The Castle under the Sea
T HERE was once an island kingdom in a distant ocean, whose people were all boatmen and fishermen. They lived entirely apart from the rest of the world, and were glad to remain by themselves. Indeed there would never have been a happier place, if it had not been for one thing. They had an enemy, who was about as bad an enemy as one could easily imagine; and nothing that the king or any of his counselors could do succeeded in making them less afraid of him.
This enemy was a wicked Water Prince, who had magical powers, and lived in a great castle at the bottom of the sea. He hated the people of the island kingdom, for no other reason than that he hated all good people and good things. He had done them harm in many ways, for as long a time as any one could remember, by taking the fishes that they needed for food, although he had no use for them at all, and by raising many large and cruel fish of other kinds, which not only devoured the good fish, but would attack the people of the kingdom whenever they had opportunity.
Many times the king had sent the best of his subjects to fight the Water Prince, and some of them had made their way to the place under the sea where his great castle stood; for the people of the kingdom had lived by the ocean so many hundreds of years that they could breathe under the water as well as the fishes, and knew the plants and animals that lived on the bottom of the sea almost as well as they did those on shore. But, in spite of all this, no one had ever been able to find a way to enter the castle, even if he had been brave enough to do it, or to think of any way in which to destroy it.
Worst of all, the Water Prince had now made a prisoner of the king's son. The king's son was only a young boy, but he was eager to grow up so that he might fight against his father's enemy, and he had said so many times that when he was a man he knew he should succeed in destroying the magic castle and driving the Water Prince away, that the Prince came to be afraid that it was true. So one day when the boy, whose name was Valma, was out in a boat with some of his companions, the Water Prince sent a great fish to overturn the boat, and then, though he let all the other boys escape, he himself seized Valma and carried him off to his castle.
This nearly broke the heart of the king of the island kingdom, and he offered great rewards to any one who should rescue his son from the magic castle. But no one dared even try, for the Water Prince had sent word that Valma was now alive and safe in his castle, but that he would put him to death as soon as any of the king's men came to rescue him. So the king mourned many months, and all his people with him; and many gave up hope that Valma would ever see his home again.
Now there lived not far from the king's palace a little girl named Milna, whose father was gardener of the palace gardens. She was a happy child, spending most of her time out in the fields or along the water's edge. She loved every living thing so much that the birds and squirrels and fishes returned her love, and would come to her whenever she had food for them, or wished to play with them. Although her father was a poor man, and she did not have many fine clothes or other things that only money could buy, yet there was perhaps no girl in the island kingdom who was loved by so many people, or who had so many friends.
One day the gardener, Milna's father, was very much surprised to receive a visit from the Chief Wise Man of the king, who was thought by most people to know more than any other man in the world. The gardener bowed very low to him, and asked him why he had honored him by coming to see him.
"I wanted to speak with you about your daughter," said the Chief Wise Man.
The gardener could not think why the people in the palace should have any interest in his daughter, and he was very sure she could not have been doing anything wrong of which they could complain. So he asked:
"Are you sure you mean my daughter, Milna?"
"Yes," said the Chief Wise Man. "I have heard many good things of your daughter, and I have three questions to ask you about her."
"Very well," said the gardener.
"Did you ever know her to be unkind to any one?"
The gardener thought a moment. "No," he said, "I am sure I never did. I do not think you could find a man who has seen her unkind to any living thing."
"Very well," said the Chief Wise Man. "The second question is: Did you ever know her to speak anything but the truth?"
The gardener could answer this without stopping to think. "No, indeed," he said. "I do not think Milna has ever even thought of such a thing as an untruth, or would know what it is."
"Very well," said the Chief Wise Man. "The third question is: Did you ever know her to be afraid of anything?"
The gardener thought a little about this. Then he said: "No, I never knew her to be afraid, because she has always trusted every one as she has been trusted by them. But, of course, she is only a girl."
"Very well," said the Chief Wise Man again. "I do not care if she is only a girl. I think that she can rescue the king's son, if you will let her try."
