It was Christmas Eve, the year Marie turned fourteen. She was all by herself in the house, but she had told her mother she was not frightened. Mama had gone to get bread and vegetables and some sweets for dinner, if she could. Since the war started, it took standing in line for a long time to get anything. In the meantime, Marie started making the puddings, so they would be ready when Mama came home. There was not enough fat. There never was, these days, so Marie was careful in using what they had.
As she browned the little scraps of fat in the pan, she wondered if Fritz was having a proper Christmas Eve. He had looked so fine when he went away, with ever so many shiny copper buttons on his coat. Mama cried, and when Marie asked why, Fritz only laughed and lifted her in the air, although she was getting too big for that now, and said she must be sure to take care of Mama and Papa while he was gone. He sent them letters at first, but not any more. Mama said it must be because he was very busy and the generals did not give him time to write. Marie wished she could send him a share of the puddings. But perhaps he had all sorts of wonderful things to eat and drink, and he would think her poor pudding quite dull.
Marie let her fingers manage the bits of meat and skin and blood and barley while she continued lost in her own thoughts. Her fingers had grown quite clever at cooking and chopping since they had to send away Miss Clara and Miss Gertrude to the long building where all the women sat in rows to sew uniforms for the soldiers. Marie thought she would rather like to sew uniforms, with all their bright colors and gold braid, but Mama said she was too young.
Finally the puddings were all nicely made and cooking in the big black kettle on the stove. Marie sat down in a chair and let her legs swing back and forth. There used to be carolers on Christmas Eve, who went around in front of every house and sang in sweet voices. But a man in uniform with a bristling mustache had come around and explained that it was too dangerous to have groups of people on the streets after dark. Since there were no carolers, Marie sang by herself “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung.” Perhaps the Christ Child would bring wonderful things this year. Marie thought the nicest thing would be to have Papa and Fritz and Luise all at home again. Marie found that while she was singing she did not mind the cold and the dark and being alone so much, so she sang it through again a little louder. But she had not gotten to the end before she heard a loud crash and clatter from outside the door!
Marie jumped to her feet, her heart beating very fast. “Mama?” she called, but her voice came out a soft squeak that she could barely hear. There was no answer. Marie waited a moment longer. The wind was shaking the bare tree branches outside, but she knew the wind had not made the noise she heard. She lifted a corner of the curtain and peeked out the window, but there was nothing to be seen in the darkness but the dim shapes of the grey willows, wrapped in the night mist.
Finally, she gathered her courage and opened the door. A man was lying there, sprawled on the doorstep like a discarded doll. His eyes were closed. A blood-stained bandage was wrapped around his jaw. His face was so ugly and swollen that Marie wondered if he might be an ogre from the story-books. He wore a soldier’s uniform, torn and ragged and blackened with smoke, but Marie knew it was not the right uniform, not the one that Fritz wore when he marched away so smartly. This was the enemy’s uniform, the terrible enemy who was going to burn all their houses and stab babies with their bayonets and do other fearsome things that Mama did not allow her to hear about. The wind blew a swirl of snow from the ground and Marie shivered in her thin shawl. It must be dreadful to lie out here in the cold, but he was an enemy. She put her hand on the door to close it and glanced once more at the stranger.
His eyes opened and moved to focus on her. She could see his face in the light spilling from the open door, and his expression was so sad and kind that she did not like to leave him there after all. She knelt and, with difficulty, wedged her shoulder under his upper body. Using all her strength, Marie pulled him inside and shut the door with relief. The soldier’s clothing was chill to the touch. Marie laid him down in front of the stove where he could get warm. He tried to help her, but he was too weak and exhausted to do much. She ran to fetch a warm blanket from the chest and wrapped it around him. What else would help? Marie ladled some of the broth from the puddings into a cup and held it to his lips. He still could not speak, but he gave her a grateful smile and sipped the hot liquid. As she gazed at him by the light of the kitchen lamp, she saw that his eyes were green, and he was younger than she had thought -- no older than Fritz.
