In the evening, at sunset, when glimpses of golden clouds ust be seen among the chimney pots, a curious sound be heard, first by one person, then by another; it e a church bell, but it only lasted a moment because of the rumble of vehicles and the street cries.
"There is the evening bell," people would say; "the sun is settiing."
Those who went outside the town where the houses were more 'scattered, each with its garden or little meadow, saw the evening star and heard the tones of the bell much better. It seemed as if the sound came from a church buried in silent, fragrant woods, and people looked in that direction, feeling quite solemn.
Time passed, and still people said one to the other, "can there be a church in the woods! that bell has such a wonderfully sweet sound; shall we go and look at it closer." The rich people drove and the poor ones walked, but it was a very long way; when they reached a group of willows which grew on the outskirts of the wood, they sat down and looked up among the long branches, thinking that they were really in the heart of the forest. A confectioner from the town came out and pitched a tent there, and then another confectioner, and he hung a bell up over his tent. This bell was tarred so as to stand the rain, and the clapper was wanting. When people went home again they said it had been so romantic, and that meant something beyond mere tea. Three persons protested that they had penetrated right through the forest to the other side, and that they had heard the same curious bell all the time, but that then it sounded as if it came from the town.
One of them wrote a poem about it, and said that it sounded like a mother's voice to a beloved child, no melody could be sweeter that the chimes of this bell.
The Emperor's attention was also drawn to it, and he promised that anyone who really discovered where the sound came from should receive the title of "the world's bell-ringer," even if there were no bell at all.
A great many people went to the woods for the sake of earning an honest penny, but only one of them brought home any kind of explanation. No one had been far enough, not even he himself, but he said that the sound of the bell came from a very big owl in a hollow tree; it was a wise owl, which perpetually beat its head against a tree, but whether the sound came from its head or from the hollow tree he could not say with any certainty. All the same he was appointed "world's bell-ringer," and every year he wrote a little treatise on the owl, but nobody was much the wiser for it.
Now on a certain Confirmation day the priest had priest had preached a very moving sermon, all the young people about confirmed had been much touched by it; it was a very important day for them. They were leaving childhood and becoming grown-up persons, the child's soul was, as it were, to be transformed into that of a responsible being. It was a beautiful sunny day and after the Confirmation the young people walked out of the town and they heard the sound of the unknown bell more than usually loud coming from the wood. On hearing it they all felt anxious to go further and see it; all except three. The first of these had to go home to try on her ball-dress; it was this very dress and this very ball which were the reason of her having been confirmed this time; otherwise it would have been put off. The second was a poor boy, who had borrowed his tail-coat and boots of the landlord's son and he had to return them at the appointed time. The third said that he had never been anywhere without his parents, that he had always been a good child and he meant to continue so, although he was confirmed; nobody ought to have made fun of this resolve; but he did not escape being laughed at.
So these three did not go; the others trudged off. The sun shone and the birds sang and the newly-confirmed young people took each other by the hand and sang with them; they had not yet received any position in life, they were all equal in the eye of the Lord on the day of their Confirmation. Soon two of the smallest ones got tired and theyreturned to town; two little girls sat down and made wreaths, so they did not go either. When the others reached the willows where the confectioners had their tents, they said, "Now, then, here we are; the bell doesn't exist, it is only something people imagine!"
Just then the bell was heard in the wood, with its deep rich notes; and four or five of them decided after all to penetrate further into the wood. The underwood was so thick and close that it was quite difficult to advance. The woodruff grew almost too high, convolvulus and brambles hung in long garlands from tree to tree, where the nightingales sang and the sunbeams played. It was deliciously peaceful, but there was no path for the girls, their clothes would have been torn to shreds. There were great boulders over-grown with many-coloured mosses, and fresh springs trickled among them with a curious little gurgling sound.
"Surely that cannot be the bell!" said one of the young people, as he lay down to listen.
"This must be thoroughly looked into." So he stayed behind and let the others go on.
