The Wild Swans
: STORIES FROM SCANDINAVIA
: Boys And Girls Bookshelf
BY HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN
Far away, where the swallows fly when our Winter comes on, lived a King
who had eleven sons, and one daughter named Eliza. The eleven brothers
were Princes, and each went to school with a star on his breast and his
sword by his side. They wrote with pencils of diamond upon slates of
gold, and learned by heart just as well as they read: one could see
directly that t
ey were Princes. Their sister Eliza sat upon a little
stool of plate-glass, and had a picture-book which had been bought for
the value of half a kingdom.
Oh, the children were particularly well off; but it was not always to
Their father, who was King of the whole country, married a bad Queen,
who did not love the poor children at all. On the very first day they
could notice this. In the whole palace there was great feasting, and
the children were playing there. Then guests came; but instead of the
children receiving, as they had been accustomed to do, all the spare
cake and all the roasted apples, they only had some sand given them in a
tea-cup, and were told that they might make believe that was something
good. The next week the Queen took the little sister Eliza into the
country, to a peasant and his wife; and but a short time had elapsed
before she told the King so many falsehoods about the poor Princes that
he did not trouble himself any more about them.
"Fly out into the world and get your own living," said the wicked Queen.
"Fly like great birds without a voice."
But she could not make it so bad for them as she had intended, for they
became eleven magnificent wild swans. With a strange cry they flew out
of the palace windows, far over the park and into the wood.
It was yet quite early morning when they came by the place where their
sister Eliza lay asleep in the peasant's room. Here they hovered over
the roof, turned their long necks, and flapped their wings; but no one
heard or saw it. They were obliged to fly on, high up toward the clouds,
far away into the wide world; there they flew into a great dark wood,
which stretched away to the seashore.
Poor little Eliza stood in the peasant's room and played with a green
leaf, for she had no other playthings. And she pricked a hole in the
leaf, and looked through it up at the sun, and it seemed to her that she
saw her brothers' clear eyes; each time the warm sun shone upon her
cheeks she thought of all the kisses they had given her.
Each day passed just like the rest. When the wind swept through the
great rose hedges outside the house, it seemed to whisper to them: "What
can be more beautiful than you?" But the roses shook their heads and
answered "Eliza!" And when the old woman sat in front of her door on
Sunday and read in her hymn-book, the wind turned the leaves and said to
the book: "Who can be more pious than you?" and the hymn-book said,
"Eliza!" And what the rose bushes and the hymn-book said was the simple
When she was 15 years old she was to go home. And when the Queen saw how
beautiful she was, she became spiteful and filled with hatred toward
her. She would have been glad to change her into a wild swan, like her
brothers, but she did not dare to do so at once, because the King wished
to see his daughter.
Early in the morning the Queen went into the bath, which was built of
white marble, and decked with soft cushions and the most splendid
tapestry; and she took three toads and kissed them, and said to the
first: "Sit upon Eliza's head when she comes into the bath, that she may
become as stupid as you. Seat yourself upon her forehead," she said to
the second, "that she may become as ugly as you, and her father may not
know her. Rest on her heart," she whispered to the third, "that she may
receive an evil mind and suffer pain from it."
Then she put the toads into the clear water, which at once assumed a
green color; and calling Eliza, she caused her to undress and step into
the water. And while Eliza dived, one of the toads sat upon her hair,
and the second on her forehead, and the third on her heart; but she did
not seem to notice it; and as soon as she rose, three red poppies were
floating on the water. If the creatures had not been poisonous, and if
the witch had not kissed them, they would have been changed into red
roses. But at any rate they became flowers, because they had rested on
the girl's head, and forehead, and heart. She was too good and innocent
for sorcery to have power over her.
When the wicked Queen saw that, she rubbed Eliza with walnut juice, so
that the girl became dark brown, and smeared a hurtful ointment on her
face, and let her beautiful hair hang in confusion. It was quite
impossible to recognize the pretty Eliza.