After some time the stranger was able to speak, though with some difficulty because of his swollen jaw. “I heard your singing,” he said hoarsely, “when I was out in the dark. I think it gave me the strength to keep walking. Though I didn’t mean to fall against your door.”
Marie blushed and curtsied. “My name is Marie Stahlbaum,” she said politely. “My Papa is not here now. He is a doctor who takes care of the wounded soldiers. But Mama will be back soon, and then we can have supper.” That reminded Marie of her obligations, so she hurried to the stove and stirred the puddings carefully so they would not burn or stick to the pot, while the stranger watched in silence.
It was not too long before the door opened and closed again, letting in a draft of cold air but also Mama with her arms full of parcels. “Come and help me, Marie,” she called, and Marie hastened to obey. It was as well that Mama’s arms were empty when she caught sight of the stranger, since she might have dropped whatever she had in her hands. “Good gracious, Marie,” she exclaimed. “Who is this?”
“He is a poor hurt soldier I found on the doorstep. Mayn’t he stay for supper, Mama? There are enough puddings to share.”
Mama looked dismayed. “That is nonsense, Marie,” she said firmly. “He must leave at once.”
The stranger climbed to his feet and bowed, with the blanket still wrapped around him like a cloak, covering his uniform. “Please don’t be angry with your daughter, esteemed madam. I would not be alive now if not for her kindness.”
This softened Mama’s anger a little, but she still protested that the stranger must go at once. Marie pleaded for her soldier as well as she could and finally burst into tears, exclaiming that if the soldier was sent away then she would go too. It was at this juncture that her Godfather Drosselmeier arrived.
Though most people’s fine clothes had become shabby, he still dressed as elegantly as ever, and his black silk eye patch stood out against his face made pale by the winter’s cold. “What’s this? My goddaughter Marie in tears?”
Mama made a helpless gesture and pointed to the soldier. “Marie has found some poor tramp on the doorstep,” she said wearily, “and refuses to hear of sending him away.” Godfather Drosselmeier looked at the soldier intently, his one eye gleaming very brightly. The soldier’s shoulders twitched and the blanket slid to his feet, revealing his tattered uniform in the colors of the enemy. Mama stifled a shriek, but Godfather Drosselmeier’s expression did not change.
“Pray don’t be alarmed, madam,” he said. “This man is known to me. In fact, he is a relative of mine -- my nephew. The son of my cousin, to be precise.” The soldier bowed again and gave a twisted smile, though surely that was only because one side of his jaw was bandaged. Marie wiped her eyes and looked at the soldier with more interest.
“One of your contacts from the black market, I suppose,” said Mama.
“Honored madam, let us not discuss unpleasant things. It is a night for celebration. And I have some news it will interest you to hear. The enemy army has been forced to retreat from this region. It seems they have been much troubled with an outbreak of the plague.”
“What good will it do us,” said Mama, “to escape the enemy’s swords, if we are to die of the plague?”
“Pray do not fear that, gracious lady. I will do all in my power to protect you, as I have hitherto, and my power is not inconsiderable. And now, let us turn our attention to cheerier matters.” Drosselmeier reached under his cloak and with a flourish pulled out a packet wrapped in brown paper, which he handed to Marie, and a tall bottle of mysterious golden liquid that shone in the lamplight. Marie eagerly unwrapped the packet, which smelled delightful and proved to contain fresh oranges.
“Oh!” she exclaimed in delight. “I haven’t had oranges for ever so long.”
“Surely, madam, you would not send this young gentleman out into the cold?” Drosselmeier continued persuasively. “He can hardly go further tonight. And I give you my promise I will take him away with me early tomorrow.”
Mama nodded reluctantly. “Very well,” she said. “But in that case, you must spend the night here as well. He surely cannot stay here with the two of us alone.”