They came to a little but made of bark, and branches overhung by a crab-apple, as if it wanted to shake all its bloom over the roof, which was covered with roses. The long sprays clustered round the gable, and on it hung a little bell. Could this be the one they sought? Yes, they were all agreed that it must be, except one; he said it was far too small and delicate to be heard so far away as they had heard it, and that the tones which moved all hearts were quite different from these. He who spoke was a king's son, and so the others said "that kind of fellow must always be wiser than anyone else."
So they let him go on alone, and as he went he was more and more overcome by the solitude of the wood; but he still heard the little bell with which the others were so pleased, and now and then when the wind came from the direction of the confectioners he could hear demands for tea.
But the deep-toned bell sounded above them all, and it seemed as if there was an organ playing with it, and the sounds came from the left, where the heart is placed.
There was a rustling among the bushes, and a little boy stood before the king's son; he had wooden shoes on, and such a small jacket that the sleeves did not cover his wrists. They knew each other, for he was the boy who had had to go back to return the coat and the hoots to the landlord's son. He had done this, changed back into his shabby clothes and wooden shoes, and then, drawn by the deep notes of the bell, had returned to the wood again.
"Then we can go together," said the king's son.
But the poor boy in the wooden shoes was too bashful. He pulled down his short sleeves, and said he was afraid he could not walk quickly enough, besides which he thought the bell ought to be looked for on the fight, because that side looked the most beautiful.
"Then we shan't meet at all," said the king's son, nodding to the poor boy, who went into the thickest and darkest part of the wood, where the thorns tore his shabby clothes and scratched his face, hands and feet till they bled. The king's son got some good scratches too, but he at least had the sun shining upon his path. We are going to follow him, for he is a bright fellow.
"I must and will find the bell," said he, "if I have to go to the end of the world."
Some horrid monkeys sat up in the trees grinning and showing the teeth.
"Shall we pelt him?" said they. "Shall we thrash him; he is a king's son."
But he went confidently on further and further into the wood, where the most extraordinary flowers grew. There were white star-like lilies with blood-red stamens, pale blue tulips which glistened in the sun, and apple-trees on which the apple looked like great shining soap-bubbles. You may fancy how these trees glittered in the sun. Round about were beautiful green meadows, where stags and hinds gambolled under the spreading oaks and beeches. Mosses and creepers grew in the fissures where the bark of the trees was broken away. There were also great glades with quiet lakes, where white swans swam about flapping their wings. The king's son often stopped and listened, for he sometimes fancied that the bell sounded from one of these lakes but then again he felt sure that it was not there, but further in the wood.
Now the sun began to go down, and the clouds were fiery red; a great stillness came over the wood, and he sank upon his knees, sang his evening psalm, and said, "Never shall I find what I seek, now the sun is going down, the night is coming on—the dark night; perhaps I could catch one glimpse of the round, red sun before it sinks beneath the earth. I will climb up on to those rocks; they are as high as the trees."
He seized the roots and creepers, and climbed up the slippery stones where the water-snakes wriggled and the toads seemed to croak at him but he reached the top re the sun disappeared. Seen from this height, oh! what splendour lay before him! The ocean, the wide, beautiful ocean, its long waves rolling towards the shore. The sun still stood like a great shining altar, out there where sea and sky met. Everything melted away into glowing colours; the wood sang, the ocean sang, and his heart sang with them. All Nature was like a vast holy temple, where trees and floating clouds were the pillars, flowers and grass the woven tapestry, and the heaven itself a great dome. The red colours vanished as the sun went down, but millions of stars peeped out; they were like countless diamond lamps, and the king's son spread out hls arms towards heaven, sea and forest. At that moment, from the right-hand path came the poor boy with the short sleeves and wooden shoes. He had reached the same goal just as soon by his own road. They ran towards each other, and clasped each other's hands in that great temple of Nature and Poetry, and above them sounded the invisible holy bell; happy spirits floated round it to the strains of a joyous Hallelujah.