When her father saw her he was much shocked and declared this was not
his daughter. No one but the yard dog and the swallows would recognize
her; but they were poor animals who had nothing to say in the matter.
Then poor Eliza wept, and thought of her eleven brothers who were all
away. Sorrowfully she crept out of the castle, and walked all day over
field and moor till she came into the great wood. She did not know
whither she wished to go, only she felt very downcast and longed for her
brothers: they had certainly been, like herself, thrust forth into the
world, and she would seek for them and find them.
She had been only a short time in the wood when the night fell; she
quite lost the path, therefore she lay down upon the soft moss, prayed
her evening prayer, and leaned her head against the stump of a tree.
Deep silence reigned around, the air was mild, and in the grass and in
the moss gleamed like a green fire hundreds of glow-worms; when she
lightly touched one of the twigs with her hand, the shining insects fell
down upon her like shooting stars.
The whole night long she dreamed of her brothers. They were children
again playing together, writing with their diamond pencils upon their
golden slates, and looking at the beautiful picture-book which had cost
half a kingdom. But on the slates they were not writing as they had been
accustomed to do, lines and letters, but the brave deeds they had done,
and all they had seen and experienced; and in the picture-book
everything was alive--the birds sang, and the people went out of the
book and spoke with Eliza and her brothers. But when the leaf was
turned, they jumped back again directly, so that there should be no
When she awoke the sun was already standing high. She could certainly
not see it, for the lofty trees spread their branches far and wide above
her. But the rays played there above like a gauzy veil, there was a
fragrance from the fresh verdure, and the birds almost perched upon her
shoulders. She heard the splashing of water; it was from a number of
springs all flowing into a lake which had the most delightful sandy
bottom. It was surrounded by thick growing bushes, but at one part the
stags had made a large opening, and here Eliza went down to the water.
The lake was so clear, that if the wind had not stirred the branches and
the bushes, so that they moved, one would have thought they were painted
upon the depths of the lake, so clearly was every leaf mirrored, whether
the sun shone upon it or whether it lay in shadow.
When Eliza saw her own face she was terrified--so brown and ugly was
she; but when she wetted her little hand and rubbed her eyes and her
forehead, the white skin gleamed forth again. Then she undressed and
went down into the fresh water; a more beautiful King's daughter than
she was could not be found in the world. And when she had dressed
herself again and plaited her long hair, she went to the bubbling
spring, drank out of the hollow of her hand, and then wandered far
into the wood, not knowing whither she went. She thought of her dear
brothers, and thought that Heaven would certainly not forsake her. It is
God who lets the wild apples grow, to satisfy the hunger. He showed her
a wild apple tree, with the boughs bending under the weight of the
fruit. Here she took her midday meal, placing props under the boughs,
and then went into the darkest part of the forest. There it was so still
that she could hear her own footsteps, as well as the rustling of every
dry leaf which bent under her feet. Not one bird was to be seen, not one
ray of sunlight could find its way through the great dark boughs of the
trees; the lofty trunks stood so close together that when she looked
before her it appeared as though she were surrounded by sets of palings
one behind the other.
The night came on quite dark. Not a single glow-worm now gleamed in the
grass. Sorrowfully she lay down to sleep. Then it seemed to her as if
the branches of the trees parted above her head, and mild eyes of angels
looked down upon her from on high.
When the morning came, she did not know if it had really been so or if
she had dreamed it.
She went a few steps forward, and then she met an old woman with berries
in her basket, and the old woman gave her a few of them. Eliza asked the
dame if she had not seen eleven Princes riding through the wood.
"No," replied the old woman, "but yesterday I saw eleven swans swimming
in the river close by, with golden crowns on their heads."
And she led Eliza a short distance farther, to a declivity, and at the
foot of the slope a little river wound its way. The trees on its margin
stretched their long leafy branches across toward each other, and where
their natural growth would not allow them to come together, the roots
had been torn out of the ground, and hung, intermingled with the
branches, over the water.
