There were, once upon a time, five-and-twenty tin soldiers; they were all brothers, for they were born of an old tin spoon. They held their arms in their hands, and their faces were all alike; their uniform was red and blue, and very beautiful. The very first word which they heard in this world, when the lid was taken off the box in which they lay, was, “Tin soldiers!” This was the exclamation of a little boy, who clapped his hands as he said it. They had been given to him, for it was his birthday, and he now set them out on the table. The one soldier was just exactly like another; there was only one of them that was a little different; he had only one leg, for he had been the last that was made, and there was not quite tin enough; yet he stood just as firmly upon his one leg as they did upon their two, and he was exactly the one who became remarkable.
Upon the table on which he had set them out, there stood many other playthings; but that which was most attractive to the eye, was a pretty little castle of pasteboard. One could look through the little windows as if into the rooms. Outside stood little trees, and round about it a little mirror, which was to look like a lake; swans of wax swam upon this, and were reflected in it. It was altogether very pretty; but the prettiest thing of all was the little young lady who stood at the open castle door, for she was a dancer; and she lifted one of her legs so high in the air, that the tin soldier might almost have fancied that she had only one leg, like himself.
“That is a wife for me!” thought he, “but she is a great lady; she lives in a castle, I in nothing but a box; and then we are five-and-twenty of us, there is no room for her! Yet I must make her acquaintance!”
And so he set himself behind a snuff-box, which stood on the table, and from thence he could very plainly see the pretty little lady, which remained standing upon one leg, without ever losing her balance.
That continued all the evening, and then the other tin soldiers were put into their box, and the people of the house went to bed. The playthings now began to amuse themselves; they played at company coming, at fighting, and at having a ball. The tin soldiers rattled about in their box, for they wanted to be with the rest of the things, but they could not get the box lid off. The nutcrackers knocked about the gingerbread nuts, and the slate-pencil laughed with the slate; it was so entertaining that the canary-bird awoke, and began to chatter with them also, but she chattered in verse. The only two which did not move from their place were the tin soldier and the little dancing lady. She kept herself so upright, standing on the point of her toe, with both her arms extended; and he stood just as steadily upon his one leg, and his eyes did not move from her for one moment.
It now struck twelve o’clock, and crash! up sprang the lid of the snuff-box, but there was no snuff in it; no, there was a little black imp—it was a jack-in-the-box.
“Tin soldier!” said the imp, “keep thy eyes to thyself!”
But the tin soldier pretended that he did not hear.
“Yes, we shall see in the morning!” said the imp.
And now it was the next morning, and the children got up, and they set the tin soldier in the window,—and either it was the imp, or else it was a sudden gust of wind, but the casement burst open, and out went the tin soldier, head foremost, down from the third story! It was a horrible fall, he turned head over heels, and remained standing with his one leg up in the air, and with his bayonet down among the stones of a sink.
The maid-servant and the little boy went down directly to seek for him, but although they almost trod upon him, still they could not see him. If the tin soldier had only shouted out, “Here I am!” they would have found him; but he did not think it would be becoming in him to shout out when he had his uniform on.
It now began to rain; one drop fell heavier than another; it was a regular shower. When it was over there came up two street boys.
“Look here!” said one of them, “here lies a tin soldier. He shall have a sail!”
So they made a boat of a newspaper, and set the tin soldier in it, and now he sailed down the kennel; the two lads ran, one on each side, and clapped their hands. Dear me! what billows there were in the uneven kennel, and what a torrent there was, for it had poured down with rain! The paper boat rocked up and down, and whirled round so fast! The tin soldier must have trembled, but he showed no fear at all, he never changed his countenance, and stood holding his weapon in his hand.
Just then the boat was driven under a large arch of the kennel, and it was as dark to the tin soldier as if he had been in his box.
“Where am I now come to?” thought he; “yes, yes, it is all that imp’s doing! Ah! if the little dancing lady were only in the boat, I would not mind if it were twice as dark!”
At that moment up came a great big water-rat, which lived under the kennel’s archway.
“Have you a passport?” asked the rat. “Out with your passport!”
But the tin soldier said not a word, and stood stock still, shouldering his arms. The boat shot past, and the rat came after. Ha! how he set his teeth, and cried to the sticks and the straws,—
“Stop him! stop him! he has not paid the toll! He has not shown his passport!”
But the stream got stronger and stronger. The tin soldier could already see daylight at the end of the tunnel, but at the same time he heard a roaring sound, which might well have made a bolder man than he tremble. Only think! where the tunnel ended, the water of the kennel was poured down into a great canal; which would be, for him, just as dangerous as for us to sail down a great waterfall!
He was now come so near to it that he could no longer stand upright. The boat drove on; the tin soldier held himself as stiff as he could; nobody could have said of him that he winked with an eye. The boat whirled round three times, and filled with water to the very edge—it must sink! The tin soldier stood up to his neck in water! Deeper and deeper sank the boat, the paper grew softer and softer! Now went the water above the soldier’s head!—he thought of the little dancing lady, whom he should never see more, and it rung in the tin soldier’s ear,—
“Fare thee well, thou man of war!
Death with thee is dealing!”
The paper now went in two, and the tin soldier fell through; and at that moment was swallowed by a large fish!
Nay, how dark it was now in there! It was darker than in the kennel archway, and much narrower. But the tin soldier was steadfast to his duty; and he lay there, shouldering his arms. The fish twisted about, and made the most horrible sort of movements; at last it became quite still; a flash of lightning seemed to go through it. Light shone quite bright, and some one shouted aloud, “Tin soldier!”
The fish had been caught, taken to market, sold, and brought into the kitchen, where the servant-girl cut it up with a great knife. She took the soldier, who was as alive as ever, between her two fingers, and carried it into the parlor, where she showed them all what a remarkable little man had been travelling about in the stomach of the fish! But the tin soldier was not proud. They set him upon the table, and there—Nay, how wonderfully things happen in this world!—the tin soldier was in the self-same room he had been in before; he saw the self-same child, and the self-same playthings on the table; the grand castle, with the pretty little dancing lady standing at the door. She was standing still upon one leg, with the other raised; she also was constant. It quite affected the tin soldier, he was ready to shed tin tears, only that would not have been becoming in him. He looked at her, and she looked at him, but neither of them said a word.
At that very moment one of the little boys took up the tin soldier, and threw it into the stove. There was no reason for his doing so; it must certainly have been the jack-in-the-box that was the cause of it.
The tin soldier stood amid the flames, and felt a great heat, but whether it was actual fire, or love, he knew not. All color was quite gone out of him; whether from his long journeying, or whether from care, there is no saying. He looked at the little dancing lady, and she looked at him; he felt that he was melting away, but for all that, he stood shouldering his arms. With that the door of the room suddenly opened, and a draught of wind carried away the dancer. Like a sylph she flew into the stove to the tin soldier; became, all at once, flame, and was gone! The tin soldier melted to a little lump; and when the servant, the next day, was carrying out the ashes, she found him like a little tin heart: of the dancing lady, on the contrary, there was nothing but the ground on which she had stood, and that was burned as black as a coal.