High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the happy prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt. He was very much admired indeed by all in the city for his opulent beauty.
One night there flew over the city a little swallow. His friends had gone away to Egypt six weeks before, but he had stayed behind, for he was in love with the most beautiful reed. He had met her early in the spring as he was flying down the river after a big yellow moth, and had been so attracted by her slender waist that he had stopped to talk to her.
“Shall I love you?” said the swallow, who liked to come to the point at once, and the reed made him a low bow. So he flew round and round her, touching the water with his wings, and making silver ripples. This was his courtship, and it lasted all through the summer. “It is a ridiculous attachment,” twittered the other swallows; then, when the autumn came, they all flew away — leaving the love-struck swallow behind.
Eventually, after the other swallows had gone, he felt lonely and began to tire of his lady-love. “She has no conversation,” he said, “and I am afraid that she is a coquette, for she is always flirting with the wind.” And certainly, whenever the wind blew, the reed made the most graceful curtseys. “I admit that she is domestic,” he continued, “but I love traveling, and my wife, consequently, should love traveling also.”
Finally the swallow mustered the courage to say, “Will you come away with me?” But the reed shook her head, “No,” for she was so attached to her home. “You have been trifling with me,” he cried. “I am off to the Pyramids. Goodbye!” And away he flew.
All day long he flew, and at nighttime, he arrived at the city. “Where shall I put up?” he said, “I hope the town has made preparations.” Then he saw the statue on the tall column. “I will put up there,” he cried, “it is a fine position, with plenty of fresh air.” So he alighted just between the feet of the happy prince.
“How wonderful, I have a golden bedroom,” he said softly to himself as he looked round, and he prepared to go to sleep; but just as he was putting his head under his wing a large drop of water fell on him. “What a curious thing!” he cried; “there is not a single cloud in the sky, the stars are quite clear and bright, and yet it is raining. The climate in the north of Europe is really dreadful. The reed use to like the rain, but that was merely her selfishness.”
Then another drop fell.
“What is the use of a statue if it cannot keep the rain off?” he said, “I must look for a good chimney-pot,” and he determined to fly away. But before he had opened his wings, a third drop fell, and he looked up, and saw — Ah! what did he see? The eyes of the happy prince were filled with tears, and tears were running down his golden cheeks. His face was so beautiful in the moonlight that the little swallow was filled with pity.
“Who are you?” the swallow said. “I am the happy prince,” answered the golden statue. “Why are you weeping then?” asked the swallow, “you have quite drenched me.”
“When I was alive and had a human heart,” answered the statue, “I did not know what tears were, for I lived in Palace Sans-Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to enter. In the daytime, I played with my companions in the garden, and in the evening I led the dances. Round the garden ran a very lofty wall, but I never cared to ask what lay beyond it, everything about me was so beautiful. My courtiers called me ‘the happy prince,’ and happy indeed I was if pleasure is happiness. So I lived my life. And now, since passing, they have set me up here so high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is now made of lead, I cannot choose but weep.”
“What! is he not solid gold?” said the swallow to himself. He was too polite to make any personal remarks out loud.
“Far away,” continued the statue in a low musical voice, “far away in a little street there is a poor house. One of the windows is open, and through it, I can see a woman seated at a table. Her face is thin and worn, and she has coarse, red hands, all pricked by the needle, for she is a seamstress. She is embroidering passionflowers on a satin gown for the loveliest of the queen’s maids-of-honor to wear at the next court-ball. In a bed, in the corner of the room, her little boy is lying ill. He has a fever and is asking for oranges. His mother has nothing to give him but river water, so he is crying. Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow, will you not bring her the ruby out of my sword-hilt? My feet are fastened to this pedestal, and I cannot move.”
“I am waited for in Egypt,” said the swallow. “My friends are flying up and down the Nile, and talking to the large lotus flowers. Soon they will go to sleep in the tomb of the great king. The king is there himself in his painted coffin. He is wrapped in yellow linen, and embalmed with spices. Round his neck is a chain of pale green jade, and his hands are like withered leaves.”
“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the prince, “will you not stay with me for one night, and be my messenger? The boy is so thirsty, and the mother so sad.” “I don’t think I like boys,” answered the swallow. “Last summer, when I was staying on the river, there were two rude boys, the miller’s sons, who were always throwing stones at me. They never hit me, of course; we swallows fly far too well for that, and besides, I come from a family famous for its agility; but still, it was a mark of disrespect.”
