"D ING-DONG! ding-dong!" sounded from the buried Bell in Odensee River. What sort of a river is that? Every child in the town of Odensee knows it. It flows round the foot of the gardens, from the locks to the water-mill, away under the wooden bridges. In the river grow yellow water-lilies, brow, feather-like reeds, and the soft, velvet-like bulrushes, so high and so large. Old, split willow-trees, bent and twisted, hang far over the water by the side of the monks' meadows and the bleaching greens; but a little above is garden after garden — the one very different from the other: some with beautiful flowers and arbors, clean and in prim array, like doll' villages; some only filled with cabbages; while in others there are no attempts at a garden to be seen at all, only great elder-trees stretching themselves out, and hanging over the running water, which here and there is deeper than an oar can fathom.
Opposite to the nunnery is the deepest part. It is called "The Bell's Hollow," and there dwells the Merman. He sleeps by day when the sun shines through the water, but comes forth on the clear, starry nights, and by moonlight. He is very old. Grandmothers have heard of him from their grandmothers. They said he lived a lonely life, and had scarcely anyone to speak to except the large old church-bell. Once upon a time it hung up in the steeple of the church; but now there is no trace either of the steeple or of the church, which was then called Saint Albani.
"Ding-dong! ding-dong!" rang the Bell while it stood in the steeple; and one evening, when the sun was setting, and the Bell was in full motion, it broke loose, and flew through the air, its shining metal glowing in red sunbeams. "Ding-dong! ding-dong! now I am going to rest," sang the Bell; and it flew out to Odensee River, where it was deepest, and therefore that spot is now called "The Bell's Hollow." But it found neither sleep nor rest there. Down at the Merman's it still rings; so that at times it is heard above, through the water, and many people say that its tones foretell a death; but there is no truth in that, for it rings to amuse the Merman, who is now no longer alone.
And what does the Bell relate? It was so very old, it was there before our grandmothers' grandmothers were born, and yet it was a child compared with the Merman, who is an old, quiet, strange-looking person, with eel-skin leggings, a scaly tunic adorned with yellow water-lilies, a wreath of sedges in his hair, and weeds in his beard. It must be confessed he was not very handsome to look at.
It would take a year and a day to repeat all that the Bell said, for it told the same old stories over and over again very minutely, making them sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, according to its mood. It told of the olden days — the rigorous, dark times.
To the tower upon St. Albani Church, where the Bell hung, ascended a monk. He was both young and handsome, but had an air of deep melancholy. He looks through an aperture out over the Odensee River. Its bed was then broad, and the monks' meadows were a lake. He gazed over them, and over the green mound called "The Nun's Hill," beyond which the cloister lay, where the light shone from a nun's cell. He had known her well, and he remembered the past, and his heart beat wildly at the recollection.
"Ding-dong! ding-dong!" This was one of the Bell's stories:—
"There came up to the tower, one day, an idiot servant of the Bishop; and when I, the Bell, who am cast in hard and heavy metal, swung about and pealed, I could have broken his head, for he seated himself immediately under me, and began to play with two sticks, exactly as if it had been a stringed instrument, and he sang it to thus: 'Now I may venture to sing aloud what elsewhere I dare not whisper — sing of all that is kept hidden behind locks and bolts. Yonder it is cold and damp. The rats eat the living bodies. No one knows of it; no one hears of it — not even now, when the Bell is pouring forth its loudest peal — ding-dong! ding-dong!'
"There was a king: he was called Knud. He humbled himself both before bishops and monks; but as he unjustly oppressed the people, and laid heavy taxes on them, they armed themselves with all sorts of weapons, and chased him away as if he had been a wild beast. He sought shelter in the church, and had the doors and windows closed. The furious multitude surrounded the sacred edifice, as I heard related; the crows and the ravens, and the jackdaws to boot, became scared by the noise and the tumult; they flew up into the tower and out again; they looked on the multitude below, they looked also in at the church windows, and shrieked out what they saw.
"King Knud knelt before the altar and prayed; his brothers Erik and Benedict stood guarding him with their drawn swords; but the king's servitor, the false Blake, betrayed his lord. They knew outside where he could be reached. A stone was cast in through the window at him, and the King lay dead. There were shouts and cries among the angry crowd, and cries among the flocks of frightened birds; and I joined them, too. I pealed forth, 'Ding-dong! ding-dong!'
"The Church-bell hangs high, sees far around, receives visits from birds, and understands their language. To it whispers the Wind through the wickets and apertures, and through every little chink; and the Wind knows everything. He hears it from the Air, for it encompasses all living things; it even enters into the lungs of human beings; it hears every word and every sigh. The Air knows all, the Wind repeats all, and the Bell understands their speech, and it rings it forth to the whole world — 'Ding-dong! ding-dong!'
"But all this was too much for me to hear and to know. I had not strength enough to ring it all out. I became so wearied, so heavy, that the beam from which I hung broke, and I flew through the luminous air down to where the river is deepest, where the Merman dwells alone in solitude; and here I am, year after year, relating to him what I have seen and what I have heard. 'Ding-dong! ding-dong!' "
Thus rang the chimes from "The Bell's Hollow" in the Odensee River, as my grandmother declares.
But our schoolmaster says there is no Bell ringing down there, for it could not be; and there is no Merman down there, for there are no mermen; and, when, all the church-bells are ringing loudly, he says that it is not the bells, but the air that makes the sound. My grandmother told me that the Bell also said this; so, since the schoolmaster and the Bell agree in this, no doubt it is true.
The air knows everything. It is round us, it is in us; it speaks of our thoughts and our actions; and it proclaims them farther than did the Bell now down in the Hollow in Odensee River, where the Merman dwells— it proclaims all out into the great vault of heaven, far, far away, even into eternity, up to where heaven's bells ring "Ding-dong! ding-dong!"