AT evening, in the narrow streets of the great city, when the sun went down and the clouds shone like gold among the chimneys, there was frequently heard, sometimes by one, and sometimes by another, a strange tone, like the sound of a church bell; but it was only heard for a moment at a time, for in the streets there was a continualrattle of carriages , and endless cries of men and women----and that is a sad interruption. Then people said, “Now the evening bell sounds , now the sun is setting . ”
Those who were walking outside the city, where the houses stood farther from each other, with gardens and little fields between, saw the evening sky looking still moreglorious , and heard the sound of the bell far more clearly . It was as though the tones came from a church , deep in the still quiet fragrant wood, and people looked in that direction, and became quite meditative.
Now a certain time passed, and one said to another, “Is there not a church out yonder in the wood? That bell has a peculiarly beautiful sound ! Shall we not go out and look at it more closely?” And rich people drove out, and poor people walked; but the way seemed marvellously long to them; and when they came to a number of willow trees that grew on the margin of the forest, they sat down and looked up to the long branches, and thought they were now really in the green wood. The pastrycook from the town came there too, and pitched his tent; but another pastrycook came and hung up a bell just over his own tent , a bell , in fact , that had been tarred so as to resistthe rain, but it had no clapper.And when the people went home again, they declared the whole affair had been very romantic, and that meant much more than merely that they had taken tea . Three persons declared that they had penetrated into the wood to where it ended, and that they had always heard the strange sound of bells, but it had appeared to them as if it came from the town . One of the three wrote a song about it , and said that the sound was like the voice of a mother singing to a dear good child; no melody could be more beautiful than the sound of that bell .
The Emperor of that country was also informed of it, and promised that the person who could really find out whence the sound came should have the title of The World's Bell-ringer, even if it should turn out not to be a bell .
Many went to the forest , on account of the good entertainment there; but there was only one who came back with a kind of explanation. No one had penetrated deep enough into the wood, nor had he; but he said that the sound came from a very great owl in a hollow tree; it was an owl of wisdom, that kept knocking its head continually against the tree, but whether the sound came from the owl's head, or from the trunk of the tree, he could not say with certainty . He was invested with the title of The World's Bell-ringer, and every year wrote a short treatise upon the owl; and people were just as wise after reading his works as they were before.
On a certain day a confirmation was held. The old clergyman had spoken well and impressively, and the candidates for confirmation were quite moved. It was an important day for them; for from being children they became grown-up people, and the childish soul was as it were to be transformed to that of a more sensible person . The sun shone gloriously as the confirmed children marched out of the town , and from the wood the great mysterious bell sounded with peculiar strength. They at once wished to go out to it, and all felt this wish except three. One of these desired to go home, to try on her ball dress, for it was just on account of that dress and that ball that she was being confirmed at that time, otherwise she would not have been so; the second was a poor boy, who had borrowed the coat and boots in which he was confirmed from the son of his landlord, and he had to give them back at an appointed time ; the third said he never went to a strange place unless his parents went with him, that he had always been an obedient son, and would continue to be so, even after he was confirmed, and they were not to laugh at him. But they did laugh at him, nevertheless.
So these three did not go, but the others trotted on. The sun shone, and the birds sang, and the young people sang too, and held each other by the hand, for they had not yet received any office, and were all alike before Heaven on that day . But two of the smallest soon became weary and returned to the town, and two little girls sat down to bind wreaths, and did not go with the rest. And when the others came to the willow trees where the pastrycook lived, they said, “Well, now we are out here, the bell does not really exist----it is only an imaginary thing.”
Then suddenly the bell began to ring in the forest with such a deep and solemn sound that four or five determined to go still deeper into the wood . The leaves hung very close, and it was really difficult to get forward; woodruff and anemones grew almost too high to go, and blooming convolvulus and blackberry bushes stretched in long garlands from tree to tree, where the nightingales sang and the sunbearns played . It was splendid ; but the path was not one for girls to go, they would have torn their clothes. There lay great blocks of stone covered with mosses of all colours; the fresh spring water bubbled forth, and it sounded strangely , almost like “cluck , cluck . ”
“Can that possibly be the bell?” said one of the party , and he laid himself down and listened . “That should be properly studied ! ”
And he remained there, and let the others go on.