Eliza said farewell to the old woman, and went beside the river to the
place where the stream flowed out to the great open ocean.
The whole glorious sea lay before the young girl's eyes, but not one
sail appeared on its surface, and not a boat was to be seen. How was she
to proceed? She looked at the innumerable little pebbles on the shore;
the water had worn them all round. Glass, ironstones, everything that
was there had received its shape from the water, which was much softer
than even her delicate hand.
"It rolls on unweariedly, and thus what is hard becomes smooth. I will
be just as unwearied. Thanks for your lesson, you clear rolling waves;
my heart tells me that one day you will lead me to my dear brothers."
On the foam-covered sea-grass lay eleven white swan feathers, which she
collected into a bunch. Drops of water were upon them--whether they were
dewdrops or tears nobody could tell. Solitary it was there on the
strand, but she did not feel it, for the sea showed continual
changes--more in a few hours than the lovely lakes can produce in a
whole year. Then a great black cloud came. It seemed as if the sea would
say: "I can look angry, too." And then the wind blew, and the waves
turned their white side outward. But when the clouds gleamed red and the
winds slept, the sea looked like a rose-leaf; sometimes it became green,
sometimes white. But however quietly it might rest, there was still a
slight motion on the shore; the water rose gently like the breast of a
When the sun was just about to set, Eliza saw eleven wild swans, with
crowns on their heads, flying toward the land: they swept along one
after the other, so that they looked like a long white band. Then Eliza
descended the slope and hid herself behind a bush. The swans alighted
near her and flapped their great white wings.
As soon as the sun had disappeared beneath the water, the swan's
feathers fell off, and eleven handsome Princes, Eliza's brothers, stood
there. She uttered a loud cry, for although they were greatly altered,
she knew and felt that it must be they. And she sprang into their arms
and called them by their names; and the Princes felt supremely happy
when they saw their little sister again; and they knew her, though she
was now tall and beautiful. They smiled and wept; and soon they
understood how cruel their stepmother had been to them all.
"We brothers," said the eldest, "fly about as wild swans as long as the
sun is in the sky, but directly it sinks down we receive our human form
again. Therefore we must always take care that we have a resting-place
for our feet when the sun sets; for if at that moment we were flying up
toward the clouds, we should sink down into the deep as men. We do not
dwell here: there lies a land just as fair as this beyond the sea. But
the way thither is long; we must cross the great sea, and on our path
there is no island where we could pass the night, only a little rock
stands forth in the midst of the waves; it is just large enough that we
can rest upon it close to each other. If the sea is rough, the foam
spurts far over us, but we thank God for the rock. There we pass the
night in our human form: but for this rock we could never visit our
beloved native land, for we require two of the longest days in the year
for our journey.
"Only once in each year is it granted to us to visit our home. For
eleven days we may stay here and fly over the great wood, from whence we
can see the palace in which we were born and in which our father lives,
and the high church tower, beneath whose shade our mother lies buried.
Here it seems to us as though the bushes and trees were our relatives;
here the wild horses career across the steppe, as we have seen them do
in our childhood; here the charcoal-burner sings the old songs to which
we danced as children; here is our fatherland; hither we feel ourselves
drawn, and here we have found you, our dear little sister. Two days more
we may stay here; then we must away across the sea to a glorious land,
but which is not our native land. How can we bear you away? for we have
neither ship nor boat."
"In what way can I release you?" asked the sister; and they conversed
nearly the whole night, slumbering only for a few hours.
She was awakened by the rustling of the swans' wings above her head. Her
brothers were again enchanted, and they flew in wide circles and at last
far away; but one of them, the youngest, remained behind, and the swan
laid his head in her lap, and she stroked his wings; and the whole day
they remained together. Toward evening the others came back, and when
the sun had gone down they stood there in their own shapes, and one of
"To-morrow we fly far away from here, and cannot come back until a whole
year has gone by. But we cannot leave you thus! Have you courage to come
with us? My arm is strong enough to carry you in the wood; and should
not all our wings be strong enough to fly with you over the sea?"
