow, said the youngest, we must fly hence, and may not return before the end of another year: but we cannot leave thee here. Hast thou courage to follow us? My arm is strong enough to carry thee through the wood: the wings of us all would surely then be powerful enough to bear thee over the sea.

Yes, take me with you, said Elise. And they spent the whole night in weaving a sort of mat of the flexible bark of the willow and of tough bullrushes; and when finished it was large and strong. Elise laid herself upon it; and when the sun appeared, and her brothers were again changed into wild swans, they took the mat in their bills, and flew with their dear sister, who still slept, high up into the clouds. The rays of the sun fell full upon her face; so one of the swans flew above her head, that he might overshadow her with his broad wings.

They were far distant from land when Elise awoke. She thought she must be in a dream, so strange did it seem to her to be borne thus through the air high above the ocean. Beside her lay a branch with ripe juicy berries, and a bundle of palatable roots; these her youngest brother had gathered and placed near her; and she looked up to him with a smile of gratitude; for she recognized him in the swan that flew above her head and shaded her with his wings.

They flew so high, that the first ship they saw below them seemed like a white seamew hovering over the waves. Elise beheld a large cloud behind them: it was a mountain, and on it she saw in gigantic proportions the shadows of herself and of the eleven swans. It was a picture more magnificent than eye had ever gazed on; but as the sun rose higher and the cloud was left behind, the shadowy picture vanished. The whole day they flew on like a whizzing arrow; but yet it was more slowly than usual, for they had their sister to carry. The sky looked threatening; the evening was closing in; and Elise, full of anxiety, saw the sun sinking down; but the solitary rock was not to be discerned. She fancied by the beating of their wings that the swans were exerting themselves very much. Alas, it was her fault that her brothers could not advance more quickly! Should the sun set, then they would be men, -- they would fall into the sea and be drowned. From her very inmost heart did she pray to God; but as yet no rock was to be seen: the black cloud drew nearer; the violent gusts of wind announced a storm: the clouds stood upreared on a frightfully large wave, that rolled onwards with the speed of the hurricane; and it lightened, one flash quickly following the other.

The sun was now on the very margin of the sea. Elise's heart beat violently; when suddenly the swans darted downwards so rapidly that she thought she was falling; but now again she floated in the air. The sun was half in the water when she perceived for the first time the small rock below her, which to her eyes did not appear larger than the head of a seal when the creature holds it out of the water. And the sun went down so fast: already it was only like a star; when at the same moment her foot touched the firm ground, and the sun vanished like the last spark of a piece of burning paper. She saw her brothers standing round her arm-in-arm; but there was not more room than just enough for them and for her. The sea dashed boisterously against the rock, and fell on them like a heavy shower of rain; the sky was one continual blaze of fire, and the thunder rolled uninterruptedly; but the brothers and their sister held each other by the hand and sang a psalm, and it gave them consolation and strength.

At daybreak the air was clear and still; and as soon as the sun rose the swans flew away from the island with Elise. There was yet a high sea; and when they were up in the clouds, and looked down on the blackish-green ocean full of white foam, it seemed as if a million swans were skimming over the water.

As the sun rose higher, Elise saw before her, half swimming as it were in the air, a mountainous country with glittering glaciers; and amid them stood a palace, miles long, with one bold colonnade rising over the other, and surrounded with palm-groves and beautiful flowers, each as large as a mill-wheel. She asked if that was the land to which they were flying: but the swans shook their heads; for what she saw was the glorious and ever-changing cloud-palace of the Fata Morgana, -- thither they dare bring no one; and while Elise's gaze was still fixed upon it, mountains, groves, and palace all tumbled down together, and twelve proud churches stood in their place, all like each other, with high towers and pointed windows. She thought she could hear the organ pealing; but what she heard was merely the roar of the sea. She was now quite near the churches, when suddenly they were changed into a fleet that sailed below. She looked down, but there was only the haze of the sea driving along over the water. There was a continual change before her eyes; but at last she really saw the land she was to go to. There beautiful blue mountains lifted themselves on high, with forests of cedars, and towers, and palaces. Long before sunset she was sitting on a hill before a large cavern, which was so thickly covered by green creeping-plants, that it looked as .if overspread with embroidered hangings.

