The Red Shoes

Dance she did, and dance she must, even through the dark night; the shoes bore her continually over thorns and briars, till her limbs were torn and bleeding. Away she danced over the heath to a little solitary house; she knew that the headsman dwelt there, and she tapped with her fingers against the panes, crying—

“Come out! come out! I cannot come in to you, I am dancing.”

And the headsman replied, “Surely thou knowest not who I am. I cut off the heads of wicked men, and my axe is very sharp and keen.”

“Cut not off my head!” said Karen; “for then I could not live to repent of my sin; but cut off my feet with the red shoes.”

And then she confessed to him all her sin, and the headsman cut off her feet with the red shoes on them; but even after this the shoes still danced away with those little feet over the fields, and into the deep forests.

And the headsman made her a pair of wooden feet and hewed down some boughs to serve her as crutches, and he taught her the psalm which is always repeated by criminals, and she kissed the hand that had guided the axe, and went her way over the heath. “Now I have certainly suffered quite enough through the red shoes,” thought Karen, “I will go to church and let people see me once more!” and she went as fast as she could to the church-porch, but as she approached it, the red shoes danced before her and she was frightened and turned her back.

All that week through she endured the keenest anguish and shed many bitter tears; however, when Sunday came, she said to herself, “Well, I must have suffered and striven enough by this time, I dare say I am quite as good as many of those who are holding their heads so high in church.” So she took courage and went there, but she had not passed the church-yard gate before she saw the red shoes again dancing before her, and in great terror she again turned back, and more deeply than ever bewailed her sin.

She then went to the pastor’s house, and begged that some employment might be given her, promising to work diligently and do all she could; she did not wish for any wages, she said, she only wanted a roof to shelter her, and to dwell with good people. And the pastor’s wife had pity on her, and took her into her service. And Karen was grateful and industrious.

Every evening she sat silently listening to the pastor, while he read the Holy Scriptures aloud. All the children loved her, but when she heard them talk about dress and finery, and about being as beautiful as a queen, she would sorrowfully shake her head.

Again Sunday came, all the pastor’s household went to church, and they asked her if she would not go too, but she sighed and looked with tears in her eyes upon her crutches.

When they were all gone, she went into her own little, lowly chamber—it was but just large enough to contain a bed and chair—and there she sat down with her psalm-book in her hand, and whilst she was meekly and devoutly reading in it, the wind wafted the tones of the organ from the church into her room, and she lifted up her face to heaven and prayed, with tears, “O God, help me!”

Then the sun shone brightly, so brightly!—and behold! close before her stood the white-robed Angel of God, the same whom she had seen on that night of horror at the church-porch, but his hand wielded not now, as then, a sharp, threatening sword—he held a lovely green bough, full of roses. With this he touched the ceiling, which immediately rose to a great height, a bright gold star spangling in the spot where the Angel’s green bough had touched it. And he touched the walls, whereupon the room widened, and Karen saw the organ, the old monuments, and the congregation all sitting in their richly carved seats and singing from their psalm-books.

For the church had come home to the poor girl in her narrow chamber, or rather the chamber had grown, as it were, into the church; she sat with the rest of the pastor’s household, and, when the psalm was ended, they looked up and nodded to her, saying, “Thou didst well to come, Karen!”

“This is mercy!” said she.

And the organ played again, and the children’s voices in the choir mingled so sweetly and plaintively with it! The bright sunbeams streamed warmly through the windows upon Karen’s seat; her heart was so full of sunshine, of peace and gladness, that it broke; her soul flew upon a sunbeam to her Father in heaven, where not a look of reproach awaited her, not a word was breathed of the red shoes.

From Hans Andersen's fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen. London: Constable, 1913.

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