ONCE upon a time there lived, on the bank of a stream, a man and a woman who had a daughter. As she was an only child, and very pretty besides, they never could make up their minds to punish her for her faults or to teach her nice manners; and as for work-- she laughed in her mother’s face if she asked her to help cook the dinner or to wash the plates. All the girl would do was to spend her days in dancing and playing with her friends; and for any use she was to her parents they might as well have no daughter at all.
However, one morning her mother looked so tired that even the selfish girl could not help seeing it, and asked if there was anything she was able to do, so that her mother might rest a little.
The good woman looked so surprised and grateful for this offer that the girl felt rather ashamed, and at that moment would have scrubbed down the house if she had been requested; but her mother only begged her to take the fishing-net out to the bank of the river and mend some holes in it, as her father intended to go fishing that night.
The girl took the net and worked so hard that soon there was not a hole to be found. She felt quite pleased with herself, though she had had plenty to amuse her, as everybody who passed by had stopped and had a chat with her. But by this time the sun was high overhead, and she was just folding her net to carry it home again, when she heard a splash behind her, and looking round she saw a big fish jump into the air. Seizing the net with both hands, she flung it into the water where the circles were spreading one behind the other, and, more by luck than skill, drew out the fish.
‘Well, you are a beauty!’ she cried to herself; but the fish looked up to her and said:
‘You had better not kill me, for, if you do, I will turn you into a fish yourself!’
The girl laughed contemptuously, and ran straight in to her mother.
‘Look what I have caught,’ she said gaily; ‘but it is almost a pity to eat it, for it can talk, and it declares that, if I kill it, it will turn me into a fish too.’
‘Oh, put it back, put it back!’ implored the mother. ‘Perhaps it is skilled in magic. And I should die, and so would your father, if anything should happen to you.’
‘Oh, nonsense, mother; what power could a creature like that have over me? Besides, I am hungry, and if I don’t have my dinner soon, I shall be cross.’ And off she went to gather some flowers to stick in her hair.
About an hour later the blowing of a horn told her that dinner was ready.
‘Didn’t I say that fish would be delicious?’ she cried; and plunging her spoon into the dish the girl helped herself to a large piece. But the instant it touched her mouth a cold shiver ran through her. Her head seemed to flatten, and her eyes to look oddly round the corners; her legs and her arms were stuck to her sides, and she gasped wildly for breath. With a mighty bound she sprang through the window and fell into the river, where she soon felt better, and was able to swim to the sea, which was close by.
No sooner had she arrived there than the sight of her sad face attracted the notice of some of the other fishes, and they pressed round her, begging her to tell them her story.
‘I am not a fish at all,’ said the new-comer, swallowing a great deal of salt water as she spoke; for you cannot learn how to be a proper fish all in a moment. ‘I am not a fish at all, but a girl; at least I was a girl a few minutes ago, only--’ And she ducked her head under the waves so that they should not see her crying.
‘Only you did not believe that the fish you caught had power to carry out its threat,’ said an old tunny. ‘Well, never mind, that has happened to all of us, and it really is not a bad life. Cheer up and come with us and see our queen, who lives in a palace that is much more beautiful than any your queens can boast of.’
The new fish felt a little afraid of taking such a journey; but as she was still more afraid of being left alone, she waved her tail in token of consent, and off they all set, hundreds of them together. The people on the rocks and in the ships that saw them pass said to each other:
‘Look what a splendid shoal!’ and had no idea that they were hastening to the queen’s palace; but, then, dwellers on land have so little notion of what goes on in the bottom of the sea! Certainly the little new fish had none. She had watched jelly-fish and nautilus swimming a little way below the surface, and beautiful coloured sea-weeds floating about; but that was all. Now, when she plunged deeper her eyes fell upon strange things.
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, inestimable stones, unvalued jewels-- all scattered in the bottom of the sea! Dead men’s bones were there also, and long white creatures who had never seen the light, for they mostly dwelt in the clefts of rocks where the sun’s rays could not come. At first our little fish felt as if she were blind also, but by-and-by she began to make out one object after another in the green dimness, and by the time she had swum for a few hours all became clear.
‘Here we are at last,’ cried a big fish, going down into a deep valley, for the sea has its mountains and valleys just as much as the land. ‘That is the palace of the queen of the fishes, and I think you must confess that the emperor himself has nothing so fine.’
‘It is beautiful indeed,’ gasped the little fish, who was very tired with trying to swim as fast as the rest, and beautiful beyond words the palace was. The walls were made of pale pink coral, worn smooth by the waters, and round the windows were rows of pearls; the great doors were standing open, and the whole troop floated into the chamber of audience, where the queen, who was half a woman after all, was seated on a throne made of a green and blue shell.
‘Who are you, and where do you come from?’ said she to the little fish, whom the others had pushed in front. And in a low, trembling voice, the visitor told her story.
