T HERE were once five-and-twenty tin soldiers, who were all brothers, for they had been made out of the same old tin spoon. They shouldered arms and looked straight before them. They wore splendid red and blue uniforms. The first thing in the world they ever heard were the words, "Tin soldiers!" uttered by a little boy, who clapped his hands with delight when the lid of the box in which they lay was taken off. They were given him for a birthday present, and he stood at the table to set them up. The soldiers were all exactly alike, except one, who had only one leg; he had been left till the last, and then there was not enough of the melted tin to finish him; but he stood just as firmly on one leg as the others did on two, and on that account he was very noticeable.
The table on which the tin soldiers stood was covered with other playthings, but the most attractive one was a pretty little paper castle. Through the small windows, the rooms could be seen. In front of the castle, a number of little trees surrounded a piece of looking-glass, which was intended to represent a transparent lake. Swans, made of wax, swam on the lake, and were reflected in it. All this was very pretty, but the prettiest of all was a tiny little lady, who stood at the open door of the castle. She, also, was made of paper, and she wore a dress of the thinnest muslin, with a narrow blue ribbon over her shoulders just like a scarf. In the middle of this was fixed a glittering tinsel rose, as large as her whole face.
The little lady was a dancer, and she stretched out both her arms, and raised one of her legs so high that the tin solder could not see it at all, and he thought that she, like himself, had only one leg. "That is the wife for me," he thought; "yet she is too grand, and lives in a castle, while I have only a box to live in, five-and-twenty of us all together; that is no place for her. Still I must try to make her acquaintance." Then he laid himself at full length on the table behind a snuff-box that stood upon it, so that he could peep at the delicate little lady who continued to stand on one leg without losing her balance.
When evening came, the other tin soldiers were all placed in the box, and the people of the house went to bed. Then the playthings began to have their own games together, to pay visits, to have sham fights, and to give balls. The tin soldiers rattled in their box; they wanted to get out and join the amusements, but they could not open the lid. The nut-crackers played at leap-frog, and the pencil jumped about the table. There was such a noise that the canary woke up and began to talk, and in poetry too. Only the tin soldier and the dancer remained in their places. She stood on the tip of one toe, with her arms stretched out, as firmly as he did on his one leg. He never took his eyes from her even for a moment. The clock struck twelve, and, with a bounce, up sprang the lid of the snuff-box; but, instead of snuff, there jumped up a little black goblin; for the snuff-box was a toy puzzle.
"Tin soldier," said the goblin, "don't wish for what does not belong to you."
But the tin soldier pretended not to hear. "Very well; wait till to-morrow, then," said the goblin.
When the children came in the next morning, they placed the tin soldier in the window. Now, whether it was the goblin that did it, or draught, at all events the window flew open, and out fell the tin soldier, heels over head, from the third story, into the street beneath. It was a terrible fall; for he came head downwards, his helmet and his bayonet stuck in between the flagstones, and his one leg up in the air. The servant-maid and the little boy went downstairs directly to look for him; but, although once they nearly trod upon him, they did not see him. If he had called out, "Here I am," it would have been all right; but he was too proud to cry out for help while he wore a uniform.
Presently it began to rain, and the drops fell faster, till there was a heavy shower. When it was over, two boys happened to pass by, and one of them said, "Look, there is a tin soldier! He ought to have a boat to sail in."
So they made a boat out of a newspaper, and placed the tin soldier in it, and sent him sailing down the gutter, while the two boys ran by the side of it, and clapped their hands. Good gracious, what large waves arose in that gutter! and how fast the stream rolled on! The rain had been very heavy.
The paper boat rocked up and down, and turned itself round sometimes so quickly that the tin soldier trembled; yet he remained firm; his countenance did not change; he looked straight before him, and shouldered his musket. Suddenly the boat shot under a bridge which crossed the drain, and then it was as dark as the tin soldier's box.
"Where am I going now?" thought he. "This is the black goblin's fault, I am sure. Ah, well, if the little lady were only here with me in the boat, I should not care for any darkness."
Suddenly there appeared a great water-rat, which lived in the drain.
"Have you a passport?" asked the rat; "give it to me at once." But the tin soldier remained silent, and held his musket tighter than ever.
The boat sailed on, and the rat followed it. How he did gnash his teeth and cry out to the bits of wood and straw, "Stop him, stop him; he has not paid his toll, and has not shown his pass."
But the stream rushed on stronger and stronger. The tin soldier could already see daylight where the arch ended. Then he heard a roaring sound quite terrible enough to frighten the bravest man. It was only that, at the end of the tunnel, the gutter emptied into a large drain; but that was as dangerous to him as a high water-fall would be to us.
He was too close to it to stop. The boat rushed on, and the poor tin soldier could only hold himself as stiffly as possible, without moving an eyelid, to show that he was not afraid. The boat whirled round three or four times, and then filled with water to the very edge; nothing could save it from sinking. He now stood up to his neck in water, while deeper and deeper sank the boat, and the paper became soft and loose with the wet. At last the water closed over the soldier's head. He thought of the pretty little dancer whom he should never see again, and the words of the song sounded in his ears—
"Farewell warrior! ever brave,
Drifting onward to thy grave."
Then the paper boat fell to pieces, and the soldier sank into the water, and was immediately swallowed by a great fish.
Oh, how dark it was inside the fish! a great deal darker than in the drain, and narrower too, but the tin soldier continued firm, and lay at full length, shouldering his musket. The fish swam to and fro, making the most fearful movements, but at last he became quite still. Presently a flash of lightning seemed to pass through him, and then the daylight appeared, and a voice cried out, "I declare, here is the tin soldier!" The fish had been caught, taken to the market and sold to the cook, who took it into the kitchen and cut it open with a knife. She picked up the soldier and held him by the waist between her finger and thumb, and carried him into another room, where the people were all anxious to see this wonderful soldier who had travelled about inside a fish; but he was not at all proud. They placed him on the table, and—how many curious things do happen in the world!—there he was in the very same room from the window of which he had fallen; there were the same children, the same playthings standing on the table, and the fine castle with the little dancer at the door. She still balanced herself on one leg and held up the other: she was as firm as himself. It touched the tin soldier so much to see her that he almost wept tin tears, but he kept them back. He looked at her, but she said nothing.
Presently one of the little boys took up the tin soldier, and threw him into the stove. He had no reason for doing so, therefore it must have been the fault of the black goblin who lived in the snuff-box. The flames lighted up the tin soldier as he stood; the heat was terrible, but whether it proceeded from the real fire or from the fire of love he could not tell. The bright colors of his uniform were faded, but whether they had been washed off during his journey, or from the effects of his sorrow, no one could say. He looked at the little lady, and she looked at him. He felt himself melting away, but he still remained firm with his gun on his shoulder. Suddenly the door of the room flew open, and the draught of air caught up the little dancer. She fluttered like a sylph right into the stove by the side of the tin soldier, was instantly in flames and was gone. The tin soldier melted down into a lump, and the next morning, when the servant took the ashes out of the stove, she found him in the shape of a little tin heart. Of the little dancer nothing remained but the tinsel rose, which was burnt black as a cinder.