They came to a house built of the bark of trees and of twigs : a great tree laden with wild apples stretched out its branches over the dwelling, as though it would pour its whole blessing upon the roof, which was covered with blooming roses , the long branches turned about the gables . And from the gable hung a little bell . Could that be the bell they had heard? They all agreed that it was, except one ; he said that the bell was far too small and too delicate to be heard at such a distance as they had heard it , and that they were quite different sounds that had so deeply moved the human heart . He who spoke thus was a King's son, and the others declared that a person of that kind always wanted to be wiser than every one else.
Therefore they let him go alone, and as he went his mind was more and more impressed with the solitude of the forest, but still he heard the little bell, at which the others were rejoicing; and sometimes, when the wind car-ed towards him sounds from the pastrycook's abode, he could hear how the party there were singing at their tea . But the deep tones of the bell sounded louder still; sometimes it was as if an organ were playing to it; the sound came from the left , the side in which the heart is placed .
Now there was a rustling in the bushes, and a little boy stood before the Prince, a boy with wooden shoes, and such a short jacket that one could plainly see what long wrists he had. They knew one another. The boy was the youngster who had been confirmed that day, and had not been able to come with the rest because he had to go home and give up the borrowed coat and boots to his landlord's son. This he had done, and had then wandered away alone in his poor clothes and his wooden shoes, for the bell sounded so strongly and so deeply, he had been obliged to come out .
“We can go together,” said the Prince.
But the poor lad in the wooden shoes was quite embarrassed. He pulled at the short sleeves of his jacket, and said he was afraid he could not come quickly enough; besides, he thought the bell must be sought on the right hand , for there the place was great and glorious .
“But then we shall not meet at all , ” said the Prince ; and he nodded to the poor boy, who went away into the darkest, thickest part of the forest, where the thorns tore his shabby garments and scratched his face, his feet, and his hands . The Prince also had two or three brave rents , but the sun shone bright on his path; and it is he whom we will follow, for he was a brisk lad .
“I must and will find the bell,” said he, “though I have to go to the end of the world . ”
Ugly apes sat up in the trees, and grinned and showed their teeth .
“Shall we beat him?” said they. “Shall we smash him? He's a King's son!”
But he went courageously farther and farther into the forest , where the most wonderful trees grew : there stood white star-lilies with blood-red stamens , sky-blue tulips that glittered in the breeze, and apple trees whose apples looked quite like great shining soap bubbles: only think how those trees must have gleamed in the sunbeams ! All around lay the most beautiful green meadows , where hart and hind played in the grass, and noble oaks and beech trees grew there; and when the bark of any tree split, grassand long climbing plants grew out of the rifts; there were also great wooded tracts with quiet lakes on which white swans floated and flapped their wings . The Prince often stood still and listened; often he thought that the bell sounded upwards to him from one of the deep lakes; but soon he noticed that the sound did not come from thence , but that the bell was sounding deeper in the wood.
Now the sun went down . The sky shone red as fire ; it became quite quiet in the forest , and he sank on his knees, sang his evening hymn, and said,
“I shall never find what I seek , now the sun is going down, and the night, the dark night, is coming. But perhaps I can once more see the round sun before he disappears beneath the horizon. I will climb upon the rocks, for they are higher than the highest trees . ”
And he seized hold of roots and climbing plants, and clambered up the wet stones , where the water-snakes writhed and the toads seemed to be barking at him; but he managed to climb up before the sun, which he could see from this elevation, had quite set. Oh, what splendour!The sea, the great glorious sea, which rolled its long billows towards the shore, lay stretched out before him, and the sun stood aloft like a great flaming altar, there where the sea and sky met; everything melted together in glowing colours; the wood sang and the sea sang, and his heart sang too . All nature was a great holy church , in which trees and floating clouds were the pillars and beams, flowers and grass the velvet carpet , and the heavens themselves the vaulted roof . The red colours faded up there when the sun sank to rest ; but millions of stars were lighted up anddiamond lamps glittered, and the Prince stretched forth his arms towards heaven , towards the sea , and towards the forest . Suddenly there came from the right hand the poor lad who had been confirmed , with his short jacket add his wooden shoes : he had arrived here at the same time, and had come his own way. And they ran to meet each other, and each took the other' s hand in the great temple of nature and of poetry . And above them sounded the holy invisible bell; and blessed spirits surrounded them and floated over them, singing a rejoicing song of praise !