Then the gardener was startled indeed. "Rescue the king's son!" he cried. "When she is only a little girl, and none of your soldiers or counselors has been able to do it!"
"It is not like other things," said the Chief Wise Man. "The Water Prince, as you know, has magical powers, and he can not be conquered by those who are strong or who have good swords. I have been studying in my secret books ever since Valma was taken captive, to find who it is to be who should rescue him. And lately I found the answer: It is to be one who has never been unkind, or untruthful, or afraid. And your daughter is the only one in the kingdom of whom any one has said the three things as you have said them to me."
They talked a long time about it, and at first the gardener could not bear to think of his little girl going to rescue the captive of the great and wicked Water Prince; but when the Chief Wise Man showed him that it was his duty to his king to give all that he had to save Valma, he gave his consent.
"But," said he. "while I am sure that Milna can not be unkind or untruthful, I am not sure that she can not be afraid. I should be afraid, myself, if I were asked to go against the Water Prince."
"Very well," said the Chief Wise Man. "We can easily find out about that by asking her to go. If she is afraid, we do not want her."
So Milna was called in from the garden, and the Chief Wise Man took her by the hand, and, without telling her any of the things that he had said to her father, he asked her if she would like to help rescue the king's son. Now of course Milna knew all about the king's son; and she had not only thought about his capture, but had often wished she were a man, instead of a girl, so that she might help restore him to his father. She answered at once:
"I should like it very much indeed, if there were anything I could do."
"But," said her father, "would you not be afraid, since he is a captive of the wicked Water Prince?"
"No," said Milna, "I do not think I should, for I am not big or important enough for the Water Prince to care to hurt me. And besides, if I were really trying to rescue the king's son, I should be so happy about it that I should never think of being afraid."
The Chief Wise Man now felt sure that he had found the one whom he had been seeking, and he asked Milna if she would be ready to start the next morning for the castle under the sea.
"Yes," said Milna, "but what am I to do when I find it?"
"That I can not tell you," said the Chief Wise Man, "for all that my secret books tell me is that you are the one who can rescue the king's son. So I think you will know for yourself, when the time comes, what you have to do. Go to the castle, find Valma, and bring him back with you,—that is all."
"Quite enough, I should think," said Milna's father, "seeing it is what all the rest of the kingdom has been unable to do." But secretly he was becoming glad that such a great mission was given to his little daughter.
Early the next morning the Chief Wise Man came again to the gardener's house, and he and Milna and the gardener went together down to the sea-shore. Milna wore her sea-water clothing, and, when she had bidden her father and the Chief Wise Man good-by, she walked into the sea and was soon lost to sight.
"It is really a little queer," she thought, as she went along the bottom of the ocean, farther and farther from the island, "that I am not afraid to go off in this way all alone. Yet, after all, why should I be afraid? I have often walked here with my father, and the fishes are fond of me, and it is such a beautiful place that I can never be lonesome."
So she walked on among the beautiful ferns and trees that grow on the bottom of the sea, and the fishes who were friendly to her followed her wherever she went, eating the crumbs that she had brought for them in her pocket. The Chief Wise Man had told her in which direction to walk to find the castle of the Water Prince, and it turned out that the distance to it was not so great as she had supposed.
Now there were three gates to the castle under the sea. The first was made of huge rocks, brought there by the giant spirits who served the Water Prince. The second was of coral, made to order for the Prince, and still unfinished, although it had been building for a hundred years. The third gate, like the castle of which it was a part, was made of nothing but sea-water, and was of the color of a soap-bubble with the sun shining on it. It was held together by magic, and if any one tried to come near it, it moved away as if it were not really there but had only been dreamed.
When Milna came to the first gate, she found it guarded by two of the giants that served the Water Prince. If she had really seen how big these giants were, she might have been frightened, after all. But they towered so far above her head that she only saw part of their legs among the rocks of which the gate was built; and as she was not looking for giants, but only for the way through the gate, she paid no attention to them. For just the same reason the giants did not notice Milna, since she was so near the bottom of the sea, and their heads were so high above it, and as the gate was open, she went through it without stopping to ask any one's leave.