“As you wish, madam.” Drosselmeier opened the bottle and somehow produced four crystal glasses from the back of a cabinet, though Marie thought they had all been sold. He poured three full glasses for the adults and just a little for Marie. The soldier now came forward with his own contribution: a bag of almonds and walnuts and other nuts, still in their shells. When Mama lamented the lack of a nutcracker, he drew a battered saber from his side and cracked the nuts with the hilt as neatly as you please. And then Marie was quite busy hunting out plates and forks and helping her mother set out the food on the table. Between the four of them, they had managed to come up with a respectable Christmas Eve supper, though of course it did not compare with the old days.
Marie sipped the golden liquor, which tasted very pleasant. It made her feel drowsy and light and cheerful, as if all her worries were quite inconsequential. As they drank from their glasses and ate the good food, each person found his heart growing lighter. Mama regained her smile and even laughed, which Marie had not heard since Fritz went away. The soldier alone drank sparingly. The bandage which pulled at the corner of his mouth made him seem to frown, and once Marie caught him glowering at her godfather from under his thick eyebrows. But everything seemed so pleasant that she thought she must surely have imagined it.
When the supper was over, Marie and her mother gathered a pile of blankets to made up a bed for the soldier in the parlor. They placed it in front of the stove so he would not be cold. Mama and Godfather Drosselmeier spoke together in low voices, while the soldier, sitting at the table, meditatively cracked nuts and ate them. Marie sank down on a cushion and rested her chin on her hand. Her eyelids felt very heavy, and the last thing she remembered was her mother guiding her into bed.
Marie was awakened by a soft hissing and rustling. Alarmed, she sat up and looked around. Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a small grey shape skitter across the floor. She heard the rustling sounds grow louder, and then what sounded like a distant jingling of bells. The noise seemed to be coming from the parlor, where the soldier-guest lay asleep. Marie now began to grow concerned for their guest. She jumped out of bed, tied on her dressing gown, and padded softly down the hallway.
Once in the parlor, Marie was greeted by such an unexpected sight that she blinked and rubbed her eyes. A single lamp was burning low, but many small red sparks were blinking and moving about the room. These resolved themselves as she looked into the red eyes of a myriad of rats and mice which swarmed throughout the room. Some had bells tied to their legs like morris dancers and were dancing gleefully; it was these that made the jingling sound she had heard.
In the midst of them all crouched a giant rat with seven heads, each head wearing a golden crown and his front paw grasping a jewelled scepter. The other rats and mice all deferred to him as their king. As the King Rat held court, he sang the following song in an unpleasant high-pitched voice:
Clocks, chime! Bells, ring!
Heed the summons of your king!
Sing the plague-song up and down
Through the streets of every town.
Lash your ropey tails in time,
Bells will ring and clocks will chime.
Let the townsfolk in their beds
Never stir nor raise their heads.
Rats will scamper, rats will creep
As our song lulls them to sleep.
Never stir nor raise your heads,
Lazy townsfolk in your beds.
Rats will run and rats will bite
Squeaking through the winter night.
Death to dogs and death to cats,
Hail the triumph of the rats!
Squeaking through the winter night,
Rats will run and rats will bite! Squeak!
The hands on the big clock pointed to midnight. It did not chime pleasantly in its accustomed sweet tone, but instead gave a slow muffled tolling as if something were stifling its voice. And the King and his followers squeaked and chittered most terribly.
Marie was not afraid of mice, but such an assembly of them all together and the dreadful song made her shiver. She looked toward their guest, resting in his nest of blankets on the floor. He lay still as if sleeping, but she saw that his eyes were open and he observed everything carefully. The rats and mice had seemed not to notice him, but now a small dun mouse sniffed the air, her whiskers quivering. “Look who is here,” the mouse cried. “It is our enemy, here in this house where we thought to make merry!” And all the rat army cried together, “The enemy! The enemy!”