"Yes, take me with you," said Eliza.
The whole night they were occupied in weaving a net of the pliable
willow bark and tough reeds; and it was great and strong. On this net
Eliza lay down; and when the sun rose, and her brothers were changed
into wild swans, they seized the net with their beaks, and flew with
their beloved sister, who was still asleep, high up toward the clouds.
The sunbeams fell exactly upon her face, so one of the swans flew over
her head, that his broad wings might overshadow her.
They were far away from the shore when Eliza awoke: she was still
dreaming, so strange did it appear to her to be carried high through the
air and over the sea. By her side lay a branch with beautiful ripe
berries and a bundle of sweet-tasting roots. The youngest of the
brothers had collected them and placed them there for her. She smiled at
him thankfully, for she recognized him; he it was who flew over her and
shaded her with his wings.
They were so high that the greatest ship they descried beneath them
seemed like a white sea-gull lying upon the waters. A great cloud stood
behind them--it was a perfect mountain; and upon it Eliza saw her own
shadow and those of the eleven swans; there they flew on, gigantic in
size. Here was a picture, a more splendid one than she had ever yet
seen. But as the sun rose higher and the cloud was left farther behind
them, the floating shadowy images vanished away.
The whole day they flew onward through the air, like a whirring arrow,
but their flight was slower than it was wont to be, for they had their
sister to carry. Bad weather came on; the evening drew near; Eliza
looked anxiously at the setting sun, for the lonely rock in the ocean
could not be seen. It seemed to her as if the swans beat the air more
strongly with their wings. Alas! she was the cause that they did not
advance fast enough. When the sun went down, they must become men and
fall into the sea and drown. Then she prayed a prayer from the depths of
her heart; but still she could descry no rock. The dark clouds came
nearer in a great black threatening body rolling forward like a mass of
lead, and the lightning burst forth, flash upon flash.
Now the sun just touched the margin of the sea. Eliza's heart trembled.
Then the swans darted downward, so swiftly that she thought they were
falling, but they paused again. The sun was half hidden below the water.
And now for the first time she saw the little rock beneath her, and it
looked no larger than a seal might look, thrusting his head forth from
the water. The sun sank very fast; at last it appeared only like a star;
and then her foot touched the firm land. The sun was extinguished like
the last spark in a piece of burned paper; her brothers were standing
around her, arm in arm, but there was not more than just enough room for
her and for them. The sea beat against the rock and went over her like
fine rain; the sky glowed in continual fire, and peal on peal the
thunder rolled; but sister and brothers held each other by the hand and
sang psalms, from which they gained comfort and courage.
In the morning twilight the air was pure and calm. As soon as the sun
rose the swans flew away with Eliza from the island. The sea still ran
high, and when they soared up aloft, from their high position the white
foam on the dark green waves looked like millions of white swans
swimming upon the water.
When the sun mounted higher, Eliza saw before her, half floating in the
air, a mountainous country with shining masses of ice on its water, and
in the midst of it rose a castle, apparently a mile long, with row above
row of elegant columns, while beneath waved the palm woods and bright
flowers as large as mill-wheels. She asked if this was the country to
which they were bound, but the swans shook their heads, for what she
beheld was the gorgeous, everchanging palace of Fata Morgana, and into
this they might bring no human being. As Eliza gazed at it, mountains,
woods, and castle fell down, and twenty proud churches, all nearly
alike, with high towers and pointed windows, stood before them. She
fancied she heard the organs sounding, but it was the sea she heard.
When she was quite near the churches they changed to a fleet sailing
beneath her, but when she looked down it was only a sea mist gliding
over the ocean. Thus she had a continual change before her eyes, till at
last she saw the real land to which they were bound. There arose the
most glorious blue mountains, with cedar forests, cities, and palaces.
Long before the sun went down she sat on the rock, in front of a great
cave overgrown with delicate green trailing plants looking like
"Now we shall see what you will dream of here to-night," said the
youngest brother; and he showed her to her bed-chamber.