Let us see, now, what you dream tonight! said the youngest brother, as he showed her the chamber where she was to sleep.

Would that I might dream how I could disenchant you! said she. And this thought possessed her entirely; she prayed heartily to God for aid, and even in her dreams continued her prayer. Then it seemed to her as if she were flying high through the air to the cloud-palace of the Fata Morgana; and the Fairy advanced to meet her in light and loveliness; and yet. after all, it was the old woman who had given her berries in the wood, and told her of the swans with golden crowns on their heads.

Thy brothers may be released, said the Fairy; but hast thou patience and fortitude? 'Tis true the sea is softer than thy delicate hands, and yet it changes the form of the hard stones; but it feels not the pain which your tender fingers would suffer. It has no heart, and suffereth not the anguish and suspense which thou wouldst have to endure. Dost thou see these nettles in my hand? Many such grow around the cave where thou sleepest; these only, and such as shoot up out of the graves in the churchyard, are of use; and mark this -- thou must gather them although they sting thy hands; thou must brake the nettles with thy feet (a brake is an instrument for dressing flax), and then thou wilt have yarn; and of this yarn, with weaving and winding, thou must make eleven shirts of mail with long sleeves; and if thou wilt throw these over the eleven wild swans, then the enchantment will be at an end. But remember, from the moment thou beginnest thy work until its completion, even should years pass by meanwhile, thou must not utter a single word: the first sound of thy lips will pass like a fatal dagger through thy brothers' hearts -- on thy tongue depends their life. Mark well all that I say!

And at the same moment the Fairy touched Elise's hand with the nettle: it was like burning fire; and it awoke her. It was bright day; and close beside her bed lay a nettle like that she had seen in her dream. Then she fell on her knees, thanked God, and went out of the cavern to begin her work.

With her delicate hands she seized the horrid nettles that burned like fire. Her hands and arms were blistered; but she minded it not, could her dear brothers be but freed. She trampled on each nettle with her naked feet, and twisted the green flax.

At sunset her brothers returned: they were sadly frightened at Elise's dumbness, and thought it was a new enchantment under which she was laid by their wicked step-mother; but when they saw her blistered hands, they knew what their sister was doing for their sakes, and the youngest brother wept; and whenever his tears fell Elise felt no pain -- the burning smart ceased immediately.

The whole night she was occupied with her work; for she could not rest till she had freed her dear brothers. All the following day she sat in solitude, while the swans were flying afar; but never did time seem to pass so quickly. One shirt of mail was finished; and now she begun the second.

Suddenly the horn of a hunter was heard among the mountains. She grew frightened -- the sound came nearer -- she heard the bark of the dogs. Full of apprehension, she flew into the cavern, tied the nettles which she had gathered and hackled into a bundle, and seated herself upon it.

At the same moment a large dog sprang forward out of the bushes, and immediately after another and another: they barked loudly, then ran back and came again. It was not long before the hunters themselves stood in front of the cave, and the handsomest of them all was the King of the country. He advanced towards Elise; a maiden more beautiful than she had he never beheld.

Whence comest thou, lovely child? said he. Elise shook her head; she dared not speak, for the deliverance and the life of her brothers depended on her silence She hid her hands underneath her apron, that the King might not see what she was obliged to suffer.

Come with me, said he; thou must not stay here. If thou art as good as thou art beautiful, I will clothe thee in silk and velvet, I will put a golden crown upon thy head, and thou shalt dwell in my palace with me. So saying, he lifted her on his horse. She wept and wrung her hands; but the King said, I only seek thy happiness! one day thou wilt be thankful to me! And he galloped away over hill and valley, holding her fast before him; and the huntsmen followed at full speed.

As the sun was going down, she saw before her the magnificent capital, with its churches and domes; and the King led her to the palace, where jets of water were splashing on the high marble walls; where wall and ceiling shone with the richest paintings: but all this delighted not her eyes; she mourned and wept, and in silence suffered the women to array her in royal robes; to braid her hair with pearls, and to put soft gloves on her burned hands.