But the happy prince looked so sad that the little swallow was sorry. “It is very cold here,” he said, “but I will stay with you for one night, and be your messenger.” “Thank you, little Swallow,” said the prince.
So the swallow picked out the great ruby from the prince’s sword, and flew away with it in his beak over the roofs of the town. After flying a very long time, at last he came to the poor house and looked in. The boy was tossing feverishly on his bed, and the mother had fallen asleep, she was so tired. In he hopped and laid the great ruby on the table beside the woman’s thimble. Then he flew gently round the bed, fanning the boy’s forehead with his wings. “How cool I feel,” said the boy, “I must be getting better”, and he sank into a delicious slumber.
Then the swallow flew back to the happy prince and told him what he had done. “It is curious,” he remarked, “but I feel quite warm now, although it is so cold.” “That is because you have done a good action,” said the prince. And the little swallow began to think, and then he fell asleep. Thinking always made him sleepy.
When day broke, he flew down to the river and had a bath. “Tonight I go to Egypt,” said the swallow, and he was in high spirits at the prospect. He visited all the public monuments and sat a long time on top of the church steeple. Wherever he went the sparrows chirruped, and said to each other, “What a distinguished stranger!” So he enjoyed himself very much.
When the moon rose, he flew back to the happy prince. “Have you any commissions for Egypt?” he cried, “I am just starting.”
“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the prince, “will you not stay with me one night longer?” “I am waited for in Egypt,” answered the swallow. “Tomorrow my friends will fly up to the second cataract. The river horse couches there among the bulrushes, and on a great, granite throne sits Memnon, the Egyptian god. All night long he watches the stars, and when the morning star shines he utters one cry of joy, and then he is silent. At noon the yellow lions come down to the water’s edge to drink. They have eyes like green beryls, and their roar is louder than the roar of the cataract.”
“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the prince, “far away, across the city, I see a young man in a small, dank attic. He is leaning over a desk covered with papers, and in a tumbler, by his side, there is a bunch of withered violets. His hair is brown and crisp, and his lips are red as a pomegranate, and he has large and dreamy eyes. He is trying to finish a play for the theater, but he is too cold to write anymore. There is no fire in the grate, and hunger has made him faint.”
“I will wait with you one night longer,” said the swallow, who really had a good heart. “Shall I take him another ruby?” “Alas! I have no ruby now,” said the prince, “my eyes are all that I have left. They are made of rare sapphires, which were brought out of India a thousand years ago. Pluck out one of them and take it to him. He will sell it to the jeweler, and buy food and firewood, and finish his play.”
“Dear Prince,” said the swallow, “I cannot do that”; and he began to weep. “Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the prince, “do as I command you.”
So the swallow plucked out the statue’s eye and flew away to the student’s attic. It was easy enough to get in, as there was a hole in the roof. Through this, he darted and came into the room. The young man had his head buried in his hands, so he did not hear the flutter of the bird’s wings, and when he looked up, he found the beautiful sapphire lying on the withered violets.
“I am beginning to be appreciated,” he cried, “this is from some great admirer. Now I can finish my play,” and he looked quite happy.
The next day the swallow flew down to the harbor. He sat on the mast of a large vessel and watched the sailors hauling big chests out of the hold with ropes. “Heave a-hoy!” they shouted as each chest came up. “I am going to Egypt!" cried the swallow, but nobody paid him any mind, and when the moon rose he flew back to the happy prince.
“I have come to bid you good-bye,” the swallow cried.
“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the prince, “will you not stay with me one night longer?” “It is winter,” answered the swallow, “and the chill snow will soon be here. In Egypt, the sun is warm on the green palm-trees, and the crocodiles lie in the mud and look lazily about them. My companions are building a nest in Temple of Baalbec, and the pink and white doves are watching them, and cooing to each other. Dear Prince, I must leave you, but I will never forget you, and next spring I will bring you back two beautiful jewels in place of those you have given away. The ruby shall be redder than a red rose, and the sapphire shall be as blue as the great sea.”
“In the square below,” said the happy prince, “there stands a little match-girl. She has let her matches fall in the gutter, and they are all spoiled. Her father will be angry if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying. She has no shoes or stockings, and her little head is bare. Pluck out my other eye, and give it to her, and her father will not be angry.”
“I will stay with you one night longer,” said the swallow, “but I cannot pluck out your eye. You would be quite blind then.” “Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the prince, “do as I command you.”
