Gerda was obliged to rest herself again, when just over against where she sat, a large Crow hopped over the white snow. He had sat there a long while, looking at her and shaking his head; and now he said, “Caw! caw! Good day! good day!” He could not say it better; but he meant well by the little girl, and asked her where she was going all alone out in the wide world. The word “alone” Gerda understood quite well, and felt how much lay in it; so she told the Crow her whole history, and asked if he had not seen Kay.
The Crow nodded very gravely, and said, “It may be–it may be!”
“What–do you really think so?” cried the little girl; and she nearly squeezed the Crow to death, so much did she kiss him.
“Gently, gently,” said the Crow. “I think I know; I think that it may be little Kay. But now he has quite forgotten you for the Princess.”
“Does he live with a princess?” asked Gerda.
“Yes,–listen,” said the Crow; “but it is hard for me to speak your language. If you understand the Crow language, I can tell you better.”
“No, I have not learnt it,” said Gerda; “but my grandmother understands it. I wish I had learnt it.”
“No matter,” said the Crow: “I will tell you as well as I can; but it will be bad enough.” And then he told all he knew.
“In the kingdom where we now are, there lives a princess, who is vastly clever; for she has read all the newspapers in the whole world, and has forgotten them again,–so clever is she. Some time ago, they say, she was sitting on her throne,–which is no great fun, after all,–when she began humming an old tune, and it was just ‘Oh, why should I not be married?’ ‘Come, now, there is something in that,’ said she, and so then she was bound to marry; but she would have a husband who knew how to give an answer when he was spoken to,–not one who was good for nothing but to stand and be looked at, for that is very tiresome. She then had all the ladies of the court drummed together; and when they heard what she meant to do, all were well pleased, and said, ‘We are quite glad to hear it: it is the very thing we were thinking of.’ You may believe every word I say,” said the Crow, “for I have a tame sweetheart that hops about in the palace quite freely, and she told me all.
“The newspapers at once came out with a border of hearts and the initials of the Princess; and you could read in them that every good-looking young man was free to come to the palace and speak to the Princess; and he who spoke in such wise as showed he felt himself at home there, and talked best, that one the Princess would choose for her husband.
“Yes–yes,” said the Crow, “you may believe it; it is as true as I am sitting here. People came in crowds; there was a crush and a hurry, but no one had good luck either on the first or second day. They could all talk well enough when they were out in the street; but as soon as they came inside the palace gates, and saw the guard richly dressed in silver, and the lackeys in gold, on the staircase, and the large lighted halls, then they were dumb; and when they stood before the throne on which the Princess was sitting, all they could do was to repeat the last word she had said, and she didn’t care to hear that again. It was just as if the people within were under a charm, and had fallen into a trance till they came out again into the street; for then–oh, then they could chatter enough. There was a whole row of them from the town gates to the palace. I was there myself to look on,” said the Crow. “They grew hungry and thirsty; but from the palace they got not so much as a glass of water. Some of the cleverest, it is true, had taken bread and butter with them; but none shared it with his neighbor, for each thought, ‘Let him look hungry, and then the Princess won’t have him.'”
“But Kay–little Kay,” asked Gerda, “when did he come? Was he among the number?”
“Give me time! give me time! we are coming to him. It was on the third day, when a little personage, without horse or carriage, came marching right boldly up to the palace; his eyes shone like yours, he had beautiful long hair, but his clothes were very shabby.”
“That was Kay,” cried Gerda, with a voice of delight. “Oh, now I’ve found him!” and she clapped her hands.
“He had a little knapsack at his back,” said the Crow.
“No, that was certainly his sled,” said Gerda; “for he went away with his sled.”
“That may be,” said the Crow; “I did not see him close to; but I know from my tame sweetheart that when he came into the courtyard of the palace, and saw the body-guard in silver, and the lackeys on the staircase in gold, he was not in the least cast down; he nodded and said to them, ‘It must be very tiresome to stand on the stairs; for my part, I shall go in.’ The halls were bright with lights. Court people and fine folks were walking about on bare feet; it was all very solemn. His boots creaked, too, very loudly; but still he was not at all afraid.”
“That’s Kay, for certain,” said Gerda. “I know he had on new boots; I have heard them creaking in grandmamma’s room.”
“Yes, they creaked,” said the Crow. “And on he went boldly up to the Princess, who was sitting on a pearl as large as a spinning-wheel. All the ladies of the court stood about, with their maids and their maids’ maids, and all the gentlemen with their servants and their servants’ servants, who kept a boy; and the nearer they stood to the door, the prouder they looked. The boy of the servants’ servants, who always goes in slippers, hardly looked at one, so very proudly did he stand in the doorway.”
“It must have been terrible,” said little Gerda. “And did Kay get the Princess?”
“Were I not a Crow, I should have taken the Princess myself, although I am engaged. It is said he spoke as well as I speak when I talk crow language; this I learned from my tame sweetheart. He was bold and nicely behaved; he had not come to woo the Princess, but only to hear her wisdom. She pleased him and he pleased her.”
“Yes, yes, for certain that was Kay,” said Gerda. “He was so clever; he could do sums with fractions. Oh, won’t you take me to the palace?”
