80 THE LITTLE SEA MAID
and her courage came back again. She bound her long flying hair closely around her head, so that the polypes might not seize it. She put her hands together on her breast, and then shot forward as a fish shoots through the water, among the ugly polypes, which stretched out their supple arms and fingers after her. She saw that each of them held something it had seized with hundreds of little arms, like strong iron bands. People who had perished at sea and had sunk deep down, looked forth as white skeletons from among the polypes' arms ; ships' rudders and chests they also held fast, and skeletons of land animals, and a little mermaid whom they had caught and strangled ; and this seemed the most terrible of all to our little princess.
Now she came to a great marshy place in the wood, where fat water-snakes rolled about, showing their ugly cream-coloured bodies. In the midst of this marsh was a house built of white bones of shipwrecked men ; there sat the sea witch feeding a toad out of her mouth, just as a person might feed a little canary bird with sugar. She called the ugly fat water-snakes her little chickens, and allowed them to crawl upwards and all about her.
' I know what you want,' said the sea witch. * It is stupid of you, but you shall have your way, for it will bring you to grief, my pretty princess. You want to get rid of your fish-tail, and to have two supports instead of it, like those the people of the earth walk with, so that the young prince may fall in love with you, and you may get him and an immortal soul.' And with this the witch laughed loudly and disagreeably, so that the toad and the water-snakes tumbled down to the ground, where they crawled about. ' You come just in time,' said the witch : 'after to-morrow at sunrise I could not help you until another year had gone by. I will prepare a draught for you, with which you must swim to land to-morrow before the sun rises, and seat yourself there and drink it; then your tail will part in two and shrink in and become what the people of the earth call beautiful legs, but it will hurt you—it will seem as if you were cut with a sharp sword. All who see you will declare you to be the prettiest human being they ever beheld. You will keep your graceful walk ;