"Heaven grant that I may dream of a way to release you," she replied.
And this thought possessed her mightily, and she prayed ardently for
help; yes, even in her sleep she continued to pray. Then it seemed to
her as if she were flying high in the air to the cloudy palace of Fata
Morgana; and the fairy came out to meet her, beautiful and radiant; and
yet the fairy was quite like the old woman who had given her the berries
in the wood, and had told her of the swans with golden crowns on their
"Your brothers can be released," said she. "But have you courage and
perseverance? Certainly, water is softer than your delicate hands, and
yet it changes the shape of stones but it feels not the pain that your
fingers will feel; it has no heart, and cannot suffer the agony and
torment you will have to endure. Do you see the stinging nettle which I
hold in my hand? Many of the same kind grow around the cave in which you
sleep: those only, and those that grow upon churchyard graves, are
serviceable, remember that. Those you must pluck, though they will burn
your hands into blisters. Break these nettles to pieces with your feet,
and you will have flax; of this you must plait and weave eleven shirts
of mail with long sleeves: throw these over the eleven swans, and the
charm will be broken. But recollect well, from the moment you begin this
work until it is finished, even though it should take years to
accomplish, you must not speak. The first word you utter will pierce
your brothers' hearts like a deadly dagger. Their lives hang on your
tongue. Remember all this!"
And she touched her hand with the nettle; it was like a burning fire,
and Eliza awoke with the smart. It was broad daylight; and close by the
spot where she had slept lay a nettle like the one she had seen in her
dream. She fell upon her knees and prayed gratefully, and went forth
from the cave to begin her work.
With her delicate hands she groped among the ugly nettles. These stung
like fire, burning great blisters on her arms and hands; but she thought
she would bear it gladly if she could only release her dear brothers.
Then she bruised every nettle with her bare feet and plaited the green
When the sun had set her brothers came, and they were frightened when
they found her dumb. They thought it was some new sorcery of their
wicked stepmother's; but when they saw her hands, they understood what
she was doing for their sake, and the youngest brother wept. And where
his tears dropped she felt no more pain and the burning blisters
She passed the night at her work, for she could not sleep till she had
delivered her dear brothers. The whole of the following day, while the
swans were away, she sat in solitude, but never had time flown so
quickly with her as now. One shirt of mail was already finished, and
now she began the second.
Then a hunting horn sounded among the hills, and she was struck with
fear. The noise came nearer and nearer; she heard the barking dogs, and
timidly she fled into the cave, bound into a bundle the nettles she had
collected and prepared, and sat upon the bundle.
Immediately a great dog came bounding out of the ravine, and then
another, and another: they barked loudly, ran back, and then came again.
Only a few minutes had gone before all the huntsmen stood before the
cave, and the handsomest of them was the King of the country. He came
forward to Eliza, for he had never seen a more beautiful maiden.
"How did you come hither, you delightful child?" he asked.
Eliza shook her head, for she might not speak--it would cost her
brothers their deliverance and their lives. And she hid her hands under
her apron, so that the King might not see what she was suffering.
"Come with me," said he. "You cannot stop here. If you are as good as
you are beautiful, I will dress you in velvet and silk, and place the
golden crown on your head, and you shall dwell in my richest castle, and
And then he lifted her on his horse. She wept and wrung her hands; but
the King said:
"I only wish for your happiness: one day you will thank me for this."
And then he galloped away among the mountains with her on his horse, and
the hunters galloped at their heels.
When the sun went down, the fair regal city lay before them, with its
churches and cupolas; and the King led her into the castle, where great
fountains plashed in the lofty marble halls, and where walls and
ceilings were covered with glorious pictures. But she had no eyes for
all this--she only wept and mourned. Passively she let the women put
royal robes upon her, and weave pearls in her hair, and draw dainty
gloves over her blistered fingers.