At last there she stood in all her glory, and was so dazzlingly beautiful that the whole court bowed before her; and the King chose her as his betrothed; although the archbishop shook his head, and whispered to the King that the lovely forest maiden must certainly be a witch, who had intoxicated his heart and dazzled his eye by her beauty.

But the King gave no heed to his words : he ordered the music to sound, and the richest meats were served, and the loveliest girls danced before her, and she was led through odorous gardens to the most magnificent halls. But no smile played on her lip, nor in her eye: affliction only was hers; it was her sole possession. Then the King opened a small chamber adjoining her sleeping room : it was covered with costly green carpeting, and resembled exactly the cavern in, which she had formerly been. On the floor lay a bundle of flax, which she had span from the fibres of the nettles; and from the ceiling hung the shirt of mail which she had completed. All this had been collected and brought hither by one of the hunters as a curiosity.

Here thou canst dream that thou art in thy former home, said the King. Here is the work which occupied thee there. Now amid all thy splendor it will delight thee to live in fancy that time over again.

When Elise saw what was so dear to-her heart, a smile played about her mouth, and the blood came back again to her cheeks. She thought of the deliverance of her brothers, and kissed the King's hand. He pressed her to his heart, and ordered that all the church-bells should announce the wedding-festival. The beautiful forest maiden became Queen of the country.

Then the archbishop whispered words of evil import in the King's ear; but they did not sink deep in his heart. The marriage was celebrated; the archbishop even was obliged to set the crown on her head; and in his wicked rage he pressed the narrow circlet of gold so hard upon her forehead, that it pained her; but a heavier weight, grief for her brothers, lay on her heart; so that she felt not the bodily smart. She spoke not; for a single word would have caused her brothers' death -- but in her eyes was an expression of deep love for the good and handsome King, who did every thing to make her happy. With her whole heart she grew every day more attached to him : oh! had she but dared to confide to him her sorrows, and tell him all she felt! But dumb she must remain; in silence must she accomplish her task. And so at night she slipped away, went into the small room which was decked like the cavern, and wove one shirt of mail after the other; but when she began the seventh, behold, the flax was all gone!

She well knew that such nettles as she could use grew in the churchyard; but then she herself must gather them, and how was she to get out to do so ?

Oh, what's the smarting of my fingers compared to the anguish that my heart endures? thought she: venture I must and God will surely not withdraw His hand from me.

Trembling as though she were going to commit a wicked action, she one moonlight night crept down into the garden, and went through the long avenues, and on the solitary road to the churchyard. There she saw on one of the broadest gravestones a troop of Lamias sitting -- ugly witches, who took off their ragged covering as though they were going to bathe, and then dug with their long thin fingers amid the fresh grass, and drew forth the dead bodies, and devoured the flesh. Elise was forced to pass near them; and the witches fixed upon her their malicious eyes; but she said a prayer, gathered the stinging-nettles, and carried them home to the palace.

Only a single person had seen her: it was the archbishop. He watched while the others slept. Now he was sure he was right when he said the Queen was not what she should be: that she was a witch; and that the King and the people were beguiled by her enchantments.

When the King went to confess, the archbishop told him what he had seen, and what he feared; and as these wicked words passed his lips, the carved figures of saints around the confessional shook their heads, as though they would say, It is not true! Elise is innocent! But the archbishop explained it otherwise; he said it was a sign of her guilt, and that the figures shook their heads at her sins.

Then two large tears rolled down the cheeks of the King; and it was with a heavy heart that he went home. In the night he pretended to be asleep; but no sleep came to his eyes; and he observed that Elise rose every night; and each time he followed her softly, and saw how she disappeared in her little room.

Each day the countenance of the King grew darker. Elise saw it, and knew not the cause; but it made her uneasy: and what did her heart not suffer on her brothers' account! Her bitter tears rolled down on the royal velvet and purple, and lay there like sparkling diamonds; and all who saw the splendor and magnificence with which she was surrounded, wished themselves in Elise's place.

In the meantime, however, her work was nearly completed; one shirt of mail only was wanting, but her flax was exhausted: she had not a single nettle more. Once more, only once, would she be obliged to go to the churchyard and pluck a handful. She thought with terror of the lonely walk, and of the horrible Lamias; but her resolve was as firm as her trust in God.