So he plucked out the Prince’s other eye and darted down with it. He swooped past the match-girl and slipped the jewel into the palm of her hand. “What a lovely bit of glass,” cried the little girl, and she ran home, laughing.
Then the swallow came back to the prince. “You are blind now,” he said, “so I will stay with you always.” “No, little Swallow,” said the poor prince, “you must go away to Egypt.” “I will stay with you always,” said the swallow, and he slept at the prince’s feet.
All the next day he sat on the prince’s shoulder and told him stories of what he had seen in strange lands. He told him of the red ibises, who stand in long rows on the banks of the Nile River and catch gold fish in their beaks; of the sphinx, who is as old as the world itself, and lives in the desert, and knows everything; of the merchants, who walk slowly by the side of their camels, and carry amber beads in their hands; of the King of Moon Mountains, who is as black as ebony, and worships a large crystal; of the great green snake that sleeps in a palm-tree, and has twenty priests to feed it with honey-cakes; and of the pygmies who sail over a big lake on large flat leaves, and are always at war with the butterflies.
“Dear little Swallow,” said the prince, “you tell me of marvelous things, but more marvelous than anything is the suffering of men and women. There is no mystery so great as misery. Fly over my city, little Swallow, and tell me what you see there.”
So the swallow flew over the great city and saw the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at the gates. He flew into dark lanes and saw the white faces of starving children looking out listlessly at the black streets. Under the archway of a bridge, two little boys were lying in one another’s arms to try and keep themselves warm. “How hungry we are!” they cried. “You must not lie here,” shouted the watchman, and they wandered out into the rain. Then he flew back and told the prince what he had seen.
“I am covered with fine gold,” said the prince, “you must take it off, leaf by leaf, and give it to my poor; the living always think that gold can make them happy.”
Leaf after leaf of the fine gold the swallow picked off, till the happy prince looked quite dull and gray. As the swallow brought leaf after leaf of the fine gold to the poor, the children’s faces grew rosier, and they laughed and played games in the street. “We have bread now!” they rejoiced.
Then the snow came, and after the snow came the frost. The streets looked as if they were made of silver; they were so bright and glistening; long icicles like crystal daggers hung down from the eaves of the houses, everybody went about in furs, and the little boys wore scarlet caps and skated on the ice.
At this, the poor little swallow grew colder and colder, but he would not leave the prince, he loved him too well for his generosity. The little swallow picked up crumbs outside the baker’s door when the baker was not looking and tried to keep himself warm by flapping his wings.
But at last, he knew that it was far too cold for him to survive the winter. He had just strength to fly up to the prince’s shoulder once more. “Good-bye, dear Prince!” he murmured, “May I kiss your hand?” “I am glad that you are going to Egypt at last, little Swallow,” said the prince, “you have stayed too long here; but you must kiss me on the lips, for I love you.”
“It is not to Egypt that I am going,” said the swallow. “I am going to heaven now. There I may be warm and have a very long sleep.” And he kissed the happy prince on the lips, curling up once last time at the prince’s feet.
At that very moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue as if something had broken. The fact is that the happy prince’s leaden heart had snapped right in two. One might assume from a certainly dreadfully hard frost, but more than likely from the loss of his dear friend, the sparrow.
Early the next morning the mayor of the city was walking in the square below in company with several town councilors. As they passed the column, he looked up at the statue and said, “Dear me! How shabby the happy prince looks!” “How shabby indeed!” cried the town councilors — who always agreed with the mayor — as they went up to take a closer look at the statue.
“The ruby has fallen out of his sword, his eyes are gone, and he is golden no longer,” said the mayor, “in fact he is not a prince anymore he is little better than a beggar!” “Little better than a beggar,” repeated the town councilors. “And there is actually a dead bird at his feet!” continued the mayor. “We must really issue a proclamation that birds are not to be allowed to die here.” And the town clerk made a note of the suggestion.
So they pulled down the statue of the happy prince and then they melted it in a very hot furnace. Strangely, however, the happy prince’s broken lead heart did not melt in the furnace. So the foundry workers placed the lead heart next to the dead swallow.
Then an even stranger thing happened! God recognized the generosity of the happy price and the little swallow and ordered his angels to bring Him the two most precious things from the city. So the angels carried the lead heart and the bird up to heaven. And there the prince was happy and the little swallow sang — and they were together — in the garden of paradise for evermore.