‘I was once a girl too,’ answered the queen, when the fish had ended; ‘and my father was the king of a great country. A husband was found for me, and on my wedding-day my mother placed her crown on my head and told me that as long as I wore it I should likewise be queen. For many months I was as happy as a girl could be, especially when I had a little son to play with. But, one morning, when I was walking in my gardens, there came a giant and snatched the crown from my head. Holding me fast, he told me that he intended to give the crown to his daughter, and to enchant my husband the prince, so that he should not know the difference between us. Since then she has filled my place and been queen in my stead. As for me, I was so miserable that I threw myself into the sea, and my ladies, who loved me, declared that they would die too; but, instead of dying, some wizard, who pitied my fate, turned us all into fishes, though he allowed me to keep the face and body of a woman. And fished we must remain till someone brings me back my crown again!’
‘I will bring it back if you tell me what to do!’ cried the little fish, who would have promised anything that was likely to carry her up to earth again. And the queen answered:
‘Yes, I will tell you what to do.’
She sat silent for a moment, and then went on:
‘There is no danger if you will only follow my counsel; and first you must return to earth, and go up to the top of a high mountain, where the giant has built his castle. You will find him sitting on the steps weeping for his daughter, who has just died while the prince was away hunting. At the last she sent her father my crown by a faithful servant. But I warn you to be careful, for if he sees you he may kill you. Therefore I will give you the power to change yourself into any creature that may help you best. You have only to strike your forehead, and call out its name.’
This time the journey to land seemed much shorter than before, and when once the fish reached the shore she struck her forehead sharply with her tail, and cried:
‘Deer, come to me!’
In a moment the small, slimy body disappeared, and in its place stood a beautiful beast with branching horns and slender legs, quivering with longing to be gone. Throwing back her head and snuffing the air, she broke into a run, leaping easily over the rivers and walls that stood in her way.
It happened that the king’s son had been hunting since daybreak, but had killed nothing, and when the deer crossed his path as he was resting under a tree he determined to have her. He flung himself on his horse, which went like the wind, and as the prince had often hunted the forest before, and knew all the short cuts, he at last came up with the panting beast.
‘By your favour let me go, and do not kill me,’ said the deer, turning to the prince with tears in her eyes, ‘for I have far to run and much to do.’ And as the prince, struck dumb with surprise, only looked at her, the deer cleared the next wall and was soon out of sight.
‘That can’t really be a deer,’ thought the prince to himself, reining in his horse and not attempting to follow her. ‘No deer ever had eyes like that. It must be an enchanted maiden, and I will marry her and no other.’ So, turning his horse’s head, he rode slowly back to his palace.
The deer reached the giant’s castle quite out of breath, and her heart sank as she gazed at the tall, smooth walls which surrounded it. Then she plucked up courage and cried:
‘Ant, come to me!’ And in a moment the branching horns and beautiful shape had vanished, and a tiny brown ant, invisible to all who did not look closely, was climbing up the walls.
It was wonderful how fast she went, that little creature! The wall must have appeared miles high in comparison with her own body; yet, in less time than would have seemed possible, she was over the top and down in the courtyard on the other side. Here she paused to consider what had best be done next, and looking about her she saw that one of the walls had a tall tree growing by it, and in the corner was a window very nearly on a level with the highest branches of the tree.
‘Monkey, come to me!’ cried the ant; and before you could turn round a monkey was swinging herself from the topmost branches into the room where the giant lay snoring.
‘Perhaps he will be so frightened at the sight of me that he may die of fear, and I shall never get the crown,’ thought the monkey. ‘I had better become something else.’ And she called softly: ‘Parrot, come to me!’
Then a pink and grey parrot hopped up to the giant, who by this time was stretching himself and giving yawns which shook the castle. The parrot waited a little, until he was really awake, and then she said boldly that she had been sent to take away the crown, which was not his any longer, now his daughter the queen was dead.
On hearing these words the giant leapt out of bed with an angry roar, and sprang at the parrot in order to wring her neck with his great hands. But the bird was too quick for him, and, flying behind his back, begged the giant to have patience, as her death would be of no use to him.
‘That is true,’ answered the giant; ‘but I am not so foolish as to give you that crown for nothing. Let me think what I will have in exchange!’ And he scratched his huge head for several minutes, for giants’ minds always move slowly.
‘Ah, yes, that will do!’ exclaimed the giant at last, his face brightening. ‘You shall have the crown if you will bring me a collar of blue stones from the Arch of St. Martin, in the Great City.’
Now when the parrot had been a girl she had often heard of this wonderful arch and the precious stones and marbles that had been let into it. It sounded as if it would be a very hard thing to get them away from the building of which they formed a part, but all had gone well with her so far, and at any rate she could but try. So she bowed to the giant, and made her way back to the window where the giant could not see her. Then she called quickly:
‘Eagle, come to me!’
Before she had even reached the tree she felt herself borne up on strong wings ready to carry her to the clouds if she wished to go there, and seeming a mere speck in the sky, she was swept along till she beheld the Arch of St. Martin far below, with the rays of the sun shining on it. Then she swooped down, and, hiding herself behind a buttress so that she could not be detected from below, she set herself to dig out the nearest blue stones with her beak. It was even harder work than she had expected; but at last it was done, and hope arose in her heart. She next drew out a piece of string that she had found hanging from a tree, and sitting down to rest strung the stones together. When the necklace was finished she hung it round her neck, and called: ‘Parrot, come to me!’ And a little later the pink and grey parrot stood before the giant.