The Rat-King stretched his scepter toward the motionless soldier. “Destroy him,” he cried, “ and there will be no bar to our triumph!” The rats and mice obediently scampered towards the man, grinding their teeth most dreadfully.
The soldier was on his feet in a trice. “The people of this house have given me shelter,” he declared, “and I will not let harm come to them while there is breath in my body.” Instantly a fierce combat began, of many against one. At first the soldier maintained his advantage easily, but as time grew on he became tired and his hands struck the rats away with less and less force. He was not at his full strength, and there were so many rats that ten surged to replace each one that fell.
Marie stood as if frozen in her place. She longed to aid her soldier but hesitated to enter the battle where foes thronged so closely around friend. Just then a gleam of light from the lamp fell on something that flashed silver. It was the soldier’s saber, which he had been using to crack nuts and which he had left lying on the table. Marie had never held such a weapon, but in these desperate circumstances she did not hesitate to take the saber by the hilt and draw it forth from its scabbard. It was heavier than she expected and almost fell from her grasp, but she held it tightly with both hands, letting the point rest on the floor. It was high time, for the soldier, still fighting stubbornly against the mice and rats, stumbled and fell to one knee. Instantly his foes swarmed over him, almost hiding him from sight. Marie involuntarily gave a small shriek. Seeing this, she waited no longer but upholding the saber as best she could, she flew straight at the King of the Rats. The saber’s point pierced the Rat-King’s chest; with a dreadful squeak he fell back to the carpet, writhing in his blood. Seeing their leader fall, the mice and rats gave a loud cry of dismay. They scattered in every direction, and in a twinkling, they all vanished.
Once the soldier recovered his breath, he knelt before Marie and spoke. “Gallant young lady, you have saved my poor life again. In addition to that, you have saved your family and neighbors from a greater peril than you know. The wicked rats, who plotted their destruction, are gone and will not return.”
Marie’s heart was still beating fast in her chest, but she managed to reply, “I am glad to have been of service to such a brave soldier.” The soldier smiled as best he could with his injured jaw.
“And now,” he said, “I may be able to repay a small part of your hospitality.” He rose and went to the window. Throwing it open, he let the casement swing wide. The fresh cool air of winter came in, along with a drift of snow. The moment the snowflakes touched the floor, they turned into a flock of beautiful swans with golden collars about their long necks. Marie gasped and clapped her hands in delight. The swans swept every part of the room with their great white wings, setting to rights whatever the rats had broken or fouled. The swans looked so very soft that Marie longed to touch one, but she did not dare. Just then, as if responding to her wishes, three of the swans settled beside her and embraced her with their soft wings. Marie leaned into their warm feathers and soon found herself growing sleepy. Presently, she drifted off to sleep.
In the morning, Drosselmeier took the soldier away with him as he had promised. Marie was quite sorry to see him go. Before he left, the soldier bowed to Marie courteously. “I wish to thank you again, dear young lady, for your courage and kindness. Without you, I would certainly have perished.”
Marie smiled shyly. “Will you send the swans to visit me some time?” she begged. “They were so lovely.”
The soldier gave another of his twisted smiles, though Marie did not mind that now. He bent down and said softly, so that only she could hear: “Since I owe you a great debt, I will do better than that. Someday I will come back and take you away with me to a far country. The most beautiful flowers bloom there, all the year long. My mother will give you the loveliest golden dresses to wear, and my sisters will sing sweetly to you and dance with you every night. You will have cake and sugar-candy and gingerbread to eat, and all the fountains run with lemonade and rose-water.”
“Really?” Marie asked, charmed by this vision.
“Yes, really. I promise.” As he said this, his face was most sad and kind. Marie smiled back. She stood on the doorstep, wrapped tightly in her shawl, until the soldier and her godfather were out of sight.
And when a year and a day had come and gone, they say he came and fetched her away in a golden coach, drawn by silver horses.