“That is very easily said,” answered the Crow. “But how are we to manage it? I’ll speak to my tame sweetheart about it; she can tell us what to do; for so much I must tell you, such a little girl as you are will never get leave to go in the common way.”
“Oh, yes, I shall,” said Gerda: “when Kay hears that I am here, he will come out at once to fetch me.”
“Wait for me here on these steps,” said the Crow. He wagged his head and flew away.
When it grew dark the Crow came back. “Caw! caw!” said he. “I bring you a great many good wishes from her; and here is a bit of bread for you. She took it out of the kitchen, where there is bread enough, and you are hungry, no doubt. It is not possible for you to enter the palace, for you are barefoot; the guards in silver and the lackeys in gold would not allow it: but do not cry, you shall come in still. My sweetheart knows a little back stair that leads to the chamber, and she knows where she can get the key of it.”
And they went into the garden by the broad path, where one leaf was falling after the other; and when the lights in the palace were all put out, one after the other, the Crow led little Gerda to the back door, which stood ajar.
Oh, how Gerda’s heart beat with doubt and longing! It was just as if she had been about to do something wrong; and yet she only wanted to know if little Kay was there. Yes, he must be there. She called to mind his clear eyes and his long hair so vividly, she could quite see him as he used to laugh when they were sitting under the roses at home. He would surely be glad to see her–to hear what a long way she had come for his sake; to know how unhappy all at home were when he did not come back. Oh, what a fright and what a joy it was!
Now they were on the stairs. A single lamp was burning there; and on the floor stood the tame Crow, turning her head on every side and looking at Gerda, who bowed as her grandmother had taught her to do.
“My intended has told me so much good of you, my dear young lady,” said the tame Crow. “Your Life, as they call it, is very affecting. If you will take the lamp, I will go before. We will go straight on, for we shall meet no one.”
“I think there is somebody just behind us,” said Gerda; and it rushed past her. It was like shadows on the wall: horses with flowing manes and thin legs, huntsmen, ladies and gentlemen on horseback.
“They are only dreams,” said the Crow. “They come to fetch the thoughts of the fine folk to the chase; ’tis well, for now you can see them asleep all the better. But let me find, when you come to have honor and fame, that you possess a grateful heart.”
“Tut! that’s not worth talking about,” said the Crow from the woods.
Now they came into the first hall, which was of rose-colored satin, with painted flowers on the wall. Here the dreams were rushing past, but they hurried by so quickly that Gerda could not see the fine people. One hall was more showy than the other–well might people be abashed; and at last they came into the bed-chamber.
The ceiling of the room was like a great palm-tree, with leaves of glass, of costly glass; and in the middle of the floor, from a thick golden stalk, hung two beds, each of which was shaped like a lily. One was white, and in this lay the Princess: the other was red, and it was here that Gerda was to look for little Kay. She bent back one of the red leaves, and saw a brown neck–oh, that was Kay! She called him quite loud by name, held the lamp toward him–the dreams rushed again on horseback into the chamber–he awoke, turned his head, and–it was not little Kay!
The Prince was only like him about the neck; but he was young and handsome. And out of the white lily leaves the Princess peeped too, and asked what was the matter. Then little Gerda cried and told her whole history, and all that the Crows had done for her.
“Poor little thing!” said the Prince and the Princess, and they praised the Crows very much, and told them they were not at all angry with them, but they were not to do so again. However, they should have a reward.
“Will you fly about at liberty?” asked the Princess; “or would you like to have a steady place as court Crows with all the broken bits from the kitchen?”
And both the Crows nodded, and begged for a steady place; for they thought of their old age, and said “it was a good thing to have something for the old folks,” as the saying is.
And the Prince got up and let Gerda sleep in his bed, and more than this he could not do. She folded her little hands, and thought, “How good men and animals are!” and then she shut her eyes and slept soundly. All the dreams came flying in again, and they now looked like the angels; they drew a little sled, on which Kay sat and nodded his head: but the whole was only a dream, and so it was all gone as soon as she awoke.
The next day she was dressed from top to toe in silk and velvet. They offered to let her stay at the palace, and lead a happy life; but she begged only to have a little carriage with a horse in front, and for a small pair of shoes; then, she said, she would again go forth in the wide world and look for Kay.
And she got both shoes and a muff; she was dressed very nicely, too; and when she was about to set off, a new carriage stopped before the door. It was of pure gold, and the arms of the Prince and Princess shone like a star upon it; the coachman, the footmen, and the outriders, for outriders were there too, all wore golden crowns. The Prince and Princess helped her into the carriage themselves, and wished her good luck. The Crow of the woods, who was now married, went with her for the first three miles. He sat beside Gerda, for he could not bear riding backward; the other Crow stood in the doorway, and flapped her wings; she could not go with Gerda, because she suffered from headache since she had had a steady place, and ate so much. The carriage was lined inside with sugar-plums, and in the seats were fruits and cookies.
“Good-by! good-by!” cried Prince and Princess; and little Gerda wept, and the Crows wept. Thus passed the first miles; and then the Crow said good-by, and this was the worst good-by of all. He flew into a tree, and beat his black wings as long as he could see the carriage, that shone from afar like the clear sunlight.