‘Here is the necklace you asked for,’ said the parrot. And the eyes of the giant glistened as he took the heap of blue stones in his hand. But for all that he was not minded to give up the crown.
‘They are hardly as blue as I expected,’ he grumbled, though the parrot knew as well as he did that he was not speaking the truth; ‘so you must bring me something else in exchange for the crown you covet so much. If you fail it will cost you not only the crown but you life also.’
‘What is it you want now?’ asked the parrot; and the giant answered:
‘If I give you my crown I must have another still more beautiful; and this time you shall bring me a crown of stars.’
The parrot turned away, and as soon as she was outside she murmured:
‘Toad, come to me!’ And sure enough a toad she was, and off she set in search of the starry crown.
She had not gone far before she came to a clear pool, in which the stars were reflected so brightly that they looked quite real to touch and handle. Stooping down she filled a bag she was carrying with the shining water and, returning to the castle, wove a crown out of the reflected stars. Then she cried as before:
‘Parrot, come to me!’ And in the shape of a parrot she entered the presence of the giant.
‘Here is the crown you asked for,’ she said; and this time the giant could not help crying out with admiration. He knew he was beaten, and still holding the chaplet of stars, he turned to the girl.
‘Your power is greater than mine: take the crown; you have won it fairly!’
The parrot did not need to be told twice. Seizing the crown, she sprang on to the window, crying: ‘Monkey, come to me!’ And to a monkey, the climb down the tree into the courtyard did not take half a minute. When she had reached the ground she said again: ‘Ant, come to me!’ And a little ant at once began to crawl over the high wall. How glad the ant was to be out of the giant’s castle, holding fast the crown which had shrunk into almost nothing, as she herself had done, but grew quite big again when the ant exclaimed:
‘Deer, come to me!’
Surely no deer ever ran so swiftly as that one! On and on she went, bounding over rivers and crashing through tangles till she reached the sea. Here she cried for the last time:
‘Fish, come to me!’ And, plunging in, she swam along the bottom as far as the palace, where the queen and all the fishes gathered together awaiting her.
The hours since she had left had gone very slowly--as they always do to people that are waiting--and many of them had quite given up hope.
‘I am tired of staying here,’ grumbled a beautiful little creature, whose colours changed with every movement of her body, ‘I want to see what is going on in the upper world. It must be months since that fish went away.’
‘It was a very difficult task, and the giant must certainly have killed her or she would have been back long ago,’ remarked another.
‘The young flies will be coming out now,’ murmured a third, ‘and they will all be eaten up by the river fish! It is really too bad!’ When, suddenly, a voice was heard from behind: ‘Look! look! what is that bright thing that is moving so swiftly towards us?’ And the queen started up, and stood on her tail, so excited was she.
A silence fell on all the crowd, and even the grumblers held their peace and gazed like the rest. On and on came the fish, holding the crown tightly in her mouth, and the others moved back to let her pass. On she went right up to the queen, who bent and, taking the crown, placed it on her own head. Then a wonderful thing happened. Her tail dropped away or, rather, it divided and grew into two legs and a pair of the prettiest feet in the world, while her maidens, who were grouped around her, shed their scales and became girls again. They all turned and looked at each other first, and next at the little fish who had regained her own shape and was more beautiful than any of them.
‘It is you who have given us back our life; you, you!’ they cried; and fell to weeping from very joy.
So they all went back to earth and the queen’s palace, and quite forgot the one that lay under the sea. But they had been so long away that they found many changes. The prince, the queen’s husband, had died some years since, and in his place was her son, who had grown up and was king! Even in his joy at seeing his mother again an air of sadness clung to him, and at last the queen could bear it no longer, and begged him to walk with her in the garden. Seated together in a bower of jessamine--where she had passed long hours as a bride--she took her son’s hand and entreated him to tell her the cause of his sorrow. ‘For,’ said she, ‘if I can give you happiness you shall have it.’
‘It is no use,’ answered the prince; ‘nobody can help me. I must bear it alone.’
‘But at least let me share your grief,’ urged the queen.
‘No one can do that,’ said he. ‘I have fallen in love with what I can never marry, and I must get on as best I can.’
‘It may not be as impossible as you think,’ answered the queen. ‘At any rate, tell me.’
There was silence between them for a moment, then, turning away his head, the prince answered gently:
‘I have fallen in love with a beautiful deer!’
‘Ah, if that is all,’ exclaimed the queen joyfully. And she told him in broken words that, as he had guessed, it was no deer but an enchanted maiden who had won back the crown and brought her home to her own people.
‘She is here, in my palace,’ added the queen. ‘I will take you to her.’
But when the prince stood before the girl, who was so much more beautiful than anything he had ever dreamed of, he lost all his courage, and stood with bent head before her.
Then the maiden drew near, and her eyes, as she looked at him, were the eyes of the deer that day in the forest. She whispered softly:
‘By your favour let me go, and do not kill me.’
And the prince remembered her words, and his heart was filled with happiness. And the queen, his mother, watched them and smiled.