When she stood there in full array, she was dazzlingly beautiful, so
that the Court bowed deeper than ever. And the King chose her for his
bride, although the archbishop shook his head and whispered that the
beauteous fresh maid was certainly a witch, who blinded the eyes and led
astray the heart of the King.
But the King gave no ear to this, but ordered that the music should
sound, and the costliest dishes should be served, and the most beautiful
maidens should dance before them. And she was led through fragrant
gardens into gorgeous halls; but never a smile came upon her lips or
shone in her eyes; there she stood, a picture of grief. Then the King
opened a little chamber close by, where she was to sleep. This chamber
was decked with splendid green tapestry, and completely resembled the
cave in which she had been. On the floor lay the bundle of flax which
she had prepared from the nettles, and under the ceiling hung the shirt
of mail she had completed. All these things one of the huntsmen had
brought with him as curiosities.
"Here you may dream yourself back in your former home," said the King.
"Here is the work which occupied you there, and now, in the midst of all
your splendor, it will amuse you to think of that time."
When Eliza saw this that lay so near her heart, a smile played round her
mouth and the crimson blood came back into her cheeks. She thought of
her brothers' deliverance, and kissed the King's hand; and he pressed
her to his heart, and caused the marriage feast to be announced by all
the church bells. The beautiful dumb girl out of the wood became the
Queen of the country.
Then the archbishop whispered evil words into the King's ear, but they
did not sink into the King's heart. The marriage was to take place; the
archbishop himself was obliged to place the crown on her head, and with
wicked spite he pressed the narrow circlet so tightly upon her brow that
it pained her. But a heavier ring lay close around her heart--sorrow for
her brothers; she did not feel the bodily pain. Her mouth was dumb, for
a single word would cost her brothers their lives, but her eyes glowed
with love for the kind, handsome King, who did everything to rejoice
her. She loved him with her whole heart, more and more every day. Oh,
that she had been able to confide in him and to tell him of her grief;
but she was compelled to be dumb, and to finish her work in silence.
Therefore at night she crept away from his side, and went quietly into
the little chamber which was decorated like the cave, and wove one shirt
of mail after another. But when she began the seventh she found that she
had no flax left.
She knew that in the churchyard nettles were growing that she could use;
but she must pluck them herself, and how was she to go out there unseen?
"Oh, what is the pain in my fingers to the torment my heart endures?"
thought she. "I must venture it, and help will not be denied me!"
With a trembling heart, as though the deed she purposed doing had been
evil, she crept into the garden in the moonlight night, and went through
the lanes and through the deserted streets to the churchyard. There, on
one of the broadest tombstones she saw sitting a circle of lamias. These
hideous wretches took off their ragged garments, as if they were going
to bathe; then with their skinny fingers they clawed open the fresh
graves, and with fiendish greed they snatched up the corpses and ate the
flesh. Eliza was obliged to pass close by them and they fastened their
evil glances upon her; but she prayed silently, and collected the
burning nettles, and carried them into the castle.
Only one person had seen her, and that was the archbishop. He was awake
while others slept. Now he felt sure his opinion was correct, that all
was not as it should be with the Queen; she was a witch.
In secret he told the King what he had seen and what he feared; and when
the hard words came from his tongue, the pictures of saints in the
cathedral shook their heads, as though they could have said: "It is
not so! Eliza is innocent!" But the archbishop interpreted this
differently--he thought they were bearing witness against her, and
shaking their heads at her sinfulness. Then two heavy tears rolled down
the King's cheeks; he went home with doubt in his heart, and at night
pretended to be asleep; but no real sleep came upon his eyes, for he
noticed that Eliza got up. Every night she did this, and each time he
followed her silently, and saw how she disappeared from her chamber.