The second gate was also guarded by giants, and as they were seated at the foot of the great archway, they saw her approaching. One of them spoke to her.
"Who are you?" he asked. "And why are you seeking to pass through this gate?"
"I am on my way to the castle under the sea," said Milna.
"And why do you want to go to the castle?"
"To see Valma," she answered, "who is the son of the king of my country."
Now the giants had seen many people from the island kingdom who had tried to come near the castle of the Water Spirit, but none of these people had ever really told what they had come for. Instead, they had made up a hundred different tales to try to deceive the guards at the gate. But it had never occurred to Milna to tell anything but the truth when the giants questioned her, and they were quite taken by surprise. Indeed they felt so sure that Milna could not possibly mean what she said, that they supposed she had not really come to try to enter the castle at all, but was only amusing herself by what she told them. So they laughed at her answer, and, since she was quite too little to be considered an enemy of the Water Prince, they did not hinder her from passing through the second gate.
So Milna now passed on toward the castle itself, which she could already see rising before her. It was the most wonderful sight she had ever seen, as it towered high into the upper ocean, with walls and towers and turreted gateways, all floating and trembling and glimmering like the walls of a soap-bubble. From a little distance it seemed that you could easily look clear through the walls, but this was only an appearance. No one had ever discovered what was inside, or had been able to guess how the castle was really made. But the Chief Wise Man of the island kingdom had read in his secret books that there was just one sort of person who could have power over the castle under the sea, and that was one who had never done an unkindness. So it was for this reason, although he had no idea what Milna would do when she reached the place, that he had asked her to go.
Milna herself did not know any of these things. She was still wondering how she could ever rescue the prince, even if she should finally enter the castle and find him; but the Chief Wise Man had told her that she would know all she needed when the time came. So she walked straight up to the castle gate, thankful that there seemed to be no guards there to keep her out. For this gate had no need of any guards, and the Water Prince himself, who was looking from a window of the castle, laughed when he saw the little girl approaching. He guessed that his giants had let her pass through the outer gates because they were so sure that she could do no harm, and he made ready to enjoy the sight of her surprise when she tried to touch the castle and found that she could not do so.
But the Water Prince never saw what he was waiting for. A wonderful thing happened. When Milna lifted her hand and knocked on the great gate of the castle, the gate suddenly broke like a bubble, and instantly all the towers and walls behind it broke in the same way. They might have melted into drops of water and mingled with the sea, or they might have vanished into nothing at all. Whichever it was, before Milna could catch her breath in surprise, the castle was gone. She looked all around for it, but nothing could be seen except a great stretch of green sea-water, like that through which she had come.
And the Water Prince, trembling with fear when he saw that here was the only one, of all who had ever come into his dominions, who had power to destroy his magic castle, fled so fast that never a bit of him showed to Milna's eyes.
She walked over the spot where the castle had been a minute before, wondering if it had all been a dream. Had Valma gone with the castle, so that he could never be found, after all? No; he lay sleeping under a great water-plant whose branches drooped over his head. The destruction of the castle had been so silent that it had not made him stir in his sleep. When Milna saw him she almost shouted for joy. Then she came close to him and spoke his name. He opened his eyes dreamily.
"Why, where is the castle?" he said. "And the Water Prince? And all his servants who have kept me prisoner?"
"I do not know," said Milna, "but they are gone. I am sent by the king, your father, to bring you home with me."
So Valma rose gladly, and took Milna's hand in his, and they made their way back toward the island with no one to hinder them, for all the servants of the wicked Water Prince had fled, like him, when they saw that the castle had been destroyed.
The king, and the Chief Wise Man, and the other wise men, and the gardener, and many of Milna's friends were waiting on the shore for her return. When she came dripping out of the water, and they saw that she had Valma, the king's son, by the hand, they gave such a shout that the Water Prince himself must have heard it, though by this time he was hundreds of miles away.