Elise went; but the King and the archbishop followed her. They saw her vanish at the churchyard gate; and, on approaching nearer, they saw the Lamias sitting on a grave-stone, as Elise had seen them; and the King turned away at the sight; for he thought that she, whose head had that evening rested on his bosom, was one of them.

She shall be judged by the people! said he, with a faltering voice. And the sentence of the people was -- That she should be burnt alive!

From the magnificent royal hall she was now led to a dismal damp cell, where the wind whistled through the grated window. Instead of velvet and silk, they gave her the bundle of nettles which she had collected in the churchyard, tied together with a thick piece of rope. These, they said, she might lay under her head as a pillow; and the coarse hard shirts of mail were to serve her as bed and covering: but nothing could have delighted her more; and she set to work again, and prayed fervently to God. Before her prison-door the populace sang jeering songs about her: not a soul comforted her with one word of affection.

All at once, towards evening, she heard the rustling of swans' wings close to her window. It was her youngest brother, who had found his sister; and she sobbed aloud for joy, although she knew that the coming night would perhaps be the last of her life. But then the work was nearly done, and her brothers were at hand.

The archbishop came to pass the last hour with her, for he had promised the King to do so; but she shook her head, and begged him, by look and gesture, to leave her. This night her task must be accomplished, or all would have been in vain; all her tears, her sorrows, her silence, and her many sleepless nights. The archbishop went away with angry words upon his lips; but poor Elise knew she had done nothing wrong, and continued her work.

The little mice ran busily backwards and forwards about the dungeon, and dragged the nettles to her feet, in order to help her a little; and the thrush sat on the grating of her window, and sang the whole night as merrily as he could, that Elise might not be disheartened.

It began to dawn; it was still an hour before the sun would rise and shine in all his summer splendor, when the eleven brothers stood before the palace-gates, and asked to be led into the presence of the King. They were told it could not be, for it was still night; besides, the King was asleep, and no one dared to wake him. They entreated, they threatened; the guard came, and at last even the King appeared, and asked what was the matter; when just at that moment the sun rose, and there were no longer any brothers to be found: there were only eleven white swans to be seen flying away over the palace.

The people streamed out of the city-gates; for all wished to see the witch burnt. A miserable horse dragged the cart on which she sat: they had dressed her in a sort of frock of coarse sackcloth; her beautiful long hair hung loose around her head; her cheeks were deathly pale; her lips moved almost imperceptibly while she spun the green-flax; for even on the way to death she ceased not from the work she had begun. The ten shirts of mail lay at her feet; she was weaving the eleventh.

The people cruelly laughed at her all this time. Look at the witch! shouted they; how she is muttering! She has no book of psalms in her hand; no, there she sits with her accursed conjuration: take it from her! let us tear the witch stuff in a thousand pieces!

So saying, they all rushed towards her, intending to rob her of her treasure and destroy the shirts of mail; when suddenly eleven white swans were seen. They flew to Elise, formed a circle round her, and beat the air with their wings. The frightened crowd gave way.

'Tis a sign from heaven! she is surely innocent! whispered some; but they dared not say it aloud.

The executioner seized her hand; when quickly she threw the eleven shirts of mail over the swans, and eleven handsome princes stood before her; but the youngest had one swans' wing instead of an arm, for a sleeve was wanting on his shirt of mail; since his good sister Elise, with all her zeal, unequaled as it was, had not been quite able to finish it. And the populace, that had seen what had happened, bowed before her as before a saint - but she sank insensible in the arms of her brothers, overcome by suspense, pain, and sorrow.

Yes, she is innocent! said the eldest brother; and he related all that had befallen her. While he spake, an odor as of a million roses spread around; for each billet of wood in the pile had taken root, and put forth branches and blossoms; so that instead of the horrid flames which were expected, there was now a sweetly smelling hedge full of red roses : and on the top of all was a flower of dazzling whiteness, and shining like a star. The King plucked this flower, and laid it on Elise's bosom; and she awoke with joy and peace in her heart.

Then all the church-bells began ringing of their own accord, and the birds came in swarms; and the procession to the palace was such as no King had ever seen before.

Source:

Fairy Tales
Copyright 1869
Allen Brothers, New York
 
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