From day to day his face became darker. Eliza saw it, but did not
understand the reason; but it frightened her--and what did she not
suffer in her heart for her brothers? Her hot tears flowed upon the
royal velvet and purple; they lay there like sparkling diamonds, and all
who saw the splendor wished they were Queens. In the meantime she had
almost finished her work. Only one shirt of mail was still to be
completed, but she had no flax left, and not a single nettle. Once more,
for the last time, therefore, she must go to the churchyard, only to
pluck a few handfuls. She thought with terror of this solitary wandering
and of the horrible lamias, but her will was firm as her trust in
Eliza went on, but the King and the archbishop followed her. They saw
her vanish into the churchyard through the wicket gate; and when they
drew near, the lamias were sitting upon the gravestones as Eliza had
seen them; and the King turned aside, for he fancied her among them,
whose head had rested against his breast that very evening.
"The people must condemn her," said he.
And the people condemned her to suffer death by fire.
Out of the gorgeous regal halls she was led into a dark 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: on this she
could lay her head; and the hard burning coats of mail which she had
woven were to be her coverlet. But nothing could have been given her
that she liked better. She resumed her work and prayed. Without, the
street boys were singing jeering songs about her, and not a soul
comforted her with a kind word.
But toward evening there came the whirring of swans' wings close by the
grating--it was the youngest of her brothers. He had found his sister,
and she sobbed aloud with joy, though she knew that the approaching
night would probably be the last she had to live. But now the work was
almost finished, and her brothers were here.
Now came the archbishop, to stay with her in her last hour, for he had
promised the King to do so. And she shook her head, and with looks and
gestures she begged him to depart, for in this night she must finish her
work, or else all would be in vain, all her tears, her pain, and her
sleepless nights. The archbishop withdrew, uttering evil words against
her; but poor Eliza knew she was innocent, and diligently continued her
The little mice ran about the floor; they dragged the nettles to her
feet, to help as well as they could; and a thrush sat outside the
grating of the window, and sang to her the whole night long, as sweetly
as possible, to keep up her courage.
It was still twilight; not till an hour afterward would the sun rise.
And the eleven brothers stood at the castle gate, and demanded to be
brought before the King. That could not be, they were told, for it was
still almost night; the King was asleep, and might not be disturbed.
They begged, they threatened, and the sentries came, yes, even the King
himself came out, and asked what was the meaning of this. At that moment
the sun rose and no more were the brothers to be seen, but eleven wild
swans flew away over the castle.
All the people came flocking out at the town gate, for they wanted to
see the witch burned. The old horse drew the cart on which she sat. They
had put upon her a garment of coarse sackcloth. Her lovely hair hung
loose about her beautiful head; her cheeks were as pale as death; and
her lips moved silently, while her fingers were engaged with the green
flax. Even on the way to death she did not interrupt the work she had
begun; the ten shirts of mail lay at her feet, and she wrought at the
eleventh. The mob derided her.
"Look at the red witch, how she mutters! She has no hymn-book in her
hand; no, there she sits with her ugly sorcery--tear it in a thousand
And they all pressed upon her, and wanted to tear up the shirts of mail.
Then eleven wild swans came flying up, and sat round about her on the
cart, and beat with their wings; and the mob gave way before them,
"That is a sign from heaven! She is certainly innocent!" whispered many.
But they did not dare to say it aloud.
Now the executioner seized her by the hand; then she hastily threw the
eleven shirts over the swans, and immediately eleven handsome Princes
stood there. But the youngest had a swan's wing instead of an arm, for a
sleeve was wanting to his shirt--she had not quite finished it.
"Now I may speak!" she said. "I am innocent!"
And the people who saw what happened bowed before her as before a saint;
but she sank lifeless into her brother's arms, such an effect had
suspense, anguish, and pain upon her.
"Indeed, she is innocent," said the eldest brother.
And now he told everything that had taken place; and while he spoke a
fragrance arose as of millions of roses, for every piece of faggot in
the pile had taken root and was sending forth shoots; and a fragrant
hedge stood there, tall and great, covered with red roses, and at the
top a flower, white and shining, gleaming like a star. This flower the
King plucked and placed in Eliza's bosom; and she awoke with peace and
happiness in her heart.
And all the church bells rang of themselves, and the birds came in great
flocks. And back to the castle such a marriage procession was held as no
King had ever seen.